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Be a Morning Person

Body+Soul, Volume 8 March 2006

You don't have to be a naturally early riser to enjoy all that the morning has to offer. With the right perspective and a few small adjustments, you can turn your morning into one of the most relaxing and energizing parts of your day.

"The morning has incredible potential," says Alison Novie, senior yoga instructor at Kula Yoga in Manhattan. "I think of the new day as a new year -- a whole new life. If you could modify just a few things about your morning, it would change the way you see your day."

To some degree, you don't have much choice about how you feel when the sun comes up. Not everyone is born a morning person. But that doesn't mean your mornings can't change for the better. It's worth tinkering with your natural inclinations to reap the rich rewards.

Quiet, full of expectation, yet uncluttered by conversation and untouched by the demands of the day, the morning presents an opportunity for you to find joy, peace, and strength -- or at the very least, the chance to ease into the flow so that you aren't thrown into your day headlong and half awake. We've spoken with a renowned sleep expert, a yoga instructor, and a Reiki healer for their insights on everything from getting a good night's sleep to practicing mind/body awareness to incorporating a sense of play early in the day. Their strategies work well together or individually. Find the ones that work for you, and enjoy them in and around your current morning chaos, whether you live alone, with two dogs, or with five kids. By taking the time to stimulate your senses and relax your body and mind, you'll start out calmer, more energized, and better prepared for whatever lies ahead.

Reset Your Natural Alarm
First things first: You'll never enjoy the morning if you don't get a good night's sleep. For some people, that means a solid nine hours of uninterrupted slumber; for others, seven hours of shut-eye will do. Sleep expert James B. Maas, Ph.D., author of Power Sleep, notes that eight hours of sleep is the average -- but only an average, not a rigid goal. When you're not getting enough sleep, you're the first to know. Shifting your sleep schedule is possible, says Maas, but it requires commitment. "If you're a night person, and you want or need to become a day person, you can do it, but you have to be serious about it. You can't flip-flop," he advises. Here's how to alter your habits in favor of an earlier (and happier) morning.

Make a gradual shift. If you find it hard to fall asleep at night, take things slowly when it comes to establishing a new time for bed. Try hitting the hay five minutes earlier each night, and in less than two weeks you will have shifted your bedtime by one hour.

Resist the urge to snooze. Hitting the snooze bar is an exercise in futility -- and torture. You'll get at best 5 or 10 minutes of fragmented sleep, notes Maas, and may arise feeling groggier than when your alarm first went off. Instead of sneaking in 10 more minutes of sleep, try going to bed 10 minutes earlier instead.

Expose yourself to bright daylight. This is one of the best and most effective things you can do to wake yourself up, says Maas. By opening the curtains and the windows or getting outside, you cue your brain to repress the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Natural daylight works best, but if you get up before sunrise or simply can't get enough natural light, consider using a sun-mimicking device as an alternative.

Don't lose sleep over exercise. While you may choose to exercise in the morning, Maas recommends against sacrificing sleep for it. "Never truncate your sleep in order to work out. This puts you at a greater risk of injury," he advises. Only when you have had enough uninterrupted hours of sleep should you think about getting up to exercise.

Be consistent. "You don't get two biological clocks -- one for weekdays and one for weekends," says Maas. "That means you have to stick by one." Sleeping late on the weekends to compensate for lack of sleep during the week will throw you off, making Monday mornings even worse than they need to be. While keeping a consistent sleep schedule is ideal, it's not always reasonable or practical. Your best bet is to try to keep your schedule fairly regular (that is, getting up and going to bed within an hour or so of your weekday schedule).

Plan your evenings. How you wind down the day may affect the quality of your sleep -- and therefore the quality of the following morning. For some, eating a chocolate bar, watching a dramatic movie, or arguing right before bed will be enough to derail sleep. Be aware of your particular sensitivities; avoid those things you know will keep you up.

Sense the Stillness
For yoga instructor Alison Novie, mornings make an ideal time for meditation -- perhaps more than any other time of day. "The sun's about to rise, but it's still sort of dark and quiet," says Novie, who wakes at 5:00 a.m. to meditate. "I get up, brush my teeth, light a candle, and then sit for half an hour. The calm energy I get from that morning meditation carries me through the day."

You don't have to be a regular yoga or meditation practitioner to reap the benefits of a morning meditation ritual. Start with five minutes daily, using the guidelines that follow. Then over the course of a few weeks -- or when you are ready -- gradually work up to 10 minutes. Remember, with meditation it's quality, not quantity, that matters.

Start with awareness. Rather than lunge out of bed, Novie suggests waking up slowly. "Spend a few minutes just becoming conscious of the sensations of your body. Awareness is such a beautiful way of entering your day." Once you're up, resist the temptation to check your e-mail, flip on the radio, or do any of the other countless things that draw you out of yourself and into the concerns of the world. Instead, keep the focus inward.

Find a comfortable spot. Practice your five minutes of meditation anywhere you like (the bedroom floor, a favorite chair) except the bed, where you may fall back to sleep. To enhance the sacred aspect of her meditation space, Novie set up a small altar in her living room that she uses only for meditation, giving the space a positive energy of its own.

