Our yoga practice is there to support us, re-imagining itself in response to what we are navigating at that moment. The winter season, in general, can be particularly challenging, but the riot of December and January is something else. For some people, it is chock-a-block with social and family engagements, for others, the sting of loneliness is overwhelming. You may thrive on twinkly lights and mince pies, or it may be your most dreaded time of year. The cold snaps and cosy dark evenings may be your most comfortable season, or the short days and winter weather may be unfathomably challenging. And it may well be a combination of all or some of those experiences, quite possibly experienced all at once.
Our summer practice guide offered perspectives and practical tips for sustaining a yoga practice during the height of summer and Nourish’s month off. Once again, Nourish is winding down in order for myself and lovely colleagues to better balance our own wellbeing and demands of this time of year without having to stick to our regular work schedules (many of our wonderful teachers are still teaching though — remember, as freelancers we don’t get paid for holidays — so check out what your favourite Nourish teachers are up to!).
So for Nourish’s brief period of festive season hibernation, I have put together some tips for your winter yoga practice — with an emphasis on creating a yoga practice that helps keep you grounded and supported across your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing at this time of year.
What Does A Winter Yoga Practice Look Like?
Well, that’s up to you. There is a lot of advice floating around out there that to align with the colder, darker months, our practice should be gentler and more introspective… that may suit some people, but it definitely won’t be true for everyone.
You may also hear that your yoga practice is restricted in some way because the cold means the body is less flexible at this time of year. This is a particularly infuriating comment, as whilst your movement and mobility may be influenced by seasonal change, it also may not be. But worst of all, statements like this conflate yoga more broadly, and asana specifically, with ranges of movement.
A more helpful place to start is acknowledging that there may be changes, and not just weather-induced physical changes. Our practice will be affected by how busy we are, how disrupted our usual routines are, our mental health and overall wellbeing (particularly if you are prone to winter-related Seasonal Affective Disorder). These sorts of changes can affect our practices at any time of year — just as your mobility and energy can vary for whatever reason, whenever. For many people, however, the flavour of this time of year may be affected by Christmas (and whatever that means to you) or seasonal shifts more generally.
So in terms of your body and energy level, a winter asana practice is whatever feels right for you on any given day whether that is slower and more gentle styles, or more dynamic fiery movement.
There are no hard and fast rules. The intention of these tips are to help you tune in and adjust your approach to yoga, from day to day, practice to practice, to support you best at this time.
Three Tips to Set Up Your Winter Practice
1. Strike Yoga off Your To-Do List
This doesn’t mean swearing off or avoiding yoga altogether. It means finding ways to connect to your practice so it doesn’t feel like a chore, coming with the stresses of yet another thing that has to be done.
When we approach yoga as a thing to be done it can become a drain on our energy, and most of us don’t have a lot of spare energy going at this time of year as it is! Instead, explore ways in which your yoga practice can nourish you somehow, or at the very least not become a chore or mildly stressful experience. Figuring out your yoga values can be a great place to start.
2. Reflect on Your Yoga Values
Your yoga values are both why you practice and what you would like to cultivate or uncover more of through practice. These can be physical, as well as social, practical, and psychological. For example, yoga can be a way to feel more at home in your body, to have fun, support your social justice work, connect with your personal agency, show up for your community, help you to be more accepting of yourself and other people, find a little more space, take more risks, say no, say yes, express yourself uninhibitedly, cultivate kindness or generosity, find an okayness with not being okay, relinquish control, help establish control of the things within your power, better handle unexpected change.
Your yoga values may well be the same as, support, or intersect with values in other areas of your life. Infusing your practice with values not only helps to undo unhelpful attitudes to yoga (such as needing to ‘achieve’ a certain asana, meditating for 20-minutes every day, or measuring your worth by your strength or flexibility), but the yoga mat is a pretty low stakes environment. It’s more manageable to explore being kind to yourself or having a little more freedom and fun in the contained space of a yoga practice than when out in the world.
At this time of year specifically, our yoga values or intentions can be oriented to what we need more of. Be that rest, rolling around on the floor, shutting the door (metaphorically and literally) on everything else going on in your life, or a minute to catch your breath. Your values for your practice do not need to be deeply profound and transformative, often a bit of lightness and silliness is what we need more of.
If you are a fan of new year’s resolutions, then instead of challenging yourself to work towards achieving certain physical asana or attending a certain number of classes per week, you can develop some resolutions that align with your yoga values.
