According to Ayurveda, the science of health and longevity that sits alongside yoga in the Indian tradition, this season is the time of kapha – the element which predominates in the cold and damp of winter. Ayurveda states that we all have a unique constitution – a balance of the elements (Vata, Pitta, Kapha), that was set down at the moment of our conception and which affects how we are built physically as well as how we think and respond. Then as we live our lives, the moment by moment choices we make will affect the balance of our constitution – what we eat, how much we eat, how much and what kind of exercise we take, how long we sit every day, how late we stay up/sleep in – all these factors together with our age, the climate and particular season will affect this balance. In Ayurvedic terms, we are healthy when we manage to maintain the unique balance of elements that we were born with and ill health comes about when we stray from that balance.
Kapha is a combination of the elements of water and earth and at this time of year when the weather tends to be cold and wet, its effects can build up in our system and we may begin to experience symptoms. A good image for kapha is mud with its slimy, heavy, cold and damp qualities or a flowing river which gradually begins to slow as it freezes. The feeling of kapha is the same as after a long lie-in when you feel slightly thick-headed and sluggish for the rest of the day.
The main site of kapha in the body is the stomach where mucous is produced. If kapha begins to get out of balance, first the metabolism and digestion slow down, then mucous problems develop in the chest, throat or sinuses and also in the lymph where fat can accumulate and ultimately weight is gained. Typical problems are Seasonal Affective Disorder or depression, colds, flu, allergies, asthma attacks, fluid retention and, later in the spring, hay fever.
So during winter and early spring it’s important to be aware of changes, particularly if you already have a high level of kapha in your constitution. It’s good to avoid getting cold, eating food that is too heavy, fried or oily or eating heavy meals after 7pm. Too much dairy and wheat, ice cold food or drinks, too much sugar and salty food will all encourage kapha to build up in the system. Sitting down all day, sleeping late in the morning or taking naps will all increase kapha.
Recently I taught a workshop at the Narberth Natural Health Centre focussing on kapha and how we can keep it balanced over this winter season. We did yoga practices which were both energetic and dynamic. We focussed on postures that opened the chest as this is where kapha accumulates. The aim was to leave us feeling warm and energised as well as invigorated. We also worked with sequences to keep the mind and the senses engaged as this helps to dissipate the dull and lethargic tendencies of kapha.
We also discussed various therapeutic tips to stay well at this time of year. It’s good to include plenty of warming spices into your cooking such as ginger, turmeric, cumin, black pepper and garlic. Lots of fresh, organic vegetables, pulses and drying grains such as millet, buckwheat, barley and rice are also good. Warming soups and stews are best eaten at lunch time and it’s best to have dinner before 7pm to aid digestion. Plenty of exercise during the winter is important to really warm the body – before 10am if possible – a dynamic yoga practice or a 30-minute brisk walk tick this box. Meditating for 10 minutes a day also helps to keep the senses sharp and helps prevent a slide into lethargy.
The key is awareness as changes happen gradually. If you start to feel a bit dull and heavy in the winter or notice mucous building up, then you can take steps to redress this increase of kapha and return to a feeling of health, energy and vitality. An understanding of Ayurveda and our own unique constitution as well as the potential effects of the changing seasons, enables us to make simple lifestyle adjustments to help restore our equilibrium and sense of wellbeing.
Some feedback from the workshop:
“Really enjoyed this winter session – warming and calming”.
“An interesting practise, lots of useful advice for the winter. I enjoyed it!”.
“The perfect balance of yoga and factual information. Lots to chew over. Great snacks too”.
“It was really interesting to learn about the three doshas and what influence they have in our lives and how to balance and look out for things. Really enjoyable thank you. Felt much better leaving the class than when I started”.