Ancient Vedic sages have always emphasized that the rhythms and forces of nature affect the cycle of life. Things such as the alteration of day and night, the rhythmic cycle of the seasons, or ritucharya, affect us every single day. To be in tune with nature, you also need to be in tune with your unique individual constitution or Prakriti, which comprises the three doshas - Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
As such, ritucharya or the changing season is discussed at length in the Vedic chapters of the Samhitas of Ayurveda. The Charaka Samhita clearly states:
“Tasya Shitadiya Ahaarbalam Varnascha Vardhate. Tasyartusatmayam Vaditam Chestaharvyapasrayam.”
This translates to "a person's strength and complexion are enhanced if they know and follow a suitable diet and routine for every season."
In this article, let's explore and understand svasthavritta or Ayurvedic teachings that give us precise instructions to stay healthy during the winter season.
First off, how does Ayurveda define winter?
Ayurveda divides the whole year into two periods known as Ayana or solstice, which are based on the movement of the sun. The two Ayanas are divided into the Uttarayana or northern solstice and the Dakshinayana or the southern solstice. Each of these ayanas comprises three seasons.
The Uttarayana consists of:
- Shishira (winter)
- Vasanta (spring)
- Grishma (summer)
The Dakshinayana consists of:
- Varsha (monsoon)
- Sharata (autumn)
- Hemanta (late autumn)
Characterized by a dark and gray sky, the winter season has cold, damp, and heavy weather. Particularly in the US, depending on which part you live in, early winter or Hemanta is the Vata season, which is dry, rough, and cold. This is followed by late winter or Shishira, which is the Kapha season. This season is known to be heavy, moist, and cold.
Shishira is known to be particularly challenging for your physical and mental strength. Owing to the windy and cold weather of winters, the digestive power or agni gets trapped in your body and creates an even stronger digestive strength. Owing to this, your bodies need warmer food and bigger quantities. Just like animals, human bodies too go into hibernation mode.
How your body reacts to winter
The winter season brings with it its own set of changes. This is how your body reacts to the season change:
- Depending on your dosha and habits, you will be susceptible to Vata-type colds
- You may feel lethargic owing to an aggravated Kapha dosha
- You may notice physiological stress with an imbalanced Vata
- Your skin might become dry and patchy with redness and cracks
- The cold may dry out your scalp, resulting in an itchy scalp
Doshas during the winter
No matter what your constitution or dosha type is, your body is primarily governed by the Kapha during the winter. Here is how each dosha is affected during this season:
For Kapha dosha:
It may be logical to assume that those with Kapha would thrive in the winter season, but it may not be true for all. While a balanced Kapha can help with the lubrication of joints, soft skin, and high immunity, an aggravated Kapha can lead to fullness, mucus-related illnesses, weight gain, and negative emotions. Even though the cold season calls for eating heavy and spiced food, people with Kapha dosha should ideally stick to light and dry food to find balance. Pay extra attention to avoiding food that is too sweet, cold, and salty.
For Pitta dosha:
Since Pitta is related to the fire element, the cooling temperatures of the winter may help those with this dosha. So while those with Vata and Kapha tend to keep themselves protected, those with Pitta can enjoy this cold and heavy weather. In this season, Pitta dosha individuals can avoid pungent, salty, and sour foods while focusing on a bitter and astringent taste in their diet to keep them balanced.
For Vata dosha:
Those with primary Vata dosha are said to be thin in build and airy in spirit and mind. Since Vata embodies movement, which is restricted in the winter, it is a good time to stay indoors and keep warm. It is essential to focus on the centering and grounding aspects of the Kapha season. Since the dry, cold season aggravates the Vata, it is essential to indulge in food that pacifies both the Vata and Kapha. You can favor sweet, salty, and sour food that is warm, soft, and well-spiced.
What winter does to the body - the real deal
Ridiculously cold weather and dark days combined with unprecedented snow and rain can often make you feel sluggish during the winter. The ancient system of Indian healing and medicine recommends honoring your digestive fire during this season. While it may feel contradictory to eat heavier food during the cold to aid the agni or digestive fire, the truth is that the human body retains more heat around the core, wherein the digestive system lies. The Ayurvedic scholar Vagbhata said that since the body needs more fuel to stay warm, the cold weather forces the digestive fire deep into the body, thus increasing the digestive capacity.
