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Chapter 15: Warming up to Cold Weather

Warming Up to Fall Weather
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
 —Albert Camus

A friend who lives in San Francisco once told me that she feels cold much of the time and wears a down jacket to ward off the morning chill, even in the summer.

“What do you eat?” I asked.

Turns out the primary foods in her diet are lentil soup and salads. I suggested that she try swapping lightly steamed vegetables for the salads and start adding brown rice to her lentils (brown rice is warming) and then notice if it made a difference. Because what
you eat affects how you feel.

In the northern climates, the cold season’s dry wind and dipping temperatures can lead to a vata imbalance, or too much air or wind in the body. According to yoga’s sister science, ayurveda, an overabundance of vata can manifest as dry skin; difficulty keeping warm; joint pain; anxiety and restlessness; weight loss; poor circulation; insomnia; rigid thinking; fearfulness; dizziness; or gas, flatulence, constipation, and other digestive problems.

In addition, many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during the dark months. SAD symptoms include low energy, depression, mood swings, oversleeping, overeating (especially a craving for high-carb foods), weight gain, and an overall
feeling of hopelessness.

I tend towards the vata category; as soon as autumn hits, I get chilled easily, my skin becomes dry, my digestion slows down, my body becomes stiff, and my mind becomes anxious. That’s when I know it’s time to switch to my cold-weather diet and lifestyle.
I learned how to do this after ending up in the emergency room with blocked digestion several years ago; afterward I called my mentor, Chandra Om, founder of the Shanti Niketan Ashram and author of The Divine Art of Nature Cure. She made some suggestions
that immediately restored me to health. Some of what follows was learned from her and from my guru, Sri Dharma Mittra; I’ve relied on my own experience and other sources as well.

Yoga is experiential, so don’t take my word for any of these things. Try one or two for yourself, and see if they work. If they do, hang on to them. If not, let them go.

When cold weather hits, it can feel like something’s stuck— and not just the bowels. That’s when it’s time to reignite the digestive fire. For centuries, yogis have done this—and cleaned the stomach—by drinking a cup of warm water with the juice of half a lemon first thing in the morning. In the cold months, a few sprinkles of cayenne pepper may be added to help heat things up. If you’re feeling congested, add ginger and turmeric. The concoction
may be sweetened with maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, or whatever is handy.

It’s important to eat at the same time each day, which is especially important for a vata imbalance. Avoid eating heavy food after 6:00 p.m. (eating heavy food late at night can interrupt sleep and make the body feel stiff and heavy in the morning). If your digestion is slow, avoid eating too much dairy, meat, wheat, or leftover/ processed food. Increase water intake and certain live foods such as pineapple, plums, spinach, and oranges to alleviate constipation, but avoid salads, which cool the digestive fire; substitute lightly steamed vegetables. (For more, read “The C Word: Help for Constipation”).

You can also combat excessive vata energy with fresh (not leftover), moist, warming, grounding foods such as soup, stews made with root vegetables, and kitchari, a digestion-friendly stew made of moong dal and rice (see “Kitchari, Yoga’s Wonder Food”). Just don’t skimp on the oil, which lubricates your digestive system.

Try baked sweet potatoes slathered with ghee or olive oil, oatmeal with plump raisins that have been soaked in water for 20 minutes, or butternut squash soup. Cooking at home, rather than going out, will result in healthier meals. It’s also a great way to
warm up and reduce stress.

Use plenty of ghee or organic olive oil and warming spices such as cardamom, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, salt, cloves, mustard seed, basil, oregano, sage, tarragon, thyme, and black pepper. Avoid sprouts, salads, most beans, tofu, cabbage, popcorn, toast,
crackers, chips, and any other cold or gas-producing foods. Limit coffee intake as well as barley, corn, millet, and rye.

If you have trouble sleeping, reduce your caffeine intake, and avoid it altogether after 3:00 p.m. Instead, try warming ginger tea.

To balance symptoms of vata, go to bed and get up at the same time each day, and build some downtime into your schedule. Add more bright and warming colors to your wardrobe and home. After attending my Beat the Winter Blues workshop, a student started using brightly colored plates in the winter and claimed that it immediately cheered her up. The most warming colors are red, orange, yellow, and pink. But any bright color will cheer you up (colors such as black, gray, and navy blue may be stylish, but they are not warming).

Wear warm clothes at home and outside. If you have trouble sleeping, try wearing a hat and socks (I do). If your house is drafty, invest in a safe space heater. I take mine with me from room to room when the temperature dips below zero, and unplug it when I leave.

Spend time outside whenever you can, even if it’s just a walk to mail a letter. Nature is the great healer, and the sun’s natural light— even on cloudy days—will give you a dose of vitamin D and help regulate your internal timeclock. Sit in the sun whenever possible
(but protect your skin if you’re staying out for a long time). If you can’t go outside, visit a conservatory or botanic garden (or even a florist with a greenhouse). My friend and I did this during a particularly grueling winter, and the beautiful flowers and
greenery immediately warmed us up, opened up our sinuses, and made us feel human again.

During the flu season, keep in mind that 99 percent of all illness is related to stress. Yoga of course is a wonderful de-stressor. But it’s also important to weave regular periods of relaxation or “doing nothing” into our schedules. I call it “enforced periods of relaxation.” It can be as simple as sleeping in once in a while, spending time in nature, or taking a longer savasana (final resting pose; see below).

To soothe the skin and joints and induce sleep, take a hot bath before bed. Pour in a few teaspoons of sesame oil (made from untoasted sesame seeds) and Epsom salt.

Don’t neglect asana practice! If you’re depressed or suffering from SAD, make sure you attend class; do not stay home and practice. Being with other people will remind you that you’re not alone.

Helpful poses for SAD include twists and backbends. In general, a more active practice (such as Ashtanga or Vinyasa) is recommended for those experiencing lethargy or depression.

If your digestion has stalled, be sure to include plenty of slow meditative twists, forward bends, deep squats, and belly-down backbends such as cobra, salabasana (locust), and dhanurasana (bow) to help get things moving. Traditional poses to aid digestion
such as the half wind-relieving pose (with the thigh pressed into the belly) can also help. Do not skip savasana, and stay there for at least seven minutes.

Those who know bhastrika, or bellows breath, and positive breathing should include those as well. Deep breathing will also help (see “Change Your Breathing, Change Your Life”). Better yet, go to class so your teacher can show you these things in person.

That said, practice the first ethical rule of yoga—ahimsa, or nonharming—and stay away from class when you’re sick and can infect others. In general, people are contagious one day before and two to three days after common cold symptoms appear, and for flu, it’s one day before to a week after symptom onset, so consider doing a short, easy home practice and take rest if you’re feeling run down. And don’t forget: If you can’t breathe, it will be extremely difficult to practice yoga.