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Even though the sun has been rising later and later, I’ve been pretty good at sticking to my early-morning walk routine all through the summer. In June, I’d need my sunglasses at 6 a.m.; nowadays, not so much. Still, most days I am able to catch the rising sun gleaming off the underside of airplanes descending into Philadelphia, making all jets look like red-bellied Southwest planes, metallic birds with torsos aglow.

However, not all mornings are ideal for the outdoors, including today. With the remnants of Hurricane Isaac drifting toward the Northeast, today started drizzly and gray, a reasonable and seasonable temperature of 70° but the suffocating humidity ruining any notion of comfort (or straight hair). Mother Nature had decided my morning workout: Today I would dance.

Leaving my sneakers in the porch and remaining barefoot, I lit an orange pumpkin-scented candle, bowed my head to the flame, and began to flow.

It’s hard for me to dance first thing in the morning without some kind of guidance, so I made sure to compile a playlist before diving in. One might think that starting with a high-energy techno or rock beat would help shake off the sleepies, but I always prefer to follow 5Rhythms’ gradual build-up structure of Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness.

The 5Rhythms structure is kind on the body, the way an opulent meal is to the senses: Flowing is a bit like a glass of wine before the appetizer of Staccato, which is then followed by the hearty and chow-down main meaty course of Chaos. Finally, there is dessert, sweet-like-blueberries Lyrical, the prelude to the final course of Stillness, that moment at the table when you’re sipping coffee with eyes half-closed, smacking your lips, and inhaling the memory of your fulfilling meal.

Here’s the music I chose to represent those sensations:

  • Warm-Up: “Damascus,” Conjure One, featuring Chemda
  • Flowing: “To Zion,” Trevor Hall
  • Flowing: “La Guitarra,” B-Tribe
  • Staccato: “Black Velvet,” Bonnie Raitt
  • Staccato/Chaos: “Drumming Song,” Florence and The Machine
  • Chaos: “Greg Didge,” Music Mosaic (from the album Didgeridoo Trance Dance 2)
  • Lyrical: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Carlos Santana, featuring India.Arie
  • Lyrical: “Pequeño Vals,” Marlango
  • Stillness: “Singapore (….),” The Candle Thieves
  • Stillness: “Swelling,” Sarah Jaffe

Most of these are songs I’ve danced to in other classes; I find that once I’ve experienced the music in a class setting, it has more weight, the same way hearing a song in a movie soundtrack makes it 10 times more intriguing. For example, every time I hear “To Zion,” I imagine gliding around the wheat-colored carpet in Kripalu’s Main Hall during Dan Leven’s Shake Your Soul class; the frenetic didgeridoo song brought me to the floor, the wall, my feet, and back on the floor again during a mid-summer night’s Dance from the Inside Out class. I remember waltzing around the spacious floor of Studio 34 with an imaginary dance partner to “Pequeño Vals,” and well, hell, I just love Florence. She had to be in there somewhere.

The sweetest thing about the practice was that after an hour of dancing, the flickering flame of the candle I had lit at the start of the dance was being upstaged by something greater: the sun!

This day—filled with thunderstorms, flash floods, and tornado warnings—had about 60 minutes total of scattered sunlight; I am happy to have experienced at least 5 of them as a sweaty, satisfied mess of a body sprawled out on the living room carpet.

”Dance is important…. It can be a reason for a person to get up in the morning”
~ Jeanguy Saintus

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?!

A short tribute to my favorite part of the morning:

This past week has been a little dizzying, and Bryan and I have been trying to ho-ho-ha-ha-ha our way through a testy George Foreman Grill, a cracked kitchen sink and the installation of a new one (shout-out to my dad, who spent about 2.5 hours squeezed into the bowels of our kitchen cabinetry), and the demise of Bryan’s 10-year-old Hyundai and subsequent purchase of a new (used) car, complete with test-driving vehicles on a windy, rainy Wednesday night in rush-hour traffic.

Whee!

As such, I’ve neglected to pay tribute to the honest-to-gosh things that have recently put a smile on my face. Of note:

Late-Season Tomatoes

As usual, our tomato plants showed promise at the beginning of the season, produced a few good ones (the rest were devoured by squirrels and rabbits), and then withered into nothingness somewhere around late August. We went on vacation in early September, completely neglecting the plants and never once looking back. Yet abandonment makes the vines grow stronger (or perhaps it was the 279 gallons of rain we got this summer), because earlier this month these guys made an appearance on the sagging, droopy plants:

And they were amazing! Firm, red, with very few seeds, and not the least bit watery. Bonus: We got to them before those darn squirrels.

