Restore Your Rhythm with Yoga
Are you feeling ‘a bit off’?
When I asked about the next workshop, sleep, digestion and dealing with anxiety were popular suggestions. And also we just kept on talking about it getting dark. And cold. And winter. And SAD. Yep – me too! Then I realised there’s a theme here. We’ve become disconnected to the natural flow of things. Let’s be honest, we’ve been drifting away from the rhythm of nature since the industrial revolution, but technology and now the sense of isolation through covid seem to have highlighted this feeling.
Nourished by Nature
Every day your wellbeing is nourished by a host of unseen cycles. They work together in harmony with the external world to synchronise the systems inside. Life has a rhythm but somehow we’ve lost the beat. We’re disconnected from the flow of natural cycles.
In the depth of winter, I found learned that there was in me an invincible summer
I want to say that these internal clocks help you to run like clockwork, but in truth that’s some of the problem. We think of ourselves as a machine, like cogs that intermesh. We assume that we work in straight lines with certain outcomes. But you are a far more beautiful and complex system, entwined in your inner world, but is also intimately connected to and shaped by the world outside.
From dawn to dusk and back through to dawn again, scores of systems cycle through gently rising and falling states of activity and rest. You can see it reflected in nature. Seasons nudge along slowly, blurring the edges between spring to summer to autumn to winter. Plants grow, bloom, flourish and die back to rest. When we pay attention to nature we notice markers that were so important to our ancestors – the first spring bud, the crops growing, the leaves turning, the first frost on bare branches. We notice the days stretching out and growing longer and then light dissolving away and days becoming shorter. When we pay attention, we’re aware of the almost imperceptible change as the natural thermostat rises and falls through the seasons.
We have our own 'seasons'. Yoga practice follows how things are for you now - whether it's morning or evening, summer or winter, whether you're feeling energised or tired. It helps to gently reset your rhythm and find a sense of balance and ease with the world.
Circadian rhythms are well known. It’s a sleep and waking cycle that follows the ebb and flow of daylight. Refreshing sleep is important for your physical and mental health so it’s been studied in some depth. The cycle is governed by a delicate balance of hormones like melatonin which helps you relax and drop off to sleep as well as adrenaline and cortisol which give you the get up and go to get up and go! Your ancient ancestors relied on cortisol – a stress hormone – to fight or run for survival. You can see why 21st century stress messes with your sleep patterns.
Our disconnection from nature goes deeper. We rely on bright, blue dominant (especially from screens) artificial light to extend the day. We expect to turn out the artificial daylight and fall asleep on the spot. The alarm clock wakes us up, no matter when we went to bed or where we are in our sleep cycle.
This is a newer area of research, but it’s growing. Your gut bacteria align body systems into patterns that take good care of your wellbeing and health. They have their own internal rhythms, separate to your body, that change depending on what you eat and what time you eat. They are primed to help you digest food most effectively in the morning and their performance gradually wanes through the day. A big meal in the evening is harder to digest and more likely to stick around the body as fat or lead to problems regulating your blood sugar.
In winter we crave warm, hearty food. But we have access to foods out of season and from different climates all the year round. Often by new year we’re wondering why we struggle to stick to our resolution to eat a diet of green smoothie and salad. Your gut is also a big element of your immune system and produces feel good chemical, serotonin, so it makes sense to take special care of its natural rhythm.
Your breath is a barometer of how you’re feeling but it’s so subtle that we rarely notice how it's responding to what’s going on.
This is an area that I find fascinating but with next to no clinical research. Yet. I hope someone will pick it up in the future. When we practice nadi shodhana – alternate nostril breathing – we’re aiming to balance the air flow in both nostrils. Each nostril is said to nourish a different part of your brain and system. The right nostril is said to be the sun nostril which is energising, logical and gives you the va va voom to get up in the morning. The left nostril is said to be the moon nostril which is soothing, cooling and the one that helps you to fall asleep at night. Throughout the day and night, one nostril is more dominant than the other and the dominant nostril switches about every 90 minutes. That’s about the same time that a sleep cycle lasts. No idea if that’s a coincidence. In yoga this breath flow is called ‘swara’.
There is research to show that breathing through your nose has a kind of magical (my word!) soothing effect that helps to calm your nervous system. There’s a theory that the air moving over your olfactory nerve in your nose (one that’s connected directly to your brain) is somehow soothing. I find when one nostril is dominant for a long time that I feel like I’m coming down with a cold or infection and I pay extra attention to resting and eating well.
In winter, breathing through your nose is the best option to take care of your lungs. Your nose pre-conditions the air by filtering, warming and moistening it before it reaches to your lungs so they’re not irritated by freezing cold, dry winter air.
For me, winter is a great opportunity and a colossal challenge. I crave the warmth and light of spring, summer and autumn and yearn for nature’s calming green leaves. But when I can tune into this season’s invitation to find space to rest and reflect, embrace warm hearty food and snuggle up to soft fabrics, I discover a different side to the season. It can be a time to cosy up, to connect, to wrap up warm and go outside anyway and stomp away the chilly winter blues.
How will you use your awareness and embrace winter?