Insulate Your Well-Being This Winter

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An Ayurvedic Guide to an Uplifting and Joyful Season

Ahh.  Take a slow, deep breath… winter is here.  Everywhere around you the natural world is withdrawing, going dormant, and embracing a long, dark, season of slumber.   There is a particular stillness that characterizes winter, and with it comes a subtle invitation to redirect our own energies.  The winter season holds the perfect antidote to the fast-paced mobility of the summer and fall.  This is a time to rest, reflect, hold space, vision, hibernate, withdraw some of your outwardly-focused energy and redirect it inward.  Unfortunately, the calm, peaceful nature of the winter can also seem a bit oppressive at times, and can leave us feeling weighed down, stagnant, or uninspired.  And winter is not alone in its ability to bolster or encumber your sense of wellbeing.

Ayurveda teaches us that like increases like and that opposites balance.  As a result, the same experience can affect two different people in dramatically different ways, depending on his/her inner nature.  Each of the seasons ushers in a unique set of qualities that can either pacify or aggravate the inner workings of your being.  This is why some people relish the heat of the summer while others loathe it, why some can spend an entire winter playing in the snow while others avoid it like the plague.  Your local climate is a key player in your overall state of balance.  This is precisely why a seasonal routine is so important and, in truth, so helpful.  By adapting your diet and lifestyle to better accommodate the changing seasons, you can drastically reduce the likelihood of any seasonally-induced imbalances and, should they arise, the same strategies will gently coax your body back toward its natural state of equilibrium.

Winter:  A Kapha Season with Strong Vata Undertones

Winter is characterized by cold weather, a sense of heaviness, increased moisture (usually in the form of rain or snow), cloud-covered days, and the grounded, slow feeling that sends many animals into hibernation.  These are all qualities shared by kapha dosha, which is why winter is considered to be – primarily – a kapha season.  However, if your climate is exceptionally cold and dry, or if you tend to feel more isolated during the winter months, vata will also be a strong component of your winter season and you will want to actively keep vata placated as well.

General Recommendations for a Delightful & Invigorating Winter

The following information will help you to understand the general premise of a winter routine and is intended to provide a good starting place for adapting your own.  You may also find it helpful to familiarize yourself with the common manifestations of both kapha imbalance and vata imbalance so that you can address them quickly, if they do arise.  And, if you know your constitution, you can further refine your winter routine to better support your specific body type.  After you’ve read the general information that follows, click on your Ayurvedic body type (links below) for further considerations specific to your constitution.

A Supportive Winter Diet

Winter is actually the season when the digestive fire is strongest.  The body requires more fuel to stay warm and healthy in the winter months, and the cold weather forces the fire principle deep into the core of the body – igniting the digestive capacity.  Our bodies therefore crave a more substantial, nutritive diet at this time of year, and you will likely find yourself eating larger quantities of food.  A supportive winter diet will be aimed at pacifying kapha without increasing vata or visa versa and, for many, appropriate winter dietary habits actually come quite naturally.

In general, you’ll want to focus on eating warm, cooked, slightly oily, well-spiced foods, favoring a balance of the sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes.  Drink room temperature, warm, or hot beverages and avoid iced or chilled drinks, if possible.  You can increase heat and circulation while encouraging clean and clear respiratory passages by drinking a tea boiled for five minutes with ½ teaspoon each of dried ginger, cinnamon, and clove.  Teas made with combinations of ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper or coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and fennel seeds encourage strong digestion and can be taken after meals.  Hearty, heating vegetables like radishes, cooked spinach, onions, carrots, and other root vegetables are generally well received this time of year, as are hot spices like garlic, ginger, black pepper, cayenne, and chili peppers.  Cooked grains like oatmeal, cornmeal, barley, tapioca, rice, or kitchari make a terrific breakfast, and lunches and dinners of steamed vegetables, whole wheat breads, and mushy soups are ideal.  Legumes are generally good for kapha, but they should be well-cooked, well-spiced and garnished with a dollop of ghee so as not to aggravate vata.  If you eat them, winter is also a great time to enjoy eggs (especially poached or hard-boiled) and meats like chicken, turkey, rabbit, and venison.  In the evenings – either before or after dinner – you can treat yourself to a few ounces of dry, red wine.  And while dairy is best reduced in the winter months, a cup of hot, spiced milk with a pinch of turmeric or dried ginger and nutmeg before bed can help to encourage sound sleep and should not be overly congesting.  It is best to reduce or avoid cold, damp foods, excessively sweet foods, overly heavy or oily foods, and frozen foods.  You may also find that your body responds well to an occasional one-day water or juice fast.  In fact, if you are prone to kapha imbalances like colds, coughs, and sinus congestion, the junction between fall and winter is a great time to do a cleanse.

