Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
If that morning mantra “rise and shine” strikes you as the ultimate oxymoron, you might have something to gain from Ayurveda‘s approach to waking up. According to Ayurvedic philosophy, choices that you make regarding your daily routine either build up resistance to disease or tear it down. Ayurveda calls for getting a jump-start on the day by focusing on morning rituals that work to align the body with nature’s rhythms, balance the doshas, and also foster self-esteem alongside self-discipline. Adopting just one or more of the following practices for a month can radically alter your experience of the day. Don’t be surprised if you begin to view mornings in a new light.
Beat the Sun: Roll out of bed at least 20 minutes before sunrise. Vata energy fills the atmosphere during these pre-dawn hours, and since vata is known for movement this is the ideal time to rouse your body. “By waking up before sunrise, you are exposed to the special energy in the air,” says Vaidya Rama Kant Mishra, an Ayurvedic expert in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “It’s a good idea to wake up, go out, and get that breeze in your body.” For when sunlight illuminates the sky, vata energy is replaced by kapha, or muscle, energy, explains Michael Sullivan, the director of Riverview Spa, an Ayurvedic yoga retreat in Buckingham, Virginia. Sunrise means it is time to get moving. And indeed if you are already up, the transition will be a snap. Once your feet hit the floor, savor the stillness by indulging in a brief round of pranayama and Sun Salutations or by going to the cushion for a short meditation.
Activate Your Innards: The Ayurvedic philosophy believes the first item you ingest sets the mood for the remainder of the day. With that thought in mind, drink a glass of lukewarm water flavored with a fresh slice of lemon or lime. Here, the Ayurvedic reasoning is twofold. The warm water serves to stimulate the gastrointestinal tract and peristalsis—the waves of muscle contractions within the intestinal walls that keep things moving. Secondly, lemons and limes are high in minerals and vitamins and help loosen ama, or toxins, in the digestive tract.
Face Value: Sleep is tough on the face. Rinsing your face upon waking is an easy way to disperse heat, or leftover pitta energy, and prepare the skin for the day’s challenges, namely heat, stress, and pollution. Thus Mishra recommends splashing the face seven times with cool, preferably nonchlorinated water. (An auspicious number in Ayurveda, seven represents the body’s chakras, or energy centers.) “The face is the most exposed area of the body, so morning rehydration is crucial,” he says. “All day the face is bombarded with stresses. The more hydration the better.” Overnight, trapped heat also dries out the mouth. So while rinsing your face, take a sip of cool water, swish it slowly, and spit it out when it gets lukewarm. Repeat two to three times.
Mind Your Mouth: Whereas many of us may dismiss morning tongue-fuzz as an innocuous by-product of sleep, Ayurveda interprets it as a sign of undigested ama lurking in the digestive tract. Ayurvedic practitioners thus rely on the aptly named tongue scraper to dislodge ama, lest it be reabsorbed while eating or drinking. (Both plastic and metal tongue scrapers are sold at many health food stores, but a stainless steel spoon works in a pinch.) Scrape the tongue gently, working from back to front. Use seven to 14 strokes to cover the entire area. This not only rids the tongue of ama, but also unearths the taste buds, awakening the gastric fire for another day of savoring food.
Then tap the teeth together a few times to stimulate the energy meridians that lie in the mouth. For healthy gums and enamel, brush your teeth with a soft nylon or a natural bristle toothbrush. (Using a hard toothbrush can cause gum recession, pain between the teeth and gums, and damage enamel.) Use a toothpaste free of synthetic chemicals and harsh abrasives. Ayurvedic toothpastes contain herbs, such as neem, lohdra, and kushta, that will help stimulate gums and protect enamel. After brushing, rinse your mouth for two to three minutes with warm olive or sesame oil (swish and spit, don’t swallow). “Gargling with warm oil strengthens the teeth, gums, and jaws as well as protecting the voice,” says Amita Banerjee, an Ayurvedic nutritionist at New York’s Ayurvedic Beauty Holistic Center. Then use the index finger to massage the remaining oil into the gums with small, counterclockwise motions. A gum massage stimulates gum tissue, lubricates cells, and cleanses digestive fire.
Be Sense Sensitive: An ear massage is a boon to the entire body. Begin at the top of the ear and use the thumbs and index fingers to rub the rim, moving slowly down to the lobe. Then place a few drops of sesame oil just outside the opening to the ear canal to keep drying vata energy in check. Ayurveda considers the nose the pathway to the brain, so Banerjee suggests rubbing up to four drops of sesame or olive oil just inside the nostril to clean the sinuses and ensure mental clarity.
Watch Your Peepers: In Ayurveda, eyes are viewed as “the seat of the fire,” meaning they are pitta in nature and overheat easily. So lightly splashing cool water into opened eyes helps balance the doshas. If your eyes are extra puffy or irritated, cover them with either slices of cucumber or cotton balls soaked in aloe vera, cooled fennel tea, or milk. (Goat’s milk is cooler and therefore preferable, but cow’s milk is also fine.) For bloodshot eyes, try three drops of pure rose water in each eye. Strengthen neglected eye muscles and stimulate the optic nerve with a few simple eye movements. Roll the eyes up and down, side to side, and diagonally. Then rotate them in a clockwise and counterclockwise direction. Finish by tightly squeezing the eyes shut and then releasing. Do this several times.
Indulge in a Self-Massage: Massaging one or more energy channels with aromatic oil floods the mind and body with healing energy. Start by choosing an aroma that matches your dosha. To balance vata use ginger, cardamom, or orange; pitta prefers the cool, sweet scents of sandalwood or lavender; kaphas respond best to eucalyptus, rosemary, or sage. Place a drop of oil on the ring finger of the right hand and rub it gently onto the third eye point between your brows, using small, clockwise circles. Deepen and slow your inhalation and exhalation as you count 11 full breaths. If you feel groggy, Mishra suggests stimulating the energy channels between the head and heart by using light pressure against the temples with the flat sides of four fingers. Do not push with the fingertips; instead, press gently on the sides of your head.
Take a Dip: A bath rehydrates the skin and fends off fatigue. All three doshas benefit from a quick cleansing, but water temperature varies by constitution. Pittas benefit from cool water, while lukewarm water is ideal for vatas, and even warmer temperatures are best for balancing cool-natured kaphas. A core belief of Ayurveda is that anything put on the skin is eventually assimilated by the body, so lower the body’s toxicity by avoiding products rife with perfumes and synthetic chemicals, opting instead for Ayurvedic soaps and shampoos.
Eat Wisely: It’s never wise to skip breakfast, cautions Banerjee. But, you shouldn’t overindulge in the morning either. “From sunrise to 10 a.m. is kapha time, a time for exercising and moving,” says Sullivan. “A light meal won’t overload the digestive fire, which doesn’t peak until noon.” Begin your day with fruit, vegetable juice, nonfat yogurt, or grains, like muesli or granola.