Yoga for Seasonal Changes

How often do we stop to reflect on Seasons, and their effect on our bodies and minds?

In this fast world that we live in, more often than not, our awareness is limited to the official weather forecast and not much beyond that – making sure that we are appropriately dressed in both cold and warm weather, and that we do not get drenched in rain. Perhaps we take measures to stay well hydrated in warmer months too. And that’s as far as we usually go.

Even in temperate climate like here in the UK, there are noticeable and defined seasons; even if our thermometers may not indicate much change between them. 😉

But there is much more to change of seasons than initially meets the eye.
And the seasons have a much deeper impact on our wellbeing, both body and mind, than just feeling a bit hot, or quite cold.

What is really important for us all, is to stay well and healthy, both body and mind, through all of the Seasons. We can support and maintain a better balance of our body and our mind throughout the year, by making a conscious effort to live in harmony with the cycles of nature, and by regularly adjusting our lifestyle and habits to accommodate the arrival of each new season, and this includes our dietary choices as well as the practice of our yoga.

So what is it about seasons that we should know about then?

 

A LITTLE DETOUR TO EXPLAIN WHAT IS WHAT

The ancient science of Ayurveda – translated as the “knowledge of life” (ayus: life, veda: knowledge), the mother of all physical as well as spiritual yoga practice, and the fundamental basis for healing any discord in both our physical and mental being, views seasons through the lens of five governing elements.

The Indian philosophy first mentioned Ayurveda (holistic medical system) and yoga in the Vedas around 3,500 years ago. Both strive to help us stay connected to our true nature.

Ayurveda views the world around us as comprised of 5 basic governing elements (mahabhutas) – Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Ayurveda also includes ourselves into this ecosystem, observing that we are also comprised of these same 5 elements.

The Charaka Samhita, the ancient Ayurvedic text dating back to 6th century BC goes on to explain how our human body is shaped by the interplay of these elements, and defines those governing energies as doshas, of which there are three in total – Vata (air + ether), Pitta (fire + water) and Kapha (water + earth). Each of us has a unique proportion of these three doshas.

Both Ayurveda and Yoga further recognise the three predominant states which affect all mater around us, as well as our bodies and minds. These universal subtle qualities of nature are known as gunas, and there are three –  sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is the basic state of our existence, it is our wholesomeness, balance, serenity, confidence, creativity, positivity, goodness, and peacefulness. Rajas is innate tendency or quality that drives motion, energy, and activity. Tamas is the quality of imbalance, disorder, chaos, anxiety, destruction, negativity, dullness or inactivity, apathy, inertia or lethargy, and violence.

 

SO WHAT ABOUT THE SEASONS THEN, YOU ASK?

The atmospheric changes through the changing of the seasons create a disturbance in the equilibrium of the mahabhutas (five elements), doshas and gunas.

In ancient Ayurvedic system, there are in fact the 6 seasons (rtus), calculated on the Moon and the Sun trajectory, known as:  Shishira (Late Winter – mid Jan to mid March), Vasanta (Spring – mid March to mid May), Grishma (Summer – mid May to mid July), Varsha (Rainy season – mid July to mid September) Sharad (Autumn – mid September to mid November) and Hemanta (Early Winter – mid November to mid January).

But let’s keep it simple, we can stick to our 4 seasons here, for ease of understanding.

Autumn and early Winter are considered a Vata predominant season. Vata is a quality incorporating elements of Air and Ether, having the qualities of being cold, dry, light, and mobile. Vata (air and ether relate to movement function) in our bodies accumulates in early summer, aggravates in late summer and calms down in autumn.
(Please note: our Vata can get aggravated in winter when we skip meals, eat erratically, eat on the go. Dieting is not recommended in cold seasons. Eating cold food or having chilled drinks further irritates Vata – one common symptom of this is restricted blood flow through capillaries, leading to continually cold hands and feet, as well as the aggravation of symptoms in joints, as Vata governs not only our colon, but also the empty spaces, and the bones.)

