A yoga sequence to slow down and align with the season
How are you adjusting to the autumn season? Are you filled with energy or feeling rundown and on a sluggish side? Are you focused and alert or do you find your thoughts somewhat scattered? Autumn is the season of transition, and this change affects both nature and your body. It’s not uncommon to feel unsettled, ungrounded, weak, overwhelmed, fidgety and unbalanced as the days get shorter and darker.
The best way to approach this changeable season is to learn how to align with it by implementing practices that help you stay calm, grounded and focused as well as enhance your immunity and balance out any overwhelm and unsettledness.
Holistic perspectives on autumn
Traditional Chinese medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a widely practised holistic discipline that centres on five elements: fire, water, wood, metal and earth.
Five-element theory — one of the most significant systems within Chinese medicine — recognises that these elements are in constant movement and emphasises living in alignment with the seasons. It also provides detailed information about how the changes occurring in nature as the wheel of the year turns correspond with your inner environment (your body and mind interactions). Five-element theory advocates that health and wellbeing can be achieved through physical, nutritional, mental and emotional balancing in accordance with natural cycles.
Chinese medicine associates autumn with the metal element, which provides energy governing the lung, a yin organ, and the large intestine, a yang organ correlating with the lung.
Even though in TCM the names of the organs remain the same as in Western medicine, remember that Chinese medicine sees organs as networks/energetic pathways in the body. It recognises that, together with their physical functions, organs also convey emotional, mental and energetic qualities associated with them.
Five-element theory advocates that health and wellbeing can be achieved through physical, nutritional, mental and emotional balancing in accordance with natural cycles.
The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine advocates autumn as the best time of the year to strengthen the lungs. Lungs control respiration and are called the “tender organ” in Chinese medicine, as they are the first to assimilate the energy you get from the outside with the internal energy, or qi (also chi); lungs are also susceptible to colds, sinus congestion, flu, respiratory disorders, difficulty breathing and allergies when the lung qi is weak.
The tissues, which the metal element governs, are the skin and the body hair. Glowing, hydrated skin is a sign of strong lung qi, while dry and oily skin, eczema and skin rashes may indicate an imbalance.
Thus, healthy lungs, a strong immune system, regular bowel movements and radiant skin are the indicators of a balanced metal element and lung qi.
Paired with the lung is the large intestine — the organ of elimination comprising the colon and the rectum — also associated with autumn. Constipation, diarrhoea and other bowel diseases may indicate a metal imbalance in the large intestine.
Both the lungs and the large intestine carry similar energetic features, as they both draw in nutrients (the lungs take in oxygen and the large intestine absorbs water from chyme: partially digested food and digestive secretions) and eliminate waste (lungs expel carbon dioxide, while the large intestine prepares waste for elimination).
Ayurveda divides the seasons of the year by the cycles of three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. Our bodies also comprise these doshas, which unite the air, ether (space), fire, water and earth elements.
Autumn brings with it winds, colder temperatures, dry air and emptiness, as we watch leaves fall, and is regarded as a vata season, characterised by air and ether. Vata translates as “wind” or “that which moves things”. It rules movements of the body (both the breath and limb movements), respiration, elimination, digestive processes, the nervous system and the body’s moisture levels, and can be reflected in the workings of the mind (mental health) and how relaxed and grounded we feel.
Autumn brings with it winds, colder temperatures, dry air and emptiness, as we watch leaves fall, and is regarded as a vata season, characterised by air and ether.
Sluggish digestion, dry skin, overwhelm, air-headedness and niggling joints are some of the signs of aggravated vata.
Although the Chinese metal element is not included in the Indian system of Ayurveda, the air element in the Indian school connotes similar qualities. “Both air and metal are expressed in the inner workings and the activities of the mind, and in developing ideas and expressing them,” explains integrative practitioner, Dr Elson M Haas.
Metal imbalances express themselves through the emotions of sadness, grief and sorrow, as well as deficient mental qualities such as clouded thinking, being disconnected or having difficulty concentrating. Excessive vata (air/ether elements) may manifest in restlessness, anxiety, spaciness, hyperactivity, mental instability and ungroundedness.
A balanced metal element, together with balanced air and space elements, is expressed through clear thinking, a focused mind, alertness and calmness together with the ability to relax and be present.
How to stay calm, grounded & nurtured during autumn
By committing to live in alignment with nature’s cycles and altering your lifestyle, diet and yoga practices to accommodate seasonal changes, you can expand physical, emotional and mental balance and enhance your wellbeing.
To counterbalance the vata energies that predominate in autumn, try incorporating the following tips into your days.
