Drowsiness during meditation is a common problem especially for people who are new to meditation. This happens because the state of sleep and the state of meditation share similar qualities; both meditation and sleep involve the cessation of physical and mental activity and the withdrawal of the senses. However, in sleep, we are in a subconscious state and in meditation, we are in a state of super-consciousness (or we are at least aiming to achieve a state of super-consciousness).
It is crucial that one does not let themselves fall into a state of subconscious sleep while meditating. In meditation, you should be awake and mindful. If you are consistently drowsy in meditation, this is not real meditation. You will not become more aware or gain new insights if you are letting yourself nod off during your meditation session. Although the drowsy state can be peaceful, this is different from the peace we experience in meditation which is more dynamic. In meditation, we stay aware and alert, in a state of harmony. Remember, the purpose of meditation is to wake up! Letting yourself nod off is counter-productive.
Don’t be discouraged if you are getting sleepy during your meditation; it happens to almost everyone at one point or another. With patience and practice, your meditation will become stronger, and this obstacle will disappear. It takes dedication, concentration, willpower, and some experimentation to get there, but once you figure out what works for you, sleepiness will no longer be a problem in your meditation.
By following the advice below you can find out why you are experiencing drowsiness in meditation and take the necessary steps to overcome it.
Make Sure You are Getting Enough Rest
The most obvious reason for becoming sleepy during meditation is that you are tired. If you have not gotten enough sleep, or if you had a hard day, then you probably just need rest. Make sure your body’s need for sleep is met and then you will be in a better condition for meditation.
If you feel you need some rest after a busy day, then have a short nap (under 20 minutes) to re-energize the body. If you do not allow yourself to rest, then as soon as you sit down to meditate, the body may feel it is time to sleep, and you will have to fight the urge to sleep. If you are exhausted and need to sleep, then go to bed. Do not force yourself to stay and meditate if it is not possible. You do not want to develop a habit of nodding off in meditation. Keep sleep and meditation as two separate activities.
Choose the Right Time for Meditation
It will help a lot if you make your meditation time to be when you are most awake and alert. The best time will be different from person to person. Most find it easiest to meditate first thing in the morning after they feel rested from a full nights sleep. It is usually harder to meditate at the end of the day right before bed because at this time the body naturally wants to sleep.
For some, afternoon or evening meditations can be a good option. It depends on your schedule and when you are naturally more awake, alert, and focused. Experiment with different times of day, and then decide which time is best for you to meditate and keep it consistent. The body has it’s natural cycles and rhythms, if you can be consistent with your meditation time, you are working with the body, not fighting with it
When choosing your meditation time, make sure you have tested the various time of day. Many people write off morning meditation before giving it a fair try. You may have to wake up earlier than usual to fit it into your schedule, but there are two main advantages to meditating in the morning. First, you make your meditation a priority in the day, and for that reason, you will never miss it. If you leave it until later in the day, you run the risk of getting caught up in other things. Second, you start your day off on the right note, setting a peaceful tone for the day to come.
How early you meditate in the morning is up you. Vedic Scriptures say the most auspicious time for meditation is Brahma-Muhurtham (about two hours before sunrise), but this is usually too early for most people. Many traditions recommend meditating around sunrise; this also may be too early for some. Do it when your focus and alertness are at their best. We are all different, do not be discouraged if mornings are not the best time for you. Not everyone is a morning person, so do not force yourself to meditate at a time that feels unnatural. Waking yourself up earlier than is comfortable for your body will not aid your meditation practice.
Don’t Eat Before Meditation
If you have just eaten a large meal, all of your energy is going towards digestion; you may become lethargic and want to sleep. Wait at least two hours after eating a full meal to begin your meditation. You obviously do not want to meditate when you are starving either because then hunger pains will interfere. If you must eat before meditation, keep it light.
