BEAT THE WINTER BLUES
5 Reasons why Yoga Really Helps to Master the Cold Season
During the cold, dark and wet season it is very tempting to sleep in under the warm covers or cuddle up on the sofa instead of going outside later in the day. While winter is indeed the time of the year to slow down and give yourself a break from the busy-ness of the warmer months, it is widely considered a rather dreadful season which brings about moodiness, lack of energy and frequent sickness.
While some of us choose to escape to sunnier parts of the globe, there are strategies to keep up good health and mood for those who must stay.
A regular yoga practice can be enormously helpful as it beats the winter blues on many levels:
1. Yoga eases tension in neck & shoulders
The chill of cold winds and drafty spaces makes us instinctively hunch the shoulders as we want to protect our sensitive neck and head from the cold. This inevitably leads to tension in the neck, shoulders and upper back which may even result in nasty tension headaches.
Yoga offers many exercises that help stretch and mobilise the neck/shoulder area which releases tension and helps realign the upper body. Practised regularly, you not only reduce the need of pain killers but also become more aware of your postural habits so that you can detect bad posture early before it manifests in form of tension and pain.
Need some ideas? These are my quick-fix favourites:
Roll the shoulders backwards while on all fours (keep elbows as straight as possible); then do some cat-cow (flex & extend the spine on all fours)
Clasping the hands behind the back, arms long, lift arms and extend, then fold forward, keeping arms away from back; unlock hands, lower them towards the floor and come up to standing straight, arms moving up along the front until overhead; repeat several times and relax.
Roll one shoulder forward, while rolling the other backwards; change sides after a while.
Nod the head several times, then turn as if saying NO, then bend from shoulder to shoulder; you may finish with some gentle neck-rolls (circles), but only if that feels ok.
2. Yoga boosts energy levels and warms the body
With the hunched shoulders and a curled-up position on the sofa we compress the entire front of the body. Again, a natural instinctive move in order to reduce the outer surface of the body and keep the core warm, a permanent “embryo-pose” reduces the ability of the diaphragm to move freely and let the lungs expand.
Reduced breathing leads to less oxygen in the blood which limits our brain and cell function, causing feelings of tiredness and a “foggy brain”. As the body tries to keep the oxygen for the vital organs it automatically reduces the blood circulation in the limbs – which makes us feel even colder in the extremities.
See the catch? Snuggling up more and more makes things only worse! The only way out is to BREATHE & MOVE!
It doesn’t have to be a spinning class – moderate movement (like a series of yoga asanas) combined with conscious breathing already makes a huge difference, especially when we add a bit of core work to our chest and side stretches. Some breathing techniques, like the “Breath of Fire” (think panting dog, but breathe through the nose with the mouth closed) in Kundalini yoga, can literally create heat in the body!
3. Yoga boosts your metabolism
In winter, we tend to eat more, and richer food. Like animals that prepare for hibernation we seem to have the same instincts: Let’s build a fat layer for calorie storage and insulation. Only, we don’t need it! Moving less not only burns less calories, but also reduces the efficiency of our metabolism – which is how our body transforms food in essential nutrients for cell growth and repair.
The deep breathing, bends and twists in yoga improve the activity of our digestive tract by applying pressure to the intestines in different spots which makes the food move better through the system. Less known is that a great deal of our metabolism is controlled by the vagus nerve which connects the brain with the digestive tract. Since it runs through the neck, heart and lungs, it can be stimulated by conscious breathing, exercises that stretch the front and mobilisation of neck and shoulders (see above).
4. Yoga can fight SAD & moodiness
Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) is a type of depression that mostly occurs in autumn and winter. Symptoms may be low energy levels, sleep problems, changes in appetite, sluggishness, negativity or anxiety.
Therapy includes exposure to sunlight for increasing vitamin D levels or vitamin D supplements, psychotherapy, or antidepressants, but research has shown that mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation can also be very beneficial. Potentially, the vagus nerve is involved again, as scientists found that stimulating the vagus nerve can indeed alleviate anxiety and depression due to its calming properties.
5. Yoga boosts the immune system
The Lymphatic system forms an important part of our immune response. Through the circulation of lymphatic fluid, it carries pathogens (harmful invaders) from different parts of the body to the lymph nodes where they are destroyed by killer cells (T-cells).
The lymphatic network spreads all over the body. As there is no specific organ that pumps the fluid around like the heart does with the blood, the system relies on the contraction of skeletal muscles that surround the lymph “tubes” to move the fluid forward.
Yoga is a great practice for that because we literally move all parts of the body when we perform a series of poses. In Kundalini yoga, there are several sets that are specifically designed to support the lymph system. One of my favourites is “Kundalini Yoga for the Lymph System”. You can find the instruction on the Pink Lotus website, ready to print out, or you can practise along this video with Sat Dharam Kaur on YouTube.
Give it a go!
I know, it takes some courage to get up early before the heating kicks in or walk through the cold rain to get to your local yoga place, but once you’ve done it you will feel soooooo much better!
Of course, never overdo any form of exercise and yes, allow yourself time to rest. As mentioned before, winter IS for slowing down and recharging our batteries, that’s a natural rhythm. Practising a little bit at home every day is certainly more beneficial than a full-on 90-minute session every few weeks. However, joining a group and practising with friends makes it much more likely to stick to it. So, why not make it a regular catch-up? Give it a go!