Yoga For The Winter Blues
Now that the holidays are over and we’re getting into those dreary, cold days of January and February, many of us start to feel a little bit down. Maybe it is the overcast weather, looking at all of the barren trees, or a deficiency of Vitamin D from not having that sunlight splashing across the skin on a regular basis that causes our gloomy mood. Once that Seasonal Affective Disorder sets in, it really makes for a rough couple of months, and in our house we just can’t wait for the warm weather to come back as soon as possible!
Fortunately there are some wonderful tools right at our fingertips to help us to recover, continue to be productive, and ultimately thrive during this time of year. After making sure we are receiving the right amount of daily nutrition and healthy exercise, we all can start with our perception, as happiness is a state determined by internal conditions, not external ones. Our environment certainly seems to have an impact on how we feel, but strictly speaking, it is not the environment that is setting the tone. When I am having a bad day, colors seem drab, my clothes just don’t fit right, and even food tastes dull and stale. But did the colors, clothes, and food change in any real way? No, it was only my perception of and reactions to those things that were different. To get past those winter blues, I just need a little mental makeover.
Two of the most powerful forms of transformation for the body, mind, emotions, and spirit are meditation and yoga. Meditation enables us step outside of our usual behavioral patterns and thought processes and simply watch, without judgment and with a boatload of forgiveness at the ready. We can start the transformational process right in this moment with this short guided meditation.
Winter Blues Meditation
Find a comfortable seat with your legs crossed or folded. If possible, sit on a pillow, yoga block, or meditation bench and let your knees fall down toward the floor. Ideally you want to have your hips at a level above your knees, as this creates a gentle forward tilt of your pelvis that will allow you to sit with your back straight while you relax your muscles.
Close your eyes, sit up tall, and reach the crown of your head up toward the ceiling, then start to become aware of your breath. Make each inhalation and exhalation through your nose long, slow, and controlled. Continue to breathe deeply and with no hurry.
Scan your body for areas of muscular tension. When you find a spot where the muscles are tight, gently relax those muscles and feel that portion of the body settle down in space. Areas where many people hold tension and stress are the hip girdle, the upper back and the jaw. Find stress in the body and let it float away.
Check your body position, remain in a tall seat, and just relax every muscle in the body as you slowly breathe in and out through your nose. Observe your thoughts and feelings as if you are sitting outside yourself, and if the flow of thinking starts to take you away, return your attention to your breath. As you inhale and exhale deeply, say or think these words to focus your mind and intention.
Breathe in: I embrace calmness.
Breathe out: I offer peace out to the world.
Breathe in: I accept all of the feelings that exist for me right now.
Breathe out: I release the tension in my mind, body and spirit.
Breathe in: I honor the beauty that is me.
Breathe out: I let go of all judgment, inside and out.
Breathe in: I soak in the sustaining energy of the Universe.
Breathe out: I give away all that does not serve me in this moment.
With each breath cycle, bring in more joy and let it settle in your heart, and let stress, anxiety, and tension disperse from your being. Remain here, focused on the breath and the intention you have set, for as long as you need. When it is time to continue with your day, enjoy gratitude for the transformation you are undergoing and observe how you act and react to whatever the day brings to you.
As a student and teacher of yoga, I have come to rely on the therapeutic benefits of my daily practice to help me shift my viewpoint while energizing my body that just seems to want to hibernate for a few months in the winter. It is also important to acknowledge and honor the aspects of nature that dominate the season. Winter is a period of integration after the growth of the year, and we also go through a period of integration in our yoga practice when we end our practice with Savasana (corpse pose). Savasana represents the death of our yoga practice in that time, but then as we begin to move once again, we often assume a fetal position and then move to Sukhasana (easy pose) to end our class with a rebirth of ourselves and our yoga practice outside of the four corners of our mats. When the winter blues have you feeling down, think about the importance of the time spent in Savasana and remember that you’ll soon be moving around, enjoying the warmth and growth of spring once again!
Another way to embrace this most challenging of seasons is to find the beauty and strength embodied in nature, and again, we can call on our yoga practice to express these characteristics. When I think of winter, snow comes to mind immediately. While we don’t see snow all that often here in Atlanta, GA, we did have some flurries here recently, and our family got to experience that chilly but delightful mixture of water and earth elements. Water, even in the semi-frozen state of snow, is wonderfully fluid, and the frigid earth seems to be even more solid and supportive at this time. So try out this quick yoga sequence that exemplifies the convergence of strength through the feet with the flow of melting snow:
- Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Begin here by placing your hands on the mat about shoulder-width apart and press your hips up and back so that your body creates an inverted V-shape. Engage your core by tightening through the pelvic floor and drawing your belly button in toward your spine. Build heat through your breath with ujjayi pranayama, lightly constricting the back of your throat as you breathe in and out through your nose. Feel the strength of the earth pressing back into your hands and feet and feel a warm solidity form throughout your body.
- Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I)
Inhale and raise your right leg high, then exhale and bring your right foot in and place it between your hands in a low lunge. Inhale and spiral your left heel down to the mat with your left toes pointing at 45 degree angle. Stack your right knee directly over the ankle and square your hips toward the front. Reach your arms overhead and continue to breathe comfortably. Warrior I pose tests your inner determination to overcome adversity while simultaneously opening your hips to receive the energy of the Earth.
- Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
Exhale and find a heel-to-arch alignment between your wide feet. Turn your hips to even with the left side of your mat while maintaining the bend in your front knee and extend your arms out to the sides, right hand reaching toward the front of your mat and left hand reaching toward the back. Sink your hips down and accept the power of the Earth as you declare your own inner strength to the world.
- Triangle (Trikonasa)
Inhale and straighten your front right leg and bump your hips back. Exhale and reach forward with your upper body, then bring your right hand down to your front shin and raise your left hand high up to the sky. Feel a gentle twist as you open your heart and activate your oblique muscles to lift your torso up. Triangle pose makes your heart and emotions vulnerable even as the strength you have generated lifts you up toward the heavens. Reach back up to where that snow once descended and feel your self-love and self-confidence expand.
- Half-Moon (Ardha Chandrasana)
Bend your front knee and reach your right hand out to place it about 12 inches in front of your right foot. Inhale and gently shift your weight into your right leg as you straighten your knee and allow your right hand to steady yourself. Lift your left leg off the mat and let it float at hip-height or higher. Breathe deeply and continue to reach your left hand to the sky and allow your heart to soar as your freedom flies past the snow up toward the moon.
When you are ready, bring your left hand down to the mat and place your left foot down as you bend your right knee into a low lunge, then send your right foot back to meet your left in a high plank position. Flow through Chaturanga Dandasana (high-to-low plank) into Upward-Facing Dog, and then shift your hips up and back to return to Downward-Facing Dog. Now you can repeat the sequence on the other side by lifting your left leg high. Flow single breath to single movement as described above 2-3 additional times (remember both sides) and feel a wonderful uplifting release in your spirit and emotions.
So the next time those winter blues start to take hold, grab your meditation pillow and your yoga mat and embody the beauty and wonder of the season to transform your perspective. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to have some fun! What is better than harnessing your inner child and just playing in the snow?!