The quiet and calm of January can be almost deafening, as the chaos and activity of the holiday season wind down and give way to the depths of mid-winter. The snow piles high on the branches of the saggy evergreens and at moments, their riotous roots beneath the frozen earth can seem lightyears away. It is under this blanket of grey, cold and heaviness, that we may surrender to the potential of stillness. There are moments literally frozen in time for us to leave the past behind us in the darkness, before we launch into the stirring of spring. And while I have always had trouble embracing the customs and significance our culture assigns to the calendar New Year, this pause certainly does resonate with me as a serendipitous moment to stop and listen, to contemplate and to begin anew.
Don’t get me wrong. The heavy blanket of winter I am describing may not necessarily present as a friend you are actually going to want to snuggle up with. I am all too familiar with the feeling I may not be able to bear another load of snow (or life), without the inevitable snapping of my fragile branches (or nervous system!) this time of year. Have you ever stood beside one of those snow-covered granddaddy pine trees, wishing you could lift its heavy burden, allow it to stretch and lengthen skyward? It’s almost as if a full breath cannot be taken under this weight. And so, we try. Perhaps we struggle to shed the excess, or fight the weight resting on our being, so we can feel the lightness and mobility enjoyed at other more conducive times of the year. However, these efforts are often futile, and our resistance can be quite frustrating or depressing. But whoever said that the experience of surrender was going to be a comfortable one? 😉 Perhaps, like the trees, we must settle under the weight of the season’s load. Perhaps it is in this stillness and acceptance that we may discover our life force has in fact traveled inward, to our own metaphorical root system, where it will enliven our potential seeds of the coming spring. Perhaps this is where we will begin to break up our outdated and crystallized notions of what it means to be alive and well right now.
Yes, I know this sounds like a tall order for the darkest time of the year. But really, what am I suggesting here? What am I really asking of us? It seems to me, we can take example from the critters around us. One of the reasons January is so quiet is because many of the local animals are deep in hibernation, a time of slowing and resting in preparation for coming days of increased vitality. We too, can give ourselves permission to hibernate. We too, can choose rest and introspection, in the name of seasonal cycling. You know exactly what happens when you do not allow yourself this part of the process…you will meet the coming months of spring with a lasting sense of sluggishness, and it will be harder to shed the weight of winter. I understand that we may not actually be able to dig underground or disappear into a cave this month, but you can certainly accomplish hibernation in its essence. Find ways to make hibernation practical in your day to day. Go ahead and take that nap on your day off. Let yourself go to bed tonight because your are tired, not because it is the usual time. Break from daily unconscious patterns long enough to gather the subtle needs of right now. When I put it this way, perhaps it doesn’t sound so bad! Let’s flush this out a bit more and get started!
According to the ancient life science of Ayurveda, January is the month where we begin the transition from the Vata season – dry and cold – to the Kapha season – wet and cold. If these terms are new to you, fear not! The energies of Ayurveda will be flushed out in all ways practical throughout this blog series. Right now, depending on where you live, you may begin to notice a bit more moisture in the cold air, as well as a growing sense of that heaviness I mentioned earlier, as temperatures begin to increase and nature’s fluids begin to thaw. The squeaky dry snowfalls of the early winter give way to the rain/snow mixes and dampness that signify warmer days are coming. During this time, it is especially important to stay hydrated, to nourish the body with lots of fluids, preferably of the warm variety. Cold temperatures often diminish our thirst, so we must make an extra effort to drink, so as not to dehydrate the tissues that are vital to our wellness. Similarly, the body needs healthy fats to provide a layer of protection between bodily tissues and environmental toxins. Fats and oils may be taken internally through one’s diet, or applied directly to the skin for moisturizing and protective benefits. Winter temperatures often drive us indoors, where stagnant air, settled dust, and close proximity with others may subject us to more bacteria and health hazards than usual. A body which is hydrated and lubricated will be better equipped to face these hazards. You will find, Ayurveda loves warm water and warm oil! So this will not be the last time you hear these hearty recommendations from me! More on warm oil applications coming soon. 🙂
Go ahead and take stock of your own seasonal transition…Are you still feeling a bit more dried out and fragile than usual? Is your nervous system operating in overdrive, leaving you feeling a bit more anxious, fearful or hyperactive in general? Do you feel ungrounded or scattered in your days, as though your feet may not be planted on the earth? If so, you may still be experiencing the height of the Vata season, and you may wish to continue focusing on grounding efforts: warm cooked foods, extra warm layers, deeply nourishing quiet activity and a general effort to minimize stimulation. However, if you are beginning to feel a bit more heavy, sluggish, or a general feeling of lethargy or inertia, then the Kapha season may be dawning for you. As the winter begins to thaw, Kapha continues to ask us to stay warm and cozy, and to keep the body nourished for balance…it just begs a little more “pep in our step”. Perhaps it is time to shake things up! Gentle movement to counter sluggishness may be just what the doctor ordered. Twenty minutes of yoga, a short walk around the neighborhood, or a dance party in your living room may be just what you need to get the blood moving and to alleviate stagnation. Notice whether increased activity makes you feel more energized or more depleted – that is the best way to know which seasonal energies you are contending with.
