Wake Up—And Don’t Smell The Coffee: Caffeine-Free Energy Boosters

Three non-chemical ways to get revved up in the morning.

By Beth Levine
clock happy wake up morning picture
Photograph: Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

As far as I’m concerned, the most obnoxious pairing of words in the English language is the phrase Good morning. Separately, each word is fine. But say them together while I’m still in bed, and you can expect a pillow flung at your head, along with some heartfelt epithets. So, in the hope of saving my husband, son and dog from having to deal with my early am crankiness (and surprisingly strong pitching arm), I concocted an experiment: I would test three ancient Eastern ways of tapping internal energy in order to wake up faster every day. Why not just go with caffeine? Because I wanted the change to come from within, not from a dose of joe. Here, on a scale of one (worst) to five (best) coffee cups, is my rating of how well each program fared.

Studies have repeatedly shown that pranayama, yogic breathing sometimes coupled with simple stretches, is effective at lowering the heart rate and reducing anxiety. A few years back, researchers at the University of Oxford in England found that this practice can also improve people’s get-up-and-go. According to the researchers’ report in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, one 30-minute session of pranayama “had a markedly invigorating effect on [subjects’] perceptions of both mental and physical energy, and increased high positive mood.”

Since there are many forms of prana-yama, I consulted Larissa Hall Carlson, the breathing specialist at KripaluCenter for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to find out whichmethods would best help me achieve my goal of feeling more energetic at wake-up time. Carlson recommended her own morning routine, which consists of three types of breathing, and was kind enough to demonstrate each of them for me over Skype. “The combination of techniques stimulates body and mind by bringing more oxygen into the bloodstream, gradually increasing lung capacity and helping to reduce nasal congestion,” she explains.

The Program
Total Time
: About five minutes
Effectiveness Tip: Inhale and exhale through the nose, never the mouth.

>Three-Part Breath (or Dirgha Breath): Carlson likes to do this one when she first awakens and is still lying in bed. (I like the lying-in-bed part, too.) This way of breathing may come easily to those who have studied yoga but may take some practice for others. The technique: You inhale very slowly and deeply, consciously directing the air first to your belly, making it inflate like a balloon, then into your middle chest so that your ribs expand and then into the upper part of your lungs, below your collarbone. When you are completely full, don’t hold your breath; exhale slowly, starting with the air in your upper chest, in a reversal of your three-part inhalation. Do 6 to 10 reps.
>Standing Sun Breath Stand: As you inhale, raise your arms out to your sides, then over your head, pressing your palms lightly together as if you are praying. Then exhale, keeping your hands together as you bring them down the centerline to your midsection and stopping when your hands pass your heart. Do 6 to 10 reps.
>Squatting Sun Breath: Stand, holding your palms together in front of your heart. As you inhale, bring your arms up the centerline, stopping when they are overhead. Exhale and bring your arms first out to your sides and then into a prayer position, with palms together while you also bend your knees into a gentle squat (yoga’s chair position). As you inhale, keep your palms together and bring arms up the centerline until they are overhead as you also stand up. Exhale. Do 6 to 10 reps.

My Rating: 3.5 cups of coffee
This is a very good, simple routine—slow and gentle but effective. Increasing my oxygen intake sweeps the cobwebs out of my brain, and the slight stretching helps work out the morning kinks. I woke up vaguely headachy one day, and this exercise actually reduced my discomfort.

First Published November 9, 2011

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