Yoga for summer
Summer solstice arriving on December 21 in the Southern Hemisphere truly marks the beginning of summer. Summer is the season of light, joy, brightness, energy, long days and growth, which we want to make the most of. It’s a high point of the wheel of the year when we enjoy long walks on the beach, invigorating swims in the ocean, outdoor yoga, picnics in the park and vacations with our loved ones.
Where do you stand this summer? Do you open-heartedly welcome it? Or do you find yourself wanting to hide away from the heat, preferably in an air-conditioned room? Do you feel vibrant and joyous, fully embracing the warmth and the longer days? Or do you feel like your blood is boiling, your mind is exploding and you lose your temper for no reason when the temperatures rise above 28 degrees?
Your organs are seen in Chinese medicine as networks and are not only looked at for their physical functions but are also believed to carry emotional, mental and energetic qualities associated with them.
Summer is a period of intensity and has a tendency to trigger the intensity within through heating our bodies so that our minds begin to boil over. Losing patience, becoming agitated and short-tempered and feeling exhausted or restless are common signs of imbalance in bodily fluids and energy. They indicate the need to implement some changes in our lifestyles as we transition further into the hotter days.
Holistic practices such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, the sister of yoga, teach us to learn to live in harmony with the Earth’s cycles, modifying our lifestyle, exercise, diet and yoga practices as we flow through the change of the seasons.
So let’s consider summer from the holistic perspectives of Chinese medicine, yoga and Ayurveda and discover some easy-to-implement practical tips to stay cool, calm, joyful and nurtured all season long.
Summer & TCM
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the most widely used traditional holistic discipline in the world, uses the five-element theory to identify how your mind and body interact to assist you in your healing journey through physical, nutritional, mental and emotional balancing. These five elements are fire, water, wood, metal and earth.
Chinese medicine teaches that each of these elements corresponds to a particular season of the year as well as major internal organs and advises to address your organs’ health in the corresponding season. Doing so, according to TCM, promotes the strength of those organs and the systems they are a part of, balancing your energy levels and enhancing your health and vitality in harmony with the wheel of the year.
The element associated with summer in traditional Chinese medicine is fire, and it supplies the energy ruling the heart, a yin organ, and the small intestine, which is a yang organ corresponding to the heart. It’s important to note that organs are seen in Chinese medicine as networks and are not only looked at for their physical functions but are also believed to carry emotional, mental and energetic qualities associated with them.
Summer season is hot and filled with bright light, long days and intensity, just like a fiery pitta dosha.
The heart is referred to as the “emperor” of the body by the Chinese. It not only governs the circulation and supply of oxygen-rich blood throughout the body but is also believed to house the mind, inclusive of the emotions, intellect, consciousness and spirit. “It is striking to note that, in traditional Chinese medical theory, the functions that are ascribed to the brain in the West are located in the heart,” writes Nishanga Bliss, assistant professor at the Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine College, Berkeley, in the US.
Elson M Haas, MD, a long–term practitioner of integrative medicine, teaches that: “The heart has to do with the ability to rule, to understand and to see clearly, and to serve compassionately.”
Summer & Ayurveda
In Ayurveda, the seasons are defined by the cycles of vata, pitta and kapha — three doshas, or constitutions in our bodily make-up — and which correspond to air, fire and water elements respectively. Summer is considered a pitta season characterised by fire, as it is in Chinese medicine.
Summer season is hot and filled with bright light, long days and intensity, just like a fiery pitta dosha. In accordance with Ayurveda, pitta rules your digestion and metabolism but can also aggravate as the temperatures increase.
TCM and Ayurveda theories agree that fire element imbalances of the heart, small intestine and pitta dosha can manifest in anger, agitation, restlessness, insomnia, sadness, impatience, exhaustion, over-excitement, irritability or a lack of joy. Conditions such as hot flushes, exhaustion, acne, skin inflammation, diarrhoea, poor circulation, rashes and heartburn may also be experienced.
When your fire element is balanced, your heart functions properly, digestion is good, metabolism is strong and nutrients are absorbed by the small intestine. Your thoughts are clear, the mind is at peace, you feel alive, enthusiastic, warm and nourished, and the emotions of happiness, love and joy — associated with the heart — are abundant.
