While I have many salient memories of my childhood, I don’t remember much about how I spent my mornings. The space between my opening my eyes and arriving at school (which commenced at the horrifyingly early time of 7:26 AM, my adult self now realizes with much pity for my child-self) is a black hole, in which some kind of hygiene, sustenance, and studying likely took place. The rest of the day proceeded with regularity laced with cortisol: a continuous anticipation for when the next bell would ring, signaling the time to switch off my literature or chemistry or choir brain to whatever subject was next on my schedule, and haul my behind to my next class, which was often on the other side of the building, with a sack of books wider than my body strapped to my back. After school, I’d come home, binge on some kind of snack food (I usually skipped lunch and who remembers if I ate breakfast, so I was starving by 4 PM), and juggle homework, dance class, piano lessons, and dinner. Eventually I’d sneak up into bed long after my mother had cried down the basement steps (where I did my school work) that it was time for me to stop studying. A few hours later, the charade would begin again.
You could call this a “routine,” the mechanical quality of which would surely please the early thinkers of the Industrial revolution era who created the dialectical of efficiency, schedules, and time as we know it. It might strike a chord with you—in memory or in present-day—maybe even as the only way we know how to spend the hours of our lives.
The ancient rishis, or seers, who codified the teachings of Ayurveda and yoga had a different understanding of what routine meant. Known as dinacharya, the Ayurvedic daily routine turns the focus of our activities throughout the day inward, rather than sending them outward. Self-care rather than producing and moving and demonstrating. Rest rather than relentlessly driving forward until we crash. Observing and taking the appropriate action in the moment, instead of following a script of predetermined “right” actions that’s programmed into a little machine on your wrist that reminds you when to step, stand up, breathe, and sleep.
At first glance, reading the rather extensive list of practices that make up a traditional dinacharya might feel like trying to read dance choreography: a jumbled half-language of steps and counts and costume changes you’d rather watch on TV than try out yourself. When I was first introduced to dinacharya, I, too, was struck by how much I was expected to do in the morning before starting my workday—which started at around 8 AM; if this was the key to health, I thought, I was doomed to live a life of disease and anguish. What allowed me to eventually embrace my dinacharya was dispelling the fog that hung over the mornings of my childhood—the days themselves, too. By bringing awareness to my actions, and letting my body, mind, and spirit converse openly amongst themselves instead of shouting orders at them, the routine has become less choreography and more interpretive dance; less a routine and more of a rhythm; less a chore and more of a ritual.
The essence of dinacharya is self-care, which tells us right away the most important part of the whole thing: the practices are only as good as their alignment with the person practicing them. In other words, you don’t need to do everything, only what feels right for you for the day, season, and/or time of life you’re in. Each dosha will have certain practices that might be heeded with a little more vigilance (oiling for vata, rest and clarity for pitta, movement for kapha), but even that comes with the caveat of whether there are other imbalances going on, stage of life, season, and straight up personal tastes. So as you read through the suggested routines below, pay attention to what stands out as something you feel drawn to—do that—and what makes you say “she wants me to do what?”—don’t do that.
Starting at the beginning, as all good stories do:
We rise with the sun, ideally before or around 6 AM, the juncture between vata and kapha times of day, and/or just before sunrise. Known as brahmamuhurtha, or the hours of nectar, this period is an auspicious time of day, when we are most open and receptive to spirit and can use the clarity and quiet of this time to set positive intentions for the day. Spend a few minutes in bed when you wake up to visualize a smooth-flowing and easeful day.
Most people naturally have to urinate and/or have a bowel movement first thing in the morning. Notice the quality, quantity, color, smells, and any symptoms that come with elimination (pain, burning with urination; gas, bloating, stickiness, difficulty, looseness with stool). A healthy digestive system will move the bowels at least once a day, if not two or three times, so if that’s not happening it’s something to keep in mind for the choices you make in the day ahead.
What does sense care mean exactly? It means cleansing our sensory organs—the ears, skin, eyes, mouth, and nose—which according to Ayurveda are the primary ways we engage with the world. It’s through our senses that we take in all the various kinds of food we digest all day long, so we want to make sure they’re clear and supple since we are only as healthy as our ability to digest—making the care of agni paramount at all times.
But even though we’re starting at the beginning, we have to recognize that sense care really starts the day before, since whatever waste we find ourselves clearing out in the morning is a reflection of what we did or did not digest the previous day. So before we wash anything, we want to take note of what we see—eye goop, congested sinuses, tastes in the mouth or coating on the tongue, earwax, etc. Yep, it’s gross—but we’re getting to know ourselves intimately in this process, so say hello to your body. It’s where you live, after all! In the West when it comes to cleansing, we often think of soap. In Ayurveda, we have a gentler approach—oil and/or water. Rinsing and lubricating the sense organs ensures that they’re both clear and protected from outside detritus.
