Have you ever experienced feelings of being spaced out and ungrounded in winter; as if one good stiff wind could pick you up and carry you away? Or, if your head wasn’t attached to your shoulders you would forget it?! Well, you’re not alone. Many of us suffer from the vitiations that occur at this time of year. Don’t despair! A winter yoga practice that calms, grounds, and stabilizes is in store.
But first, let’s get to the root cause of the imbalance by exploring the Ayurvedic perspective on winter and how it affects us.
Vata (Space & Air Combined)
Ayurveda uses the word vata to describe the combined elements of space and air. Everyone and everything in the universe is comprised of the five elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth. When two of these elements combine they become elemental energies. The combined elements of space and air are known as vata and these are the same elements that govern winter.
However, vata can increase and become over-abundant. When this occurs, it is referred to as vata dosha.
Vata is “that which moves things.”
The qualities, organs, traits, tastes, and season associated with vata are
- Elements: space (ether) & air
- Season: winter
- Qualities: dry, light, cold, mobile, rough, subtle, erratic. Opposite qualities bring in balance. This is so important, it bears repeating…opposite qualities bring in balance. They are: stable, heavy, oily, liquid, warm, smooth, gross, unctuous/sticky
- Organs: colon, bones, nervous system, ears
- Typical digestion: variable (tends to alternate between constipation and diarrhea)
- Balanced traits: exuberant, spontaneous, creative, fun to be around
- Imbalanced traits due to excess space and air (vata dosha): nervous, anxious, fearful, indecisive, depleted (of energy, money, time, etc.) constipation, dry skin, cracking joints
- Tastes: bitter, astringent, pungent—because of its dryness.
Winter (Vata Season)
The nature of the air in winter has the qualities of being cold, light and dry. AKA vata! In winter, there are erratic, windy days, and days when all is calm and still. Winter is characterized by the fluctuations of the rough and subtle qualities. These fluctuations and an over-abundance of vata give winter its uncanny knack for wreaking havoc.
How Vata Affects Us
Vata is known as “that which moves things” due to its inherent air element—think of the wind blowing. Vata’s inherent space element is akin to the space inside your body or, the space between two things, people, places, etc. When the cold, light, dry, nature of winter increases in the environment, it has the ability to penetrate and permeate our beings.
As the days, weeks, and months pass, these winter qualities can over-accumulate in us. This is when vata dosha takes up residence. Vata dosha (over-abundance of space and air) goes on to become aggravated and eventually spreads. Then, it “sets up camp” in one or more areas of the body, mind, or bodily systems. This causes disruption and manifestation of imbalances. Take a look back at the imbalanced traits mentioned earlier to get an idea of what vata dosha can stir up.
Yoga to the Rescue
When your vata is verklempt, you’ll need to come in for a landing and refuel. Yoga is a wonderful way to soothe, stabilize, ground, and revitalize.
It is important to know that vata expresses itself primarily through the nervous system. Therefore, vata dosha will trigger the sympathetic nervous system (think fight or flight).
Focus on yoga practices that activate the parasympathetic nervous system to promote peace, calm, positive thinking and good discernment.
Guidelines for Winter Yoga Practice
- Centering: Before you begin, sit with your eyes closed and take stock. If you are holding your body with tension—give it permission to soften, but remain attentive. Notice thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Cast aside the objectives of what you “think” you should do and focus your intention on the constraints of what you are feeling and allow this to direct you. Holding space for yourself in this way opens the door for true transformation and healing to occur.
- When practicing yoga, think of each breath as money in the bank. Vata dosha tends to go on spending sprees! So, breathe smoothly in and out through the nostrils, making deposits of long inhales and withdrawals of slowly siphoned exhales to avoid depleting your bodily bank account.
- Yoga practice in winter (vata season) should be gentle or moderate. Those who are very depleted should consider restorative yoga as well.
- Maintain your gaze at the floor or horizon (even if the traditional gaze point of the posture suggests looking up).
- Avoid heating the body too much. Too much heat creates dryness and burns up immunity.
- A fast-paced practice is not your friend right now. Slow down and enjoy the ride by sustaining postures longer.
- The muscles should gently hug the bones while practicing yoga. When we apply too much force and intensity it wears the bodily tissues down.
- Move slowly from one posture to the next, witnessing and paying attention to yourself as you move. This cultivates meditation in motion. Slow and steady wins the race.
- Replace fast or jerky movements with circular motions and gentle undulations of the spine and pelvis to promote unctuous, juicy qualities.