Tips for keeping your cool
By committing to live in harmony with the cycles of nature and adjusting your lifestyle, diet and yoga practices as the seasons change, you can enhance your physical, emotional and mental balance and increase your vitality.
Your summer diet
Eat fresh foods that are in season and light and easy to digest, and that can keep your body cool, providing the fluids and antioxidants needed in the summer.
Ayurveda suggests incorporating three cooling tastes into your summer diet: cleansing bitter taste, which is considered strengthening for the heart and small intestine, to cool and purify your blood; astringent taste to tone the tissues and enhance fluid absorption; and grounding, soothing sweet taste to balance out your energy and the fire in your digestive system.
Favour the following foods in the summer:
- Bitter and astringent vegetables and fruits such as alfalfa sprouts, asparagus, kale, rocket, fennel, broccoli, green beans, lettuce, apples, cranberries and pomegranate
- Sweet fruits such as grapes, melons, cherries, coconuts, plums and mangoes
- Cooling fruits and vegetables like avocados, celery, cucumbers, lettuce, zucchini, limes, strawberries and watermelons
- Cooling herbs and spices such as coriander, cumin, parsley, turmeric, mint, aniseed and fennel seeds
- Refreshing teas like peppermint, licorice, rose, chamomile and fennel
- Superfoods such as aloe vera, chlorella and spirulina
Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. You may also want to add mint leaves or cucumber slices to your water, as they have a cooling effect on the body. Avoid drinking ice-cold drinks as Ayurveda suggests they inhibit your digestion and may create toxins in the body.
While you might be motivated to increase activity levels and improve your fitness in the summer season, keep in mind that excessive activity is highly heating for the body. Hence, it’s better not to work out in the heat but rather exercise to 50–70 per cent of your capacity in the early mornings or later evenings when the temperatures are cooler.
Begin your morning with abhyanga, an Ayurvedic oil massage. Use ⅓–½ cup of non-refined warmed coconut oil, which is good for sensitive skin and has calming, cooling properties needed in the summer.
Start by massaging the oil into your scalp and then into the entire body, including your hands and feet. Work into the middle of your body, using long strokes on your arms and legs 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 five minutes to allow your skin to absorb it before showering.
Finish your day by rubbing coconut oil into your feet to soothe your nervous system for the night.
Well-renowned Ayurveda practitioners Dr Robert Svoboda, Dr Vasant Lad and Dr Claudia Welch suggest that abhyanga keeps skin smooth, increases blood circulation enhancing the functions of the internal organs, benefits sleep patterns and prevents hypervigilance of the nervous system by calming it down.
A cooling pranayama
Yoga teaches that the left nostril corresponds to ida nadi, the energy channel that relates to the cooling energy of the moon. Breathing through the left nostril is believed to reduce the internal heat, provide refreshment to the body, calm the mind and elicit relaxation. Here’s how to practise:
- Sit in a comfortable position in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, or on the floor or a cushion with your legs crossed.
- Relax your shoulders and keep your spine straight.
- Close your right nostril with your thumb or index finger and begin breathing slowly in and out through your left nostril, allowing a natural unforced pause to happen between the inhalation and exhalation.
- Repeat for 10–18 cycles.
To further induce coolness into the body and beat the summer heat, try to sleep on your right side, which will assist you in generating the cooling energy by opening the left nostril as you rest.
Yin yoga for summer
The following sequence of yoga poses is of yin nature, as it is focused on exercising deeper connective tissues (fascia and ligaments), which is different from muscular yang yoga. Yin yoga combines Chinese acupuncture and meridian theories together with the Indian yogic philosophies.
Note that, when practising yin yoga, the muscles around the target area of the pose should be relaxed to increase the effects of the elongation in that area. Paul Grilley, a researcher and sought-after teacher of yin yoga, advises to cultivate “yin attitude” when practising. “Do not be anxious and aggressive and force your body into the poses. Make a modest effort to approximate the pose as best as you can, and then patiently wait. The power of yin yoga is time, not effort. It takes time for our tissues to slowly respond to a gentle stress. It cannot be rushed.”