Sense your breath. Close your eyes. Feel your breath moving in and out of your body without controlling it. Bring your attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen or to the tip of your nose. The more awareness you bring to breath and body, the more grounded in your body you'll become. This, in turn, will help relieve some of the stress that comes with getting through your morning.

Don't try to block your thoughts. Your mind will wander -- that's what it's designed to do. Rather than try to fight off thoughts as they emerge, acknowledge them, but don't engage them. And give yourself some slack -- meditation is, after all, a practice, not perfection.

Wake Up Your Body
Together, movement and breath will increase circulation, stimulate your nerve centers, and bathe your body in the oxygen that it needs to feel alert. You can't hurry the process of getting the body ready to move in the morning, however. According to Maas, your internal temperature is lower in the morning and can't support intense aerobic activity right away. Rather, go with simple exercises designed to get your energy flowing. Adds Novie, "The goal is to align your breath with your body by making movement and breath simultaneous."

Breathe with abundance. Active breathing uses a faster paced, more intense breath, says Novie. "This method of breathing is said to purify the blood. It gets the fire going in the body." Novie suggests beginning with three rounds of bellows breathing, in which the length of the inhalation equals that of the exhalation. Start out slowly if you're new to this kind of breathing, gradually working up to a faster pace. Try for 15 breaths, but stop if you feel light-headed.

Open up the body with a cat/cow exercise. Begin on your hands and knees. Moving slowly and carefully, lift up your head, sway your back (like a cow's), and take a deep breath through your nose, filling your lungs with air. Then drop your head and round your back like a cat, pulling your belly in and exhaling. Return to cow position and then slowly drop back on your heels and exhale into Child's pose, resting your torso between your knees, forehead on the floor. Return to your hands and knees to inhale, and repeat.

Stretch out with a half sun salute. Begin in Mountain pose, standing with your feet together and arms by your sides. As you inhale deeply, bring your arms up over your head. Then as you exhale, bend your torso forward, sweeping your arms down until your fingertips rest on the ground just in front of you (or on your calves if you can't reach comfortably). Now straighten your spine and look up, taking a deep breath in; then exhale and drop your head down again.

Connect with Nature
Mornings are sacrosanct for Reiki master and energy healer E. Barrie Kavasch, a descendent of the Cherokee and Creek tribes and author of more than 15 books on Native American culture, including The Medicine Wheel Garden. "Our own internal wisdom knows this," Kavasch explains. "We come from origins that tell us we should be up and about." Growing up on a family farm in Tennessee, Kavasch and her siblings would wake up before dawn to milk the cows. "Our days would be filled with energy and enthusiasm. We would have done so much by 8:30 a.m.," she says. "I can't imagine a morning without being in close touch with nature." Even those not living on a farm can gain from the enlivening benefits nature will bring to the tired human body.

Step outside. In many ways, getting outdoors provides the best way to get your mind and body in sync with the morning. "The first thing I do each morning is get up and go out for a walk. I fill my lungs with the morning air," says Kavasch. Even if you don't have time for a walk, simply stand out in the morning light to get connected with the world around you.

Open a window. If you can't get out, bring the fresh air in. Pull open the blinds and open a window to let in the light, smells, and sounds of a new day.

See blue. Among the Pueblo and Navajo people, says Kavasch, seeing turquoise first thing in the morning is considered a blessing. This helps explain why they'll often paint a portion of their windowsills or door frames in this brilliant color. "Turquoise is considered a sky stone, reminding us of when the sky is at its brightest and sunniest," says Kavasch. "To see it upon first opening your eyes is a blessing for the hours that follow." To set the stage for a better morning, try keeping a turquoise stone, bracelet, necklace, or colored item by your bedside or in your window so you see it first thing in the morning.

Water your plants. Invite nature into your home by placing houseplants throughout; then take time each morning to water and care for them. Just touching and focusing on this element of nature can gently draw you into the new day.

Enjoy a taste of nature. A bite of fresh fruit or a sip of juice can recall a vital connection to the natural world and help gently awaken your senses. Think of that taste as more than food; it represents nature's bounty.

Enliven Your Mood
While morning doesn't last very long, it sets the tone for the day to follow. "If you start grumpy, you filter your whole day through that mood," notes Novie. Finding even a few minutes to enjoy something simple about your morning can make a big difference.

Play a little. Mornings don't have to be dour. Add a little early levity to improve your mood and the start to your day. Play with your pet or your kids, or do something you rarely have time for in the evenings, like reading that book you've been wanting to get into. Treat yourself to one thing that you don't do at any other time.

Savor something. Whether you like a big breakfast omelet or prefer toast and tea, eating food you enjoy can't help but affect your mood for the better. Stock up on the ingredients you need to create your favorite breakfast, so they're always in your cupboard first thing to lift your mood. But more important, take a few minutes to really experience and savor breakfast, even if it's just a glass of juice. Allowing yourself to be absorbed in something you enjoy is a wonderful way to begin the day.