Years ago, when I started to practice the art of meditation, I would regularly start to fall asleep meditating.
It began in yoga. I would lie on the floor in corpse pose (savasana) and start to drift off. When these times came, nothing would stop the sleepiness. Even if I was doing breathing exercises (pranayama).
I would actually start to fall asleep in the middle of a breath.
Day or night, rested or tired, any practice that was still or quiet could make me fall asleep. I just couldn’t stay awake.
So when I started meditating, I was afraid that I would fall asleep meditating too.
I hated falling asleep during meditation. I worried that I’d make sleeping noises or drool. I didn’t want people to see me swaying or jerking awake.
I wasn’t worried that others would judge me because I was so busy judging myself. I didn’t feel like I had control. And, I was sure my sleepiness made it obvious how little mastery of meditation I had.
For a while, I went to struggle with my sleepiness. I would hold myself rigid and tight. I regulated how open or closed my eyes were. I would position myself in wakeful poses and schedule my sessions for wakeful times of the day.
The result was that my meditation became about staying awake—not meditating.
Are You a Bad Meditator or Are You Just Tired?
Two things helped change my attitude about sleepiness in meditation.
The first revelation came in another yoga class. My teacher dared to suggest that if you fall asleep during corpse pose, sometimes it means you’re tired. That’s it—you’re just tired.
It doesn’t mean you’re a good or bad meditator. It doesn’t mean your mind is a shambles and you might as well give up. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not enlightened (although maybe that could be argued).
It just means you’re tired.
He recommended that as a healthy, balanced choice, you take a nap instead of meditating.
Experiencing Sleepiness is Part of Meditating
My second revelation came when I started meditating with my eyes open. As I sat in group meditations, I saw how common it is to struggle with sleepiness. Everyone–even the experienced meditators–can start to fall asleep at one time or another.
Look around a room of meditators. You’ll see bobbing and swaying, shifting and jerking.
With this insight you can view sleepiness as part of the practice of meditating. It’s normal and common. And it’s bound to challenge you at some point.
So instead of fighting sleepiness or judging yourself for it, use these 6 strategies to make your meditation healthy and balanced.
How to Meditate When You are Sleepy
1. Get rest.
Ask yourself if you’re tired. If so, consider sleeping.
Maybe the healthiest, most balanced choice is to sleep. Not all sleepiness is caused by fatigue. However if yours is, get rest.
2. Meditate in a less sleepy environment.
Sometimes our body is set to go to sleep at certain times, in certain places, or in certain positions. These environmental cues trigger our body to sleep.
It’s hard fighting your body so work with it instead of against it.
If your meditation is sleepy in the morning, try meditating at night. If your meditation space is in your bedroom, try using the living room. Adjust the light so it’s not too dark.
Experiment with your posture. Is a chair better or a cushion? Is it better with back support or without?
Get rid of environmental cues that say “sleep now.” Meditate in a neutral place so your body doesn’t think it’s time for a nap.
3. Stop fighting sleepiness.
Examine your relationship with your sleepiness. Are you battling it, trying to fend it off, make it go away? Do you find it embarrassing? Do you judge yourself?
Be aware of your feelings about the sleepiness. Notice if you view sleepiness as a “problem that needs solving” or just an experience you’re having.
Notice your feelings without needing to do anything about them. Sometimes it’s useful to find strategies to manage your sleepiness. Other times, it’s more useful to just be sleepy.
4. Ask your mentors and guides for advice.
Each tradition, lineage, or philosophy has their own take on sleepiness in meditation. Suggestions for coping range from energetic to practical.
Ask someone you trust for suggestions. Try the strategies that work with your meditation practice.
5. Meditate on the sleepy sensations.
As you begin to experience sleepiness, bring your awareness to the sensations. What do you feel in your eyes, chest, and stomach? How do your thoughts change?
Focus on the sleepy feelings. If you actually doze off, notice what it feels like when you come back awake.
Meditating on your sleepiness is challenging, especially if you have worked hard to fight it. If your meditation becomes a struggle, try shifting your meditation to the sleepiness and away from it, back and forth. Don’t force yourself to focus on sleepiness.
6. Get your energy moving.
Like all activities, meditation can get in a rut and become dull. It can lose vitality.
Try changing your meditation routine. Break your session into several shorter ones. Stand up and move around. Do some Sun Salutations. If you have a physical meditation practice (like Tai-Chi), rotate your sitting practice with your physical one.
Freshen up your practice and get your blood moving.
Sleepiness is such a normal part of a meditation practice that it can almost be expected. Now when it shows up, I don’t view it as an impediment. Instead, I see it as another aspect of my meditative experience.
Letting go of my self-judgement lets me play with it so it’s no longer stressful.