Your new favourite yoga sequence for winter
Winter is the time to appreciate the darkness and cold and to snuggle up, nourish your body and mind by going deep within, allowing time for rest, introspection, self-reflection, meditation and quietude. It’s the season to stay grounded, recuperate, restore and replenish your energy in preparation for spring.
Holistic disciplines such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda suggest that our lifestyle, exercise, yoga practice and diet need to be aligned with the current season. Harmonising yourself and your routines with the cycles of nature is believed by these traditions to keep you nurtured and disease free.
Make this winter a time to pause and treat your body and soul with the following easy-to-implement holistic practices, which will keep you warm, nourished and filled with joy and vitality.
Holistic perspectives on winter
Ayurveda, India’s ancient medical system, differentiates the seasons of the year by the cycles of three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. These doshas describe the qualities of the body’s constitution and are governed by air, ether (space), fire, water and earth elements, which influence our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Charaka Samhita, a comprehensive textbook on Ayurvedic healing, states: “Vata, pitta and kapha move in the whole body producing good or ill effects upon the entire system, according to their normal or aggravated states. Their normal state is balance and their aggravated state is illness.”
As winter is typically colder and wetter than other seasons, it has a sense of slowness, groundedness and heaviness. These are the qualities attributed to the kapha dosha and winter is just that: a kapha season. Kapha is ruled by water and earth, elements which are in charge of stability, structure and moisture in your body.
As well-renowned Ayurvedic doctor Robert Svoboda further elaborates, “Nature has provided us with kapha to keep the body’s earth (its solids) suspended in its water (its liquids) in the proper proportion. Wherever the body becomes too solid, a problem always develops. Gallstones and kidney stones are good examples of concretion of earth in which water has dried out too much. Likewise, too much water and not enough earth in a system promotes disturbances like oedema. Only when kapha is balanced do water and earth remain in balance.”
As winter is typically colder and wetter than other seasons, it has a sense of slowness, groundedness and heaviness. These are the qualities attributed to the kapha dosha and winter is just that: a kapha season.
With insufficient kapha — and also in colder, drier climates in winter — the presence of vata (air and ether) may increase, manifesting itself in cracking joints, dry skin, brittle nails, chills, poor circulation, dehydration, insomnia, loneliness and spaciness. Excess vata strongly affects the digestive system and presents as bloating, diarrhoea, dry stools or constipation.
When in balance, kapha’s earth and water elements provide you with physical and emotional strength and vitality and show up in strong teeth and bones, well-lubricated joints, shiny hair, glowing skin and strong digestion. Where aggravated, kapha may manifest in excess mucus and phlegm, chest and lymphatic congestions, coughs, sluggishness, sticky stools and weight gain. Other signs of excess kapha are lethargy, lowered immunity, poor circulation, a sluggish metabolism and winter blues.
Traditional Chinese medicine
Just like Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) attributes winter to the water element, associated with the organ system of the kidneys and urinary bladder. Winter is the most yin season with its dark, slow, inward energy, and is the time to strengthen your kidneys.
In Western medicine, kidneys are associated with water metabolism, filtration of blood, regulation of blood pressure and production of red blood cells. Chinese medicine expands the functions of the kidneys and urinary bladder further, recognising these organs as energetic pathways that convey not only physical but also mental and emotional qualities.
In TCM, kidney qi (life force) is responsible for your memory, healthy teeth, bones, storage of the vital energy and inner strength. Kidneys also rule birth, growth and reproductive capacity; they are responsible for your longevity and house willpower and courage. The emotions associated with the kidneys are fears of all kinds, courage and depression.
Chinese medicine further teaches that kidneys hold our vital essence, the fundamental energy, referred to as jing, which is produced in our bones.
Stress, lack of rest and sleep, overwork, overindulgence and exhaustion deplete the kidney qi and accelerate the ageing process. Too much sugar and salt and stimulants and too little water in the diet also cause imbalances in the kidneys and the urinary bladder.
Colder weather may also deplete kidney qi and, when weakened, this may exacerbate rheumatoid conditions as well as joint and lower-back pain. TCM doctors often recommend bone broths to strengthen the kidneys and nourish the deeper tissues such as bones and joints.
The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, arguably the most essential Chinese healing text, advises: “Retire early and get up with the sunrise, which is later in winter … The theory of the winter season is one of conservation and storage. Without such practice, the result will be injury to the kidney energy. This will cause weakness, shrinking of muscles and coldness; then the body loses its ability to open and move about in the spring.”
Self-care tips for winter
Implementing the following suggestions will help you to cultivate a more balanced lifestyle and remain healthy, grounded, calm, nourished and vital this winter.
Nasya (nose oiling) is an Ayurvedic practice used to lubricate the nostrils, protect the nasal membranes against dryness, calm the mind, increase mental clarity and help clear out the sinuses.
