In the Midwest, where I live, all the signs of autumn abound—the leaves are popping in gorgeous ways and the days feel cool, crisp and clean. It’s an undeniably beautiful, cozy time of year. This changing of the seasons can also be a particularly challenging period for those of us who set aside early mornings as the time that we roll out our yoga mats to try to kindle that sacred fire. As a self-avowed night owl who has had to change her ways to find a six-day-a-week morning Ashtanga yoga practice, I’ve learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to becoming an early riser. Below are 21 tips for starting a morning yoga practice. They’re a mix of things I learned the hard way, advice I received from my teacher and tips from other practitioners. Will they work for you? Only a little experimentation can determine that.
1. Don’t expect a yummy physical practice…
Because I had practiced for years in the evenings, I had to recalibrate my expectations about how a practice physically feels. I had to accept that when I practice in the morning, my body is cold and stiff. A pretty cool thing happened over the course of a few short months, I started minding less and less. The “I’m a natural evening practitioner” mantra I had chanted for so many years had been a myth that I created, bought into and perpetuated by making others believe it as well. That detachment from needing my body to feel supple led to a greater sense of equanimity with the body I happened to have for that practice, and that ability to find equanimity started extending to other things. In becoming more detached from desiring that yummy factor I was accustomed to from the physical practice, I was working through a process that also helped me clean out my emotional closets.
2. …Instead acquire a taste for a delicious inner practice
“Sense withdrawal is not the self-denial we post-Puritans can misunderstand it to be, but a ripening ecstasy of reversing the ever-seeking senses to the inside. Imagine you had two ear trumpets and two eye searchlights, and so on, so that you could suck your perception inside your ‘bodymind’ and delight in the yoga of your subtle and subtler selves.”
If you can tap into the warm, bright and stimulating carnival of your inner spaces, the room around you may start to matter less. Turning your gaze inward won’t happen overnight, but you can help the process along by not staying fixated on the external. Easier said than done, I know, which is why there are 19 more tips to go.
3. Invest in a space heater if you are practicing at home.
This simple device will save you. I got one of those tall ones that can oscillate if needed and it cost about 70 dollars. It was 70 of the best dollars I spent in 2011.
4. If you practice at home on carpet, find a secure, skid-free surface to place under your mat.
I have yet to meet a yogi who enjoys practicing on carpet—it’s a surface that just gives way too much. I bought the LifeBoard for under 100 dollars online and while it’s an investment, it has been well worth it for me because it gives me one less reason to resist practicing at home.
5. Determine a Plan B for the snooze button—and commit to it the night before.
We all love our mats but we love our beds too. The problem is that a bed—and particularly the pillows on a bed—transform overnight; everything gets softer, plusher and more inviting. So not only do you have to find an alternative to hitting the snooze button, you have to commit to it before you go to bed. Your Plan B might be that when the alarm goes off, you will jump in the shower before you give yourself the chance to hit snooze and fall back into your comfortable bed.
6. Start hydrating the night before your practice.
Yogis should be well-hydrated anyway, but I found that I had to make a special effort to hydrate at night in order to start a consistent morning practice. One of the reasons why I prefer practicing in the evening to practicing in the morning is that I usually wake up feeling totally parched. What has worked for me is drinking a juice-box-sized coconut water before bed, drinking another one when I wake up and generally consuming more liquids throughout the day.
7. On that note, start thinking in terms of your practice starting the night before.
After a year of practicing six days a week and mostly in the morning—but not super early morning—I realized that to get my practice to the next level, I would need to start waking up earlier. Otherwise, I would forever be confined to abbreviated practices. In terms of time, the gap between 6:45 a.m. and 5:45 a.m. isn’t huge, but it felt as insurmountable as trying to leap across an ocean. The advice from my teacher, Angela Jamison, to start thinking in terms of my practice starting the night before was instrumental in taking that leap. Key to that was thinking about my digestive patterns. Because of my schedule, I normally eat dinner pretty late—sometimes as late as 9:30 or 10 p.m. What has been working for me to wake up in that magical pre-dawn space is to eat no later than 8:30 p.m. and to eat a light dinner. Experiment, figure out what works best for you digestively and roll with that as your schedule.
8. Consume sleepiness…
I drink a little fennel tea before bed and it’s been lovely. Maybe herbal melatonin or simply a glass of warm milk will become your preferred boost of ZZZ’s.
9. …Instead of consuming alcohol
I know, I know. But it’s just hard to train yourself to wake up super early if you drink the night before, even if it’s a glass of your preferred pinot noir with dinner. Perhaps try it out for a couple of weeks and see if you feel a difference.
10. Set up everything—and I mean everything—the night before.
If your mornings are typically rushed affairs like mine are, even five or 10 minutes can make a big difference. I set out my clothes ahead of time and I set up the coffee pot so that all I have to do is hit start when I get up (see coffee tip below). This prevents an opening to start procrastinating in the morning.
Pattabhi Jois is known for saying, “No coffee, no prana.” I resisted the idea of drinking coffee before practice because I didn’t want to depend on it and because I didn’t have time to make coffee before practice. But now that I’m waking up earlier, I’ve found that a few sips has helped me feel warmer and move with a little more oomph. Coffee can dehydrate me, so that’s another reason why it’s so important to start hydrating the night before. And by all means, if you can do this without coffee, go for it. But since we’re discussing ways to help get a practice up and running, I think it’s worth a consideration.
