How To Use Meditation To Sleep Less

by Asatar Bair on July 21, 2010

I’ve always found it inspiring how masters of meditation seem to need a lot less sleep than the average person. The Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan slept four hours a night, and meditated for four hours each morning. There are stories of meditators who took even less sleep, an hour or two a night. Modern meditation masters like IAM co-founders Puran and Susanna Bair often wake at three in the morning and meditate for several hours before starting their day.

It's possible to use meditation to sleep less.

So for the past month, I’ve cut back on my own sleep. Why? Three reasons:

  1. As an exercise in mastery. (I’m constantly putting myself through such exercises).
  2. Since our baby boy was born in April, I haven’t been meditating as much as I’d like. My practice has been at different times of the day, or short, and I want to get back into longer meditations to keep me feeling connected to the One Being.
  3. I needed more time in the quiet hours of the early morning to write.

Here’s what I’ve learned, summarized into a few key directives, in case you want to try it.

Have a steady rhythm. For the last 30 days, I’ve gone to sleep at 10 pm and woken up at 3 am. I meditate for 1 hour, then do some Tai Chi (usually 15-20 min), then write until 7 or so, when my wife and our baby get up. (Sometimes our three year old girl, Xavi, wakes up earlier than that. Right now it’s 6:25, and she’s been up since 5:40. But she fell asleep in the chair next to me… Awww!) I don’t think it would be possible for me to do this if my rhythm wasn’t there.

Meditate. You have to be fairly good at meditating to be able to do this, but I’ve been sitting for a long time. Also, you need a good method, because not every kind of meditation works equally well for this. You need a method that has a rich, full breath (like Heart Rhythm Meditation), otherwise you have no hope of staying awake when you’re sleepy and still. (I’m definitely sleepy between 3 and 4 am. Are you?) There are also specific practices which can be used to change your energetic state, such as the 4 element breaths, and the sound practices we teach in Course #104. If you’d like to learn how to meditate, sign up for our list and read my daily email series.

Have a good reason for doing it. I tried to be clear with myself about why I was doing this, and I think that was helpful.

Eat well. About a month before I started getting up early, my wife and I started doing the The Warrior Diet, which is basically under-eating during the day (juices, fresh fruits, raw veggies), then over-eating at night (we start at 5 pm, and eat basically whatever we want). This diet has given me a lot more energy. (It took a few weeks to get used to not eating much all day; yesterday I had a small protein shake, some lettuce, an apple, and a pear during the day).

Manage your stress. It may seem that because I work for a school of meditation, there is never any stress at work. I wish that were true! Like at many small non-profit organizations, work can be stressful. We always seem to be juggling 25 projects at once. So I’ve had to really work at keeping it together.

Manage your attitude. Don’t admit to being tired. Don’t say you’re tired. Don’t think you’re tired. I created an affirmation to say to myself: “I thrive on five.”

Start exercising, if you’re not already. Do some kind of cardio, and some kind of progressive strength training. But start super slow and easy. Make it manageable.

Take it easy. If you already have an exercise routine, you may have to cut it back a bit. My routine was to run for 35 minutes each day, with strength training twice a week. I had to pare that back to just running 25 min a day, running slower, and cutting the strength training way back.

Appreciate the sleep you get. There’s nothing like cutting back on sleep to make you appreciate it more. Sleep is one of life’s great pleasures, and it should be savored. But that’s hard to do when you get too much of it. Sleep can be inefficient. Much of what we do while we sleep is mull over past events in our subconscious minds, and feel emotions in our hearts unconsciously. The same function can be filled by meditation, but it’s much, much more efficient. Before starting this, I went to sleep around 10 and got up between 5 and 7. (There’s a lot of variability with 2 small kids!) Meditation made it possible for me to cut 2 to 4 hours of sleep per day and still feel rested. I also feel better physically; I wake up with more energy and less stiffness.

Give yourself some advice. You are your own best coach. So when you set out, imagine you’ve already attained your goal, and then give some advice to a friend who is interested in doing the same thing. The advice you give is what you most need to hear, so write it down and read it as often as you need to.

* * * * *

On the second day of my new routine, I read an article in Newsweek on the connection between sleep deprivation and health risks such as obesity and impaired cognitive function. Apparently, there is a strong inverse association between hours of sleep and obesity, especially among children. And in one study, volunteers who were limited to six hours a day performed as badly on a cognitive skills test as those who were up for 48 hours straight.

Ah, perfect! I’ve chosen to do something that will make me fat and stupid!

