Winter Health – Yoga and Ayurveda

Winter Health – Yoga and Ayurveda

The global weather system is in turmoil.  In the northern hemisphere, America’s freezing, apparently due a second polar vortex, and the UK is well on its way to drowning.  Nevertheless, these climactic traumas need not wreak havoc on our immune systems or general sense of well-being (if we set aside our eco-consciences for a minute, anyway).  In fact, by incorporating some basic Yogic and Ayurvedic principles into our daily routine (Dhinacharya), we can comfortably survive into spring.   The sun may reappear in a month or so, rather than next week, but Hope remained even after Pandora’s Box (or jar) was opened – and Earth’s recent Natural pandemonium is surely comparable to that legendary Greek pithos of unleashed chaos.  In the interim, by making a few Eastern-directed adjustments, our bodies need not parallel this environmental turmoil; we just have to breathe.

Winter is a season for rest and, by inference, restoration; a time to look inward and heal.  This is the fundamental premise of Yoga, also.  It is a system by which to ‘yoke’ our draining mental chatter, or ‘monkey mind’ – an attractive concept in a world full of worries.  As Patanjali wrote in the first book of his Sutras (“Threads”), “Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah” (“The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga”).  That is to say, the physical, Hatha poses (asanas) prepare the body to sit comfortably in meditation, and eventually achieve enlightenment.  They are the third step along the way on the eightfold path of Raja Yoga (Scientific Yoga).  Indeed, anyone who’s ever worked out will have noticed that particular elation that comes after exercise and its subsequent calm: Yoga takes that result and extends it for a higher purpose.

So, although many of us are snuggled away in a warm blanket, sipping a hot cocoa by the home’s hearth (hibernare meaning ‘to spend the winter’, after all), and others are seizing at whatever exercise they can, braving the adverse external conditions in the name of sustaining health – neither is really intuitive care for our bodies.  If we take instead the alternative, moderate approach offered by Yoga, and also Ayurveda, then we have a more reparative way to maintain well-being this season.  Obviously, the primary appeal is that Yoga can be done indoors, eliminating the battering by sub-zero temperatures or lashing rain, and it offers a workout for both the active and the less so; for the mind as well as the body.  The first step in Raja Yoga – the restraints (yamas) – of non-violence (ahimsa) and truth (satya), among others, guides us towards a more attuned relationship with our bodies through the alignment of breath and movement.

Depending on the intensity of ‘workout’ desired, there are different ways in which Yoga can be practiced to effectively warm and heal us (instead of following the masses into an over-popularised Bikram class).  For example, a vigorous Astanga Vinyasa session (the ‘eight-limbed’ style of the late K. Pattabhi Jois) might increase heat and release enough endorphins to make us want to positively frolic in snow or mud, but such a practice is not particularly reparative if we’ve shivered the day away beforehand.  Indeed, it can leave us exhausted – the opposite of Yoga’s purpose.  Just as at certain times of the month women transfer into a softer cycle of asanas, so too in solar-challenged (vitamin D-lacking) winter some people require a slower, more meditative practice.  Yin Yoga, a Chinese Taoist method, holds each pose for around five minutes (or longer!), the aim being to increase circulation and qi (energy) in all connective tissue: perfect for winter, when the cold leaves us feeling sluggish and stiff.  This slower, more mindful progression through the asanas was adopted in the Iyengar style, also, which uses blocks and straps for those who are in physical recovery or less able to touch their toes.

But even ending an enjoyably sweaty practice with a truthfully-observed Savasana (Corpse Pose) will help.  Fundamentally, the breath is more important.  Everyone has been told at some point to take a deep breath and count to ten before exhaling, to calm stress or fear.  Yoga works especially with the fourth step – breathing techniques (Pranayama) – which helps facilitate the flow of energy in our bodies, opening up the chakras, or energy points.  In Yoga, different types of breathing are adopted for different purposes.  For example, ujjayi pranayama (known as ‘warrior breath’ in Qigong) is an audible breath that is used particularly in Astanga Yoga to increase heat in the body; elsewhere it is adopted as an empowering breathing technique.  The specifics of every breath available are too lengthy to describe, but given that businesses have sprung up purely to teach people how to breathe, the importance of this simple life method is indubitable.

Nonetheless, our innate activity level depends to a large extent on our base constitution (dosha).  Ayurveda is similar to the Persian Unani (‘hot’ and ‘cold’ humours) system of nutrition.  Winter is seen as aggravating kapha (earth/water) and vata (ether/air), the resultant disharmony in our systems causing ill health.  Conversely, it can balance someone who is very pitta (fire/earth).  Thought is therefore given to the fuel that keeps us running, food divided into six tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, astringent, pungent) and three ‘vibrations’ (gunas): overactivity (rajas), inertia (tamas), and purity (sattva).  Someone who is dominantly pitta would be discouraged from indulging a passion for chillies or foods particularly rajasic, while a cold salad wouldn’t be suggested for an especially vata person.  Kapha people, however, would benefit from the metabolism increasing qualities of spice and a low-carbohydrate diet.  As Budda said, “Every human being is the author of his own health or disease”: we literally are what we eat, and also how we exercise.

Persephone only ate a handful of pomegranate seeds, but that ‘cold’ snack doomed her to a yearly stay in the Underworld, her mother’s sorrow giving us winter.  By adopting even some Yogic and Ayurvedic wisdom, our seasonal relationship with our bodies need not be ‘hellish’.  Hope remains.  Namaste.