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Wellbeing, Devotional, General

Why your favourite musicians wake up at 3 am for Riyaz

  • Author: Aysha Imtiaz

There are spiritual reasons to wake up at this so-called ungodly hour. Keep calm and Riyaz on Western folklore has instilled in our minds that 3 am is the witching hour. However, many believe it is a time of heightened spiritual awareness, boundless creative energy and a pressing impetus to create in a quiet, slumbering world. Regardless of whether you call them the deep hours of the night or wee hours of the morning, and whether you consider them demonic or divine, it can’t be denied that since time immemorial, this has been hailed as a prolifically potent and powerful time. 

And it’s one that artists rooted in the Indian classical tradition have seized for centuries. Read on to why stalwarts of the genre have long believed it is such an effective time to hone their craft. 

The mystery of night time 

3AM is the hour of writers, painters, poets, over-thinkers, silent seekers, and creative people. We know who you are, we can see your light on. Keep on keeping on! – Unknown 

It’s a fairly common belief that there comes a moment in the middle of night when boundless creativity is unleashed. Some posit it’s the stillness in a world free from the typical hustle and bustle. Of course, without the typical barrage of Slack messages, social media feeds, push notifications and incessant interruptions, achieving a flow state becomes easier. 

Described by Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as a state of complete immersion in an activity where effortless focus and creativity thrive, ‘flow’ is traditionally where we get deep work done...where time ceases to matter and the world melts away. Being removed from external, controllable stimuli is key, and long stretches of uninterrupted time are believed to lead to the sense of almost rapturous ecstasy that characterises being ‘in the zone’ or the ‘flow-state’. 

Still, science, literature, philosophy and religion alike uphold there may be more to it than that. Beyond flow – which could technically be achieved at any time – the dead of night may also be conducive to creative work because a different part of our brains is activated. 

Those following a rhythmic philosophy of scheduling deep work (I.e. by dedicating different parts of the day to deep and shallow work according to natural feelings of alertness, the degree of interruptions or personal chronotype) might feel like the very early morning is a time when their world is still asleep, so they can navigate the wonderfully gratifying fields of work that feeds their soul. 

It’s a time of uncharted territories where the mundane melts away. In turn, that creates an environment where one is voyaging into unknown lands – as the artist must – to do things that others can’t by working at a time when they won’t. “When we congratulate an artist for being creative...it is not because he was able to obey rules that were known before he painted his picture or wrote his novel or poem, so that thereby he succeeded in doing what had been done before. We congratulate him because he embodied in colours or in language something the like of which did not exist before, and because he was the originator of the rules he implicitly followed,” posits Vincent Thomas in The Philosophical Review. 

And ultimately, perhaps that’s why this quiet land and dreamscape of indistinguishable grays lends itself so beautifully to the idea of creating. 

For some, the advantages come by staying awake all night, and being tired can also work to our benefit, they speculate. “Our minds have two modes of thinking … focused and diffused. Focused is when you concentrate on something specific. Diffuse[d] is when you leave a problem in the back of your mind and wind up solving it some morning. 

Diffuse[d] memory thinking is relaxed and connects various parts of your brain in the same way dreams do. This allows you to make new creative creations by permuting different thoughts with each other. 

At night, your focused memory is likely worn out and your diffuse thinking picks up because you are used to sleeping at that time,” writes one Quora user. 

Rising early, the ICM way 

However, in Indian classical music, the key lies not in staying awake and pulling the ubiquitous ‘all-nighter’. It’s in sleeping and waking up very early. 

The mind is more receptive to being creative, deliberate and intensely focused right after reaping the benefits of sleep, experts state. Common wisdom suggests the early bird gets the worm, and popular literature such as The 5am club breeds a belief that the earlier we wake up, the better. The math seems simple – by trading in an hour of sleep, one must automatically reap an additional hour of productivity to ‘get a leg up’ on those hitting their snooze buttons, right? 

In the Indian classical arts, however, the idea is not to perpetuate a frenzied belief of ‘the sleepless elite’. And the regard for this time is more subtle and nuanced than simply believing less sleep equals more results. At a physical level, during an in conversation session with Darbar, rather than stressing a particular time, qawwali maestro Rahat Fateh Ali Khan stated that the throat muscles are more pliant immediately after waking up. “Sleeping is also very important,” he insists, and he describes the time right after waking up as ideal for riyaz. Sustaining notes in that state trains the muscles, he explains, and ultimately helps strengthen the voice, vocal stamina and make for robust and well-trained vocals. 

Ustad Bahauddin Dagar, a torchbearer of the Dagarvani Dhrupad (known for its patient, meditative approach) is one of the select few remaining artists with mastery over the rudra – or ‘roaring’ – veena. The instrument itself symbolises universal purity, and Dagar’s approach is redolent with an acknowledgement of our oneness with the universe. 

For him, early morning riyaz is a form of ragatherapy, and a time when the purity of the music and practice can shine through in their most undiluted form. “There are microtonal differences in the tuning during the day, especially with the rise and fall in temperature,” he explains. 

He cites the time between 2:30 and 5:30 am as the ideal time for left-hemisphere dominated brain work.

 “Spiritually evolved individuals have long recognised the magic of this time,” he says. 

The idea is supported by traditional wisdom from the Indian classical arts, especially yoga and meditation, as well as ayurvedic learning, where the one and a half hours before sunrise are known as the Brahma Muhurta.

Ayurvedic systems of medicine believe waking up at this time increases longevity. Dive deeper, and there is research supporting that at this time, the world abounds with nascent oxygen to nourish and rejuvenate the mind and soul. Other studies state that waking up at this time reset our biological clock and create a pattern that leads to feelings of wellness throughout the day, and many practitioners report utilising this time to harness more cosmic energy.

At a physiological and neurobiological level, Dagar explains the Sushumna Nadi (or primary channel of energy through which ‘prana’ or energy flows) is more open and activated at this mystical time, meaning that breath is regulated amongst both nostrils. In an interesting experiment, experts advise holding a mirror under the nose and analysing the pattern of fog – discrepancies in the misting pattern reveal the dominance of one nostril. As the core pathway, having a balanced Sushumna Nadi is said to be emblematic of restored balance overall, and lead to a time of equal and regulated breathing. And this state of equilibrium leads to a joyful, blissful, open, balanced and receptive mind. 

When we do deep work according to our passion at this time of the Sushumna Nadi being ‘open’, explains Dagar, it’s akin to unlocking,

“...a portal where you’re continuously connected to your work.”

More than an awakening, he likens it to a state of being connected to one’s passion at all times – to be in that ‘zone’ even long after riyaz is over. “Even the mind stretches at that time,” he explains. Once stretched, it stays malleable and pliant to the muscle memory and philosophical focus on the music. 

“[Since riyaz at this time] brings you to a different state of mind, three hours of morning riyaz exceed [the impact and benefit] of six hours later,” he says. According to Dagar, the best way to make optimal use of this elusive time is by training for stamina and consistency. Our minds tire out before our bodies, he explains, so making the most of the time when one is fresh after having risen is key. “Start by holding the lower paa for 15-20 days," he recommends, “Attain the lowermost saa and gradually learn to hold your breath and strengthen the lungs.” 

Still, Dagar maintains the beauty of this time lies in much more than one pathway being open, hemisphere being dominant or any element of musical achievement (such as sustaining a note) in isolation. Instead, it lies in the greater sum of all these elements melding into a mystical and profoundly creative time of solitary achievement where everything is quiet apart from the music and the musician. 

As Dagar says, ultimately, “You feel this oneness.”

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