by Karson McGinley: This winter, get on your yoga mat to get in harmony with the season and warm your body from the inside out…
Ayurveda teaches that winter is a primarily a Kapha season, with a strong influence of Vata energy. In the Ayurvedic healing system, like attracts like and opposites balance, so during this chilly season, you’ll want to invite grounding and warming postures into your practice to balance Vata’s cold and dry qualities. Meanwhile, stoking your inner flame with twists and invigorating postures will help to bring Kapha’s heavy and moist qualities into greater balance.
While you might feel tempted to go into hibernation mode during winter, it can be beneficial to get your heart pumping and create some heat from within. Try stringing together this collection of 10 yoga poses that will promote balance, well-being, and alignment with nature.
1. Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
From all fours, tuck your toes under and lift your hips into an inverted “V” shape. Pedal your feet and sway your hips a few times to settle into the pose, and as you are ready to find stillness, lift your seat a little higher as you stretch down through your heels. Focus on finding a firm base of support through your hands and balls of your feet. As you breathe deeply, find a balance point between the upper body and lower body, with the weight distributed evenly between all four points of contact. Allow stillness to spread throughout your nervous system as you hold the pose for as long as you like.
Wintertime benefits: Downward Facing Dog both invigorates and calms the nervous system, making it a perfect posture for finding harmony. It creates a sense of integration and balance between the right and left sides, as well as between the upper and lower body. In the winter, focus on firm and steady holding to balance the Vata energy, and imagine drawing earth energy up through your hands and into your lungs to balance Kapha.
2. Crescent Lunge (Ashta Chandrasana)
Step your right foot forward into a lunge, keeping your back leg strong and straight. Come upright with your hands on your hips as you find stability and balance between your legs. Feel free to widen your feet from right to left to find greater solidity in the pose. Lift your hips points toward your lower ribs, so as to create greater freedom in your lower back. When you are ready, stretch your arms overhead, while drawing the heads of the upper arm bones back into their respective shoulder sockets. Relax the shoulders, face, and eyes, as you gaze out over the horizon line. Hold for several breaths and then repeat on the second side.
Wintertime benefits: In general, standing poses build stamina, heat, and strength. Crescent Lunge, in particular, teaches you to face life with an open heart, directly and honestly. As you work to face your hips and heart straight ahead, you get clear about your direction in life, while remaining grounded and secure in the present moment. By focusing on your balance and having a clear relationship with the foundation of your pose, you help to balance Vata energy. To harmonize the Kapha elements of winter, consider mindfully sweeping your arms up and down as you breathe to release stagnation and stuck energy from your heart space.
3. Revolved Prayer Lunge (Parivrtta Ashta Chandrasana)
Return to Crescent Lunge with your right leg forward, and bring your right hand to your right hip. Keeping as much length as you can in your torso, begin to twist vertically to the right, allowing the upper body to tilt forward when you can’t go any further. Hook your left elbow outside your front thigh, and bring your hands to a prayer position. Press your hands strongly into one another, drawing the shoulders onto your back body, and rotate your torso toward the right thigh. Sense the spiral of energy moving around your spine and use your breath to spread that energy all the way up and down your body. Draw the navel in toward your spine as you take several breaths in this shape. Repeat on the second side.
Wintertime benefits: Revolved Prayer Lunge provides a powerful massage for the internal organs, which can be beneficial during Kapha season when digestion can sometimes be lagging. The deep twisting action stimulates elimination, and counteracts the sluggishness of a Kapha imbalance. Twists are also naturally heating poses, making them ideal in the cooler Vata months. As you bring heat and vitality to the core, invite that energy to move up into your lungs, promoting a healthy respiratory system.
4. Triangle (Trikonasana)
Begin in a wide standing posture. Turn the right foot out at a 90-degree angle and ensure the outer edge of your left foot aligns with the short edge of your yoga mat. Press your feet evenly into the earth, activating your legs and drawing the muscles in toward the bones. Lift your arms to shoulder height and extend out through your fingertips. Reach out through your right arm, stretching as far forward as possible while drawing the right hip back and down; allow your pelvis to tip to the right. Bring your right hand to your right shin or to the outside of your shin for stability; left arm reaches straight up to the sky.
Feel the sacred triangular shapes you are making with your legs and in the space between your bottom arm and front leg. Breathe into the whole body while feeling a strong sense of integration at your center. Squeeze your legs together to come up and out of the pose, and then repeat on the second side.
Wintertime benefits: Practicing Triangle pose in winter helps to balance your entire system physically and energetically. Strong legs ground your Vata energy, while an open heart and expanded center enliven any heavy Kapha energy. Almost all of your muscles are working in this pose, yet the shape promotes balance, calm, and a deep sense of peace.
5. Side Plank (Vasisthasana)
From Downward Facing Dog, bring your feet together and spin your heels to the right, stacking your feet. As you shift your weight into your right arm, be sure to keep the crease of your right elbow facing forward so as to maintain proper shoulder alignment. Bring your left hand to your hip, or straight up to the sky, as you lift through both hips. For an added challenge, keep the big toe ball mounds of your feet together, but bring your heels slightly apart from one another. Release the pose by carefully returning to Downward Facing Dog, and then lowering to your knees to rest between sides.
