How TCM can elevate your yoga and meditation practice

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It’s time to turn back the clock by going back to basics with a simple framework based on western science and ancient Chinese medicine, or TCM,  for yoga, meditation and wellbeing.

As organic beings, we are naturally programmed to flow with nature’s rhythm of the day. A challenging busy lifestyle, however, might interfere with this. It’s time to turn back the clock by going back to basics with a simple framework based on western science and ancient Chinese medicine for yoga, meditation and wellbeing.

Tick-tock: The circadian clock

In modern western science, our biological rhythm, the circadian clock, is managed and controlled by the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is our master clock which responds to a 24-hour cycle of light and dark. It is situated in the brain about 3 centimetres behind our eyes and produces and releases organic chemicals and hormones such as cortisol and melatonin to manage our internal balance.

Sunrise, sunset

With the rising of the sun in the morning, the hormone cortisol initiates our active phase. This phase is the moment for us to wake up and focus as we eat, move more vigorously and concentrate on activities of the mind. During this active phase, we use resources from our body and food as fuel.

Throughout the day, cortisol levels naturally decline as the sun prepares to set. Its antagonist, melatonin, rises and becomes active in the evening and night to help our body move smoothly into a state of recovery and sleep.

ON-OFF balance

The hypothalamus does not only respond to the 24-hour cycle of light and dark. Its function also depends on feedback of our body systems such as our nervous system and organs. Metabolic events such as our eating times, when we move and when we rest influence this feedback, including our levels of cortisol and melatonin.

In today’s modern society, we are at risk of disturbing this natural flow as a tendency exists to be ON most of the time with limited or irregular OFF time. This results in a disturbance of healthy cortisol and melatonin secretion, where a higher demand and excretion of cortisol causes an imbalance in body systems, affecting our ability to live a naturally balanced life.

Research has shown that increased mental and physical activity and over-usage of television, internet and mobile phones disrupt our circadian rhythm by causing a cortisol-melatonin imbalance. This potentially contributes to fatigue, loss of concentration, menstrual difficulties, a shortened life, obesity, blood-sugar imbalances such as diabetes, anxiety, depression and even cancer progression.

Chinese medicine clock

More than 2000 years ago, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) found its roots through the observation of its surrounding nature. This is expressed through an intrinsic system that mirrors this nature through our organs, opposing yin-yang energies, elements and energy rivers called meridians. Long before the scientific existence of cortisol and melatonin, TCM discovered that support of specific organs and body systems is based on the movement of the sun and the timing of the day.

Around the TCM clock

In TCM, qi, also known as energy, moves in cycles. Throughout a 24-hour day, specific organs are more active and supportive for the creation, maintenance and balance of qi. Aligning ourselves throughout the day with these cycles and organ systems through yoga and lifestyle practices can enhance greater physical, mental and emotional balance.

3-5am: Lungs; letting go

Waking up refreshed and clear requires a process of letting go. Daily, we are exposed to all sorts of stresses. Whether it is from food, weather conditions, our environment or physical, mental and emotional pressure, we need time to restore and recover. At night, when we rest, our body and body systems support restoration and recovery.

The lungs are more active at this time. In balance, they stimulate a dreamlike state to help process and release mental and emotional impressions of the day. Throughout the night, your breath releases volatile and subtle toxins that our body no longer needs. This process of letting go energetically creates space for clarity and creativity throughout the day. Keep a window open in the bedroom for sufficient ventilation and clear air.

Yoga support: Focus on deep diaphragmatic breathing. This increases oxygen flow and improves the quality and performance of every cell. In return, this will strengthen digestion, physical and mental performance, immune function, muscle strength, recovery and relaxation.

5-7am: Large intestine; wake up, meditate

This is an ideal time for waking up. The large intestine rules the elimination of more solid waste and toxins we no longer need. Start the day with a glass of warm water with a squeeze of lemon to support elimination.

Yoga support: Nadi shodana is a pranayama (breathing) exercise that nourishes the body and mind with extra oxygen supply. It is an optimal pranayama technique to create clarity and focus, as it reduces stress and anxiety. Meditate on centring the mind to help eliminate unnecessary thoughts and worries that block a clear view on the day.

