I thank you, ever-living sovereign, for restoring my soul to me in mercy.
How great is your trust!
– Traditional Jewish Prayer for the Morning
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Like all of my days, as soon as I opened my eyes this morning, I said the above prayer. Then, in the period of time between splashing my face with cool water and sitting down to work, I recited seven additional prayers or chants. And that’s not counting several OMs and an affirmation meditation.
Prayer, meditation and chanting are part of my Morning Sadhana, or routine. Ideally, my daily practices also include yoga movement, a walk in nature, breathing exercises, a drink of lemon water and more. And ideally, all of this happens before sunrise.
Why do I do so much?
After 20 years of observing morning Sadhana in some form or another, I can guarantee its positive results: a peaceful day, for me and everyone around me.
With my background of addiction recovery, trauma survival and all that comes with those poignant life-shapers, and, with my current journey as a yoga practitioner and teacher, having a peace-making morning routine is essential.
The primary result of my routine is good health in body, mind and spirit. Avenues to that result include: cultivating gratitude, connecting with a power great than me, awakening the whole body, stimulating digestion and balancing the nervous system.
(A note about “power greater than me” – from my experience and perspective, that power can be any being or resource outside of myself that consistently has my best interest in mind, that has more expertise than me in a certain area, and/or, whose influence restores my serenity when I am feeling off. It could take the form of a metaphysical/spiritual “god,” best friend, doctor, ritual, quote, physical icon…or sometimes, just an oblivious, message-bearing stranger along my path. It could have a proper name – i.e. Ronni, Doctor Smith, God, Ganesha, Nanak, Allah, Great Spirit – or a general character – i.e. nature, scientific theory, ever living sovereign, great mystery, infinite consciousness. Most importantly, whatever it is, it is not ME. And it is greater than ME because at any given moment of imbalance, its presence brings me to be my best self.)
At this point, my ideal morning Sadhana spans one to two hours, depending on the day of the week, what I have planned during the day and/or the time of morning. When I first started following teachers’ advice to create a morning routine, the practice might have taken 10 to 30 minutes. Over the years, though, I have collected so many effective traditions and rituals to address my oft distracted or triggered mind that, for me, it’s worth the time commitment.
That is my ideal. However…
During the past six weeks, long days started at 6:30am, and included a juggling act of teaching Summer Camp 8am-4pm, managing a yoga studio part-time, teaching regular evening and weekend classes, plus trying to enjoy life! In order to prioritize a good night’s sleep, I had to leave out some of the morning routine, practice parts while driving to camp, and/or finish parts at camp.
Boy, did it show! That guaranteed peacefulness dwindled. I became impatient in traffic, allowed small annoyances to make me grumpy, and had less patience with everyone and everything – including myself, which fed the cycle of self-criticism, annoyance, grumpiness and impatience! Argh!
Having a morning Sadhana is a double-edged sword – if I keep up, I am gold. If I slack, I am struggling to shine. Overall, as I said, the pay off is 5-million percent worthwhile.
Your practice could be as short or long as you wish, depending on personal needs. If interested, you might pick and choose little parts of the following routine – AWAKEN BEFORE DAWN, PRAY, CLEANSE, MOVE, MEDITATE/CHANT – and shape them for your own unique morning Sadhana.
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Here is my morning Sadhana. My complete ideal practice takes up to two hours; but an abbreviated practice can take as little as 30 minutes.
AWAKEN BEFORE DAWN
In 1993, my Kundalini yoga teachers highly recommended waking up before sunrise to meditate. I had every intention to do so! And I was happy to participate in pre-dawn meditation when on a retreat or doing a special workshop with a group. But it wasn’t quite time for me to do this regularly on my own.
These days, I do start most days between 5:30 and 6:30am. Pre-dawn energy feels neutral – removed from the previous day’s worries, and not yet taken hostage by the new day’s projections. There is something about opening my eyes in the darkness and conducting a Sadhana in low light that simply prepares my mind to tackle all that might arise during the day with peace and balance.
