There’s been a fair amount of ruminations lately about that unique time before and around dawn, and I wonder if it has something to do with the equinox and the changing of seasons. Just this morning, Mysore SF posted this Rumi poem on its Facebook page:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
A friend of mine in Ohio noted her reflections on finally getting back to the mat today. And the AY: A2 blog recently posted “How to get up for yoga, again,” an update to the shala’s popular 2011 post, “How to wake up for yoga.” Earlier in September, Claudia Yoga posted “7 morning habits for a great yoga practice,” which includes how she deals with social media — what can be a beast lurking in the wee hours of the morning.
I thought about practicing at home in the mornings for years but didn’t manage to actually start trying in earnest until 2011 (“How to wake up for yoga,” along with support and encouragement from my teacher, helped me tremendously). The first months were the hardest, and just this August, I started in on my second year of practicing Ashtanga yoga six days a week. During this relatively short amount of time, I’ve felt tremendous benefits from practicing early in the morning (and I’ve felt the difference between practicing in the morning versus the evening).
So I too have been thinking a lot about how to bridge that gap of getting up early, because I wonder what it would have taken Rose circa 2009 — the one who slept around 2 a.m. every night and didn’t ever think she had the chops to change — to be able to start (starting, for me, was the hardest part).
Below are 21 tips for starting. They’re a mix of things I learned the hard way, advice I received from my teacher and tips from other practitioners.
Will they work for you? Only experimentation will tell.
Don’t expect a yummy physical practice . . .
Because I had practiced for years in the evenings, I had to recalibrate my expectations about how a practice physically feels. I had to accept that when I practice in the morning, my body is cold and stiff. A pretty cool thing happened over the course of a few short months, however: I started minding less and less. The “I’m a natural evening practitioner” mantra I had chanted for so many years had been a myth that I created, bought into, and perpetuated by making others believe it as well. That detachment from needing my body to feel supple led to a greater sense of equanimity with the body I happened to have for that practice, and that ability to find equanimity started extending to other things. In becoming more detached from desiring that yummy factor I was accustomed to from the physical practice, I was working through a process that also helped me clean out my emotional closets.
. . . but acquire a taste for a delicious inner practice.
I fell in love with this description of pratyhara from the Insideowl blog when I first read it:
Sense withdrawal is not the self-denial we post-Puritans can misunderstand it to be, but a ripening ecstasy of reversing the ever-seeking senses to the inside. Imagine you had two ear trumpets, and two eye searchlights, and so on, so that you could suck your perception inside your bodymind and delight in the yoga of your subtle and subtler selves.
If you can tap into the warm, bright and stimulating carnival of your inner spaces, the room around you may start to matter less to you. Turning your gaze inward won’t happen overnight, but you can help the process along by not staying fixated on the external. Easier said than done, I know, which is why there are 19 more tips to go.
Unless you live in a truly tropical climate, invest in a space heater if you are practicing at home.
This simple device will save you! I got one of those tall ones that can oscillate if needed, and it cost about $70. It was $70 of the best dollars I spent in 2011.
If you practice at home on carpet, invest in a LifeBoard.
This gives you one less reason to resist practicing at home (because, let’s face it, unless you have a beautiful yoga room at home, it’s so much nicer to practice at a dedicated yoga studio).
Determine a Plan B for the snooze button — and commit to it the night before.
We all love our mats, but we love our beds too. The problem is that a bed — and particularly the pillows on a bed — transform overnight: everything gets softer, plusher and more inviting. So not only do you have to find an alternative to hitting the snooze button, you have to commit to it before you go to bed. Your Plan B might be that when the alarm goes off, you will jump in the shower before you give yourself the chance to hit snooze and fall back into your super comfortable bed.
Start hydrating the night before your practice.
Ashtangis should be well-hydrated anyway, but I found that I had to make a special effort to hydrate at night in order to start a consistent morning practice. (The reason being that one of the big deterrents for me in going from practicing in the evening to practicing in the morning is that I usually wake up feeling totally parched.) What has worked for me: drinking a juice-box-sized coconut water before bed, drinking another one when I wake up, and generally consuming more liquids throughout the day.
