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Day and Night

India's ancient system of medicine offers simple practices you can do to balance your energy and boost your health.

By Shannon Sexton

woman in robe

If waking up is a struggle, midday finds you crashing, and you're restless and alert at bedtime, it may be time to reset your clock. According to Ayurveda, yoga's 5,000-year-old sister science, one of the keys to good health and feeling great all day long is living in tune with nature's cycles. Literally and energetically, that means rising and setting with the sun. To help you align your system more closely with the cycles of nature, Ayurvedic tradition recommends a routine of morning and nighttime practices collectively known as dinacharya. These rituals are designed to give you calm, focused, sustainable energy to support meditation, yoga, and everything you do throughout the day.

"When I do my dinacharya, there's a sense that I'm taking really good care of me," says Kathryn Templeton, founder of the Himalayan Institute's Ayurvedic yoga specialist training program and an Ayurvedic practitioner in New Haven, Connecticut. "My ability to meditate, teach, parent, and practice feels steadier and easier. And I experience more peace of mind."

To get back in sync, make over your daily routine with the simple Ayurvedic practices. The morning practices are cleansing and energizing; they'll infuse you with a calm sense of presence. The evening ones will help you wind down for a restful sleep. Movement, such as yoga asana, and meditation are also essential to dinacharya. Consider incorporating asana before breakfast and meditation in the morning and evening.

Choose one or two of these practices to start, and after a week, take note of your energy level and mood. Then add a few more and repeat the observation process. Over time, these practices may become as routine as brushing your teeth.

Shine: Ayurvedic Tips for the Morning
1. Rise

According to Ayurveda, the predawn hours are dominated by vata dosha, a subtle energy that actually makes it easier ;to get out of bed. Waking before sunrise fills you with vibrant energy for the rest of the day. On the other hand, if you wake up after sunrise, a time dominated by kapha's heavy, earthy energy, you're likely to feel sluggish. Predawn is also considered an auspicious time of day because its atmosphere is still and quiet, making it easier to turn inward and meditate, says Templeton.

2. Rinse

To flush out any germs, pollen, dust, or congestion that have accumulated overnight, try jala neti, a nasal cleansing technique that rinses the sinuses with warm saline with the aid of a teapot-like vessel called a neti pot. Jala neti is a nice prelude to a morning pranayama or meditation practice. According to yoga tradition, it equalizes the flow of breath between the nostrils and balances the ida and pingala nadis—two energy channels that pave the way for inner exploration.

Pour a cup of warm water (sterilized or distilled) into a neti pot. Add 1/4 teaspoon of non-iodized salt (kosher or sea salt), stirring until it dissolves. Insert the spout into your left nostril, lean over the sink, and tilt your head slightly to the right so the water flows through the sinus passages and out of the right nostril. Gently blow your nose and repeat on the other side. (Watch a video demonstration here.) When you're finished, lie on your back, tilt your head back, and put a few drops of warm sesame oil or ghee (clarified butter) in your nostrils.

3. Cleanse

Ayurveda recommends a practice called tongue scraping to remove the coating that appears overnight, which contains ama, or toxins, said to eventually cause illness. Using a tongue scraper, gently comb your tongue from back to front several times. Rinse the scraper between sessions. Doing this before you brush your teeth is thought to stimulate the digestive response and get your body thinking about its first meal.

4. Sip

Before you brush your teeth, eat, or drink coffee, mix the juice of half a lemon in a cup of warm water (with an optional pinch of rock salt and 1/2 teaspoon of honey), and drink up. According to Valencia Porter, MD, director of integrative medicine at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, California, this drink flushes the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract and stimulates your agni (digestive fire) so you're ready to metabolize breakfast.

5. Massage

According to Ayurveda, massaging your body with warm, pure oils promotes detoxification and moisturizes skin—especially in the drier fall and winter months. It also stimulates circulation and quiets the nervous system. Treat yourself to a 10-minute abhyanga, traditionally performed in the morning.

Porter suggests standing on a towel in your bathroom with warmed, organic, cold-pressed sesame oil at the ready. Using circular strokes, begin with your scalp, followed by your face and neck. Apply oil to your palms as needed, and work your way down one shoulder, arm, wrist, and hand, using long, up-and-down strokes along your limbs and circular strokes on your joints. Repeat on the other side.

Massage your chest and back, and then gently massage your abdomen in a clockwise direction. Rub your hips in a circular motion, and massage one leg at a time, using long strokes on your leg bones and circular strokes on the joints. If you have time, relax and let the oil soak in for 10 to 20 minutes. Then, standing on a wet towel in the shower to prevent slipping, scrub off with a mild cleanser. (Don't want to put oil on your scalp or face? You can use your dry fingertips instead.)

Unwind: Ayurvedic Tips for Nighttime
1. Dim

As the sun goes down, lower the lights in your home to signal to body and mind that the frenetic pace of the day's activities is coming to an end—and that it's time to stop being "on." According to modern Ayurvedic experts like Porter, that means minimizing screen time on your electronic devices for at least an hour before bed, too. Wind down by reading something uplifting or spending time with your family or friends.

2. Infuse

As night falls, light a stick of incense or a sandalwood and vanilla candle. Or add a few drops of these aromas, in the form of essential oils, to a warm bath. From an Ayurvedic perspective, says Porter, these scents have a calming, balancing, grounding effect. "When we consistently associate these aromas with a particular state of being, such as relaxation, we create a memory in the brain," she says. "The next time we breathe in these aromas, our neurophysiology remembers that state of relaxation."

3. Soothe

"There are several marma points, or Ayurvedic pressure points, on the foot that correspond to the entire body," says Hilary Garivaltis, dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. "Doing a foot massage, you can relax the entire body in just a few minutes."

Wash and dry your feet. Apply warmed, organic, cold-pressed sesame oil to one foot at a time, using your palms to rub the sole from heel to toe in small circular motions. Repeat on the top of the foot. Massage the ankle, followed by the sides of the foot. Interlace your fingers between your toes, gently push the foot to flex and point, and make clockwise and counterclockwise circles. Beginning with the little toe, rub each toe gently, and apply a little pressure in the webbing. Finally, pull each toe slightly, and put on clean cotton socks to sleep in.

4. Savor

Before bed, heat a cup of organic whole milk until it boils. Add a pinch of ground cardamom, nutmeg (spices that, in Ayurveda, are said to promote sleep), and cinnamon (to aid digestion). Let it cool a bit and add honey to taste. Warm whole milk is used in Ayurveda as an insomnia remedy. Don't drink milk? Sip chamomile, valerian, or lemon balm tea.

5. Breathe

To calm yourself for sleep, or before you sit for evening meditation, spend a few minutes doing Nadi Shodhana (also known as alternate nostril breathing). This cleansing breath practice calms the nervous system and, on a more subtle level, opens and balances the sushumna nadi, an energy channel that quiets and steadies the mind.

Place your right thumb over your right nostril to close the airway. Inhale through the left nostril, and then use your ring finger to close off the left nostril. Lift your thumb, and exhale out of the right nostril. Breathing in through the right nostril and putting your thumb over your right nostril again, exhale out of your left nostril. This completes a single round; try to do 5 to 10 rounds per sitting. "This practice helps you transition from activity to stillness," relaxing the body and mind, Porter says. (Watch a demonstration of Nadi Shodhana here.)

Shannon Sexton is a regular contributor to Yoga Journal. Her poems and creative nonfiction have been anthologized in five books including the series Stories from Where We Live.

November 2013

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