Ayurvedic science claims that pre-dawn atmosphere is dominated by sattvic (or calming) qualities that support peace of mind. I understand that waking up at 5:30am can seem extreme; after all, it did take me years and years to experience early rising as an enjoyable habit!
If I cannot awaken pre-dawn, I keep the blinds drawn and my home as dark as possible. I used to think that the best morning practice was next to an open window or outdoors in natural light, greeting nature and allowing my self to awaken with the pulse of the external world. However, since my 4-week yoga teacher training, during which we started each day in darkness without drawing the blinds (despite the natural beauty surrounding us), I came to embrace that above-described neutrality. It simply creates a clean slate for the day.
Plus, when my house is dark, I am less likely to delay my morning Sadhana due to getting distracted by the plant that needs watering or the stray eyebrow that needs plucking or the laundry that needs folding!
Immediately after opening my eyes, I express thanks for the gift of another day by saying the prayer quoted above. A grateful beginning is important for me, because many times during my crooked and “eventful” journey, I veered off a healthy path, and could have died. The Modah also reminds me that a higher power (which is an individual notion for each person, of course) trusts me to carry along in its world…as well as I can…each day.
I then splash my face with water, stand facing east, chant a few OMs and recite an additional four prayers.
Choosing prayers is a very personal experience. Currently, mine are a collection from my Jewish heritage, Hindu traditions and yoga influences, as well as adaptations from addiction recovery programs. I might, at times, also include Native American, Sufi or Buddhist verses. I have even included Santeria chants. For me, finding prayers that help set daily and long-term intentions is important. No matter what the origin, my chosen prayers are primarily themed toward surrendering my strong will, accepting help, being of service and cultivating healthy connections.
Here are the four I recite facing east…
Karagre vasate Lakshmi (At the tips of my fingers is well-being, abundance and beauty – gifts from Lakshmi); Kara-madhye Saraswati (In the palms of my hands is creative community, eloquent communication and learning – gifts from Saraswati); Kara-mule sthita Gauri (at the heel of my hand is Shakti, powerful meditation and the balancing force for Shiva – gifts from Gauri); Prabhate kara-darshanam (I envision all of these gifts in my hands). I recite this traditional Hindu prayer to the great goddesses in Sanskrit, three times, slowly, looking at my hands, with great consideration and appreciation for each gift. I then lift my hands toward the sky in a gesture of sharing these gifts with all beings and of offering them back to their divine source.
Creator, I am yours. Please build with me and do with me as you need, as you will, as you wish. May I be relieved of self-centeredness, that I may better play a right-sized, useful role in your big picture. Thank you for being with me through difficulties, for bringing opportunities, and sharing joy. May I do your will always. Adapted from recovery program literature, this prayer hopefully establishes a humble beginning to the day. I grew up extremely self-reliant, which means that I can sometimes – thankfully less and less – have a hard time accepting help. Some employers definitely took advantage of this tendency, as I took on way more than I was prepared, acknowledged or paid for. Some friends and ex-s gave up on trying to share life as I plowed through everything on my own. Live and learn. The positives to this prayer? Surrendering my strong will to some benevolent greater power definitely keeps me from acting overly selfish, fearful, egotistical or otherwise destructive. It sets my focus on being useful to others – step by step, day by day.
In my relationships, I earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity and for the strength to do the right thing. Woo! This is a big one for me and also comes from recovery literature – specifically, in a passage about shaping healthy sexual relationships in sobriety! To be honest, with this verse, I am praying to embrace ideals, accept advice, act sane and do the right thing in ALL of my relationships – romantic or otherwise. Humans are complicated, sensitive and unique – and I yearn for healthy, positive connections.
Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me. I pray to be relieved of anything that stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows today. Grant me strength as I go from here to do your bidding. Another ego-busting recovery prayer, before I go into the rest of my Sadhana and day, which shapes the mind toward being of service to others. What strikes me deeply about this verse is the request to borrow a higher power’s strength in case I don’t have enough of my own – or in case I am trying to be too forceful with my own strength, instead of flowing along with a greater purpose and will. I feel great relief, support and motivation each time I say this prayer.