Energize and Awaken the Body and Mind First
Assist the mind to become alert and the body to feel less sluggish before you sit down to meditate. This will be especially important in the mornings to shift out of the heavy energy of sleep. There are many ways in which you can energize and awaken the body and mind:
- Perform gentle exercise, a short walk, hatha yoga, or stretching to improve blood circulation.
- Step outside for a few moments and take in some fresh air. Walk barefoot on the grass while you are at it.
- Shower before meditation. Water helps to wake us up, especially if you can handle a cold shower.
- Take a few deep breathes or perform a gentle pranayama before mediation. Pranayama will also help to aid your concentration of the mind. If gentle breathing does not seem effective, then you can try performing a more powerful pranayama such as kapalabhati. Only perform a few rounds of the more vigorous pranayama practices otherwise you may cause agitation of the mind.
Remember, you want to remain calm for your meditation, so do not over excite your body or mind with exercise or breathing practices that are too intense. There is no set formula, but in time, you will find the right balance for you.
Try a Walking Meditation
If you feel sleepy before you even sit down to meditate, you can begin your practice with a walking meditation. Perform the for 15-20 minutes and then sit down as usual to meditate. By this time, you should be feeling more alert and aware while being in a meditative state. If you’re having a tough day, and you feel like nothing will prevent you from falling asleep once you sit down, you can occasionally substitute the walking meditation for your regular practice. The benefits are not equal to sitting meditation, but it is better than not meditating at all.
Meditate in the Right Environment
Meditate in a room that isn’t too warm or stuffy, as this will encourage sleepiness. Keep the room slightly cool, maybe open a window to allow in some fresh air.
Have a special place where you do your meditation, a chair or a cushion in a dedicated corner. Over time, the energy of meditation will build up in that area, making it easier for you to go into meditation. Do not meditate on your bed as you will be influenced by the energy of sleep.
Maintain Good Posture
The position in which you sit for meditation can have a huge effect on your level of alertness.
Sitting in a cross-legged position such as padmasana, ardha padmasana, svastikasana, or siddhasana is great, as long as it is comfortable for you. Siddhasana has an added benefit because the heel is in the perineum, which aids alertness. In any cross-legged posture use an extra cushion under your tail bone to take strain off your lower back and knees. If you can’t sit cross-legged for long periods, you can still have amazing meditations while seated in a chair and keeping good posture.
Don’t forget to check your head. You may find that keeping the head parallel with the floor is best for alertness. If the head is tilted downward, it may trigger sleepiness.
Most importantly, your spine should always be kept straight; slouching will encourage sleepiness. You can support your back against a wall or an upright chair. Use cushions between yourself and your back support if you find you are slouching.
Make yourself comfortable, but not too comfortable, if you surround yourself with too many soft cushions, it will be hard not to want to sleep. Do not meditate laying down or in a chair that reclines; when you are in these positions the body naturally wants to sleep, and you will be more likely to fall asleep. Don’t use a chair that supports the head; this also makes the posture too conducive to sleep. If your head is not supported and you start to nod off, the sudden dropping of the head will bring you back to a state of alertness, and you can then make the necessary adjustments to continue your meditation.
Slightly shifting your position from time to time may help you to stay alert during periods of drowsiness, but make sure not to move too often, as this will disturb the meditation.
Open Your Eyes
If you are struggling, try opening your eyes part way, without letting the eyes focus on anything. The light hitting your retina will help you stay alert, but make sure not to pay attention the light or any objects in your line of vision. Proceed with your meditation, as you would with your eyes closed, focusing on your chosen technique, and when you feel the sleepy state has passed, you can resume with your eyes closed.
Assert the Right Attitude in Your Meditation
A successful meditation depends largely on the attitude which you bring to it. Affirm to yourself that you want to meditate, and any resistance should be relieved within a few days of practice. Your affirmation can be something like “I want to meditate. I will remain alert and aware throughout my practice.” Tailor it so it works for you.
You may want to pray beforehand to increase aspiration or to ask for assistance from the divine power.
