As I wrote about late last year, for me, “waking up” is more of an event than a simple act of getting out of bed with the alarm clock.

I had one hell of a routine when I last wrote, and—as usual—things have changed a bit. What is good for me in October isn’t necessarily going to do the same for me in May, so I’m becoming more comfortable adapting to the weather, my passions at the moment, what my body is asking for.

Morning is a very sacred time for me, and as difficult as it is some days to adhere to my alarm’s 5:15 call, I really do appreciate and value witnessing the world in its early-morning quiet and stillness, before the car engines fire, the school buses groan, and the chaos of the morning commute drowns out the underlying hum of the earth.

When my alarm goes off at 5:15, I head downstairs, turn on our living room lamp at its lowest setting (bright light first thing in the morning is too harsh!), use the bathroom, and brush my teeth, the buzz of my electric toothbrush rather loud in an otherwise quiet room. My next stop is the kitchen, where I fill a glass with warm water, squeeze into it a slice of lemon, and take long gulps while peering out the kitchen window, observing how quickly or slowly the tree branches and leaves are dancing (to gauge the wind), the color of the sky and the phase of the moon, and—when I hear the familiar roar coming from the east—the make and model of the airplanes that fly over our roof on their way into Philadelphia.

I move to the living room floor, allowing my sacrum the freedom to pop into place as I roll around on the carpet like a cat, pressing my muscles into my foam roller and relieving the tension built up from either swimming, dancing, or walking the night before. The spine gets attention first, my thoracic region releasing into the dense foam, my heart pressing toward the ceiling. Next I focus on the gluteal muscles, the iliotibial band, and finally my calves, which bear the brunt of all my dancing and prancing.

Time for some physical therapy exercises for my hip, usually pelvis drops (pressing my lower back into the ground as though squashing a grape) and the quadruped (on hands and knees, extending opposite arm and leg).

The next area of focus is the neck. Ever since reading this article from the Annals of Internal Medicine about how daily home exercises are more effective than medication for neck pain, I’ve been using the study’s home exercise protocol as a guide for my morning routine (available for free in the Supplement section). I’ve never had debilitating neck pain, but I am prone to stiffness and soreness whenever stress kicks in (who isn’t?). I’ve found that doing these exercises every morning has dramatically reduced such tension.

The neck exercises don’t take long, and from there I move down to my spine, doing the seated spinal exercises I described in this post.

Once my spinal column is open and ready for business, I’m ready to let in some oxygen. Still seated, I do a few rounds of alternate-nostril breathing. This particular pranayama is so soothing, and doing it consistently makes for an easy segue into meditation. After my last exhale, I breathe regularly, focusing on my third eye. Meditation begins. It never really extends beyond five minutes, but that’s enough for now. It gives me a sense of peace.

After sitting for some time, I now gently rise to my feet, staying bent over in a rag-doll forward bend, maybe doing a relaxed downdog, gradually rising vertebra by vertebra. Standing. Ahhhhhh.

Onto some quick standing exercises before practicing the tai chi moves learned from my 10-week series. I usually do the form (the portion I know, anyway) twice before challenging my brain and repeating it in the opposite direction (starting by stepping out to the right rather than the left).

At this point comes the fork in the road. I am feeling rather centered, balanced, and open. Do I take this feeling outdoors for a walk and share it with the trees, the sidewalk, the chirping birds, or do I contain it and use it for artistic expression, putting on some music and dancing myself into complete wakefulness?

If I walk, I never take my iPod. The natural soundtrack of the early morning is too entrancing to mask it with music or a podcast. In the winter, it is absolute silence, a dark contemplative quiet where the snap of a twig under my foot sounds like a firecracker and a lone FedEx cargo jet flying overhead sounds like the Space Shuttle preparing to land on the moon. At this time of year, spring, there are more sounds (birds chirping, mostly), but at the 6 a.m. hour not yet “noise.” Walking at this time of the day is like watching a painter apply the first brushstrokes to a canvas, a stroke here, a color there, still creating, still imagining, still in development. It is the beginning of a piece of art, and soon the canvas will fill up with intensity, but for now it is mostly white space with so much room for expansion.

If I choose instead to dance, I try to follow a 5Rhythms Wave, starting with flowing music and gradually increasing speed and tempo. Great things emerge when I start slowly, and even if I have the energy to immediately bust out into Chaos, the Chaos that develops after it has time to simmer in Flowing and Staccato is always richer (and less harsh on my body). One time I danced two songs as part of Flowing and then returned to those same songs later—after Staccato and Chaos—for Lyrical and Stillness. I danced them in an entirely new way, my body fully awake to their melodies and meanings. Dancing like this in the morning can be just as refreshing—if not more—as a vigorous walk outside among the rising sun, chirping birds, and cool breeze.

At this point, I am feeling juicy, alert, alive. With the help of some coffee, a shower, and a dose of reality (listening to NPR), I think I am finally done “waking up.”

Wake up time = 5:15. Out the door for work = 8:10 a.m.
Anyone out there have a morning routine longer than 3 hours?!

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