Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MBBS

Insomnia means inability to sleep. Today millions of people suffer from a persistent sleep disorder that disrupts their lives for months and perhaps even years. A recent estimate states that eighty percent of the people going to visit doctors have some problem with sleeping. The art of relaxation and sleep has been lost. People no longer know how to rest their bodies and minds. Thus millions of tons of tranquillisers are currently being produced each year to relieve their tensions.

The vicious circle of tension produces inability to rest and properly nourish the body tissues, which results in the build-up of toxins and hormones, leading to more tension. When we are tense we can't relax and thus find it hard to sleep. The sleep we do get does not refresh us and we wake up feeling tired. More tension builds up... further inability to sleep... fear of going to sleep due to past bad experiences... more tension. There is a definite link between the inability to remove the effects of tension and psychosomatic disease.

Very few people know how to sleep. Most people fall asleep while thinking or reading, their minds so full of anxiety and disturbances, they do not even know when sleep comes. This unscientific way to sleep does not fully rest the body; it causes bad dreams, poor digestion and lack of energy the next day.

There are three main kinds of sleep disturbances:

  1. Insomnia or too little sleep
  2. Narcolepsy 'sleep attacks' or too much sleep
  3. Dysomnias such as talking, screaming, bed-wetting, sleep walking and teeth grinding, which occur in the non-REM (rapid eye movement) phase, associated with slow brain waves.

The majority of sleep disturbances are psychosomatic; however, there is a growing number of known organic, neurological causes. These are late manifestations of psychological disturbances which over the years have altered the brains' neurone patterns resulting in organic imbalances. Such cases, however, are in the minority.

Pseudo-insomnia is probably the most common sleep problem. It occurs in those people who are so obsessed with the need to get 'proper sleep' that they think they are sleeping less than they do. This creates an obsessive fear reaction in the brain circuits. Once this pattern sets in it is very difficult to fall asleep, and when sleep does come, it is disturbed. For example in Psychology Today (Dec. 1975) M. Mitler reports the case of a man who thought he lay awake for one hour before falling asleep and averaged less than five hours of sleep a night. Because he felt tired all day he decided to retire from work prematurely. When he was investigated by laboratory equipment it was found that he was a normal sleeper, falling asleep in less than ten minutes. He was awake for only twenty minutes out of the seven hours and fifteen minutes he laid in bed. Reassurance cured his dis-ease and removed his anxiety and tension.

Too many people worry excessively over the fact that they can't sleep or don't get enough sleep, and this makes it even harder for them to sleep. Thus they resort to tranquillisers and sleeping pills. However, a big problem with drugs is that if taken after finding it hard to sleep, the effect comes on too late and makes you feel groggy the next day. Therefore many people take them in anticipation of a bad night's sleep, turning a minor, temporary, psychological problem into a lasting medical problem, chemical dependency.

People build up a tolerance to sleeping pills and tranquillisers, thus requiring increased dosages to get the original effects. Eventually the drugs are of no use and when withdrawn they leave behind the undesirable effects of no sleep the first night and disturbed sleep the next few nights. Even though this situation is temporary, the individual may panic and decide that he was better off with the drugs, thus getting back into the same old rut. Remember that the occasional pill does not hurt, but anything in excess does. In the case of chemical dependency one must come off the drugs gradually and under supervision. Mitler also cites the case of a girl who had been on drugs for ten years because of insomnia. She required eighteen months of intensive monitoring to wean her off them and back to a normal sleep rhythm.

People try many different ways to overcome their insomnia, such as counting sheep or eating a small snack. The old recipe of warm milk has been found to have scientific evidence as to its efficacy. Milk contains tryptophan, a type of amino acid (protein) which in large doses can induce a sedative effect.

None of the above methods has the efficacy of yogic techniques such as yoga nidra. Yoga is scientifically designed to relax the mental and physical tensions so that sleep comes quickly and easily. Many methods, however, increase stress such as heavy exercise done in hope of tiring the body. Of all these techniques, counting sheep is the closest to the practice of yoga nidra.

How much sleep

Though many people believe that we need eight hours of sleep a night, the fact is that the correct amount for each individual varies. Some people manage on three hours a night while others feel that ten hours are not enough. Sleep is a very individual matter.

Your daily activity affects the number of hours required. If you work very hard physically or mentally, the amount of rest needed to recoup energy goes up. If you live a meditative life it goes down. Another aspect is quality of sleep. If you sleep deeply then you need less time to get the same amount of sleep as the insomniac who spends much time tossing and turning, unable to drop into the deeper levels of his being and experience sleep. You must research yourself to find your own correct quota.

Normal sleep patterns

Sleep affects our whole personality. If we sleep well we awaken feeling fresh and able to carry out our duties cheerfully and competently. If we awake feeling weary and continue dozing, unable to get out of bed, then we feel lazy, tired and unable to cope all day. One of the best ways to cultivate a dynamic personality is to get out of bed early every morning. The yogi gets up at three or four a.m. after six hours sleep (maximum) and feels fresh and alive all day.

"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." This ancient recipe propounded by yoga for thousands of years has much wisdom at its core. Scientists have found that the most refreshing sleep occurs before midnight, so by going to bed early we benefit more from each hour of sleep. It has also been shown that by getting up early we take advantage of nature's rhythms and so energise and lengthen our waking hours.

If you get up at four a.m. you can utilise this energy for mental and spiritual enhancement in the practice of yoga. In this way you turn the sexual energy into a life-giving force called ojas. By oversleeping you lose this energy and wake up feeling un-refreshed and tired all day. At night when you want to go to sleep you are either over-tired because you have not been able to tap the energy of your internal body cycles, or you do not feel tired enough to sleep. In both cases you get to sleep late. If you go to bed late then you have to get up late, thus building up an unnatural cycle, causing disharmony and dis-ease.