If reflecting on your yoga values through reading, journaling, and having some good conversations is as far as you go with your festive yoga practice, then that is great. Once you have your values in place, you can develop a self-practice built around them.
3. Develop a Self-Practice
An upheaval to your regular yoga studio practice is common at this time of year, whether that’s because they are running a reduced timetable, because you are away visiting friends or family, or perhaps making it to your favourite class just doesn’t happen.
Having a regular yoga practice can act as a resourcing home base you can call on at your own convenience. If you have never considered a self-practice or have toyed with the idea but are not sure where to start, then our guide to deepening and developing your home practice will set you up.
I can’t emphasise enough that it shouldn’t be yet another chore you need to squeeze into your day — it can take five minutes or be five breaths. It won’t necessarily include regular asana, pranayama, or meditation. It can be a time for you to figure out whatever it is you need in that moment. It may also be committing to practising a full class once a week (and forgiving yourself if you don’t).
If you are looking for some guidance in your asana practice, then of course, Nourish’s Community Practice Library is there for you! (A subscription to the Practice Library also makes a fabulous Christmas gift, even if I do say so myself!)
Practical Tips for Self-Practice During Winter Months
Give Your Body What It Needs
A few deep breaths, some cat-cows to ease out the spine, a couple of fiery sun salutations, joint mobilisation through chair yoga, or an extra-long Shavasana. It doesn’t need to be asana based; it can be a brisk walk, dancing around your living room, or going to the gym.
Looking after our physical wellbeing undoubtedly can support our overall mood and mental health. However, if you struggle with time/motivation/anything at all over the festive period, or winter more generally, forcing yourself to do a whole yoga class may add more stress than help. Some sort of movement, as and when you can, is enough. Try honouring your body’s needs over the desires of your mind, whether that is by doing less, moving more, taking rest, or a gentle stretch.
Pranayama or just a few mindful breaths are my go-to practice at busy times. Firstly, you can take a deep breath just about anywhere. Secondly, there is a vast amount of evidence and research supporting the positive physiological effects of slow, deep breathing — especially for helping to calm the nervous system, which is what you want in stressful or high octane situations. Thirdly, you can squeeze a yoga practice that has welcoming, soothing effects on the mind and body into three or fewer minutes.
Nourish’s pranayama guides outline everything you need for finding pranayama practices that work for you:
- Three-Part Breath, a great foundational, deeply restorative, pranayama practice.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing, a lovely balancing and soothing practice.
- Brahmari, a gorgeous practice that not only tunes you into your voice but can help you tune out the outside world.
Take Care of Your Mind
This may be through meditation — we have a lovely guide and recording for Loving-Kindness (Metta) meditation, which may help with extending some love and tolerance to any, ahem, ‘challenging’, family members you encounter at this time of year.
However, meditation is difficult enough at the best of times, but when you are tired, busy, and possibly hungover, committing to a regular meditation practice may not be the most helpful approach. Expanding on your yoga practice by reading or listening to podcasts about yoga is an excellent way to keep you mentally supported. Personally, I find this to be an effective way to keep me grounded and connected to yoga when I am super busy, distracted, and unable to be present in my practice. Uncovering more of the philosophy or values of yoga beyond asana is a lovely way to be more gentle with myself and support my mental wellbeing.
- Our number one recommendation would have to be Nourish’s own, recently launched, podcast In Our Experience. I talk all things yoga and many non-yoga things that somehow segue into yoga with some of the most interesting people I know!
- Michael Stone was the master of connecting traditional yoga and Buddhist philosophy and principles to contemporary life. I recommend Awake in the World to everyone.
- Poetry Unbound is not about yoga, but if you are looking for a gorgeous, soothing, expansive 10-15 minutes to navigate life through poetry, then this one is for you.
- Some blog posts of ours that offer insights on the practice of yoga, yoga philosophy, and how yoga intersects with our lives off the mat:
- Michael Stone also wrote some excellent books on yoga philosophy.
- Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi
- The Practice is the Path by Tias Little
Take That Extra five (or 45) Minutes in Bed
I see no reason why some extra time under the covers can’t be embraced as a yoga practice. Extra time in bed can be spent:
- taking a mindful five minutes
- doing some gentle, reclined pranayama
- practising bed yoga, lots of Restorative and Yin yoga asana can be practised in bed
- talking with your favourite person
Whatever form your yoga practice takes over the coming weeks and months, let it be as supportive and stress-free as possible!
From all of us at Nourish we wish you a joyful, fun-filled festive season! We can’t wait to connect with you again in the New Year.