A morning yoga practice sounds rather romantic: rolling out of bed with pre-brushed hair, sinking into Child’s Pose in slouchy jammies, a cup o’ tea steaming near the top of your mat. It seems almost too good to be true—and for many of us, the unattainable image of the one described keeps us from trying at all. Good news, yogis. In actuality, morning yoga doesn’t have to be (and let’s face it, usually isn’t) glamorous, vigorous or Instagram-worthy. Simply rolling out your mat and creating space with movement and breath has the ability to calm your nervous system, improve your mood, and set yourself up for a fabulous day.
Your Nervous System, Explained
It’s no secret that yoga has the ability to put us into a relaxed state. Reason being, the practice of yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS): the division of the nervous system associated with rest and regeneration. Stimulating the PNS allows the body respite from the chronic stress of our daily lives.
The PNS’s rousing counterpart, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)—commonly known as the fight or flight response—has the opposite effect. It puts the body into a stress response. Though required for human survival, this mode holds less importance in today’s society than it once did.
Remember the last time you gave that dreaded public speech? Though you weren’t in real danger, those anxious nerves caused your body to default into survival mode. Over time, too much emphasis on the sympathetic nervous system, whether warranted (running from a bear) or not (confrontation with a co-worker), can lead to chronic stress and the many deleterious effects that result, including disease, reduced immunity, a weakened endocrine system and hampered digestion.
Both responses—the PNS and SNS—are “autonomic,” meaning the body shifts from one division to the other automatically. However, we do have the ability to induce the PNS, to persuade our body to move away from it’s fight or flight propensity and into a healing state of restoration. Enter: yoga practice. So the question is, if we can provide an environment where our body activates this relaxation response, why not do it first thing in the morning, before we tackle our day?
Why the Morning Matters
Whatever time we decide to do yoga is the perfect time. We never regret a session. But there is a certain kind of magic to be found on the mat at daybreak. These golden moments allow you to approach your entire day—not just the last piece or second half of it—from a place of steadiness and ease.
We have more space to step back, shift perspective, and take a breath. We are more likely to see other people’s viewpoints and also to listen to what serves our highest good. We are nourished. We are connected. All in all, it offers hiatus from our busybody-status quo, a floating head and talking mouth, disconnected and moving through the hours.
Who Benefits from Morning Yoga?
Those with tight hamstrings or a stressful day ahead aren’t the only ones to benefit from a morning practice. Yoga is gaining momentum as an inexpensive and effective treatment for depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorders, and other mental illnesses. Current research touts yoga as an invaluable part of combination therapy. Subjects are showing decreased anxiety, lower stress, more energy and an improved mood. Whether or not you’ve struggled with the above, I think the vote is unanimous: Each and every one of us could benefit from a better mood and more positive outlook, especially right at the beginning of the day.
Routines are hard. But yoga at dawn doesn’t need to be strenuous or taxing. If you are able to do the first step—to simply roll out your mat and then put your feet or bum or belly or back onto its surface and start to breathe—the rest will fall into place. And then, over time, rather than willing yourself to stick to a regime, the desire for this resulting clarity and space will take over. You will likely begin to seek out your mat, and this break-of-day-joy, bedhead and all.
A Sample Morning Sequence
Start out in Child’s Pose. Wake your breath up; allow it to lengthen and deepen. Stay as long as you’d like. When you get the urge to move, rock your forehead from side to side on your mat, and then let that movement travel toward your hips. Graduate slowly, as the body is ready, up to hands and knees. Circle your torso, wag your tail, take cat/cows.
When you move into Down Dog, make it organic. Allow yourself the freedom to be curious about what feels good. Then move toward it. Remember, it’s early. The mind may be groggy, the body tight.
Add sun salutations and end in meditation. There is no right or wrong.
Each day should look as different as your body feels. If you’d benefit from a ritual, decide to set up your space beforehand. For a simple ritual, light a candle or burn incense. Turn on a fitting playlist. Or, if you just can’t make time for asana, simply enjoy a few deep breaths with your eyes closed in the shower. Your nervous system, your body and mind, and your day ahead with thank you.
Kacey Janeen Waxler is a California-based yoga instructor and writer on the hunt for adventure and good stories. Her words can be located amongst noteworthy brands including Corona Extra, Athleta, and Darling Magazine, and in the flesh she can be found reading unapologetically from the glow of a headlamp, geeking out over sequencing, or neck deep in a deliciously hot bath. Follow her adventures at @kaceyjaneen or kaceyjaneen.com.