Pitta season is Summer. It incorporates elements of Fire and Water, and the qualities of being hot, wet, light, and mobile. Pitta (fire and water relate to metabolism) in our bodies accumulates in ‘late’ summer, aggravates in autumn and calms down with the cold in early winter.

Kapha season is late Winter and Spring, and being associated with Water and Earth elements, has the qualities of heaviness, coolness, wetness, and stability. Kapha (earth and water relate to structure and secretions) in our bodies accumulates in late winter, aggravates in spring and calms down in summer.

 

WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD WE EAT?

In Ayurveda we differentiate foods in six separate categories – Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Pungent, and Astringent. While the first four tastes are probably recognizable, the last two may not seem familiar.

Taste Primary Actions Common Sources Primary Elements
Sweet Builds tissues, calms nerves Fruit, grains, natural sugars, milk Water and Earth – heavy, moist, and cooling
Sour Cleanses tissues, increases absorption of minerals Sour fruits, yogurt, fermented foods Earth and Fire – hot, light, and moist
Salty Improves taste to food, lubricates tissues, stimulates digestion Natural salts, sea vegetables Fire and Water – hot, heavy, and moist
Bitter Detoxifies and lightens tissues Dark leafy greens, herbs and spices Air and Ether –  light, cooling, and dry
Pungent Stimulates digestion and metabolism Chili peppers, garlic, herbs and spices  Fire and Air – hot, dry, and light
Astringent Absorbs water, tightens tissues, dries fats Legumes, raw fruits and vegetables, herbs Air and Earth – dry, cooling, and heavy

 

Ayurveda recommends always including all the 6 tastes in our meals daily.

However, each season will have the two or three chief tastes that should predominate in our diet, and each meal should be based on those chief taste combinations, with a minimum of foods from other groups included too.

Winter

Winter is the dryer time of the year than Autumn. It is actually the best season to improve immunity. It’s not a weakening season if you know how to use it to strengthen immunity. Winter is the season when nature is ready to nurture us. As our digestive strength is still very high at this time of the year, people naturally feel hungrier, and can actually digest heavy food better, providing the best nourishment for our bodies.

Foods that nourish and balance the body in the cold, dry, winter season are the Sweet (grains – wheat, rice, and barley; legumes – beans and lentils; root vegetables – beets, carrots, asparagus and sweet potatoes; nuts –  cashews, almonds, and pistachios, sesame seeds; and natural sugars – like butter, ghee, and cream, bananas and mangos), Sour (lemons and lime, yogurt, cheese, and sour cream, fermented foods – wine, vinegar, pickles, sauerkraut, and soy sauce) and Salty (natural sea salt or rock salt, sea vegetables – seaweed and kelp) taste foods. If you are keen on some animal produce, including eggs and meat, this is the best season to partake in such. Avoid raw salads and raw vegetables.

Spring

Spring is the best time to cleanse the channels of the body, as toxins which accumulated during the Winter season can interrupt body’s delicate biochemical balance, and create a fertile ground for allergies, flu, and other infections, or disturb the normal functioning of the liver and kidneys. As we already mentioned, this is a Kapha season, starting in the late Winter and into Spring itself.

The foods favoured at this time of the year are Pungent (chili peppers, garlic, herbs and spices – black pepper, ginger, and cayenne), Bitter (dark leafy greens – spinach, kale, and green cabbage; herbs and spices – turmeric, fenugreek, and dandelion root; and some fruits – grapefruits, olives, and bitter melon), and Astringent (legumes – beans and lentils; raw fruits – cranberries, pomegranates, pears, and dried fruit; and vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, asparagus and turnip; grains – rye, buckwheat, and quinoa; herbs & spices – like turmeric and marjoram, coriander, cumin).

Summer

The Summer season is the Pitta season, and here we concentrate on foods that cool us down, keep us hydrated and also build our immune system. Although it is tempting to reach for iced drinks, such habit should be avoided – the liquids should be served at a room temperature, or even slightly hotter, so that the body can continue to adequately deal with external heat.

