Our goals and good intentions like New Year resolutions are often based around becoming happier and healthier, more fulfilled and free of (negative) habits. When we let go of one habit though, there’s often a gaping hole left in its place, which is why things like quitting smoking, alcohol, sugar, chocolate, meat or anything else you’ve decided to move away from is so difficult; there’s nothing to take its place.
There’s often a reason we develop habits in the first place; they serve a purpose. Our habits can help relieve stress or provide some sort of entertainment, they sometimes make us feel good or subconsciously provide a sense of security. So habits aren’t unnecessary, they’re just not always helping us to be our very best selves….
Out with the old, in with the new
In order to let go of unhelpful habits, new ones have to be put in their place which provide similar benefits to the mind and body, which is where the practice of yoga comes in. As well as boosting mental clarity and relaxation, yoga also has the added benefits of increasing the release of endorphins (happy hormones) and making the body a more physically comfortable place to live in.
If you get into the habit of practising yoga each morning for 21 days, there’s a chance you’ll continue (maybe even for the rest of the year?) and you'll definitely thank yourself for it by the time the next New Year comes around.
I’ve enlisted the help of some of my students and yoga teacher friends who practise in the morning – as well as offering you some guidance from the pages of the ancient Yoga Sutras and Ayurvedic texts – so you can find out for yourself why growing numbers of people start their day with yoga, and the reasons they choose to do it!
1. Set your intention
At the beginning of many yoga classes, we’re offered the chance to set an intention for the practice. This could be an intention to practise with kindness towards the body if its feeling tired, to practise focusing the mind into stillness, or an intention to step outside your comfort zone to develop self-trust and confidence. Whatever it may be, this intention has the ability to shape the rest of your day, and will give you a focus throughout the hours that follow. It’s basically like setting a New Year’s resolution every morning, although it may be a little easier to keep this one for 24 hours as opposed to 365 days….
2. Salute the Sun
Traditionally, the practice of Surya Namaskar (sun salutations) was performed at sunrise, as a way to greet the sun and the arrival of a new day. By being aware of the rhythms of the natural world and practising as the sun rises, we tap into our own natural rhythms too.
Many of us are so caught up in the world of technology and work that we forget we too are a part of nature and this morning routine is a reminder of our more natural state.
3. Get rid of the Fuzz
Dr Gil Hedley explains brilliantly in his online talk that in order for the body to be optimally healthy and feel physically good, it’s important to move at the beginning of the day. Overnight, our muscles rest and while they’re not moving, layers of connective tissue and bodily fluid - fondly known as ‘fuzz’ - builds up between them. That urge to stretch we get upon waking is essentially an act of releasing the fuzzy build up found between muscles. If we don’t move and stretch however, this layer continues to thicken and build up, causing stiffness, chronically ‘tight’ muscles and common aches and pains.
4. Don’t start stressed…
We know how it feels to leap out of bed after hitting the snooze button one-too-many times and rushing around in the morning - our nervous system definitely knows how it feels all-too-well…. Giving yourself an extra hour or half an hour in the mornings to wake up and practice will allow your nervous system to begin the day in a far more relaxed state. Our levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are already high in the mornings in order to give us the boost we need to wake up. If this level of cortisol is quickly increased with added stress however, we’ve set ourselves up for an equally stressful day. Making the practice of yoga a habit each morning allows the body to get into the habit of switching off the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ stress response, and instead able to finally tap into the healing benefits of the parasympathetic nervous system – increasing the health of both body and mind immensely.
5. Negate the need for coffee
Yoga has a fantastic way of serving the exact purpose we need; it can be restoring and deliciously relaxing, but it can also be stimulating and energising. Even if you’re tired upon waking, a morning yoga practice is guaranteed to make you feel more awake and alive. Specific postures and practices to build energy include Sun Salutations, backbends and twists.
