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Sleep, sweet slumber – YSP 1.10

YSP 1.10    abhava pratyaya alambana tamah vritti nidra

Desikachar: Deep sleep is when the mind is overcome with heaviness and no other activities are present.

Swami J: Dreamless sleep (nidra) is the subtle thought pattern which has as its object, an inertia, blankness, absence, or negation of the other thought patterns (vrittis).


I’m sure it’s something approaching irony that a fit of insomnia has me up and out of my snug little bed writing a blog about sleep.

Deep sleep is the fourth of Patanjali’s five mental states and is characterized by the absence of other mental activities: understanding, error, imagination or memory. Sleep is seen to be a positive state in that lack of it increases suffering. And the suffering that comes from lack of sleep is something I can speak on at length.

Two hours ago, I woke up from an otherwise decent sleep and I’ve not been able to shut down since. It’s been a long week. I’ve spent the better part of it on the unforgiving wooden benches of our local criminal court, listening to the droning of testimony only tangentially connected to my life. My rump is completely numb to my cheekbones.

I wish my head was equally as oblivious to the experience because it’s been a week of pondering about justice, forgiveness, regret, arrogance, class, education and ego. In short, just another week in the mind of Kate MacKay. And tonight, as I put the week behind me, my mind goes into overdrive. It would be way more amusing if I wasn’t so tired.

This nidra, deep and dreamless sleep, is like a meditative state (see YSP 1:38) but we are not conscious of the process when we are sleeping. The key point of this is it is dreamless sleep. It’s the deepest stages of sleep – stages 3 and 4. Stage 3 is the first stage of deep sleep. The brain waves are a combination of slow waves, known as delta waves, combined with faster waves. During stage 3 sleep it can be very difficult to wake someone up. Persons woken up during this stage may feel groggy and disoriented for several minutes. Stage 4 sleep is the second stage of deep sleep. In this stage the brain is making the slow delta waves almost exclusively. It is also very difficult to wake someone up in this stage. Both stages of deep sleep are important for feeling refreshed in the morning. If these stages are too short, sleep will not feel satisfying.

At least, this is what I learned a long time ago in my introductory psychology courses in university. I understand that the scientists who study sleep have since collapsed the old stages 3 and 4 into one stage 3 sleep that is characterized by slow deep delta waves in the brain.

In the yoga tradition, nidra is the time when we return temporarily to God. God’s energy nourishes humans on a spiritual, psychological and physical level. It’s a temporary plug-in to our source.

After working shift work for 30 years, I have little doubt of this. I think God and I are cumulatively about five years short on face-to-face time. My computer got more sleep than I did. A huge part of my recent health issues I directly attribute to years of running on 4-5 hours of sleep a day. It’s true that I can force myself to function on little or no sleep. The sheer capacity of my will power keeps me going. That does not mean that I do well on it. In the sleep department, I’ve been short-changing myself for years and now the piper demands to be paid.

I’ve worked shift work all my life and now that I’ve had a chance to look back at it, I really think that people shouldn’t be allowed to work it for an entire career. I know too well that there are some jobs where there has to be someone up and alert the entire cycle of the clock. Police, fire, medical services need to be there 24 hours a day. It’s going to take a lot of convincing to get me to agree that we need someone working 24 hours a day at McDonald’s. Thirty years ago, we managed to survive with grocery store shelves being stocked during normal business hours. It seems a little ridiculous now that there has to be an overnight shift working at my local Sobey’s . I think we need to look at shift work in a more responsible manner because we know that it’s harmful to the human body. It needs to be managed and treated with respect instead of the very cavalier way we approach it today.

And, with luck, having written this post and striking it off my ‘to-do’ list, my brain will stop nagging me long enough to go back to sleep. I’m starting to feel a little less keyed up so I think I’ll sign off and see if I might catch some zzzzz’s.

Thanks for reading and Namaste,




About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

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