“Do what you can. Do not be distressed about what you cannot do”. This is one of my favorite quotes – I’ve seen it attributed to St Magdalena of Canossa, but on the internet, who knows? The truth and kindness of it are what’s important and I’ve loved it since I first saw it years ago. It relates to this season because sometimes in winter, things can seem really hard. It’s as if winter has secretly decided, “I know what I’ll do! I’ll make things really difficult by raining and snowing and being dark and cold! Ha ha!” But here’s the thing. There’s another way of looking at it. Seen through the lens of seasonal living, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda, it’s like winter is saying, “Hey, I know you need a rest, and some time to yourself – I’ll make things dark and quiet and snuggly so you can do that.” When we learn to flow with the seasons, our lives can become so much more peaceful and spacious. And from there, we do what we can, and we’re okay about the things that we can’t do.
What to eat (and how to eat it)
An important one. You know how it feels when you get in from the cold and you see a wood fire burner crackling away? That’s how we want our digestion to be, warm and efficient. Agni, our digestive fire, needs to be kept stoked in the colder months with warm, nourishing food and drink. Cold salads and iced drinks are definitely best avoided, as are foods that are considered “damp” in TCM (excessive milk products/raw fruit and veg, cold drinks, sugar and sweets). In Ayurveda, the kapha dosha comes into full effect in winter; kapha characteristics are darkness, heaviness, stickiness (its elements are water and earth). We need to make sure we don’t become sluggish and lacklustre, and warming spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg are great for bringing you back into balance, as are ginger, garlic, rosemary, onions and leeks. Slow cooking is great – and slow eating and drinking is especially good! Take your time to sip and savour. Slow everything down.
Here are my two favorite breakfasts to get your digestive fire going in the morning:
2 minutes: Lightly sautée a diced apple and a sliced banana in ghee (clarified butter) with cinnamon and ginger. So delicious.
10 minutes: Make Ayurvedic porridge using water rather than milk, and add turmeric, pepper, salt, cinnamon and a date – plus sultanas, goji berries, nuts, seeds, whatever you love! (For me, it’s dried rose petals). Serve with a big spoonful of ghee melted on top. I like to switch up milky coffee in the morning for a zingy green tea; you can pep it up even more with turmeric to boost immunity, plus a teaspoon of coconut oil and black pepper.
Go easy on the exercise
In January, lots of people try to exercise really hard; gyms fill up with people trying to make good on their new year’s resolutions. It’s great to want to live healthily, but aggressive exercise in winter can exhaust even the fittest of fleas! We’re not separate from nature – we are nature! Think of bears in the mountains hibernating and penguins going on snuggle rotation duty. This is a time for great self-care, rest and recuperation. In TCM, the winter is considered yin – cool, dark, reflective, feminine, mysterious, contracting – compared to summer’s expansive, warm, dynamic yang energy, so we want to tune in to that. Restorative and yin yoga are great for this, though if you’re feeling sluggish, go for a class with a bit more flowing movement. Brisk walks are great, and will get you out in nature for a mood boost, as well as topping up your Vitamin D. Either way, remember it’s your unique body, so take note of how you’re feeling: Does this exercise make you feel peaceful, clear, energized? Or does it make you feel depleted? Act accordingly.
Take care of your kidneys
In Chinese medicine, winter’s element is water, and this is associated with the kidneys and the bladder, governing filtration and urination. The kidneys are the source of our yin essential sap, and yang essential fire. They are the storehouse of your body’s Jing, life-force; in Ayurveda, Ojas. You can see and sense when someone’s lifeforce is strong: glowing skin, bright eyes, bushy tail. And equally when it’s diminished, even if the person has been training non-stop at the gym. The kidneys are sensitive to fear, and equally when the kidney network is out of balance, it can make you feel more fearful. Other signs of kidney imbalance include anxiety, bone problems, hearing issues, hair issues, reproductive and urinary imbalances, feeling the cold excessively, nervous system disorders and fluid metabolism issues (sweating, puffiness, thirst, dryness). When we nourish our kidneys, we can expect to feel more centered, stable, vigorous and adaptable (and have lovely lustrous hair!).
Look after your kidneys by getting a full night’s sleep and going easy on yourself; try giving yourself a warming, relaxing Abhyanga body-massage with sesame oil before bed. Take time to practice mindful movement like Yoga and Qi Gong. Strengthen the kidneys with whole grains (quinoa is great), dark berries, dried fruit, nuts and seeds and beans. In Ayurveda, ghee is considered to be a terrific Ojas-booster (and it’s utterly delicious). If you’re feeling weak, organic bone broth is an exceptional mineral and nutrient booster.
Winter is the perfect time for meditation, as it’s the most naturally quiet and soft of all the seasons. I recommend installing the Insight meditation app on your phone. It has a timer you can set, as well as lots of different recorded guided meditations. I’ve also recorded some guided meditations on my Soundcloud page that you can listen to. When we regularly rest and go inwards, we start to find a lot more peace and clarity. It’s from this place that we make really good decisions. I know that the new year can make us feel like we have to be in “go-getter” mode, but really it’s the springtime that surges with energy and asks us to leap into action. We want to be prepared to meet that excitement, and for that we need to be rested and ready. So, take a rest. Be still. Snuggle up. Enjoy the winter.