How Ayurveda Can Help You Sleep Better at Any Age

Kripalu School of Ayurveda

I used to sleep like the dead. In my teens and 20s, I could sleep anywhere—a lumpy couch, curled up in my car, on the floor of my office. I didn’t require my favorite pillow, a plush duvet, or lavender aromatherapy. When it was bedtime, I just slept, no problem. Those were the sweet kapha years of youth! 

But now, in my 40s, I’ve discovered that a good night’s sleep isn’t as easy to come by, and what I took for granted as being effortless now requires skillful cultivation and maintenance. Nowadays, I use Ayurvedic daily routines to prevent tossing and turning, and to keep a good relationship with dreamtime. 

Ayurveda describes three doshic stages of life that we all go through, despite our individual constitutions. The dosha governing each stage provides a unique flavor and function for that period of life, supporting our overarching life goals. 

Although you may already know that troubled sleep is often attributed to doshic imbalances (i.e., agitated vata, pitta, or kapha), it can also occur when the transitions through life’s stages are bumpy. Here’s how the doshic stages of life generally affect sleep.

  1. Kapha Stage: The Growing Years (Life’s Spring)
    • Time: Conception through puberty (and into the 20s as the brain continues to grow and develop).
    • Vibe: Kapha dosha is soft, smooth, and sweet—the juicy qualities of youth! This is the stage of growth and nourishment. Kapha is sticky, and nourishment “sticks” to the growing child/adolescent during this stage. It’s the main season of mental and physical development.
    • Sleep: Most notably, kapha is heavy, slow, and stable. These qualities generally support long, restful, sound sleep. Often, during this kapha season of life, sleep is heavy and deep, and dreams are watery and playful. 
  2. Pitta Stage: The Active Years (Life’s Summer)
    • Time: Puberty to menopause
    • Vibe: Pitta is hot and sharp; in this stage of life, we use pitta’s fiery nature to blaze a path in the world. This is an action-driven time of life, when we’re building a career, home, and family—all of which require pitta’s passion, courage, and sharp focus.
    • Common Sleep Challenges: Being constantly on the go and carrying more responsibility often means people skimp on sleep during this stage of life—staying up late to get things done or having sleep interrupted by young children. Generally, the fire of pitta supports us and keeps us bright-eyed during the day, even when we’ve been going all night (at least for the first part of this stage). Pitta is also light rather than heavy, so some people will find that their sleep isn’t as deep during this goal-oriented season. Dreams can be more fiery or intense at this time, too.
  3. Vata Stage: The Wisdom Years (Life’s Winter)
    • Time: Menopause to life’s end
    • Vibe: Vata is light and subtle, and in this stage of life leads us to “lighten the load” in all respects—by downsizing the home, reducing financial burdens, lightening the workload, and eventually retiring. The vata season of life is traditionally utilized as a long period of spiritual study and practice—increasing meditation and retreat time in order to deepen one’s connection to nature and divinity. 
    • Common Sleep Challenges: Vata and pitta share the quality of lightness, so in the vata stage people often continue noticing limited deep sleep and more interrupted sleep. Vata is also mobile, and during this stage there can be excess mental or physical movement. This momentum can make falling asleep difficult, stir the mind with chaotic dreams, or leave the body feeling restless and fidgety.

These are beautiful, natural stages of life, filled with particular qualities to support us in achieving big life goals. But if we’re unaware of their governing qualities, it’s easy to agitate the doshas and experience sleep disturbances. Fortunately, simple Ayurvedic remedies can help. As a traveling yoga, Ayurveda, and mindfulness teacher, I depend on these self-care tips to support good sleep and keep me rejuvenated. If you’re in the pitta or vata stage of life and having trouble sleeping, explore some of these Ayurvedic practices for a good night’s sleep.

  1. Cool foot bath: If you run hot in the middle of the night, thoroughly rinse your feet with cool water before bed (and if you wake during the night). Ayurveda connects the feet with the fire element, and cooling down the feet is a time-tested way to refresh the mind and return to restful sleep. I find myself doing this all summer—it really helps. (I’m a pitta constitution, in the pitta stage of life, and in the pitta time of year—so cooling down is key!)
  2. Early supper: Eating a big, late meal demands more of your digestion than it can handle at that time of night—reducing digestive strength and preventing sound sleep. Ayurveda recommends making lunch the biggest meal of the day (when the pitta fire of digestion is strongest), eating a light meal around sunset, and allowing at least two hours to digest before bedtime. As sunset comes later during summer, you might try having something simple between 6:00 and 8:00 pm—like steamed veggies and quinoa—and getting to bed between 10:00 and 11:00 pm. 
  3. Reducing alcohol consumption: If you wake in the middle of the night with sweltering feet, night sweats, or hot flashes, the sharp, pitta-provoking fire of alcohol may not be helping. Alcohol often initially helps people fall asleep, but then overstimulates the liver—a pitta organ—and causes a restless, fiery body and mind. Reduce or avoid alcohol at night and see how much better you sleep. Out with friends midsummer? Enjoy happy hour; after sunset, switch to a mock-tail.
  4. Adding weight: If vata has you feeling restless or fidgety, try putting an extra blanket or pillow on your legs at night. Vata governs the legs, and excess lightness or movement in the legs can disturb sleep. In the same way that using sandbags on the legs helps people settle into Savasana, putting a little weight on the legs can be a very simple and effective way to ground vata at bedtime. This is one of my favorite tips when traveling—I toss a pillow on my legs and fall right asleep. 
  5. Self-massage: Both vata and pitta are supported by a simple massage before bed. Key areas to rub are the feet, low back, ears, and head. Use slow, soft strokes for vata, and a bit more vigorous rubbing for pitta to dilate the blood vessels and release heat. Generally, warming sesame oil is best for vata types, and for winter, and cooling coconut oil is good for pitta constitutions, or for summer.  

Sleep tight!

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.