What to learn from the autumn and winter season in your yoga practice
Each season has its own characteristics and wisdom. Whether you love autumn and winter or find these seasons challenging, it gives insight into parts of our own nature. It's more about how we practice than what we do. This blog is about eight principles that apply to our yoga practice and beyond.
In Ayurveda, the division of the seasons is slightly different, which is divided into vata, kapha and pitta. The vata season runs from autumn to early winter.
1. Connect to change
So many things are changing, so many remain the same. It's the rhythm in life. Nature around us reminds us of this natural cycle. By following the rhythm of nature - work with its tendencies - the body (that also is part of nature) feels better. It helps us to find balance, over and over again.
However, change can feel so challenging! Yet, there is a lot of wisdom in the yoga practice that can help us to find our way.
Start from where you are, instead of from beyond it. Make sure that you first find some stability (and feel grounded) and mindfully add-on from there. But also don't become rigid. When you stop exploring, the body will become weak, stiff and maybe even (more) painful over time.
Also adapt to new circumstances. What has worked for a long time, might not work anymore in the future. It's an invitation to understand the underlying elements even better. To adjust to the needs of those elements to create or sustain balance.
How can you embrace change on the yoga mat in a way that feels good? And how can you embrace change better off the mat?
2. Letting go
Before the trees are letting go of their leaves, they pull the chlorophyll back into their trunks and thereby preserve its high-quality energy. It's revealing the remaining stored colors, which is causing the change of the colors of the leaves.
After this preparation, the trees let go of their leaves, which helps to survive cold periods because there is less chance of becoming frozen. It helps the trees to stay strong and receptive for change and creation.
Even though the comfort of our homes nowadays requires less adaptability for human beings, we still benefit from the process of letting go to preserve our energy and to become more receptive to creation as well.
But what if letting go feels too difficult? Since our minds often already work full time in autumn (since it’s the Ayurvedic Vata season), it might help to ease into it. In your asana practice, a soothing character of practice might make it more accessible to do the work. To let go of whatever is burning you out.
While we probably all can relate to how letting go shows up in our yoga practice, it’s very personal which yoga poses make you feel that way. It depends on so many factors like personal history, individual body structure and emotional patterns. This also implies that however you feel in a yoga pose, it’s a normal human experience. So please don't compare my or anyone’s experience with yours. All our bodies have their own unique story to tell.
Still, to expand a bit on the feeling aspect, I will use a personal example.
One yoga pose that for me personally is connected to letting go is folding forward in butterfly pose. It's a pose I have been practicing now for more than 30 years; even way before I had even heard of the word "yoga".
From the first time, I have always loved this pose. The letting go in butterfly has always felt so good and soothing in my body because it was feeling gentle (partly due to the structure of my hip joint) but still giving some release.
At the same time, letting go comes in different forms. Ustrasana, camel pose, for example gives me a more active kind of letting-go-feeling by allowing and setting up for expansion in the front side. Similarly, there is not just one way to let go. It comes in so many forms.
Whichever yoga pose you connect to in relation to letting go, can you allow yourself to be there for a while and to observe your breath while being in stillness in this pose? To observe the sensations in your body, both physically and emotionally?
Choose a yoga pose that helps you to feel the process of letting go. Experience it. Observe it. Focus your attention and breathe there.
Nature never questions the status quo. It just works from the current state and takes the next step without trying to skip steps. In the present moment, with creativity, without being rigid.
In our yoga practice we can use that approach by adjusting yoga poses in a way to be truly in the current moment. By finding the balance between stability, challenge and openness. Where there is ease without feeling dull.
It all starts by working from where you are instead and concentrating on what you feel (instead of focusing on what you think the pose should look like).
Maybe by using a prop or choosing a different variation of the pose. And especially by staying curious, by continuing to explore each and every practice, because your (physic and mental) body changes every day.
A pose I work on is pincha mayurasana, forearm stand. Some days I work on the balance while staying close to the wall. Other days are 1 legged dolphin pose days. Another day I face the wall with my face while walking my feet up to a 90 degree angle on the wall to mainly work on strengthening my upper body. And sometimes I put a block between my hands to create more stability in my shoulders, other days I don’t.
The variety of approaches helps me to keep working on the pose, while respecting and allowing my body to be in the process. So whether I feel strong or very tired, I’ll find a way to work on forearm stand without draining myself or wishing I would be able to do more.
Choose a yoga pose you are working on. Observe where you are in this pose. What already goes well and what could use some work? Which skills would you like to add to your toolbox? Can you think of 3 different ways to work on it suitable for different energy levels.
Autumn is the time of harvest (reaping what you sow) and preparing for colder times. Similarly every season is a preparation for the next season.
