06 Oct Hello Darkness, my old friend…
Autumn arrives in a series of double – take moments. That first, brisk morning, the sky an impossible blue. The first tree in the park to dazzle you with its costume change, from green to flaming red, orange or yellow. The first pumpkins outside a shop. The first time you think about putting on a jumper. And then there is the darkness.
The shortening day and the lengthening night approaches with such stealth that it always takes me by surprise. Suddenly I’ll need lights to cycle home.
And then, before I know it, I’m practicing in the dark.
I’ve always been a mornings person. I usually wake up easily, full of the joys of spring. Even when spring is a long way off.
Early starts for practice and teaching are actually two of my favourite things about the job. I used to love the earliest shifts when I cooked for a living, too.
And, as if I didn’t sound weird enough already, I really do like Mondays!
Science has well and truly de-bunked Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that “early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” We now know that most humans belong to one of two, broad chronotypes. As a mostly diurnal mammal, favouring daylight, You have a natural, a.k.a circadian rhythm. This is your body’s clock. It responds to the solar ‘clock’, which basically follows the planet’s spin and tells you whether it is day or night. All these influences on your body function pretty efficiently but not everybody responds to them in the same way. Larks (or M – types) tend to wake early and function best in the morning. Owls (E- types) perform best in the evening and prefer to sleep later. It used to be assumed that these differences were genetic but, increasingly, research shows that our internal rhythms are influenced by a whole host of things, including hormones, which is why they can change. Most of us tend to become more ‘owlish’ in our teens which is why you might remember reading under the duvet having been told to go to bed, or not wanting to get up in time for school! In an ideal world, you’d be able to live in tune with your circadian rhythms all the time. Sadly, humans have found many ways to ignore the solar clock. These days the world runs on another timepiece: the social clock. You only need to look at an image of the earth taken from space to see the influence of artificial light on our planet. It would be ridiculous to claim that lighting up the night is an out and out disaster. Most of us are safer for it, whether we live in urban or rural settings. But it’s no wonder that so many people struggle with their circadian rhythms.
How many of us know which line of latitude we live on? Humans who live within the tropics (less than thirty degrees north or south of the equator) enjoy a fairly even split between night and day, with very little variation, all year round. Above or below those lines, the tilt of the earth’s axis has a seasonal affect on the length of each day. This is because we are either leaning towards or away from the sun, depending on where we are in our orbit. When leaning in, the days are warmer and longer. When we lean away, they cool and shorten. The further you travel from the equator, the more extreme these variations become until, at the poles, it is possible to experience either endless daylight in high summer or endless night in midwinter.
A few years ago I made my first ever trip to Scandinavia. I was in Tromsø, Norway’s most northerly city, deep inside the Arctic circle. It was February and the days were brutally short. Each morning the sun rose at 10, barely skimming the snowy peaks which surrounded the city before it set again at 2 in the afternoon. The daylight was like nothing else I have ever experienced. Imagine a purple dawn followed by a flame – coloured dusk, with nothing between them and you’re just about there. For locals, this glimpse of the sun was something to celebrate.
February marks the end of that seemingly endless, Polar Night (the forbidding – sounding name for those long months when the sun never makes it above the northern horizon). Of course, there is light of a different nature during the darkest months. Every year tourists flock to the Arctic in their millions, hoping for a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. I was one of them. I was in Tromsø to embark on a “Northern Lights Safari”. This involved setting up camp for the night on the shores of an icy fjord, trussed up in the sort of clothes which keep fishermen warm…ish. It was one of the most spectacular nights of my life but, on returning to the city, I did wonder what it was like to live with such long hours of darkness. I expected life to be very much indoors, the way it can be in London during the winter. It’s quite the reverse. The people of Tromso think nothing of hiking or skiing after dark and the Island on which the city sits is criss – crossed with gorgeous nature trails. Strings of lights guide the way through snowy pines. It’s like walking into into a three – dimensional Christmas card. Ever since then, I’ve been determined to embrace, rather than resent the dark mornings of winter.
Because we use so much artificial light to avoid darkness, it’s easy to understand why the lengthening nights of autumn and winter can seem like a negative thing. Reactions to this can range from mild melancholy or a desire to sleep more, to a difficult condition known as seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D) which can require medical treatment.
You don’t need to have a condition like S.A.D to be left feeling off – kilter by the approach of the darker months. And this can affect practice as much as anything else.
At this time of year I often get asked how I stay motivated enough to maintain an early morning practice. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years.
First and foremost…I make a virtue of the darkness:
In India the last “quarter of the night” is known as the Brahma Muhurta. This is the most auspicious time to observe devotional practices. The exact length of the Brahma Muhurta varies between traditions. For some it is two hours, for others…one hour and thirty six minutes. Very precise! Some texts suggest simply taking your cue from nature. Thus the Muhurta begins with the first birdsong. This is also when the lotus flower begins to open. It all ends with the dawn so there is no fixed, global start or finish time. In India the sun rises at roughly 6am all year round but in London it’s only during our autumn and winter that we get to experience a pre – dawn atmosphere (beyond the very small hours). There is something magical about practicing before, or just as the day breaks, so I try to make the most of it.
If you practice in a traditional shala, you’ll notice that the light is kept deliberately low early in the morning. This is to allow day to break softly into the room when it comes. If you practice at home, try and make the lighting atmospheric rather than harsh. Tea lights are great, so are LEDs. You can drape them over shelves or use them to fill a vase or bottle. Ritualise turning your chosen room into a practice space and it will set your intention. Open the curtains to allow yourself to see daybreak.
At Oru space I am using candles alone to light the room until the day breaks. This will allow us to see the daylight grow. It gives the practice a calming and energising quality. Do come and join us early if you want to experience it. If 6.30 seems to early to be leaping around on the mat you can always take a seat and soak up the atmosphere until your body is ready to move with the breath. As I write, the sun is rising at about 7.30 so we currently have one candlelit hour. It will get longer and I’ll use the newsletter to tell you how long we have each month.
If the cooler mornings put you off as much as the darkness here are some ways to mitigate against feeling chilly! Have a warm drink as soon as you rise and, as swiftly as possible, bathe to wake yourself up and warm up your muscles. It is actually traditional to bathe before practice so that you’re squeaky clean on the mat! Rather than sitting around in bedclothes, dress into your practice kit straight after you shower. Then you can put your regular clothes over these for extra insulation when you step out. If you’re not leaving home to practice it can be highly beneficial to wake up the body by going for a brisk stroll around the block (as long as it’s safe to do this in the dark).
Last but not least, for the true owls amongst you, don’t drag yourself onto the mat at a time which doesn’t feel right. It is an urban myth that Astanga Yoga and Mysore style has to be done at the crack of dawn. Many shalas, including Astanga Yoga London, run mid to late morning, as well as evening programmes.
At Oru space we are open until 10am, which will allow daylight practice even in the depths of December…and at AYL Lauren and I open at 5pm every weeknight…where you will find a warm room, an even warmer welcome (and plenty of candlelight to brighten up those long, London evenings).
Contact me Contact me if you’re struggling to find a practice time and place that truly works for you and we’ll work something out.