Nature’s Rhythms: The Ayurvedic Clock

Nature’s Rhythms: The Ayurvedic Clock

As I write this, in early September 2020, time has become basically meaningless. For the last six months, the rhythms of most people’s lives have become at best syncopated mash-ups of the original track that kept us going, and at worst completely turned off. Adjusting to a schedule of wake up, go to living room, stay there for twelve-plus hours, go back to bed, was not easy, but thanks to some creativity (and Ayurveda) I was able to give some shape to my days. What’s throwing me off now, though, is the still-dark sky that greets me when I wake up around 6 AM. The planet, it seems, has not altered its twelve-month route around the sun, and as summer fades into fall, and the light shifts at the seams of the day, my rhythm is being thrown off—again. For the past few mornings, my first thoughts vacillate between panic (what time is it?) and surrender (it is just the new light; all is well), which I’m trusting will calm once we get through this seasonal joint, which in Ayurveda is called the rtu sandhi. 

Our modern conveniences and lifestyle have yielded tremendous advances in our capacity to survive, and even grow, as humans. Thanks to electricity, we can keep perishable food fresh, speed up once-manual tasks like farming and building houses and traveling, communicate across time and space, and illuminate the dark (among many other things). By no means would I give up any of these blessings, but when we step back and examine what this technology has offered, we see how we’ve separated ourselves from nature—her offspring, her methodologies, and her rhythms that humans lived in harmony with for ages. These machines give us the capacity to do more, whenever we want, which has been sold to us as a valuable thing. But they also come with many hidden costs. A major one is paid by our bodies, when the natural rhythms they evolved to align with—the birth and death of each day, of each season, and even of our physical forms—are denied them, and replaced by another rhythm that sounds more like a constant drone of doing, played on an infinite loop. 

When looking to improve our health—in body, mind, and spirit—through Ayurveda, the concept of natural rhythms is a key place to start in correcting any of the three root causes of disease—improper use of the senses, crimes against wisdom, and, most directly, temporal factors (or pariṇāma). With all three, there is a disconnect between what we know, deep down, is right, and how we behave, conscious or not, which results in illness. Our not feeling well is our inner nature telling us we’ve fallen off the beat, since in a state of health our internal universe is synced with the external universe on all levels. Think of it like a green DJ trying to mix two tracks that just don’t go together—what you get is a lot of noise, instead of music. 

But nature’s music is not just a one-note song; it’s a rich, evolving, and interconnected symphony of rhythms that feed into each other (and sometimes push against each other) to create our lives. We can understand them on different scales, from small to large, in the same way that we can understand how our individual actions (and state of health) will ripple out from inside a certain tissue or organ of ours to affect with whom and where we spend time, all the way out to people and beings we don’t know, and places we’ve never been. At each level, we can see the influence of the doshas on the energy, activity, and qualities of that time, which can help us make decisions about how to balance those doshas through our diet and lifestyle, regardless of our individual constitution or imbalance. If we know either of those things about ourselves, we might take special care to balance the time of day, year, or life so as to not put us into, or exacerbate an existing, imbalance.

Daily Rhythm

Ayurveda divides the day into chunks similar to the circadian rhythm, a theory from Western science that was recognized with a Nobel Prize in 2017. While the details diverge slightly, the basic concept is the same: our bodies respond at a molecular level to the changes that occur during the course of a day. From an Ayurvedic perspective, the day cycles through all the doshas twice. The qualities of the dosha determine how we feel, and how we might best use our energy to feel balanced during that time. As you read the descriptions below, consider how the two halves of the day shift from balancing energy in a more external way (first half) to a more internal way (second half).

2-6 AM: Vata

While most of us are asleep during these hours, the air and space elements of vata allows us to experience dreams as well as other “stirrings” in the early morning. Many people who wake up in the night to use the bathroom (or for any reason) do so right at the juncture of vata time, as their elimination systems are being called to movement. When we consider our sleep habits, Ayurveda recommends that we start our day at or before 6 AM, so that our morning rituals can benefit from the light, uncluttered, and open nature of vata. It is an excellent time to commune with the divine and spirit world, through meditation or prayer. Gentle pranayama can help us tap into our vital life force, which is the subtle form of vata. We are better able to rid our body of toxins that were processed during the night (see Pitta, 10 PM-2 AM), make a clearing for new foods we will digest, and receive whatever insights we need for the day ahead.

