The early bird catches the worm
Photos: Jens Schwarz
When I was at school, one of the sayings I remember writing out again and again was: “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund. Wer lange schläft, bleibt auch gesund.“ It’s hard to translate it literally into other languages, but the main message is that getting up early is a virtue – but sleeping in late keeps you fit and healthy. Even at the tender age of eight I remember thinking that this saying was really funny – and really true. One thing that has not changed since then – indeed, it has not changed throughout my whole life – is the fact that I hate getting up before six o’clock in the morning. For a long time that wasn’t really a problem, but now I need to change. I am in my mid-30s, smack bang in the middle of what sociologists refer to as the “rush hour of life”. I have a young child and a job which is important to me. On top of that, I want to stay fit and also want a fulfilling relationship. In a nutshell: I need a day with 36 hours, not 24.
Apart from deconstructing the time-space continuum, which seems a little ambitious, one of the only other potential solutions I have managed to find comes from Hal Elrod, an American motivational coach who has written the international bestseller “Miracle Morning” in which he promises that every person would be happier, more relaxed and more successful if they just got out of bed one hour earlier. There are plenty of people who have been following this advice for years. Actor Mark Wahlberg, for example, gets up at 2.30am every day to pray, then heads to the gym for a workout. Start-up entrepreneurs evangelise about the strength they draw from their morning routine, while there are rumours that the German chancellor Angela Merkel sleeps no more than four hours a day. Maybe my day doesn’t need more hours after all – I just need less sleep. That’s all well and good, but there’s just one problem: I just can’t get up in the morning. My bed is too warm, too cosy – there is nothing out there in the world that is interesting enough to tempt me out of my own little cocoon.
Where there is a will, however, there is a way. At least that’s what I tell myself. So I pack my things and head for Kufsteinerland in Tirol, a mountainous region where farming tradition and life in the Alps have meant that people have been rising before the sun for centuries. I’m going to do a crash course in getting up early. For three days I will be getting up progressively earlier. The schedule that awaits me leaves no room for excuses: early-morning yoga overlooking the craggy peaks of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains, then a bit of work on the farm, and on day three a hike to the top of a mountain to watch the sun rise.
Wake time: 5:00am
I manage to make it out of bed on time. When I arrive at the lift taking me to our yoga spot in the mountains, my heart leaps with joy. It’s a single-seat chairlift! Normally I would hate lifts like these, especially when skiing in winter. Today it is just about the best thing I can think of, because it gives me twenty more minutes of peace and quiet. I don’t have to put on a smile or participate in any smalltalk with Moni Egger, the yoga instructor who greeted me so warmly just a few moments ago when we met at the lift. It is just before six o’clock in the morning. My alarm clock went off an hour ago – and if I hadn’t arranged to meet Moni, I would have stayed in bed. When I slowly stretched my toe out from underneath the cover to test the air, I could hear my son turn over in his travel cot and let out a satisfied sigh. Is there anything more cruel than having to get up before a two year-old even wakes?
The lift carries us up through thick mist towards the mountain. Down in the forest below I hear a twig break and see a deer run away into the distance. I guess he wants to be left alone as well. The lift we are on, the Kaiserlift, is only allowed to operate eight times a year before 8:30am for environmental reasons. It is on these days that the early-morning yoga sessions take place. “Here they come, ghosts emerging from the mist,” laughs the lift operator as we reach the plateau at 1,200 metres above sea level and hop off. To be honest, I feel more like a ghoul – and I am pretty sure I look like one too. The human brain needs a little time to get going in the morning. The first part to be activated early in the early hours of the day is the area responsible for emotions. It is not until later that reason kicks in.
Moni has a typical yoga instructor’s voice. Everything she says sounds warm, nice – I feel like nodding approvingly every time she opens her mouth. That even goes for the stuff about energy floodgates that are particularly easy to open early in the morning, even if you muscles still feel like a rusty old door. I nod quietly to myself, crouch down all fours and slowly move into the Downward-Facing Dog position. Next to me I can hear Susi and Katrin breathing hard. They are both 23 years old and were out until gone midnight at a wine festival. I was in bed at 10:30pm. We have little in common, but I still feel a connection to them. Today we are all members of the early-riser club.
I open my eyes. The sun’s rays catch the peaks of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains.
Every yoga position – every Cobra, every Cow, every Fish – loosens my muscles a little more. My lungs fill with fresh air. “Smile at yourselves,” says Moni. “Especially early in the morning. If you don’t, how else are you going to smile at other people for the rest of the day?” I can feel the corners of my mouth rising up. When I go to my regular yoga class after work, am I rarely as close to myself and to my own breathing as I am now. Instead, I find myself thinking about frustrating meetings and all the things still left on my to-do list. Yoga early in the morning is a different experience, probably helped by the fact that the rational part of my brain is still asleep. “See how everything opens,“ I hear Moni say. I open my eyes. The mist which surrounded us has cleared. The sun’s rays catch the peaks of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains.
Riding back down into the valley on the chairlift, I feel good – and then even better. There are few things that make you feel as superior as the sight of hikers travelling up onto the mountain on a chairlift while you head back down, a yoga mat under one arm, before the clock strikes eight in the morning. I am a member of the exclusive early-morning yoga club! This high I experience shortly after sunrise is followed by a low in the afternoon as I try to get my son to go to sleep – he is fit as a fiddle and full of energy, I am absolutely knackered and longing for my bed. After an hour we both end up crying.