7-9am: Stomach; concentrate

The stomach is responsible for receiving and preparing foods for optimal uptake of energy. The stomach is most active at this time, which makes it an ideal time to eat breakfast. Cortisol is at its highest, which naturally increases blood-sugar levels. Eating breakfast within two hours of waking up is essential to manage stress levels, maintain longer energy and balance blood-sugar levels and, with that, stay alert and concentrated during the day.

Diet support: Concentrate on eating a wholesome breakfast with wholegrains, raw nuts and fresh fruit.

Intention: Set an intention for the day and create a list of realistic plans and actions for the day.

9-11am: Spleen; motivation and creativity

At this time, we are naturally more motivated to work and be physically active as our spleen is transforming subtle substances from food into energy. A healthy-functioning spleen enhances clear thinking and decision making. It creates space for creativity and enhances the ability to sense the needs of others and compassion for their circumstances.

Yoga support: Plan a powerful yoga session with asanas (poses) that focus on the upper legs and abdomen, as the spleen meridian flows through these areas. Especially, practise poses such as chair pose, warrior poses, boat pose and plank.

11am-1pm: The heart; fulfilment and expression

In TCM, the heart represents the outward-going expression of energy through our personality. In balance, this results in joyous enthusiasm, clear communication, good memory, balanced emotions and greater self-love and self-awareness.

With the sun at its highest point in the day, it is the moment to embrace and appreciate a sense of feeling fulfilled. Not by what has been achieved so far, but by feeling vibrant and good about ourselves regardless of any pressing responsibilities or heavy workload. Leave the workspace, eat a light lunch, socialise with others and do activities that are uplifting and carefree.

Yoga support: It’s time to go wild with a warming and flowing practice for the heart that leaves space for creativity and brings a spark in our eyes. Extra-stimulating yoga poses are poses that stretch and open the heart space such as wild thing, wheel pose and camel.

1-3pm: Small intestine; sorting and organising

The small intestine is responsible for sorting and organising all that is supportive and positive towards our wellbeing. This assimilation process starts in the small intestine, as it accepts and absorbs nutrients that are necessary for the growth, repair and recovery of our body and mind.

At this time of the day, our circadian rhythm naturally slows down as cortisol levels decline. A common response is to feel less focused, more sluggish and even tired, since we are moving into a rest-and-digest phase. Calmness and relaxation are key.

Diet support: Rather than boosting energy with coffee or sugary foods, think of ways to support this process through pacing. For example, eat a small, wholesome snack and drink some green tea.

Yoga support: Practise gentle yoga poses with space for deep, slow breathing. For example, seated twists, seated forward-fold and wide-knee child’s pose. These poses enhance the assimilation process by massaging the intestines, calming the nervous system and settling the mind.

3-5pm: Bladder; collection and excretion

During the bladder’s peak activity, excretion of fluid increases. It is essential to stay hydrated and drink sufficient amounts of fluid to help detoxify the body. Dehydration and improper detoxification of fluid can affect our mood, energy and clarity.

The bladder, together with the kidneys, energetically strengthens our personal willpower and determination by trusting in our individual flow of intuitive power. It is of essence to not let any impurities blur and weaken this flow which can lead to fear, a lack of (self) trust and a loss of reality.

While the body is flushing toxins out, it is time to clear the mind and appreciate the work progress so far. Switch to doing less-complicated tasks. Answer emails, organise files and engage in activities that kindle creativity and communication.

Yoga support: A 15-minute mindfulness meditation encourages a sense of reality, trust and presence. Rest the mind in the flow of sounds, physical and emotional sensations, breath and thoughts without attaching, controlling or interfering with this flow.

5-7pm: Kidney; regenerate and recharge from within

The kidneys are organs that monitor and filter substances out of blood that are still useful energy and support for our body. TCM considers the kidneys to be our batteries and, at this time of the day, it is important to recharge and regenerate them.

Support this process by giving the body and mind time relax and unwind. Energetically, it is time to cocoon and isolate ourselves from the outside world to focus on deeper inner work and reflection.