Have a strong determination to remain aware in your meditation when you start to become drowsy. Keeping a state of awareness is the opposite of letting yourself fall into sleep.
Increase Your Awareness in Daily Life
To have a truly successful meditation practice, one needs to increase awareness at all times, not just while on the cushion. Bring more awareness to your daily actions such as eating, brushing your teeth, walking, working, and talking with others.
Practice Yoga Nidra (the yoga of conscious sleep). By increasing your awareness during sleep, you can also increase your awareness in meditative and waking states.
Eliminate the Use of Drugs and Alcohol
Meditating after you have taken drugs or alcohol may affect your meditation by increasing the likelihood of you falling asleep or entering a passive trance state. This effect can last up to two days after taking a substance. Alcohol and drugs affect your level of control and consciousness; use of these substances is not conducive to meditation. Some substances dull your sensitivity. Others may heighten it temporarily, but will make it more difficult for you to reach higher states on your own in the long run. If you want to be serious about your meditation practice, it is best to completely eliminate the use of drugs and alcohol.
Use a Technique Which Works for You
Do you find your practice boring? Have you been meditating with a technique for an extended period without any progress? If either of these are true, this could be why you want to sleep instead of meditate. Try changing techniques to find one that may be more suitable for you. Every person will respond differently to the various methods out there, so do not get discouraged if it appears like something is not working for you. You can also include different techniques and learn when to apply them.
Techniques are numerous and range from mantra repetition, focusing on the nada (subtle sound), focusing on the breath, self-inquiry, and many more. Try a few different techniques, giving each a fair try, and in time, you will know which one is best for you.
Meditate for the Appropriate Length of Time
Maybe the length of time you sit to meditate is long to start with. Try to shorten your session and work up from there, or split your usual session in two. Some schools suggest starting with only 15 or 20 minutes at a time and increasing gradually at a rate which is comfortable. You don’t want to force yourself to meditate for one hour if you are not at that point, as it may turn you off from meditating altogether. However, you should decrease your meditation time only as a last resort, implement the other suggestions before cutting the length of your meditation session. The longer you can meditate in one sitting, the deeper you will go.
Drink Green Tea
If you feel you need an extra boost, try having a few sips of green tea. Green tea contains substances which stimulate the central nervous system; these include Theobromine and Theophylline (relatives of caffeine) as well as small amounts of caffeine. The amount of caffeine contained in green tea is much less than in coffee, so it should not give you the jitters. Green tea also contains the amino acid L-Theanine, which has a calming effect and helps to balance some of the stimulating effects.
Don’t drink a huge mug of green tea before your practice; a few sips should do the trick. Too much may interfere with your meditation, but it depends on how sensitive you are. Some people can have a relatively large amount of caffeine and feel fine while others may become restless or agitated with only a little. You know your body, and you can judge whether green tea will help or hinder your meditation.
The mild boost provided with green tea may just save your meditation session. It’s not advised to make a regular habit out of it, but having green tea now and then, won’t affect your ability to stay alert without it. It can be very useful during meditation retreats (when you may be meditating for 10hrs a day) or when you are going through a difficult period that is affecting your meditation practice. Don’t feel guilty if you incorporate green tea; remember that drinking green tea has been a common practice in Zen monasteries for centuries.
Don’t expect that you will solve the problem of sleepiness overnight. It will take time to help your body and mind adjust to your meditation practice. If you make an effort and follow the advice given, you will surely be on your way to a consciousness meditation practice.
Have you tried everything, and you still get sleepy? It’s OK; sometimes sleepiness during meditation can arise out of nowhere after there has been months or years of successful meditations. We can have periods in meditation when the body needs to release a certain conditioning and it may shift into a sleep state to relieve the stress. Have patience; yoga and meditation bring a lot to the surface because they help us to release old patterns. In some people, this may manifest as tiredness, but in time this effect will balance out, and meditations will go back to normal once the conditioning is cleared. In the meantime, apply the other advice and have compassion for yourself as you go through your process.