Favour moist and nourishing foods including seasonal fruit and vegetables, warm soups and proteins with healthy fats, all garnished with seasonal spices that possess warming, soothing and grounding attributes to balance out the metal, space and air elements.
Ayurveda advises to reduce raw foods and salads during autumn, as they further aggravate spacey vata. If your digestion is strong and you favour the raw food diet, add some extra heaviness and moisture to your meals in the form of good-quality oil-based dressings and extra avocado, nuts and seeds to keep you grounded and nurtured.
Here are some foods to prioritise:
- Warming herbs and spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, fennel, ginger, nutmeg and turmeric.
- Root vegetables like beetroot, carrots, parsnips, sweet potato and turnips as well as pumpkin and squash.
- Cold-pressed oils inclusive of avocado, coconut, ghee and sesame.
- Greens cooked in ghee or coconut oil, which include Brussels sprouts, kale, mustard greens, rocket, silverbeet, spinach and sea vegetables.
- A variety of seasonal fruit, including avocados, bananas, cooked apples, figs, grapes, lemons, mangoes, papayas, peaches and pears.
- Fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut and yoghurt.
Nishanga Bliss, assistant professor at the Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, California, explains this last point: “The pairing of the lung and large intestine organs [the suggested focus for autumn] in Chinese medicine reflects an understanding of the body only recently uncovered by Western physiology. They are both lined with mucous membranes and are the home of the majority of our microbiota, the bacteria living in and on the human body, which outnumber our own body cells by a factor of 10 to one (with 80 per cent of these bacteria residing in the large intestine).”
Including fermented foods in your diet will help you restore the health of your gut, enhancing your immunity and nutrient absorption as you transition into the colder seasons.
As one of autumn’s characteristics is dryness, it’s important to stay hydrated. Ayurveda advises consuming warm liquids in this season. Sipping warm water and herbal teas, such as ginger and lemon, throughout the day is a good place to start.
Try to get eight hours of sleep to enhance your mood as well as the functions of your nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems. Rest and relaxation are essential in autumn to give your body a chance to restore and repair, increase your alertness levels, nourish deeper tissues and metabolise nutrients.
Include oil self-massage in your autumn routine to stay warm, nourished and grounded. “As simple as it may sound, a few minutes of massage each morning is one of the most effective forms of preventive medicine,” Ayurvedic physician Dr Suhas G Kshirsagar says.
Ayurvedic self-massage stimulates your lymphatic system and internal organs, soothes the nervous and endocrine systems, increases circulation, pacifies vata, hydrates the skin and enhances its glow, and is believed to ground you as well as help with insomnia.
A study published in the Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, conducted by the researchers from the University of California, concluded that massage can also increase oxytocin, known as a “love” hormone and a mood booster that can help reduce anxiety and increase relaxation and pleasure.
How to perform abhyanga
Warm ⅓-½ cup of non-refined warmed almond or sesame oil, which are skin-smoothing and carry warming, nourishing properties.
Start by massaging the oil into your scalp then into the entire body including hands and feet, working to the middle of your body. Use long strokes on your limbs and circular strokes on your chest, joints and abdomen, moving clockwise, following the direction of the large intestine.
Keep the oil on for at least 5–10 minutes to allow your skin to absorb it before showering.
The Chinese and Ayurvedic elements (metal, air, ether) are associated with the mind, making meditation essential this season to quiet the racing vata mind and enhance your focus and attention, cultivating awareness, calmness and clarity.
Find the meditation you resonate with and include it in your routine after your asana practice.
A sequence for autumn
This grounding, warming yoga sequence is designed to complement the above practices, balancing out the metal element (lung and large intestine) and stabilising vata (air and ether).
Rest and relaxation are essential in autumn to give your body a chance to restore and repair, increase your alertness levels, nourish deeper tissues and metabolise nutrients.
Thus, the twisting poses will help you detox, improve your digestion and remove vata from your nervous system. The standing poses will help open the chest and clear the lungs, decreasing nervousness and anxiety, maintaining bodily heat, improving your balance as well as enhancing your concentration levels, leaving you feeling centred and grounded in body and mind. The backbend is included to help relieve stress, combat sluggishness and boost your energy levels.
The final three poses are — just like autumn — of yin nature, targeting the lung and large intestine meridians. Hold them for at least three minutes. They will encourage self-reflection, relaxing your body and mind in preparation for further relaxation and meditation. When practising yin poses, make sure not to force your body into them, but rather relax and allow the time for your tissues to respond to the healthy stress you’re applying to them.
Ayurveda advises that the best times to do exercise or practise yoga asanas are between 6 and 10, both in the morning and evening.
Start with 6–10 rounds of unrushed, steady Sun Salutations, moving consciously with the breath to thoroughly warm up your body. Hold each downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) for 5 breaths: this pose is your inversion in this sequence to balance out your nervous system.
