Early to Bed, Early to Rise

“Morning is an important time of day, because how you spend your morning can often tell you what kind of day you are going to have.” Lemony Snicket

One of my current personal practices of this school year is choosing to wake up at 3:50 am three out of five work days.  I’ll state the obvious:  It’s not fun at the moment the alarm sounds.  Messages, vying for attention, encourage me to hit the snooze button and/or skip the early wake up, “just this one day.”  After all, one time won’t hurt me.  Those messages are strong, loud, and clear as sleep threatens to overtake me, especially now that it is full-on winter with its early morning chill and darkness. I want to be weak and give in, but I know if I give in once, I’ll give in again and again until I ultimately return to old habits that tend to stress me out. 

To be clear, the other two work days, I get up one hour later–4:50 am–which, trust me, feels like a treat.  By the weekend, I’m exceptionally foot-loose and fancy free, setting the alarm for 5:50, which feels like being served up a warm brownie with ice cream on top! 

Okay, okay, perhaps I am being a tad bit dramatic, but the point is that I’ve discovered, after several months of implementation, that waking up early fairly consistently each morning offers me numerous benefits, many of which were unexpected. It began mostly as a way to get in a workout first thing in the morning before going to work, and that is still one of the main motivating reasons.  However, I discovered that I was reaping a few unexpected benefits as well.

Checking off goals in the predawn hours.

I became curious and wondered if I was merely experiencing some sort of placebo effect or if there was any solid data/research to support my anecdotal benefits.  Therefore, I began to nose around the internet gleaning information from various sites, trying to stick to the more reputable sources of research.  

*Early risers tend to be more proactive about their day

One of the first sources I ran across cited Harvard’s Biologist’s (Christoph Randler) work pointing to the fact that early morning risers tend to be more proactive.  This is due to the fact that they must think ahead and organize for the morning the previous evening in an attempt to anticipate and minimize potential issues. I can attest to the fact that I had to learn early in the process the importance of nightly organization in order for the early morning routine to flow efficiently.  

I continued reading on to learn more.  Here are a few more positive benefits to rising early according to those with more expertise than me: 

*Ability to accomplish most important task(s) (or personal goal) first thing

Since the early morning hours are typically the quietest, the mind (and schedule) are  fairly clear, freeing early risers to focus on the most important, or most challenging, goal of the day–in my case, that’s usually some sort of 5-10 minute devotional, followed by 30-40 minutes of writing/editing/revising/updating website, and finally about 2-3 minutes of clearing out junk work emails that accumulate overnight in my inbox and making note of important emails to tackle first thing at work.  I do these few tasks while sipping a cup of coffee allowing me to feel a small sense of accomplishment, even before I head to the gym. In fact, according to the Harvard Review, in a 2010 study, that early morning sense of accomplishment, sets the tone for your day, allowing early risers to feel more agreeable, optimistic, and conscientious.  Who knew?

Empty, or near empty gym, is an added bonus to the early morning wake-up, especially in the age of COVID.

*Morning exercise boosts the brain 

As a general rule, exercise benefits the body and mind, no matter what time of day it is completed.  However, people with busy schedules find that they are better able to stick with an exercise routine by completing it in the morning. As an added bonus, working out in the morning allows early risers to take advantage of all of the feel-good endorphins produced by the brain after exercise.  Plus, exercise reduces heart disease, boosts brain cognition, regulates blood sugar and weight, and tends to improve your mood. Therefore, if completing the workout in the morning ensures that you don’t miss a workout, then early risers are checking several boxes before the start of the official workday. Check, check, and check!

*Outlook and sleep quality improves while risk for depression decreases

Typically, those who wake early, tend to go to bed earlier, and experience overall better sleep quality which can positively increase outlook.  We can all relate to how we feel after a horrible night of tossing and turning, especially on a Sunday night after a weekend of sleeping in, when sleep seems so elusive.  According to the Sleep Foundation, by keeping a fairly consistent daily wake-up time, including the weekends, you can maintain your circadian rhythm, allowing you to fall asleep faster and sleep better.  Additionally, a 2012 study conducted by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research confirms that early risers tend to have more consistent sleep leading to healthy, happy, and overall sense of well-being. Moreover, recent 2021 studies, one published in JAMA Psychiatry and an additional one published in Molecular Psychiatry, point to the fact that rising early can significantly reduce your risk for depression as well as other mental illnesses.