Diet: Eat a light dinner that does not ask too much from the body’s digestives system, such as lots of vegetables, fish or poultry and a small amount of healthy fats.

Yoga support: A yin yoga practice supports the journey inward by stretching deeper physical and energetic parts within the body such as fascia and meridians. It offers a deeper psychological layer to reflect on and understand what we feel and are going through in the moment with observing kindness. The yin practice supports not only the kidney’s ability to filter and clean our blood, it also enhances circulation within our organs, muscles and body tissues. Especially poses such as sleeping swan, caterpillar, sphinx and butterfly.

7-9pm: Pericardium; circulation and discernment

Blood flow to the heart is at its strongest now, which provides nutrient-rich blood to body systems, body cells and organs structures. This process of construction and rebuilding requires oxygen, so it is a good time to take an evening stroll.

Within TCM, the pericardium is a physical and energetic layer that protects the heart from being overflown, overwhelmed, hurt or over-sensitive. The pericardium plays an important role in intimacy and particularly in the courage and vulnerability to act without fear of being hurt or rejected. A well-preserved pericardium and heart assist in a greater sense of discernment: an ability to judge what feels safe for the heart to engage in when it comes to acts of intimacy.

Journal: It is a good time to journal intimate thoughts and feelings that strengthen self-love. Invite in this sense of self-acceptance through an intention for the night to come. `

9-11pm: Triple heater; rest and sedate

It’s time to sedate the nervous system and prepare for bed. In TCM, the main role of the triple heater is to maintain a constant body temperature. An overheated body burns up easily and weakens our barriers of resilience, creating more stress and lowering our immune system.

Energetically and emotionally, the triple heater supports a healthy balance between our inner world and outer world. It is the ability to have a warm and sincere relationship with our surroundings, without abandoning ourselves and the loyalty to our own purpose. Any disharmony between our inner and outer world can cause restlessness and affect our sleep.

Sleep support: Turn off electronic devices such as mobile phones and television. Drink herbal sleepy tea with herbs such as ashwagandha, chamomile, valerian, lavender and passionflower.

Yoga support: Practise yoga nidra to help draw the attention inwards into a natural state of equilibrium, where the whole body and mind settles into a deep state of relaxation.

11pm-1am: Gallbladder; decisiveness and determination

A restful night is important to help restore and strengthen the body. Our body naturally is at rest with low cortisol levels, low blood pressure, lower body temperature and a slower metabolism.

In Chinese medicine, both the liver and gallbladder strengthen our drive to follow our personal vision, direction and growth. It is our ability to be loyal to our authenticity and to guard and protect this by standing up for ourselves and our principles. Low quality of sleep affects this and makes us question our confidence of direction.

The gallbladder stores and secretes bile necessary to break down and digest fats. Improper digestion of fats can disturb our sleep with worry and doubt affecting our decisiveness and determination. This stagnates our growth and can make us feel angry, vengeful and even depressed.

1am-3am: Liver; change and renewal

Physically and emotionally, the liver is an organ of change and renewal. The liver literally is a place of processing and directing. Substances from foods are changed into useful building blocks and stored or distributed through the body. Harmful substances such as medicine, alcohol and by-products of foods are detoxified and prepared for excretion.

Energetically, the liver serves our personality by creating an active barrier against harmful and toxic environments and emotions. This supports a clear identity that is not influenced by manipulation, mental and emotional exploitation and psychological attacks.

Waking up between 1-3am could be a sign of too much pressure on the liver. It is crucial to not overload the liver with physical and emotional toxins. Typical responses of imbalance are anger, impatience and frustration.

Vision support: Create a vision board that empowers a drive for growth with strong confidence to protect personal values and visions without judging or rejecting others.

Diet support: Avoid eating heavy meals high in saturated fats, fried foods, sugar and alcohol. Adapt a diet with lot of green vegetables such as broccoli, rocket, Brussels sprouts and healthy oils. Minimise eating late in the evening, as this will affect the liver and gallbladder and, with that, the body’s ability to rest.

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