By Carole Frost, Director MiBODY Ltd, www. MiBODY.me.uk.
Those long and hot summer days are now distant memories, and have given way to the shorter daylight hours of Autumn. Your circadian rhythm, which regulates your body clock, is maintained by exposure to light. So it’s no surprise to feel that it can be harder to get out of bed on a cold dark morning, and the feeling that after work you just want to go home and curl up on the sofa.
The Ayurvedic scholars and yoga gurus certainly knew about circadian rhythms. Termed as dinacharya (day routines), ratricharya (nightly routines) and ritucharya (seasonal routines), traditional observances were encouraged in order to maintain the synchronicity of circadian rhythms with time of the day/night and seasonal fluctuations.
Unlike our ancestors who had no choice but to work with the natural daylignt, our lives are now far from defined by the Sun, both for good and bad. The world continues at a pace despite diminished daylight time, and all sorts of gadgets are now also available to help us get our fix of natural (albeit simulated)daylight.
Without a doubt, our human circadian rhythms were not built to observe the modern day 9-5pm work schedule and block sleeping pattern of the recommended 7-8 hours. So it’s no shock to learn that the changing of the seasons affects around 90% of people’s moods and energy levels. For about 4-6% of individuals, this can escalate to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of clinical depression that fluctuates based on the time of year. It is even reported that as many as 20% experience a more mild form of winter blues. With both of these diagnoses can come symptoms that affect your sleep, including loss of energy and needing 1.75 to 2.5 extra hours of sleep each night.
So what does Yoga have to do with this? Well there is much the practice of yoga can do to help preserve and balance our energy when our physical and mental bodies are out of sync with sunlight, and also when dealing with low mood, depression and anxiety during winter. It’s especially at this time of year that our social clock (the time work starts/finishes, lunch time e.t.c) does not always work well with our own circadian rhythm (i.e. biological clock of the stomach / mental sharpness at work e.t.c). If you are a morning person doing 9am-5pm job, the early start and early to bed routine no doubt works during the winter, but if you are night owl, then modern life is running against the grain, and then made worse in the winter months having to wake in dark mornings.
A circadian rhythm is any biological process, which include physical, mental, or behavioural that roughly follows a 24-hour cycle (in fact ours is slightly longer than 24 hours), and is mainly regulated by sunlight, darkness, and temperature. It primarily influences the sleep-wake cycles, meal times, lung function hormone release, body temperature, and other important bodily functions. Throughout our body we have biological clocks that regulate and coordinate our circadian rhythms. Controlling all of these there is a “master clock” (the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN), this is a large group of nerve cells in the hypothalamus area of the brain that coordinates all the body clocks physiological processes. These individual biological rhythms represent the optimum performance of different organs at certain times, dictating whether they relax or are working to the max! These rhythms are easily disrupted by both physical (including diet), mental, environmental and emotional factors. Yoga and yoga therapy can help with many of these factors.
On a daily level we can reset our internal clocks to adjust seasonally by observing strict routines to maximise / minimise exposure to daylight depending on our work cycles. But yoga is also a great resource to turn to, with its physical asanas and breathing practices offering either stimulating and/or calming benefits. A regular yoga practice can also help to keep our nervous system in balance, hence settling our internal systems when they are at odds with the seasons or social clock.
Increased darkness in winter months can also bring on a feeling of lethargy. A growing body of scientific evidence confirms that regular exercise reduces fatigue and increases energy. A 2006 study published in Psychological Bulletin by authors Puetz, O’Conner, and Dishman looked at sedentary people who suffered from consistent fatigue and found that regular, low-intensity workouts reduced their feelings of fatigue by more than 60% and made them feel more energized throughout the day. Yoga certainly falls into this category from a mere physical perspective of asana.
One of the key benefits of yoga is to help us create and reserve energy in the form of mind and body. In yoga this is called Prana, a familiar word to any Yoga teacher.
The Pranayama or breathing practices of yoga can help with very specific ailments, but generally we can categorise them into stimulating, calming or balancing as are the asanas. One of the best breaths and a prerequisite to all the other pranayamas, is a full yogic breath. If we can learn to be mindful of our breath, and occasionally practice a few full yogic breaths during the day, it will go a long way to help us reduce over stimulating our nervous system relative to our natural rhythm, and hence fight fatigue in the winter. The breathing used in yoga can help us to rid ourselves of sluggish energy we build up by spending too much time indoors away from nature and daylight. We can also readdress this disruption to our internal clock by simply trying to spend more time in natural daylight. Using lunch times for brisk walk, or even switching your gym workout for one that is outside.
The winter nights can take their toll too, and even a simple relaxation or meditation practice at home can help to focus and clear the mind – to put some space between yourself and the day. Meditation allows us to bring energy to the mind, it helps put mistakes of the day behind us and gives us headspace to bring fresh ideas to life.
Similarly waking in the winter months can be far from easy, simple movements can wake-up the body after a night’s sleep, allowing for a gentle limber up before the day begins. It doesn’t have to as strenuous as a Sun Salutation, just mindful gentle joint movements can help.
This is an ever-growing body of evidence and research now backing up many of the claims of Yoga, and although there is still a long way to go, science is beginning to catch up with this 6000 year old discipline.
A study in 2011 sought to discover if Yoga could help rebalance the effect that chemo and radiation therapies had on 410 cancer survivors, these therapies disrupt the circadian rhythm and exacerbate the anxiety and mood disorders experienced by cancer survivors which can impair ultimate recovery and quality of life. It was found that Yoga intervention seemed to have favourably altered circadian rhythm.
Such research backs a wealth of anecdotal evidence, that I’m sure other yoga teachers apart from myself, hear daily from their class participants, that Yoga can help us maintain a healthy and balanced outlook, calm mood, managed stress and a regular sleep pattern no matter what the time of year.
It’s also interesting to note that Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga, links the optimum time for sleeping to cycles in the day. What we learn from this is that by going to bed around 10pm, nature assists us in getting and staying asleep. However getting to bed later than 10pm the mind begins to get active again. This is why Ayurvedic practitioners suggest an early bedtime is best for restoring energy. An ancient piece of advice now backed up by modern research on our sleep cycles.
Yoga can help us maintain a healthy, balanced and regular sleep pattern no matter what the time of year. So rather than just reach for the duvet and hot chocolate this winter, why not try a little yoga to bring you back into balance with the season. Provide your classes with a balance asana, pranayama an meditation practice that helps them embrace the changes in the season. Why wait until after Christmas to make a News Years resolve (or Sankalpa). The changing seasons are an open invitation to adapt to new routines and activities.