As we approach the winter solstice on December 21, the slide into darker and darker days can feel especially precipitous. Since most of us are acculturated to value the more active, striving, illuminating energy of the sun, called agni in Ayurveda, it can be a challenge to feel “normal” (whatever that means!) when the softer, more grounding, and introspective light of the moon, called soma in Ayurveda, take over the skies. Yet cultures from all over the world are rich in beautiful rituals and practices—from hygge to the yule log—that help us embrace the dark phase of the year as a season of gathering and feasting; the time of year when our inner light can be replenished and shine brightly; the time when we feel enlivened not by transforming the world around us, but by transforming the world within.
Ideally, this inner replenishment is happening on a daily basis through choosing healthful foods and activities that feed our body, mind, and spirit according to our needs in the moment. But let’s be honest—no one is making the right choices 100 percent of the time, and to expect that is setting us up for failure. Perfection is never the goal when it comes to Ayurvedic medicine, and our generally resilient bodies are well equipped to handle popcorn dinners or coffee-fueled mornings here and there.
Abiding by seasonal rituals is another way we can enjoy more of a 60/40 ratio of balancing foods versus imbalanced foods on a daily basis. While it may seem that the root cause of our collective burn-out come December is our culture where work and productivity are the markers of a successful life, nature is contributing to that dip in energy, too. (More proof we’re not as able to one-up nature as we think!) Like the plants and animals we share our home with, we need time to rest after a year of building up our stores of energy in the spring then bearing fruit in summer. Feeling tired in winter is part of nature’s design—it just butts up against the messaging we all receive that tired equals weak or lazy, whereas tired is an intrinsic part of being human.
While giving yourself extra time to rest in winter is self-care tip number one, we never adopt an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to our energy. After all, there’s a lot going on during our long winter’s rest on the inside, and maintaining a strong digestive fire is key to ensuring you have enough fuel in the tank to feel rested and awake to enjoy the sun’s short-lived appearance.
Late fall and winter are considered vata seasons in Ayurveda, which means that we turn to foods and activities that have more warmth to balance the cold outside. Spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, cloves, and black pepper (hello, pumpkin pie spice mix!), and fresh herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are all wonderful additions to your drinks and foods throughout the season. Swapping out your coffee (which is drying and stimulating, and thus imbalancing for vata) for golden mylk or chai, or sipping on warm water with a cinnamon stick throughout the day is like having someone tending your inner fireplace all day (and night!) long.
Summer’s vibrant produce is undoubtedly irresistible, but winter at the farmer’s market offers its own unique display of colors, textures, and tastes perfect for your seasonal cravings. You’ll find more foods at the top of the ROYGBIV rainbow this time of year, which aligns with our need for warmer foods overall. From a western perspective, red, orange, and yellow foods are all rich in antioxidants, beta-carotene, and vitamin A, nutrients that support immunity, vision, and liver function that comes in handy this time of year. Enjoying a moderate amount of squashes, carrots, beets, and cauliflower, alongside blank-canvas grounding foods like rice, beans, nuts, and seeds, and of course plenty of spices, will make for not only attractive meals, but ones that fill you up with a sustained source of whole-food energy.
Pranayama is an excellent, multi-purpose practice that can support your mind-body balance all year long. But it’s especially useful in fall and winter, when the energy of prana—movement and flow—is also dominant in our environment. Consciously working with the breath is also a fantastic way to moderate anxiety, which can show up more often this time of year especially around the holiday season.
If you find yourself holding your breath, breathing shallowly, or suffering from panic or anxiety attacks or insomnia, try a practice like nadi shodhana pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) or sama vritti (equal breathing) in the morning when you wake up, in the late afternoon (2-6 PM, which is when vata energy rises again), or before bed. By helping to focus the mind’s attention on a steady, rhythmic movement like the breath, a busy mind may start to slow down; plus, a full, diaphragmatic breath gives a good squeeze to the digestive organs, supporting peristalsis and elimination, which can stagnate in winter if our gut channels dry out or tense up.
Along with warming foods, a vata-balancing diet for fall and winter includes a good amount of what’s known as the snigdha quality in Ayurveda, which translates to “oily.” Be sure to turn to healthy fats in your cooking, such as nuts and seeds, avocado, coconut products, and cooking oils (use coconut or avocado oil for sauteing/roasting/baking, olive for drizzling). We can also benefit from oils externally through the ultra-nourishing practice of abhyanga. Daily self-massage with a warming oil like sesame will not only make your skin look and feel radiant, soft, and clear but support anxiety, insomnia, digestion, immunity . . . basically, your whole-body health! Snigdha’s other translation is “mother’s love,” which perfectly describes the effects of abhyanga on your heart.
Getting your daily dose of vitamin D is harder when you’re bundled up to head to toe. You might consider adjusting your daily outside-time to midday, when the sun is strongest, during winter so that at least some part of your skin can soak up this crucial nutrient for the transformation of calcium, as well as supporting immunity, heart health, and mental health. When the sun goes down, enjoy the soft glow of another kind of natural light—candlelight—as opposed to the harsh artificial lights (including blue light from devices) that keep us stimulated all day long.
The warmer, gentler illumination of actual fire can help your body sync up with its internal flame, including when it’s time to eat. Lighting a candle at the dinner table isn’t just for seeing purposes (but that helps too! Looking at your food is a bit like pre-digesting it, which can be an important habit to rebuild if you’re used to eating while watching a screen), but having external support for agni will facilitate appetite and digestion while you cozy up with your evening meal.
In the Ayurvedic text Astanga Hrydayam, it’s said that a person with a strong agni “will obtain happiness (health), keenness of all the pavaka (fire-like activities of the body), improved intelligence, clarity of color (complexion), and sensory perceptions, sexual vigor and long life” (Astanga Hrydayam, Sutrashtana IV.30). More than just the fire that cooks our food, agni is the engine that fuels all of our systems that contribute to our ability to thrive throughout our lives. And when we tend that fire with love, compassion, and regularity, even when the nights seem endlessly dark, we can maintain the confidence and courage we need to make it through to the next dawn.