Yoga for summer
What’s not to love about summer? It’s a holiday season in which we get to spend more time with friends and family. It’s a time for travel and exploration and the days are longer and warmer, meaning more of us head outdoors often to relax by the pool during the day and enjoy a barbecue and a shandy or two during the balmy nights.
Despite the many positive attributes associated with summer, according to yoga and Ayurveda it is also a time when the fire element in your body, or pitta as it’s known, is at its highest. Pitta is associated with hot, intense, sharp and forceful qualities — much like the sensory experience of the summer season itself. Pitta is not a bad thing but it is important to balance it out so you can stay calm and cool during summer. So let’s take a look at how yoga and its sister science, Ayurveda, can help us beat the heat.
Yoga, Ayurveda & the seasons
According to the ancient science of Ayurveda, our bodies are composed of three elements known as doshas. These include vata (air), kapha (water) and pitta (fire). The doshas are influenced by seasonal changes and each of these elements has its own unique characteristics. Vata, for instance, is associated with dry, rough, light and cold qualities, suggestive of autumn and winter. Kapha is associated with the watery, earthy elements of spring, and pitta is characterised by a hot, sharp and forceful nature indicative of summer. Our individual constitutions usually consist of a blend of all three doshas, with one being more dominant than the others. This is why creating balance and harmony in the body and mind is so important.
As summer heats up, you are likely to accumulate excess pitta (the same would apply to the other doshas in the relevant seasons). Therefore, if you already possess a pitta prakriti (nature), you’re at an even higher risk of becoming out of balance. Thankfully, yogic and Ayurvedic principles can help you maintain the harmony of the body and mind to create a healthier and happier you.
Feeling hot, hot, hot
As pitta is a fiery element, during summer a pitta imbalance might manifest in the form of rashes and inflammation of the skin, ulcers, heartburn, odorous sweating, insomnia, irritability, impatience and anger. Pitta governs digestion and the metabolism, so there is a high chance fire may flare up in the small intestine and the stomach, leading to a range of different complaints.
Although you might associate summer with being relaxed and chilled, increased fire or pitta can make us feel angry, aggressive, demanding and pushy. Just think of how irritable and whingey some people get when the temperature reaches a certain point. Summer can make us hot and bothered for a reason.
As you can see, the degree of a pitta imbalance, or any doshic imbalance for that matter, can vary significantly. Severe cases may require you to consult a practitioner. However, for those just feeling overheated and agitated, yoga offers some easy practices to help you cool down.
Keeping your cool
As summer days are typically sticky and hot, you must cultivate the opposite environment inside the body to balance yourself out. Pitta is driven predominately by the solar force. As summer itself already embodies this element, you must try to quell the pitta inside you; the last thing you want to do is meet the hot, fiery external environment with a similar internal disposition. A way you can counter the summer weather and a fiery nature is to create a lunar current within your body. What this means is to adopt practices that are cooling and will calm your system and increase your energy levels so you can truly enjoy summer.
In this day and age we are fortunate enough to be able to simply flick on a switch for a fan or air-conditioner to immediately cool down. However, for a holistic approach, we have to go deeper to achieve the best results. Ancient yogis created their own cooling practices to help balance their pitta levels. Let’s take a look at how diet, the breath and asanas play a role in this.
Food is a vital component of your summer yoga routine. There are specific foods you can integrate into your diet to cool down. A lot of this we already do naturally as the seasons change. On a hot day, we instinctively know nothing beats a tall drink of water or some fresh fruits. However, we need to make sure we have nourishing and appropriate foods for the season. Carbonated or ice-cold drinks, for example, may quench your thirst but they can take out the pitta fire completely, which could lead to indigestion.
Remember, pitta is not bad. It just needs to be balanced, especially in summer when it can reach its highest.
Here are a few things to remember when it comes to summer eating.
- Ayurveda speaks of the six rasas or types of taste. These include sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot and astringent. The rasas relates to the perception of food on the tastebuds as well as the final reaction in the stomach. Sweet, bitter and astringent tastes are best when it comes to summer eating and balancing pitta. Greens such as rocket, radicchio and mint make great summer salads and perfectly fit into the acceptable rasas for summer.
- Foods that create heat in the body should be avoided, including garlic, onions and spicy and sour tastes.
- Keep things light and cool and avoid heavy foods. Try out foods that you don’t need to cook for very long and even things you don’t have to heat at all before eating.
- Take advantage of summer produce and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables with high water content. These might include melons, apples, pears, berries, cucumbers and leafy greens. These are light, nutritious and easy to digest.
- Keep hydrated. Drink plenty of water. Fresh juices and coconut water are also beneficial. Avoid caffeine.
- Herbs and spices also can reduce pitta and work well in summer salads. Try using coriander, mint, fennel, cumin, cardamom and anise.
