“We share so much in common with plants that we have to reconsider what characterizes us as human.” Plant geneticist, Prof. Daniel Chamovitz
Recently a lovely little article appeared in my Facebook feed which invited me to cultivate my inner plant. This was not to be an exercise in anthropomorphism, stated its author, but an opportunity to “vegetalize your already more than human body”. And as I read these words, I realized I had finally found a way to contextualize (and put into practice) my growing fascination with the yoga of time.
Not grand cycles of time like the Yugas, but the monthly, daily, even hourly cycles that regulate our biological clock. Like plants, our cells contain cryptochromes (light-sensitive proteins) which respond to the rising and setting sun and changing moon phases. And plant geneticists and biologists speculate that these genes are why the same cycles of time that regulate the growth, rest and reproduction of lettuce, trees and flowers, govern our metabolic processes as well.
Was this I wondered, why ancient Vedic and Ayurvedic texts put so much emphasis on harmonizing human activity with the cycles of the sun, moon and solar system? Today their teachings on propitious hours, days and moon phases for meditation and asana have largely been washed out of modern yoga practice as irrelevant superstition – yet the new science of chronobiology increasingly confirms that within every moon phase and daily cycle – there are peak times for everything.
Solar and lunar cycles DO create real fluctuations in our bodies and brains, regulating physiological processes such as sleep wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature, neurotransmitter activity and other important bodily functions. For example, each morning when the earth rotates into sunlight, this creates a surge in the fields lines of magnetic force that run throughout the earth – and our bodies and brains – releasing the hormones and neurochemicals which shift our physiology from sleeping to waking.
Dharma Sing Khalsa MD, author of Meditation as Medicine: Activate the Power of Your Healing Force suggests – if this transition between sleep and waking does not occur in tandem with our natural circadian rhythm, it can “diminish the production of stimulating neurochemicals, and leave people groggy and depressed all day. Or it can cause the opposite effect, the overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause agitation, immune dysfunction, memory loss and premature aging.”
Research compiled in Michael Smolensky’s book “The Body Clock Guide To Better Health” also tells us that when it comes to maximising our full potential, timing is everything. Fluctuations in our circadian rhythm, a roughly 24 hour period (following the earth’s rotational cycle) leaves us better performing certain tasks at certain times. For example, morning is best for tackling mental tasks because of mental alertness and concentration peak from 9 am and midday and wane in the early afternoon (best time for taking a nap). And because our muscular strength, pain tolerance and physical strength peak at about 3 pm to 6 pm Smolensky suggests this is the time to perform strength and agility based exercise.
The great healing tradition of Ayurveda well understood the importance of aligning ourselves with these energetic qualities, and it started with getting up in the morning. The period before sunrise is known as the Brahma Muharta or “ambroisal hours” and it is advised that “One should wake up in the Brahma Muhurta for sustaining perfect health and for achieving a long life span, as desired.” Conversely waking later was believed to contribute to lethargy, fatigue and a host of physical disorders.
Ancient Ayurvedic texts are also full of instructions on observing the cycles of the moon. And while we regard these idea’s as folklore, studies referenced by Douglas Rushkoff in Present Shock, When Everything Happens NOW suggest that our brain is dominated by a different neurotransmitter during each moon phase.
At the beginning of the new moon acetylcholine (associated with heightened attention) is predominant, nearer to the full moon an uptake in serotonin occurs (the feel good chemical that gets boosted by antidepressants) and as the moon wanes our dopamine (responsible for reward driven learning) increases. Finally, in the last moon phase, we are dominated by norepinephrine (an arousal chemical that regulates the flight or fight response, anxiety and other instinctual behaviours).
So if we perform the same routines and sequence of postures day in and day out – paying little attention to the effects on our physiology of the changing hours, days and moon phases – are we out of rhythm with the cycles of nature?
So I wondered, beyond someone inventing a Yoga App that meshes our chronotype with moon phases and circadian rhythms, was there a simple way to put the yoga of time into practice? And this brings me back to the lovely plant embodiment exercise with which I introduced this post – because it granted me a clarifying epiphany. The answer was within the body – as always.
Utilizing the great yogic metaphor of body as tree, this meditation instructs us to “ Find a patch of sunlight. Stand tall, let your feet sink into the ground below you, and close your eyes. Reach your bare arms outward and feel the sun warm your skin…feel the lift and lilt as your leaves and stems reach for more sunlight…”
Now considering that the same cryptochromes responsible for a plant “knowing” whether it is in the light or the dark are the same group of genes that keep humans in tune with their biological clock, this meditation aptly asks: “Can you feel the energetic shift when the far-red light of the rising and setting sun cues your body into the earth’s rotational rhythms?”
I love this because it encourages us to sink deep down into the innate wisdom of our cells. It invites us to “acquire a bodily memory of the play of light and colour as they change over the seasons”. And it suggests that by cultivating our inner plant we can reconnect with our nature as beings in time, we can begin to instinctively sense and move in harmony with the cycles of time that regulate all life on the planet.