12. Think about whether you need some rituals to set your space.
A few practitioners I know have morning rituals that include different things—for instance, lighting a candle, burning incense or dedicating that morning’s practice to someone. For some, it’s reading, elephant journal contributor Claudia Azula says, “Good yoga literature helps me get inspired in the morning . . .” Good literature would totally derail my morning—I would never get to work on time. Thinking about rituals is a good reminder that so much of this stuff is personal—and if it works for you, roll with it. If it doesn’t, drop it.
13. Also, think about what you should avoid doing in the morning.
Unless I know my work day will absolutely blow up if I don’t address an email right when I get up, I don’t allow myself to get within 10 feet of either of my email inboxes, my Twitter feed or my Facebook page. If I do, I’ve just lost 20–30 minutes of my morning. I force myself to stay clear of the types of distractions that are delivered through mobile devices and laptops because it makes for a less anxiety-ridden practice if I am not worrying about all the work-related things I will need to think about beginning in two hours.
On super cold days when your mettle is still being strengthened, a hot shower can be the perfect external support. Just don’t stay too long and give yourself another space to procrastinate in.
15. Ramp it up if you have to.
If you are ready to start practicing six days a week right off the bat, awesome. For most of us, it’s hard to go from a sporadic practice to practicing six mornings a week at home in the cold and dark. Consider committing to practicing three mornings a week at first—commit and don’t veer. Enjoy the four days off you have and do what you need to do to get on the mat those three days. Over time, the practice might just naturally coax you into practicing additional days a week.
16. Don’t set unreasonable goals and practice for however much time you have.
My teacher told me to get to the mat and practice in the time I have and it was the single most important thing for me to hear. At the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence this year, during one panel discussion about practicing six days a week, Nancy Gilgoff said, “Sometimes your practice may be 15 minutes.” (See the above tip.) I truly believe that over time, the practice will naturally help you find a way to lengthen your time on the mat. In my first year of practice, when I was trying to buy a house, plan a wedding, teach yoga, blog and hold down a deadline-driven full-time job, there were days when I literally was running out of time. The way I gauged a practice was, did I practice long enough to have to invest something of myself? And did I practice long enough to find a challenge? Practicing for 15 minutes can give you that—investing time that you would have rather been checking to-do items off your list, for instance. As for challenge—well damn, the hardest part of an early morning practice for me is often the sun salutations. I am usually questioning why I am doing this as my body seems to creak with every bend. The good news? It gets easier—it really does.
17. Tell your friends and family about what you’re trying to do.
Hopefully, you have supportive friends and family members—explain what you’re trying to do. They’re on your side, so if they know how important this is to you, they can start to help support your practice in ways large and small. It might be as simple as moving up the time of a dinner date so that you’re not going to bed so late.
18. Find a little group of yogis to help keep yourself accountable.
You don’t have to start your own online “Way-Before-Breakfast Club,” like a small group of us did back in August, but if you can find even a couple of yogis to start this journey with you, the camaraderie, support and feedback can be invaluable. You can keep yourself accountable with local yogis or if you can’t find any local yogis, we’re living during such an expansive and global world these days—find a couple yogis who live halfway around the world, if that’s what ends up working best. Our group of a dozen currently has members from four countries.
19. Don’t lose sight of your what you’re doing this for.
The other week, I overhead a little boy ask his father who had just finished practicing yoga, “Why do you do yoga?” His dad answered simply, “Because it makes me feel better.” You are trying to practice more consistently because yoga, first and foremost, makes you feel better, right?
20. Have a little faith too.
This practice is so evidence-based. As an Ashtanga yoga practitioner, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to take anything on faith. Instead, you get to try something out and see for yourself how it feels. No matter what style of yoga you practice, I think it helps to have a little faith in the idea that the practice changes if you can find it consistently. I think we can practice without attachment to a result while still practicing with faith in transformation. During those dark mornings when you’re sleepy and stumbling over your two left feet, when you’re cold and crabby and thinking you should just head back to bed, know that it is all worth it. And have faith that you are not alone—there are practitioners all over the world doing the exact same thing, probably feeling lots of the same things you’re feeling.
21. “Alchemize your word”
I love this phrase and I think of this advice as the yogic translation of Nike’s “Just do it” edict for athletes. The Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor blog began a recent essay about how to wake up for yoga with the advice to “Alchemize your word.” What’s the value of your word? If you say you’re going to do something, is that an ironclad statement? Is it as good as a 50/50 bet? Is your word more like hot air? If you decide strongly that you are going to be a woman or man of your word, then you can use the golden quality of that word to hold yourself to your own intentions. So are you ready to just do it? Good luck–and happy practicing.
Rose Tantraphol is a journalist-turned-social-media-junkie now based in Michigan and working in the communications field. She practices Ashtanga yoga, teaches yoga and writes the YogaRose.net blog, which is ultimately about passion and the search for balance and inspiration — whether it’s found in a yoga studio, a Detroit Tigers game or a Radiohead song. ~ Editor: Maja Despot
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