By applying traction to your connective tissues and holding the poses for longer periods of time, you will work towards increasing flexibility and mobility of the joints and creating a sense of ease and lightness in your body.
Abhyanga keeps skin smooth, increases blood circulation enhancing the functions of the internal organs, benefits sleep patterns and prevents hypervigilance of the nervous system by calming it down.
As discussed earlier, traditional Chinese medicine associates the summer season with the fire element, which corresponds to the heart and small intestine and their meridian lines, or energy channels, in your body. When these meridian pathways are blocked, you may experience the conditions talked about earlier in the sections on TCM and Ayurveda.
Yin poses in the yoga sequence described here include arm and chest openers, abdominal stretches, forward folds and twists (which contain the meridian lines that connect to the heart and the small intestine). Together, these poses will nourish your body and balance the heat, along with massaging your internal organs to help clear out pitta imbalances, which often build up in the digestive tract.
Melting heart pose (anahatasana)
To get into the pose, come onto your hands and knees and walk your hands forward, allowing your chest and arms to drop toward the floor. Keep your hands shoulder width apart and hips above your knees. Relax your forehead onto the floor or a cushion if your head does not reach the floor comfortably. Remain in this pose for three minutes.
To come out of the pose, slide onto your stomach, placing one cheek on the floor, and release your arms alongside your torso with your palms facing up. Rest for a minute.
Sphinx or seal pose
To enter into sphinx pose, lie down on your abdomen, take your feet wider than your hips and bring your elbows under or ahead of your shoulders to prop yourself up. You can rest your hands on the floor or clasp the opposite elbows. The further you move your elbows away, the gentler the pose will become. If that feels enough for your lower back, stay in this pose.
Seal variation of the pose is practised with arms straight and hands turning outward. Engage your arms to relax the lumbar spine and the muscles around your shoulder blades. To decrease the intensity, bring your hands away from your body. Keep your head upright or drop it in if it feels more comfortable.
Remain in either of the poses for 3–4 minutes. Rebound in savasana for 1–2 minutes.
Start on your hands and knees under your hips. On the inhalation, lift your right arm up and, as you exhale, lower your right shoulder on the floor with your right arm outstretched and palm facing up and rest your head on the floor. Your left hand can rest on the floor with the left arm straight or you can reach the left arm around your back.
Stay in this pose for three minutes, then restore in savasana before switching to the other side.
Sit on the floor and start to fold forward from your hips, allowing your spine to round. If your hamstrings or lower back feel tense, you can sit on a cushion or bend your knees to allow your back to round. Relax your elbows on your thighs or the floor with your palms facing up. Don’t pull yourself towards your legs, but rather allow the time in the pose and the gravity to do that for you.
Stay here for 4–5 minutes, then rest in savasana for two minutes, feeling the effects of the full forward fold.
Sit on the floor with the soles of your feet together, and bring your elbows to rest on the floor under your shoulders. Lift your chest, arching your back, and allow your head to drop back or forward towards your chest. Remain in the pose for three minutes.
To come out, bring your chin toward your chest, slide your elbows forward, straighten your legs, lying down to rest in savasana for a minute.
Start by lying on your back. Bring your knees toward your chest and then, hugging your right knee in, extend your left leg onto the floor, placing your left hand on your right knee.
Shift your hips slightly to the right as you bring your right knee over your left leg. Extend your right arm out to the side and your left arm above your head or leave it on the knee. Turn your head to the right or to the left and stay in the pose for three minutes.
Rebound in savasana for a minute and then change sides.
Sit on the floor with your knees bent, feet on the floor, and lean back onto your forearms. Lift your pelvis slightly off the floor and release your upper buttocks onto the floor. Extend your legs, taking your feet hip- or mat-distance apart and lowering all the way down onto the floor. Let your feet fall out and soften your lower back.
Rest your arms by the sides of your body with your palms facing the ceiling and fingers relaxed and curled in. Tuck your chin slightly in and keep a soft smile on your face to relax the facial muscles. Rest as long as necessary.
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