I understand that one could feel vulnerable giving up a strong will in exchange for surrender. In my experience, the more I take my plans and hopes and expectations out of the center of my thoughts (which doesn’t mean abandoning them completely, but instead, dwelling on them less), and the more I focus on being useful and of service to others (even in simple ways like smiling while walking down the street and or doing my job really well), the more I generate an inner peace. And the more I feed a cycle of peace around me.
There is no need to recite multiple prayers. The initial, awakening Modah would probably suffice for me (and sometimes must, depending on my schedule). However, I enjoy reciting my little collection of five. And sometimes, if I am observing a specific study or focus in my yoga practice (i.e. my recently concluded 100-day exploration of Ahimsa), I might also light a stick of incense and set a specific intention for the day. How one prays is an individual decision. Some kneel, some stand, some sit, others do movement. Some light candles, some light incense, some open windows. Some are silent, some louder. It all comes down to personal preference, motivation and significance.
Next, I focus on awakening the body. You might approach this in your own way, with practices that internally and externally cleanse.
Many medical systems, including India’s Ayurvedic tradition, recommend drinking room-temperature lemon water soon after waking, and most definitely before ingesting anything else, to stimulate a healthy bowel movement. In my yoga teacher training, I learned that most disease originate in the digestive system; so I am happy to drink bitter water to encourage healthy digestion.
I also brew a homemade tea of fresh ginger root, cinnamon stick, clove, cardamom, turmeric and black pepper. These ingredients stoke the digestive fire (known in Ayurveda as “agni”) in order to sustain healthy digestion throughout the day. In the order of my Sadhana, I wait until just before meditation to begin sipping the tea.
Continuing to follow Ayurvedic recommendations, I then brush my teeth, tongue and mouth to remove bacteria and improve digestion. Finally, I wash my face and hands with a Sandalwood-scented soap, to evenly awaken my dominant “dosha” (body/personality type) of “Pitta” (fire).
MOVE: OUTDOOR WALK, HATHA YOGA, YOGA NIDRA & PRANAYAMA
In this phase of Sadhana, I continue to subtly awaken my senses, my body, my breathing and my whole self.
A brief, early morning, outdoor walk has proven – for me – to make a huge difference in my day. This stroll is not exercise-based, nor is it time for me to greet and/or engage with everyone I see. This meditative and simple lap around the block gives me the opportunity to awaken and stretch my eyes, deepen my breath with natural air and gently ease into the rhythm of life. When rushed for time, I’ve tried to substitute with everything from taking deep breaths at an open window, walking to work or driving to my busied destination with the windows open. Nothing suffices. The brief outdoor walk is a mood-stabilizing ritual and well worth the 10 minutes!
After my walk, I return to my still-darkened room to practice Hatha Yoga. I begin with a series of Sun Salutations that progress from old-school Integral Yoga for digestion stimulation and nerve balance, through Ashtanga- and Jivamukti-inspired styles for strength and energy. I also include Pigeon Pose for my frequently ache-y hips, and Twists for my spine and…you guessed it…digestion.
If I have the luxury of 20 minutes at this point in my morning routine, I enjoy a guided Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) CD by DC-based yoga and meditation teacher Jonathan Foust. Jonathan takes us through systematically relaxing the body, breath and mind for a restful yet aware experience. The practice of even a 5- to 15-minute, self-guided, systematically relaxing Yoga Nidra after Hatha movement gives the body time to integrate the benefits of each Asana (pose). In addition, due to its profoundly rejuvenating effects, Yoga Nidra can bring deep healing of many forms, and, when done in the midst of a tiring day, can feel more energizing than a nap.
