Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Night owl chitta vrtti; 1 Yoga teacher’s 2 cents on insomnia

-Juliana Mitchell-

A friend shares that she hasn’t slept, “I couldn’t stop my mind from spinning about.” When my husband can’t sleep it’s “Squirrels running around his head.” I heard one person explain their insomnia as “My brain on an all night roller coaster ride.” And still another as “Thoughts spiraling about.” Spinning. Running around. Roller coasters. Spirals. Insomnia has the nature of swirling.

A few thousand years ago a sage named Patanjali canonized a classical definition of Yoga, in a written work known as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. He wrote Yoga chitta vrtti nirodha or Yoga is the containing of the swirling of the mind. ‘Chitta’ means Mind-state or Consciousness. ‘Vrtti’ can be understood as Spiraling. Chitta vrtti is the energy of our consciousness; which when unchecked becomes mental turbulence. ‘Nirodha’ is to quell, contain or soothe.

Yoga then is to quell the inner chaos, leaving our natural Peace-state to shine forth. If quelled chitta vrtti equals the peaceful Yogic-state, then I say Insomnia is a state of being painfully ensconced in uncontained chitta vrtti. The mind is swirling and agitated, like a little boat in a stormy sea. What’s needed are ways to contain, quell and direct ones energies toward the simplified mental patterns of sleep.

If night owl chitta vrtti has you down, some of these suggestions might help to quell (nirodha) that whoooshy mind-state (chitta vrtti) and usher in a space of deep true Peace (Yoga), allowing you to sink into the restful arms of sleep.


I was informed that the human brain is inclined to bouts of certainty. The moment I heard it, I knew it was true.

• Give up your self-definition as ‘an insomniac’. “But that’s the truth!” you might protest. Starting NOW, work with truth and burgeoning possibility. Redefine yourself “As someone rediscovering the path to restful sleep.” Watch your language as you describe your night’s sleep or your sleep patterns to others and especially watch the language you use inside your own mind to describe your sleep experiences to yourself.

• Consider whether you’re attached to ‘being an insomniac’. If you have a strong negative reaction to this suggestion, if it feels aggravating (aggravate is another translation of vrtti!) then REALLY consider it.

• Journal about this topic, and about your restful, newly re- emerging, sweet sleep patterns.


We’re hardwired to sleep when it’s dark and to awaken to the light. This bodily cycle works in tandem with the subtly increasing then decreasing amounts of available sunlight each day, as well as with the actual angle of light shining into the brain via the eyes as the sun rises and sets. Slowly emerging darkness organically quiets the chitta vrtti, quieting the body-mind’s energies for the coming, passing of night. The light stimulates our mental and physical energies. Sleep-wake cycles are deeply coded into the body-mind in relation to light/dark and so our bodies can’t fathom an emerging nighttime in the presence of bountiful indoor lighting. Our body can’t make sense of it being evening when electronic devices or computer screens direct rays of light straight into the back of the eyeball.

• Expose yourself to daylight every day. If you have to be inside, try to be by a window. Take walks in the sun.

• Where possible, avoid nighttime work and graveyard shifts.

• Put indoor lighting onto dimmers and/or change your lamps to 3 way bulbs. At sunset, turn off or dim overhead lights and turn lamps onto the lowest setting. Switch to dimly lit lights that are close to the floor. This more closely mimics the angle and quality of light dipping toward sunset.

• Stop checking your e-mail, searching the net or looking at electronic devices after sun down. Just don’t stare into artificial sources of light when you want the brain’s energy to wind down.


• A regular meditation or Yoga practice tames unwieldy chitta vrtti. Restorative Yoga can be especially effective at this.

• Lavender oil dabbed onto your pillow before sleep is deeply soothing.

• After sundown, don’t strategize on logistics or finances or any topic that gets you ‘wound up’.

• See the prior post on Viparita Karani, a powerful and healing pose. Practice this before bed.

• Even color can stimulate the chitta vrtti. Consider an all white bedroom with pure white bedding. Keep your bedroom serene.

• Keep a regular sleep schedule.

• Cut out or cut down on caffeine and sugar.

Good night and best wishes for sweet dreams.