Now that I live in a city where I have to walk and commute through both snow and freezing cold temperatures, I'm finding my willingness to go anywhere except work and home has decreased substantially. Whether we want it to or not, winter very much impacts our yoga practice. How should we approach our yoga classes in a way that doesn't overtax our already stressed minds and nervous systems, but simultaneously helps to combat our winter blues?
The answer lies in finding balance between extremes. In yoga philosophy, there are 3 gunas, which are the qualities of nature. The first, rajas, is that of fire and energy. If I were to attend a very heated class, or move quickly to build internal heat, you might say that I am participating in a rajasic practice. The picture of me in urdhva dhanurasana, or upward facing bow pose, represents this energy. The second, tamas, is that of dullness or inactivity, and is essentially the opposite of rajas. Because winter naturally encourages us to slow down, you could say that the sleepiness and slowness associated with winter makes it a tamasic season. The picture of me in child's pose is meant to convey a more lethargic, or tamasic, quality of mind.
There is, of course, a third guna. Sattva, is a state of balance between the two extremes. My favorite description of sattva is that it is a state of luminosity. To me, it conveys the idea that the balance between rajas and tamas is more than just a compromise or midpoint between the two, but rather something greater than the sum of its parts. In our yoga practice, we can strive to come to this place of balance, so that we are neither overly energetic, nor dull in our approach.
During the winter season, I find that some of my students want to combat the cold weather with a fast, heating, and ultimately rajasic practice. This makes sense because it is not good to overstretch our ligaments when our muscles are cold, and it feels good counteract the natural stiffness in the body. On the other end of the spectrum are my students who want to honor the natural quietness of the season with a slow, introspective, and sometimes restorative practice. This is also beneficial because it allows the body to work at its own pace, and does not require bursts of energy from an already depleted reserve of prana, or life force.
The class that you might normally choose is often dependent on your personality type, and neither option is wrong, in and of itself. The issue lies with how the practice affects the quality of your mind. If you tend to be more aggressive in your approach, and you always choose to take heating classes, you will likely overtax your already stressed nervous system. On the other hand, if you are already tamasic, in your approach to life, and you encourage that energy by always taking slow moving classes, you might actually feed into your sleepiness and prevent yourself from moving very efficiently through life.
Of course it is ideal for everyone to take both forms of classes, at least once in awhile. However, even if you don't, rest assured because you can still find a sattvic quality in your practice if you make it your goal to find more equanimity in your mind. Rather than go through as many vinyasas as possible in your next flow class, perhaps take a moment to check in with your body and breath, and find a way to slow yourself down so that you are neither rushed nor frenetic. Instead of letting yourself fall asleep at your next restorative class and bypass the entire experience, perhaps you can focus on your breath and bring a meditative quality to your mind in order to be more present and attentive.
If you look closely at the pictures of me at the beginning of the blog, you might be able to sense some ease in my upward facing bow pose, or see the activity in my arms in fingers in child's pose. Similarly, if you make it your goal to find an energetic balance in your approach to asana, the answers about how you should practice your yoga during all of the seasons, not just winter, will become clear. With a bit of luck, and a lot of practice, perhaps you can also find a way to carry this out of the studio into the streets when you are feeling too tired to leave your apartment or too excited to rest at home. Above all, stay warm, be well, and find your luminosity!