Yoga for the Winter Blues

The crispness and color of fall quickly leads into the dark days of winter. As Henry Adams said, winter can still “grind the very soul” out of us. Most people who live in northern latitudes experience some seasonal changes. Winter blues and seasonal affective disorder are terms used to describe the spectrum of more problematic and serious symptoms experienced as the hours of daylight grow shorter. Having a plan to manage mood, energy and other seasonal symptoms can help you feel more confident in navigating through the dark days.

Seasonal changes may include difficulty concentrating and processing information, overwhelm, irritability, anxiety or a depressive mood. Pain, an achy flu-like feeling, exacerbation of fibromyalgia symptoms, fatigue, disturbed sleep (too much, too little or poor quality), sweet cravings, lowered sex drive and less desire to socialize are all part of the change in brain chemicals that can occur with changing light.

Yoga practice for seasonal changes can be tailored to increase energy, cultivate focus, and lift mood as well as soothe anxiety and improve sleep. Yoga tools might include breath-centered movement, breathing practices, relaxation, meditation, sound and community.

An early morning yoga posture practice that emphasizes lengthening inhalation can help change symptoms of low energy, lack of focus and depressed mood. The addition of sound (chanting a mantra, a passage from the Bible, or an inspirational phrase as you Exhale) provides even more potency to a morning practice.
Are anxieties and sleep issues a problem for you during the winter? A practice later in the day that emphasizes gentle, soothing postures, lengthening exhale, and relaxation or meditation may soothe irritability, anxiety and stress.

A variety of short practices specifically tailored to the individual often helps in managing the complexity of different symptoms with seasonal changes.
Exercise, preferably earlier in the day in natural light, a strong cup of coffee in the morning, a diet that is rich in omega 3 fatty acids (flaxseed oil, salmon, sardines, etc.) and low in sugar, stress management, good habits around sleep (no late night electronics!) and social outings with friends and family can also help manage seasonal changes.

It’s important to work with your health care provider if symptoms progress beyond what feels manageable. If you have trouble functioning at work, home or in your volunteer work, your personal relationships suffer, and you have significant feelings of depression, including suicidal thoughts, it’s time to talk with your doctor. Light therapy, medication and therapy may be recommended to help you get through the winter.

If you can’t escape to a sunny location, get a prevention plan in place. Manage symptoms that come up and seek the advice of your doctor if symptoms get overwhelming. Explore the tools of yoga to awaken your inner light!

5 Ways to Use Yoga to Awaken Your Inner Light in Winter
1. Move – Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Sweep your arms wide and up on INHALE in a sun-like movement. Lower your arms in a sun-like movement on EXHALE. Repeat 6 times.
2. Breathe – Close your eyes. Sense the center space of the chest. As you INHALE, try to feel an expansiveness in the chest. As you EXHALE, hug the navel inward. Do 12 full deep breaths.
3. Use Sound – Use the seed mantra of the heart cakra (energy center), YAM. Inhale, then sound the word on Exhale. This sound creates vibration in the center of the chest. Repeat 6 times.
4. Visualize – Focus your attention on the center of the chest, the cave of the heart. Visualize light, perhaps a beautiful sunrise, the light of a flickering candle, a lighted star atop a Christmas tree, or a sunset. Spend 5 minutes focused on that light. Feel as if the light grows more expansive within and around you.
5. Be Present – Linger longer with the good that comes your way through friends, family, community connections, pets, nature, and faith.

Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, CYT is a Certified Viniyoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist and Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist with 5 Koshas Yoga and Wellness Center and River Flow Yoga in Wausau WI. Mary offers individualized Yoga Therapy and nutrition counseling. She teaches therapeutic and wellness yoga classes, mini-retreats, workshops, webinars and yoga teacher training.