Do you feel like you want to snuggle under the warm blankets this winter season and do nothing else? Winter season brings with it shorter days and longer nights, and with the cold, dry environment enveloping you, it comes as no surprise that winter lethargy sets in. However, the ancient science of Ayurveda encourages you to get moving and combat this to feel refreshed and rejuvenated for the day ahead.
The practice of yoga is a close sister of Ayurveda and has its fundamentals in the belief that with balance comes good health. Typically, this means adapting to changes in your environment — also known as ritucharya. Doing so has the potential to affect your physical and emotional well-being. After all, what works for summer will not always be suited for winter.
While food is one key component of Ayurveda, movement and dincharya (routine) are the other two. In this blog, let us dive deeper into the aspect of movement in relation to winter. By recognizing the qualities of winter, you can counterweight them with balancing qualities of asana (yogic postures) for a warm and fulfilling winter season.
Seasonal changes, the human body, and yoga: an overarching perspective
Our daily lives are enveloped by a sense of ‘quickness’ and chaos, leaving us completely out of tune with the environment’s natural cycles and our inner instincts to guide us. However, the practice of yoga enables us to slow down, pause, and become mindful of our surroundings and our inner feelings —thereby allowing us to better respond and adapt to these changes. As a result, this empowers us to live healthier and happier lives.
Seasonal changes inadvertently force our bodies to adapt to the environment surrounding us. Following the principles of yogabhya, according to ritucharya, enables us to build our physical strength and mental capability. Research suggests that this, in turn, helps our bodies fight diseases that occur due to most seasonal changes such as colds and flu.
But how does our body react to seasonal changes?
The practice of Ayurveda categorizes our body types as Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire and water), and Kapha (earth and water). These doshas govern a person’s physiological, mental, and emotional health and constitution. As these are derived from the elements of nature, there is a strong correlation between our bodily constitutions and seasonal variations.
Primarily, three changes occur in our dosha constitutions with changing seasons. These include:
Chaya (natural accumulation): Imbalanced doshas accumulate in their main locations.
Prakopa (aggravated accumulation): Imbalanced doshas accumulate in other parts of the body
Prasama (pacification): The season when the dosha is pacified
Now, putting this into context with the three doshas, we can therefore understand that:
Vata accumulates in the summer, gets aggravated in the monsoon or wet season, and is pacified in autumn.
Pitta accumulates in the rainy season, is aggravated in summer, and is pacified in early winter.
Kapha accumulates in winter, is aggravated in spring, and is pacified in summer.
This simply means that a Kapha-dominant person is more likely to feel congested and lethargic in late winter and early spring, while a Pitta-dominant person is more likely to become hot and bothered by the heat during summer, and a Vata-dominant person is more likely to feel discomfort in the fall and early part of winter.
Understanding seasonal imbalances is therefore key to maintaining good health and well-being — with movements such as yoga and nourishing seasonal foods — during these environmental transitions.
Following the dry, windy days of autumn, winter is typified by a colder and drier feel — typical characteristics of Vata. Being a combination of air and space elements, an excessive Vata can affect the way you feel, jangle your nerves, and make you unsteady in your moods. In addition to this, other challenges our bodies may undergo include more sensitivity to pain, headaches, migraines, and joint pain. Being cold and dry, pacifying Vata requires yoga poses that make you warm and maybe even induce light sweat. Another way to calm Vata down is to slow down - take the time to rest and meditate, even taking a warm bath helps.
Ayurveda considers winter to be a time of strong physical strength and immunity — as long as our bodies adapt to the cooler weather. Unbalanced doshas during this season make you more likely to catch colds or the flu and feel congested and stiff.
Yoga is known to increase ‘prana’ or life force energy within the body and this is exactly what is needed to keep our minds and bodies brimming with vitality and good health. Ayurveda believes that like attracts like and opposites balance. Therefore, during the chilly winter season, grounding and warming postures are extremely good at balancing the cold, dry qualities of Vata. In addition to this, twists and invigorating postures strengthen our inner flame and keep us warm.
With our digestive fires being at their strongest this season, yogashastras recommend using this extra energy in the practice of strenuous and dynamic yoga poses. It is also a great season to improve flexibility and deepen poses that require inversions.
Some beneficial Vata pacifying yoga poses include:
1. Surya Namaskar (Sun salutations)
While the name of this sequence itself carries warmth within itself, slowed down, rhythmic surya namaskars help slow down and balance the chaotic speed of excess Vata. It also helps soothe the nervous system and improve mental focus. Holding each pose and focusing on breathing in between is highly recommended during the winter season.
2. Malasana (Garland pose)
Malasana is a pose that requires a deep squat which inadvertently then gets into the seat of Vata. This is because Vata primarily accumulates in the lower back, hips, and abdomen. Malasana effectively helps in loosening the tension and tightness in the lower back and hips. It also encourages the downward flow of energy which in turn supports bowel movements and the alleviation of Vata-dominated conditions such as constipation, flatulence, and bloating. Daily practice of this pose with a focus on deep breaths down toward the abdomen is beneficial.
3. Setu Bandhasana (Bridge pose)
The bridge pose helps unblock the flow of energy along the spine. It is also effective in providing soothing relief to stiff and sore back muscles while strengthening them over time with practice. This pose also stretches the chest, neck, and spine and helps reduce anxiety, alleviate stress, and combat depression. Holding this pose and taking two-three deep breaths in between helps the body unlock the benefits of this posture.
4. Lolasana (Pendant pose)
This pose helps stimulate the digestive organs as you actively engage abdominal muscles to hold them. It also boosts concentration, focus and helps increase energy levels. Lolasana also activates the muladhara chakra (root) and manipura chakra (solar plexus) to help manage mood swings and confidence levels. Remain in the pose for a couple of cycles of breath before repeating it.
Crowned as the king of all poses, the headstand strengthens and aligns the arms and shoulders, while encouraging circulation to the face, neck, and brain. By reversing the effects of gravity on the internal organs, it revitalizes and boosts the immune system. The pose is considered to be immensely meditative in nature while energizing the body and increasing stamina. Hold this posture for a few deep breaths or several minutes —as long as you’re comfortable, coming down as mindfully as you went up.
6. Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half "lord of the fishes" pose)
This seated twisting pose has a multitude of benefits, be it promoting healthy elimination rekindling the digestive fire, and even calming the nervous system. This posture stimulates lymphatic flow and strengthens the immune system which is beneficial during the cold and flu season. It also supports respiratory health by opening up the rib cage and encouraging deeper breathing. Remain slow and fluid as you practice this pose, ensuring to repeat on both sides.
7. Utkatasana (Fierce pose)
Utkatasana is one of the most effective poses for building heat within the body with just a few breaths. It strengthens the body’s major muscles, joints, and bones to increase flexibility and stability. By grounding down with your legs and focusing on the core, Vata decreases while agni is strengthened. More importantly, this posture also promotes a sense of strength, empowerment, and internal fortitude. Repeating this use twice to thrice while focusing on deep breaths is immensely beneficial during winter.
Practicing yoga is beneficial all year round, but by staying in sync with the changing seasons, you benefit from greater harmony with nature. Quite naturally, this promotes a strong sense of well-being for the mind, body, and soul.
Remember that consistency is key during the winter season, and trying your best to adhere to a routine for food and yoga helps create a sense of balance during these months. More practice will result in positive effects which you can reap well beyond the cold Vata-dominated season.