Toddler Time

As I’ve already mentioned, I am in love with my friends Emma and Peter’s daughter, Bella. She is a one-person show, and she is so entertaining that I could see people paying to witness her side-splitting expressions, silly dances, and toddler babble. I recently got to hang out with her all afternoon during her 2nd birthday party, which featured almost zen-like gift unwrapping (surely to turn into monster shreddage-unwrapping by next year), train rides on Thomas the Tank Engine, and the requisite cake time!

(Not pictured: Bella’s grandfather leaning a little too far back in his chair and falling to the garage floor in slow-mo. We all held our breath…and then busted up laughing as he gave the thumbs-up from the ground.) 🙂

Our gift to Bella was Disney related, of course: a baby doll version of Ariel. I brainwashed Bella into acknowledging that it was her most favorite present of the bunch, and it was a success.

Two-year-olds don't quite grasp the concept of "Say Cheese!"

My impression of Bella

She played with the doll all evening, much better than the time as a newborn she broke out into tears when her momma placed the Mickey Mouse plush I purchased in her arms.

She even crafted a seasonally appropriate thank-you card for us:

Indian Summer

The same weekend as Bella’s birthday, Bryan and I went down the shore for the day. The forecast called for temps in the mid-80s at home, so we took the opportunity to experience Ocean City in October. It was surprisingly warm (what ocean breeze?!), so much that Bryan had to buy a pair of shorts on the boardwalk and ditch his jeans.

I was excited to walk on the sand without a beach tag and, since lifeguard season is over, pose contemplatively on the algae-covered jetty.

We intentionally parked several blocks away from the main boardwalk so we could get in plenty of walking time, making us feel a little less guilty for indulging in super-huge slices of pizza and frozen desserts. (It also balanced out all the time we spent sitting in traffic on the drive home, since the rest of the world had the same idea about going to the shore.)

Where one slice is enough!

We played a round of miniature golf and took note of all the migrating monarch butterflies fluttering over the boardwalk wildflowers. I wish I had a picture of the butterflies—they were all over the place!

Ego Boosters

I don’t toot my own horn much, but two personal accomplishments last week really made me beam: (a) I found out that I passed a super-hard exam I took last month that officially makes me an Editor in the Life Sciences (complete with credentials that no one but our little circle of nerdy editors will understand), and (b) a triathlon coach at my gym praised my swimming skills. I told her that I was interested in taking her freestyle swim lessons (intended to improve your technique), and she looked at me and said, “Nah, you don’t need that.” I went on to explain that other than childhood lessons at the Y, I’ve had no other training and was looking to improve my form. Again, she said, “I’ve seen you swim. You’re fine.” Maybe it’s because I feel like my hip slows me down and that it compromises my kick, but few times when I swim do I feel confident about how I’m putting it all (kick, arms, breathing) together. My little pseuo-panic attack back in June wasn’t really boosting my self-esteem either.

But apparently I’m just a smidge above OK when it comes to editing and swimming. It feels awkward, but I guess I’ll give my ego horn a little ::toot toot::

Nature Walks

Every morning during my walks through the park, I see the changing leaves, curious deer, and sometimes even a wild turkey or four. This will be a separate post to come, though. Too much excitement to cover in this already overloaded post!

OK, so it’s become evident that my morning routine is a bit extensive. As my husband noted the other night as I set my alarm clock:

Me: I’m sleeping in tomorrow!

Bryan: So, you’re getting up at what, 5:45?

Me: 6!

Bryan: Well, I guess you won’t be able to do all 17 of your morning exercises then.

And I didn’t. That morning, I had time for one set of the 6 movements of the spine, a downdog or two, and finally–pranayama.

Pranayama is the practice of breathwork. It’s breathing but with control, focus, and mindfulness. Yes, we breathe involuntarily all day, but when you take a few moments to do nothing but concentrate on your inhalations and exhalations, the benefits can be felt almost immediately. A greater sense of calm. More energy. Vitality. Like you’re really alive, that you are not numb to the world around you. You feel. After all, inhalations increase sensation.

During my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, we did A LOT of pranayama. It was one of foundations of the style and was incorporated into every class. I think I breathed more during that month than I did the 26 years of my life leading up to the program. The results were intense, especially after one session where we did nothing but different styles of pranayama for an hour and a half. I’m 99% sure I floated out of the classroom that day. I left Kripalu with a new appreciation for the practice and a fondness for oxygen.

One of my favorite pranayama techniques is nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing (also called “anulom vilom” at Kripalu). I try to do it every morning, because it focuses my mind and helps clear both nasal passages.

Most people sit cross-legged; I sit in hero with a blanket between my butt and feet.

The right hand (active hand) goes into Vishnu mudra: index and middle fingers tucked into palm; thumb will close off right nostril; ring finger and pinky, acting as a unit, will close off the left nostril. The left hand (resting hand) can rest gently on your knee or lap.

