Finding the Best Time to Practice
—James, New York
Cyndi Lee's reply:
Your personal rhythm within a 24-hour period, as well as your relationship to the sun and moon, heat and cold, and the crispness or thickness of the changing seasons, can indeed factor into which asanas you practice when. Some people are raring to go first thing in the morning, while other people won't even speak for at least an hour after the alarm goes off. Some love winter and outdoor activities such as skiing and snowboarding. Others put on a few pounds and hibernate in the winter and come alive with the fire energy of July and August. Since an important part of yoga practice is getting to know yourself and how you change from moment to moment, it makes sense to let your energy inform you about how to practice according to the season or time of day.
To begin, it's helpful to know that some poses are energizing and some are calming. For example, backbends are invigorating and not recommended before going to bed at night. Forward bends are calming and helpful when you are feeling over stimulated. Sun Salutations create heat and flowing movement connected to the breath. Standing poses build strength, stamina, and a sense of grounding, since your feet are rooted into the earth. Balancing poses cultivate concentration. Twists detoxify the body and relieve tension in the head, neck, and back. Inversions, which turn us upside down, literally change our view of the world and remind us of the impermanent nature of everything, especially when we are stuck in a rut.
In general, yoga practice is recommended in the morning or the early evening. A morning yoga session can be quite active and consist of a full practice. Always finish with Savasana (Corpse Pose), no matter what time of day or season your practice.
You may choose to do a different type of practice in the afternoon. While it can still be a complete practice, you may want to emphasize a series of seated forward bends such as Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Upavistha Konasana (Seated Wide Angle Pose), or Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). Follow that with a small backbend such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), simple twists to neutralize the spine—Reclining Twist or Ardha Matseyandrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) work well—and an inversion.
Each season invites us to shape our practice differently. If you live in a place where it gets very hot in the summer, it is best not to overexert yourself. If the temperature is in the upper 80s, 90s, or even 100 degrees, be mindful of the speed with which you move through your practice. You may even try using the weather to explore how to come away from your edge and lessen your effort to help balance the heat of your body.
In the summer you can try combining practices. Start with a seated meditation, followed by a cooling pranayama, and then a Sun Salutation series without jumping through. Then try supported, restorative backbends such as lying on your back with a rolled up blanket under your shoulder blades. Your inversion could be Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose) or Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), both of which are more cooling than Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand). As you finish your practice, you can wash your face, hands, and feet with a cool washcloth soaked in lavender water before resting in Savasana.
Autumn brings opportunities for sharing and heart-opening with Thanksgiving, homecoming parties, back to school, and work with colleagues. The temperature is mild and the air crisp, which encourages big, energizing movements such as Urdhva Dhanurasana (Backbend).
Winter can be a time for quiet contemplation. You may choose to focus on forward bends, which are calming and restorative, unless you find the winter to be depressing. If that's the case then continue to work on backbends and other chest-openers such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), or Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (One Legged King Pigeon Pose). You can also try hand balances like Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose), and Bakasana (Crane Pose), all of which require a playful energy and an open mind.
Since the weather is cold, even if your yoga room is warm—and I hope it is—you will need to spend plenty of time warming up your muscles. Try doing some half Sun Salutations before going into full jumpbacks, and move into all asanas slowly and mindfully. Cultivate an interest in what your body is feeling during this season. Rather than thinking, "Ugh, I feel so stiff and tight," explore how you can let go of that thought and how doing so can create freedom in your joints.
Spring is a wonderful season to focus on Sun Salutations. As each day grows a little bit longer, the practice of paying homage to the sun begins to feel like a beautiful call and response between the two of you. It is also a time of new beginnings and can be a great time to introduce new poses into your practice.
Finally, I suggest that you reflect on your own experience of the seasons and whether you want to work with the energy that the season provides or counteract the energy with an opposing focus for your practice.
Also, keep in mind that if you change your practice too frequently, you will not cultivate a sense of grounding within external change. I find it valuable to maintain a similar structure to my practice, no matter what time of day or year. The focus may change, but sticking to the same general format is a powerful technique for going deeper. It may also be helpful to create rituals within your daily practice that are unchanging, like a daily sitting and/or walking meditation, beginning your practice by chanting Om, or doing Sun Salutations.