Last Sunday morning, my alarm went off at 5:40 on the dot. It was the first weekend I'd woken up before the sun in what felt like ages, and I was less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I made my way downstairs for the final day of revitalize—mindbodygreen's annual wellness conference in the Arizona desert.
Eager as I was to tag along on the early morning hike up a nearby trail, I wasn't used to being active this early and the thought of moving was pretty daunting. As soon as I laid eyes on our hike's leaders, though, I immediately felt my energy perk up a few notches. Jasmine Hemsley, the glowy wellness expert and cookbook author behind Hemsley + Hemsley, and Stephen and David Flynn, the twins who brought healthy eating to Ireland with their line of cafés and plant-based snacks, The Happy Pear, introduced themselves with enough gusto to bring a smile to even the most caffeine-deprived among us (probably me).
The science and spirituality behind waking up with the sun.
As the trio set off to lead us into the mountains, I couldn't help but wonder what their secret was. Jasmine then got to telling me that waking up before sunrise was a common practice for her—one that she had adopted after studying ayurveda for her East by West popup in London (and upcoming book of the same name!). Ayurveda is an ancient Indian healing modality that aims to prevent disease by balancing the three energy fields—or doshas—in the body using food, rest, and herbs. In ayurvedic philosophy, the time right before sunrise is filled with energy of the Vata dosha, which promotes movement and stamina. Therefore, retiring to bed before 10 p.m. (the time associated with a slower, restful Kapha energy) and waking up before 6 a.m. will allow you to harness the mental alertness that the first light of sun carries.
Hemsley explained that our tech obsession has steered us away from this age-old practice of going to bed with the moon and waking up with the sun, but if you go camping without your phone, your body will naturally want to get into this rhythm.
I listened to how her new sleep routine has increased her energy and vitality as we made our way up the cacti-splashed terrain, the sun steadily rising with us. Soon, the surrounding mountains were engulfed in a glorious sunny fire, and the world around us took on a shine that only the dawn can deliver.
Tiffany Lester, M.D., functional medicine expert and medical director of Parsley Health San Francisco, was there for the magic, and it left her inspired to take a page from Hemsley's book and make a practice of getting moving before the sun.
"For the last three days I have risen without an alarm clock before dawn and worked out with either yoga or a hike," she told mbg this week. "I was already a natural morning person, but the past few days I have felt more productive and energized throughout the day. The combination of waking up while it's still dark outside and exercising has reinforced my natural circadian rhythm." When you consider the circadian rhythm, ayurveda's sleep-wake principles make a lot of sense.
Your circadian rhythm, or internal clock, is controlled by an area of the brain that responds to light, meaning that we want to wake up to the daylight on a biological level. Somebody with a strong circadian rhythm feels naturally alert in the morning and drowsy come bedtime. Messing with your body's clock by constantly taking on different sleep-wake times or working through the night can therefore lead to sleep disorders and has even been associated with obesity, diabetes, and depression.
Inspired by the idea that laying off the snooze button could bring me more energy, reset my biological clock, and bring me one step closer to becoming as radiant as Hemsley or Dr. Lester, I've started to set my morning alarm for 5:30.
How to become a morning person.
In theory, I've always wanted to be a morning person—somebody who works out, preps a healthy breakfast, meditates, and clears her inbox before even stepping foot in the office. But in practice, I've always had a phobia of setting an alarm much earlier than 7 a.m.
To make early rising a habit, I reached out to our other hike leaders, Stephen and David Flynn, for some help. They were literally doing handstands by the time the group made its way up the mountain, so I figured they must have some tips. It turns out, the duo has also made a routine out of rising and moving with the sun, and they wake up at the crack of dawn every day to swim in the cold Irish sea, oftentimes with hordes of friends.
Their advice was simple: Go to bed early and keep yourself accountable. "We have found that making arrangements with friends always helps. Often there would be no way we would get up at 4:30 a.m. or 5 a.m. on a cold Irish winter morning to train before swimming in the sea, but if we arranged to meet someone to train with, it makes it a lot easier," Stephen tells me. "And as the famous quote goes, 'Early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.' Wealth can mean many things, but we find the real wealth of getting up early is the sense of peace and tranquillity of the quiet hours of the morning. They can help start the day off in a beautiful way!"
Though I don't have a paved trail or open sea next to my downtown Manhattan apartment, I'm excited to put their tips into practice by making a routine of walking outside for some sun first thing in the morning and recruiting others to join me whenever possible. It's no Arizona desert, but the West Side Highway can be pretty invigorating in itself.