April 18, 2016

“Sleep Your Way to the Top” & 3 Ayurvedic Ways to Do It.


I loved attending Arianna Huffington’s talk at Dominican University last weekend.

It really resonated with me when she shared that the heart of leadership is the ability to see icebergs before they become the Titanic. In her latest book, The Sleep Revolution, she makes it extremely clear how sleep deprivation, particularly in the workplace, is quickly becoming a Titanic problem.

Huffington quotes the total annual cost of sleep deprivation to the U.S. economy as being more than $63 billion, due to absenteeism and presenteeism (“when employees are present at work physically but not really mentally focused”). As Harvard Medical School professor Ronald C. Kessler put it, Americans are still going to work, “but they’re accomplishing less because they’re tired. In an information-based economy, it’s difficult to find a condition that has a greater effect on productivity.”

Arianna revealed that the historical origins of our cultural lack of sleep date back to the “First Industrial Revolution,” which was when we started treating humans like machines.

She also quoted a fascinating study by a McKinsey sleep specialist on how lack of sleep negatively affects key leadership functions, such as solving problems effectively, seeking diverse perspectives and supporting others. For all these reasons and more, Arianna says it’s “high time we start sleeping our way to the top.”

I remember feeling tired (literally and figuratively) of being tired as a business student in NYC.

Sleep in the city was a lot like a stock, a commodity that could be bought, sold, invested and returned in the future. With so much to do at any moment, it felt like sleeping was an expensive activity. I often “sold” sleep to stay up late for events or to study and work at night, hoping to benefit from the rare quiet moments late nights provided, however the price I actually paid was quite steep.

After working up a storm during the week on Wall Street, I would dissolve into hibernation on weekends, sleeping for 12 to 14 hours. I thought this was normal. It seemed like a perfectly fine sleep-coping strategy and something I saw everyone else doing, so I didn’t question it.

However, looking back, I really don’t know how I was able to survive, much less thrive, with this erratic sleep schedule.

My own struggle with insomnia developed out of my previously imbalanced lifestyle. It led me on a long journey to find lasting health solutions. I felt there had to be another way. My quest brought me to the ancient science of Ayurveda, the world’s oldest healing system.

Originating in India, Ayurveda (literally meaning “the science of life”) is the essential companion to one’s yoga practice. It teaches us all the practices needed to live a fully healthy life, on and off the mat.

I fell in love with Ayurveda and got trained in it by my teacher (who comes from a traditional Vedic lineage extending back to ancient India). Now, nothing gives me more satisfaction than teaching it to other people from all walks of life.

My students have ranged from Fortune 500 executives, to street children and high school students in urban India, to juvenile inmates, to social entrepreneurs, to doctors, nurses and patients in hospitals, to Stanford University staff and even probation officers.

80% of my students report improved mental clarity and greater ability to be present from my wellness trainings. 95% report that the training has positively affected their work performance/engagement. My Alameda County Probation Department students additionally experienced a self-reported 46% improved sleep, 47% less pain and 31% greater productivity.

Here are three Ayurvedic  ways that you too can counteract “presenteeism” and start sleeping your way to the top:

1. Oil your feet before sleeping. This fantastic Ayurvedic ritual helps us fall asleep and get better quality rest. It’s one of my favorite daily practices. As one of my students reported: “Oiling really helps with sleep. You go into such a nice, deep sleep, but when you wake up, you don’t feel groggy or out of it or tired. You just really feel refreshed.”

To do this, purchase organic, unrefined sesame oil. Warm it up in a small bowl or plug-in crock pot. Take your time and really love your feet as you oil them. Move your fingers in circles around your ankles and give as much pressure to areas that hurt as your feet tell you they want.

2. Move your clock back. Yogis have been waking up during the early morning hours (4-6am) since time immemorial to benefit from the quality of sattva (natural state of calm, peace and balance) present then. Waking up early also works wonders in helping you sleep at night.

It’s easier to wake up when you do so before 6 a.m. That’s because a heavier, inertia-creating quality (called tamas in yoga and Ayurveda psychology) takes over around 6 a.m. This inertia-creating quality makes it harder to awaken past 6 a.m. and it works wonders in helping you fall asleep. Tamas is in the atmosphere again from 6 to 10 p.m. which is why Ayurveda recommends sleeping between 9 to 10 p.m.

If you sleep closer to midnight and wake up by 8 a.m. then start going to bed at 11:45 p.m. tonight, so you can awaken by 7:45 a.m. tomorrow, and then inch your way back. Go slowly. Consistency counts, so don’t take the weekends off! You need to stick with it daily to get results.

It took me time to move my clock back (I used to sleep between 2 to 4 a.m. and wake up at 8 a.m.), but it has been well worth it, as I now sleep like a baby and wake up feeling fresh, optimistic and ready to begin each day.

3. Meditate before sleeping. It really helps to close your eyes for a few minutes before sleeping. Simply sit and observe your breathing, noticing thoughts come and go. If your mind is full of worries, close your mouth and slowly count to 5 while inhaling. Then, slowly count to 10 while exhaling.

You can also try chanting Om. Inhale through your nose. Then, make the “O” sound three times as long as the “M” sound. Chant Om 3 to 5 times to naturally lead into a few minutes of meditation.

Wishing you wonderful sleep!


Reference: “The Sleep Revolution.” Huffington, Arianna. New York City: Harmony, 2016.


Author: Ananta Ripa Ajmera 

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

Photo: Flickr/Lauren Hammond

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