Updated: Jul 21, 2022
Traditionally speaking there are different lineages of Yoga that extoll the virtues of practicing Yoga at different times of the day. In Ashtanga, you're to practice 6 days a week, very early in the morning for a long, intense session. In some lineages midday practices should be avoided, and some have no stipulations at all for timings and frequency of practice.
If we look at the science behind our Yoga practice, and the way we're impacted by modern living, we can see there are definite benefits of tailoring your practice to support your circadian cycle (the 24hour day/night cycle) and in some instances, you can even over stress the body with an 'unthoughtful' Yoga program, and disturb your circadian rhythm enough to cause poor sleep, stress and anxiety.
So what are the key components we need to think about for a morning practice? Well it's the time of day that most of us, particularly men, have the most energy and are most alert so our Yoga practice should reflect that. Dynamic practices that create heat to mobilise the body, and strength work that activates stabilisers to help 'hold us up' in nice alignment for the day day, are particularly useful to the modern desk-bound Yogi. We also want to stimulate, and balance, the branch of the autonomic nervous system that helps ready us for action and movement; the sympathetic nervous system.
Morning practices that can stimulate the sympathetic ('get-up-and-go') nervous system include Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Jivamukti, Dharma & Power. We can go deeper still and look at groups of Asana that can benefit your morning practice; backbends, for example, have long been deemed 'energizers'. Generally speaking backbends increase heart rate, require a huge muscular effort and really 'wake us up' and so are great for a morning practice. See for yourself next time you're up in full wheel or bow pose - the intense rush of 'high energy' you feel post pose really is tangible. It's for that reason I rarely encourage backbends in evening practices, particularly for people with poor sleep patterns, as dynamic practices and big backbend poses that stimulate adrenaline (and that high energy 'rush') can sometimes serve to disturb your sleep and recovery.
Backbends can be very energising, and help stimulate the sympathetic nervous system; great for your morning practice, but not for before bed if you struggle with sleep.
When we think of yoga, we tend to think of relaxation and the mindful, restorative effects it can have on the body, but so many Yoga practices nowadays are powerful to the point of crossing into high intensity training territory, a type of exercise that needs to be carefully managed. For any high intensity movement we do, we need to allow ample time to rest and recover, and we need to make sure we aren't over cooking our adrenal system, particularly if we have a high stress job or daily life - your body simply can't handle too much adrenaline! So next time you're looking for a Yoga class to do on your 'rest day', you might want to steer clear of the aforementioned styles, and possibly drop the big backbends and intense inversions.
As a breathwork practitioner, I also feel it's important to mention how breathwork can be tailored for different times of the day too, and can be just as powerful as your Asana practice in modulating the nervous system. If we want to simplify the effect the breath has on the body, it can either stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (aka 'fight or flight') or the parasympathetic ('rest & recover') or help to bring the two into better balance.
It's important to tailor the style of breathwork you practice to the time of day too...
In a very oversimplified way, the inhale corresponds to sympathetic activation, the exhale to parasympathetic. In the morning we want to stimulate (and balance nicely) the sympathetic branch, and so breathwork that focuses on longer inhales, breath holds, or more rapid breathing such as 'Breath Of Fire' can be lovely. A fully balanced breath ratio (4:4:4:4) which I like to call 'Castle breathing' is my favourite balancing Pranayama for mornings, and for a midday balancing break. You can practice it with me here. Again be cautious not to be too Gung ho with the breath in the evenings; for pre-sleep breathwork, or if you're in a very high stress state, a focus on lengthening the exhale is much more suitable.
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