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*Increased productivity

Rising early has been shown to increase productivity by enhancing one’s ability to problem solve according to the Journal of Sleep Research.  It also turns out that waking up early reduces stress (Think: beating the stress of morning rush hour), increases alertness, and minimizes forgetfulness.  Early risers have more time to acclimate to the day by moving beyond that sleep inertia period–that slower moving time period when thinking can still be foggy and the body is not fully awake–increasing focused concentration upon arrival at work, and thereby potentially increasing productivity.  Additionally, they have time to complete more tasks before becoming overtired, a major culprit of forgetfulness.  

On the way to work as the sun is rising and several daily goals have already been checked!

In the end, most researchers agree that by implementing a fairly consistent bedtime/wake-up routine, it is possible to train your body to wake up early. One thing is for sure, I like my sleep as well as the next person, and I certainly don’t enjoy those first moments of the alarm sounding, especially on those three extra-early days.  However, the benefits I have discovered, and now confirmed, far outweigh those few moments of discomfort.  I am able to meet my daily writing goals, miss fewer workouts while exercising in a fairly empty gym without being dog-tired from work, and I am much more energized and positive, well, most days.  The only caveat: I am typically in bed, no later than 9:00 pm, much to my family’s chagrin–not they really mind.

I won’t claim early rising is for everyone, but it’s working for me.  Nor can I say that I will do it forever, but for the time being, I will continue with my pre-dawn rising.  If it was good enough for Ben Franklin, one of the greatest inventors ever, it should work for a simple school teacher and writer, like me.  Who’s in with me?

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Enthusiasm for Life in the Present Moment

“Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.”–Joe Clark

There they were. Athletically built and full of swagger, I listened to their coach who asked them to circle up around me in the dewy grass.  The fog was rising, but the sunlight remained hidden on this humid August Saturday morning.  They were quiet and rather fatigued-looking after a week of two-a-day practices; nonetheless, they were respectful as I began to talk to each of them, my eyes moving from athlete to athlete.  

The task before me was to provide a recovery yoga practice for the St. Joseph Central Catholic High School boy’s soccer team, the sibling school to the middle (and elementary) school for which I am a 6-8 educator.  I began our morning practice by setting an intention. Mid-way through my opening statements, the thought occurred to me that I might also be talking to myself.

I began the practice with the following quote by Julia Cameron, “Over an extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline.” However, I replaced “artist” with “athlete.”  Enthusiasm comes from the Greek word, enthousiasmos, enthous, or entheos–which essentially means to be possessed or inspired by God.  Other translations include: filled by God’s essence; or, inspiration or possession of God.  When looking at synonyms for enthusiasm–passion, ardor, zeal, fervor–one begins to truly feel the emotional strength and power of the word.

The purpose of selecting this intention for the team’s yoga practice was two-fold. First, I  wanted them to walk away from practice with the thought that in order to have a successful soccer season, it would not only require disciplined practices, thinking, actions, and reactions, but also their discipline must be infused with enthusiasm–for one another and for the game.  Additionally, I hoped they would sense the Creator’s guiding presence in their life, the One who divinely and individually created each one, as they moved into and through their coming season and school year.  

As seen on Instagram @ postiveenergyalways

Discipline and enthusiasm, I believe, go hand-in-hand, especially when reflecting upon this past year and half of living with COVID. Like many, I had maintained the discipline of preventative COVID measures throughout the summer, fall and winter of last year, but by the end of February of 2021, I was beginning to lose my enthusiasm. I was ready, more than ready, to give up.  In fact, I was ready to run away from life. It seemed to me that there had been far too many deaths, distractions, changes, illnesses, storms, flooding, and other torments of life.  Like so many around me, I felt I was, like the old southern, metaphorical expression made popular by the band, REM, “losing my religion,” and barely holding on. 

