Yoga for the Winter Blues

The dog days of winter can bring a sense of lethargy and heaviness to the body. Cold weather often tightens the hips and shoulders, tempting us to skip practices.  After 18 years on the path, I’ll share the ins and outs of maintaining consistency and making it past the big chill, into the thaw of spring.

Crank up the thermostat and get a space heater

Most of my practices are at home, it’s where I learn the most, and I love the peace and quiet of my own living room floors. I turn the heat all the way up and turn on an electric space heater thirty minutes before I practice so it’s more than cozy. My genes spring from the equatorial line, so I don’t fare well in the cold. Every part of my body can feel like it’s contracting when the temp falls below freezing.  NYC is not Mysore or Goa in the summer. I need that extra heat for the joints to feel lubricated and for the longer muscles of the body, like my hamstrings to feel friendly.  In addition home practice I’ll take an occasional class at a hot yoga studio; my go to in New York is Modo Yoga in Williamsburg.  It’s total fun to be in a hot room with fifty sweaty yogi’s, moving and breathing together. The feel of community provides extra motivation.

Do Push-ups and Squats before starting the Asana Sequence

If it’s a really cold day and I feel stiff I’ll do fifty push-ups and fifty squats to create heat in the body, and become fully alert. Stretching is a yin energy (expansion) and resistance/strength exercises are more yang (contracting.) Adding a contractive energy before practice is very grounding. The first few downward facing dogs will instantly feel better as I feel the bones of my heels, legs and arms fall right into place. You can do twenty -five squats and twenty- five push-ups if you are just getting started with yoga, and take several sets to get there if you wish.  Also holding a 3-5 minute plank to start your practice is a great alternative to the push-ups and squats.

Take as many Sun Salutations as you need to loosen up

My sweet spot for winter practice is 10 surya namaskars, and sometimes I’ll go to 15. In the winter 6 rounds of sun salutes (just fine for summer) may not cut it.  The bursa sacs at the major joints of the body will secrete synovial fluid for lubrication and the connective tissue of the body become more gel like, from the continuous movement of sun salutations.  Listen to the body as you are initiating the practice and when you feel the appropriate heat building up, transition to the more static postures in the asana sequence.

Do adequate standing poses and twists

After sun salutations do approximately 20 minutes of standing poses.  Standing postures (like triangle, side angle, tree pose, etc.) give us the opportunity to tone mula bandha and uddiyana bandha .   Mula bandha is the “root lock” at the pelvic floor, and uddiyana bandha is “flying up lock” under the navel. The heavy feeling, often characterized by darkness and inertia, is called tamas in yoga practice. Tamas resides in the body in the lower abdomen and in the bones.  By practicing standing postures we stack the bones of our skeleton in place from the feet all the way up to our skull. By rooting the feet firmly into the earth, and drawing the earth’s energy into the body through the inner aspects of the legs, we tone the pelvic floor. We are literally shaking off dullness and waking up our body at the very root of the nervous system. When we shake and try to find our balance we are using the bandhas to find equilibrium and toning deeper muscles in the lower abdomen.  

Twists (half seated spinal twist, revolved triangle, twisting chair pose, side angle b, etc.)  fire up the digestive energy around the third energy vortex along the spine, manipura chakra. Winter is know for comfort food and over-eating.  The twists stimulate our digestive fire.  We build heat in the abdomen and this reminds us to eat the right food, in the appropriate quantities, for our bodies.

Finish the practice with Long Inversions and a 5 minute Sit for Lymphatic Drainage

Lymph is a clear fluid that moves through the body and picks up bacteria and viruses, then filters them out of the body.  Lymph moves by muscular contractions and is also affected by gravity.  So in Sarvangsana (shoulder stand) and Sirshasna (head stand) lymph moves into the respiratory organs, and when you sit up for meditation in an upright position gravity drains the lymph, sending it through the lymph nodes for cleansing.  I recommend finishing with five minutes of shoulder stand (or legs up the wall,) five minutes of head stand (or downward facing dog, for the same benefit,) and five minutes of sitting still in an upright posture before taking shavasana, corpse pose.

Extra Long Shavasana

Take at least 10 minutes of shavasana to seal the practice, using a timer if you need to. Lay on the earth, propping under the knees and behind the neck, as needed, taking rest. Let go of the weight of the bones and drape the muscles lightly off the skeleton, free of contraction. Simply be, wanting nothing and needing nothing. During this ten minute rest the body will absorb a lot of vital prana, the cosmic energy that is all around us.  The nervous system will find center again as the heart and lungs slow down.  Let any thought that comes to mind just pass right by, remain unattached and take it easy, simply witnessing. When you rise the body will feel refreshed, strong, and have a vital flow.

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