You practice yoga and eat your veggies. You even drink your veggies. But still mornings are hazy affairs filled with snooze buttons, caffeine fixes and befuddlement at how anyone can be cheery before 9 a.m. Or maybe nights are fitful and you're hauling around an achy body and scattered brain to work, school and yoga class. If any of this applies to you — even remotely — it's time to ask yourself: "How much am I living in tune with the rhythms of nature?"
"Western medicine says we need six to nine hours of sleep," says Mark Bunn, a Maharishi Ayurveda practitioner and author of "Ancient Wisdom for Modern Health." "But Ayurveda says you can sleep less and get more benefits, in terms of internal cleansing and long-term health, if you sleep at a different time that's in tune with the universal laws of nature."
In the ancient holistic medical system of India called Ayurveda, the hours between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. are considered the nighttime rejuvenation cycle and the most essential for sleep. The body heals, repairs and revitalizes like it can at no other time — that is, if we're asleep, and our stomachs aren't working overtime. Whether or not we're aware of it, Ayurveda says the mind and body go through six, four-hour cycles everyday. Our physiology is designed to do different activities in each of the six cycles, Bunn says. When we ride our natural waves, we experience greater well being. When we work against them, our health can suffer.
"Good energy, vitality and clear thinking is our natural state of functioning," Bunn says. "But 80 percent of modern western science is so confusing or contradictory, it can prevent you from having that functioning."
On the more traditional sleep theory front, research from the National Sleep Foundation says two body systems regulate our need for sleep: sleep/wake homeostasis (sleep drive) and our circadian biological clock. For adults, our strongest sleep drive (based on our body clocks) usually occurs between 2-4 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. The times may vary a little depending upon if you're generally a morning person or a night person. Our bodies go through 90-minute sleep cycles all night where we move from deep non-REM to REM sleep. We tend to have heavier non-REM sleep earlier in the night, often before midnight when night owls haven't even gone to bed. So maybe the Ayurveda recommendations make some sense.
Photo: Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock
Planning your day, Ayurveda-style
Bunn is speaking at the Transcendental Meditation center in San Diego, where people of all ages are riveted. At this point though, the night owls in the room (including this writer) are shifting uncomfortably in chairs, clicking the ends of pens like rebellious children. What if you're not tired at 10 p.m.? Bunn suggests engaging in calming activities in the evening to wind down. Imagine the nighttime pre-light bulb or at least pre-iPhone. What this lifestyle lacks in glamor, he promises, it delivers in wellness.
Just as importantly but often overlooked, Bunn says, your morning is key to a good night's sleep. Here are his Ayurvedic tips on how to knock the "snooze button-itis" blues with the sun:
Morning: Get up with the birds, as close to sunrise as possible. Weather permitting, go outside for some indirect morning light through your eyes. (No sunglasses!) The hours between 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., he says, are also the best for spiritual practice and exercise, such as asana and walking.
Midday: Despite conventional wisdom, Bunn says a few minutes of natural sunlight during the midday boasts great health benefits. It's the only time our body can make vitamin D. Go outside when your shadow is shorter than your body and come inside before your skin turns pink. (Many medical experts will disagree with this advice, saying you can't quantify exactly how much vitamin D you get from the sun and the risk of skin cancer may outweigh the benefits.)
Evening: The second best time to exercise is early evening between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. (A recent study in the Journal of Physiology suggests that afternoons may be the best time to exercise. It may help regulate circadian rhythm, which has an array of effects on health.) Start to wind down stimulating activities at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. and favor relaxing activities like reading and light conversation. Watching the sunset can bring inner quiet.
Night: Drift off to sleep, ideally by 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. at the latest.
As you align with the sun, you'll likely get sleepier in the evening and more alert in the morning. After a few weeks of experimentation, this lifetime night owl is proof positive it's possible. I'm actually waking up at sunrise without the alarm clock (okay, not long after sunrise) and heading out to watch its rays ascend through the trees. Natural light and darkness regulate our sleep-wake cycle, endocrine system, hormones and the neurochemistry of happiness, Bunn says. And who doesn't want that?
This is not to pretend you live in a cave in the Himalayas. No need to stress it, Bunn emphasizes in his upbeat Aussie way. Fun and enjoyment are innate medicines.
"The reality is happy thoughts, happy body. Stressed thoughts, stressed body. Sexy thoughts, you wish," Bunn jokes. "Marharishi [Mahesh Yogi] sums it up by saying 'Make bliss the basis for everything you do.'"
Do what you can and laugh at what you can't. Turn off the computer at night and start your day outside with sun salutations, bowing to that ball of fire on the eastern horizon. Try it out and see if you feel less like a lump of coal when the alarm clock rings and more like a living breathing being emboldened by the world around you. Your body will thank you with a little extra bounce on your morning walk.
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