Ears: Oiling of the ears with sesame oil is excellent in fall and winter, or troubles with sleep or mental agitation (vata). Put a few drops of sesame oil in each ear at night before bed, or in the morning. You can also care for your ears by having a quiet morning—silence through breakfast, no TV or other noise, or listen to soothing mantras or wordless music. Practice listening in instead of sending your attention outward.
Skin: Dry brushing is great stimulation for kapha dosha or in spring to move stagnation or swelling, and can be followed by a light abhyanga. Oiling the skin, especially for vata dosha, makes the body supple and soft, deeply nourishing the tissues and calming agitation of all kinds. Use warm oil on the whole body, let sit for 5 to 10 minutes (you can go about with the other activities, make your hot water, etc.), then shower with warm water to rinse the oil without soap. (The oil will act as a cleanser to remove any dirt and oil in the skin, but if you’re very sweaty and do abhyanga at the end of the day, or it’s summer and you don’t want to leave the oil on your skin, choose mild soap with neem.)
Eyes: Rinse your face and eyes with water (no need to wash your face with cleanser in the morning). For strained eyes, you can use a triphala eye wash by brewing a cup of triphala tea, and using it to rinse your eyes. A few spritzes of rose water is also cooling and refreshing, and an alternative to traditional eye drops.
Mouth: Observe your tongue—its shape, any markings or movement, and the coating (thickness, placement, and color). The tongue is a map of the whole body, and can give you a lot of information about brewing or existing imbalances. It’s more important, though, to just get to know your own body and observe any changes. Then, scrape it about 10 times, back to front, with a tongue scraper or the back of a spoon. Be gentle with the scraping; we’re not trying to rip off the taste buds! Last, take some sesame or coconut (better for pitta/summer) oil in your mouth and swish it around for 5 to 10 minutes. Spit out the oil into your trash can (not the sink or toilet, as it will clog your drains), then brush your teeth. The oil will help remove plaque and other oral bacteria and strengthen the gums.
Nose: Clear your nose of any congestion. Neti, or nasal irrigation, can help to rinse out any remaining residue, followed by nasya, or oiling of the nose (2 or 3 drops in each nostril). Both are great for allergies, but avoid neti with active congestion or sinus infections as the water will worse the congestion. Nasya alone at night and/or in the morning is excellent if you use air conditioning or indoor heating (which is probably most people reading this), to support the mucus membrane and prevent allergies and colds.
I know, that’s a lot, so let’s just breathe a moment. Trust me when I tell you that once you get into the routine all this takes no more than 10 minutes, and when you feel the benefits of practice you’ll be eager to put on this dance every morning.
We’ve cleaned the senses for digestion, so now let’s start to build the fire. A cup of warm water with lemon or lime juice (or plain) in the morning will do one last sweep through the GI tract, and help encourage a bowel movement if that wasn’t happening for you upon waking. Cooked water is easier to digest (since some of the gas evaporates), has a smoother taste in the mouth, and doesn’t make the heavy, sloshy feeling some people get after drinking a lot of water. In my routine, I will get my abhyanga and oil pulling going, putter over into the kitchen and cook my water, do some tidying up there while the water comes to a boil, and when it’s ready I fill my mug, go brush my teeth, and when I’m back the water has cooled enough for me to drink.
In keeping with the idea of morning being auspicious, we want to spend some time in quiet reflection before starting our day. What questions do we want to voice or ask for help with? What do we want to cleanse from our hearts before we start the day? Reflection can look like meditation, pranayama, prayer, journaling, cuddling with your pet, or sitting on your porch looking at the sky. Whatever makes you feel peaceful and empty—not in the drained, exhausted way, but like an empty vase ready to be filled with glorious blooms.
You’re probably at least a bit into kapha time of day (6-10 AM), so it’s time to move! Do whatever feels right to you as a practice that will release stored up tension in the body—a kind of cleansing of the muscles, joints, and soft tissues, and way to build heat throughout the body and further support agni. This can look like yoga, walking, running or jogging, dancing, or any type of movement that makes you feel good. Ayurvedic texts say that we should only exert ourselves to the point of a few beads of sweat forming on the forehead and armpits—which might be very different from how you “work out.” If you’re pressed for time, a few stretches or dasha chalana joint rotations are really all you need to wake up the physical body. Some may benefit from doing abhyanga before movement and leaving the oil on during the practice, and showering after that. Make sure to bathe before eating.
Our agni is fully stoked and ready to eat! Most of the year a warm, cooked breakfast will offer the best nutrition for our day, but a bowl of fresh fruit on summer mornings is a great option. Avoid cold, dense, slimy foods like yogurt, bananas, and smoothies in the morning, which will clog up all the channels we just spent all that time cleansing, not to mention extinguish the agni. Eat enough to keep you full through lunch, 3 to 4 hours from now. Let your meal be mindful and calm—try not to eat while multitasking if possible, but at the very least make sure you are setting while eating.
