Earth Day and Beyond: How I Stay Grounded with Ayurveda
I always wanted to be one of those “morning people.” You know, the kind that wakes up easy as pie, flies out of bed and checks off seven to-do list items before noon. Those kind. But, alas, I seemed to inherit the midnight adrenaline gene and its morning melancholy defect. Even as a child with two alarm clocks ringing intermittently across the room, I’d slam the snooze buttons for an hour — only to fall back asleep until my dad sang Broadway show tunes in my ear. It was only then I’d scurry to the bathroom for cover.
Three decades of snoozing later, the unthinkable happened. One day, I became a morning person! Which is to say, I began awakening at sunup and falling asleep several hours after sundown. It didn’t happen overnight, mind you. It took time, care and Maharishi Ayurveda to transform me from morning grump to morning girl.
I initially sought the help of neurologist and Maharishi Ayurveda practitioner Kulreet Chaudhary for life-altering fatigue and sleep woes. In her warm, welcoming way more akin to friend than physician, she not only asked about my body, she asked about my life. She listened deeply. And Doctor Chaudhary offered insight that literally changed the way I think and live from the inside out. I’ve come to cherish ayurveda as a new kind of medicine, even though it’s the oldest medical system on earth.
Ayurveda states that we are all made of the same five elements, or Mahabhutas, as the natural world — earth, water, fire, air and space. We’re not only connected with Mother Nature; we are her. Our body comes from and returns to these great elements. As such, we suffer when we fight the rhythms of nature and thrive when we live in harmony with them. Take that skyward ball of fire we modern electricity lovers tend to overlook — we’ve become estranged from the way our spear-lugging, hunting and gathering Homo sapiens ancestors evolved in tune with the patterns of the sun for eons. Instead of searching sun-lit savannahs for food, we scan fluorescent superstores for processed provisions. Today’s caves? Blue-lit rooms with glowing flat screens. All this confuses our built-in circadian rhythm that responds to the 24-hour cycle of light and dark. We may not think about the sun, but it regulates everything from hormones to happiness. “Thousands of years ago, the ayurvedic sages taught that one of the best things we can do is to expose ourselves to natural full-spectrum sunlight,” said Mark Bunn, a Maharishi Ayurveda practitioner speaking at the Transcendental Meditation® center in San Diego about his book Ancient Wisdom for Modern Health.
He had me at “snooze buttonitis,” Bunn’s affectionate term for that morning funk I know so well, along with his pragmatic plan to break those snooze button blues. I’ve tried a dizzying array of holistic remedies from acupuncture to aromatherapy for sleepless nights and la-la land mornings. I even stumped a sleep doctor who referred me to a sleep psychologist. Over time, I began to feel I was some unsolvable puzzle. Not so with Maharishi Ayurveda; I could sense the deep wisdom that takes into consideration our unique mind-body type, or dosha, as well as our evolutionary place in a bigger picture — our very nature cultivated over millennia. “Good energy, vitality and clear thinking is our natural state of functioning,” Bunn continued. “As human beings we’re designed to have that state of functioning every single day.”
As we know, timing is everything, and it turns out we’re designed to sleep at certain hours. Ayurveda calls the window between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. the nighttime rejuvenation cycle. That’s when our body can best detoxify the liver, heal the kidneys, establish memories and rejuvenate our cells — if we’re sleeping. If we’re gorging on snacks, Showtime or spreadsheets during this time, we hamper our body’s ability to carry out these vital processes. Why? This window is governed by dynamic Pitta. If we stay up, we get a second wind and lose out on this restorative sleep. (It’s fascinating to learn that in ayurveda, each four-hour cycle corresponds with a different dosha. Earthy Kapha is 6 to 10 a.m./p.m.; fiery Pitta is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.; and airy Vata is 2 to 6 a.m./p.m.)