Well, here’s my thought on the study. First, on the connection between sleep deprivation and obesity: think about how people (especially children) tend to be sleep deprived in the USA: it’s by staying up late, watching TV, playing video games, browsing the internet, etc., then having to get up early to go to school or work. It’s not by going to sleep early and waking up early. (Trust me, there’s almost no one up at 3 am.) We like our down time, and by staying up late, it feels like you have more of it. I was the same way as a kid. But these are all sedentary activities where people tend to eat. And the later you stay up, the more binge-opps there are. So people who do this habitually tend to be fatter. Not surprising. I have to tell you, when you get up early, you have no desire to binge. The earlier you get up, the less you want to eat. I have one cup of black tea in the morning.

Second, on the cognitive skills test. My wife and I have a three-month old baby boy. Believe me, I know that your cognitive skills are less sharp when you are sleep-deprived. In the weeks after he was born, I could feel myself getting dumber. I couldn’t remember anything. I wish I could measure how much dumber I got, but I wasn’t smart enough for that. It was like Flowers for Algernon.

But you get used to that, and it passes.

In the study, the group of volunteers never got past the point where you get used to it. (They were sleep-deprived to 6 hours for 2 weeks. That’s well within the adaptation phase.) I also wonder about the effects of doing something to the group, rather than them choosing to get less sleep voluntarily.

If anyone is interested, I can do a follow up post where I talk about my experience day by day. (I kept a journal).

Asatar

Meditation can also help you with a time honored problem: how to put your kids to bed. Sleep is very important for kids. I’m giving a talk on Friday, Nov 8th, called Go To Sleep, Little Darling: 7 Ways Meditation Can Help You Put Your Kids to Bed.

You might also like: 8 Ways to Fall Asleep Without Drugs

See all posts on sleep

This course is an excellent resource for those looking to explore sleeping, dreaming, and waking.

{ 16 comments }

Jeri-lyn July 22, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Very interesting… I agree with your opinion on those studies. The majority of “sleep deprived” people are plagued with unhealthy habits. I have often heard there is something very spiritual about the 4am hour. A yogi once told me about bramamhurta… It is 2 hours before sunrise (4:00-6:00) and is said to be the best time to practice. Thanks for sharing the article and I hope many take the wisdom.

Asatar Bair July 22, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Hi Jeri-lyn, thanks for your comment! Wisdom falls on us like rain. But do we get wet? Does the wisdom seep into our pores? I think that for you, it does. -Asatar

Troy July 23, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Hi Asatar, thanks for taking the time to share this. Any journal entries or follow-up posts would be great.

Are you still following the warrior-diet?

Asatar Bair July 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Yes, my wife and I are both doing it. It gives you a good opportunity to embrace the feeling of being hungry! Thanks for your comment -Asatar

Dana August 7, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Hi, Asatar! Thank you for the inspiring article on meditation and sleep. I have been practicing Heart Rhythm Meditation daily for 3 years now and have experienced pervasive positive effects in both my inner and outer life. I have known that most major wisdom traditions recommend meditation/prayer early in the morning, but up until now had not made the commitment to schedule my practice at that early hour. After reading your article, I was inspired to go for it. I’ve been sitting in meditation early, immediately after I wake up each morning, for the past week, and the effect has been wonderful. I have struggled with low energy levels for many years and have been told it was due to low blood iron. This past week I have felt real improvements in energy level, alertness and the general feeling of wakefulness. I plan to continue with this new meditation schedule–thank you for the inspiration!

Truly,
Dana

Asatar Bair August 8, 2010 at 5:25 am

Awesome!
It’s nice to know you’re keeping the energy going with me here in Tucson in the early a.m.
Thanks for your comment, Dana.
-Asatar

niraj mittal April 5, 2011 at 5:57 am

technically & artistically both nice presentation

Karen J. Kirsch February 26, 2012 at 11:07 am

Dear Asatar,
I very recently have begun receiving your daily emails, and one week prior to coming across this article I had started getting up at 3:00 am to meditate. For me, your article was perfect timing. I had actually started this after reading “Living With The Himalayan Masters,” by Swami Rama.

I’ve been studying Tibetan Buddhism for over ten years, so although I have been introduced to various methods of meditation, I am quite interested in this Heart Rhythm technique. I’m wondering, is there is a way to learn it without starting from the very beginning of all your assorted CD’s and such?

My husband and I live in the Catalina foothills of Tucson, (I was surprised to read that you also live in Tucson, in fact, from your telephone number it appears you might also live in the Catalina foothills) and we have a daughter attending the U of A Law School. For many years I have been eating mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, and adding protein, and like you, lots of cardio and lifting weights for 16 years.