Eagle pose (garudasana)
Stand on both feet. Bend knees slightly, shift weight onto the left foot and cross right thigh over left, hugging thighs together. Keep the standing leg bent and point right toes towards the floor or hook the right foot behind the left shin, balancing on the left leg. Take arms out to the sides, then cross right arm under left, palms facing. Lift elbows, extending from forearms through the fingers. Hold for 5 breaths; repeat on the other side.
Warrior II (virabhadrasana II)
Step feet wide apart and extend arms out to the sides. Turn right foot directly forward and left foot slightly in. On exhalation, bend right knee deeply, aiming to bring your right thigh parallel to the floor. Keep shoulders over the pelvis and arms at shoulder height and parallel to the floor, palms facing down. Gaze over right fingers, keeping arms active. Stay here for 5 breaths.
Triangle pose (utthita trikonasana)
From Warrior II, inhale and straighten right leg, adjusting back foot so you feel stable. Engage leg muscles. Exhale there. With arms extended, inhale, lengthening through your right waist. As you exhale, bending through the right hip joint, opposed to the waist, lower right hand to your shin, ankle or floor — whatever’s accessible to you — keeping both sides of your torso long. Look up over left thumb; remain here for 5 breaths.
Half moon pose (ardha chandrasana)
From triangle pose, place top left hand on your hip. On exhale, bend right knee, placing fingertips of right hand on the floor or a block in front of the right foot. Lift back heel off the floor and slide back foot forward. As you inhale, lift left leg off the floor, engaging it and extending through the left heel. Balance on the right foot with some support of the right hand, keeping most of your weight on the standing leg.
Work on rolling the torso and hips to face the side wall. If possible, extend right arm up. Gaze down, straight ahead or up over your top thumb. Remain here for 5 breaths and come out of the pose on inhalation, stepping lifted leg back.
Note: Repeat the above three poses on the other side, and then repeat the sequence on both sides.
Twisted high lunge
Begin in downward-facing dog. On inhalation, lift right leg up. On exhalation, step right foot forward between hands into a lunge, keeping back heel lifted (or lower left knee onto the floor), hips facing the front of the mat. Keep back leg straight and active. As you inhale, lift torso and arms up, in line with each other. On your next exhalation, enter twist by lowering left arm forward at shoulder height, taking right arm back. Gaze to the side or over your back hand.
Stay for 5 breaths, then lower hands to the floor and step back into downward-facing dog. Repeat on other side. Perform the twist on both sides one more time.
Locust pose variation (salabhasana)
Lie on your stomach with forehead on the floor, arms by the sides, feet comfortably apart. Inhale, interlace hands behind your back squeezing palms towards each other, if possible, and lift your arms off your back. Exhale there. Inhale again, and lift head and chest. Keep your neck elongated. Keep legs engaged with tops of the feet pressing firmly into the floor, inwardly rotating your thighs. Remain here for 3–5 breaths.
Release onto the floor on exhalation, turn head on one side and relax for a few breaths, swinging hips from side to side. Repeat pose once again, with an option of lifting thighs off the mat lengthening through your legs. Rest in child’s pose.
Sit on a cushion or the floor with legs wide apart. Draw right foot in towards left inner thigh, keeping left leg extended and relaxed. Allow your back to round as you begin to fold forward. Stay for 3–5 minutes. Rest in short savasana before changing sides.
Fish on the block
Place a block on your yoga mat’s lower or medium side and lie down on it, with the long, thin edge of the block positioned crossways below the bottoms of your shoulder blades so your chest is lifted and your neck is dropped back comfortably. If this too extreme and you experience too much neck strain, place a cushion under your head. Relax arms out to the sides or take them over your head, keeping them relaxed or holding opposite elbows. Stay here for 3 minutes, then rebound in a 1-minute savasana.
Twisted roots pose
Lie on your back with feet on the floor. Cross right knee above left, lift hips and, as you move hips slightly to the right, lower knees to the left, wrapping — just like in eagle pose — right foot around the shin of the bottom left leg, if possible. Extend right arm up above your head, keeping left hand on the top thigh, and look to the right or left side. Remain here for 3 minutes, rest for 1 minute and repeat on the other side.
Lie on the floor with knees bent, feet on the floor. Lift pelvis slightly off the floor and, extending tailbone towards your feet, release upper buttocks onto the floor. Extend legs, taking feet hip- or mat-distance apart. Let feet fall out to the sides and rest arms by the sides of your body, palms facing the ceiling, fingers relaxed and curled in. Draw chin slightly in, allowing facial muscles to relax. Enjoy a longer savasana in autumn, staying for 10 minutes or longer.
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