Sleepiness when meditating is very common, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. So, why does it happen? Why is it that you can be feeling fine one minute, then as soon as you sit down to meditate, you’re overwhelmed with a desire to nap? Here are a number of possible reasons.
It’s an association thing. For many of us, the only time we actually slow down is at bedtime. Our brain is used to us running around, processing multiple activities and generally being in an active state of doing. The minute we stop to rest, our brain assumes it’s time to take a nap.
Closing your eyes shuts out the light, which tells your brain it’s night time. A lack of light is known to have sleep-inducing effects on the brain. If you close your eyes to meditate, this physiological effect kicks in.
Meditation can be boring. There, I said it. Part of the reason why meditation can be challenging is that our mind craves the stimulation and distraction that it's accustomed to being surrounded by. When that’s no longer there, things can get pretty boring, particularly when you’re new to meditation. Have you ever fallen asleep during a dull lecture or while watching a bad TV show? Then you know sleep can be an effective escape from boredom.
Early morning meditation might feel more like sleep time. During my yoga teacher training, we got up at 5:45 a.m. each morning to meditate. I repeatedly had to pull myself back from the brink of sleep. In my brain, it was definitely still night time and I’d barely woken up before I started meditating. It was much too easy to drift back off to sleep than maintain a state of alertness.
You might just be tired. Meditation forces us to confront how we’re actually feeling, rather than numbing ourselves to what’s going on. Sometimes we’re so busy we don’t even realize how tired we are until we stop. If stopping happens to be when you take time out to meditate, then to suddenly notice your sleepiness is entirely natural. (Read more about why Sleep is a Treasure.)
What You Can Do About It
First, try to pinpoint what’s causing the sleepiness. If it’s association or boredom, time and consistent practice will help. The more you get used to meditating, the less your brain will assume it just means nap time.
If closing your eyes brings on sleepiness, try keeping them open. Many yogis choose to do this, either gazing at a sacred focal object such as a candle or mandala, or keeping the eyes slightly open with a soft yet unfocused gaze. Chanting a mantra can also help keep you alert and the sound of your voice can work as a wakeful reminder, keeping you from drifting off to sleep. (Learn about Our 4 Favorite Chants.)
Finally, make sure you are getting enough sleep. Meditation is great, but it's no substitute for a good night’s rest. If you do get up early to meditate, try to develop a pre-meditation ritual to help your brain transition from sleep mode to meditation mode. Maybe make a cup of tea or do some gentle yoga, even a quick shower beforehand can help. Do what you can to mark out your meditation as a sacred time with it's own designated space. Whatever you try, don't beat yourself up for feeling sleepy or falling asleep.Your meditation practice is just as much part of your spiritual journey as your yoga practice is. Instead, see it as another opportunity to practice self-compassion and to learn more about yourself. (Remember, Don't Judge Your Meditation Practice.)