Late Winter, Shishira, begins a few weeks after the solstice, with the drying effects of winter and the sustained effects of cold. Balancing this deepening drying cycle are the growing long days, and Shishira is really underway when you notice the lengthening of the daylight.
Our bodies respond to this change and so does our yoga practice. Doshically speaking, kappha (water, earth) had been mildly accumulating, and unless you’re doing something to keep it moving, could aggravate leading to feelings of lethargy and depression - hello SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Additionally, the cold and dry could aggravate vata (air) dosha, leading to anxiety and worry.
You produce more stomach acid and can - and should - eat a little more. This supports the body in its eliminative and balancing functions, so the kidney and urinary bladder channels (meridians, nadis and also functions) are more used and so benefit from the support our yoga practice can offer. Backbends can bring added circulation as well as waste elimination to these very areas.
There is an impressive amount of research in the last 20 years documenting more than 5,000 genes that are up or down regulated according to season, mostly having to do with inflammation and immune function as well as metabolism. Additionally, we produce more melatonin in the winter due to the longer darkness and this both aids in building muscle if we’re doing appropriate exercise and protects against oxidative stress that strenuous exercise can subject tissues to. Specifically, the increased melatonin has a protective effect on the heart when we exercise strenuously.
Interestingly, strenuous exercise in the evening (6-10pm), which just so happens to be the most active time for kappha dosha actually suppresses melatonin release by the pineal gland. This reinforces our practice of not exerting in the evening before bed and saving those sweaty, challenging practices for waking up in the morning.
All this adds up to winter, and late winter in particular as the best time to get your sweat on: a great time to learn or incorporate Sun Salutations into your yoga asana practice. Backbends, which free the cavity of the lungs and heart as well as stretch and tone the respiratory diaphragm, stomach, liver and kidneys are the perfect addition or focus this time of year, making it a great time to focus on the deeper versions you can access. Consider supta virasana (laying down after sitting on your heels or one heel), striking cobra, fish pose, cow faced arms/pose and camel, as well as a regular Sun Salutation practice. Fish, cobra, cow faced arms and supta virasana all have yin and restorative variations.
Bhandas - or true core - supports all your backbends and strenuous practices, so in Late Winter we add in a few more true core poses, like supine L pose, leg lowers, boat, half boat, plank and side plank and Shakti Kicks.These poses are also great preparation for the warming breaths that are the hallmark pranayama for this season.
Maha Mudra, a forward fold with the bandhas engaged after an exhale for a count of 3 or more, is also great for expanding lung volume, the spaces between the ribs and moving lymphatic fluid, making a go to move against cold, flu and respiratory bugs. Prevention is always best, but this mudrasana can also be helpful in getting over cough and cold.
Bandhas also support inverting and head, hand and shoulder stand are recommended practices at this time of year, if they’re in your practice or appropriate for you to undertake.
Breathing practices that warm and activate are also welcomed now, for instance bhastrika (bellows breath), kapalabhati (skull shining breath) as well as uddiyana bandha (lifting the space in front of your spine strongly) and the stomach churning it enables, agni sara. These are all best done on an empty stomach.
In your mediation practice, you might include more images or actual flames, for instance candle gazing or focusing on an imagined flame in your belly.
Eating seasonally is always supportive for your health; you receive the microbes appropriate to the time of year from seasonal vegetables as well as eating what your body evolved experiencing under these light and heat conditions. Oranges, limes, carrots and other roots along with apples, pomegranates and dates are recommended. Legumes, nuts, seeds and especially black lentils are healthy this time of year, as well as unctuous meats and more fat than usual.
Consider warming spices with all meals: cinnamon, ginger, lemongrass, black pepper, cardamom and tulsi can all be put on your food as well as added to warm water for a lymphatic cleansing all day sipping drink.
In general, avoid cold food and beverages except as treats: focus on warmed and cooked foods and drinks. This isn’t the best time to start a new juicing habit.
Small amounts of honey also feed your gut microbiome while supporting your stomach and intestinal linings and health.
2 tsp of ghee in the morning - with or without food or drink - can boost all the structures in your body that rely on fats for their building blocks: hormones, joint tissues, skin, hair and nails.
Fasting isn’t ideal, if you are basically healthy, this time of year: your body is creating more of the heat and stomach acid that digest food, so it’s a good idea to have the food in there to be digested. Autolysis - self-digestion - can happen when the metabolism is high with nothing to digest. This, of course, assumes you’re strong, healthy and don’t have a lot of fat to burn. Fasting is an incredible tool in your healthy life, but unless indicated for imbalance, save fasts longer that 13-15 hours (the normal time between dinner and breakfast) for next year.
