Sheetali Pranayama, also known as Cooling Breath, is a breathing practice that very effectively cools the body, the mind, and the emotions. Sheetali comes from the Sanskrit root sheet, which means ‘cold’ or ‘frigid’. Sheetal translates roughly as ‘that which is calm, passionless, and soothing’.Continue Reading >
Are you an early riser? Do you enjoy waking up with the sun? Most people love their sleep, and many people don’t get enough of it. And the idea of deliberately rising even just five minutes earlier each day can be a painful one. But there are at least 15 important, healthy, and nourishing reasons to start every morning with yoga.
In my twenties, as a documentary filmmaker living in Paris, my days were filled with interesting people and fascinating conversations. One person in particular had a lasting impact on my life. He was a “gentleman farmer” in his late eighties, with a youthful elegance and unflagging energy. While we were filming at his small family farm in southwest France, we had the opportunity to visit him early in the morning, just before dawn. He welcomed us into his home, offered us tea, and invited us to join him as he finished his morning practice. “Your what?” asked our cigarette smoking, wine swilling crew.
He shared with us that more than fifty years earlier, while in the French Navy, he met an Asian man who told him about yoga, showed him a few postures, and a sitting meditation. He was immediately hooked, bought himself a book, and all on his own has practiced yoga every morning since. “No wonder you look so young,” the crew echoed. To which he went up into a full headstand and stayed there until we finally begged him to come down.
1. Yoga is the Fountain of Youth
This gentleman farmer is an example of one of the best reasons to do yoga each morning. It keeps you young—in body, mind, and spirit.
This is not just vanity. Young means supple, radiant, energetic, healthy, strong, enthusiastic, and alive. We are innately biologically programmed to be as fully alive as possible, and to sustain this state for as long as possible.
In the article Yoga Keeps You Young, Harvard Medical School researcher Sat Bir S. Khalsa reports, “There are now studies starting to show the beneficial effects of long-term yoga and meditation practices on reducing age-related decline. The long-term implications of global implementation of yoga practices are a reduction in disease rates in the elderly, improvements in physical and cognitive performance, and hence quality of life.”
Because our later years are characterized by vata dosha, and because asana practice helps keep the body limber and systems running smoothly, yoga helps reduce the vata that accumulates, keeping us youthful and energized in body and mind.
But we don’t have to wait until our later years to start. Yoga supports the joints and bones, and nourishes every system in the body, leaving us feeling purified and radiant so we can be our best selves at any age.
2. Morning Yoga is Sacred
Since time immemorial, farmers have been rising with the sun and getting out into the fields just as the day begins. The French farmer who first inspired my yoga was up even earlier, enjoying his morning practice in the sweet stillness of pre-dawn.
Yogis call the hours between 4 and 6 a.m. brahmamuhurta. In these early hours, the atmosphere is said to be charged with sattva. The day has not yet begun. There is very little bustle or noise. All is still. Serenity surrounds you.
Brahmamuhurta means the time when awareness of Brahma, the creative power within all existence, is most pronounced. To be practicing yoga in this early time of day is to feel yourself alive with this creative intelligence, infused with the sacredness of being.
3. Breath Sets the Quality of Your Day
“Yoga is as much a practice involving the breath as it is involving the body. The quality of our breath is extremely important because it expresses our inner feelings”
I believe the quality of our breath not only expresses our inner feelings—it indicates the quality of our relationship to life.
Back in my twenties, before the life-altering meeting with an elderly gentleman yogi-farmer inspired me to start practicing yoga, asthma was my summer companion. I went through every June, July, and August struggling for breath.
Yoga helped me with that asthma. A daily practice which included lots of inversions helped me throw away my inhalers for good. So now, the very first thing I do every morning is take a deep breath. Breathing in life, exhaling peace, I give thanks for this morning breathing itself through me.
4. Circulates Your Inner Song
In yoga, we might say circulation breaks up tamas. In Ayurveda we might call it kapha-reducing. To the lay person, it busts stagnation. Whatever your term, yoga is a dynamic way to rev up circulation and power up the day.
