Staying Balanced in Winter
By Vasant Lad
Ayurveda flourished over 10,000 years ago in a civilization that was drastically different from ours, a culture in which human life was intimately intertwined with the natural world. The Vedic sages understood that the great rhythms and forces of nature—the alternation of day and night, the rhythmic cycle of seasons—all affect us, as do the seasons and cycles of human life. Being in tune with nature, they knew, also means being in tune with your individual constitution, or prakruti, which is comprised of three subtle energies: vata, the energy of movement; pitta, the energy of digestion or metabolism; and kapha, the energy of lubrication and structure.
How to Adapt
The seasons, like your prakruti, are characterized by cycles of vata, pitta, and kapha. If you want to stay healthy all year long, try living in harmony with these natural cycles, adjusting to the changes in your environment through the food you eat, the type and amount of exercise you do, the herbs you ingest, and so on. While you can’t control the weather, you can control these factors, which either build your health, vitality, and resistance to disease, or wear you down. Here is ayurveda’s view on winter—and what you can do to stay balanced this season.
In winter, the sky is often cloudy and gray, the weather is cold, damp, and heavy, and life, even in the cities, moves more slowly. Welcome to the season of kapha. When balanced, kapha supplies strength, vigor, and stability to both body and mind. This subtle energy is responsible for lubricating the joints, moisturizing the skin, and maintaining immunity. But in excess, it can lead to sluggishness, mucus-related illnesses, excess weight, and negative emotions such as attachment, envy, and greed.
In general, we should follow a kapha-pacifying regimen in the winter. But dry, cold, windy weather can provoke vata, too, and can lead to arthritis, indigestion, and other problems. To calm both vata and kapha when temperatures plummet, read on.
Ayurveda suggests waking up a bit later in the winter (around 7 a.m.) than you would in other seasons. Upon rising, scrape your tongue to remove the dead bacteria and yeast that have accumulated overnight, and to improve circulation to the visceral organs. Then brush your teeth with toothpaste made from heating herbs such as cinnamon, clove, bilva, and haritaki. Next, drink a cup of warm water to stimulate a bowel movement. Then treat yourself to a quick massage. Rub warmed sesame oil all over your entire body (it’s heating and good for all prakrutis in the winter). Let the oil soak in for 5 to 10 minutes, then take a hot shower and exfoliate your skin.
Conclude your morning regimen with yoga, pranayama, and meditation. Surya namaskara (sun salutation) and poses that open the chest, throat, and sinuses remove congestion in the respiratory organs. Try the fish, boat, bow, locust, lion, and camel poses, along with the shoulderstand and the headstand, if you can do it. Follow this with a systematic relaxation and a few rounds of bhastrika, the breath of fire. This breathing practice builds heat and eliminates mucus from the respiratory tract.
After meditating, it’s important to eat a nutrious breakfast. If you don’t feed your digestive fire in the morning, it will dry up bodily tissues and provoke vata. Enjoy a bowl of oatmeal, barley, cornmeal, tapioca, or poha (basmati rice flakes) mildly spiced with cinnamon. An hour after breakfast, boil 1/2 teaspoon of fresh or powdered ginger, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, and a pinch of ground clove in a cup of hot water for 5 minutes. Drink this tea to increase your digestive fire, improve circulation, and reduce excess mucus. (Skip the tea if you have an ulcer or another inflammation-oriented problem).
Join a gym, do a workout video, or hit the treadmill to increase circulation and quell kapha. Soak up sunlight, too. Sit by a window to bathe in early morning or evening light. Sun rays relax the muscles, produce vitamin D, soothe Seasonal Affective Disorder, and help the body maintain healthy sleep rhythms.
What to Eat & Drink
Incorporate whole wheat unyeasted bread, buttermilk, cottage cheese, steamed vegetables, warm soup cooked with ghee (clarified butter), and spicy food into your meals. Because your appetite is heartier in the winter, eat more protein—beans, tofu, eggs—and if you’re not a strict vegetarian, chicken, turkey, and fish. Add warming spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper to promote digestion. Drinking a few ounces of sweet or dry wine with your meals will stoke your agni (digestive fire), improve your appetite, and increase circulation. Avoid cold drinks (they aggravate kapha and vata) and opt for hot water, hot tea, and occasionally, hot cocoa or chai.
Avoid cold drafts, wear warm clothes, and don’t forget to wear a hat outside. (Grandma was right: more than half of the body’s heat is lost through the head.) Also, cover your ears and neck to keep vata and kapha in check.
Curing a Cold
Ayurvedically speaking, colds are a kapha-vata disorder. The body builds up an excess of cool and moist kapha qualities, resulting in congestion and a runny nose, and at the same time it may suffer from excess vata, which reduces agni, leading to chills, loss of appetite, and poor digestion. Here’s help.
Try Ginger. It’s the best remedy for colds. Drink ginger tea, take a bath infused with ginger and baking soda (put 1/3 cup of baking soda and 1/3 cup of powdered ginger into a hot tub and then soak the body from the neck down), or try a ginger steam treatment. Boil one teaspoon powdered ginger in a pint of water. Turn off the stove, put a towel over your head, and inhale the steam through your nostrils for about 5 minutes. This will relieve congestion and help you feel much better.
Take Vitamin C. Try 500 mg daily for up to three months.
Use Natural Nose Drops. Lubricate the nasal passages and relieve the irritation and sneezing of a cold with nasya. Lie on your back, face up, with a pillow under your shoulders and your head tilted back, so your nostrils are facing the ceiling. Put 3 to 5 drops liquefied ghee in each nostril and gently sniff the oil upward into the nose. You can do nasya in the morning and night (on an empty stomach and at least one hour before or after showering).
Drink Hot Water. Drinking hot water several times a day removes toxins from the system and speeds up your recovery time.
Avoid dairy products. Strictly avoid dairy products, including yogurt, cheese, milk, and ice cream, until your congestion clears up.
Why Is Your Appetite Stronger in the Winter?
In response to cold weather, the body constricts the skin pores and superficial connective tissue to prevent heat loss, which directs the heat away from the peripheral tissues and into the body’s core, including the stomach. Agni (and, therefore, your appetite) becomes stronger in winter. However, if kapha or vata are provoked, agni plummets, leaving you more susceptible to colds, poor circulation, joint pains, and negative emotions.
Avoid cold drinks, fasting, late nights, naps, exposure to cold drafts and wind, and stay physically active.
Vasant Lad, BAMS, MASc, is a world-renowned ayurvedic physician from India. He is the founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of numerous books.