Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Putting Down Roots: Self-Care Tips for Falling into Winter

The philosophy of Ayurveda teaches that the five elements—earth, water, fire, air, and space—are manifest in all things. Each element has certain qualities, attributes, and impacts on the body and mind. Together, these five basic elements (pancha mahabhutas) form a system of classification for all the objects found on Earth, including the human body, the times of day, seasons of our lives, and nature’s seasons.

The transition from mid-late fall into winter is a time of year where Vata predominates. The temperature cools, and the air is dry and blustery. Vata is dominated by the elements of air and space. It’s dry, cold, quick, mobile, irregular, and unstable. In nature, this is seen in the falling leaves as they dry, change color, drop from the trees, and scatter.  

Getting Blown Off Balance

During this “windy” seasonal change, there’s a tendency for the body to take on the imbalances inherent in Vata. This may include a bit more anxiety and restlessness, difficulty sleeping, dry skin, constipation/gas (there’s a reason it’s called “wind”), and a general feeling of being unable to settle.

The primary organ of Vata is the colon, and Vata’s task is movement or “to move things.” This includes the body’s waste and fluids, the mind’s thoughts, and our nerve impulses.

When out of balance, Vata can have an especially strong effect on the nervous system, generating fear and worry, where the mind’s thoughts move quickly or in a circular motion, leaving you feeling scattered and ungrounded. When Vata is in balance there’s an overall sense of happiness, calm, and stability. The mind is clear and alert.

Practices that can tip Vata off balance include exposure to cold and wind, irregular sleeping patterns, travel, too much going on, and unscheduled eating. Digestion can also be upset by continuing to eat the raw and pungent foods of summer, such as salads and other raw vegetables and fruits, and more spicy fare.

Righting and Securing Ourselves

A tree that is deeply rooted in the ground and well cared for can handle the winds of change, the drying and eventual loss of leaves. To keep ourselves from being “blown away” during this season of transition, we also require routines that encourage strong roots and plenty of self-care.

Consider one or more of the following practices when you feel yourself becoming a bit untethered. Perhaps add one or more of these daily. The practice that’s best is the one you will do. The aim is to help restore or maintain your equilibrium during the changeable Vata season.

  • Take a pause. Slow down and reconnect with your breath. This centering can be done anywhere at any time. Begin with awareness, noticing where the breath originates in the body, its texture, and sound. Without creating stress or making a project of it, gradually bring the inhale and exhale into balance—about the same length. Then begin to take a gentle pause at the end of the exhale. This focus on the exhale triggers the para-sympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system, bringing a sense of calm and balance to the mind and body. 
  • Give the earth a hug. A simple and extremely pleasurable way to ground the body and soothe the mind and senses is to bring the feet in contact with the earth. This can be done in any number of ways, but one of the simplest is to take a short walk—don’t overdo. Take care to stay warm. Wear shoes and socks. And cover the ears, which are especially Vata sensitive, if there’s a cool breeze.
  • Avoid carrying the irregular schedule of summer into fall. Take advantage of the sun going down earlier. Forego late nights and gradually bring your bed time to somewhere between 10:00pm and 10:30pm. This will allow getting up a bit earlier and at the same time each morning. Eat at regular 4-6 hour intervals, avoiding late night eating. Both of these practices will encourage better sleep. 
  • Shift to warm, cooked foods. Eat more easily digested foods such as soups, cooked root vegetables, rice, almonds, and oatmeal. Limit iced drinks, and eat fewer raw (uncooked), cold, dry, and bitter/astringent (e.g., leafy greens) foods. 
  • Drink up: hydrate inside and out. Drink warming herbal teas such as those with ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. To keep your skin hydrated and the body calmed, a few times a week give yourself a massage with a warm, heavier oil, such as sesame (Learn more about daily self-massage call Abhyanga). Also moisten the nasal passages with sesame oil or a designated Nasya oil
  • Add stabilizing and grounding yoga asanas. If you have a regular yoga practice, add more asanas, or postures, that stabilize the hips and ground the feet. Move slowly and focus on the breath’s exhalation. Stay longer in Tadasana (Mountain pose), Utkatasana (air chair), and Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I). Try a reclined tree pose (Vrksasana) before taking it to standing. And include an inverted pose, such headstand or shoulder stand if these are part of your regular practice. Otherwise, Viparita Karani (legs up the wall, pictured above) is a perfect antidote to a Vata imbalance.

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