6-10 AM: Kapha

Our first chance to engage with the body after sleep, we take advantage of the water and earth elements of kapha to build and still ourselves. If you spend time outside in the earlier part of these hours, you’ll find that there’s an atmosphere of calm and repose in the trees and animals, who are also settling into themselves after being aroused to wake by vata. This makes it a good time for our movement practices and eating; when we engage in exercise of any kind during kapha time, that intentional movement is balanced by kapha itself (not aggravating vata), and our bodies are also hungry for nutrients they’ll be equipped to store as fuel for the day. Other activities that require stamina and endurance—housework or other manual tasks, or steady, not-complicated mental work—are ideally done in this period. Kapha likes connection, so it’s a good time to cuddle, catch up with coworkers in the office kitchen, or otherwise feed relationships. While it may be tempting to stay in bed into these hours (for cuddles or sleep or other things), especially for kapha constitutions, try not to; the longer you allow sleep to linger in this heavy time of day, the harder it will be to get up (and the groggier you’ll feel), even if you’re technically getting more hours of sleep. 

10 AM-2 PM: Pitta

Fiery pitta rises with the mid-day sun, preparing our bodies for digestion and transformation. During this time we eat our biggest meal to take advantage of that external support for our internal digestive fire, or agni. Work-wise, we can lean into tasks that require focus, for the fire will also light up our minds and sense of purpose and ambition. While many folks like to take a midday break for exercise, try to keep that movement gentle and steady rather than aggressive and sweaty (a walk instead of a run; gentle or slow, long-held yoga instead of hot yoga), so as to not push the existing pitta vibes into imbalance. 

2-6 PM: Vata

When vata circles back around, we often hit an energetic wall—the lightness and airiness that made us feel connected to the spirit realm in the morning feels more like distraction and low-energy in the afternoon. Many experience a craving for sugar or caffeine during this time, which is the result of not eating enough at lunch or skipping it all together. If this is your habit, and you dread the afternoon, eat more at lunch! It will help to feed your agni, so that when vata comes around the wind doesn’t fan the flames and make you hungrier, and less able to make good food choices. If the deed has already been done, you may need to energize yourself in other ways: A stretch break or gentle walk can be as stimulating as an espresso; a light snack like fruit will deliver natural sugars without throwing off the digestive cycle too much; or, if you’re really tired, a 10 to 15 minute nap might be just the food you need to keep going. 

A balanced afternoon vata, however, looks like creativity and excitement, and a nimble and curious mind. Because attention is difficult to wrangle now, don’t plan for an important meeting where you have to make decisions or give a presentation. Use this time for brainstorming with a group, so social-butterfly vata can flit and float the way she wants.

6-10 PM: Kapha

With our main activities of the day coming to a close, round two of kapha contrasts the up-ness of vata with a downhill slope of grounding and quieting to lead us toward sleep. Again, we take care of the body and relationships here with our evening meal and, ideally, non-stimulating activities, which can include spending time with family or friends (read: more cuddling), reading and reflecting, self-care (like abhyanga), and even gentle movement to settle the body (again, no 8 PM spin class if you want to sleep). Because we don’t need as much energy to close the day as we do to start it, our dinner should be the smallest meal, and something easy to digest, like a blended soup rather than a salad. By leaving 2 or 3 hours between our last meal and bed, we also give our bodies time to digest that food, so we’re not encroaching on our important evening pitta time. For many of us, evenings are a time of socializing, big and stretched-out meals, and “catching up” on work, entertainment, and other activities that our jobs kept us from during the day. Realigning this period can be challenge as such, but consider this: The more time you give yourself to rest, the more present you’ll be for your people and work during the day; the more opportunities you have to remember what it feels like to be calm and kapha-esque, the more clarity you might find in how you spend your energy when you’re awake.  