- Stability comes from focusing on a strong foundation. Ground into the mounds of the big toes, pinky toes and heels. Avoid clenching the toes!
- Dress warmly for practice. Gold, orange, rust, and brown are comforting, cozy color choices!
- Remain present. If your mind wanders and you have the tendency to look around the room in class, place yourself at the front of the room to help avoid distractions.
Breathwork and Meditation
Every emotion is connected with the breath. If you change the breath, change the rhythm, you can change the emotion. —Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
Here are some links to articles that can help you discover the power of the breath.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (nadi shodhana) for the win! If ever there was a pranayama (breathwork) for vata dosha, this is it.
Deep Breathing and Meditation
The Power of Positivity. Anxious tendencies can create a profusion of negative bias. These tips point us back in a positive direction.
And, you have an ally in affirmations.
While this is not an exhaustive list of postures by any means, the following is a list of those that have an extra special affinity for ameliorating vata dosha.
In standing postures, firming of the legs “roots” you to the earth and assists in the earth’s gravitational pull. The firming of the legs while pressing them down provides a gentle tethering and re-directs the flow of downward energy (apana) to support and stabilize.
- Warrior I
- Warrior II
- Wide Standing Forward Bend
- Intense Side Stretch
- Foot Big Toe
- Standing Forward Bend
When we are upside down, we literally see things from a different perspective! In the post-digestive phase of an inverted posture, the nervous system is calmed. Inversions also increase circulation and warm the body—great for winter!
- Downward Facing Dog
- Legs Up the Wall
- Shoulder Stand
- Half Shoulder Stand
- Plow Pose
More surface area of the body makes contact with the earth in seated postures—the closer we can get to the earth, the better!
Notice that many of these postures involve forward bending. Forward bending invites introspection and is calming.
- Cow Face
- Lightening Bolt
- Bound Angle
- Upward Facing Boat
- Yogic Seal (seated)
- Head to Knee
- Seated Forward Bend (Intense Western Stretch)
- Three-Limbed Facing Leg Forward Bend
- Child’s Pose
Twisting postures balance all the directions in which the energy of vata flows. This is especially handy in winter to tame the effects of cold, windy weather. The coiling action of twists compress and draw all sides of the body together.
This is a welcome reunion for a body that has been under the influence of vata dosha and feels like it has been pulled in many directions. Once again, the nervous system is soothed and a massaging action is performed on the internal organs of digestion and elimination.
- Half Lord of the Fishes
- Supine Half Lord of the Fishes
- Revolved Stomach
*You may also choose to do any simple seated or supine twisting position that is comfortable for you.
Take special care while performing backbends so as not to excite the sympathetic nervous system. If done incorrectly, backbends are very aggravating to vata.
When done correctly, we benefit from the backbend’s ability to enhance circulation and respiration. Backbends also have the ability to improve mood as they “decongest” emotions that can get stuck in the chest (lungs, heart).
Don’t sustain backbends too long or use too much intensity. Focus on breathing into the sides of the body. Notice that the body is in a prone (face down) position and the pelvis is compressed in all of the following back-bending postures.
Last, But Not Least: Corpse Pose
It is no coincidence that those who suffer from imbalances of vata dosha are the same people who don’t carve out time for relaxation because they are always on the go! This is a classic example of the power of applying opposite qualities. The opposite of movement is stillness.
Corpse pose is the classic posture for relaxation and is the ultimate in stillness.
Spend 20–30 minutes in this posture!
- Favor a looooong relaxation wrapped in a blanket like a human burrito! Use an eye pillow. You can apply a couple drops of lavender essential oil to the eye pillow (on the opposite side of the pillow that touches the eyes).
- Use a yoga strap or belt to bind the legs together during relaxation. The strap should be snug enough to help the inner thighs make contact with one another but not too tight that it is uncomfortable or cuts off circulation! This adds gentle compression to help alleviate vata dosha.
- Yoga sandbags placed on the thighs, pelvis (avoid the stomach), shoulders, and feet add the heaviness intended to compress vata dosha even more. Use your vata creativity to improvise if you don’t have yoga sandbags!
Explore the following sequence or create your own yoga matrix from the list of postures provided!
Winter Yoga Sequence
- Practice deep breathing for five minutes while lying down or seated
- Half Lord of the Fishes or perform any simple seated twist
- Downward Facing Dog
- Mountain Pose
- Warrior I
- Warrior II
- Standing Forward Bend
- Yogic Seal (seated)
- Child’s Pose
- Practice five minutes of alternate-nostril breathing seated with eyes closed