By Anna Wechsel, Yoga Instructor
As winter tightens its grip and our bodies begin to feel that residual effects, the importance of maintaining healthy cycles, adjusting to changes in environment becomes more obvious. We, much to our misfortune, cannot control the weather, but we can choose to build health and vitality through practices such as Yoga. Effects of Winter· Cold and dampness often creates tension and tight muscles often resulting in postural effects. The coldness of winter weather causes muscles to contract. Asana and pranayama practices that heat the body help to maintain elasticity of the muscles and mobility of the joints, relieving cramps and soreness.
As the days grow shorter the lack of sunlight typically results in low energy levels, feelings of fatigue, sluggishness and the urge to hibernate. Where and when possible spend as much time in the sun as you can. The heat the body generates from the sun helps to relax muscles, soothe the mind and maintain healthy sleep patterns.·
New Zealand winters are well known for their incessant and blustering wind. The first effects we feel are tightness within the chest and the dryness of the skin. Practicing sun salutations and chest opening asana help to open the chest and throat helping to relieve congestion within the respiratory system. Pranayama practices and asana internally heat the body leaving skin and muscular tissues much more supple. Stay energizedBy maintaining a consistent yoga practice, in general and throughout the winter, can help provide consistent energy levels.
Yoga improves and conditions the functioning of our pancreas, which regulates our insulin levels, therefore regulating the blood-sugar levels and our energy. Stiff joints and musclesRelieving tension and stiffness begins with our warm-ups, small movements to all of the joints. During which synovial fluid is released within the joint capsule, which acts as a lubricant. This creates smoother movements, increased & maintained range of motion within the joints.
You may notice during the winter months that more warm-ups are required to sufficiently warm the body in order to prevent injury and muscle tears. Secondary to this, the practice of sun salutations, warm the entire body lubricating within and between each muscle, allowing for deeper stretching, detoxification and releasing physical and emotional tension within the body. Backbend-o-ramaBackbends are a fantastic way to re-energize the body & mind, as well as increase and support out immune system. Due to the lower temperatures outside we need to be mindful in safely warming up the body in order to safely warm up the spine.
On a basic level, using chest openers help maintain a healthy respiratory system by keeping the lungs clear of mucus build up. When we practice chest openers (matysasana, setu bandhasana, cobra) we also massage and activate our thymus gland, located behind the sternum. The thymus gland is where our t-cells (specialized lymphocytes) are produced and are our body’s defense mechanism to fight disease within the body. InversionsPracticing inversions is another effective way of flushing the lymphatic system.
Lymph is a “clear watery fluid that moves through the body picking up bacteria and viruses and filtering them out through the lymph nodes where they are cleansed” (Winter.YogaJournal/2695).
There is no pump system, as found in our circulatory system, therefore we must rely on muscular contractions, as performed in Yoga, to flush and pump lymph through our bodies. When we invert the body (shoulderstand, headstand, legs up the wall) we are actively reducing toxins within the body, improving circulation and strengthening our immune system, helping to prevent seasonal illnesses.
Turn on the internal heatUjjayi pranayama (victorious breath) is a very gentle tightening of the back of the throat, breath moves freely in and out through the nostrils. Through slight muscular contraction, Ujjayi breath increases the core temperature of the body aiding the process of detoxification throughout our practice. This practice actively cleanses the lungs of mucus and increases the amount of freshly oxygenated blood flowing throughout the body, improving overall circulation.
Ujjayi pranayama not only heats the body but it also helps to sooth and calm the mind. Tension from cold and damp weather doesn’t just take a physical toll but can be mentally taxing as well. Use your ujjayii breath next time you are at the studio, have a break at work, going for walk or simply sitting at home- it can be done anywhere.
Overall, your Yoga practice will preventatively support the body, reducing congestion, supporting the respiratory system, invigorating your metabolism and strengthening your immune system in order to combat common winter illnesses. Take this winter season as an opportunity for restoration, introspection and a chance to slow down and rejuvenate the body. Cautions and considerationPlease consult with an experienced Yoga Teacher before attempting the suggestions above. Those with pre-existing medical conditions or injuries, and those who have never practiced Yoga before, please consult with an experienced Yoga Teacher in your area.