10 PM-2AM: Pitta

Last but by no means least, pitta gets the overnight shift of cleaning house. Rather than using fire to digest food, however, the liver and other agnis throughout the body (there are little fires everywhere!) turn on during this time to cleanse and detoxify the system after all we consumed during the day. Our brains get a wash of cerebrospinal fluid, and the liver and gallbladder sort out the nutrition of our food from the waste products (that we’ll cleanse out in the morning). All this work needs energy (which is why we eat a little dinner), but not so much that our stomachs are full of new food to break down, which would take away from the other cleansing needed. 

Many people feel themselves get a second wind around 10 PM, a desire to queue up emails for the next day, start that novel, binge another season of Outlander, or move the furniture. That’s pitta energy, arriving right on time (pitta’s always on time), but to engage in these tasks takes away from the detox work it will eventually have to do when you hit the pillow. Over time, if you’re not giving your body enough time to detox—by staying up late or eating too much, too late—you’ll start to feel that accumulation of waste in myriad ways, such as difficulty sleeping, boggy digestion, or an overall lack of energy.

Seasonal Rhythm

Many of us have existing rituals around the seasons—holidays, the changing out of our clothing, trips and traditions that let us know we’re in a new time and need to plan accordingly. Those energetics align with the doshas, and these seasonal rhythms are largely behind our dietary choices as well. During the three growing periods of the year (which isn’t exactly the four-ish, depending on where you live, seasons we typically think of), the earth gives us foods and tastes that will balance the prevailing dosha. Our ability to get any food, from any part of the world, all year long has damped our ability to intuit that alignment, so if you’re looking to make a change to seasonal eating the first place to look is your local farmer’s market, or Dr. John Douillard’s detailed food guides. Note that depending on your location, the seasons may span different months in your calendar year. 

Late Winter & Spring: Kapha

During the early half of kapha season, the dark, slow days often conjure feelings of internal reflection—a hibernation of sorts—and even depression. That lowering of energy reflects the heaviness of kapha, which requires us to put in a little extra energy to stay motivated and moving (think: twinkle lights during the winter holidays, and the punch of New Year’s resolutions that calls people to shake up their routine). 

Moving into spring, the earth wakes up, too, from her frozen winter nap, and we see the first signs of new life in young greens and other foods that will help move out watery stagnation. Imagine melting puddles of snow and the damp, cool days of early spring—these are the qualities of kapha, which we’ve been deliberately increasing during the vata season (below) and are naturally higher in our bodies, too. When we experience congestion and mucus in the form of coughs, colds, and allergies this time of year, our bodies are working to scrape out that built-up kapha in our internal spaces. The lighter and brighter foods of this time of year help us do that, and we may similarly be called to have a bit of spring cleaning in the spaces where we live. 

Tastes that balance: pungent, bitter, astringent

Summer: Pitta

Fire plus water equals the heat and humidity of summer, which makes this time of year great for being outdoors, playing, but also being mindful of our energy expenditure. It’s easy for pitta to burn through itself, which is why we can sometimes feel drained and exhausted after too much time in the sun, and even succumb to summer colds. A balanced summer season includes lots of hydration and cooling foods that require little effort to make and eat. We’ve got a lot of help from the sun, our external agni, to digest, which means our internal agni gets a little smaller and is best equipped to handle simple foods like fresh fruit and vegetables and grains. 

Tastes that balance: sweet, bitter, astringent

Fall & Early Winter: Vata

After a season of building heat, the body gets a reprieve with the arrival of cool winds in autumn. Socially, it may be a time of beginnings—a new school year, new work projects, and a resumption of the routine that we let slip in summer, which provides an important container for wily vata. We start to turn more inward during this time, storing up and preparing for the scarcity in food and light that will arrive during winter. To counter the dry, mobile qualities of the falling leaves and brisk air, nature offers us its most stable, filling, and self-preserving foods: root vegetables, grains, and fermented pickled foods that will keep our internal agnis strong while the external agni hides. If we are hungrier, or even put on a little extra weight, during this time, that’s natural—our bodies need more so as to not deplete, like nature does, in winter, and once spring rolls around we’re likely to shed any excess we no longer need.