Wintertime benefits: Side plank firms and tones the entire body. It strengthens the shoulder girdle, wrists, arms, and chest, as well as the obliques, glutes, and legs. Because it is a challenging pose, it improves concentration, which is helpful for keeping the mind sharp during the darker, colder months. If you have trouble finding your balance due to excess Vata energy, try lowering your bottom knee to the ground and holding for a longer period of time.
6. Fierce Pose (Utkatasana)
Begin standing with your big toes together to touch. With strong legs, bend the knees as if you were sitting back into an invisible chair. Keep your sacrum lengthening down toward the earth and the abdominals drawing in to keep a neutral curve in your low back. Keep the weight back in the heels, as opposed to shifting forward into your toes. Stretch out through your fingertips, with your arms either in front of you at shoulder height or up alongside your ears. Release into Mountain pose or into a forward folding posture to release your spine.
Wintertime benefits: As its name suggests, this pose promotes a sense of strength, empowerment, and internal fortitude. It is also one of the most efficient poses for building heat in your body in just a few breaths. Utkatasana strengthens not only all of your major muscles, but also all of your major joints and bones, making it extremely powerful in every sense of the word. As you ground down through your legs and tone your belly, you decrease Vata energy while you build your inner fire, promoting strong digestion and willpower that can sometimes be lacking in Kapha season.
7. Crow Pose (Bakasana)
From a forward bend, squat down with the feet together and the knees apart. Place your hands firmly on the ground, just as they were for Downward Facing Dog, with a firm base of support beneath the webbing between your thumbs and forefingers. Lift your hips high, place your knees into your armpits; allow your shins to rest on your upper arms like a shelf. Keep squeezing your feet energetically toward the midline as you shift your weight forward and lift your feet off the ground. Looking forward will help prevent you from falling forward.
Note: You can always place a pillow or bolster under your head just in case you do fall. Rock in and out of the pose a few times before holding for as long as you can.
Wintertime benefits: Crow Pose builds strength and stamina and gets your heart pumping. Focus on being simultaneously grounded and light in your energy, and see if it becomes easier to take flight. To treat Vata imbalance, keep hugging the muscles to the bones and squeezing in toward the midline. For Kapha imbalance, keep your hips high and keep looking forward rather than down below your face.
8. Headstand (Sirsasana)
Note: This pose is not recommended for absolute beginners or anyone with neck issues.
Begin on all fours, and lower to your forearms with your elbows shoulder-width apart. Interlace your fingers and cradle the back of your head on the floor. Press down so much with the elbows and forearms that the shoulders lift away from the ears and there is minimal weight in the head and neck. Tuck your toes under and walk your feet in toward your head. Strongly engage your core muscles and tuck your knees into your chest as you lift your feet off the floor. Slowly extend both legs straight up to the sky, creating a long line of energy from the crown of the head to the tips of the toes. Hold for a few breaths or several minutes, coming down as mindfully as you went up.
Wintertime benefits: Founder of Iyengar yoga, BKS Iyengar, called Headstand the “king” of all poses due to its extensive list of benefits. When done in proper alignment, it strengthens and aligns the arms and shoulders, while bringing circulation to the face, neck, and brain. Headstand reverses the effects of gravity on the lungs and internal organs, bringing greater vitality and a boost to the immune system. Energetically, Headstand is meditative in nature, yet energizes and increases stamina. If you have excess Vata energy, try using a wall for support. To balance Kapha, try some mindful movements with your legs while in the pose.
9. Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
Sit on the ground with both sitting bones rooted evenly. Bring the sole of your right foot to the floor outside your left thigh as you bring your left foot around so the heel is in contact with your right hip. Interlace your fingers around your right shin and lengthen your spine as you inhale deeply. As you exhale, twist to the right, bringing your right fingertips to the floor behind you. Your left hand can either keep hugging your shin, or you can cross your elbow outside your leg for added leverage in the twist. Turn your gaze to look over your right shoulder. To exit the pose, unwind your spine as you inhale, and slowly release before taking the second side.
Wintertime benefits: This seated twist massages the digestive organs and promotes healthy elimination, while at the same time calming the nervous system. It stimulates lymph flow and the immune system, which is helpful during cold and flu season. This pose also opens the rib cage for deeper breathing and respiratory health.
10. Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Lie down on your back and lengthen through your legs. Roll your legs in and out from the midline a few times, letting them naturally fall open and rest. Draw your shoulder blades onto your back, flipping your palms face up and open across your chest. Close your eyes with your head in a neutral position. Take a deep breath and release any effort to control your breath. Sense the natural intelligence of all the systems in your body as you rest here for five to 20 minutes.
Wintertime benefits: Savasana is extremely calming and balancing for the entire system, and it aligns with the energy of winter that calls for rest and restoration. If you have trouble settling down due to excess Vata energy, try using props like sandbags, blankets, or a bolster. If you feel like you will instantly fall asleep due to a lot of Kapha energy in your system, challenge yourself to maintain awareness as you allow your body to rest.
Yoga is beneficial at all times of the year, but by aligning how you practice with the season, you come into greater harmony with nature, and therefore feel at greater ease in mind, body, and spirit. Consistency also helps balance you during the winter months, so try to practice as regularly as you can, even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day. The more you practice, the more deeply you will feel the effects, giving yourself a gift that will last long beyond the winter season.