On that note, start thinking in terms of your practice starting the night before.
After a year of practicing six days a week and mostly in the morning — but not super early morning — I realized that to get my practice to the next level, I would need to start waking up earlier. Otherwise, I would forever be confined to less-than-full-primary-series practices. In terms of time, the gap between 6:45 a.m. to 5:45 a.m. isn’t huge, but experientially, it felt as insurmountable as trying to leap across an ocean. The advice from my teacher, Angela Jamison, to start thinking in terms of your practice starting the night before was instrumental in taking that leap. Key to that was thinking about my digestive patterns. Because of my schedule, I normally eat dinner pretty late — sometimes as late as 9:30 or 10 p.m. What has been working for me to wake up in that magical pre-dawn space is to eat no later than 8:30 p.m., and to eat a light dinner (“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” has been a good guideline for me). Experiment, figure out what works best for you digestively, and roll with that as your schedule.
Consume sleepiness . . .
I drink a little fennel tea before bed, and it’s been lovely. Maybe herbal melatonin is your preferred boost of ZZZs? Perhaps it’s skullcap? (I can’t speak to the latter two, but see the comments found here.)
. . . instead of consuming alcohol.
I know, I know. But it’s just really quite hard to train yourself to wake up super early if you drink the night before, even if it’s a glass of your preferred pinot noir with dinner. Perhaps try it out for a couple of weeks and see if you feel a difference?
Set up everything — and I mean everything — the night before.
If your mornings are typically rushed affairs like mine are, even 5 or 10 minutes can make a big difference. I set out my clothes ahead of time and I set up the coffee pot so that all I have to do is hit start when I get up (see coffee tip below). This prevents an opening to start procrastinating in the morning.
Consider a few sips of coffee before practice.
Pattabhi Jois is known for saying, “no coffee, no prana.” I resisted the idea of drinking coffee before practice because I didn’t want to depend on it and because I didn’t have time to make coffee before practice. But now that I’m waking up earlier, I’ve found lately that a few sips has helped me feel warmer and move with a little more oomph. Coffee can dehydrate me, though, so that’s another reason why it’s so important to start hydrating the night before. And by all means, if you can do this without coffee, go for it. But since we’re discussing ways to help get a practice up and running, I think it’s worth a consideration.
Think about whether you need some rituals to set your space . . .
A few practitioners I know have morning rituals that include different things — for instance, lighting a candle, burning incense, or dedicating that morning’s practice to someone. For some, it’s reading. Claudia Azula says that for her, “Good yoga literature helps me get inspired in the morning . . .” Good literature would totally derail my morning — I would never get to work on time. Thinking about rituals is a good reminder that so much of this stuff is personal — and if it works for you, roll with it! If it doesn’t, drop it.
.. . . and also think about what you should avoid doing in the morning.
Unless I know my work day will absolutely blow up if I don’t address an email right when I get up, I don’t allow myself to get within 10 feet of either of my email inboxes, my Twitter feed or my Facebook page, because if I do, I’ve just lost 20 – 30 minutes of my morning. I force myself to stay clear from the types of distractions that are delivered through mobile devices and laptops because it makes for a less anxiety-ridden practice if I am not worrying about all the work-related things I will need to think about beginning in two hours.
Take a hot shower before practice.
On super cold days when your mettle is still being strengthened, a hot shower can be the perfect external support. Just don’t stay too long and give yourself another space to procrastinate in.
Ramp it up if you have to.
If you are ready to start practicing six days a week right off the bat, awesome! For most of us, it’s hard to go from a sporadic practice to practicing six mornings a week at home, in the cold and dark. Consider committing to practicing three mornings a week at first. Commit, and don’t veer. Enjoy the four days off you have, and do what you need to do to get on the mat those three days. Over the time, the practice might just naturally coax you into practicing additional days a week . . .
Don’t set unreasonable goals — and practice for however much time you have.