6. Activate your army
The disease-fighting white blood cells in the body are able to do their best when our blood flow and lymphatic system has efficient circulation. By moving in a way that feels good first thing in the morning, we essentially ‘wake up’ all the body’s systems, which enhances the flow of circulation and give the immune system an immediate boost. Gentle inversions like Viparita Karani (legs up the wall pose) are especially effective for stimulating the immune system, so be sure to add these into a winter morning practice.
7. Get happy
As well as boosting your circulation and immune system, the mood boost received through a yoga practice is one of the most beneficial reasons to practice in the mornings. In a study conducted by the Yoga Biomedical Trust in London, 94% of participants with anxiety were significantly helped by practicing yoga regularly each morning, and 82% of those with insomnia reported valuable benefits too.
Especially if you’re a parent, or your job entails managing or looking after others, it can be difficult to feel as though you’ve had any time to yourself. That extra amount of time in the morning is a way to show yourself not just that you care about yourself, but about others too. In order to give our energy out in the world, it’s essential we have enough within us in the first place. A morning yoga practice is a way to know you’ve done something for yourself that day – whether it was for five minutes or an hour.
9. No more procrastination
If you’re the type of person who sets that New Year’s resolution to be healthier but you never seem to get around to it – this is one of the best ways to tackle it. Making your morning yoga practice the very first thing on your to-do list of the day ensures you’ll get it done first and won’t end up feeling guilty about not having practiced that day. Achieving something early in the day is also a great way to build confidence and a sense of self-worth. It takes a little discipline at first, but even Aristotle said “Through discipline comes freedom”.
10. Meditate for mental clarity
A morning yoga practice doesn’t have to be all about the postures; meditating is a yoga practice with unlimited benefits, and starting your day with even a few minutes can have profound effects in a short time. Becoming aware of our thoughts and observing them rather than getting caught up in them at the beginning of the day makes us more able to decide whether those thoughts are necessary or not, and from there we’re able to tap into this throughout the rest of the day more easily. The habit of watching thoughts instead of getting caught up in them is one of the most beneficial habits we can get into, and it’ll determine our actions instantly: a calm and grounded person makes different daily decisions to a stressed and anxious person!
11. Positive points
If you’re very new to meditation and the mind is a little too scary to observe at the moment, the practice of reciting affirmations silently or out-loud can be very powerful and healing. The word ‘affirmation’ is defined as ‘emotional support’, and also the act of affirming and making something stable. By reciting phrases such as ‘I am calm’, ‘I am peaceful’, ‘I am strong’, ‘I am powerful’ right at the beginning of the day, we give ourselves a sense of stability as words and thoughts like this instantly effect the body and mind. Our thoughts and words create chemical reactions in the body – a happy thought will encourage the body to create ‘happy’ chemicals, and a negative thought will encourage the body to believe it needs to create ‘negative’ chemicals. Get into the habit of reciting affirmations and your brain will literally ‘re-wire’ itself.
12. Breathe Here Now to Be Here Now
Breath awareness – i.e. focussing intently on each inhale and exhale and noticing the quality of the breath – is an instant way to bring us into the present moment. Leslie Kaminoff nailed it when he said “The body tries to hold onto the past, the mind tries to take us into the future. It is the breath that keeps us present”. When the mind is busy and over flowing with thoughts or chitta vrittis, paying attention to the breath brings us out of the trap of the mind and into reality. While thoughts and ruminations are often nothing to do with the situation right in front of us, the breath is a reminder of something that is real, something that it here and now. Movements within a yoga practice are almost always initiated by an inhale or exhale, so by moving with the breath, we move into the present moment. A shallow breath, held high up in the chest indicates stress and also activates the body’s stress response, whereas deeper ‘belly breathing’ where the abdomen is allowed to expand and relax with the breath, calms the nervous system and brings the body and mind into the present resulting in a far more relaxed state of being. If breath awareness can become a habit, we’ll eventually be able to use it instantly through the day to become more aware and alive.
