New Year's Day may sometimes seem like an arbitrary date upon which to begin counting the new year, or taking on a new outlook, and in some cases a new life, but its seemingly random celebration is rooted in history and follows soon after the marking of the Winter Solstice, a day of equal day and night. After the Solstice, our days stretch out longer and extend further. This transition, even in our modern world of artificial lights, shift work, and alarm clocks, is noted by our bodies. So, the month of January is a good time to implement new rituals and add some health promoting practices to familiar routines.
Focusing on the Ayurvedic practice of dinacharya, or organizing a daily routine, can be a tool for maintaining health. According to traditional Ayurvedic wisdom, it is recommended to not necessarily change all habits at once, but to gradually shift, to replace the old with the new. Therefore, you don't have to add every suggested part of the routine to your day. It may in fact seem overwhelming sometimes, and you could feel that if only it were possible to just follow an Ayurvedic routine and not work or have other obligations, life would be perfect. Pick the practices that work the best for you personally or that have the greatest impact on your health and well-being. And, you dont need to change everything all at once.
Our mind identifies with our habits and hobbies, even if they are not necessarily what serve us. Just as our reflection in the mirror becomes familiar, our habits can be comfortable friends, like the well-worn clothes in the closet. And similar to how a periodic closet-cleaning can refresh our wardrobe, occasional examinations and fine-tuning of our daily patterns can be a powerful tool for supporting our own health.
Some of these practices listed in this article have been discussed earlier in other Insight Blogs and will be merely mentioned here.
Examine your bathroom. Add a neti pot or nasya oil to the counter next to your toothbrush and dental floss, and incorporate its use in your morning practice; this can be especially helpful this time of year to support sinuses and clear, uncongested breathing. For detailed instructions on using a neti pot, see our article here.
Another item to add to a toothbrush rack is a tongue scraper. Scraping the tongue only takes a moment or two before toothbrushing and can remove odor and decay-causing bacteria as well as encourage the removal of natural toxins from the digestive tract.
Your morning routine, particularly in the winter, can benefit from some stimulation to reduce excess kapha, the heavy water and earth elements. Dry brushing before the shower or bath with a natural-bristled brush fires up inner heat through the skin, encourages lymphatic drainage, and stimulates the immune system.
After dry brushing, massage with warm oil provides nourishment to dry winter skin assaulted by cold air and dehydrating central heat. To warm oil, place the bottle in a basin of hot water for a few minutes while performing tooth care and dry brushing. Some stimulating winter oils include blends of sesame or sunflower and Banyan's Kapha Massage Oil. A warm shower or bath after massaging the skin helps the oil penetrate deeply.
The middle of the day is when our agni, or digestive fire, is at its most fiery. Eating the largest meal of the day at noon supports the natural cycles of our metabolism. A large lunch is beneficial for both maintaining a healthy weight as well as managing afternoon energy levels, particularly in the winter. Choose foods that are warm and soothing, with a bit of simulating fire. Adding heating spices like cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cloves, and garlic this time of year can be supportive for kindling the digestive fire and stimulating metabolism. Root vegetables are particularly warming, and casseroles with a variety of colorful veggies and some warm spices heat the body from within.
When evaluating energy levels, look at your current routine to see what's working. Do you have a cup, a mug, or a venti morning coffee, and then crash later in the day? Although caffeine can produce a buzz and can even help sharpen your thoughts in the short-term, its long-term effects include increasing the body's stress response, which can be damaging for rejuvenation and stamina in the big picture. If you tend to have cycles of low energy, listlessness, peaks (after caffeine), and then crash and burn throughout the day, examine your trips to the corner cafe or coffee pot.
The use of herbs to support the mind like Banyan's Mental Clarity formula can be helpful for long-term benefit. Hot drinks are an effective way of stimulating body, mind, and digestion, and are one of the body's and mind's best friends in the winter season. Rather than coffee, try tulsi tea. Tulsi, or holy basil, has a number of beneficial properties. It is an antioxidant as well as an adaptogen that helps us cope with and recover from the effects of stress. Brahmi, or gotu kola, can be helpful for supporting mental sharpness. Ginger is an antioxidant that also stimulates digestion and kindles inner heat. Many other herbal teas have powerful medicinal effects; find the one that you enjoy.
Detoxification may be on your mind during the new year, particularly after December indulgences. One simple addition to a daily routine that counteracts holiday excess is drinking a cup of hot water first thing in the morning. To augment and increase its cleansing power, add a wedge of lemon (to warm vata and reduce excess kapha), lime (to cool high pitta), or honey (to scrape excess kapha). Other cleansing morning beverages include: triphala tea or decoction (drink 30 minutes before or two hours after eating to support the removal of natural toxins from the digestive tract), bhumyamalaki to support liver dextoxification, tulsi for its adaptogenic effects, brahmi/gotu kola to support a sharp mind, or cumin, coriander, and fennel to balance the digestive system.
Experiment to discover your favorite time of day to add some movement or exercise to your routine. Particularly if you have a job that is primarily sedentary, exercise, dance, yoga asana, or other form of movement is necessary, particularly in the winter, to support optimal health. It is all-too-easy to spend hours each day at a desk, couch, or in a car. Remember that consistency brings more power to your practice, a regular routine packs a greater punch than the weekend warriors binge. Asana specifically is good for preparing body and mind for yogas more subltle practices like pranayama (breath techniques), savasana (relaxation), meditation, chanting, study, or prayer.
One or more of these practices may be on your list of New Year's resolutions. As your organize your day, slot them in, even if it means marking them on your calendar or scheduling them in your phone. The subtle practices of yoga not only focus the mind and calm all three doshas when done appropriately, but they support the immune system as well as overall longevity. A few restorative poses can reduce stress in a body worn out by work and soothe the nervous system. For ideas, try out Judith Lasater's book Relax and Renew or find an evening restorative class at a nearby studio or health club.
As you get home from work or wind down for the evening, choose evening practices that calm the mind and body. Uplifting stories and time with family and friends are more sattvic, or calming and relaxing, than the sensationalism of the evening news. If you find that you have trouble sleeping at night or wake up often, evaluate the last thing you do before going to bed. A late night horror flick or a recounting of the day's tragedies might be upsetting to the nervous system. Turn off the lights before bed. Darkness allows for the release of melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep. Neti at night can help cleanse the nadis, or subtle channels of the body before bed. Warm milk with ashwagandha is not only soporific, promoting sound sleep, it is also rejuvenating for the adrenals and hormonal system. Essential oils like grounding khus, uplifting rose, or peaceful lavender sprinkled or sprayed on a pillowcase or applied to the feet can soothe the body and mind before bed. The weight of an eye pillow filled with lavender and flax can also calm an overactive mind.
Another traditional Ayurvedic remedy for sound sleep can be particularly helpful in the cold winter months. Oiling the feet before bed using warming sesame oil not only calms the airy vata dosha, but can also stimulate circulation in chilly feet. Socks can help protect your sheets from the oil. Keep a bottle on a nightstand and take a few moments to pamper yourself.
When organizing a routine, it is important to remember that it is daily habits rather than occasional indulgences that impact our state of health the most. While we may see routine as a prison, it can be a structure that sets us free.