Just like some (or actually most) poses do not just happen. It’s the many years of practice that create all the necessary elements of mobility and awareness. And the appropriate warm-up, each time over and over again.
Even though my joints are hypermobile (long ligaments) which makes a lot possible in the long term, it doesn’t mean the poses just show up. The thing that shows up is me. How my practice looks now is mostly the effect of a decade of daily practice and spending lots of time with amazing teachers to guide me on the way. And honoring what my body needs by focusing how the pose feels and on creating therapeutic benefits.
I find it valuable to use the time on the yoga mat to prepare for life (instead of focusing on preparing for other yoga postures). Like building strength in your thirties and forties can decrease the chance or degree of osteoporose in menopause later on. And working on your balance now, can save you some critical falls in critical times later. There is much that we can do now to become less fragile in the future.
What kind of yoga practice and/or lifestyle will set you up to stay healthy in 10, 20 or 30 years? What are your weakest links that you would like to make stronger?
Even in change there is familiarity. Things move in cycles. Just like each autumn is followed by winter, spring and summer.
We just have to remember.
Rhythm and experience support trust. And when we don’t know, we can look to nature for its clues. Our bodies are a part of nature too, so they are following the same rhythm.
Know what works for you - how your body moves - and combine it with some curiosity. Our bodies are not set in stone, even though stones are still changed by a constant flow of water. Further, once in a while reflect on what daily rhythm works for you. Probably that is a slightly different rhythm each season.
Still, when listening to the signals our body provides, it’s helpful to distinguish between coping mechanisms and true cause and effect.
Like when our body asks for chilling on the couch with your favorite series and some chocolate. Of course, nothing wrong with that in itself. Still, it might be that your body actually asks for a rhythm that is less exhausting. That it would benefit from a walk in nature and catching some sunlight during the day. Or a yoga nidra session. Or something else that gives the senses some rest instead of exciting the senses even further.
What helps me is to ask myself if something is truly relaxing or if it’s a way of tuning out (to mute the current mood/emotions).
In other words, trust your body, but listen deeply.
What rhythm or experience can you fall back on during challenging times?
Take a simple yet a bit challenging yoga pose. Break the pose down, step-by-step. Take time to feel and breath along each step. Explore what works better for you. Feel which body parts are working for you.
6. Gratitude for the little things
It's so easy to forget to be grateful. Grateful for all the beautiful colors. For pumpkin spices, mushrooms, hot cacao and more of what this season offers. For moments filled with joy, love, connection or beauty.
Or for a yoga pose that used to feel impossible, but you're now so used to just sliding into it, that it's easy to forget the beauty of it.
And also gratitude for patience and equanimity when things don’t seem or feel so shining and bright… these inner qualities are so important to cherish, because they last so much longer!
Also, detachment still allows for a joyful life. Joy can even help to keep your equanimity. Gratitude reveals a harvest that is beyond expectations.
Write down all the things you are grateful for. When you can’t think about anything anymore, take a moment and look around you. Find things around you that you feel grateful for and write them down. Hint: also explore gratitude for your immaterial blessings.
If this exercise is challenging for you, you could write down the things you would like to feel grateful for. It could help to let your mind focus in a different way. Naturally (for survival reasons) our brain is better wired to notice danger, so sometimes it’s hard to see the things that are safe and wonderful. However, once you notice things that you feel grateful for, the easier it gets to perceive more gratitude.
7. Strength while slowing down
There is strength in so many things. Strength in the ability to let go. Strength in feeling all the emotions without going numb or having an outburst. Strength in feeling the muscles work so hard and being okay with it. Strength in showing vulnerability and compassion. Strength of standing up and trying again. Strength of speaking up and listening.
All of these have in common that it's about working from where you are and in respect of both others and yourself. It's all inclusive, creative and organic.
Each season has its own intelligence. Working against it is a waste of energy. Use your strength wisely, just like a strong tree.
Which body part would you like to make stronger? Choose a simple yoga pose to work on that strength and practice it for a moment.
Healing has so many facets and phases. If we look at the plants and trees, they don't have regrets or resentment. Though, they do learn.
As human beings we have consciousness to add to the equation. That has its benefits. Yet, it also comes with the responsibility to use it wisely. Both towards yourself as others.
Autumn and early winter is a good time to find some more quiet time. To use your focus to support your healing process. To make it cozy at home and nourish the body with for example abhyanga massage. To make time to go more inwards. And the habit of asking yourself on a regular basis “darling, how are you doing today?”
Choose a yoga pose of your liking or curiosity.
While exploring the yoga pose, feel your body parts. Feel your emotions. Feel your energy. Also observe what you don’t feel. Not being able to connect to a body part or emotions is completely natural, nothing to worry about, but still notice it. And breathe. Take slow long breaths. Feel your breath moving your body from the inside out.
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