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Balance Vata Dosha: Healthy Living During the Fall-Winter Transition
Fall has gradually wound down making way for winter. As the days have become shorter and the light and heat of summer have subsided, there is a shift in our internal body rhythms too. Since yoga and Ayurveda declare that we need to be in sync with our environment to experience harmony, we need to be mindful of the change in seasons. We can help smooth the transition from fall to winter by balancing vata dosha.
According to Ayurveda, everybody has all three doshas (Ayurvedic constitutions) in different proportions within them. The doshas include vata, pitta, and kapha. The three doshas serve as the basic physiological energies that govern the function of the mind and body. A person’s unique constitution is the balance of these three doshas and there are infinite constitutions based on the dominance of each dosha within an individual. Thus, a vata individual has a greater percentage of the vata characteristics. Vata is made of ether and air elements so its qualities are cold, dry, light, rough, subtle, mobile, and clear. The fall-winter transition is marked by the domination of vata dosha.
Vata Dosha: Energy in Motion
Vata represents the mobile force of the universe and, in our body, is responsible for all activities that involve movement. Thus locomotion, digestion, circulation, respiration, elimination, communication, sensory and motor function, cardiac function, and nerve impulses are all governed by vata. In the mind, vata dosha governs the flow of emotions including enthusiasm, joy, clarity, creativity, fear, worry, and anxiety.
When vata dosha is healthy, its qualities are in a balanced state, and the individual experiences stability, enthusiasm, and excitement for life. The movements of the body are graceful, unimpeded, and yet controlled. Individuals who possess a balanced state of vata tend to be imaginative, energetic, light-hearted, and full of excitement.
The fall-winter transition is characterized by cold, windy, and dry weather. Trees shed their leaves or flowers and look dry and barren. As our external environment changes, it increases vata in our own body. If we are not aware of these changes, vata goes out of balance and a totally different personality emerges. Dry skin, chillness, hair loss, brittle nails, gas, constipation, unexplained pain, stiffness, inability to focus, fear, worry, and anxiety are some of the imbalances.
How to Balance Vata Dosha this Winter
All individuals will experience the fall-winter changes, but people of vata constitution, being more susceptible, should take every precaution to prevent vata from going out of balance. To balance vata dosha and restore harmony, we learn to apply its opposite qualities through diet, herbs, colors, aromas, mantras, massage oils, yoga, pranayama, and meditation. Some of the healthy living practices during the fall-winter transition include:
1. Stable Routines: Eat, Sleep, Practice Yoga
One of the most important lifestyle tools for maintaining health and for supporting healing during the fall-winter transition is adopting stable routines. Stability is greatly improved through all daily activities like meals, sleep, and waking being performed at the same time each day. In addition to the daily activities, individuals need to include oil massage, meditation, physical exercise, and/or yoga asana practice as part of the daily routine.
2. Warm Up Your Diet
Cold sandwiches, cold salads, and dry cereals with cold milk should preferably be avoided during this season. Such foods can aggravate vata qualities and create a vata imbalance. Food should be preferably cooked (warm), oily (moist), and moderately spiced (warm). Since vata dosha is cold, dry, and rough, foods that are cooked, warm, and made with a little olive oil or ghee have a wonderfully soothing effect that immediately calms down the restless vata. Warm drinks such as hot milk or ginger/cinnamon/basil tea also have an immediate balancing effect.
Suggested snacks include vata tea with wheat bread, dates, fresh fruit, or warm milk. Coffee and other caffeinated drinks can be vata aggravating and should be avoided. Sipping warm water and herbal teas throughout the day enhances warmth and hydration. Dinner could be a warm hearty soup and bread. Before bed, a cup of warm milk with a pinch of ginger/cardamom/nutmeg and some sugar or honey is recommended for sound sleep.
3. Ayurvedic Massage (Abhyanga)
The fall-winter period brings dryness and lightness not only to plants but also to the human body. To prevent excessive dryness, it is a good idea to have a daily oil massage that will not only treat dry skin but will moisten the joints and tissues of the body as well––keeping the body lubricated and healthy throughout the fall season. Use warm sesame or almond oil with one or two drops of rosemary, lavender, or jasmine essential oil for the body massage. Apply the oil all over and gently massage the body. If possible, keep the oil on the body as long as possible and do not wash it off. If you take a shower afterward, do not use soap and pat yourself dry.
4. Practice Yoga Asanas
The emphasis throughout the fall-winter season is to incorporate an asana practice that strengthens and stabilizes the body and mind. Pay attention to detail and use gentle movements. Though vata is present in every area of the body, its main residence is the pelvic area, so asanas that aid in pelvic compression and flexion of the hips are recommended.
Hold each posture for a short amount of time but do multiple repetitions. Focus on the foundation of the pose to create stability. Stay connected to the Earth and ground down through your big toes in standing poses. Engage your entire body by hugging your muscles to the bones. Do not overextend or deplete yourself. Your practice should be strengthening, not draining. If the vata imbalance is severe, a restorative practice is best. Stay warm and conclude your yoga practice with a long relaxation.
5. Pranayama Practice: Purify and Stabilize
Regular practice of pranayama during the fall-winter season helps to tune our breath, body, and mind. Start the day with Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing), which helps to purify the bodily channels. You can also practice Ujjayi Pranayama or Surya Bhedana (Solar Pranayama) to create balance by providing warmth and stability to the body and mind. Focus on lengthening your inhalation in all the pranayama practices.
6. Meditation: Still Your Mind
Follow your pranayama practice with several minutes of mindfulness meditation. For the overactive vata mind, meditation is one of the best ways to be grounded and to find calm and stillness.
7. Daily Life Practices to Balance Vata Dosha
Always stay warm. Wear clothing made with soft fabrics and earth colors (grounding energy). Get enough sleep. Enjoy regular, relaxing, and peaceful walks in a natural setting (yard, parks, beach, etc.) to calm the mobile body.
Other great activities during this season include gardening, culinary activities, creating art, and music. Make sure all activities are followed by sufficient rest periods. Pay attention to the influences that you allow into your life—from the foods you eat to the amount of time you spend in front of a computer, cell phone, or television. As we get ready to welcome the fall-winter transition, let us experience perfect health, bliss, and freedom every moment and throughout the winter season.
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Reprinted with permission from Ram Rao/Accessible Yoga.
Rammohan (Ram) Rao comes from a family of Ayurvedic practitioners and Vedic teachers in India tracing back to the illustrious Vedic-acharya Rishi Kaundinya (although Ram admits he cannot do the Eka pada or Dwi pada Kaundinyasana). With a doctorate in Neuroscience, Ram was a Research Associate Professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. He focused on various aspects of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases with an emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, Ram completed the academic training at the California College of Ayurveda (CCA) and received his certification as a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. He has been a faculty member of the California College of Ayurveda and teaches in their Nevada City location. Ram is also a dedicated Hatha yoga practitioner and is a Registered Yoga Teacher from Yoga Alliance USA. In his spare time, he offers consultations in YAMP techniques (Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation & Pranayama). Ram has published several articles in major Yoga/Ayurveda magazines and has been a featured speaker in several national and international meetings and symposia. He is a member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) and is on the Research Board of the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America (AAPNA).