Dip your little finger into warmed ghee or sesame oil and lightly massage inside each nostril. Then sniff and draw the oil upward.
Abhyanga (self-massage) can be especially nurturing in winter. Use sesame oil as it is the most warming base oil and suitable for all Ayurvedic constitution types (vata, pitta, kapha), which will keep you warm and relieve joint aches.
Massage the oil into the entire body including hands and feet, working to the middle of your body. If you’re time poor, apply sesame oil on your feet at the end of the day.
Winter is the time to slow down and, if your lifestyle allows, the season when you can indulge in sleeping in, as Ayurveda suggests going to bed earlier and rising around 7am. Staying in bed a little longer will help you rejuvenate. Napping is not recommended in winter as it increases vata and reduces agni, your digestive fire, and metabolism.
When all is well and balanced in the body, your agni burns the strongest in winter. To feed this digestive fire in the colder weather, you need more fuel, in the form of food, to stay warm and nourished. The ideal winter diet prevents/addresses possible kapha and vata imbalances.
Enjoy eating warm, mildly spicy, slightly oily foods, balancing out sweet, sour, salty, bitter and astringent tastes, and avoid cold, wet, damp foods like raw and frozen foods and dairy together with overly oily or overly sweet meals. Winter’s the season for hearty soups, nutritious stews and nourishing casseroles.
Ginger, cinnamon and cloves are warming spices and will boost immunity, invigorate metabolism, enhance digestion and respiration, increase circulation and aid in mucus elimination.
Well-cooked sturdy greens (eg kale, silverbeet), zucchini, pumpkin and root vegetables like beetroots, carrots, parsnips, swedes, sweet potatoes and turnips exert a nourishing and grounding effect on the body. Cooked garlic, leeks and onions will further reduce kapha and vata imbalances and nourish the kidneys.
If you consume them, favour well-cooked legumes (try adding a sheet of nori during cooking to enhance their digestion), tofu, tempeh, eggs, poultry, lamb and/or freshwater fish. Drink rich broths cooked with animal bones to tone the kidneys and stay warm. If you’re vegetarian, make hearty vegetable stocks instead.
TCM also advises adding micro-algae (eg spirulina, chlorella) into your diet together with miso, black beans, kidney beans and nuts for healthy fats.
Complementing your warm winter meals with fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut and home-made yoghurt will further support your digestive system, enhance your immunity and encourage better absorption of the nutrients from the foods you consume.
Kitchari, made with seasonal spices (listed below) and ghee or “warm” oils such as sunflower and olive can make a great winter all-rounder.
For a warming breakfast, try a cooked cinnamon- and nutmeg-spiced oatmeal or quinoa porridge topped with a banana or cooked apples or pears. Make lunch your biggest meal of the day, as digestion is the strongest then, and eat vegetables, proteins and grains your body responds to. Dinner may be a nourishing soup of root vegetables.
Herbs & spices
Winter is a wonderful time to experiment and be generous with warming herbs and spices to help dry out dampness, boost your immunity and vitality, soothe your stomach, enhance digestion, support the kidneys, eliminate congestion, strengthen your lungs and balance blood sugar levels. Try the following:
- Black pepper and cayenne (in small quantities) are known for their kapha- and vata-reducing properties and are great for relieving congestion, stimulating digestion and nutrient absorption.
- Ginger, cinnamon and cloves are warming spices and will boost immunity, invigorate metabolism, enhance digestion and respiration, increase circulation and aid in mucus elimination.
- Ginseng is a sweet, sour, heating and energy-boosting herb that may also help strengthen digestion and immunity.
- Fenugreek is a good kidney tonic that also helps regulate cholesterol levels.
- Nettle will boost your energy levels and is a kidney tonic.
- Nutmeg calms the nervous system and improves sleep.
First thing in the morning, have a glass of warm water with the juice of half a lemon and freshly grated or dry ginger. This will help increase your appetite, aid digestion and stimulate healthy bowel movement.
Sip warm teas spiced with ginger, cinnamon and cloves throughout the day to help warm you and keep your digestive fire burning. In the evening, have warm almond or cashew milk spiced with turmeric and nutmeg. Avoid iced and cold drinks during winter.
Pranayama for winter
Kapalabhati is a breathing technique that helps build internal heat, clear your mind and strengthen your lungs and aids in digestion, relief of allergies and mucus elimination from the respiratory tract, protecting and strengthening it along the way.
Kapalabhati is a breathing technique that helps build internal heat, clear your mind and strengthen your lungs.
Find a comfortable seated position on the floor or a chair, keeping spine erect and shoulders relaxed. Tune into your natural breath.
