Updated: Dec 16, 2020
When I think of the holidays, I think of warm aromas and beverages, cozy fires, hearty food, and sentimental time with loved ones. This year, during a global pandemic when warm embraces may be more frightening than comforting, I’ve found turning to the enduring wisdom of Ayurveda more useful than ever.
Ayurveda prescribes both dinacharya (daily routine) and ṛtucharya (seasonal routine) to assist in balancing the ever-changing forces of nature within us. Changes in seasons, shifts in appetite and metabolism, as well as general aches and pains, act as useful signs that it’s time to check in with our daily and seasonal habits to see if they’re still serving us.
Just as the activities of the sun, moon, and wind affect the climate, seasons, time, and our external environment, they also impact our internal environment. So as we approach the holiday season during a uniquely challenging year, examining self-care from an Ayurvedic perspective can prove extremely beneficial.
To begin, we must understand that Ayurveda considers 6 seasons and examines the increase, decrease, or balance of the elements, realized through the doshas, during these time periods. While the seasons may vary depending on where we are in the world, if we investigate with enough awareness, the subtlety of all 6 seasons can generally be found in most places. This is true even in conventional 4 season climates (like the one I write from here in Vermont, USA) where a deeper breakdown of the seasons and doshas can still be found.
The seasons (ṛtu) are:
Śiśra (late winter)
Varṣa (rainy season)
Hēmanta (early winter)
Bear in mind as we consider the current seasonal shifts, we are only considering the seasonal effects on the doshas. You may still have individual imbalances of any of the doshas within you due to lifestyle, habits, etc. Learn more about the doshas.
Also, keep in mind that depending on where you are in the world (i.e. Northern or Southern hemisphere) seasons may be experienced at different times (in this post we are considering the current effects in the Northern hemisphere). The distance between the sun and the earth, as well as its angle, creates more or less moisture and heat in the atmosphere causing seasonal changes in the elements and therefore the doshas within us. This creates either a drying or nourishing effect on the body. There will always be a mix between what is going on in your local environment and the angle of the sun and the earth. It is a subtle knowledge that can take many years of observation to truly come to understand.
The degree of the effects may be less in a typical 4-season climate, however, the doshas will still move in a 6-seasonal way. You may also experience the seasons a month earlier or later. It is, for this reason, we will look at both Śarat (autumn), which is generally experienced around mid-September to mid-November and Hēmanta (early winter), which is typically mid-November to mid-January, when considering the holiday season.
While Śarat, or autumn, is typically experienced mid-September to mid-November I personally didn’t begin to experience the effects of this season here in Vermont until the end of October this year. As we go through the doshic changes during these seasons, see if you can discern which season you are currently in.
Per this season, vata dosha balances back out from its previous aggravation during the rainy season (the equivalent of early autumn here in the States) and pitta dosha now accumulates and becomes aggravated. From an experiential perspective, I find this is best understood through observing digestion. For example, you may have observed slowed digestion, decreased appetite, constipation, and gas at the start of autumn as vata prevailed and wreaked havoc.
When digestion returns to normal and even increases, we’ve hit pitta season just in time for holiday treats. The increase in pitta dosha, and therefor internal heat, may be great for those with naturally weak digestion, but those with an already high amount of pitta may experience an increase in skin ailments, diarrhea, heartburn, dizziness, anger, and other excess pitta manifestations. Most Westerners, in general, have a good amount of pitta dosha within them and it’s no coincidence it’s also flu season here in the West.
Taking care of our internal fire by favoring sweet, astringent, bitter, dry, light, and cool tasting foods such as coriander, green veggies, pomegranate, figs, raisins, wheat, rice, and barley can help keep excess heat at bay. Here in Vermont, pumpkins, apples, greens such as spinach, kale, and chard, grapes, and gooseberries are all seasonal local crops. These regional foods are also all pitta pacifying (favor sweet grapes and apples over sour) and classic fall staples.
If you pay attention, you may notice you also naturally start to crave these foods. For example, in Autumn I personally start to develop an increased infatuation with grapes, apples, and kale.
Excess salt, spicy, and heavy foods should be avoided along with curd, sesame oil, sunbathing and sleeping during the day.
It is also recommended to avoid heated practices such as kapalabhati and favor more cooling breathwork exercises such as sheetali if you start to experience excess pitta symptoms. Spending extra time in nature, brisk walks, and stomach cleansing can also be useful during this time.
As we reach the end of November and start the holiday season off through January, we reach Hēmanta, or early winter. Pitta dosha finally simmers back to balance and kapha dosha now begins to accumulate and will continue to do so until spring. That being said, we first get a natural moment of equilibrium where all 3 doshas come into balance.
Hēmanta is one of the healthiest seasons across the board. As it becomes cold, body heat moves internally, kindling the digestive fire and making the body strong. As such, this is not the time for fasting, but rather a time to eat well and be joyful, just in time for the holidays.
It is advised to favor sweet, sour, salty, oily, and hot foods. As the nights grow long, you may notice you are hungry even upon waking, so it is important to eat well during this time of year. The classical texts suggest soup, beverages prepared with molasses and rice flour, wheat pastries, rice flour, black gram, sugar cane juice and milk products that are both tasty and nurturing.
Abhyanga, or oil massage, sports, exercise, and a robust yoga asana practice to keep you strong and healthy are recommended. Just remember to eat well and keep warm. ☺
Want to learn more about Ayurveda’s take on the seasons? On our 300-hour yoga course we explore Ayurveda in further depth, considering the seasons, tastes, diet, routine, cleansing, and more!
Om Shanti 💜