I must admit, when it comes to winter yoga classes, I struggle. With the lack of light, my motivation for yoga softens. I roll out of bed feeling stiff and compliant. My body, more than ever, has entered a very yin like state. Gone is the feeling of jumping out of bed with the light pouring in at 5AM ready to do my 108 sun salutations (I’m just kidding, does anyone do that?). In its place, there is a feeling of resistance with the cold and darkness. Yet, is that an excuse to not practise yoga? Of course not.
At this time of year, in the colder winter months, we seek warmth, nourishment & rejuvenation. I believe that yoga can offer all of this (as well as indulging in some nourishing soups and stews, of course). To truly reap the rewards from our yoga practice in the winter season, we need to rethink our usual spring-summer practice.
To help us through the winter months, I’m suggesting some things we could emphasise or do in our winter yoga classes. From warming sun salutations to the practice of Yin Yoga, there are things that we can focus on during our winter yoga practice to fortify us and become stronger within.
First, let us look at the nature of winter and how it affects our constitution.
Winter: the Season of ‘Vata’ & ‘Kapha’
The onset of winter brings the qualities of coldness and dry. As the wind increases in its velocity and the temperature of the air starts to cool, we start to feel the chill in our bodies. There is a sense of decay with the autumn leaves scattered amongst the streets, balanced with their bright illumonsity of orange, red and yellow in the trees. This is the season of ‘vata’.
As the winter progresses, the cold and damp qualities of ‘kapha‘ start to emerge. The rain and snow become more frequent and the days are incredibly short and dark. There is a feeling of wanting to retreat from the outer world to our inner world, unless of course, you are a skier (like me).
Life in winter is then all about seeking a balance between:
- Cold and warmth
- Heaviness and lightness of spirit
- Stagnation with circulation
- Dullness with inspiration
- Dampness with dryness
When these qualities are balanced, life becomes replenishing and strengthening. There is a sense of enthusiasm and comfort that the darkness of winter brings.
When things become out of balance, in particular with respect to kapha, then a sense of heaviness pervades us. We may suffer poor digestion, a weakened immune system leading to colds and flu, mild depression and lethargy.
Winter then becomes a balancing act between our inner and outer environments. It is also a time to build and renew. We draw our precious energy from deep within the internal organs to nourish ‘our inner fire’ and replenish us, ready for the spring and summer months ahead.
In order to keep the inner fire burning and clear any stagnant energy within us, we need to make some changes to our winter yoga practice.
Vigorous Sun Salutations, (or Surya Namaskar), regularly performed at the beginning of a yoga flow, are an absolute must for any winter yoga practice. The series of postures boost circulation, improve energy flow and bring some much-needed warmth to the body. They also act to clear mucus from the body. Working to warm up the muscles, Sun Salutations aim to prepare the body for the deeper stretches and more complex postures later during the rest of the yoga class. Even Sun Salutations on their own are a wonderful start to the day, helping us to keep fresh and energised ready for the day ahead.
For those of us who are still working on the sofa at home, Sun Salutations are perfect for keeping the lower back healthy and improving posture. The poses work to strengthen the back and the minor and major abdominal muscles while opening up the area around your shoulders, neck and chest. Perform anywhere from 3 to 12 rounds (or 108 if you are a really committed yogi) to really feel the stimulating and invigorating nature of Surya Namaskar.
Practising these movements daily will also help to balance the doshas, aiding with mental clarity and wellbeing, allowing you to feel naturally happy, peaceful and content in the winter months.
Enjoy this short video of me doing Sun Salutations across various spots in London (thanks to Richard Pilnick for the inspiration).
Other Winter Yoga Poses
Postures and sequences that also emphasise strong back and forward bends can help to clear excess phlegm (or kapha) and to keep the chest open. These poses emphasise the lower back and the lungs, as well as stimulating the abdomen.
Long-standing asana sequences and arm balances that connect to the earth are a way of building heat but staying grounded at the same time too.
In particular, postures that can help to balance vata and kapha include:
- Deep Forward fold (Pashchimottanasana). Opens the spine and may help to nourishes the kidneys.
- Camel pose (Ustrasana). A deep chest-opening pose that reaches through the lungs and may help to tonify the kidneys.
- 8 limb pose (Astavakrasana). A grounding, low lying arm balance.
- Locust pose (Shalabhasana). May help to tonify the kidneys.
- Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana). May stimulate the thyroid.
- Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana). A deep chest-opening pose.
- Peacock Pose (Mayurasana). May stimulate digestion and helps to clear kapha.
- Cow face pose (Gomukhasana). Chest opening pose.
- Tiger Pose (Simhasana). Clears the lungs and opens the heart space.
Yin yoga is a slow-paced style of yoga where poses are held for long periods of time (between 3-5 minutes generally, sometimes up to 20 minutes for more intense classes). Gently stretching and lengthening the deep connective tissues – bones, tendons and ligaments amongst others – Yin Yoga works to stimulate growth and build strength in a slow and nourishing way.
This is a great winter yoga class to add to your roster as the movements are much slower and gentler than the faster paced Yang Yoga classes such as Vinyasa, Hatha and Ashtanga, that you may be used to doing in spring and summer.
The long holds of each pose are much like a meditation practice, encouraging you to look inwards and bring your attention to your breath, allowing you to enjoy moments of calm and tranquillity. It’s a deeply introspective experience, drawing the senses within as the temperature outside falls. It’s almost like diving under a duvet and finding solace under the covers (intimately connecting with our inner sensations).
Similarly to acupuncture, practising yin yoga can also improve the flow of energy (or ‘chi’) around the body, removing any blockages. This may help to bring balance to the body and internal organs through the ‘meridians’ such as the kidneys, liver and bladder meridians. It may also help to reduce stress and improve general physical wellbeing.
Pranayama, and other yogic breathing practices, are a fantastic way to boost energy flow within the body, and also provide some valuable warmth to the muscles in the winter season. Pranayama is known as the practice of controlling (or extending) our vital life source. Simple practices that involve deep abdominal breathing such as diaphragmatic breathing, viloma pranayama or 3 part breath are wonderful ways of drawing air deep into the lower and back parts of the lungs.
Certain breathing practises such as bhastrika can help build the inner fire and maintain the strength of the lungs and clear the sinuses, thereby releasing excess kapha mucous from these areas.
Through increasing our focus on the breath, pranayama is well-known for its ability to relieve stress and anxiety, as well as lower blood pressure and heart rate. Practising deep breathing has also been found to help boost the immune system and reduce pain – perfect for keeping winter sniffles and aches at bay.
The darker, quieter months are the perfect time for introspection and therefore meditation. The heavy qualities of winter are the perfect time for contemplation, which is at the heart of meditation (the term ‘meditation‘ comes from the latin word ‘meditari’ which means to ‘contemplate’). I have found over the years that surrounded by darkness, or even just at dusk or dawn as the sun is setting or rising, that my powers of concentration and the feeling of serenity increase during my meditation.
Meditation has also been shown to build immunity, vital for the winter months when the natural tendency of kapha is predominant resulting in a weaker immune system. For more information, check out a recent post I wrote on the topic, which summarises the more recent research on the topic of how meditation can build immunity.
When & How Should you Practise?
As with any yoga practice, the time of day at which you practice has an important role to play. In the winter months it’s darker and colder in the mornings. In my own experience, there is a difference in the energetic feeling of practising in the dark and when the sun is rising, especially when it comes to ‘Sun Salutations’. To this extent, try to practice in a space with natural light, where the sun can reach the skin. In the evening, that will not be possible but practising yoga is still fine, perhaps being mindful of our natural tendency to go to bed earlier in the winter months and not practising too late in the evening.
It’s also important to remember to keep our bodies warm during a winter yoga class. Putting on our favourite warm grippy socks, our cosiest jumpers, and long-length leggings to help keep our muscles warm and comfortable throughout the flow, especially during a yin yoga practice. Of course, if we have the luxury of practising somewhere where it is warm, then a normal attire is fine. Listening to our body and if we start to feel heat (especially during Sun Salutations), remove layers and adjust accordingly.
Winter Yoga Classes: Summary
Just as we make changes to our winter wardrobe, food shopping lists and interior decoration, we should also make changes to how we go about our daily yoga practice. By introducing into our winter yoga classes practises such as sun salutations and other heat building and chest-opening postures, yin yoga, pranayama and meditation into our winter routines, we can naturally nourish, rejuvenate and energise our bodies, ready for the coming months and year ahead.
To take part in any of my weekly yoga classes, see yogibanker.com/classes. Classes are currently running via ZOOM at various times during the week.