If Ayurvedic professionals encourage abhyanga (self-oil massage) at the start of each day to improve circulation, imagine then how important it must be to move. And how much more powerful it is to move the breath and to move the breath and body together, consciously.
“The overall feeling in your muscles and body is the sound of Yoga. The sound is a feeling, a tone, a feeling-tone, very much like singing a note… Continual readjustment is necessary to stay perfectly tuned,” writes Erich Shiffmann in his book, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness.
5. Sloughs off Morning Stiffness
As one early morning yoga student recently told me, “Sometimes on a Saturday morning I wonder, ‘Why am I getting up this early after a long, hard week to go and practice yoga?’ But immediately my next thought is, ‘There is nothing I’d rather be doing.’ I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
This same woman, when she was new to morning practice, would let out a little moan when we would first move into Downward Dog. “I am so tight,” she would yawn. Sometimes, we associate with the unpleasant feeling and the next thought is “I don’t like doing yoga in the morning.” But if you are tight in the morning, then isn’t that the very time to open up the body, stretch out, release tension, and get fresh prana flowing? I have woken up with headaches, sinus blockage, allergies, lethargy, pain in my joints, and always within ten minutes of practice these “problems” are gone.
By practicing in the morning, you create flexibility in the body so you don’t create injury during the day. Tight muscles snap. Tight emotions snap too. Flexibility in yoga also corresponds to flexibility in attitude, and sometimes what life most needs from us is to be fully present with flexibility and resiliency.
6. Awakens the Mind
“The ultimate goal of yoga is to always observe things accurately, and therefore never act in a way that will make us regret our actions later.”
Movement doesn’t just help circulate and clear the physical channels, it also helps clear the mental channels, especially in the morning when your mind is not yet engaged in thoughts of the day, plans, worries, the list of to-do’s. Before worldly distractions enter our consciousness, our minds can become calm and spacious, more easily stilled and single-pointed.
Single-pointedness of mind is one of Patanjali’s great sutras of Yoga. For any successful endeavor, we need that capacity for sustained concentration. Yoga helps us cultivate single-pointedness and gives us greater discernment, and skill in action, throughout our lives.
7. Transforms Your Prana
“The breath relates directly to the mind and to our prāṇa, but we should not therefore imagine that as we inhale, prāṇa simply flows into us. This is not the case. Prāṇa enters the body in the moment when there is a positive change in the mind.”
Prana is described in Ayurveda as the life force, and life’s regenerative force. When prana moves freely, unobstructed, and clear, it is our own very potent force for healing.
T.K.V. Desikachar suggests that the breath relates to prana, but that it flows properly when the mind is positive. Whether it is repetition of mantra with each breath, or the wakefulness required for intense balancing poses, or the dharana (concentration) in the detail of complex alignment, or simply the devotional music you might practice to, yoga encourages and helps us make those positive changes in the mind.
8. Starts You Off with a Victory
Have you ever had every intention to workout, do yoga, clean your room, call your mom, and then find that very intent slipping through your fingers as the day wears on?
Since the way we begin determines the way we go on, starting with yoga means you start, and continue, with a win.
9. Changes Your Brain to Change Your Life
All of our experiences of life are based on our previous experiences. In her recent article, The Making Of Emotions, From Pleasurable Fear To Bittersweet Relief, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barret says, “Your brain is organized in such a way as to [make] anticipatory guesses about what is going to happen next. And this is happening entirely outside of your awareness. You have past experiences, and those experiences become wired into your brain, and then your brain uses those past experiences to make guesses about the immediate future.”
Yoga invites us to notice inner sensations without having to find a corresponding file in the brain. It is a sensation. Those feelings are not properties of emotion, they're properties of consciousness because they're always with you, whether or not your brain is using them as ingredients of emotion, or for thoughts, or perceptions. They are part of you and your experience of the world even when you are not experiencing emotions.