1. Gently press right nostril shut with thumb. Inhale slowly through left nostril.

2. Close off left nostril with ring/pinky fingers and exhale slowly through right nostril.

3. Keep right nostril open, inhaling slowly.

4. Shut off right nostril and exhale through left.

5. Keep left nostril open, inhaling.

6. Close off left nostril and exhale through right.

So on and so forth. There are several variations of this technique, including adjusting the ratio of inhalation/exhalation counts, retaining your breath at the top of every inhale and bottom of every exhale for a few moments, breathing only through one nostril, so on and so forth. I usually stick to the basics for about 5 minutes. One thing I’ve heard in kundalini classes is that finishing your last exhalation through the left nostril (lunar side) will promote peace and calmness, whereas ending with an exhale through the right nostril (solar side) will promote increased energy; hence, the side I finish on in the mornings!

Another note: You don’t need to be sitting peacefully on a yoga mat or blanket to reap the benefits of nadi shodhana. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is a great time and place to do this, and you may arrive at your destination with blood pressure that’s not off the charts!

My final pranayama of the morning is kapalabhati breath. This is very intense, rapid breathing that involves a quick, involuntary inhalation through the nose followed by a sharp exhalation through the nose while simultaneously contracting the belly. It’s also called “Breath of Fire,” and rightfully so. It will warm you up in seconds! It’s a bit tricky to teach through words and it usually takes people a few tries to get it right. When executed properly, you won’t even be aware of your inhalations, and during your exhalations, your belly will look like it’s being punched by an invisible hand.

Here’s one of my favorite add-ons to kapalabhati, which I learned at Kripalu. It makes a juicer practice even juicier!

After your final exhalation, continue drawing out the exhale as you bend your upper half over your legs. Open your mouth and expel as much air as possible, like you’re vomiting oxygen/carbon dioxide.

Keeping the body empty of air, roll up through the spine and retain the exhale while sitting peacefully. When done correctly (and it takes a few tries), you’ll feel a “vacuum” effect from the belly up through the throat. Keep your pelvic floor engaged and lifted, the belly pulled in, and a slight lock in the throat (this throat lock is called jalandhara bandha).

Stay in this exhalation retention for as long as you can, concentrating on the belly as your mental focal point. Learn how to respond, not react to the desire to inhale. Panic mode will set in quickly, but the lesson is to work beyond the initial “OMG I’m gonna diiiie!” reaction. You will not die, and you may even find that moving beyond that initial fear will feel quite empowering and peaceful.

When the time is right, take a deep inhale through the nose…but only inhale to 2/3 of your capacity, so you’re not stuffed to the brim with air. At this time, shift your focus to the third eye (the space between your eyes, but just a hair higher) and retain the partial inhalation, allowing the oxygen to swirl throughout your body, feeling it dance from your head to your toes. I always feel a gentle, warm “hum” in my head at this point and a faint golden glowing sensation between my eyes, like all the rest of the world has shut off and I am just here. I tend to hold my hands out, palms up during this part, because I feel open to receiving energy.

Again, hold this inhalation until it’s absolutely necessary to finish the other 1/3 and then exhale into normal breathing. I do this sequence about three times and then finally–FINALLY!–end my 47538923893-step morning routine with a big, fat Om!

As I wrote in this post, my morning routine starts with the 6 movements of the spine…but it doesn’t end there!

What I’m finding is that starting my day with those movements really gets me in touch with my body and gently coaxes me into other movement, such as yoga, dance, pranayama, or meditation. When I’m pressed for time, I stick with the “Big 6”; when I have more flexibility in the mornings (which I usually do, because I wake up early specifically to do these kinds of things), I listen to my body and see what it wants to do next.

Time and time again, I return to the good ol’ seated sun salutation sequence, introduced to me by one of my very first yoga teachers. I love traditional sun salutes as well, but sometimes in the morning my hamstrings and hips just aren’t ready to bend down from a standing position.

Here, you start in dandasana and raise your arms on an inhalation, just as you would in a traditional sun salute.

Next, leading with your heart, fold your upper body over the legs into a simplified paschimottanasana as you exhale. Don’t feel the need to grip your toes or ankles or whatever. Just let the hands fall naturally, without hunching the back. Stay here for 2 or 3 deep breaths.

These photos were taken in the evening, hence the greater flexibility; in the morning, my hands are usually somewhere on my shins.

Inhale, and come up the way you came, arms overhead. Place hands in prayer position and draw them down to heart. Repeat this modified sun salutation 2 more times.

After the third set, proceed as though you are going into a fourth salute, but when you lower down–instead of resting in paschimottanasana–take hold of your right foot, drag it up near your knee, and cross it over the left leg into matsyendrasana. Place your right arm behind you, raise left arm overhead on inhale, and on exhale cross left arm over right knee into a gentle twist.

