How to nourish ourselves during Winter
Ever wonder why your skin, eyes, scalp, or ears get dry in the Winter? Why there is so much static in the air, or why your nasal passages feel almost crispy? For those of us who live in the Northern hemisphere, especially in cooler climates, we are shoulder deep in Vata season, that stretch between mid fall and late winter, and here in the North country that means dry, brisk air, cold winds, and shifty temperatures: one day it’s 25 degrees and snowing, and the next it’s -7 in the sunshine under a gorgeous blue sky. One day I’m looking out at a blizzard, swirls of snow traveling like mini tornadoes over the field, my windows rimmed with ice crystals; the next day the sky is robin’s egg blue, and it’s blustery! Every once in awhile the house shakes with a tremendous gust of wind, and then a minute later the air seems to be silent. Bottom line: Vata season is changeable, and that makes it challenging for us to stay balanced in body, mind, and spirit!
A quick Ayurveda primer that will help here:
What are the 3 doshas? This is actually a bigger conversation than I want to get into today, so let’s keep it simple: Ayurveda, which is the traditional medical system of India, has delineated three categories of fundamental regulatory principles of the body, mind, and behavior. These categories are called doshas; they are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. The word dosha, at its roots, means imbalance or “that which can cause problems.” Today we will look at the first of these.
Vata dosha is comprised of ether (space) and air (wind), and its qualities are: cold, mobile, dry, flowing, spacious, and light. It governs movement in the body, including the flow of our breath and blood, it is responsible for our creativity, and it plays a large roll in nervous system function. So for anyone who has been experiencing insomnia, a burst of creativity, dryness in the colon, anxiety or worry, or rough, flaky skin, this post is for you!
Even though balancing Vata can be challenging, adopting a self-care routine can help us feel grounded, nurtured, more hydrated, and calmer. Who couldn’t use at least one or two of those benefits?
Here are my top 5 self care practices for Vata season:
1. Hot Lemon Water: Drinking hot water with lemon first thing in the morning is warming, detoxifying, and helps to move the bowels early in the day. Lemons are well known for their high levels of Vitamin C which boosts our immune system; they aid in digestion, and they are high in potassium, which supports brain and nervous system health, and so much more!
HOW TO: Boil a cup of water and add the juice of 1/4 to 1/2 organic lemon. Sip slowly first thing in the morning before taking any food.
Enjoy the many benefits! I suggest brushing teeth after lemon water, which is acidic and can affect tooth enamel.
2. Oral Care: Brushing and flossing go without saying for most of us, but if you can add tongue scraping and oil swishing, then you have an amazing routine that can help eliminate bad breath, clear the tongue of that gunky junk, support dental hygiene, and even whiten teeth!
HOW TO: Brush and floss as normal, first thing in the morning. Gently scrape your tongue with a stainless steel tongue scraper (or you can use the edge of a spoon), and notice what kind of gunk (if any) is on your tongue. The more gunk, the more junk there is in your digestive and elimination systems, and perhaps even in other tissues of your body, which often shows up as inflammation. After running the scraper gently over your tongue several times to remove the icky coating, rinse under water. Repeat if needed. Clean scraper and store with your toothbrush to remind you to use it every day!
Now for the oil swish: Measure out a tablespoon of sesame oil and swish it in the mouth for about 10 minutes. If this is challenging at first, do 5 minutes, then increase the time. Spit the spent oil in the trash can. If you don’t have sesame oil, olive or coconut will do, but you might need to warm the coconut oil, as it begins to solidify below 70 degrees F.
NOTE: I sometimes scrape my tongue before I drink my hot water, then I go back and do the rest of my oral care, post lemons. You do not need to brush after oil swishing–it’s actually supportive to tooth enamel.
3. Self oil massage: Called Abhyanga in Ayurveda, self oil massage is a wonderful way to hydrate and nourish the skin from the outside in, to take peaceful time for ourselves away from the stress of the day, to calm our nerves and just be, and to enjoy the overall grounding effect the oil has on our body and mind.
