Nature works in cycles. Each year we transition through the seasons that make up our environment’s cycle of life. We witness the effect these shifts have, not only on plant life, but on the birds and animals too — from seasons of nest building and new birth, right through to periods of hibernation.
It is easy for us to forget that we humans are animals too, and are also affected by the seasonal shifts. The more we put ourselves in alignment with the natural rhythms of our environment, the more we are able to live harmoniously and in a state of balance. Adjusting our diet and lifestyle according to seasonal shifts is a large part of maintaining this alignment.
Winter is the season of darkness and dormancy. The natural world withdraws and quietly slumbers. The longer nights and shorter days call for more rest and a slower pace of life as energy becomes more introverted. There is a subtle invitation to reflect and redirect our attention inwards, becoming more meditative after the fast-paced seasons of summer and harvest. Winter is a time for self-care and a deepened spiritual practice, allowing ourselves the opportunity to devote more time to our highest Self.
Transition from Autumn to Winter
The transition from late autumn into winter is gradual and not always clear to define. The days gradually get cooler and darker. The leaves fall from the trees until none remain and nature’s bare bones are revealed. In the Western world, this seasonal shift is mainly marked by festive holidays, signalling the winding down of the year. These holidays are also known for delicious sweet and spiced treats, mirroring the body’s need for more sustenance and nourishment during the darker months. The desire to be “cozy” is reflected in the food that we eat during the winter season, as well as the clothes that we wear and the restful environment we make for ourselves.
Qualities of Winter
Winter is usually recognized by cold, dark days and a feeling of heaviness and lethargy that permeates the environment and the body. Some climates will experience very wet and soggy winters, perhaps with much snow or rain, while others will experience a more dry and extreme icy cold. Winter is associated with both kapha and vata dosha. Depending on your location and your constitution you may experience more of one than another. The winter season has the qualities of coldness, heaviness, stability, and dryness. It has strong ties to both the earth and the air elements, meaning that we become more susceptible to aggravation of vata and/or kapha doshas during this season. Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of dosha aggravation allows us to address any imbalances before they can proliferate. During the winter, some of the signs of vata imbalance are as follows:
- Feelings of isolation, loneliness, or anxiety
- Feeling jittery and jumpy
- Unable to focus and quick to forget things
- Difficulty getting warm, especially at the extremities (hands and feet)
- Dry, cracked skin
- Bloating and trapped gas
Some symptoms of kapha imbalance include:
- Feeling sluggish or lethargic and lacking motivation
- Feeling heavy, both physically and mentally
- Water retention
To maintain or restore internal balance, we can incorporate appropriate dietary and lifestyle practices to counter the qualities of the season. Ayurveda teaches that like increases like, while opposites balance. Therefore, during the winter months we should aim to incorporate as many warming, invigorating, and nourishing qualities as possible.
During autumn we turned to warmer and more substantive meals. As the season shifts into winter, the same principles apply — aim to counter the cold with warmth, and the darkness with stimulating digestive spices. It may sound odd, but during the winter the digestive fire, agni, is actually at its strongest, and we require more food to keep us warm and healthy. The cold environment sends the bodily fire deep to the core, igniting the digestive system. Therefore, it is entirely normal and healthy that our appetite should increase during the winter months. An ideal winter diet aims to pacify both vata and kapha. This is done mainly through the combination of warm and hearty pacifying meals, loaded up with a generous quantity of spices. While your dietary choices should reflect the environmental conditions of your particular location, here are some general guidelines for an optimal winter diet:
- Drink plenty of warm fluids, ranging anywhere from room temperature to hot, but avoid cold, iced or chilled beverages.
- Spice teas help promote strong digestion and internal warmth. Simply add spices to hot water and allow to steep for a few minutes before drinking. All spices are pacifying during the winter, however some good spices for making tea include: cardamom, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, fennel seed, and ginger.
- Favor cooked, hearty and heating vegetables such as beets, brussel sprouts, carrots, chilli, eggplant, greens (cooked), potatoes, pumpkin, squash and sweet potatoes.
- Sweet flavours can be aggravating to kapha, so during the winter substitute sugar or other sweeteners for honey, jaggery or molasses.
- Cooked grains are an excellent choice for breakfast during the winter. Favour grains such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, and wheat
- Legumes are excellent for pacifying kapha, however you must ensure that they are well cooked with high quality oils and spices in order not to aggravate vata. Pacifying legumes include dal, lentils, miso, mung beans, tempeh and tofu
- Cooking with high quality oils will pacify vata during the winter. Choice warming oils such as almond oil, ghee, olive oil, sesame oil, or sunflower oil
- During the winter it is nice to stew fruits to make them more warming and digestible. Good fruits to consume in the winter include apples (cooked), apricots, berries, citrus, dates, figs, mangoes, prunes (soaked)
- In general it is best to reduce the amount of dairy consumed during the winter as it can be congesting. However, warm milk with spices such as turmeric or cinnamon can be very soothing and nourishing.