The following is a list of ideal winter foods (1, 2):

Fruits to Favor

  • Apples (cooked)
  • Apricots
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cherries
  • Dates
  • Figs
  • Grapefruit
  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Mangos
  • Oranges
  • Papaya
  • Peaches
  • Prunes (soaked)
  • Raisins (soaked)
  • Tangerines

Vegetables to Favor

  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Chilies
  • Corn
  • Eggplant
  • Garlic
  • Green Beans
  • Greens (cooked)
  • Mushrooms
  • Leeks & Onions
  • Okra
  • Potatoes
  • Rutabaga
  • Spinach (cooked)
  • Winter Squash
  • Turnips

Grains to Favor

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rice, Basmati
  • Rice, Brown
  • Rye
  • Seitan
  • Wheat

Legumes to Favor

  • Lentils, Brown
  • Lentils, Red
  • Miso
  • Mung Beans
  • Navy Beans
  • Tempeh
  • Tofu
  • Tur Dal
  • Urad Dal

Nuts & Seeds to Favor

  • Almonds
  • Brazil Nuts
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Macadamia Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Pecans
  • Pine Nuts
  • Pistachios
  • Walnuts
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Sunflower Seeds

Dairy to Favor

  • Butter
  • Soft Cheeses
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Cow’s Milk (not cold)
  • Goat’s Milk (not cold)
  • Sour Cream

Animal Products to Favor (if you eat them)

  • Eggs
  • Freshwater Fish
  • Poultry
  • Rabbit
  • Shrimp
  • Venison

Oils to Favor

  • Almond Oil
  • Corn Oil
  • Flax Seed Oil
  • Ghee
  • Mustard Oil
  • Olive Oil
  • Safflower Oil
  • Sesame Oil
  • Sunflower Oil

Sweeteners to Favor

  • Honey
  • Jaggary
  • Molasses

Spices to Favor

  • All spices will generally be supportive during the winter months

A Supportive Winter Lifestyle

In general, you’ll want to cultivate a light heart and a sharp sense of purpose this winter in order to counter the cold, gray weather and the seasonal tendency toward melancholy and loneliness.  Invite warmth into your mind, body, and relationships, and create frequent opportunities for fun and laughter.  Try to avoid rushing.  Instead, make a concerted effort to embrace a slower, more relaxed pace through the winter months.  This is a great time to engage in meaningful relationships and to socialize, but balance your gregariousness with some quiet time, reflection and stillness.  After all, the slow, heavy qualities of the winter months offer a rare opportunity to retreat and check in with ourselves.

Maintaining a predictable routine will help keep vata in balance this winter and kapha will benefit from keeping things fresh and a bit unpredictable, so do your best to strike an appropriate balance for yourself.  Certain parts of your day – like the times that you rise, work, eat, and sleep – can easily be consistent from one day to the next, while other times of day can provide for some variation and spontaneity. Start your day with a short but invigorating morning routine.  It is generally appropriate to sleep a little later in the winter, but you will feel fresher and more motivated if you are up by about 7am.  Brush your teeth, scrape your tongue, swish warm sesame oil in your mouth and massage it into your gums.  Treat your skin to a warm sesame oil massage, and then take a hot shower to rinse off any excess.  After that, you can drink some warm water to cleanse and awaken the digestive system.  Administer a few drops of nasya oil to the nasal passages to awaken the mind and keep the respiratory passages clear.  Shake off any sluggishness with some morning exercise or yoga.  Dress in bright, warming colors like reds and oranges and always cover your ears, neck, and head with a scarf or hat, if you are outside in the cold.  Skip daytime naps; the long, dark, evening hours provide a perfect atmosphere for you to relax and unwind.  Your body may also tolerate a little more nighttime sleep and/or increased sexual activity through the winter months.  Plan on retiring around 10pm or 11pm and, before bed, apply some sesame oil to your scalp and to the soles of your feet to facilitate restful sleep.

