Ayurvedic Nighttime Rituals for Better Sleep

August 1, 2022

Not having enough sleep makes us grumpy, agitated, and tired (but never tired enough to get a good night’s sleep). It affects both our physical and mental health, and how we move throughout the day. Luckily, Ayurveda offers nighttime rituals to help us sleep better.

Sleep issues can manifest as:

  • Not being able to fall asleep
  • Waking up during the night and staying awake
  • Restless nights of waking and sleeping
  • Waking up and feeling unrested

So, what can we do about it?

Just as it is essential to have a consistent and healthy routine for the daytime (known as Dinacharya in Ayurveda), it is equally as essential for you to have a soothing nighttime routine in order to wind-down and de-stress each night before bed. By welcoming in calming activities in the evening, you are allowing your energy to ground and your mind to slow down. Any stress that has accumulated throughout your day is able to be processed and released, allowing you to sleep deeper, longer, and more soundly.

Sleep issues often stem from high Vata dosha invading the nervous system and mind. This can cause restless thinking, worry, anxiety, fear, a second wind from adrenaline surges, and an overactive nervous system; all of which can prevent you from falling asleep, staying asleep, or just feeling well rested the next morning. Since the Vata time of day is between 2am and 6am, many people often report waking up during this time and having a hard time falling back asleep. 

Of course, there may be other doshic imbalances such as an overactive Pitta dosha type that works until all hours of the night. Although everybody’s causes and symptoms may look a bit different, performing a few simple and calming exercises before bed on a consistent basis can help a wide range of sleep issues. However, keep in mind that how you go about your day will also affect your sleep. Therefore, it is essential to also establish daily routines and healthy eating habits to create consistent sleep patterns.

Things to avoid after 8pm:

  • Stimulants such as coffee, black tea, and chocolate.
  • Blue lights on screens.
  • Working, work related emails, and even conversations about work.
  • Checking or answering emails.
  • Heavy, serious, or upsetting conversations and arguments.
  • Strenuous exercise – stick with restorative yoga, yoga nidra, or a walk outside.
  • Drinking too much fluids.
  • Eating – if you do need to eat make sure it is something light.
  • Sleeping on the couch.

Here are some soothing practices for you to begin your healthy sleep routine. As with all Ayurvedic treatment programs, consistency is key. Only doing these recommendations once and a while will not show you the effective and long-lasting benefits that you most likely desire. It is not intended for you to do everything, every night from this list of suggestions. Choose what is most needed, what feels best for you, and what works with your schedule on any given evening and perform 1 to 3 of these recommendations nightly.

1. Oil massage your feet.

The feet quite literally bear the weight of the day; so a foot massage is a great simple yet effective way to show some relief to this part of the body. The feet hold many energy points connected to almost every part of the body, connect us to the earth, and provide us with grounding and stability. Massaging the feet at night with oil instills a state of relaxation, brings the energy downward, and calms the mind; all which help promote better sleep.

Directions: This practice is best right before a bed. Place a small towel under your feet as to not get oil on your bedding. Use a calming herbal-infused massage oil (sesame is best during the cooler seasons or if you are a Vata or Kapha type, and coconut is good during the warmer months or for Pitta types). Pour a small amount of oil in your hand and spread all over your foot. Massage each part of the foot thoroughly with circular motions and firm strokes, including the top and bottom of the foot, the ankle, and the toes. Once finished, place an old sock on for about 10 minutes to encourage absorption and avoid getting oil on your bed or floor.

2. Take a candlelit bath.

Steeping your body in a warm bath will get your body and mind in the relaxed mood for sleep. Consider adding some calming essential oils such as lavender, rosemary, rose, tulsi, cedarwood, or jasmine. Add in some calming music and dim the lights to activate the “rest and digest”, or Parasympathetic Nervous System, relieve stress, and encourage a sleepy state.