While my lifestyle is truly a healthy one, the problem that I work on daily with less than adequate success is an issue of being very easily offended due to a traumatic childhood. I had a mother who delighted in terrorizing, and shaming me. As a child, told me on a daily basis that I murdered my father, along with many other treacherous behaviors. I have spent all of my adult life attempting to pick up the pieces. Although I have been in business all of my life, and have a disciplined healthy lifestyle, I have thus far failed at adequately disciplining my mind to comfortably interract with people. There is a hypervigilance to being offended. Counseling has not accomplished much, and I have seen some of the best.

Any suggestion you can offer would mean a lot.

Best wishes,
Karen

Asatar Bair February 26, 2012 at 11:47 am

Dear Karen,
Thank you for writing. I admire your persistence and honor your sincerity. I feel you on the challenge of healing from childhood wounds. It sounds as though you grew up with a great deal of emotional abuse. I must say there is something to celebrate in this: you seem to have been able to overcome much of the fallout of these extreme emotional wounds. (Your lifestyle and intimate relationships seem healthy.) This shows the power of your heart.
I also feel you on the longing to heal completely, to the point where the wounds you suffered in the past do not play a significant role in determining your behavior. I think you have found that working through the mind is not the best way to proceed. You can’t “think” your way into healing. What is necessary is to energize your heart to the point where you can feel the pain of the wounds and heal them. Your heart has all the medicine you need to heal, if only your heart has the energy provided by your breath and attention. The best way to proceed would be a phone or in-person consultation. Give me a call at our office 520-299-2170 and we’ll talk.
I appreciate your heartfelt comment very much, and look forward to meeting you soon.
warm regards,
Asatar

Karen J. Kirsch February 26, 2012 at 11:17 am

Forgot to mention…

I’m on the board of Arizona Friends Of Tibet. We often look to host fundraising events for our members. Perhaps we could discuss hosting you to present the HR Meditation technique?

Karen

Jack November 10, 2012 at 1:06 am

Hi Asatar,

I just stumbled across this website through a google search. And wow! I am impressed! Just the color scheme alone is amazing and somehow really resonates with me…

And then your article was very interesting and really well written. I’ve struggled with oversleeping for most of my life(in the last month it got to the point where I was going to sleep at 5-6-7am in the morning and waking up after the sun had gone down!!)

Intuitively I’ve always had the sense that to build the productive and fulfilling life that I want then being disciplined about my sleep and waking up before 5am was one of the keys.

I don’t know why 5am, but that number just sticks with me. As I write it is 2am here and I can’t sleep. My alarm is set for 5am. This article has given me new ideas on tackling this sleep thing.

Well, off to read some more of your articles and then meditate :)

Asatar Bair November 10, 2012 at 7:21 am

Dear Jack,
Thank you so much for your kind words about this site. I’m glad you found this article helpful.
It seems to me that what would help you the most is rhythm. Having a steady rhythm of sleep and activity is indeed very helpful to accomplish things.
Getting up very early after a late night is a tough way to start. It may be easier to approach by going to sleep earlier. It helps to go to sleep earlier by attuning yourself to the rhythm of nature in the evening by doing fewer activities, slowing down, maintaining a calm atmosphere, dimming the lights, and so on. Meditation (particularly that which is focused on the heart, with deep, slow, rhythmic breathing, like we do in Heart Rhythm Meditation) can be very helpful as it slows the rhythm of your body, mind, and emotions. (I have another piece on this here.)
Jack, I feel your energy and enthusiasm and I want you to succeed. It feels to me like tempering your energy so that it flows more steadily would be very important. Please feel free to call on me if I can help. Our office number is (520) 299-2170.
thank you for your comment.
Asatar

Rory February 27, 2013 at 11:53 am

I’m working on a similar routine right now. not eating 4 or 5 hours before going to bed is a really easy way to wake up. the food keeps you down but when your got nothing in there the hunger makes it really easy to wake up and stay up!

Asatar Bair March 18, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Hi Rory,
Yes, good point. Having a lot of food in your stomach can really weigh you down at night. Thanks for your comment!
Asatar

Andy August 8, 2013 at 4:34 am

“I thrive on five” That’s great – i’m going to use that. Best, Andy.

Asatar Bair August 8, 2013 at 7:22 am

Thanks, Andy!
I see you have a blog on meditation and self-development. Best of luck with it.
warm regards,
Asatar

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