Sweet (fruits – apples, berries, cherries, apricots, coconut, dates, figs, grapes; vegetables – artichoke, beets – cooked, carrots raw and cooked, cauliflower, green beans, lettuces, celery, cucumber, peppers, potatoes; grains – barley, rice, wheat; legumes – beans and lentils) and Bitter (vegetables – spinach, kale, and green cabbage, broccoli, zucchini, aubergine; spices and herbs – turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, dill, fennel, cardamom and dandelion root; fruits – grapefruits, olives, and bitter melon) foods are favoured at this time of year.

Autumn

Autumn is characterised with wetness, and we are encouraged to use the high energy of our digestive power to eat foods that are heavier and nourishing.

Sweet, Bitter, Astringent foods are favoured as we transition to Autumn, the beginning of our Vata Season. We’ve already listed some of the preferred Sweet (we can add some pumpkins and sweet potatoes, all nuts and seeds, oats, amaranth, quinoa) and Bitter foods above. The Astringent quality can be found legumes (such as beans and lentils), fruits (cranberries, pomegranates, pears, and dried fruit), vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, asparagus and turnip), grains (rye, buckwheat, and quinoa), spices and herbs (including turmeric and marjoram).
We are beginning to re-build our body, and continue to build our immune system.

 

WHAT ABOUT OUR YOGA POSTURE/ASANA PRACTICE THEN?

Autumn/Winter

In the winter, we are at our strongest. Our immune system is well nourished, we are increasing the amount of body building foods and our energy levels are high. This is the time to up our practice. Our asana practice can be exerting, but there should not be overexertion or excessive sweat. Ayurveda advises against such practices which strain our body – although in the short to medium term we may not notice the bad impact of such practices, the negative effect will become apparent once we are a bit older, in more rapid decline of our health and wellbeing.

Grounding, strengthening, warming routine with focused warming breath; bringing our gaze inward; cultivating routine and steadiness in the practice; cultivating inner stillness; ease through strength; toning the kidney meridian.

 

Spring

Spring is the time for detox and dispelling of accumulated excess water. Our body is still energetic, but like the season itself, it needs a natural creative expression.

Stimulating, energising, expressive, heating, variation in movement, toning the digestive system and liver meridian; gaze skyward.

 

Summer

Although we habitually associate this time of year with activity and exertion, this is the time of year when we are at our weakest. The heat and the Sun drain our resources, the stored energy from Winter months.

Cooling, calming through open expressiveness, moderate, easeful, cultivating softness. Easing the structure of the practice; finding lightness, spaciousness.
A disclaimer:
This article is for general guidance only. Each one of us, as already discussed, is comprised of combination of Doshas – Vatta, Pita and Kapha. Sometimes one of them can be out of balance, so we need to attempt to bring it into balance by prescribing a specific diet and lifestyle, including the practice of asana, at each turn of the season, which will then work synergistically to bring that dosha back into balance. Please seek a full consultation with a qualified practitioner before attempting to do such correction by yourself, as further unbalancing one or more doshas can be quite devastating for both you physical and mental wellbeing.

 

Recommended Further Reading:

The Complete Book Of Ayurvedic Home Remedies: A comprehensive guide to the ancient healing of India, by Dr Vasant Lad B.A.M.S., M.A.Sc, Piatkus (1999)
Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-Healing and Self-Realization, by Dr David Frawley, Lotus Press (1999)

 

References:

Charaka Samhita, Volume 1- 4, translated by P.V Sharma, Chaukhambha Orientalia Publishers, 2000.
ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF AYURVEDA: (A BRIEF HISTORY), V. Narayanaswamy, Anc Sci Life. 1981 Jul-Sep; 1(1): 1–7., NCBI PMCID: PMC3336651

Ayurveda: a historical perspective and principles of the traditional healthcare system in India., Mishra L, Singh BB, Dagenais S. Altern Ther Health Med. 2001 Mar; 7(2):36-42.; NCBI PMID: 11253415 [Indexed for MEDLINE]

 

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

 

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