During the early winter season, the body's heat is retained and restricted as a defense mechanism against the cold temperatures outside. The extreme cold in the winter season also leads to srotorodha or blockage of the body channels. The accumulation of toxins that have damp, cold, and heavy qualities can obstruct the flow of energy in the body and weaken the immune system. Therefore, the body becomes more susceptible to bacteria and allergens. This is why the arrival of the winter season can often lead to various imbalances, such as allergies, colds, and fatigue.
Ayurvedic tips for the winter
The prime time to build strength and stamina, here are some ways Ayurveda recommends to keep you warm and healthy this winter season:
- Consume nutrient-dense warm food: Since the goal is to maintain and promote physical and psychological well-being, you need to favor a winter harvest to keep the agni (digestive fire) satiated. Favor warm and moist food such as soups and stews. Include vegetables such as winter squash, mushrooms, sweet potato, green beans, parsnips, beets, carrots, and small legumes that aid your digestion and add to body heat. To combat dryness, include ghee and lighter oils like olive or avocado oil into your dincharya or daily diet. Warm and grounding spices (bay leaf, ginger, cardamom, cumin, black pepper, and cinnamon) and warm teas make for great additions. Favor a balance of the six tastes or rasas.
- Do not skip meals: Fasting or skipping meals, which is known as pratyahara as per Ayurveda, is not advisable during the winter. If food is not consumed appropriately and at certain intervals, it can further aggravate the light, cold, and dry properties of the Vata_._ You may notice side effects such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, headache, or joint pain.
- Focus on self-care with abhyanga: Abhyanga or self-massage is an essential part of winter care. With increased dryness and cold during this season, a good self-massage can keep your joints supple, muscles toned, and your body’s temperature regulated and promote lymph and blood circulation. Ayurvedic scriptures recommend sesame taila, almond taila, or mahanarayan taila and a synergizing blend of herbs that are known to be Vata_-pacifying._ In the winter, massaging your palms, scalp, hands, and feet while focusing on specific body parts can help increase longevity and improve your sleep pattern.
- Indulge in therapeutic sweating: Jentaka sweda or therapeutic sweating therapy is an Ayurveda-recommended therapy that involves aggressive sweating during the winter season. It helps relieve muscle stiffness and helps the body release ama or toxins in the form of sweat. In order to balance the scarcity of sunlight, Ayurveda recommends undergoing sweating treatment in the form of a log fire or a hot water bath once in a while.
- Soak up the winter sun: With temperatures running low, you don't need to be holed up at home. Instead, feel free to bundle up and enjoy the winter sun with some sunbathing. Ayurvedic scriptures recommend atapa or sunbathing as a necessary ritual in the winter to avoid the accumulation of the Kapha dosha_._ Keeping yourself warm generally can help maintain the body’s internal environment while keeping it balanced and nourished.
- Enhance your energy levels with yoga: Practicing yoga every day can help you feel relaxed, build deep energy, rejuvenate your body, and boost your ojas or vigor. Yoga helps increase prana or life force energy. Simple postures such as Shalabhasana (locust pose), Virabhadrasana (warrior pose), and Nadi Shodhan Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) can activate your energy centers in profound ways. READ MORE: Winter Diet 101: Better Health The Ayurveda Way
With very little sunshine, cold weather, dry heated air, or wet, humid days, your body can react with fatigue, a sudden cold, sleepless nights, dry skin, and constipation. To stay healthy during the winter, you must remember to balance your ahara (diet) and vihara (lifestyle). Avoiding sleeping late at night, irregular meals, stress, and other factors that can negatively affect your immune system. Take extra care of your skin and hair with abhyanga. Remember that warm, nourishing, and moisturizing factors can help offset the dry and cold winter properties.
Defy your wandering mind. It might be too busy reflecting on the passing year, feeling stressed by the sudden shift in weather. A calm and focused mind balanced with the rhythm of nature can go a long way in keeping you warm and healthy this winter. Follow your heart and you will receive the balance you seek!