By Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya
MPH MD (Family Medicine)
PhD (Ayurveda ‑ BHU)
One of my earliest memories is of my mother up before dawn, moving about her routines of the morning, quietly, purposefully. Some days she was slow. Some days she was lightning fast. She had a set of routines that varied mildly with the weather. She also had a set of routines that anchored her. If anyone tried to intercept her during that time, she would gently conclude with us and continue on her way, or ask permission to come back to us once she finished her tasks.
Her routines included an early morning wake-up routine, a selection of rituals to clean the five senses with appropriate tasks for the season or for acute current health issues, her bath routines if it was summer, and her never-missed entry into the altar room in which her disappearance meant we could do anything during that time.
Both she and my father rose early, each going through their own rituals, harmoniously but independently. They tried for years to teach us, cajole us, even force us to join them in these pre-dawn rituals. Of all the dozens of people who lived with us over the decades, I was the one who embraced these pre-dawn rituals most naturally, gradually entranced by their effect on my concentration, my energy levels, my digestion, and my mood. My father would call me for dawn walks in the garden, on the terrace, on the roof. My mother asked me to gather flowers for morning pujas, coaxing me outside during the magical red-orange morning.
Many cultures are filled with adages in ode to the early riser. The early bird gets the worm. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. If you do not rise early you can make progress in nothing. Wake up early every day so that while others are still dreaming, you can make your dreams come true.
A Chinese proverb tells us, the man who rises before dawn will become a millionaire. An African proverb tells us that both the gazelle and the lion must begin the day running, as their life often depends on it. Paris is owned by the early risers. The Zulu say, The horse that arrives early gets good drinking water.
Business executives teach at leadership seminars, Are you snoozing through your morning… snoozing through your life… and snoozing through your unlimited potential? Lose an hour in the morning, and you will be all day hunting for it.
Across the world, the importance of greeting the rising sun is emphasized, and often best by literally greeting the Surya Namaskar. However, in recent times, biomedical science has twisted the understanding emerging in chronobiology, the science of biological clocks, by informing people that some have different chronotypes. Books on chronotypes try to help you understand your habits by shaming the majority for advocating early risers, stating that late risers are wrongly dubbed lazy. The early bird gets the worm; the early worm gets eaten.
If you’re a bird, be an early bird. But if you’re a worm, sleep late. They try to teach that chronotypes classify when your genetic propensity wants you to sleep, that you should sleep whenever you need, according to your unique genetics.
Ayurveda constructed a set of guidelines known as dinacharya to help people understand rituals that would orient them naturally toward balance with the cycles of the earth. This balance is naturally healing and gradually orients us toward rituals that optimize our experience of life, gifting us longevity and the irreplaceable, unpurchasable gift of healthy life.
Ayurveda advocates that most people should begin the day before dawn, allowing our rise in the hour before dawn to allow us to step outside and greet the sun as it arrives. Why?
The orange-red rays of the sun are the most healing rays, closest to infrared and closest to the low frequencies that promote wound healing, stimulate repair of injured tissues in the body, and reduce inflammation. Artificial infrared therapies are used by physiotherapists and expensive because they successfully decrease pain, stiffness and fatigue. Collagen and elastin in the skin are produced better by the body after infrared rays touch them, resulting in less wrinkles and benefits on skin texture. Because infrared have the highest wavelength of visible light, they penetrate deeply into the tissues, transforming fat and muscle and activating blood in ways that ultraviolet light cannot.
The body responds to the morning increase of infrared wavelengths of light in the air. It affects our chemistry. A variety of biochemical pathways are altered, including the expression of the POMC (proopiomelanocortin) gene which accelerates to produce ACTH, which signal many of our hormones including our natural stress hormones and our thyroid gland hormones. The POMC gene tells our inner pharmacist to dispense more beta endorphin, the natural painkiller molecules inside our body. The POMC gene increases vitamin D production. The POMC gene enhances nitric oxide production and release which regulates our blood pressure. The POMC gene gives rise to peptide hormones that regulate appetite.
Simply, the orange-red rays of the sun reset our clock genes. Orange light resets the proteins that make our brain chemicals reset the biological clocks in our cells. That is why streetlights are orange, and computer screens turn orange at night, to help our eyes receive the light that triggers sunrise and sunset proteins in our body.
We only get 15-20 minutes each morning to bathe in these orange-red rays before the sun rises high in the sky, changing the angle at which the sunrays penetrate through our stratosphere and reach us on the surface of the earth. The angle just as the earth swirls in its rotation toward facing the sun, called the Terminator, allows the sun to appear orange-red, and for us to absorb the magical light before it turns golden.
Knowing that humans get confused and lazy, the rishis created rituals to help us take in these rays. Rituals instruct us to bathe in the river during the morning sunrise. We can see millions of people at their early morning baths in Haridwar and Benaras, Kolkata and Chennai, Puri and Rishikesh each morning. The water reflects the light and allows us to catch more of it if we are near. Rituals instruct us to bathe in flowing water to allow this scattered light phenomenon to aid us. Rituals instruct us to pray to the morning sun, in yoga or in anjali mudra with palms interfaced. Rituals advise us to take a morning walk. Rituals offer us a dozen options for mantras to the sun based on the sentiment we wish to hold when we take in the light.
Ayurveda whispers that these instructions are for the healthy. If someone is very young, very old, debilitated, convalescing from an illness, has a fracture, is pregnant, or has gut disturbance, s/he is to rest longer. If a person does not have good digestive fire, they cannot absorb nutrients as well.
My mother knew that adolescents required more rest. She knew American food, American late night studies, and late night television altered our ability to rise early. She told us to get up at dawn, stay up for 20 minutes to pray to the sun, then to go back to bed if needed to get proper rest.
This habit of rising, even when jetlagged or tired, has stayed with me. Early morning red-orange light resets the clock genes, and slowly it rebalances the endocrine system. It helps restore bone strength and gut fire. As my mother aged, she moved toward the rising and setting sun for orientation. They kept her body strong, and her gut fire high.
For those who can awaken and greet the sun, it is a magical step toward self-care. Why magical? Because anything that is not yet understood by modern logic is considered ‘magical.’ Once biomedical science figures out what Ayurveda and ancient Indian sciences have known about the connection of subtle energies, electromagnetic waves, and their connection to human physiology, this knowledge will no longer be magical. It will be science.
Until then, the rituals allow us, wherever we are, to partake in the wisdom of ancient sages that advised us for our well-being and wanted us to live rich, full, blessed lives of health and happiness.
This column is dedicated in loving memory with deep pranams to my mother, Manju Bhattacharya, who passed from the physical world last Sunday, to join the cosmic consciousness on her most infinite of many journeys.
South Asian Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya (seen with her mother, Manju Bhattacharya) is a Fulbright Specialist 2018‐2022 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House. [email protected], www.drbhaswati.com