BY ALICE YORK
Winter is a time when we need a little extra protection, a boost to our immune systems and some additional attention to our mental and emotional well-being. Here are some tips to stay well these remaining months of the season.
Find a comfortable position where you can relax uninterrupted for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. This can be seated on the couch or in a chair, on a meditation cushion (I have this one, pictured below, that can be ordered here), folded blanket, or pillow on the ground, or even lying down in bed. If you choose to sit, rather than roll back onto the seat, tucking the tail, move towards the front of your sitz bones with your waist tall and your spine long. The hands can come to rest on your lap or on your legs, palms facing up or down—traditionally, facing the palms up is a gesture of accepting energy, while placing the palms down invites rest.
Close the eyes completely or let your gaze soften. Begin to deepen the breath, taking a two-count inhale through the nose, and a two-count exhale through the nose. The idea is to slow down the breath here, to create a balance between the in breath and the out breath, to find a steady, calming rhythm. If you’d like, increase the count of the breath to 3 or 4, making sure to keep the inhale and exhale equal and even. This slowing of the breath helps to slow down the mind and the heart rate. Let the breath become your focus, moving out of the mind and into the body, shedding off layers of thought and coming into the present.
After awhile, release the count of the breath, allowing the breath to become effortless and automatic. Begin to slowly scan your body, starting at the top of the head, making your way down to the feet, releasing any physical tension as you go. Think of letting the body soften with every exhale, letting go of any gripping or tightening in the muscles—softening the jaw, melting the shoulders away from the ears, letting the arms and legs feel heavy.
At this point, you will repeat two intentions to yourself in the form of mantra, or repeated statements. By repeating these phrases, letting them echo in the mind and throughout the body, you imprint them on yourself, allowing them to take hold. This state of meditation, when we move from our sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system to our parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system, is a time when our brains become more plastic and able to create new, more positive neural connections.
“I will be still.”
In the winter, which falls in this hemisphere at the start of the calendar year, is a busy time for so many of us. While some animals hibernate, we are engaged and active, trying to make our resolutions come to fruition, hustling our bodies to the gym at dawn or swamped with work, playing catch up after the holidays, or simply plugging away on our extended to-do lists. No matter the season, we are a culture where productivity is lauded and multitasking is the norm. Repeat these words to give yourself permission to pause, to simply sit and breathe from time to time, to recharge, to rest.
“I will be soft.”
Winter is a time characterized by hardness, by ice and tensed, braced bodies against the wind and cold. Instead of being the ice, become like water in its liquid form. Be soft. Be fluid. Whether this is softening your expectations of yourself, being kinder and more compassionate to yourself, or simply softening the shoulder muscles as they rise up to your ears while walking outside in freezing temperatures, cultivate a little more softness during these hard months.
After repeating these phrases, these mantras, as many times to yourself as you’d like, begin to focus in again on your breath. Turn your attention inwards to listen to the sound of your breath gliding in and out of your body and your heart beating. Tune in to your own frequency, your own unique rhythm. Begin to then expand your awareness to the sounds in your room, any music, white noise in the background. Finally, begin to listen to any sounds from outside, cars passing by, activity, moving from the inside world back to the outside. Really take your time with this listening. Know that no matter the sounds or the pace of life around you, you can always slow down your breath and set your own pace. The simple act of slowing down the breath can feel almost like slowing down time itself.
When you are ready to end your practice, take 3 deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, releasing everything out. Slowly flutter the eyes open and come back into awareness of your surroundings. Take any small movements at this time, wiggling fingers and toes, rolling the neck, shrugging the shoulders, or taking a gentle twist of the spine. Move slowly and gently, avoiding any sense of hurrying.
This meditation can be something you aim to do for a few minutes a week or maybe every day. Be kind to yourself and know it’s okay to start small and that there is no wrong way to meditate—any practice that brings you calm, whether it’s taking a walk or knitting or listening to music is a form of meditation.
A great seasonal tea to combat a cold or flu can be made with Echinacea, raspberry leaf, peppermint, and licorice. I steep these dried leaves and roots in boiling water for at least 20 minutes to make an infusion (a more potent version of tea). For battling the winter blues, a combination of chamomile, lemon balm, and licorice is a great mood-elevator. I buy a lot of my herbs through Mountain Rose Herbs, but many of these can be found on Amazon or at Whole Foods.
You may not yet have heard of adaptogens, but soon they’ll be everywhere. An adaptogen is made up of natural plant materials that assist the body, reducing stress levels or aiding in digestion, for example. Some of my favorites are the mushrooms chaga, a great immunity booster, and reishi, which is great for relaxation. I like the ones available through Sun Potion or Four Sigmatic. For finding bliss in the bleak Chicago winter, ashwaganda and mucuna pruriens are natural, plant-derived options to explore when it comes to handling stress. Sun Potion’s Yin Power is a great blend mixing a number of their powerful adaptogenic offerings. These are all most often found in powder form and can be blended into coffee, tea, juices, or smoothies.
If sore throats and other related ailments strike, I recommend a concoction of hot water, ginger, turmeric, black pepper (to activate the magic healing powers of turmeric), honey, and lemon. It will help to naturally shorten the during of your sickness.
If only there was a potion to shorten a Chicago winter.
Alice York is a Chicago-based yoga and meditation instructor, wellness consultant, and writer. To learn more about Alice and her offerings, from private meditation and yoga sessions to group classes and events, visit alicemerceryork.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.