Winter, Ayurvedically, and 5 ways to enjoy it

The winter season is upon us! This time of year can be the most difficult to ‘weather’ with peace of mind and good health. The Science of Ayurveda gives us a unique understanding of the nature of these challenges and informs us how to meet them consciously to achieve better health.

Ayurveda tells us that there are 5 elements that make up everything in the world.  Space, air, fire, water and earth are present in absolutely everything – from your body, to the mountains – to the sea!  Everything manifest is comprised of a unique ratio and combination of the five elements.  For instance – the sea is predominantly made up of water.  And the mountains are predominantly made up of earth.  However, both the mountains and the sea also contain all elements in varying lesser degrees.
While the elements make up everything in the material world, they also infuse the ever-changing seasons with their qualities. We know that spring is cold, moist and muddy.  Think about it — moist and muddy are “earth” and “water.” Spring is a time for growth. Summer is hot and filled with light. These are the qualities of the fire element. Summer is a time of production, fruition and harvest. In the winter season, space and air become the dominant elements. Winter is characterized by the cold, dry, disconnected and mobile qualities of space and air. The heavy, lubricated and warm qualities of earth, water and fire greatly decrease. There is less light and heat present, as the earth’s axis shifts away from the sun.  (How much less depends on where you live.  A North Dakota winter is very different from a San Francisco winter.  Climate and geographical location greatly influence the degree to which a winter season will affect you.) Soil has been baked dry by the summer heat,  requiring a long season of snow and rain to replenish moisture.  The earth is dry, frozen, depleted and  unreceptive. Winter is a time of dormancy — a time to rest and restore after the growth of spring and the production and harvest of the summer. (Ayurveda recognizes three yearly cycles, in case you’re wondering where fall went.  Autumn and winter both fall under the umbrella of the winter season – called the “Vata” season in Ayurveda’s Sanskrit language of origin .)

Nature is our mirror; as without, so within.  The special care that our bodies and minds need during the Vata time of year is important both to understand and to honor.  Knowing which challenges are present empowers you to consciously apply the appropriate medicines and activities. Ayurveda holds that the primary way to create balance is to apply the law of opposites.  If something is cold, add heat.  If something is dry – add moisture.  If something is mobile; stabilize. If something is constricted – effect some relaxation. The way to offset the effects of Vata season is to meet it’s cold, light, dry mobility with warm, heavy moist and stable foods and activities.
In today’s busy world, many of us enter this yearly cycle with a sense of constriction, fatigue, overwhelm and depression.  It’s important to recognize this and to allow yourself to simply slow down.  Just as the trees withdraw life force from leaves in response to the waning of the light of the sun – sending it into the trunk and deep into the roots to keep the core strong in winter dormancy – so, too, should we reduce our ‘output,’ withdraw into ourselves and prepare to rest down and restore for a time. When spring arrives, as it always does, the energy and capacity to quicken and renew will arise naturally.   If, however, we drive ourselves too hard, fail to nourish our bodies appropriately and neglect to cultivate activities that nurture vitality and well-being, than the chances that we’ll find ourselves more depleted, depressed and sick are rather high.
During this time, focus on grounding and self care. Engage in introspection and self reflection.  It’s a good time to nurture relationships – with self, others and the divine.  Practicing an acceptance of self, compassion for others and faith in the mystery of the divine will ease the discomfort of the Vata influence.  Aggravated Vata brings up fatigue, fear, disconnection and doubt. Devoting time and awareness to simple (though not easy) affirming practices pays dividends in the long run when it comes to the long-term picture of your health.
Ironically, in our present culture, the winter season is often the most pressurized time of year.  The onslaught of the holidays and their attendant flotsam, jetsam and hullabaloo introduce the complications and frustrations of travel, gift giving, and family dynamics- all while we attempt to carry on with the normal routines of life. And just when the least amount of energy is available to us.

Consider practicing these 5 tips to optimize your health and well-being as you navigate the season…
1. Lower your expectations.  You don’t hear that often, do you?!  To clarify — Vata season does not support the energy of starting something new or producing in a big way.  So try not to push yourself or others.  If you can avoid it, don’t set out to climb a literal or figurative Mt. Everest.  Rest down, embrace a level of dormancy and honor your body and mind’s need to relax and restore.
2. Maintain an exercise regime, but consider allowing yoga to take the front seat.  During this time of year, excessive movement is contra-indicated. The nervous system is intimately linked to Vata season and is it’s most unstable and depleted during this time of year. Exercising too hard or pushing yourself physically will tax the nervous system and increase the aggravating qualities of Vata.  However; movement is important, and yoga is the perfect wintertime way to move.  Yoga keeps the lymph and digestion flowing, places focus on the breath and reinforces the mind/body connection.  Iyengar and restorative yoga are perfect yoga modalities for the Vata season. They are slow and focus on breath and form – this counteracts fast moving and dis-integrated Vata.  There are some great apps out there that will support your in-home yoga pracicee.  Yogamazing is a good example. Whether it’s an app, a class at a studio or a dvd at home, you won’t be sorry you took up yoga for the winter!
3. Lay off stimulants.  The benefits vs. cons of stimulants are highlighted all over the media.  Ayurveda has a straightforward approach to caffeine – it aggravates the nervous system and, in excess,  deregulates functional flow of energy, organs and the endocrine system.  Better to be naturally aware and awake than to artificially stimulate the nervous system and create deeper imbalances. Ironically, just when you may be feeling called to have that extra cup of coffee is just when it will harm you the most. That being said, all caffeinated drinks are not equal.  Coffee is as harsh and mind disturbing as it gets, Ayurvedically speaking.   Get more sleep, drink more water and, if you must take caffeine; chai, green tea and yerba mate are the kinder/gentler choices.
4. Seek out good company. If you’re prone to hibernation during the winter, make an effort to cultivate the company of good people and positive group experiences.  The closeness of friends and family is good medicine during the Vata season, when the expansive qualities of space can lead to a sense of disconnectedness.  This is the time to cozy up to loved ones, cook, play scrabble and make snowmen together.
5. Avoid raw foods.  The Science of Ayurveda teaches that eating seasonally, regionally and organically supports health and good digestion.  When it’s cold outside, which sounds better — a salad or a warm bowl of soup?  Soup right? Check in with your body – it’s wisdom will guide you.  Eat warm foods that are well spiced and a part of the fall/winter harvest; squash, yams, beets, nuts, organic free-range meats, hearty whole grains, good fats, spices and unprocessed dairy. These foods will nurture your body/mind and keep you going.  100 years ago, there was no question of what to eat — one ate what was available – i.e. regional/seasonal. Today we must consciously choose the theme of our grocery list, as almost anything is available to us in every season. Consuming the season’s harvest will naturally counteract the aggravating qualities of the season.
6. Ok, ok, officially this article is ‘5 ways to weather the winter season,’ but we just couldn’t leave this one out!  Take your Vitamin D3 daily! About 5000 i.u./day for adults in the winter seems to be the general consensus.  Read this great article on the importance of D3 by Chiropractor and Ayurvedic Practitioner, John Douillard here.

Honoring Ayurvedic principles and wisdom in the difficult Vata season eases and lends grace to an important part of a cycle.  It’s written in Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”  Let the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda guide you in recognizing this time for what it is. Spring and summer will come again – dynamic periods in which your mind, body and spirit will be supported by nature in the pursuit of growth, development and production. For now… slow down.  Relax.
Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, evokes the cold dark beauty of the season. In it is a reminder to stop and reflect – to drop into the stillness – without losing connection to your purpose and place in this world.  May your holidays be filled with love and light.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
-Robert Frost

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