Wake time: 4:30am
As my alarm goes off, I sit bolt upright in bed. For a brief moment it feels like my mind had just been waiting for the moment to finally wake up. As I make my way to the bathroom, reality hits. I look into the mirror and see a pale face staring back at me. I feel ill, I’m freezing cold. The way I feel is a bit like on the first day after a transatlantic flight – but in this case it is me who is responsible for my own jetlag. Is it possible that early mornings just aren’t part of my time zone? After all, I definitely remember learning at school that there are “larks” and “owls” – people who enjoy getting up early and people, well, like me. If that’s true, Chris from the beautiful Lindhof farm perched on a mountain slope high above Hinterthiersee must be a lark. Anyone who has such a firm handshake at 5:30am is definitely wide awake. I will be spending a day helping him with his work. In my job as a journalist it is rare to find anyone in the office before half past nine in the morning. In the past that was because the news happened during the day and the newspaper was printed in the evening. Today it’s probably more about the fact that we find it pretty cool that we arrive at the office later than most.
Life begins with the sun.
Chris doesn’t have time for cool. Even this early in the morning he has a strict routine: water for the geese, hay for the cows, corn for the chickens. I trot around after him, trying not to look like a total idiot. Only after a while do I notice that despite the many animals, life at the Lindhof farm is quiet this early in the morning. “Life begins with the sun,“ explains Chris. That sounds like a saying from one of those cheesy calendars with 365 clever little bits of wisdom, one for each day of the year. The 37 year-old isn’t trying to share a deep moment with me – it’s just a statement of fact, strewn into the conversation like the corn thrown to the chickens for breakfast. Has he always been so clear in his convictions, I ask him. He points to the grey streaks in his hair: “Those are from my old life,” he grins. At the age of 15 he started working as a chef. At 34 he had had enough of constant stress and standing in the kitchen until way past midnight. His relationship took him to Hinterthiersee and the Lindhof farm, which supplies produce to two hotels. He immediately fell in love with the place. “I am a full-time farmer – I have regular working hours and, of course, holidays every now and then,” says Chris. “I love my job.” Behind him I hear a loud moo, a little as if Chris’s cows wanted to express their satisfaction with life on the farm. We turn around. Behind us we see the first rays of sun rising from the valley below.
Does he really not mind getting up so early, I ask him later as we pull carrots out of the ground. He holds a bright orange carrot out towards me: “Try it. This carrot is here because I planted it. I cut off the tops and give them to the chickens to eat. They then lay the eggs for the hotel guests. It’s all a circle – holistic is I guess what people would say these days. And part of that circle is my getting up early and standing here.” I am touched by his words – and Chris can tell. To release the emotional tension, he quickly adds with a smile: “Plus, it’s not bad being able to knock off early.”
In the past it was normal for people to get up when the sun rose and go to bed when it set, like Chris does. Me, on the other hand, I go into the office when it is late, often sit in front of the computer until midnight and then can’t get to sleep when I finally get to bed. According to Till Roenneberg, a sleep researcher at the University of Munich, the difference between day and night has steadily decreased in recent centuries. He explains that today 95% of people get up later and go to bed later than their ancestors did in the past. That might sound nice, but is it good for us? After all, Chris is right: if you start the day early, you finish earlier as well.
Wake time: 3:00am
The maths is simple. I want to see the sun rise from the top of the Pendling, the main mountain near Kufstein, at 6:00am. It will take me about two hours to walk up, plus half an hour extra just to be on the safe side. That means I need to get walking at 3:30am. As my alarm goes off at 3:00am, I can feel that the previous two days have been very much early rising for beginners. This is the real deal. First I have no idea where I am, then I catch my shin on the edge of the bed, and finally I find myself looking everywhere in the bathroom for a sock – which I am already wearing.
As photographer Jens and I head off on foot from our accommodation, it is pitch black. Our headlamps light the way along the damp gravel trail winding its way up onto the mountain. For a long time, all we can hear is the sound of stones crunching under foot. Then we detect a rushing sound. Is it a river? No, in fact it is the motorway taking lorry drivers and tourists south. Up here we are far away, almost in a magic parallel universe. It is just before half past five in the morning when we get to the summit. We can just see the first light approaching behind the mountains. As I get my mobile phone out of my jacket to capture this moment of triumph, I see a red dot. Could it be the sun? No, it’s my phone telling me that I have two new e-mails. Without thinking I instinctively check my inbox. One mail is from a contact-lense company offering me 50% off, while the other is from a neighbourhood community reminding me that I haven’t been in touch for a while. I feel angry. Angry with the people who send this kind of rubbish – and then angry at myself. Why do I open my mails at six o’clock in the morning while the sun is slowly rising above the mountains? Who on earth sends out an e-mail at six in the morning?
The early morning hours keep the world at arm’s length and give me back a feeling of control.
Early morning, I realise, may not be my natural time of day, but it is the time of day that BELONGS to me – and me alone. Early in the morning there is nobody wanting something from me, no message pleading for an urgent response, no expectations of what I must or must not do. Even my son sleeps until 8:30am. The early morning hours keep the world at arm’s length and give me back a feeling of control. However long my to-do list may be, it’s up to me what I want to do early in the morning. That’s the case not just in the mountains but wherever you are in the world. Getting up early in the morning certainly isn’t a panacea to heal all problems and woes, like Hal Elrod claims, but it can make small miracles happen. On this morning, high in the mountains, I take a decision: I want to get up earlier in future. I don’t think I will always manage to do it – but I do know that it’s definitely worth it.