3. Drink a calming milk tonic.

In Ayurveda, we recommend drinking a warm glass of milk before bed – maybe the same recommendation your grandma gave you. The nature of milk from cows promotes balance, is sweet, slightly heavy, and nurturing. Add in comforting herbs as you heat the milk up on the stove top such as nutmeg, cinnamon, or saffron. You can also add in a small amount of ghee (clarified butter) which is grounding in nature, but without the unhealthy fat that is in butter. If you don’t drink cows milk try almond.

4. Finish eating a couple of hours before bed.

It is important to give the digestive system time to digest before bed. The aim is to be in bed by 10pm, so try to finish eating by 8pm, giving at least 2 hours for the body to digest. When we go to bed with undigested food in the stomach, the food tends to stagnate both in the intestines and the blood, leading to weight gain and toxic build up in the body. If you do need a snack, go for something light like fruit, or see if an herbal tea or warm milk satisfies your hunger.

5. Go for a gentle walk outside.

Being out in nature helps us to unwind from the day and connect with ourselves. If you are feeling restless or scattered, try going out for some fresh air. 10-20 minutes is all you need as we don’t want to make this a power walk or too strenuous. If you do this after dinner, it also helps to digest your meal which will increase the health benefits further and help you to sleep better so your body isn’t working to digest your food at night. Try to make this your walking meditation – whether you are alone or with someone try to be present! Listen to the sounds of nature, notice your surroundings, notice your breathing, and avoid dwelling on anything in particular as to truly process your day.

6. Set the mood.

A simple way to prepare your body and mind for sleep is to set the mood in your home. After dinner, consider dimming all of the lights in your home, try to use more candles, and set your phone to Night Shift to avoid blue light. Bright lights are stimulating and activate the Sympathetic Nervous System, also known as the “fight or flight” system. Make sure your sleep space is tidy by putting away any clothes, tidying up your nightstand, and having any work related papers or devices put away. You might keep a candle, a book you enjoy, an herbal body oil, and lavender by your bed. You will be surprised as to how altering your surroundings helps your body and mind to relax.

7. Practice a few restorative yoga postures.

No yoga experience is needed to practice restorative yoga, and it is one of my favorite ways to unwind from the day! Restorative yoga uses props to support the body and soothe the nervous system. Because the props hold us, you do not actually want to feel a stretch or use of the muscles; the effort is in looking at where and how we are holding tension and how to let go. Practice 1-5 poses and hold each one for a couple of minutes. Some of my favorite poses are:

8. Perform a short meditation.

A short meditation is a great way to prepare for sleep. It will quiet the mind and calm your nervous system. Meditation helps to process your day’s stress, tune inward, and release any tension that built up from the day. Your practice doesn’t have to be long for it to be effective. Even 1 minute is better than none. Meditation can be done seated or lying down in bed to prepare for sleep. The more you practice the easier it gets. I find that even when my mind is chatty during the practice, I feel more clear and calm afterwards. Here is a link to a few free guided meditations.

9. Take a deep breath.

Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a stress relieving breath technique. It can help you to relax, reduce stress, and can even lower the heart rate and blood pressure. Taking a few deep belly breaths is quick and simple, and can even be performed in your bed. Once in bed, take a long, slow, deep breath in through the nose and fill up the belly with air. Feel the belly expand like a balloon. Take a short pause (about one second), and then exhale up and out of your nose. This practice can also be done if you wake up in the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning to set the tone for your day. Here is a free guided practice.

10. Be asleep by 10pm (or earlier).

According to Ayurveda, the best time to sleep is by 10pm, during the Kapha time of the day. Anytime after can lead to a second wind. This one can be difficult if you are used to staying up late, are a night owl, or have an irregular schedule. Overtime, your body will adjust, and you will likely find this schedule allows for a more restful night’s sleep. Both Western science and Ayurveda agree that the hours of sleep before midnight are more restorative, and the amount of deep sleep (non-REM sleep) is greater in the earlier part of the night. The closer we get to daybreak, the more dream-filled REM sleep we get, which is more restless and less restorative. I recommend starting your evening wind down process at 8pm, so that you can be in bed by 9/9:30pm, and go to sleep soon after.