The Warmth of Winter Yoga
Fall and winter symbolically remind us to slow down our busy schedules and recharge. It’s also a season where exercise habits tend to falter or stop altogether, due to the colder temperatures which can inhibit us from engaging in outdoor activities such as running or biking. The darkening days can cause our mood to droop and rid us of initiative to stay on track with traditional routines and habits that normally keep us sane. It becomes a downward spiral as lower mood swings make us turn to comfort foods that can be terribly high in refined sugar and fat.
The grand finale comes by the end of a winter season, when we have gained unwanted weight and feel much less vibrant. We can actually prevent this winter freeze from happening altogether. Although our instincts may make us want to curl up in our January beds with a warm blanket, we can actually generate a great deal of heat simply by incorporating a few yoga postures and pranayama exercises into our day. Here are some tips and techniques to help broaden our yoga practice.
The word yoga is an umbrella term for asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing), exercises and meditation. Yoga practices often combine these techniques to maximize the benefits for both mind and body. Yoga has been shown to help our health by lowering cardiovascular risk, relieving inflammation and reducing stress. There are many different types of yoga, but the best choice will be whatever combination of movement, breathing exercises and meditation will be practiced on a regular basis.
One way to start the day is with sun salutations, or surya namaskar. The sun salutation incorporates 12 postures in sequence that generate heat, promote alertness, enhance flexibility and increase strength.
Asanas are used to wake up the spinal cord and muscles throughout the body, specifically focusing on the extensor muscles of the back, neck, glutes and hamstrings. The flow of movements from one to the next can raise the body’s temperature, not just with isometric movements (that don’t bend at the muscle joints), but also with the incorporation of breath work with each posture.
Starting with the mountain pose, begin with deep inhalation and exhalation alternating with each posture. Focus and awareness should be on the position of the body in each pose. For example, in the mountain pose, attention is placed on our planted feet, but with the plank pose, the focal point is on the strength of our arms pushing into the ground. In addition, becoming aware of the breath during the postures puts us in a meditative state.
A great way to end each set of sun salutations is with a positive intention such as, “I am joyful, I am kind,” or “I am abundant,” which adds a note of compassion to the practice. Start with three sets of sun salutations for a shot for a goal of 12 to 15 minutes per day. When sun salutations are practiced in the morning, the body becomes more alert, but the sets really can be done any time of day. With many of us working from home, experiencing Zoom fatigue and putting in long hours, these postures can be a perfect way to invigorate the body.
Another yoga practice that increases body heat is pranayama, or breath work, also known as ujjayi breathing. It’s one of the most commonly used breathing techniques and can fit into anyone’s lifestyle. Sit in a quiet space with the mouth closed. Breathe only through the nose, inhaling and exhaling for equal units of time. While inhaling, constrict the throat so it sounds like snoring. The belly should expand while inhaling and contract while exhaling; the mouth remains closed. It’s ideal to do two sets of 20 breaths per day.
The best way to practice yoga is on a daily basis. Try to fit in at least 20 minutes of yoga a day, whether that means poses, breathing techniques, meditation or a combination. The outcome will be a warmer body during the colder seasons and a greater desire to stay on track with healthy lifestyle choices.
Jyothi Rao, M.D., ABAAHP, FAARFM, has been practicing medicine for more than 20 years and is a co-owner at Rao Wellness, in Maryland. Her new book, co-authored with Monica Aggarwahl, M.D., is BODY ON FIRE: How Inflammation Triggers Chronic Illness and the Tools We Have to Fight It. For more information, visit RaoWellness.com.