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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?!
Me: I’m sleeping in tomorrow!
Bryan: So, you’re getting up at what, 5:45?
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!
My coworker/5Rhythms classmate left yesterday for a yoga nidra workshop at Kripalu. A whole week of savasana…now that’s a relaxing retreat!
Instead of being insanely jealous about her vacation, I decided to bring a little bit of Kripalu into my own Sunday morning. About a week ago, Kripalu uploaded a video of a full-length moderate yoga class to its YouTube channel. This was a wonderful surprise, because up until then most of the videos were just short yoga breaks or interviews with staff/experts. This class was an hour long; led by one of Kripalu’s leading men, Devarshi (Steven Hartman); and had all the elements of an authentic Kripalu yoga class offered at the actual center. I spread out my yoga mat on the living room floor, opened the blinds to let in the sunlight, and began.
The class started with one of my favorite pranayama exercises: alternate nostril breath. Sadly, not many classes I attend at home dedicate time solely to breathwork, so I was thrilled to sit and focus on my inhalations and exhalations. I honestly believe that starting practice with focused breathing brings everything to center and really gets the mind, body, and spirit connected before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a Kripalu yoga class that doesn’t start with pranayama, and some end with it as well!
Many of the pratapana (warm-up) movements involved hara breaths, which means taking deep inhalations through the nose and strong, forceful exhalations through the mouth, while saying “Ha!” We did this during the “empty coat sleeves” twist, monkey arms side bends, and while sweeping the arms overhead (inhale) and then collapsing down (Ha!). The breath, the vocals, and the invigorating movement warmed me up instantaneously, and I felt a nice, warm juiced-up vibe flowing within me. At one point, I even remember thinking, “Man, I feel good!”
Another Kripalu trademark is long posture holds, which made its appearance during a simple standing position. Devarshi instructed us to hold our arms to the side in a T, palms facing out. Sounds simple, right? But then we held it. And held it. And continued holding our arms out. We made small circles going one way. Small circle in the other direction. Devarshi encouraged us to think positive thoughts (“My arms are strong!”) rather than the negative thoughts that first come to mind (“This is haarrrrddd!”). We breathed through it, relaxing and smiling into the stretch. There is such a fine line between wanting to give up and finally getting over that mental block of a hump and being OK with the warm sensations running through the chest, shoulders, arms, and hands, maybe actually enjoying it.
One of my favorite postures of the practice turned out to be one of most dreaded poses: utkatasana, chair pose. But the way Devarshi eased us into it–first just a slight bend at the knee, add a little bounce, arms loose, wrists relaxed–felt natural and tolerable. The best part was when he adding a little “snap” to the pose, guiding us to snap our fingers and sway our hips side to side, like a number in a Bob Fosse show. Holy crap, was I actually enjoying this rather long hold of utkatasana?!
There were no fancy poses, not even a single downdog, but the sequencing, languaging, and contemplative/meditative nature of the Kripalu practice made me remember why I trained in this style in the first place and that a yoga practice doesn’t need 25 sun salutations to feel “real.” After savasana, an om, and a triple shanti, Devarshi closed the class with a “jai bhagwan,” which totally brought a smile to my lips because it reminded me of every single yoga class at Kripalu, where “jai bhagwan” totally trumps “namaste.”
So if you’re ever stuck at home and don’t have time for a studio class, I wholeheartedly recommended this little gem of a YouTube video, especially if you’re familiar with the Kripalu style or curious about what a typical Kripalu class is like. The only thing missing was being able to roll up my mat; step outside for a deep breath of that cool, crisp Berkshire Mountain air; and enjoy my silent breakfast surrounded by other blissed-out yogis.
Instead, I poured my morning coffee in the black Kripalu mug that got me through all 28 days of training and enjoyed my breakfast next to the sunflowers from this weekend’s farmers market. Not quite a mountain retreat but I felt just a little closer to home.