13. Boost digestive fire
Yoga’s sister science Ayurveda states that our overall health is determined by the health of our digestive system. We can drink all the green smoothies we like and eat organic meals, but if the body can’t properly absorb, assimilate and use those nutrients – it’s a little like putting your food straight in the rubbish bin…. By practicing yoga in the morning, the body’s metabolism is boosted, and so is the digestive system or Agni, known as ‘digestive fire’. When circulation of the systems is boosted and the internal organs have been gently massaged by yoga postures, the digestive system is far more efficient at releasing toxins and properly metabolising the vitamins and minerals from our foods.
14. Boost brainpower
Focussing early in the morning may not be something we’re all accustomed to, but it’s significantly beneficial for heightening our productivity and alertness throughout the rest of the day. If you find it difficult to concentrate at work or school, spend some time practicing breath awareness and a few mildly challenging yoga postures, and your mind will have woken up in no time!
15. The early hours….
The traditional yogic texts state that the hours between 4am and 6am are most conductive for meditation and yoga practice because the mind is at its most still and the rest of the world hasn’t yet sprung into action, so there’s a sense of stillness in the air. If these hours are a little too early for you, then….
16. Become a ‘morning person’
If you’re not the type to jump out of bed to greet the new day, then this new habit could make you one…! A dedicated morning practice allows those of us who could quite easily sleep the day away to make the most of this time when it otherwise may have gone to waste. Just as it’s the yoga postures we enjoy the least that we really need to practice, it’s the disciplines we wouldn’t usually choose that could really serve us the most. Life is short and it’s a pretty precious thing, so rather than sleeping in and wasting the day, make a habit of getting up a little earlier to re-introduce yourself to the morning time.
17. Prolong the benefits
If you usually practice evening yoga classes, consider adding in morning practices or switching your practice to the morning time for 21 days – this way you’ll be able to feel the benefits of the practice for far longer. Surely a day of increased breath awareness, the ability to be present, healthier digestion, stimulated circulation and improved mood are better put to use throughout the many hours of the day than the few hours before going to bed?
18. The inner world creates the outer world
The Buddha is well known for saying that our experience of the world around us is entirely created by our minds. You may notice how the world seems to miraculously change the moment you step out of your yoga class. The people on the street seem friendlier, your family is easier to get along with, the choices you make are more aligned with a healthier life, and even your boss is nice! Here’s a hint; it’s not the world that has changed, it’s your mind…. Start the day by creating a positive environment within yourself, and the outer environment will be a lot more positive too.
19. Know thyself
A morning practice is the perfect way to measure whether your actions off the mat are having a positive or negative impact on your physical, mental and emotional health. If you feel ‘heavy’ during a morning practice, there’s a chance last night’s dinner wasn’t digested properly or you ate a little too late. If your body is tired and aching, it’s a message you’ve been pushing yourself too hard and need to take some time to restore, and if you notice your mind is focussed on one particular thought or worry during meditation, then you know it’s time to listen and take action. By practicing yoga postures daily, you’ll also notice yourself change as the strength and flexibility of both body and mind vastly improve.
20. Get a move on
If your day is mostly spent sitting at a desk or in a car, a morning yoga is just the medicine your body has been looking for. Postures like backbends are effective for ‘un-doing’ all the hunching and slouching we often unconsciously do throughout the day, and can help open the muscles surrounding the hips, which are a common area of tension due to long hours of sitting. By practicing in the morning, we also remind ourselves of what it’s like to stand with healthy posture, so you’ll begin to notice when you’re slouching more often and prevent back pain before it even occurs!
21. Start Now
A yoga practice has no pre-requisites; you do not have to be flexible, strong, skinny, vegan or any other stereotype attached to ‘yoga people’. All you have to do is be you and let the practice do the rest. A yoga practice is not about attaining the ability to perform impressive postures, not is it about being able to sit in meditation for hours and hours; it’s about finding out who you are beneath the bad habits that have built up over time, the chattering mind and the aching body. It’s about being your authentic self. As the saying goes “Start from where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can”.