Winter Exercise

Exercise is one of the best ways to support optimal physical and mental health through the winter months.  If vata is predominant in the atmosphere – with dry, cold weather and increased isolation – you will want to favor a slow, gentle, and strengthening exercise routine.  If, on the other hand, kapha is the more influential force at any given time – with heavy, cloudy weather, and rain or snow – you will want to push yourself physically, increasing both the duration and intensity of your work-out.  It’s important to listen to your body this winter.  If you’re feeling overextended and stretched, favor vata-pacifying types of exercise like walking, tai chi, or gentle yoga.  If you’re feeling sluggish and heavy, give kapha a bit of a push with a more vigorous workout – perhaps a bike ride, a jog, or a challenging hike, snowshoe, or ski.  Either way, the best time to exercise is in the morning, between 6am and 10am.  If that doesn’t work with your schedule, you can exercise in the evening hours, between 6pm and 10pm.

Winter Yoga

An invigorating and expansive yoga practice this winter can be surprisingly supportive of your overall wellbeing.  Appropriate poses include sun salutations, warrior I, warrior II, reverse warrior, forward bends, and backward bends.  Postures that stimulate metabolism like cobra, bow, side plank, spinal rolls, leg lifts, and supine twists are also very appropriate.  For instructions on these and a number of other supportive winter poses, click here.  You can adapt your pace on a daily basis to coincide with your local climate and your internal needs.  If vata is predominant in the atmosphere or if you feel stressed and depleted, move at a slow and gentle pace.  If kapha is a stronger influence or if you feel unmotivated and lethargic, move at a faster pace, allowing your breath to quicken and your inner heat to intensify.  Either way, practice with purpose and invite precision into your poses.  Have an expansive heart and hold your poses long enough to feel challenged.  If you’re trying to balance vata, close your practice with a long shavasana.  Or, if kapha is high, consider a short rest in corpse pose with a bolster under your chest.  If you practice pranayama, kapalabhati, bhastrika, and surya bhedana will bring a sense of lightness to the mind and are all wonderful for increasing heat, circulation, and the digestive capacity.  Full yogic breath and alternate nostril breathing are especially balancing in cases of high vata or stress.

Herbal Support for the Winter Season

A teaspoon or two of chyavanprash every morning will increase energy, immunity, and inner strength through the winter.  Garnishing your food with a sprinkle of trikatu can boost the digestive capacity and can encourage a clean and clear respiratory system.  Other supportive herbs for the winter season include pippali, licorice, ginger, punarnava, black pepper, kutki, sitopaladi, bibhitaki, chitrak, cardamom, shardunika, guggulu, turmeric, and tulsi.  The following herbal tablets are also especially supportive during the winter months:  Healthy Kapha, Kapha Digest, Healthy Vata, Vata Digest, Immune Support, Lung Formula, Joint Support, and Heart Formula.

For further considerations specific to your constitution, click on your Ayurvedic Body Type, below.  If you don’t know yours, try this Banyan Botanicals questionnaire to help you determine your constitution.


Vata

Pitta

Kapha
 
Vata-Pitta &
Pitta-Vata
 
Pitta-Kapha &
Kapha-Pitta
 
Vata-Kapha &
Kapha-Vata
   
Vata-Pitta-Kapha

References

1.  Doulliard, John.  The 3-Season Diet.  Three Rivers Press, 2000.  86-90, 109-117.
2.  Lad, Vasant.  Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing.  The Ayurvedic Press, 2006.  220-238.
3.  Lad, Vasant.  The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies.  Three Rivers Press, 1998. 68-70.
4.  Pole, Sebastian.  Ayurvedic Medicine:  The Principles of Traditional Practice.  Churchill Livingston Elsevier, 2006. 54-56, 328-329.