Take several breaths here, making micro-movements into the twist. Be sure to start the twist from your core and work your up; don’t just crank your head and neck to one side!

After exhaling out of the twist, uncross leg and slide right foot to a spot on the floor between your foot and knee. Place both arms behind you, fingers facing toward body, and, pressing into the floor with both your hands and feet, lift up into a modified upward plank pose, purvottanasana.

Not the best form; my neck and shoulders were very creaky the day I did this! (Also, again with the obvious hypermobile elbow. Ewwww.)

Drop you head back slightly if you wish and let your mouth fall open to release any tension. Take a deep inhale, and on exhalation, bend arms and lower yourself back to the ground, extending right foot out to meet the left, both legs straight.

Now, repeat the matsyendrasana/purvottanasana sequence on the other side.

When complete, return to Step 1 and do one last seated sun salute into paschimottanasana.

Do you feel any different in this pose than when you first started? Do you sense slightly more flexibility or more warmth?

I almost always sink just a little deeper at the end of this sequence and feel a little looser in my hamstrings. The focus on inhalations and exhalations calms my mind and primes me for some breathwork.

Stay tuned for a description of the final part of my morning movement–pranayama!

This past year I’ve really struggled with establishing a solid morning routine. Between waking up and leaving the house for work–with a shower/hair/makeup routine somewhere in the middle–I’ve experimented with doing hip-strengthening PT exercises, practicing therapeutic yoga DVDs, sitting in meditation for at least 10 minutes, committing to 10 sun salutations (5 A, 5 B), reading books while walking around the park, meditating with alternating mudras, and dancing around the living room in my pajamas.

Regardless of which activity I choose, the key is that I warm up as soon as I wake up. Even on my wedding day more than 7 years ago, I woke up at 6 a.m. and, before I headed off to the hairdresser, rolled around in my underwear, stretching and loosening up my limbs. I don’t consider myself “creaky” yet, but as I move into my 30s I am more aware of that car-in-the-winter feel that sets in overnight. Starting a day without stretching is like heading off to work without brushing my teeth–terribly icky and not recommended.

After doing the Kripalu yoga video the other day and being reacquainted with pratapana (Kripalu’s version of “warming up”), I was also reminded about the importance of going through the 6 movements of the spine before engaging in any other movement. The spine is that what holds us all together, and giving it the proper warm up will enable all other limbs to kick in gear.

The great thing about these movements is that they can be adapted for people comfortable being on the floor, those who wish to stay seated, and for others who prefer standing. Whatever variation I choose, I do about 5 to 10 of each movement.

Seated variation (can be done in easy/hero pose or in a sturdy chair)

Part A. Extension/flexion

Spinal extension

Spinal flexion

 Part B. Lateral (side-to-side) movement

A beautiful C to one side...

...and on the other.

Part C. Twists

Wring it out, like a wet sponge!

Other side, different angle (from which you can see the severity of my hypermobile elbow joints).

Floor variation (for those comfortable on hands and knees)

Part A. Extension/flexion

The well-known "cat" pose

...followed by dog/cow pose.

Part B. Lateral movement

Keeping the spine in one plane, curve head, shoulders, spine, and hips into a "C" on one side

...and then the other. Try not to raise the head to look back at hips.

Part C. Twists

Slide arm under chest while turning head in that direction. No need to settle in this warm-up; I just let my head tap the floor and draw up to move to other side.

Be sure to keep hips over knees!

Standing variation (great for adding hara breaths)

Part A. Extension/flexion

Extend up to sky, slight backbend, chest lifted. (inhale)

Drop down, swinging arms behind hips. Give a big sigh on the descent! (exhale-HA!)

Part B. Lateral movement

Bend to one side, letting that arms slide down leg. Draw other arm up to armpit, like a monkey. Hara breath can be done during the drop; inhale while drawing back up to center.

Increase the speed/breath to create more heat.

Part C. Twists

Imagine your arms are empty coatsleeves. Gently swing them back and forth as you twist side to side, one wrapping in front of body, the other behind. Exhale HA! at final point of twist; inhale while swinging back through center.

I always picture myself as a washing machine agitator during this movement.

Since last week, I’ve been mindful of starting each morning with those 6 movements, and the end results feel pretty darn good. Most mornings I do all three sets, starting with the floor exercises and working my way up to standing. Incorporating the deep hara breaths really gets things warmed up and opens up my chest, throat, nose, and mouth, clearing the path for the pranayama practice that follows. The spinal movements open up the space between each vertabra, thus opening the pathways for greater energy/prana flow.

I’ll show you the remainder of my morning routine in a future post. Until then, remember to brush your teeth, wash your face, and move your spine!

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!

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