When we start to realise how much we are governed by our daily cycles, we begin to notice things. We may notice when we start to wake. We also may notice when we start to fall asleep. Some people are early risers (known as ‘larks’). Others may have a tendency to stay up late (known as ‘owls’). The precise cause of what determines whether someone is a lark or owl may be down to a combination of behavioural and biological circumstances, but broadly speaking humans follow the same cycle of being awake and active during the day, and sleep and resting in the evening.
In the school of Ayurveda, the sister science to Yoga, the times of day are broken down into a number of cycles. It is during these times that govern our sleep wake cycle.
The Morning Cycle (6AM – 10AM) – Elimination, Exercise, Energy
The morning cycle that starts each day is greeted with a sense of heaviness from the previous night time, whereby the element of ‘earth‘ is most present. We can feel this sense of lethargy as we awake, sometimes struggling to get out of bed. Whilst a lie in may be warranted after a long night or week, sleeping through the morning may leave us feeling heavy and groggy. This is because we are sleeping in a cycle that is designed for activity and exercise. Ideally, our wake up time is around the time that the sun is rising.
If we live according to our cycles, often attuned with the rising of the sun, we may notice that at the point of rising, the body becomes finely tuned like a clock. At the point when the night time cycle ends and the new day begins, we may begin the day with the urge to eliminate through a movement through our bowels.
Between the hours of 6AM and 8AM, to counter any lingering feelings of sluggishness or heaviness from the previous night, light exercise is recommended. In yoga of course, we know this as ‘surya namaskar’ or sun salutation. Light exposure is stimulating and the practice of sun salutations honours this. See below myself demonstrating surya namaskar across various parts of London.
credit: Richard Pilnick
Contrary to popular belief, breakfast is not the most important meal of the day (we can thank the Kelloggs brothers for this myth). Although some food may be helpful to provide us with energy to start the day, in Ayurveda the purpose of food in the morning is to lightly stimulate our digestion, preparing us for the main meal during lunch time. Often I find delaying eating until around 10AM helps to bring a more consistent and stable digestion.
The Lunchtime Cycle (10AM – 2PM) – Eating & Sunbathing
During the middle of day, the element of ‘fire‘ is most predominant. The sun is at the peak of its power and it is where our digestive capacity is at its greatest. At this point, we can digest heavier foods for maximum energy and vitality. On a practical level, having a large meal during the middle of the day, reduces the desire for a sugar-fix in the afternoon.
This will also bring the other cycles into balance so that everything is optimised at their naturally designed times.
The sun of course is where we derive the majority of our vitamin D and some exposure to natural light during this time is healthy. Bear in mind that the sun also brings with it the risk of over-exposure, but some exposure during the middle of the day is healthy. We know that strong bones relies upon healthy levels of vitamin D, as well as other areas relating to the immune system and mental health.
The Afternoon Cycle (2PM – 6PM) – Siestas & Energy Slumps
During the afternoon cycle, there is a natural reduction in energy and concentration. It is the predominant time of the element of ‘space‘ and ‘air‘. We may notice that we have trouble concentrating, feel the desire for a nap or otherwise reach for a snack or other short term burst of energy.
The Spanish are of course famous for their naps (known as ‘siestas’) and they may be a short term solution for any feelings of tiredness or low energy. Interestingly enough, whilst a ‘power nap’ may help with feelings of tiredness, napping itself is not recommended for everyone, especially those with a kapha predominance, which may induce feelings of sluggishness and dullness. It is also recommended to nap in a sitting or semi-reclined position.
My own experience of napping suggests they may be useful if I have an existing sleep deficit, but otherwise I try not to include them regularly as they impact my natural sleep cycle. For more information on how to nap, please see here.
The other way to counter feelings of low energy during the afternoon is through healthy, energy-boosting foods and drinks. In the tropics, coconut juice is consumed, sweet lassi in India is enjoyed and herbal tea is sipped throughout Japan and India. This can also help reduce the temptation to over-eat at dinner time, which may affect our quality of sleep.
If exercise is not possible early in the morning, the next best time is late afternoon or early evening, after we have digested our main meal of the day. Exercising too late into the evening stimulates the central nervous system and may interfere with the body’s natural desire to begin winding down.
The Evening Cycle (6PM – 10PM) – Light Food & Unwinding
After 6PM, the qualities of the ‘earth‘ begin to emerge again. It is the time for slowing down. As the sun sets, so does our digestive capabilities or ‘fire’. It is not just our digestion that begins to slow down, but all of our major organs and bodily functions. One of the hallmarks during this period is ‘eating light’. Eating heavy meals at night interferes with the body’s natural rest and restore functions during sleep (as we will see in the next section).
Of course, this is the complete opposite in the western world where often their heaviest meal of the day in the evening is consumed, especially after a long day at work, and perhaps with inefficient nutritional habits during the day. It has also been suggested that weight gain may also be attributed to the time of day that people eat. One study found that mice which ate at irregular times put on almost two and half times the amount of weight than those that ate at regular times whilst consuming the same amount and type of food. So the lesson is not to calorie count, but to be mindful of the time of the day that those calories are consumed.