Certain pranayama (breath control) exercises should also be integrated into your summer routine. Sheetali breathing is the epitome of what we’re talking about when it comes to cooling down. Taken from the Sanskrit word sheetal, meaning cooling, this practice reduces body temperature and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to induce muscle relaxation.
Try this exercise by beginning in a seated position such as padmasana (lotus pose) or a simple cross-legged pose. Roll your tongue and inhale through the mouth. Keep the tongue rolled and continue to exhale through it again. You’ll be amazed at the effectiveness of the technique. The air passing through the tongue is immediately cooled as is the rest of the body after several rounds. For those who can’t roll their tongues, try parting the lips slightly and gently poke out your tongue to achieve the same sensation. Regardless of which method you use, try to follow the pattern of inhaling to the count of four and exhaling to the count of six.
Summer yoga practice
Asana practice in summer is not about pushing yourself to extremes to get the perfect beach body. Traditionally, Ayurveda recommends lightening the workout load in the summer as pushing yourself beyond your capacity will build heat in the body and that means excess pitta. Summer is therefore a great time to change your focus from intense exercise and concentrate on the intricacies of your movements, muscles, alignment and breath. A restorative, calming yoga practice is ideal for this time of year.
Keep in mind that according to Ayurveda it’s also best to exercise in the early morning or, if that’s not possible, in the evening at sunset. Exercising in the middle of the day should be avoided as this is the hottest time of day and exposure to the sun should be limited.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, practices that are considered to be lunar or cooling and focus on removing heat from the body are very beneficial in reducing pitta. Forward bends, twists and mild backbends all stimulate the abdomen, a major pitta centre, and help cool the body. Remember to be careful with inversions, arm balances and other practices such as khapalbati breathing that build heat in the body. These poses can still be practised, but go easy on them and try to counter them with cooling poses.
Asanas for summer
As summer literally warms us up, our bodies are already more flexible and pliable before we even begin our practice. This means we have a chance to go deeper into asanas but it also presents a chance to exercise restraint and slow down. It’s important to strike that balance. Keep this in mind when practising some of these poses for your summertime routine.
Standing forward bend (uttanasana)
Begin standing in tadasana, mountain pose. Ground your feet on the floor, activate the leg muscles and lift up through the sternum. Inhale and raise your hands above your head. Feel the stretch running all the way up to the fingertips. Exhale and slowly lower your hands toward the mat. If you can’t reach the mat, hold onto any point of your leg. If you feel comfortable, inhale and slowly bring your head closer to your legs. Keep your back straight.
Wide-leg standing forward bend (prasarita padottanasana)
Another great pose for lowering pitta. Step your feet apart so there is quite a bit of distance between the legs. Bring your hands to your hips. Bend at the hips and lengthen forward through the spine. When you reach the halfway point, bring your hands on to the mat, roughly shoulder distance apart. Continue to exhale, bend the elbows and bring the crown of the head onto the mat. A block or folded blanket can be used if you cannot reach the floor.
Reclining spinal twist (jathara parivartanasana)
Lie on your back on the floor with your legs extended. Now, bend your knees and hug and bring them to your chest. Release the arms and extend them out to the side, but keep the knees bent. Inhale and bring your knees to the left side, stacking them on top of each other. Turn your head to look in the opposite direction. Keep the shoulders and shoulder blades in contact with the floor. Feel the stretch across the abdominals. Repeat on right side.
Bridge (setu bandha sarvangasana)
Backbends are invigorating but use this pose as a chance to focus on the breath and relax. Lie on your back with both knees bent. Keep your arms by your side. On an inhale lift your hips off the ground. Slightly walk your shoulder blades in as you continue to lift your hips. Keep both feet parallel to each other and don’t allow them to point inward. Grab hold of the ankles or interlace your hands together so your knuckles face the back of your heels. Breathe deeply. A block can also be placed under the lower back to really let you relax in this pose.
Half moon (ardha chandrasana)
With all the talk about lunar currents and cooling poses it’s no surprise we’ve included ardha chandrasana here. Some schools of yoga might refer to ardha chandrasana as a balancing pose, whereas others refer to it as a lateral stretch. We’ll be focusing on the latter. Begin standing in tadasana with a slight distance between your feet. Keep your arms by your sides. Raise your right arm up, bringing it close to your ear. Exhale and start to walk the left hand further down the side of the leg, reaching toward the knee. In the process, allow the right arm to diagonally stretch past the ear and over to the left side. Keep the arm straight and the hips square. Repeat on the other side.
Pigeon (eka pada rajakapotasana)
Begin on all fours. Keep the right knee bent and slide it forward between your hands. Now, start to straighten and slide the left leg to the back. Once the leg is extended completely, start to walk the hands slightly backward. Peel the shoulder blades back and open the chest. Keep the spine elevated and lift up through the pubis. Repeat on the other side.
Veronica Joseph is a yoga teacher and writer based in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, Australia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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