Winter is not typically our healthiest season of the year; we’re eating Christmas cookies more often than vegetables, staying in pajamas all day, and stressed out 24/7 (thanks to endless gift shopping, triggering relatives at holiday events, and busy work schedules). It’s safe to say that New Year’s resolutions are typically a cry for help after a holiday season of bottomless eggnog and weather-induced laziness. But just because your fridge is stocked with pumpkin pie leftovers and it’s too cold to go on a run does not mean that you can’t prioritize your health until spring.
Studying ancient belief systems in college (who says I wouldn’t put my Religious Studies major to good use!?) helped me realize that we can learn a lot about our bodies and how to keep them healthy from other cultures, time periods, and philosophies. During times like winter, when motivation and healthy habits fade, I turn to Ayurveda to help keep me healthy, and there are many tips that could help you stay healthy too (yes, even if you’ve already drank your weight in hot chocolate and PSLs).
What is Ayurveda?
In technical terms, Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest systems of medicine. In Sanskrit, ayur means “life,” and veda means “knowledge,” so the word itself literally means the knowledge of life. It was developed over 3,000 years ago in India and is still widely practiced all over the world today. AKA it’s some of the original holistic medicine. To briefly summarize for the sake of this article (but like, how do you fit 3,000 years into 1,500 words!?), Ayurveda teaches that every person consists of different proportions of the three governing principles of nature: vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (earth).
But it’s not only humans who hold a particular dosha; seasons are also closely linked to doshas, and our needs change based on time of year and the weather outside. In winter, the body and mind require different things than they do in the summer or spring. By balancing your diet and lifestyle with the seasons, you’re setting yourself up for optimal health all year long. What I love most about Ayurveda is that it serves as a reminder to stay connected to nature because human beings are nature.
Thanks to busy workdays and modern technology, we can have any food we want when we want it, stay awake even long after the sun sets, and sometimes go days without sunshine or fresh air. But our bodies are meant to be in alignment with nature, not our work schedules. There are many Ayurvedic practices I love for staying healthy through the season, but the overall idea is that the body and mind achieve optimal health when operating in tune with nature. Here are seven health tips I learned from Ayurveda that can help you stay healthy through winter:
1. Eat for the season
Ayurveda not only teaches eating for your dosha type, but it teaches eating for the season you’re in. “In the colder months, our bodies change along with the weather,” said Sahara Rose, Ayurvedic Practitioner, Best-Selling Author, and Host of The Higher Self Podcast. “The temperature cools down and the air dries out, so our bodies follow suit. We begin taking on more qualities of the Vata dosha, comprised of air and space energy. This is why we begin craving pumpkin spice, cozy teas, and butternut squash soup. Our bodies require more grounding and warming foods to counterbalance Vata’s cold and dry energy. Root vegetables are grown under the ground, so they have the most warming qualities.”
Basically, indulge in whatever is opposite of the season to balance out the effects of the weather. For winter, that means eating warm foods with hearty in-season vegetables like carrots, cauliflower, and turnips. Take a break from raw salads or cold sandwiches and opt for nourishing soups, stews, or bowls. Besides just the temperature, also be mindful of the humidity in your area. Some geographical areas (or even some days) are wet (snow, rain, etc.), while some are dry (leaves falling off of trees, lack of humidity that causes dry skin, etc.). If it’s raining or snowing, eat more dry foods like roasted vegetables or nuts and seeds. If the weather feels very dry, load up on soups and stews.
2. Get more rest
Animals hibernate during winter, so it’s no surprise that we’re more inclined to focus on rest too. Increased darkness and earlier sunsets are obvious signs that the body needs more sleep this time of year, so try to limit the late-night Christmas movie binges and keep up with an earlier bedtime that aligns with the earlier sunset (you know you’re tired by 5 p.m., anyway!). No, you don’t have to get ready for bed at 4:30 p.m. when it starts getting dark (although that sounds nice, doesn’t it?). Instead, focus on starting your wind-down routine 30 minutes or an hour earlier than you usually do.
Meditation is another important Ayurvedic practice year-round, but take extra time during winter to turn inward, sit in stillness, and indulge in more quiet time, like the mental version of hibernation (back to that mirroring nature thing!). “Meditation is important for all the doshas, all year long, but it’s especially important this time of year as we re-focus goals and set intentions,” said Larissa Hall Carlson, co-leader of Yoga Journal’s course, “Ayurveda 101,” and previously the dean of Kripalu’s School of Ayurveda.