If you are very prone to kapha imbalance and congestion in the winter, the transition from autumn to winter can be an excellent time to do a cleanse, such as a short juice fast or a kitchari mono-diet.
Winter Lifestyle Practices
Exercise is best done first thing in the morning to help stimulate the mind and body, activating the digestive system and loosening any stagnant kapha. If you are more prone to vata imbalance, or live in a particularly rough, dry and cold winter climate, it is best to practice slow, gentle and strengthening exercises to build up some internal heat without aggravating the fast and mobile quality of vata. If, however, you have more of a sluggish kapha constitution, or live in an area that has a particularly damp and heavy winter, favor exercise that is stimulating and invigorating. Push yourself a little harder, perhaps increasing the length or intensity of your practice, and focusing on building heat and mobility.
Breathing practices are a beautiful way to encourage internal balance and harmonious alignment throughout the year. To balance out excess kapha during the winter, we should favour practices that are good for increasing heat, circulation and digestive capacity, and bring a sense of lightness, for example: Surya Bhedana, Kapalabhati, or Bhastrika. For balancing an elevated vata or feelings or stress or anxiety, favor techniques such as Nadi Shodhana or Full Yogic Breathing.
If you find winter a particularly difficult season in terms of your health or wellbeing, it can be beneficial to enlist the help of some herbs to keep the body warm, grounded and balanced. The herbal remedies for winter are similar to those of autumn, with a focus on supporting the immune system and stimulating agni. Chyawanprash is a traditional ayurvedic herbal jam recipe, consisting of over 20 medicinal herbs. It is an excellent rejuvenative medicine for kapha dosha, supporting the metabolism and the respiratory and immune systems. It can be taken in the morning to boost seasonal immunity and promote strength and energy throughout the winter, helping to ward off coughs, colds and congestion. Ashwagandha is a traditional rejuventative for both vata and kapha doshas, making it an ideal aid for the winter. It promotes the calming and grounding of the mind as well as stabilising the internal systems, such as the digestive system and nervous system. Ashwagandha supports proper elimination, sound sleep, energy and vitality. Some of the best herbal remedies for the winter are standard culinary spices and herbs that can be added generously to meals or simmered into a tea. Favour warming and soothing spices (see spice list in diet section above).
In order to combat the tendency for loneliness or despondency during the winter, it is important to cultivate a sense of purpose and direction while maintaining a lighthearted attitude. Develop a daily routine that keeps you inspired and feeling uplifted, making plenty of space for opportunities for fun and laughter to help you to traverse the winter months smoothly. Try to embrace the steadier pace of the season, avoiding rushing or spending too much time socializing. Instead, simply enjoy the increased quiet time, seeing it as an opportunity for stillness and reflection. Vata really benefits from regular routine, while kapha benefits from a little spontaneity and playfulness. Therefore, look to strike an appropriate balance between the two. This might look like structuring the bones of your day (meal times, rising and resting times) and then letting the time in between flow more freely, allowing for exploration and variation. You may find that you desire to sleep a little longer during the winter. This is healthy and normal. However, you will feel more motivated for the day if you rise before 7 a.m. and have a short but invigorating morning self-care regime.
In the early morning hours, kapha can sit heavily within the body, still stagnant from the past nights sleep. Therefore the first priority should be to shift the stuck kapha and generate some energetic momentum for the day ahead. Upon rising, cleanse the body by eliminating your bowels, scraping your tongue, brushing your teeth, and rinsing out your mouth thoroughly. After this you can treat the skin to a warm sesame oil abhyanga, followed by a short hot bath or shower to remove excess oil. Drinking warm water, perhaps with some added lemon, fresh ginger, or honey, will help to cleanse the internal body and stimulate the digestive fire. One of the key means of supporting ourselves through the winter is the cultivation of warmth, both internally and externally, in body, mind and spirit. Use winter as the opportunity to retreat and come back into yourself. Practicing metta meditation, or writing a daily gratitude journal can help us speak more kindly to ourselves and develop self-love.
Transition to Spring
As winter slowly shifts into spring, the ground will become wetter and heavier as snow melts or precipitation increases. Kapha will solely take over dominance in the atmosphere and become even more susceptible to aggravation. Although we think of spring as a time of new growth and resurgence, the beginning of the season is still dark, and we can become despondent and impatient waiting for warmer days. We must take extra care to support the body and mind through the gray and damp days, witnessing shifts in the environment and changing our daily routine accordingly. Seeking balance and a smooth seasonal transition, the arrival of spring calls for an increase in light, warming, and stimulating qualities in our diet and lifestyle regimes.