HOW TO: Place 1/4 cup oil in a glass container, and warm the container in a bowl of hot water. Always use organic oils; sesame is great for balancing Vata as the most warming oil, peaceful olive oil is good for all types, and coconut is the most cooling of all the oils (not the best in the dead of winter); or use a blended oil from my favorite Ayurveda company, Banyan Botanicals
While your oil is warming, take a hot shower to clean your body and open up your pores. Dry off, and while you are still warm, massage the oil on your body in long, strong strokes for long bones and circular motions for joints. Here is a video to help you practice self massage at home.
Leave the oil on for at least 5-20 minutes, and then hop back in the shower for 2 minutes. No soap needed! Pat dry and enjoy your velvety-soft skin!
TIP: If you don’t have the time to do a full body oiling, do just your feet before bed. Leave the oil on and layer with a warm pair of socks, and enjoy how soft your feet in the morning! Oiling the feet is also grounding for the mind.
4. Meditation: Sitting for 20 minutes twice a day has so many benefits, I need to do another post just for this single practice. But for now, know that a regular meditation practice can really help us during Vata season because it is grounding, creates a sense of ritual and routine (great for those of us who feel scattered or anxious), and it helps us to be in the present moment, regardless of what comes up during our meditation (which is usually lots of thoughts and sensations–totally normal).
AMAZING BENEFITS: An increase in self awareness; a reduction in negative emotions and anxiety, and an increase in positivity and balance; increased focus and better memory; increase in patience; more compassion for self and others; a greater sense of connection to a higher power or energy, and deeper connection to oneself and one’s heart.
HOW TO: If you have never meditated before, it can seem like a daunting project. But if you can create a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed for about 20 minutes, you are already on your way. Set a timer for your practice–maybe you start with 10 minutes if that seems reasonable. Begin by getting comfortable and noticing the breath. If you find you have a busy mind, know this is normal and a positive part of the process. Simply sit and observe as you breathe. In honor of the recent passing of Vietnamese Buddist Monk Thich Naht Hahn, his contemplative practice: “In, I am breathing in; out, I am breathing out,” is a lovely preparation for a meditation practice.
COMMIT TO YOUR PRACTICE: Seeking out a meditation teacher is a wonderful way to explore the benefits of meditation and get familiar with a specific practice that feels good for you. I practice and teach Heart Based Meditation, which is a mantra-based practice, focused in the heart. You can learn more about it here and either take a class with me or the founder of Heart Based Meditation, Dr. Paul Dugliss. Whatever the practice, committing to something every day is what makes it sustainable. I promise, if you stick with it, you will reap the rewards very soon!
For those who also enjoy adding contemplative guided mindfulness practices in addition to a meditation practice, check out Insight Timer
5. Get to bed by 10 pm. Sound impossible? Try going to bed 15 minutes earlier each night until 10 o’clock is actually within reach! I actually set a timer for 9:15 pm to remind me I’m overdue to get off my computer, silence and put away my phone, and get ready for bed!
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? In Ayurveda 10 am to 2 pm is Pitta time–when the sun is at its zenith, and when we are most energized in our bodies and minds. Even though it is dark, 10 pm to 2 am has the same effect on our physiology as the 10-2 in the daylight; so guess what: if you go to bed after 10 pm (and if you are anything like me, you catch that “second wind” or boost of energy and feel like you could stay awake for hours), you’ve missed your greatest opportunity for deep and nourishing sleep. Some people say they get more work done after 10 pm, but at what cost? Your rest and rejuvenation? We also sleep less soundly and sometimes intermittently when we stay up late. Bottom line, try to follow Nature’s rhythms: tone it down when the sun is going down; get moving just as the sun is rising and the birds are waking up!
TIPS: Turn off all screens at least 60 minutes before bedtime. Get away from blue light, social media, scary movies, and anything that is going to engage your brain with lots of thoughts or worry before bedtime. Instead, make a cup of tea, read a book, or enjoy a bath in the hours before bedtime.
Adding even two of the above practices will go a long way to support your body, mind, and spirit, not just during Vata time, but the whole year round. Stay hydrated, take care of your tongue, lube up your skin with luscious oils, take time to meditate daily, and get a good night’s rest. Enjoy taking care of yourself!