The wairua goes out for a wander: why sleep matters, and how to improve yours

Health campaigner Te Miri Rangi looks at what we can learn from our ancestors about the ancient art of a good night’s rest.

When it comes to adopting a healthy lifestyle, the first two things that we turn to are eating healthy kai and exercising more often. But there are a number of pillars that form the foundation of our wellbeing as Māori. In particular, there is an established behaviour that is a fundamental characteristic of life on Earth, which we spend a third of our life doing, yet is often the last thing we consider to change in order to improve our health, and that is sleep.

When it comes to sleep, the traditional world that our tūpuna lived in supported an environment that enabled positive sleeping behaviours to occur. For example, the working day was governed by the rising and setting of the sun which helped to regulate circadian rhythm. Our tūpuna also established certain tikanga or practices that supported the natural cues in nature to enhance our beliefs around sleep.

Traditionally, it was believed that when an individual was sleeping, their wairua or spirit would leave the body and wander about. The things that their wairua did while they slept constituted the dreams they were having. Because of this belief, our tūpuna would rarely shake the body or call out loudly to someone sleeping. Our tūpuna believed that the wairua needed to be encouraged back to its tinana, or body, slowly before waking someone from their sleep. If a person is rudely woken in such a way, the wairua hurries back to the body causing a feeling of shock in the individual upon waking. This is called an ‘oho mauri’ or the startling of the mauri or essence of a person.

To look back at our kōrero whakapapa or historical narratives, we even have accounts of various atua sleeping. The first female being, Hine-ahu-one, was known to have cast a spell over Tāne and her children to cause them to remain sleeping so that she could flee to Rarohenga or the underworld. Then there is the story of Māui who in his search for immortality attempted to kill Hine-nui-te-pō while she slept. These narratives tell us that even atua engaged in sleeping behaviours. The earliest account I could find draws on the fact that it is Tāne who is responsible for putting Te Whānau Marama, the children of light, the sun, the moon and the stars in the sky and along their path. This created the day night cycle that influences not only our human sleep-wake cycles, but is fundamental to the rhythmic cycle of nature.

One of the largest challenges to our sleep is the disconnection between our social construct of time and our natural one. Technology has been great in so many ways but it has enabled our working lives to continue, in some parts of the world, for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Our tinana is designed to detect the smallest amount of light to help regulate our biological functions. Even when our eyes are closed the light receptors in our skin and even in our ears can detect light. We are so sensitive that even the little LED light on your phone or TV can impact the quality of your sleep! We now have the power to ignore the day-night cycle that Tāne created and that our natural biology understands. This has detrimental effects on our health and wellbeing.

Just like eating or exercising, the quality and quantity of sleep that you get each night is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. When we are awake, our brain is constantly receiving and sorting loads of information from what we hear, see, smell, taste and feel. And when we go to sleep, we give our brain a little time out from our daily chaos to rest and recuperate for the next day.

Most of us know what it is like when we don’t get enough sleep. We are less alert, we feel drowsy and irritable, but we now understand that limited sleep can also significantly slow our reaction time, affect coordination and awareness, and impact our creativity and problem solving skills. For this reason, some of the top sports teams and business magnates in the world now utilise sleep specialists to tap in to the benefits of good quality sleep for improving performance.

A good night sleep can help improve memory, recuperate brain function, regulate emotions, repair damaged tissue; support growth, strengthen the immune system, and even help regulate appetite and metabolism. It can be challenging to see the benefits of getting enough good quality sleep, and I think that is why we don’t value sleep as an aspect of wellbeing in our lives. But we surely know what it is like when we don’t get enough!

With the understanding that our tinana was formed in the context of a natural world, paying a bit of attention to the tikanga and behaviors of our tūpuna might help support positive sleep behaviours. When Tāne created Hine-ahu-one under the day-night cycle of Te Whānau Marama, we formed a relationship with the natural world. Reducing our exposure to TV screens, mobile devices and artificial light in the evening will strengthen that connection and improve the quality of our sleep. Also, understanding that our brain takes time out, and that our wairua travels from our body while we sleep, means that we should consider how we wake up in the morning. Maybe a simple change to the sound of our alarm clock is all that is needed to set us up for a more productive day.

Eating well and exercising are two important parts of living a healthy lifestyle, but when we spend a good proportion of our lives sleeping, why not make sure that it strengthens our tinana, hinengaro, and wairua.

Te Miri Rangi (Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa) is a health promoter and the founder of Whakapapa Fridays, a blog dedicated to sharing Māori perspectives on health and wellbeing.

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.