Tastes that balance: sweet, sour, salty

Life Rhythm

With the days and months of our lives churning away, it can be easy to get caught up in those details and miss the important transitions we make at a more macro level. Our cycle from birth to death is one part of the beautiful mechanism of nature’s clock, and by respecting its shifts we are allowing ourselves to experience the fullness of life and its many lessons. While our culture places high value on the middle, active stage of life, pushing that stage too early or too late deprives us from the other elements of our world, and can lead to tricky imbalances. Think of it like an eternal summer: That may sound nice at first, but talk to anyone who lives in Alaska and ask them what it’s like after months of non-stop light . . . the ultimate burn out! 

Childhood: Kapha

Babies are squishy, rolly-polly, dense, soft, and drooly—basically, the embodiment of kapha. Their job is literally to grow, which requires them to do all the kapha things in our day, namely eating and sleeping. Completely in tune with their needs and emotions, babies and children communicate and act from the heart, a place of sincerity and fluidity. Everything about them oozes—whether it’s something sticky and slimy from the colds and other kapha-based sicknesses they seem to attract like magnets; or the strong attachments and love they attract from their parents and anyone who’s near them (consider the senses linked to kapha, taste and smell, and how the aroma(s) of babies are so distinctive, good and bad!). While certain of these love-me-squeeze-me qualities—soft skin, big eyes—have been elevated in Western society as favorable, others of these traits—like a soft, pliable, supple body—are not, especially for women. We’d do well to think back to the vitality and resilience of children, who are vessels of ojas straight from the source, when we determine what we see as beautiful in ourselves and others.

Puberty through Middle Age: Pitta

With the arrival of fiery hormones at puberty, pitta takes over for the middle years of life. These are the decades of transformation, refinement, focus, and achievement as we take active roles in society, building careers and families and feeding our egos, which are essential in preserving our sense of self and identity. The energy of pitta is spreading and volatile, which means that we can find ourselves overburdened with tasks and dreams, especially when peers and media send messages that the more you do, the better you are. From an Ayurvedic lens, the pitta stage of life is one where we should reflect on our dharma, or life purpose, which need not correlate to our job or career. What calls us, what we have a vision for, as a set of beliefs that set our hearts ablaze is how we can best contribute to society as individuals.  

Wisdom Years: Vata

The last decades of our life bring about a period of slowing down, inwardness, and fragility, which many of us may be resistant to (as the popularity of anti-aging products and drugs suggests). It’s true that moving from the height of controlled and busy pitta to the more free-flowing, unstructured vata period can be destabilizing (a vata quality in and of itself), but these years are also a time of great value. For women, the vata period arrives once menopause ends (i.e., the reduction of hormones/pitta), men around the same time, and allows us to release our responsibilities and obligations to do, produce, and achieve. It’s often a time when travel (more vata) is possible, and creative pursuits that were put on hold because of family and work can surface and bloom. As our bodies reduce and become drier, colder, and less dense, we need to bring in more of those kapha qualities through self-care and diet to stay balanced and nourished (which means kaphas generally have an easier time in the wisdom years). 

Notice how the different cycles in our lives overlap with one another. The vata time of life may feel like the arrival of fall and winter, when nature starts to shed what’s lived out its life and make room for new growth. The seeds and sprouts of kapha season are nature’s babies, whereas the insatiable appetites of teenagers can be found in the relentless, hungry energy of pitta summer and afternoon. If we find ourselves suffering from traumas (of any kind) that relate to a certain time of life, day, or season, we can use their parallels on other time-scales to invite healing; for instance, a trauma during childhood (conception through our early years) roughly corresponds with the morning, in the bridge between vata and kapha times, so prayers and meditation in those hours may help us resolve childhood difficulties we are carrying in our bodies or hearts. 

As you get to know these cycles, start by paying attention to what you’re naturally called to do, eat, or feel during the different phases. It’s easiest to observe the shifts of a single day of course, and harder to observe the shifts in a whole life, but look around you at the people and natural creatures who are all at different stages for guidance. Your body knows what will feel right at any time, as long as you don’t get in the way of its schedule. 






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