My Ayurvedic friends often say “honor the rhythms of life and nature”. From the rhythm of your breathing to your sleep, wake and meal schedule, cultivating your awareness of nature’s rhythms – the flow of moments, days, seasons – provide a life-affirming dance. Re-attunement to nature’s timekeepers – solstice & equinox, and your internal pulse of breath & circadian rhythms is, in my humble opinion, one of the most health-enhancing gifts (from Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Native American Traditions and other nature-based cultures from which we all descend) that we have remembered. The latest science agrees!
Solstice & Equinox, Breath & Circadian Rhythm
Nature’s timekeepers, including solstice & equinox, synchronize the rhythms of life on earth. The earth’s tilt towards or away from the sun, the length of daylight and darkness, and the fluctuation between summer and winter are earth rhythms. These natural phenomena are in perfect sync (or can be) with your inner biological clocks.
A circadian rhythm (from Latin: “about a day”) is a physiological cycle that repeats itself about every 24 hours. That clock is in mammals, plants, and even in the fungi and bacteria populating the earth’s soil and your own gut. These rhythms are endogenously generated, meaning they originate from within an organism as part of its natural physiology rather than by an external stimulus such as light or temperature. These rhythms allow adjustment to regular variations in the environment at predictable times.
In this post, I’ll explore some of nature’s timekeepers and why they are so important for your well-being. I’ll share some science and what you can do to align or re-align with them. Solstice & equinox, breath & circadian rhythm connect what’s outside to what’s within.
Why does it matter?
If you have a digestive or metabolic condition, trouble sleeping or low energy, understanding your natural circadian rhythms and your breath can likely help. Natural rhythms are the daily and seasonal cycles of nature that affect our mindset, mood, energy, and sleep. Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour cycles of light and dark, and they help to regulate our hormones and energy levels. Finally, your breath is a powerful tool for stress relief and relaxation. Taking slow, deep breaths cultivates rest and recovery and can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, helping you to relax and feel more grounded.
Solstice and Equinox:
The Dance of Time, Darkness & Light
For two moments each year – the solstices – the Earth’s axis (the centerline around which earth spins – once daily) is tilted most closely toward the sun. The hemisphere (top or bottom half of the earth) tilted most toward the sun experiences its longest day, while the hemisphere tilted away from the sun sees its longest night.
Solstice (from the Latin “sol” for “sun” and “sistere” for “to stand still”) is a natural moment of pause for the earth.
Summer & Winter Solstice
The summer solstice marks the longest brightest day of the year. The sun is at its highest noontime point in the sky, and for several days before and after the sun feels bright and intense. The whole hemisphere feels it!
The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night. The sun rises late and sets so early – darkness and stillness in nature are at their height.
Ready for a visual? Here’s a good one from the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Winter solstice happens in about the third week of December in the Northern Hemisphere. Summer Solstice occurs about the third week of June. Find Northern Hemisphere solstice times here.
Spirit of Solstice
The solstices are obvious pauses in nature. The summer solstice is a celebration of full light, warmth and all that brings – nature is at its fullest point, and the activity – of plants, fireflies, and most of us is at its height. Dancing, rolling down the hill laughter, lawn games, flowers, and evening parties are in order.
Winter solstice is a time of dark velvet quiet. It’s a moment of pause in the silent depth before we begin to see and feel the return of the light. Days begin to get longer and lighter. It’s a time of reflection. The fall harvest is in, and we are usually in winter. That’s the going-in season. Winter solstice is a lovely time to take stock of the year that has been and to reflect on what went well, and not so. It’s a time of integrating lessons. You can reflect on the major events that unfolded, and when your own choices and actions were in alignment with your higher self. Or not!
Celebrations of winter solstice around the world often involve gatherings, gift-giving, candles or other lights in the darkness, and honoring of what nature has provided for the year.
Breath & Circadian Rhythms:
Your Internal Timekeepers
You and I are organic beings, so we have a collection of internal clocks. Modern science is showing us that, just like Ayurveda has been saying for thousands of years, honoring the rhythm of nature and life can take you far in healing your energy & stress levels, improving digestion, and regulating your metabolic health.
The Rhythm of Your Breath
Breathing is your only physiologic action that is both voluntary and involuntary. That is, you can control how deeply, how fast, and the way you breathe, but, if you don’t try to control it, you’ll continue to breathe. Happily.
The yogis have a whole complex science and practice of breathing as an energy-enhancing practice. That practice – called Pranayama in Sanskrit – entails regulating the level and quality of our energy through practice.
Below I’ve included an easy exercise (in the pink box!) to begin to entrain your breath in nature’s time – the cycle of a day, and the cycle of a year.
Your Inner Circadian Rhythms
We humans naturally have a number of internal rhythms – you are more deeply connected to nature than you may feel! You have circadian rhythms of sleep, and regular mealtimes (meal timing; energy, micronutrient (like vitamins & minerals), and macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat, and water) balance) can also have biological rhythms. Even your digestive bacteria are most active in the middle of the day, when the sun is highest, for example. So, eating your largest meal toward the middle of the day makes biological sense.