Now let’s talk a bit about my personal favorite topic – food! What is your body craving this time of year? Personally, I am feeling pretty over the indulgent meals we often associate with the holidays; cravings for large portions, excessive meat and starch intake, and the need for lots of sweets are beginning to subside. Though, truth be told, I am not quite ready to dive into the light cuisine often associated with spring…I need a more gentle transition from stuffing and gravy to smoothies and raw greens. How about you? Regardless of what you might be craving, just keep in mind that the body no longer has a need to stow away extra fat for warmth and insulation. Rather, this is the time of year we may want to begin “lightening our load” and giving taxed systems a break. Support digestion by continuing to eat cooked foods and opt for meals that don’t stress digestion, but perhaps choose foods that are lighter and combinations that are simple. This could be as straightforward as opting for a light broth soup with veggies versus a starch laden cream based soup, or a nice whole grain side versus our favorite potato accompaniments. Eating well allows the body to continue “turning up the heat” to counter continued cold outdoor temps, while also encouraging it to circulate and detoxify as we approach spring. Spice it up! Warming spices in your food such as black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric or ginger will continue to enliven the digestive fire while also mobilizing all those vital juices needed to stay well and fight toxins. This is also a great time of year to increase pickled and fermented foods in your diet. I am always tickled when I notice an increase in my pickled food cravings in the winter, as it is an exciting affirmation that my body is in tune with the season. Think about it…when have humans historically eaten pickled and fermented foods? Winter! We developed these food preservation techniques to keep the body nourished during the times of year when fresh foods simply were not an option. So go ahead and open those coveted pickle jars from last summer, or find your favorite kimchi at the local winter market…it’s time!
Lastly, I was hoping to discuss one of the key principles of Ayurvedic wellness: Routine. During times of seasonal transition, or any other type of transition, rhythm and regularity are the greatest tools we can carry in our wellness toolbox. Ever notice the way that the wild critters around us are so methodical and rhythmic in their daily tasks? Just take the well-traveled deer path or the migrational habits of the birds for instance. Nature showers us with examples of how daily routines can maximize our efficiency and minimize distraction to our efforts. Take notice of your repeating daily activities and get creative with ways in which you may regulate them. Designate times for self-care and wellness-focused activities, in the same way you do for life’s necessities, such as food and work. Use this inherently inward time of year to create intention for your days and allow yourself some introspection and self-focus. For what better way is there to know what your being is truly asking for – what foods to eat, how to dress, where to be, how to expend one’s energy – than to listen? And what better way to develop this listening than from the quiet stillness of mid-winter? So let your branches grow heavy under the snow and the quiet of hibernation overtake you. Trust that it is from this place, you will diversify your own ways of knowing, and surrender to a greater wisdom this winter.
*I understand that WW readers are spread far and wide on this beautiful planet of ours. And as with any applied Ayurvedic principles, my written word here may require soft practical application – that is, application which considers your time and place on our beautiful planet. Those of you experiencing four distinct seasons in the northern Hemisphere will likely find my timing and metaphors most relevant. To the rest of you, translate, re-invent and re-apply as necessary! Have fun!
**Works Cited/Consulted: I have a commitment to myself to let this writing be an authentic expression of how I have integrated Ayurvedic wisdom and its practical application. Therefore, I will not be directly citing information from other works/authors. However, that being said, I always want to give credit where it is due, so I will make it a point to mention works that inform my current thoughts as best I can. This month, I have enjoyed reading about Ayurveda in the Winter time from John Immel’s articles on the Joyfull Belly website, as well as Peter Brown’s Maharishi Ayurveda blog site.