Shakespeare recognised the remarkable recuperative, curative and invigorating properties of sleep. To him, sleeplessness was one of the greatest curses of man, it put one out of harmony with nature, ruining both body and mind.
Fifteen hundred years before Shakespeare, in ancient Greece, sick people were brought to the temple of Morpheus, the God of dreams, and left there overnight to recuperate. In the tradition of Taoist yoga, rejuvenation by sleep is one of the eighty rejuvenating techniques.
There is a legend about a Chinese Emperor who was told by a fortune-teller that he would die in his sleep, so he vowed that he would not sleep any more. Being a man of imagination, he devised a fool-proof method to ensure that he does not fall asleep. He sat in a comfortable throne-like chair which allowed some amount of relaxation. He held in his right hand a heavy brass ball. Directly beneath it was a large brass basin. Every time he started dozing, his fingers became relaxed and the brass ball fell with a tremendous noise into the basin, forcing him to stay awake. Within two months, the legend says, he went completely insane but cleverly concealed it from his subjects. At the beginning of the third month, he deliberately fell on his own dagger to prove that he did not die in his sleep.
Some animals die by denial of sleep for a period as short as four days. It is now common knowledge that for normal growth and development of any living species, sleep is of great importance. Modern scientific research into the phenomenon of sleep confirms many ancient ideas as regards the importance of sleep to health. A group of American researchers suggested that if people could be taught to hibernate, their life expectancy could be doubled.
Research into sleep goes on in practically all advanced countries, including America and Russia. It has been proved beyond doubt that the source of some physical as well as mental maladies is deficiency of sleep. Sleep before mid-night keeps us healthy and youthful. When there was no electricity or cars, humans slept at sunset and woke-up before sunrise. Today, people party, eat and drink or watch TV past mid-night and look like zombies due to sleep-deprivation. When we lose sleep, mental and physical fatigue accumulates and can lead to the break-down of even the strongest constitution.
One researcher put the problem graphically: We all have long lists of unpaid debts to the sleeping bank. If we do not pay them, we invite disaster. Recently in West Germany, some tired executives chose to spend five days from their annual holidays not in Spain or Cannes but in a hospital engaged in marathon sleep, lasting up to five days. They emerged younger, healthier and in some cases, literally rejuvenated by this therapy which included mud massages but strictly no phone calls or TV.
Other experiments have indicated that even one hour’s extra sleep per night considerably reduces tension, fatigue and nervous apprehension. In Germany, many hospitals recognise the importance of a good sleep. Patients are not awakened in the early morning hours for sponging and feeding, but instead are left undisturbed for a considerable number of hours. Sleep therapists say that the recuperative powers of children and elderly people have shown a marked improvement where the patients have been given extra time to sleep.
The first known doctor of the Western world, Hippocrates, said that there are perhaps no better medicines than rest, sleep and fasting. How true! Hippocrates himself was a good example of his teachings – he reportedly lived up to the age of 106. Improving the quality of sleep is a great step towards conquering the ravages of time. To demonstrate this to yourself, try looking at yourself in a mirror after a reckless night and compare that to the way your face looks after a good night’s sleep. The effect of sleep on the eyes, on wrinkles and on vitality is remarkable.
Chinese yoga includes the ‘art of big sleep’, one of the techniques for improving the quality of life and longevity. In ‘big sleep’ the position of the bed is important. One should sleep with the head to the north and feet to the south in order not to disturb the magnetic field within the body. Apparently it was known to the ancients that the earth possesses its own magnetic field and that to put the body against the magnetic field of nature during sleep can lead to a very disturbing sleep. Many people would not register such a subtle effect as magnetic field interference, but some individuals are sensitive enough to be disturbed.
The art of ‘big sleep’ has a number of rules, starting with not eating any food after sunset. That is, of course a stringent requirement, but easy to practice. It is common knowledge that one should not expect a long and invigorating sleep on going to bed with a full stomach of undigested food or after eating spicy and salty food that makes one thirsty. But the most important component of perfect sleep is physical and mental relaxation aided by full abdominal breathing. Ultimately, all of us have to experiment and work out what suits us best and what aids a good night’s sleep.
Like the wise saying goes, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”