3. Load up on herbs
Ayurveda says that digestive fire (or agni) is strongest during winter, which is why we typically eat more than we would in the summer (well, that and holiday party leftovers). Spices like cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, and black pepper not only help keep up that digestive fire, but are also thought to warm the body, which we could all use a little more of during the cold winter months. While these warming herbs are crucial year-round (especially depending on your dosha), they are extra beneficial and necessary from November until spring. Add cinnamon and nutmeg to your coffee, sip on ginger tea throughout the day, and sprinkle turmeric or black pepper into soups, curries, and sauces.
4. Wake up earlier
Ayurveda teaches a daily routine called Dinacharya that determines when is best to do certain activities throughout the day, based on both personal dosha and what doshas are associated with times of day (yes, even times of day have doshas). Since it starts getting lighter earlier this time of year, Ayurveda suggests that–you guessed it!–you mirror nature and wake up when the sun rises.
“While it’s easy to stay in bed because it’s cold and dark out, hitting snooze is what gets us into winter funks,” explained Tiffany Chen, an Ayurvedic Health Counselor. “It’s important to rise before the sun to give ourselves plenty of time to get our morning routines in so that we set ourselves up for success.” Instead of jumping into work or exercise, fit in a peaceful morning routine that will help you feel centered, calm, and ready for the day. If you want to go all out for bonus points, try tongue scraping and/or oil pulling first thing in the morning to help the body get rid of toxins.
5. Drink wisely
Sorry, iced coffee drinkers: Ayurveda recommends drinking only warm liquids whenever possible through the entire season. Warm liquids will not only physically warm the body during cold weather, but they can help the body digest food properly (AKA the best reason ever to have a Hot Toddy). Drink warm water with lemon first thing in the morning, sip on hot tea throughout the day (like green tea in the morning if you want some caffeine and chamomile or ginger in the afternoon), and avoid drinking anything straight out of the fridge. If you are drinking a liquid that you wouldn’t drink warm like a green juice or wine (whatever floats your boat!), resist drinking straight out of the fridge, and let the liquid get to room temperature. You probably already know this, but winter is not the season for frappuccinos.
6. Fit in movement everyday
Since winter is a kapha-heavy season, we’re more prone to feeling lethargic. To counteract a lack of energy, fit in frequent movement throughout the day, whether it’s stretching or yoga flows. In Ayurveda, walking is the ideal exercise since it is considered tri-doshic, meaning that no matter your dosha type, walking will help balance your body and mind. As a bonus, walking after meals helps to aid in digestion, so it’s especially important to walk after the heaviest meal of the day (which Ayurveda recommends making lunchtime, but if you’re like most Americans in the 21st century, it’s probably dinner).
Plus, there’s more benefits than just counteracting seasonal lethargy. “Daily movement is important to stimulate the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is imperative in the functioning of our immune system, and it does not inherently have pumps to move its contents,” Chen said. “The two things that move lymphatic fluid is daily movement and warm oiled self-massage” (more on self-massage below). Since needs are different for every body and dosha type, the bottom line is to listen to your body: if you’re feeling exhausted, go for vata-balancing exercises like walking, stretching, or gentle yoga. If you’re feeling lazy or lethargic, then balance out kapha with more energizing practices like jogging or dancing.
7. Try self-massage
Good news if you haven’t seen your masseuse since the stay-at-home order started in March: self-massage is not just a self-care activity in Ayurveda; it’s an essential healing practice. Abyanga (or Abhyanga), or self-massage, is a form of medicine that involves massaging the body with dosha-specific warm oil. You know that massage boosts relaxation and hydration of the skin (thank you, massage oil!), but Ayurveda sees massage as a form of medicine because of its belief that warm oil massage can improve circulation, body strength, lubrication of internal organs, sleep, and overall health. “A daily Abyanga practice restores the balance of the doshas and enhances well-being and longevity,” Sandhiya Ramaswamy, an Ayurvedic practitioner, educator, and chef, wrote for Chopra.
To practice for yourself, heat sesame oil (which is considered the best oil for winter since it’s warming to the body) between the palms of your hands. Ramaswamy recommended applying oil first to the crown of your head and massaging down to your feet. Sit with the oil for 5-15 minutes so that the oil can absorb and penetrate into the deeper layers of the body, and then enjoy a warm bath or shower. Now that’s medicine we can get behind.
Which of these tips from Ayurveda would you incorporate into your winter self-care routine?