Guest post graciously contributed by Heidi L. Audet, ERYT-500, AHC
In the areas north of the equator, many people feel the transition from days filled with light to the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year occurring around December 21st-22nd. Interestingly, the term Solstice is a combination of two Latin terms, sol (sun) and sistere (to cause to stand still) and literally means “sun stands still.” Stillness. It is our earth that pauses before transitioning. It reflects. December is a mingling of the movement season of vata with the inward turning sentiments of kapha. Mother Nature and our Sun remind us to find that stillness. While the experience of Winter Solstice lasts roughly only one second before our earth changes direction and we move toward light, this momentary pause is far from insignificant.
Ayurveda tells us that this Rtu– a time, a season- is one of four factors that can affect not only life creation, but also prakruti, both the universal and our personal nature. From that pause of the sun’s visarga, or decrease in potency, we can see the winds of Vata increase, bringing its coldness, expansiveness, mobility without direction, and the tendency to deplete our energies. Before we know it if we do not follow in the footsteps of the Solstice and experience healthful pause, Vikruti moves us out of our true nature. Dryness increases; skin, hair and nails can become dry and brittle; The body’s ashthi dhatu or bone tissue can become affected: joint aches and pains become prominent, especially for those in the Vata stage of life. Conditions aggravated by cold and dry qualities, such as arthritis, are amplified. Nasal passages with decreased lubrication become an easily inhabitable environment for viruses, and the hallmark signs of colds and flu appear. Frigid air can increase breathing issues for asthmatics. Other disturbances, such as emotional qualities of loneliness, fear, worry and anxiety have a tendency to rise in the winter.
The pause that the Winter Solstice invites us to partake in is the perfect time to engage in Ayurvedic practices that support our ability to maintain stillness. While our earth makes the journey toward increasing our light, we too can take steps to enjoy the journey from the darkness of winter to the full light of summer.
Dinyacharya – a daily practice
Winter brings up Vata’s light, dry, rough and cool nature; this creates discord with our bodies, mind and energy. Engage in a Ritucharya, or a seasonal practice to help stabilize during winter’s long darkness. A nightly routine of proper rest is going to be essential and more so during winter, as the cold and dry qualities deplete our energies.
A daily practice that includes warmth, moisture, smoothness and grounding is the perfect opposite therapy for this season. Along with proper rest, yoga, pranayama, meditation, abhyanga and right nutrition are all tools you can use daily in your winter tool kit to help bring wholeness and sacred pause back to your life.
Engaging in postures with slow flows, even counts and some longer holds can create the pause that is reflected by Solstice. A good morning practice for pacifying Vata can set your day right. Yoga International offers a 30 minute practice that supports Vata and invites warmth: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/am-vata-pacifying-yoga. Yin and Restorative Yoga are some good options if you find yourself being on the go and having a tendency to avoid stillness.
Balanced breathing is important to move our prana in the five directions-prana, udana, samana, vyana and apana- in our body. A suitable pranayama practice to help bring the mind to pause is Nadi Shodhanam, or Alternate Nostril Breathing, balances the lunar and solar sides of our body. Begin with a 6-round practice, and progress to sitting with this breath practice for 10 minutes in the early morning.
Vata is mobile and irregular, like the cold winds that swirl around us in the northern hemisphere during winter. Bringing the mind to stillness in a quiet meditation is ideal, but if there is anxiety, the mind will be just as mobile as Vata itself. A simple Mantra Meditation of reciting “So Hum” can become an anchor for the wandering mind. Practicing 108 rounds is a good starting place. Make sure the room you practice in is comfortable, not too cool, and not too warm, so that you may be able to settle in to the practice.
When the winter weather brings dryness to the skin and hair, a luxurious oil massage is the remedy. A daily sesame oil massage to combat the effects of the cold, dry winter, drenches the body with moisture and acts as an insulator of protection to the nervous system. Heavy oiling around the elbows, knees and other joints is helpful for cracking joints. This daily practice is exactly what is needed to help bring a comforting pause to the body and the mind. Oiling the feet before bed and using flannel sheets can assist in sleeping during cold winter nights. Using a Neti pot with saline and a sesame Nasya or nose oil brings moisture and warmth to the sinuses, and Ayurveda believes it helps with pranic flow in the mind, as the nose is the most direct pathway to the brain. Ayurveda also sees Nasya oiling as a way to help create a barrier between the outside ecology of colds, flus and viruses and that of your inner ecology. Some nasya oils, like the Himalayan Institute’s Pure Bliss Nose Oil and Banyan Botanical’s Naysa Oil also contain essential oils for added aromatherapy. Pure Bliss offers scents of Jasmine, Rose and Sandalwood to calm; Banyan Botanical’s Nasya Oil also contains the essential oil of Eucalyptus, good for clarity and stimulation.
Moisture and warmth are the key ingredients in combating the cold effects of Winter. Foods such as warming soups and bone broths, kitchari stew, and warmed grains in the morning like oatmeal with some cinnamon and ginger sprinkled on top, can help provide grounding and needed warmth. Enjoying warm teas without over-stimulating ingredients will help to keep Vata calm. Avoiding caffeinated coffees and teas is important if you tend to suffer from anxiety, especially in the Vata season. Rethink eating cold, dry, rough foods that can increase the imbalance of the season, and opt for seasonings and spices that honor the vata-pacifying tastes of sweet, sour and salty, as these tastes will bring moisture, grounding and warmth. The sweet taste contains the earth and water elements and is vital for building all of the dhatus (the seven tissues of the body), but as with all good things, use in moderation, especially those with Kapha prakruti. Sour increases the fire and earth elements in the body, thereby creating stimulation for digestion and elimination; it gives bala or strength to the heart, encourages warmth and nourishes six of the vital dhatus. Pittas should use this taste in moderation. The salty taste increases water and fire. When used wisely, in moderation it acts as a lubricant to the tissues of the body, helps improve digestion and elimination, and assists in the maintenance of our electrolyte balance. Pittas and Kapha prakrutis should be cautious when using this taste as it can be aggravating to them.
Adding right nourishment brings contentment. Contentment allows for stillness.
Below is a recipe for Vata Tea, from Eat, Taste, Heal that can do offer some balancing in the Winter months:
1 tsp of fennel seeds
1 tsp of cumin seeds
1/2 tsp of coriander seeds
1/2 tsp of fresh grated ginger
A squeeze of lemon juice
Raw organic sugar, like Sucanat, to taste.
Place the first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan with 4 cups of filtered water. Bring water to a boil for 5 minutes, then remove and steep tea mixture for 2 to 5 minutes. Add lemon juice while tea is steeping. Strain tea and sip throughout the day in a thermos.
Moving Toward the Light
When we use the Ayurveda toolkit of opposite therapies to maintain warmth, moisture and grounding, we may then begin to enjoy the opportunities that the Winter Solstice provides us, and find our stillness. Embrace the pause; may you enjoy the slow journey from the darkness of winter to the light of summer. Namaste.
Eat, Taste, Heal: An Ayurvedic Guidebook and Cookbook for Modern Living by Thomas Yarena, M.D., Daniel Rhoda, D.A.S., Chef Johnny Brannigan, 2006.