Thankfully, I did not give up.  Instead, I kept showing up, moving, one foot in front of the other, one day–sometimes even one moment–at a time.  By the time summer arrived, I decided to create a disciplined morning practice devoted to inner, spiritual work in an attempt to find that lost enthusiasm.  And guess what I discovered?  The Divine Creator was still there, and at a snail’s pace, I began to once more feel the True Source of inspiration.  I began to find enthusiasm once more.  

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“Write this down:  My life is full of unlimited possibilities.”–Pablo

I woke early every morning and committed myself to the practice of writing–not for publication, but for me.  Each morning, before the sun had risen, I sat and wrote for nearly an hour following a formatted plan. It didn’t matter how much my inner-self tantrumed about the early hour, time commitment, or the work, I kept up the practice and believed in the process. I filled pages of journals–words that I ultimately shredded!  

In fact, hours of work were ultimately sent through a shredder because, in the end, the words I wrote did not need to be saved.  They had served their purpose by allowing my mind to process and recover.  It took weeks, but my mindset gradually shifted. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I have to get up and write,” I actually began to look forward to my writing practice.  I was finding my joy.

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As I worked with those high school boys, they found their muscles tight from the pounding and compacting of twice daily running and drills.  Their bodies were not easily given over to poses (stretching positions) through which I guided them. It was as if their bodies were saying, “No! I won’t!”  I encouraged the young men to breathe through the resistance, release the tension, and relax.  The more they took deep breaths, the more they were able to relax those tight muscles.  The more they relaxed, the more their bodies allowed them to stretch. 

At the end of nearly an hour, they entered their final pose, “savasana,” final relaxation pose.  Savasana is also known as corpse pose–as there is a dying away of the body and mind to all of its busyness.  Savasana is similar to powering down your computer or phone–it gives the body a chance to assimilate all that has happened within that hour of practice, reboot, and return to homeostasis.

As seen on Instagram @ spiritualist_within

Likewise, my summer practice of writing served a similar function.  I had to learn how to loosen my rigid and restricted way of thinking.  Instead of remaining in my isolated, ego-driven “No-brain,” I had relearn how to tap into my “Yes-brain.”   Through my disciplined morning practice of writing, prayer, and affirmations, it was as if my brain was metaphorically breathing deeply, learning to relax, and eventually relearned to say, “Yes,” even to things for which I cannot control.  My brain had to die away from the busyness of my ego–the poor, pitiful me side, and tap into the True Source

Making my way around the circle of kids relaxed in savasana, I sprayed each of their feet and ankles with peppermint spray as an act of soothing refreshment. I could not help but notice all of their blisters, calluses, and chafed skin.  It reminded me of how many of us feel as we deal with this new variant(s) of COVID.

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“Always remember to take your Vitamins:  Take your Vitamin A for ACTION, Vitamin B for Belief, Vitamin C for Confidence, Vitamin D for Discipline, Vitamin E for Enthusiasm!!”–Pablo

Many may feel chafed, not only by the notion of wearing masks again, but also by the fact that we still can’t return to a so-called, “normal,” or the sense of homeostasis. We are asked to remain vigilant and disciplined regarding not only our health, but the well-being of others, and yet our souls are begging for soothing like the peppermint oil sprayed on the soccer player’s bedraggled feet.  It is worth remembering how far we have come, and if we made it through last year, we can make it again.

I will argue that Cameron’s words can be applied to this extended period of time as we continue to live with COVID.  We need a large dose of enthusiasm, more than discipline, in order to continue to embrace life as it is and keep going.  Enthusiasm is our God-given, on-going source of inspiration and energy.  When enthusiasm is combined with taking action and believing in our Higher Power, we can continue with confidence to remain disciplined and still experience joy.  Life may not be like it was, and frankly, it may never return to what we once knew, but life in the present moment–no matter the status–is continuing; and that, my friend, is worth a mask-covered smile.  

Miss Ollie Ray is all sunshine and smiles no matter the changes around her as seen in this picture from last school year.