Abhyanga, or self-massage with oil, is supportive at this time of year. The drying action of the cold as well as the wind that comes with some storms can lead to not only dry skin, but nasal membranes as well. Drying conditions like this can also disrupt your immune system, endocrine system and through them lead to insomnia, anxiety and excessive and unwarranted worry, all known as Vata exacerbation in Ayurveda. Daily dry brushing and application of warm sesame oil addresses and even prevents this. Additionally, the oil literally feeds your skin’s microbiome, which is just like your gut microbiome. When you add in that this practice actually boosts oxytocin - the happiness hormone and molecule of connection - this is a must have in your daily routine, also known as Dinacharya. Sesame oil is generally appropriate - unrefined, organic, not toasted - and you might warm it in some warm water or a tiny crock
Start waking up a little earlier - just before the sun rises, which is a bit earlier each and every day. Key your wake up time to the sun’s year round and notice a powerful systemic reset over the course of a year. Add getting some sunlight on your eyeballs just after waking while the sky is still that lovely pink and orange wash - take your cuppa outside for a few,just bundle up - and you’ll notice the reset even faster.
Adjust your practice to the time of day you are able to make it to the mat: practicing soon after waking? Do some engaged Hatha or HiYo, include Sun Salutations, Backbends and True Core cultivation (bandhas) and counter them with a lot of twists (which will focus more prominently in our Spring practices.
Practicing after work, in the evening or in general after 6:30pm? Choose Yin and Restorative practices, focusing on toe poses and backward bending as well. Think Sphinx, Seal, Saddle, Anahata, Supported Bridge.
All of these recommendations are tempered for the recommendation for your particular constitution. Each person is a mix of mobile, transformative and structural elements (vata, pitta, kappha) that is unique, so demands a unique practice.
Kappha constitutions are encouraged to exert the most during this time. Kapphas are generally large boned, easily carry weight, have luxurious hair and tend to have oilier skin and may be prone to redness. They are especially prone to sinus and respiratory illnesses during this time of year and an exertion practice with a diet of hot soups and drinks liberally spiced with cinnamon, ginger and even garlic are helpful in keeping the kappha fluid (mucous) moving and not harboring harmful germs. It is most important that Kapphas rise with the sun.
Pitta constitutioned people, who tend to be athletic, gung ho and driven are encouraged to exert to about 75% of what they think they can do - because they always imagine they can do the most. This is your season! The pitta, transformational, elements of your body, mind and heart are most supported and so you are at home. Healthy changes and their benefits you make at this time are likely to remain with you. Be careful not to overeat and overeat less nutritious foods: your appetite will be even stronger than usual, so this is a good point of mindfulness. Twists are your poses, so get on with your twisty, backbendy, bandha fueled vinyasa practice - just remember to yoga with and not ahead of your breath.
Vata constitutioned folks, who tend to be thinner with smaller bones, grey early and have quick minds prone to abstraction, may be prone to body aches and cold sensitivity, so stay warm. Pay particular attention to the transitions between poses. Your signature pose, squats and forward folds, are still good for you, so sprinkle them in between camels and bow poses or after your Sun Salutations. Your practice is always to return to your sensation and to practice asana slowly enough that you can pay attention. Your digestion is supported at this time of year, so be sure to eat enough, as you may have a tendency to ignore hunger. Consider adding the spice hing (asfoetida) to your cooked foods to help with any tendency toward gas.
An ideal daily schedule may look something like this:
Rise just before the sun (6:30-7am around the holidays, 6-6:30am later in January)
- Oil pulling: swish sesame oil in your mouth for 3 minutes and spit it in the trash (you could meditate during this time... I generally go to the kitchen and turn on the hot water for coffee or tea, turn on the Christmas tree lights, water JD the Wonder Husky...)
- floss, brush teeth, scrape tongue
- drink a glass of warm water with lemon or lime juice
- step outside for some sunlight on your eyeballs while you sip
- 15-30 minute yogasana practice featuring Sun Salutations, HiYo or other energetic practice of backbends and bandhas - savasana is a must! 10% of your practice time, so about 2 minutes
- 1-5 minutes of pranayama featuring bellows or shining skull breath
- 1-15 minutes of meditation, returning your attention to an imaginary flame in your belly or just the sensation of your abdomen rising and falling with each breath
- dry brush and abhyanga with sesame oil
- get ready for the rest of your now more awesome day
- 8pm screens off, lights dimmer.
- 9pm 15-30 minutes of yin or restorative yoga featuring backbends
- 1-5 minutes of bumble bee breath seated in Easy Seat or Virasana.
- 1-15 minutes of meditation, just on rising and falling of belly or metta
- oil your feet with organic unrefined sesame oil and put on some socks
- snuggle up under your warm blankets and zzzzz....
In between, mostly cook your food and spice it up with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and pepper, Enjoy your meals of unctuous, fatty meats, eggs, seeds, nuts, black lentils and legumes with seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Obviously, not everyone benefits from the same schedule. Depending on your constitution, job, family and other responsibilities you will adjust some or all of this.
As long as you are intentional and caring for yourself with your daily habits, you’re on the path of healing yoga!