There is a master circadian clock in your brain, in your hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), which is sensitive to light, and syncs with other bio-clocks in your tissues. Chrono-nutrition – the study of how these rhythms interact with sleep, foods, and the timing of meals to impact metabolic health (like fatty liver), and digestion – is a young but exciting area of research. Intermittent fasting (IF, eating at certain times, or limiting your eating window) is a related practice, but the science of IF is still young and from what I see, different meal timing patterns may work for different people (so, work with a qualified nutritionist or dietitian…hmm, who might that be?).
Your Internal Timekeeper: Breath
The rhythm of your breath is deeply connected to time and to nature. Tuning into your breath is an easy first step to creating more awareness of your internal clock and its connection to all of life.
Here is an exercise to help you feel your breath connection.
1. Sit up (on the floor on a cushion or blanket, or in a chair where you can place your feet on the floor), and if you’re in a chair, sit forward from the chair back. Your spine can then be nice and long, and your breath can expand the front, sides, and back of your body.
2. Now, notice your natural breathing. Let your hands rest at your sides, and on an inhale, reach through your fingers as the inhale lifts your arms to shoulder height, then overhead. On the exhale, reach through your fingers and bring your arms back down. Continue this “sun breath”, reaching up on an inhale and back down on the exhale.
3. Now, let’s entrain with time. One cycle of your breath (inhale (I), pause (P), exhale (E,) pause) is akin to day, where the pause at the top of the inhale is high noon, and the pause at the bottom is midnight. As you consider this, notice which of the beats of the breath (I, P, E, or P) feel most familiar or easeful and which is more mysterious or a little more challenging. Extend and lengthen each beat of the breath as is comfortable.
4. Now, think of your breath as the wheel of the year. The pause at the top of the inhale is – you guessed it, the summer solstice. Feel the fullness, perhaps brightness, and vibration. The pause at the base of the exhale – the winter solstice. Feel the stillness, the rest with a tinge of anticipation. Notice which of the beats of the breath feel most easeful and does that relate to the current time of year, perhaps your birthday or something else.
This energy (pranayama) practice can help you tune in to solstice & equinox breath & circadian rhythm – they are entwined. You might begin for 5 minutes daily. Slowly increase it to at least 10 minutes most days. Twenty is even better! This can also be a centering part of your morning ritual.
Breath & Circadian Rhythms:
Entrain Yours for Wellbeing
When your circadian clock is off – due to artificial light at night, an irregular schedule like shift work, eating at night or even a digestive issue (it’s a little like the chicken and the egg – which came first?). Your sleep can get interrupted or shortened, which in turn can impact your stress and energy level, digestion, and metabolism. You might feel generally crummy. A chronic condition that runs in your family may come knocking.
These past several years when we all worked at home or were taking time away from regular schedules, many folks are out of whack. I haven’t seen too many folks getting back into regular schedules yet. Still, there is quite a range of recovery. So, if you have not been feeling well, have gained weight, or are working with a chronic issue, thinking about a reasonably regular schedule – sleep, meals, movement, and rest – can be helpful. Helping you to reconnect with your natural rhythm is one of the first things I do when I work with you as a nutritionist and yoga therapist.
Breathe, Feel, Allow…
There are a number of ways of reconnecting with your internal rhythms and re-synchronizing them with nature and life. Certainly joining my community by signing up for the newsletter if you don’t yet receive it – it comes out twice monthly – will help. I’m all about seasonality and reminders for you to honor the flow of time and nature.
What Can You Do Right Now?
Simply beginning to notice the regularity (or irregularity) of your schedule – of getting to bed, turning off electronics, getting up at close to the same time, have usual regular mealtimes, if you have a morning contemplative ritual like meditation or breathing – these are all opportunities to reconnect with and shift your rhythms. Just notice.
Then, look to nature. The night is for sleeping and rest for most of us. If yours is different – it may be OK, or may not be OK for your energy level and well-being. Experiment.
Keeping a regular sleep schedule and limiting exposure to light at night can help to keep your circadian rhythms in tune.
Likewise, look at meal timing, composition (what), and how you eat. All these things can be adjusted and personalized to address your health and well-being. For some, IF works well, for others not so much. Find a guide for support.
Know when the solstice is. Then, find out what it means to you.
Mostly, know that you are indeed connected to nature. Your very body is filled with clocks that want to sync with your natural environment. Can you see the challenge of our modern life? You don’t need to be perfect to benefit. Just experiment and notice what happens.
Modern science is yet again finding data suggesting that the yogis were pretty much right all along. It matters. Everything is connected. There is a rhythm that you are an integral part of. There is a web of nature and life that you operate within, that is speaking to you in a thousand quiet ways. If you can learn to listen, they will teach you.
So if you’ve been feeling out of sync with life, and want to enjoy better physical and mental health, tune in to these natural rhythms, your own circadian rhythms, and your breath. Taking a few moments each day to connect to your rhythms and breathe deeply can have a huge impact on your well-being, particularly if you have a digestive, mental health or metabolic health condition.
Are you aware of nature’s rhythms? Do you re-entrain with nature’s rhythms? I want to know! Leave a comment.
Do you have a ritual for the solstice or equinox – or birthdays – that you celebrate? Let’s talk about it!
May you dance to your own music within and without.
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