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Bundle Up with Ayurveda

Time-honored techniques to thaw winter’s chill

by Jonathan Ambar

Winter brings the festive sparkle of the holidays; fresh, snowy vistas; exhilarating outdoor sports … and, for many people, lethargy, dry skin, and runny noses. How can we keep up our spirits—and our health—when it’s so easy to let Old Man Winter bring us down? Ayurveda, the holistic-health system that originated in India thousands of years ago, offers a self-care tool kit that can provide just the boost you need. We spoke with Hilary Garivaltis, Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, to get her perspective on how this ancient healing modality offers practical ways to keep warm during the colder months.

Because winter is a cold, dry season, Hilary points out, the body needs warmth to stay healthy, and what we eat can either help or hinder us as the season gets underway. Avoiding cold, raw, or dry foods during the winter is recommended, because the body craves more moisture and density during this time of year. Thus, a diet consisting primarily of heavier cooked foods can warm the belly and keep energy levels up, stoking our internal furnaces. Hilary recommends eating lots of hardy soups and stews this time of year. The bounty of the fall harvest—root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, and sweet potatoes—create an ideal centerpiece for these dishes, along with meat, if that’s part of your diet and you can add a variety of nutrient-rich nuts, grains, and seeds. Keeping your pantry well stocked with pungent spices, such as cinnamon, mustard seed, pepper, and cayenne, adds both flavor and heat. Sipping warm water with lemon throughout the day—as well as teas—can offer a heating boost to combat the cold.

Being mindful of our environment, surrounding, and mood is an important aspect of staying healthy during the winter. “Our bodies are most susceptible to the energetic shifts that occur as we transition from fall to winter,” Hilary says, “which is why colds and flus are so prevalent this time of year.” To help keep them at bay, Hilary encourages the use of a neti pot to clear out the sinuses, in conjunction with the application of nasya oil—a blend of warming oils such as sesame infused with the essence of eucalyptus or other antibacterial herbs—to keep the nose and throat lubricated. “It takes 24 hours for a virus to take hold,” says Hilary. “By rinsing and lubricating the mucous membranes of the nose and throat on a regular basis, we can help stave off nasty colds and flus.”

Lubrication is a key factor in promoting and maintaining health and vitality during the cold months. As Hilary points out, we spend most of our time indoors during the winter, in buildings with the heat cranked up. This keeps us cozy, but also creates a highly dry environment, which promotes dehydration. “Just as we need to water our plants more during the winter, so do we need to water ourselves,” says Hilary. The aforementioned sesame oil can be your multipurpose ally this winter: Application of it on the body after showering, when your skin is still hot and moist, can be a self-nourishing winter ritual that keeps your body hydrated. Not only is it effective to combat the dry, flaky skin many of us experience this time of year, but the vigorous application of a light coat can help promote circulation as well.

Winter tends to be a contemplative time of year, with its short days and long nights, and, as Hilary notes, it’s conducive for us to look inward. Emotional processing and self-reflection are part of being at the cusp of a new year, and the contemplative nature of the season can stir up powerful emotions. That’s why it’s key to slow down this time of year, Hilary points out, to learn to embrace the feelings that come with going inward, and to allow ourselves to dive deep with meditation—the winter is a wonderful time of year to explore, establish, or strengthen a meditation practice. “The silence of winter invites us more into quiet and self-reflection,“ says Hilary. Journaling can also be a powerful, cathartic way to explore our thoughts, feelings, and desires. By making time to contemplate, reflect, and go inward during the colder months, we can welcome the energy of spring with more clarity and focus about who we are and what we want to cultivate in our lives. “It’s important to honor and value the gifts this time of year brings,“ Hilary says.

Stoke Your Fire with Pranayama

Pranayama (breathing) practices are a great way to cultivate inner heat during the winter. Larissa Hall Carlson, a Kripalu Yoga teacher and Ayurvedic Yoga Teacher, shares three of her favorite warming pranayama practices sure to get your inner space heater thrumming.

Anuloma viloma is a variation of nadi shodhana (Alternate-Nostril Breathing), with a short breath retention. Larissa explains that breath retention stokes the tejas, an Ayurvedic term meaning “inner radiance,“ by charging the nervous system with self-generated heat, warming the body and clearing the chattering of the mind (and possibly the teeth!). One of the keys to practicing anuloma viloma is to keep the breath retention short, to avoid strain. “The breath should be held for a few counts,“ Larissa suggests, “four to 10 heartbeats at the most.“

Kapalabahti, or Skull-Polishing Breath, consists of short, sharp exhalations and passive inhalations while pumping the belly. The belly-pumping action is great for stimulating the digestive fire, which can get sluggish during the cold, dark days of winter. It’s also effective for clearing the sinuses—just make sure you have a tissue handy. Though kapalabhati can be quite vigorous and active, Larissa suggests practicing it gently and mindfully, allowing the exhales to be soft puffs of air; one to two rounds of 30 pumps should do the trick. (Kapalabhati is contraindicated for those who are pregnant, or have glaucoma or high blood pressure.)

Ujjayi, also known as Victorious or Ocean-Sounding Breath, is the pranayama technique most associated with hatha yoga. Ujjayi is a steady inhale and exhale through the nose, with a mild constriction at the back of the throat during the exhale. The constriction creates an “ocean sound“ that is meant to heat the body and focus the mind. Larissa recommends ujjayi to accompany warming yoga practices such as Sun Salutations, standing and balancing postures, and grounded Yin poses.

Jonathan Ambar is a writer and editor who lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Find out about upcoming programs with Hilary Garivaltis.

Find out about upcoming programs with Larissa Hall Carlson.