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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?!

Five years ago on this day, 65 Kripalu YTT students stood on our mats inside Shadowbrook and just did our own thing. Our 6:30 a.m. class was termed “personal sadhana,” meaning we were to lead ourselves through our own private practice. Sixty-five of us stood on our mats and breathed, each of us doing a completely different practice. Some started with Breath of Joy, some with hara breaths, some kapalabhati. M did a headstand; a threesome in front went into kapotasana all together, and the girl next to me did a vigorous ashtanga practice.

I started off slow, physically and mentally. Tired. Stiff. Slow. I did several pratapana exercises, but I couldn’t break into my own rhythm. I kept thinking as though I were leading a class–what would I do next? What should follow this, and how do I get there? It was hard not to look around and see what others were doing. Being next to M was good, a challenge, because she was doing the primary series. I kept thinking, “I can do that! I can do padagusthasana and marichyasana A, B, C, D…I can do that, too!” But I didn’t want to do those things then and there. I was tired and stiff and still waking up. I liked my own pace. But..but…I can do that, too! I can do bakasana, seriously! I just don’t want to do it now.

It took time, but I finally found my flow, probably when I did a downdog into low lunge. I lifted my arms in my dancer-like fashion, and finally I felt free. But I learned it’s hard for me to be me. I always have the desire to be someone else. But for the final 30-40 minutes of class, I finally found me. She felt good. I felt good. Hot. Tapas. Me.

***

Expansive. That is the word S uses to describe the outdoors, the vast land of cool air, fiery colors, dark heavy clouds, and sunlight that greets us like a living painting every morning after sadhana. You walk outside the Shadowbrook studio and see it–the outside–right in front of you. It’s hard to just ignore the glass doors and bypass it. Many of us flock outside the minute we put on our shoes at 8:01 or 8:05. We come from a warm, insulated cocoon to this amazing, breathing, revitalizing environment–expansive.

There is a world outside of here–trees glowing from the sun’s peeking smile, a shimmering lake, rolling clouds that look like they could bring rain any minute. We stand there en masse, soaking it in. Breathing it in, even if it stings our lungs. J emerges from inside and yells, “Good morning, Kripalu!!” except with his accent, it comes out Crip-a-loo. It’s daring to be so “loud” outside, but we all smile at his enthusiasm.

***

The morning lesson is focused on anatomy, tendons and ligaments and nerve versus muscular tension. “The word pain is like the word snowflake,” Rudy says. “There are so many kinds of them.” I learn that the anatomical name for our butt (sitz) bones is ischial tuberosities. We review the six movements of the spine. We go over some pratapana (warm-up) exercises and then at the end of class pair up with a partner and lead them through some pratapana, our first stab at practice teaching. Mine does not go so well.

I need to stop acting like someone else and start being me, I write in my journal. I led the practice teach like [one of my yoga teachers from home], like someone I’m not. I need to be me. Stop copying. Stop being uncomfortable in your own skin.

***

The afternoon lesson is centered around the warrior postures, and we break down every move step by step. Tuck tailbone under. Lightly draw in abdomen. Core stabilization.

***

Our afternoon sadhana is led by Grace, and she uses lots of analogies from nature to guide us through the class. During vrksasana, we move our hands through the chakras, starting at the root with our hands in prayer and rising up slowly to our temples. I experience a very powerful, intense energetic reaction to this deliberate movement. This is what many YTTers label as “a Kripalu moment”:

Vibrating right leg–tingling, shaking, throbbing with energy and vitality. This needs to get out! I’m feeling every hair on my arm and chest tingle, rise, like static electricity, like there is a magnet above me. Every single hair, follicle, tingling–the sensation is overwhelming. So much feeling up my arms, rising energy, rising like the tree. Arms danced, fluid, drawn by an aura of energy and color around me, magnet, heavy light heat, hot, hot, palms sweating, heat.

In savasana, feeling the release, the blanket against every body part–soft, comforting, nurturing blanket. Comfort, support, love. Cry, cry, cry. Sitting up in sukhasana, trembling, needed more release, insulation, hug. I feel a gentle, loving touch on my right thigh, like a grandmother’s touch. Lose it. Cry. Blanket. Still trembling on my right, hence the sloppy writing. [Author’s note: My handwriting was awful at this point in the journal entry.]

After class, I find out that three other girls experienced the tingly arm hair thing, too. Grace attributes it to the mega-release of energy we were building up during our opening hara exercises.

***

Namaste: I bow to the light and the shadow within you (because darkness is as important as the light).

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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