Drawing on the teachings of Ayurveda for Daily Rhythms
The first time I heard of celestial events affecting earthly lives was at the cusp of my transition from neuroscience researcher to full-time yogi. I was meeting with studio owners in preparation to sign a teaching contract, when they said that they would love to have me but couldn’t make any business decisions until Mercury was out of Retrograde. The neuroscientist in me was baffled (seriously?). The studio owners were blissful (yes).
After Mercury was no longer in Retrograde, we signed the contract, and I learned that there
is an unspoken expectation that yoga teachers must believe in astrology. I’m still a skeptic, which is a foundational quality of the scientist in me, but have spent the past few full-time-yogi years keeping tabs on the moon, my moods, and all the ways I can bring more of Earth’s nature into my life. To be honest, I totally missed the special eclipse the other day, because lately, I have been tuned in to one very powerful celestial event: sunrise.
For the past few weeks, I have been naturally waking around 5:30am, walking downstairs from my bedroom into my plant-filled practice space. Instead of turning on the lights, I light candles, incense, and create a playlist to soundscape my morning. (Most days, classical Indian flute. Some days, Hozier. When the moon is biggest, Prince. #mood. I try to keep the volume regular— once, in DC, a very cranky neighbor came up at 6am to complain that she could hear Don’t Stop Believing from her bedroom, which I think would be a nice way to wake up, but she disagreed.)
The first thing I do is drink a glass of water, then move through an hour of yoga asana, kriya, and pranayama, observing my body and mind, clearing them of the past day and preparing for the freshness of a new day. The sky begins to lighten as I finish this hour of practice, which is when I boil water for ginger-turmeric tea. It feels inexplicably correct to begin reading and writing in synchrony with the beginning of the sunlit day. I don’t ever need caffeine, or a nap. I just feel really good all day long, like a miracle.
I have woken up early before, but always with an alarm clock for the express purpose of getting to school on time, or to teach a class at 6:30 or 7am. It’s a completely different energy: sleep; sudden startling sound; somewhat speedy movement; certainly speedy exit onto city streets. After a few years of teaching every morning, I decided that was enough, and turned off my alarm clock forever, teaching only in the evenings and waking whenever I wanted. The freedom was delicious.
And as dreamy as it sounds, I realize now that there is an inertia to living in vacation mode, that I was perhaps resisting something or someone that I could be. I was holding to “truths” that were not particularly mine, like the pervasive idea that is more fun to stay up late, and sleep in, that the time of day is something to fight against, as if we could have more fun if we had more night time. My truth feels different now— it’s really fun to wake up, at dawn, because I love the energy of living a fuller day-lit day.
Ayurveda, which is an ancient Indian science and the oldest extant medical system today, explains this phenomenon in terms of doshas, which are the elements that make up our world as well as our bodies. We can use our knowledge of doshas to balance or enhance the nature of ourselves as well as of time.
The hours of 2am-6am are Vata dosha, characterized by the mobility of the air element. It is best to harness the energy of movement by waking, then creating balance through conscious movement and meditative practices.
From 6am-10am, and 6pm-10pm, Kapha dosha takes over, which is characterized by the groundedness of water and earth elements. This is the energy of inertia, which is why we feel slow to wake up during these hours. It is best to use the morning hours of 6am-10am to work against the slowness, creating heat and movement to get the day going, and work with the slowness in the evening, going to bed by 10pm.
10pm-2am is when Pitta dosha becomes prevalent. This is the element of heat, and fire. It is a great time for digestion, but it is hard to get to sleep during these hours. Pitta is also prevalent from 10am-2pm, which are the best hours to stay still, accomplish good work, and have a good meal. I’ll be on my mat for my Ashtanga practice around 9am, and when I finish, it is close to noon and I cook and eat an Ayurvedic meal, then do a little work before heading out for the afternoon.
Vata comes on again from 2pm-6pm, and these hours are the best times to create balance. I love an evening practice during these times, starting with energizing handstands and big backbends, then cooling and calming with long holds of headstand and shoulder stand.
I first studied these concepts just after I left neuroscience— I bought textbooks and read them cover to cover, highlighted, annotated, blew my own mind. And then I went into a couple years of vacation mode, working with other concepts: how to live without attachment to clock time or technology. I quit social media, pulled back to just 20 minutes a day of screen-time, forgot to change my clocks for day light savings, and managed to keep up with my clients even as I distanced myself from the real world. My intention was to scrub my mind clean, to find solace and solitude in the midst of Washington DC, without leaving my home or students. It worked beautifully.
And then I moved to Manhattan, with the intention of beginning life anew: applying all that I learned in a way that translates to benefit the lives of all those who live and work in the real world. I reinstated social media, remembered to check my email daily, and began replying to text messages within a reasonable time frame. My parents were greatly relieved to know that I was not only nearby, but also demonstrably alive and well (they call me less now that I post on insta daily). My friends were confused as to why they were suddenly seeing me on their phones. I was confused about how to maintain my “online presence” as well as my serenity/sanity.
I revisited my studies of Ayurveda and realized that it was (sadly) time to leave my vacation lifestyle of waking up whenever. The theory is that we humans are a part of the natural world, just as plants and animals are a part of the natural world, which inevitably is tied to the light cycles of sunrise and sunset. When we are in sync with the natural world, we can live with naturally balanced energy levels, which translates to both happiness and productivity.
I had very little desire to begin my day alarmed by a clock, so I just decided I would wake up early, all by myself. It’s weird to wake up in the dark. It’s especially weird when you realize you only own one clock and one phone, the latter of which mostly lives face down in airplane mode. (I am still committed to very little phone time.) I brought my clock upstairs to my bedroom, accidentally waking at 4:45am instead of 5:45am because I had forgotten to set back said clock for day light savings, two months ago.
The clock has been adjusted, as has my body, my energy, and my expectations. It turns out that I love waking in the darkness before dawn, and watching the variations of each day begin. Sometimes, there are clouds blushing in the sky, which always puts me in the mood for reading poetry and writing fiction. Other days, no cloud, and the sky plays with periwinkles and pale lemons before settling on the plain blue we know and love. Those are the days I feel more practical, handing emails and working on non-fiction. Cloudy days are sweet too— I let myself be a little slower, and I wonder if this is how plants and animals feel as well.
What I’ve really learned is how to examine my implicit beliefs about time, and that redirecting deep habits can feel like the fullness of an exhale: there is a letting go of what no longer serves me, to make space for something new within me. It feels like trust. Trust that I can choose to change the details of my life, trust that my body will wake when my mind asks it to, and trust that I, too, am connected with the daily rhythms set by the celestial body we call the sun.