The holiday season tends to increase the feeling of pinching or pulling on our inner physical landscape—a slow tightening of the shoulders and jawline, and even our fists. We often have that feeling of being “wound up.”
In ayurveda, this tightening is said to be a function of vata dosha, the archetype of mobility, dryness, roughness, and cold that governs the fall and early winter, along with the circulatory system and the mind.
Regardless of whether or not you’re an ayurveda aficionado, it’s important to understand that the qualities of the season also manifest inside our bodies. Notice the bare branches, and the air becoming crisper and lighter. Your mind becomes less grounded, perhaps even a little frantic—you actually have fewer hours of light in each day! We flurry through November and December like snowflakes, until finally the moment arrives—New Year’s Day, the last push, and the last excusable debauch. Like so many marathoners, we drag ourselves across the confetti-strewn finish line…into…FULL BLOWN WINTER.
What if the holiday season didn’t have to feel like this? What if our most complicated deliberation was determining whether we preferred the pumpkin or the holiday spice latte? What if every party left us feeling revitalized and inspired to wake up the next morning, full of the knowledge that people are good? That life, while complicated, is a gift, and that we are a part of something larger and more profound than our to-do lists and our bank accounts? What if, this year, we felt stable, strong, and soothed all season?
If you’re scoffing or making jokes about how “The holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without the hangover,” or “That’s a nice sentiment, but I’m living in reality,” then I implore you to keep reading. Self-care, like everything else, takes diligence and a little guidance from nature. In ayurveda, opposites cure each other, so to balance the dry, dark chill of the season, we all would be best served by seeking more nourishment from our food, our friends, and our daily activities (routine and rest), to help us survive until spring.
If you’re scoffing or making jokes about how “The holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without the hangover,” or “That’s a nice sentiment, but I’m living in reality,” then I implore you to keep reading.
1. Keep a Routine. The holidays tend to bring extra socializing, frequently with people we don’t usually spend a lot of social time with (e.g., co-workers and some family members). This can create a feeling of obligation to say yes to everything, which then leads to irregularity in meals, exercise, and sleep, which throws vata way off.
I’m not saying you should turn down every invitation that doesn’t warm your heart (or am I? hmm…), but I am saying that routine is one of the best ways to combat vata fatigue. When parties conflict with your regularly scheduled yoga class, instead of skipping the thing that anchors you in yourself, say yes to both! Set aside thirty minutes for home practice, and head to the party afterward. You may be in the same room with several people who want your attention, but you do not have to offer yourself up like a sacrificial lamb to every conversation and stay out too late. Clean up, dress yourself up beautifully (because it’s nice to do that every now and then), be kind to others (vata needs love, and regardless of our individual constitutions, we all experience the effects of excess vata this time of year), and go home when you’ve had enough (maybe even set a curfew for yourself). Only you get to say when you’ve had enough. Repeat after me: “This was great! Thank you. I’m going home to get some rest.” Vata loves boundaries.
2. Come to Your Senses. At some point we all give in to the excess that holidays encourage and end up way past our intake limit. This can exacerbate the fatigue that is already part of the increased darkness and lethargy of the season. Whether you experience that with food, drink, or even people, the holidays can bring sensory overload. But keep in mind that your senses are a gateway to subtle self-awareness, not merely perpetrators of instant gratification. Along with the tastes, take time to celebrate also the smells, the visuals, the textures, and the sounds of the holidays. The ayurvedic perspective of the senses is that each is a way for us to know our own nature on a subtler level.
• Smell is the most primal of the senses, and it relates to the earth element, which brings stability, structure, and a feeling of being at home. A great way to use the sense of smell to ground yourself is to add essential oils to your daily routine: Use a scented oil for your morning abhyanga (oil massage) or for on-the-go support (hello, holiday shopping!), carry a small bottle in your purse or pocket and dab a little on your wrists, heart, and behind your ears. Excellent oils for vata season are vetiver, cedar, and sandalwood. Inhale deeply and feel your feet on the ground.
• Taste is the pleasure sense. It relates to water, which brings nourishment, ease, and enjoyment. Taste is a very tricky sense, as its mantra is usually “I want!” So, fine. What, then, do you actually want? What is the essence of your appetite? Ask yourself this question, and then take a few deep breaths. Instead of one more drink, perhaps you actually want to go home, or to have a one-on-one conversation that goes deeper than “Oh my God, aren’t the holidays crazy?!” The most nourishing component of taste is sweetness, and it might not always come in the form of a cookie. Taste each moment. Savor it.
• Sight, what we take in visually connects to the fire element: transformation, digestion, and power. Take in only what you need. There are a lot of commercials and emails and sparkly things vying for your visual attention, but in order to stay steady we have to moderate what we take in through our eyes. Enjoy the added flourishes at the grocery store and the holiday lights on the buildings. Remember that resting our senses is also part of what keeps them healthy and helpful. Give your eyes as well as your mind some extra rest. This is important.
• Touch connects us to our breath and to the air element, which rules movement and change. The mobility of the breath is a function of vata, so it is a very powerful point of focus for this season. We can shift a tremendous amount of energy by breathing intentionally. This is how we make room for ourselves amid the symptomatic jumble of activities induced by the holidays (or life).
When you’re surrounded by chaos, place one hand on your heart (or ask a friend to hold your hand for a moment). This is another excellent opportunity to inquire about your own needs. A steady, even breath, or alternate-nostril breathing, is a fantastic way to restore balance.
• Finally sound, our capacity to hear, relates to the element of ether, which is both the space around us and the container of space. Make space to hear and be heard, especially when disagreement pops up. In excess, the drone of language can be quite disorienting, and increased socializing at this time of year can create a kind of congestion. Use truthful communication, self-expression, and creativity to balance out the chatter.
If you feel guilty for not going to a party or not wanting to socialize, rather than complaining (while you half-heartedly make an appetizer to bring along and then begrudgingly show up and fill the air with small talk), try this instead: Call the host and ask how s/he is doing. Inquire about her/his life, family, and well-being, and listen deeply to what they are sharing. Express your gratitude for your friendship and the invitation to be together. Allow your questions and your caring to create connection. Perhaps at this point you’ll feel inspired to attend the party, or you may have made sufficient connection with your own needs to give yourself permission to stay home this time.
3. Give Yourself Presence This Year. Make a holiday wish list of those things you’d like from yourself—not from Santa, your lover, or your boss. What do you really want to give yourself? Next to each item (on your list of objects, feelings, or activities), write down the action steps required to obtain or achieve it. For example, this year I want to feel rested and healthy, present and at ease. In order to have that, what I actually have to give myself is nourishing homemade food, decent sleep, regular exercise, solitude, and a generous amount of one-on-one time with each member of my family. That’s a lot. If I can’t do it all, maybe that’s okay. But in the spirit of giving and receiving, I’m going to do my best.
The entire holiday season can be a beautiful meditation practice if we enter into it with these sorts of intentions. Just as the meditator steps into the unknown with determination toward gentleness, we must apply ourselves to being willing to hold what arrives within and around us. May we all enter into the season with the determination to be at ease, to be steady, and to stay close to the hearth and the home of our human hearts and bodies.
Instead of making this season (or any season, for that matter) a series of obligations you’re struggling to meet, show up for yourself with generous presence. The Latin phrase is Mihi cura futuri: “The care of the future is mine.”
Remember: Our collective future begins with our personal choices.
For a yoga asana and meditation practice to combat excess vata, go here.