To awaken and balance the nervous system after deep relaxation, I practicing breathing exercises (aka Pranayama). I begin with a basic yogic technique called Deergha Swasam, which encourages a long, easeful, emptying exhale followed by an energetic, completely filling inhale – both through the nostrils. This deliberate three-part breath travels through the three parts of the lungs – inhaling upward from the low lungs (belly area), middle lungs (rib area) and upper lungs (collar bone area), then exhaling back downward. Focusing on the thoroughly emptying exhale creates a deeper inhale whose consequently deeper oxygenation can help strengthen the immune system. Following a few minutes of Deergha Swasam, I move on to a rapid, naval-pumping breath called Kapalabhati. Again through the nostrils, this technique only activates the lower lungs (belly area) with a rhythmic pattern of sharp, emptying, belly-contracting exhales and passive, brief, belly-relaxing inhales. This energizing practice helps continue awakening from Yoga Nidra, and, its cleansing effects support the detoxification process of our Hatha poses. I usually practice a 100- or 200-breath count of Kapalabhati. Next, alternate nostril breathing, or Nadi Suddhi, uses a specific technique for exhaling/inhaling out of one nostril and then the next. This calming breath soothes the nervous system and balances the brain hemispheres. I practice Nadi Suddhi for a minimum of three minutes.
MEDITATE & CHANT
After Hatha, Nidra and Pranayama – when the mind is alert, the nerves are balanced, the body is at ease, the breath is natural and the senses are softened – the mind can concentrate more deeply.
This is the perfect time for meditation.
No matter how much or little time I have for my morning Sadhana, I strive to always include at least three minutes of some form of meditation – whether silently observing the breath or chanting out loud. One fail-safe technique when time-challenged is to incorporate a positive affirmation with my Nadi Suddhi breathing, for example, inhale “my true nature is peace” and exhale “nothing can disturb my peace.”
When I do have 15- to 30- minutes for meditation, what I love most is singing 108 repetitions of the “Asato Ma” chant. I have seen many spellings, translations and interpretations of this widely-used Sanskrit chant, popular with many yogis. This version is most effective for me: Asato Ma, Sat Gamaya (lead me from falseness to truth); Tamaso Ma, Jyotir Gamaya (lead me from darkness to light); Mrityor Ma, Amritam Gamaya (lead me from things that die off to that which is everlasting). OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti (OM Peace, Peace, Peace).
Repetition of these phrases reinforces my psychological direction toward and faith in the positive. Falseness to truth can signify my desire to stop lying to myself, or, my hope to be free of people who lie to me…and so much more. Darkness to light could be finding the means to be delivered from my depressive tendencies, to liberation and joy, or, awakening from being in the dark or uninformed about something, to being enlightened or aware. Things that die off to that which is everlasting…the meanings are infinite, depending on personal experience. For me, this phrase reminds me to choose attitudes and actions that will support long-term health in body, mind and spirit. Among other things.
If I don’t have time for the 108, I chant this three times, and then close with another Sanskrit chant, popular in yoga circles, which wishes well-being for others. Lokah Samastaa Sukhino Bhavantu. Again, there are many versions out there. My favorite is: “May the entire universe and all its beings realize peace and light.”
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As I mentioned – I don’t always have the luxury or time to complete my ideal Sadhana first thing each day. Yet, I always – always – practice at least some parts of my routine immediately upon rising. I have learned that trying to spread it over a broken morning of errands or texts or other activities never pays off. So even when I feel totally distracted – life drama tugging at my mind, the computer tugging at my fingertips, errands tugging at my feet – I still try to stay unplugged and go through the motions.
The above may seem exhaustive! As I said, I actually enjoy a complex and absorbing morning routine to ensure a peaceful day. Remember, this lengthy Sadhana can be broken down into manageable parts for a much shorter version.
Play around with parts of it. Choose your own contents. Find your own way. And most importantly…enjoy!
OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.
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The Roots of “Peace Tools”
From April 5 through July 13, 2012, I committed to a 100-day exploration of Ahimsa – the Sanskrit term for “avoidance of violence.” You may read more about it under the “Ahimsa Now” entries in my blog.
Since the final quarter of that exploration, I have been compiling my favorite Peace Tools – fail-safe practices for cultivating a reliable inner peace, which leads to a serene life and accountability to others. In the long run, using these Tools supports the yogic concept of Ahimsa by decreasing violence.
They can also just make you feel darn good. OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.