When you’re ready to commence, inhale naturally, feeling your diaphragm moving downwards into the abdomen and your chest expanding as the lungs fill with the air. Exhale actively, contracting the abdominal muscles, drawing your navel in and forcefully expelling air from the lungs. Begin slowly then speed up your inhale and exhale, remembering to allow the inhalation to be passive and the exhalation to be active.
Perform this cycle 20–30 times. Take a few normal breaths to rest then repeat twice more.
A sequence for winter
The invigorating yoga sequence below will allow you to eliminate lethargy, rehydrate your skin, open the chest and the heart, relieve congestion in the chest, increase circulation, stimulate your lungs, boost your metabolism and clear out mucus and the sinuses. These poses will also increase your digestion, enhance thyroid function, stimulate kidney qi and support your lymphatic system by increasing lymphatic flow in the body.
Child’s pose (balasana)
Sit on your heels, knees hip distance apart or wider. On exhalation, slowly fold forward, bringing chest over thighs, extending arms forward and resting forehead on the mat. If your forehead doesn’t reach the mat, rest it on a block or fists stacked on top of each other. Breathe deeply and remain here for 10–12 breaths. To come out, press the floor away and bring yourself up as you inhale.
Sun salutations (surya namaskar)
Perform at least eight rounds of sun salutations, moving mindfully with breath to warm up your body thoroughly. Hold downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) for 5 breaths at the end of each round.
Standing forward fold (uttanasana)/Hands under feet pose (padahastasana)
Come into a comfortable standing position, feet hip distance or slightly wider apart, and fold forward, bending knees if needed. Clasp elbows with opposite hands. Remain here for 5–8 breaths. If comfortable going deeper, enter padahastasana by bending knees and sliding hands under feet. Once there, straighten legs slightly. Stay for 5 more breaths.
Boat pose (navasana)
Sit on the floor with legs straight. Bend both knees and hold the backs of your thighs as you lean back slightly, so your feet lift off the floor as you find balance on your sitting bones. Lengthen tailbone down. Lift feet off the floor one at a time or together, keeping knees bent and shins parallel to the floor. Lengthen the spine, keep chest open. Either continue holding thighs or extend arms alongside your outer shins parallel to the floor in navasana preparation. Remain for 5 breaths then release.
Repeat or, if you can maintain the length of the spine, try full navasana by extending legs straight out. Stay for 5 more breaths.
Camel pose (ustrasana)
Kneel on your mat with knees apart. Rest hands on the back of your pelvis, heels of palms on the upper buttocks, pressing your shins and tops of feet into the floor. Inhale and lengthen from your pelvis, drawing tailbone in; on exhalation, lean back, keeping hands on the rear of the pelvis. If comfortable, drop head back (if not, keep your head lifted). Stay here in camel preparation for 3–5 breaths. To come out, lift chest forward first, keeping head back as you come up. Rest in child’s pose or sit on heels for 3–5 breaths.
Repeat once more or, if you’re ready for full ustrasana, enter preparation pose first then bring hands onto heels or soles of feet, allowing your head to drop back.
Bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana)
Lie supine on the floor with knees bent and feet placed under them on the floor, comfortably apart. On inhalation, lift hips up as high as they can go without strain, pelvis tucked slightly. Readjust width of the feet if you need. Interlace fingers underneath you, hold the outer edges of the mat or keep palms on the floor. Take 5 breaths and repeat twice more.
Seated forward fold (paschimottanasana)
Sit on your mat or a cushion with legs extended and feet together or slightly apart. Inhale, extend arms up; exhale, fold forward. Allow arms to rest on outer shins, ankles or feet, wherever most appropriate. Stay for 8–10 breaths.
Plough pose (halasana)
Start by lying on your mat. On inhalation lift hips, supporting them with your hands, then let feet fall to the floor over your head. If your feet don’t reach the floor, keep supporting hips with hands. If the feet touch the floor, release arms down onto the floor or interlace fingers. Stay here for 8 breaths. To come out, bend knees, support hips and slowly roll down.
Fish pose (matsyasana)
Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor. As you inhale, lift hips and slide hands under buttocks, palms down. On exhalation, rest buttocks onto the backs of hands and straighten legs onto the floor with toes flexed. On your next inhalation, press hands and forearms into the floor so that head and torso lift. On exhalation, rest the back or crown of your head onto the floor. Remain for 6–8 breaths before lowering head and torso onto the floor, lifting hips to free hands. Draw knees to chest and rock from side to side a few times.
Perform a supine twist of your choice while lying on your back. Either drop both knees to one side then the other or do a twist with the bottom leg straight. Hold for 5–8 breaths on each side.
Rest in savasana by lying on your back with legs extended and arms down by your sides, palms facing up. Relax. Alternatively, if more comfortable, rest prone on the floor or on the side. Stay here for as long as you need.