My teacher told me to get to the mat, and practice in the time I have — and it was the single most important thing for me to hear. At the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence this year, Nancy Gilgoff said during one panel discussion about practicing six days a week: “Sometimes your practice may be 15 minutes . . .” See the above tip: I truly believe that over time, the practice will naturally help you find a way to lengthen your time on the mat. In my first year of practice, when I was trying to buy a house, plan a wedding, teach yoga, blog and hold down a deadline-driven full-time job, there were days when I literally was running out of time. The way I gauged a practice was: Did I practice long enough to have to invest something of myself? And did I practice long enough to find a challenge? Practicing for 15 minutes can give you that — investing time that you would have rather been checking to-do items off your list, for instance. As for challenge — well damn, the hardest part of an early morning practice for me is often the sun salutations, when I might be questioning why I am doing this as I body seems to creak with every bend. The good news? It gets easier. It really does.
Tell your friends and family about what you’re trying to do.
Hopefully, you have supportive friends and family members. Explain what you’re trying to do. They’re on your side, so if they know how important this is to you, they can start to help support your practice in ways large and small (it might be as simple as moving up the time of a dinner date so that you’re not sleeping so late).
Find a little group of yogis to help keep yourself accountable
You don’t have to start your own online Way-Before-Breakfast Club like a small group of us did back in August, but if you can find even a couple of yogis to start this journey with you, the camaraderie, support and feedback can be invaluable. You can keep yourself accountable with local yogis, or, if you can’t find any local yogis, we’re living during such an expansive and global world these days — find a couple yogis who live halfway around the world if that’s what ends up working best. Our group of a dozen currently has members from four countries.
Don’t lose sight of your what you’re doing this for . . .
The other week, I overhead a little boy ask his father who had just finished practicing yoga, “Why do you do yoga?” His dad answered simply, “Because it makes me feel better.” You are trying to practice more consistently because yoga first and foremost makes you feel better, right?
. . . and have a little faith too.
This practice is so evidence-based. As an Ashtanga yoga practitioner, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to take anything on faith. Instead, you get to try something out and see for yourself how it feels. But I think it helps to have a little faith in the idea that the practice changes if you can find it consistently. (I think we can practice without attachment to a result while still practicing with faith in transformation.) The traditional Ashtanga method is designed in a very particular way, and the effects build — exponentially, it feels sometimes to me – over time. So this is a rare moment when I will say to take my word — and the word of I don’t know how many ashtangis all around the world — who have experienced the difference between practicing randomly all over the map versus practicing consistently six days a week. During those dark mornings when you’re sleepy and stumbling over your two left feet, when you’re cold and crabby and thinking you should just head back to bed, know that it is all worth it. And have faith that you are not alone: There are practitioners all over the world doing the exact same thing, probably feeling lots of the same things you’re feeling.
‘Alchemize your word.’
I love this phrase, and I think of this advice as the yogic translation of Nike’s “Just do it” edict for athletes. The Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor blog began the recent essay about how to wake up for yoga with the advice to “alchemize your word”:
What’s the value of your word? If you say you’re going to do something, is that an ironclad statement? Is it as good as a 50/50 bet? Is your word more like hot air? If you decide strongly that you are going to be a woman or man of your word, then you can use the golden quality of that word to hold yourself to your own intentions.
If you’re a list type of person, here’s a summary:
- Don’t expect a yummy physical practice . . .
- . . . but acquire a taste for a delicious inner practice.
- Unless you live in a truly tropical climate, invest in a space heater if you are practicing at home.
- If you practice at home on carpet, invest in a LifeBoard.
- Determine a Plan B for the snooze button — and commit to it the night before.
- Start hydrating the night before your practice.
- On that note, start thinking in terms of your practice starting the night before.
- Consume sleepiness . . .
- . . . instead of consuming alcohol.
- Set up everything — and I mean everything — the night before.
- Consider a few sips of coffee before practice.
- Think about whether you need some rituals to set your space . . .
- .. . . and also think about what you should avoid doing in the morning.
- Take a hot shower before practice.
- Ramp it up if you have to.
- Don’t set unreasonable goals — and practice for however much time you have.
- Tell your friends and family about what you’re trying to do.
- Find a little group of yogis to help keep yourself accountable
- Don’t lose sight of your what you’re doing this for . . .
- . . . and have a little faith too.
- ‘Alchemize your word.’
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