It is easy to forget that, as humans, we are a part of the wider ecosystem and are sensitive to environmental changes and fluctuations. If we neglect to recognise this and don’t adapt with the seasons, we become susceptible to lifestyle-related disease. This is because our bodies and minds reflect the conditions in which we are situated.
In order to support ourselves through the shifts in season, we must be prepared to alter our diet and lifestyle accordingly. This is known as the practice of ritucharya.
What is Ritucharya?
Ritucharya means seasonal routine or regimen (“ritu” — season; “charya” — regime). Each season highlights specific combinations of the five elements and brings along its own set of corresponding qualities.
Whether you consider yourself to be very conscious of seasonal shifts or not, you’re probably aware of the basic elements of seasonal change. Shifts in temperature, environmental factors such as trees losing or gaining leaves, and also fluctuations in our internal environment, such as the experience of different cravings or moods — all of these reflect the changing seasons. For example, a desire to eat lots of watermelons might be replaced by a craving for hot spiced apple cider as summer shifts into autumn.
Ritucharya means living ones life in accordance with the natural flow and shifts of the seasons. This involves observing the qualities (gunas) present in the environment and altering our diet and lifestyle accordingly in order to maintain balance throughout the year.
Why Pay Attention to Seasonal Changes?
Eating in relation to the seasonal shifts is becoming increasingly popular in the Western world, as we begin to understand the impact that our dietary habits are having on the environment. Local farmers markets are gaining momentum as eating locally-sourced (and therefore seasonal) produce has become preferable to imported foods. Many of us, though are still partial to a ripe avocado or two in December… old habits die hard! However, as a wider society, we are largely reliant upon “out-of-season” produce to form the bulk of our diet. Few of us really take the time to consider the impact this might have on our health.
Nature is inherently wise. Fruits and vegetables contain all the essential nutrients, flavors, and other properties for the particular season in which they are harvested. Taking late autumn/winter as an example, this is a period of cold and harsh weather. The body requires warmth and more substantial nourishment and sustenance. Root vegetables are ready for harvest during this period precisely to fulfill this need.
Similarly, our self-care regimes and lifestyle practices should also reflect the season in which we are in. As winter comes, the nights roll in early and we are encouraged to spend more time at rest, being introverted and in quiet contemplation. In contrast, the summer months are a time of expansion and communication as we seek connection with other people and become more active within society. This is all part of the natural rhythm of the year, and we should honor these times and what they mean for our overall health.
The Cycle of Seasons
According to the Vedic system, the year can be broken up into six seasons, or ritus. Each season lasts for two months. The seasons are as follows:
- Shishira (winter)
- Vasanta (spring)
- Grishma (summer)
- Varsha (monsoon)
- Sharata (autumn)
- Hemanta (late autumn)
Winter occupies the months of mid-January to mid-March. The ether element predominates during this season, accounting for the cold temperatures and chill winds. The taste associated with winter is Tikta (bitter). Due to the cold, dry and rough qualities of the season, vata dosha is prone to becoming aggravated during this period, therefore we should favor dietary and lifestyle practices that are vata-pacifying during winter.
Sweet, sour and salty tastes should predominate in the diet during this period. During winter, the digestive fire benefits from the consumption of fresh and warm foods, with generous quantities of warming digestive spices, such as fresh ginger, black pepper and turmeric. More substantial and nourishing meals should be favored at this time of the year.
Spring lasts approximately from mid-March to mid-May and is associated with the earth and air elements. It is a time of new beginnings and growth, as evident in the unfurling leaves. Kapha is the dosha most associated with the earth element, growth and development. During the spring we should be sensitive to kapha aggravation, favoring dietary and lifestyle practices that pacify kapha and maintain balance.
During this time the digestive fire is dampened by increased kapha dosha and therefore we should favor warm, simple and light meals that consist of pungent, bitter and astringent tastes.
Summer, in the Vedic calendar, is set between mid-May and mid-July. During this period the sun is at its strongest and we experience intense heat. Summer is associated with the fire and air elements. The fiery quality of the season means that pitta dosha is prone to becoming aggravated. We should opt for pitta pacifying dietary and lifestyle practices during this period.
During this time an ideal diet would be lightweight and simple to digest, incorporating sweet, moist and cooling foods.
Monsoon are the wet, stormy and cloudy months of mid-July until mid-September. The air is humid and accumulated pitta dosha in the body begins to give over to vata dosha. The season is dominated by the earth and fire elements.
During this time it is best to favor sour, salty, and oily foods and avoid any foods that are particularly heavy and hard to digest.
Autumn begins in mid-September and lasts until approximately mid-November. During this season the temperature begins to drop and vata dosha becomes more situated as predominant dosha. The fire and water elements are highlighted during this season. Sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes are recommended at this time of the year.
Late autumn occupies mid-November to mid-January, when there is a definite chill in the air and icy winds begin to blow. Water and earth elements are predominant during this period and vata is dominant among the doshas.
This is the time to adopt a vata pacifying diet, incorporating lots of warming and nurturing meals, avoiding anything that is light, cold and dry and nature.
Ritucharya in Practice
Of course, not all of these seasons and their respective qualities are relevant for us in our own climate. However, by understanding the above cycle, we gain insight into how we can best prepare ourselves for seasonal changes wherever we are.
Simply by checking in with the environment around us, we can recognize the qualities and elements that seem most prominent. Our intention should then be to adopt dietary and lifestyle practices that are most pacifying and balancing within the current conditions.
While the nature of the seasons and their characteristics vary from place to place, there are four commonly recognized seasons worldwide, namely spring, summer, autumn and winter. Understanding the nature of each of the seasons in depth allows us to construct the most suitable regimen to optimize our health year-round.