“What if, instead of constantly pushing yourself beyond your limitations, you paused to really listen to your body’s needs?” - Yoga teacher and Manduka founder Peter Sterios.
It’s that time of year again when the temperature drops and the sun doesn’t seem to shine quite so bright. During winter, we often do less of the things that nourish us. That’s why maintaining our wellbeing is more important than ever.
Health experts of all kinds agree that attending to our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing is essential to our health. But when it’s freezing outside we tend to hibernate.
We don't get out and socialise as much and making it to the yoga studio becomes more of an effort. We're likely eating more comfort food too.
It can all seem cozy at first, but after a while our physical and mental health can start to take a dive. Then it becomes easier to catch colds and feel unwell.
When there's nothing else to do but stay indoors, winter becomes a perfect time to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the 'rest and digest' mode. This is where our body is free to heal and carry out detoxification as it recovers. To do this, we must first give ourselves permission to prioritise self-care.
Mindfulness, yoga and nutrition are self-care tools that help keep us in balance. Learn how to use them throughout winter to maintain your health and wellbeing.
Wellbeing and mindfulness
In this busy modern world, we often focus too much on the outward. Either caring for others, being consumed with life commitments, or even the weekly dinner planning. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the constant noise and distractions.
When we become stressed, our cortisol levels rise which can intensify health concerns from the common cold to more serious issues. Then once we get sick, it can feel like we’re never going to bounce back.
Often, all our bodies really need is just time to recover.
Meditation has been linked to lower heart rate and blood pressure, decreased inflammation in white blood cells, and an improved mental state. The good news is that even just 10 - 15 minutes of meditation a day pays off in the long run.
Getting good at meditation takes some time. Learning to switch off and focus on the breath can be frustrating at first. But once you've learned to tap into that quiet, calm state you'll reap the rewards.
When meditating at home, try setting up a calming environment so it’s easier to switch off. Use candles, music and soft blankets to create a soothing atmosphere. You can even use comfy meditation cushions to help you stay relaxed over prolonged periods.
In Eastern philosophy, understanding the breath is the first step to unlocking the many benefits of meditation.
Here's a short exercise to get started:
- Begin by sitting in a comfortable position with your spine straight
- Set a timer for 10 - 15 mins (or however long you want). It's important to give yourself permission to use this time just for you, that means removing all distractions
- Breathing in and out of your nose the entire time, direct your breath down to your navel
- Using your right hand, place your thumb on your right nostril and get your ring finger ready to close your left one. You'll be alternating breathing in and out of each nostril
- Breathe out fully from your left nostril as you cover the right one, then take a deep breath in again through the left nostril
- Release your thumb and cover the left nostril with your ring finger as you exhale through the right nostril, then inhale back through the same nostril
- Repeat this sequence until the timer goes off.
This exercise forces you to focus and reconnect with your breath.
Continue practicing yoga over winter
Yoga is one exercise that strengthens both the mind and body and is essential to our wellbeing. No matter your age, stage or challenges, yoga is for everyone.
The rhythmic breathing that occurs throughout the practice (Ujjayi breath) warms the body. It strengthens not only the lungs but increases mental capacity, allowing us to block out negative thoughts and distractions helping us focus on the here and now. It’s meditative in itself!
Author of The Courage to Rise, Liz Archer, teaches how the breath is "one of the most powerful and accessible tools that we have to support our physical and emotional health and wellbeing". When we’re in the yoga studio, it's easier to get into this healing rhythmic breath. But during the cooler weather, it can be tempting to skip the yoga class.
Practising yoga at home is better than nothing. In fact, there are still tons of benefits and many people around the world wake up to a daily yoga practice before they even leave the house.
If you’re yet to own a yoga mat, you can get creative and use a towel, and instead of yoga props you can try using cushions and pillows. The most important thing is maintaining your practice so that you can emerge from the cold feeling rested and strong.
There’s literally no better way to start a winter morning than with Sun Salutations. This asana is all about drawing energy from the sun, and it can be as long or short as you need it to be. Other warming yoga asanas to try include Boat Pose, Half Forward Bend, Upward Facing Dog, and Downward Facing Dog. You can find more tips to practice yoga at home in our guide here.
Nutrition and mindful eating
There’s an abundance of research confirming what people have known for hundreds of years - when we’re in sync with the seasonal rhythms of the year our wellbeing increases.
That means eating fruits and vegetables that are in season. The food that is readily available (and often the cheapest!) contains the right combination of vitamins and nutrients that we need to see us through the conditions.
Fruits and vegetables in season include apples, kiwifruit, mandarins, oranges, brussel sprouts, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, kūmara, parsnips, pumpkins and potatoes.
But whatever we eat, the idea is to be deliberate about it. This is called mindful eating. It involves taking the time to eat slowly so you can focus on the smells, flavours and textures of each mouthful.
Author and yogi Rachel Greenwell explains it’s not about deprivation, it’s about eating what makes you happy - whether it’s cake or wine, just choose mindfully and savour it.
Eastern medicine has long used the power of herbs for healing properties. Two herbal teas that you likely have in your cupboard are peppermint and green tea. A cup of peppermint calms the mind and eases the flow of energy. Green tea, despite having caffeine, simultaneously stimulates and calms the mind.
Adding a few cups each day helps to uplift while maintaining your zen.
Find your version of self-care
Among the noise of people forever telling us to prioritise self-care, it’s often not doable in the ways we’d like. Sure, it would be great to take a week-long holiday, but let’s be real. Life is busy and we often need to fit self-care into whatever way works for us and our families.
Self-care takes many forms. Consider what best serves your wellbeing:
This can include:
- Physical: Prioritise rest, exercise and healthy eating. Take a warm bath, rug up and take long walks in nature when possible
- Social: Maintain friendships, whanau connections and a sense of community
- Mental health and emotions: Make time for quietness and calm, and avoid overstimulation
- Spiritual: Practice gratitude, and do what fulfils us spiritually when needed
There’s often a thought that maintaining our wellbeing is hard and requires lots of work, or we put excessive pressure on ourselves to do things right. The truth is, taking any time to care for ourselves (and others), all aids in a healthy mind and body.
You don’t need to be overly positive, you don’t need to sit for long periods cross-legged. Just be kind to yourself, and when you can, take a little time to focus on your wellbeing this winter.
Ready to embrace meditation?
If you want to learn more about meditation, and discover useful tips on how to carve out space and time for inner peace and tranquility at home, read our Meditation 101 article here.