Since emotions aren't happening to you, but rather your brain makes them as you need them, it means, says Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, “You are the architect of your own experience. It's just that most of this is happening outside of your awareness.” Yoga brings this inside your awareness.
“The success of yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”
10. Yoga is Skill in Action
The Bhagavad Gita reminds us that yoga is skill in action. Awakening early, unrolling your mat, engaging in morning practice, and repeating daily, is a powerful way to take charge of your life, to expand beyond our expectations, conditioning, inertia, and perceived limitations. This alone is empowering and teaches us that we are the power that creates all that we seek in the world.
11. Start Your Day with Grace
“Yoga exists in the world because everything is linked.”
Can you remember the last time you got up before the sun? Do you remember how beautiful it was to watch the morning rays slip over the horizon, and to be present to the day itself come into being? The soft colors of the sky, the stillness of the air, the gentle stirrings of life, the bird song, all touch the heart with a melting tenderness. It is truly precious to behold the awakening of the day, and to feel ourselves not separate but connected to all that is beautiful, majestic, and good.
12. Balance the Seasons
In winter, for instance, Dr. Vasant Lad recommends adding a few rounds of Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath) to your morning practice because it builds heat and helps to eliminate mucus from the respiratory tract.
But in summer, include cooling postures like Fish (Matsyasana), Camel (Ustrasana), Boat (Paripurna Navasana), Cobra (Bhujangasana), Cow (Bitilasana), and Tree Pose (Vrksasana). Practicing Sheetali Pranayama (Cooling Breath), and meditating will also help to cool the mind and emotions.
13. Balance Your Dosha
When I studied with T.K.V. Desikachar, he would always emphasize the individuality of practice—not just that each Yogi or Rogi is individual and unique, but that each day is individual and unique. Giving examples from his own morning practice, he would tell us that each morning he tunes in to inner sensations and adjusts his practice accordingly. Some days he begins with slow, gentle yoga. Other days he practices heating poses and pranayam. Other days, he would say, “When I feel heavy, I go for a walk!”
In his book, Yoga & Ayurveda, Dr. David Frawley writes, “Yoga appeals to vata types who like movement and action[…]Hatha Yoga is particularly useful for vata types who need to be more grounded in the physical body.”
He explains that pitta types appreciate daily morning practice as it builds the inner heat for spiritual aspirations, while he writes, “Kapha types benefit greatly from more action and the movement energy that it affords.”
By moving us through the gunas from tamas (stagnation), to rajas (dynamic action), we arrive at sattva, and become the most sattvic expression of our constitution, ready to live, express, be, and enjoy all that life has to give in its ceaselessly dynamic, eternally changing nature.
14. Chart Your Course
We all want to live deliberately: to live our lives with purpose, to speak and act with integrity, to relate and create as an expression of our true wisdom.
All successful action begins with intention, and intention is most powerful when it arises from our own deep well of inner wisdom that can only be accessed through silence. Therefore, for action to be true, purposeful, and of genuine value to yourself and humanity it will always arise from stillness. Morning yoga invites us into the stillness of the day and the still point within where the intuitive voice calls to us and sets us up for conscious creative action throughout the day.
15. Gifts of Awakening
The professed intent of Yoga is to help us with the purpose of our lives: to realize our true nature. While waking up early lets us witness the dawn of light and behold the precious awakening of the day, morning yoga practice helps us access those gifts of awakening, the dawn of our own illumination.
“Ayurveda works at healing and purifying the body and mind while yoga aims at taking us to Self-realization, which depends upon a purified body and mind. In this way, the foundation of Yoga should be Ayurveda and the fruit of Ayurveda should be Yoga.”
By practicing in the morning, you create flexibility in the body so you don’t create injury during the day. You ramp up your vibrancy, stabilize the emotions, cleanse and focus the mind, so you feel great all day long. Morning practice balances the nervous system and deepens your breathing so you handle stress better. With more energy and focus you become more productive, so the time the practice takes in the morning is more than recovered.
Again, with morning yoga you start every day with a victory on all levels of body, mind, and spirit. What better way to kick off your day and celebrate the gift of being you!