When a habit pattern develops, the brain and the whole body are affected. Imbalance between actions and internal need suppresses your natural rhythms, resulting in turmoil and chaos. From this point on it becomes harder and harder to regain the natural ability to sleep that you once knew as a child. The joy of waking refreshed and full of energy, ready to face the coming day, fades from memory. To help rebalance your lifestyle and body energies, you need an integral system such as yoga. When the neuro-endocrinal system is rebalanced along with the mental side of your life, the natural body energies are replenished. This induces a feeling of well-being, 'the natural high'.

Sleep has four basic stages shading progressively into deepening unconsciousness. It is cyclical with four to five periods of emergence from the deeper phases up to phase one (just before we drop off) and back again. There is one point where the brain waves recorded on an electroencephalogram are similar to those taken during wakefulness. This is accompanied by disturbed breathing and restlessness, but the muscles of the body are completely relaxed. In this stage called the REM (rapid eye movement) the body is, in fact, paralysed so that it does not act out the dreams associated with this phase. Upon awakening one invariably reports that he was dreaming.

During the day, dreaming is inhibited by serotonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland, that reaches its maximum concentration in the body around six a.m. This indicates that the body is primed for active waking-consciousness from that time on. Melatonin, another hormone linked to serotonin and secreted by the pineal, is thought to inhibit sexual activity and check sexual energy while it is secreting at night. It stops secreting at four a.m. releasing the vital energy that powers the sexual drive and all other human activity. Interlocked with the nocturnal cycles of the pineal gland is production of AGTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) by the pituitary gland. ACTH is a 'messenger' hormone which stimulates the adrenal glands to produce yet other hormones (corticosteroids) which release energy in the body and help counteract the effects of stress. The maximum activation of this cycle also occurs around four a.m. Thus the body is optimally prepared for activity at this time. By getting up at four a.m. we are able to begin the day on the crest of an energy wave, making the best use of the body's resources while they are at a peak.

The time between four and six a.m. is known as brahmamahurtha, the time of Brahma (the creator). Yogis consider this to be the most important time for spiritual practices because the mental and spiritual energy of the cosmos, and the miniature cosmos of the human body, is at its peak. The body and mind are prepared to begin the day at four a.m. and the longer we sleep after this time the harder it is to get out of bed. We sink into the trough of tamas (inertia) that inevitably follows the crest of every energy wave, as surely as night follows day. Energy that is not used productively is dissipated in various ways. It is no mere coincidence that nocturnal emissions of semen occur most commonly after four a.m.

Yoga Nidra

In yoga the art of sleeping is called yoga nidra, psychic sleep. This technique should be practiced in shavasana (lying flat on your back) during the day. Whenever you feel tired or unable to concentrate on your work, take five minutes or as long as you can spare and go through yoga nidra. This will refresh you for the rest of the day. Half an hour of yoga nidra equals two hours of sleep.

When yoga nidra is practiced for insomnia it should be done on a full stomach after lunch or dinner. However, the opposite applies when practiced for hypertension. For insomnia yoga nidra should be practiced after sheetali and sheetkari pranayama. To permanently reduce insomnia, practice karma yoga, both physical and mental work; get up at four a.m. and do asanas, pranayama and meditation; do not sleep during the day; and practice yoga nidra before sleeping at night.

Physical effects

Yoga nidra commences by going through the physical body, part by part. Focusing the awareness on the different parts of the body affects that area of the brain's cortex where sensation and motor activity are mapped out. That is, the toes are represented at one end of a long line of cells and the head is at the other. By systematically going through all the body parts we stimulate each part of the motor and sensory cortex in turn, relaxing the brain's activity and putting the circuits which have been disturbed back into order. This effect extends into our daily life helping to co-ordinate and relax our physical movements. When physical tension disappears, the body can lie still in bed more comfortably. Relaxation of the muscle tone relaxes the mind and sleep comes more quickly.

K. K. Datey, a renowned Bombay cardiologist, reports on the effectiveness of relaxation techniques (performed in shavasana) for hypertension:

"The majority of patients showed improvement in their symptoms. Headache, giddiness, irritability and insomnia disappeared in almost all the patients. Even the other symptoms became less marked, and in general the patients experienced a sense of well-being after this exercise."


Yoga nidra is a meditative practice designed to induce pratyahara (sense withdrawal); the mind stays awake while the body sleeps. The brain activity quietens, alpha waves are increased, the body relaxes, but the mind is totally alert. Turning inwards and maintaining awareness on the border of the sleep/wakefulness state (stage one of the sleep cycle) allows contact with the subconscious and the unconscious. This awareness helps us gain deeper understanding of the parts of our mind that induce mental and physical tension resulting in insomnia. This leads to good sleep.


An important part of yoga nidra is the sankalpa or resolve, a short dynamic statement charged with vital energy from the will. At certain times during the practice when the subconscious areas of the mind open up, it is possible to plant the resolve firmly and deeply in the mind so that it will flower and bear fruit. A positive resolve such as 'I will sleep better', can help to remove insomnia.


When we were children without a care in the world, we could sleep deeply and peacefully, awakening to the rising sun with a relaxed and warm feeling inside. Through yoga nidra, asana, pranayama, meditation and a regulated lifestyle, you can recapture that childhood experience in adult life. When you learn how to utilise yoga nidra to remove sleep problems then you are on the way to greater understanding of yourself. Yoga nidra then becomes what it was originally intended to be, a method of diving deep into the self. From this experience we discover that actually we have been asleep all the time, even when we thought we were awake, asleep to the greater reality of life.