A note about food: ideally all of our meals will be freshly prepared at the time of consumption. That’s not a reality for most of us, so do your best and try to keep leftovers no more than 3 days. To reheat, do so on the stove rather than a microwave, which destroys the prana, or life force, of the food itself. Using a thermos to carry your hot meals will prevent you from having to reheat if you’re bringing food on the go. When possible, choose fresh foods over processed, packaged foods, and eat with real serving ware and utensils over plastic. This will protect your food and you from ingesting the fossil fuels from which plastics are made.
Some people think that dinacharya is limited to the morning routine and thus stops after breakfast. I don’t know about you, but I’m still digesting, sensing, and moving throughout the day, so routines of self-care and mindfulness need to continue as well.
Everyone’s definition of “work” will be different, and the ancient Ayurvedis were definitely not writing about Zoom meetings or freelancing or start ups or even childcare (women’s lives were not talked about much in those days, which is a topic for another post). So without getting into specifics, we can think of the dinacharya of work as the application of awareness and clarity to all our tasks. On a practical level, we can examine: Am I trying to do many things at once? Do I have the resources I need? Panning out, we can ask ourselves: Is what I’m doing in alignment with my beliefs and values? Does this work make me feel satisfied? There’s nothing wrong with having a job that satisfies your needs by letting you earn enough money to live well, but if that is the case make sure there are other parts of your life that also satisfy your spirit.
Having given the body time to digest and empty out again, it’s ready for meal number two, ideally 3 to 4 hours after breakfast. Eating meals too close to one another prevents the metabolism from getting a rest, which keeps our insulin pumping and can cause other health problems. Make lunch your biggest meal, as the high sun in the sky will support our internal agni for a double boost of digestive power. Eat mindfully and enough to keep you full until dinner. If you can, take a few minutes after lunch to rest on your left side, which encourages the flow of food into the stomach, and take a gentle 10 to 15 minute walk, which will also refresh your senses if you’ve been on screens a lot.
If you find yourself pining for a snack or caffeine around 2 or 3 PM, you may not have eaten enough for lunch. Since we can’t go back in time (though we can learn for the future, so make a note for tomorrow), choose a mindful refreshment in the afternoon when our nervous systems start to fire up. Fresh fruit or herbal tea (ginger, chai, rooibos, tulsi, or CCF are all great options) are one kind of food; a walk or stretch break or short pranayama or meditation are others; talking with a coworker or space-mate is yet another. Food comes in many forms, and we might find we’re not hungry for chocolate or coffee if we stop before we consume.
Many people prefer or need to exercise in the evening. If that’s you, make it gentle; we don’t want to arouse our nervous systems before bed. Walking and gentle yoga are good options. Try to move before you eat, and if you can’t choose something that will support digestion, like restorative yoga with twisting postures and belly breathing.
Contrary to our social norms, Ayurveda recommends dinner being our smallest, lightest meal, so as to not bog down our digestive system before bed (remember: a heavy meal or nighttime nosh may show up as eye goop or tongue fuzz the next day). Soups are my go-tos, and are easy to make in advance or even at the end of a long day. (My favorite way to cook by putting food in a pot, covering it, and coming back in a half hour to a meal. It’s like living in a cooking show.) Eating around 6 or 7 PM ensures enough time to fully digest the meal before bed, but try to leave at least 1 hour before bed minimum if your day ends late.
Our day ends similar to how it started: taking an inventory and caring for the self in the 2 to 3 hours before bed. This can look like reading, meditating, enjoyable conversation with loved ones, abhyanga, or anything that makes you feel calm and grounded. Avoid stimulation like TV, noise, and snacking at night, though if you find it hard to fall asleep a milky tea or bite of dates and tahini might help to heavy the body enough to sleep. Before bed, you can do more oiling of the ears, nose, and skin—abhyanga on the soles of the feet or head (use coconut oil) are great choices, in addition to full-body oiling if you like that to calm your nerves. Keep your room dark (use an eye cover if you have a lot of light coming in), cool, and wear light clothes. Having a diffuser with grounding essential oils may also support sleep. Ideally bedtime happens around 10 PM, which lets us transition into pitta time without misusing any of that crucial detox energy. That gives us around 8 hours of sleep, though kapha constitutions may be okay with 6 or 7 hours.
When you start to build your personal dinacharya, take it slow and steady. Choose one or a few practices that you feel like you can accomplish well and with consistency. Once you build that habit, check in and see if you want to add anything else. (More is not always better!) Keep in mind that as the seasons change, so will your dinacharya: You might want to skip abhyanga in the summer, since that season is already hot and oily; come fall, you might take your movement practices indoors and need to eat more at your meals to feel satisfied. Let these practices be a reflection of you, rather than forcing yourself to act your way through a script. Shakespeare may not have known about Ayurveda, but he was channeling the spirit of this wisdom when he wrote “all the world’s a stage”—so make sure you play!