As a scrawny and timid child, I grew up in one of the maze like alleyways on Bakshi Bazar Road in the 1980’s. Night came on early for my family and I. We would rarely stay up longer than 11 pm and the kids were retired to bed by 8 pm. I never questioned authority back then or revolted against my set bedtime.
I often inwardly marvel as I tell my daughter that back then we had only BTV channel which showed only a single cartoon at 5 pm. Later on, the adults would huddle around the sofa and watch shows like Dallas and MacGyver around 9 pm, which once older we sometimes were also permitted.
I ponder, as I look back, at how simple our lives were back then….
The delicious haunting fragrance of jasmine or beliphul hung thick about the air as the sun faded and stars came out to shine and sparkle their diamond glow lights in the sky. It was as though we went to sleep with the birds back then and awakened with them too.
We did not peer our heads into blue screens, we did not grow up around computer screens or Ipads like kids today. Most well to do households were staffed with a single modest TV set and good old VCR. This was our only exposure to artificial lighting. There were hardly as many streetlights as there are nowadays. Back then, I would get thoroughly annoyed with my grandfather who kept switching off the lights and fans after us in our flat in Kolkata politely saying “Please don’t waste electricity”. How smart he’d been and quite the visionary I feel looking back on this and what an idiot I was!
Many years later, as a development worker traversing villages in Bangladesh I encountered groups of people living in wetland ecosystems (chars or haors in Bangla) who, bereft of electricity or modern amenities, adopted similar sleeping and waking hours. I can’t say whether they were happier or healthier, being marginalized and all, however, they struck me as people who were living in better sync to nature. They seemed more “balanced” to me. Their kids roamed endless lands and spaces barefoot. I didn’t think they were accruing germs along the way, they were treading earth and in connection with the real beat of the universe. The way nature had originally intended all of us to be till man decided to tamper with it all. I hope this doesn’t make it sound too romantic and rose tinted. I actually do believe that living in nature is superior to living in a concrete box.
Living creatures (and I am not merely referring to human beings here) all align to what is known as the circadian rhythm. The cycle of the sun and moon in short; Our menstrual cycles and even conception are also codependent on the appearances of the full or new moon. Farmers have traditionally sown seeds on the new moon and harvested on a full moon. Ancient societies and religions placed attention to the solar and lunar cycles often arranging celebrations and festivals to denote them. The Farj prayers sound at the stroke of dawn, also known as Brahmamurta by the Hindus, the most sacred and holy hour, a view held by both religions. This is the ideal time for all living beings to awaken. Take it from the birds.
A recent study and research by California based South Indian scientist Dr Satchin Panda confirmed the boons of sleeping and waking on time. He found that it not only contributes to health and wellbeing but also to other factors such as improved mitochondrial function, heightened brain function, alertness and stronger immunity.
When the birds return to their nests to sleep at sunset, it is also our cue to wind down and slow down. As modern life demands you participate in late dinners and meetings we need to work around these if we wish to optimize our wellbeing so that we can live exceptionally long and healthy lives. I personally don’t envision dying at 90 as a bedridden shadow of a human being. I see myself going on hikes and continuing to practice yoga with full grasp on my intellectual abilities. There has to be a method to this madness – a way to “hack” this health business.
I practiced going to bed at 8 pm and waking up at 6 am. Over time, this has become second nature for me. Not only do I look and feel younger than I did in my twenties I also have a ton of energy and rarely fall sick. Try it for a month or two, don’t just take my word for it! If you are a woman you will notice how regular your menstrual cycle becomes due to this routine and if you are a man you will notice how much more virile you are compared to before. New mothers routinely fall sick as they have to stay up nights to look after their babies, as do night flying pilots and people who work the night shift exposed to artificial light.
As an adult it’s not always easy to sleep by 8:30 pm and not just because you are constantly at the brunt of others jokes! I invested in a pair of geeky glasses called TruDark (available at www.trudark.com) and these are great at filtering out all forms of artificial lights that affect melatonin secretion in the brain. I also tend to look less at my smartphone as evening draws upon us and avoid anything too stimulating like an action movie and resort instead to meditating or reading a book. I also eat an early dinner to make sure my body isn’t caught up in the digestion process and thus too busy to go to sleep. Sure enough when I follow these rules I get sleepy!
Dr Panda also talks about time restricted eating, a notion that has gained recent popularity better known as intermittent fasting or IF. While this does not apply to people with type 2 diabetes, it definitely helped a whole plethora of people with a whole range of ailments ranging from blood pressure, cardiac issues, hormonal imbalances and a host of others.
Intermittent fasting is not a dry fast like the Ramadan one. You can consume, coffee, herbal teas and most importantly stay hydrated by drinking water whilst on the fast. When aligned to the circadian rhythm, the body can go to sleep thereby off duty from digesting food which takes an incredible amount of energy. This often results in autophagy or cell rejuvenation as well. Instead it can rest and when the individual wakes up ideally at dawn they can start their day with gentle movement coupled with meditation or prayer.
A reckless teenager with a band of rebellious friends, I used to revel in burning the midnight fuel, smoking entire cartons of strong cigarettes, drinking cups of coffee and sugary tea to stay up all night listen to music or read or party and sleep all day because all the cool kids were doing it.
Looking back on my life, this lifestyle had totally wrecked my health and endocrine system, something I struggle to regain even now and am stuck with an autoimmune disease for life. However living clean in this manner, being in sync to the natural cycle of day and night and doing yoga, eating well has made an enormously significant difference.
Adulting as a professional health coach and yoga instructor it is my belief that modern chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease can be avoided by changing the lifestyle and food. Diseases such a these were uncommon a hundred years ago and it only takes an intelligent guess to attribute it to modern lifestyle and living methods.
It is possible to enjoy all the creature comforts of modern life whilst being respectful to your health and body. The renowned yoga teacher B K S Iyengar said that “The body is a temple. Keep it pure and clean for the soul to live in.” While I am not asking you to forsake living it up or partying, eating like a fat kid who loves cakes; know that this kind of living has severe consequences which result not only in debilitating you but also cutting your lifespan in half.
In Bangladesh, we are currently subject to high levels of pollution and toxic exposure; breathing the air in Dhaka alone can shorten our lifespan to the extent of smoking 7 cigarettes daily. We sure don’t need to add to this.
Treat your body like a mosque or temple. Self care is the best form of self respect.