After Bunn’s talk, I began experimenting with the seasons and cycles of nature, seeing my body as a living laboratory. Over the course of a year I started, ever so gingerly, aligning with the pulse of the natural world. My bedtime of 11:30 p.m. became 11:00 p.m., then 10:30 p.m. and so on. To wind down earlier, I’d muster all my discipline to unplug from my smartphone, laptop and anything else stimulating, which initially felt like depriving a child of toys! But sleep was the foundation to my house of health, and I was determined to rebuild it. I even dusted off my dreaded alarm bell to roust myself out of bed earlier. I’d heave myself into the light of day, rain or shine, and walk in the early morning light. Full-spectrum rays entering our bare eyes (without sunglasses) signal the brain to release its cascade of time-keeping hormones for the next 24 hours. I’d stroll, however groggily, allowing rustling leaves and scampering jackrabbits to awaken my senses. After some months, the birdsong became my alarm clock, and the sun my cup of coffee. Here’s how ayurveda remade my routine:
Sunup — Maharishi Ayurveda recommends getting up at or by 6 a.m. Ever notice feeling sluggish when you sleep in? This is the beginning of Kapha cycle, when our natural rhythms are slow and sweet, often depicted as a swan. We want to animate ourselves with movement. These days, I wake up at dawn and practice a series of yoga postures, breathing exercises and Transcendental Meditation®. TM® is an ayurvedic prescription, the most important one Doctor Chaudhary gave me. Studies have found that in Transcendental Meditation the mind settles and the body gets the deepest metabolic rest possible — even deeper than sleep. Experiencing this transcendental consciousness is the core of ayurveda, which translates into the “Knowledge of Life.” In this settled state, we access greater knowledge and experience our true nature. Ayurveda tells us that what we experience, we become. Our body begins to metabolize this pure consciousness and we grow more in touch with our body and world. This brings a host of health benefits, since the inner intelligence of the mind experienced in TM is the same inner intelligence that informs the body.
By 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., my stomach is growling ‘good morning!’ for something warm and easy to digest, like oatmeal and cinnamon-stewed apples. Then I’m off to move my body and absorb the sun’s rays during a constitutional along the Southern California canyon sides. (Walking after meals also helps with digestion.) I’m lucky to live in a warm climate, but even if you don’t, the hours between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. are an ideal time for exercise to get the Kapha out!
Sundown — Maharishi Ayurveda recommends going to bed by 10:00 p.m.
I used to consider this an unrealistic ideal I couldn’t achieve. With much care I’ve been retraining my night-owl habits cultivated as a child, then as a young adult in a high-stress, late-night career as a TV news reporter. I practice my second 20-minute round of Transcendental Meditation in the late afternoon or early evening and eat a light dinner by 7:00 p.m. Ayurveda says our digestive fire — like the sun in the sky — can’t burn as much fuel when it wanes in the evening. Banished from my iPhone, I favor quiet activities like gentle yoga and reading before getting into bed by 9:30 p.m. Remarkably, it feels as natural as the twinkling stars to fall asleep by 10:00 p.m. If you don’t feel tired by 9 or 10 p.m., here’s a graceful way to reset your sleep cycle: Just before the sun begins its descent, turn off all those glowing screens, along with the lights in your home. Sit quietly. Simply be. When you start to feel sleepy, go with it, letting your body guide you into rest.
It’s taken great care, but realigning my inside clock with the natural world is a profoundly empowering experience. Ayurveda gives me tools to improve my health side effect-free, and Transcendental Meditation has become my compass home. “Transcendental Meditation opens the awareness to the infinite reservoir of energy, creativity, and intelligence that lies deep within everyone,” said the great sage, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought TM to the modern world. By sitting on my couch using a meditation technique that’s utterly effortless, I’ve noticed more clarity about my life’s direction. I make easier and better decisions. I feel a quiet power and inner confidence. More patience, peace and compassion. Simply put, I’m happier.
For the sake of full disclosure: I’m still not a cheery morning person, nor a chatty one. Silence suits me just fine as daybreak streaks golden through the horizon. To my late beloved father, I say: Look dad, no alarm clock! And, every once in a blue moon, I even check off those seven to-do list items before noon.
Rebecca Tolin is a freelance journalist and writer living in San Diego. She is currently enrolled in the Maharishi Ayurveda Wellness Educator Program.
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