There is one thing we can depend on in life: everything is in a state of flux. Change is the only constant experience. Paradoxical, unpredictable, chaotic, and yet this fixed principle of being alive lends itself to creativity, transcendence and invites us to stay interested. We have good reason to stay interested, too, because our health depends on our alignment with the ever-changing forces of nature. Skillfully attuning our organism to time (which, by the way, is change) is a major factor in determining whether we live a life of ease or dis-ease.
What does this mean on a practical level? Eastern medicine (like Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine) operates on the understanding that human beings are the microcosm and nature/the universe is the macrocosm. Most of us apply common sense to align ourselves with changing weather patterns, or the time of day by, for example, pulling our jacket tighter when a cold wind blows, and avoiding coffee as a bedtime drink. These small acts of good judgment protect our health, but, let’s face it, most of us suffer from myriad symptoms like fatigue, indigestion, depression, or allergies to name a few, that indicate we are not in optimal alignment with our environment. Ayurveda (literally, “the science of life”) offers invaluable healthcare guidelines for attuning ourselves more consciously to nature’s rhythms.
Like the German poet Friedrich Schiller said, “Never does Nature say one thing and wisdom another.” Time of day, time of one’s life, and the time of year, Ayurveda tells us, should all be considered if one wishes to live a healthy, harmonious life. Let’s take an overview of one of these principles: the seasons (time of year), starting with the always much-anticipated springtime.
Ahhh, spring, with her warm sun, running streams, blooming flowers and - ah-ah-ah-choooo! - runny noses. It is such a bummer when stuffy sinuses or a generalized heaviness in the body-mind tempers our experience of the euphoric warmth of the sun’s rays or the pleasure of seeing the first crocuses peak through the frost. Frequent complaints during the spring include allergies, lethargy and congestion. The body is trying to shed its heavy winter coat of mucous and fat. What served to keep our sinuses lubricated and our organs insulated during the cold, dryer months needs to melt just like the snow is melting. We would be wise to support the body in this effort! Spring invites an inner buoyancy and upward moving energy to our lives. Like colorful flowers bursting through the surface of a warming, softening earth, we can mirror this natural process by enjoying dynamic exercise that warms, lightens, and invigorates our minds and our circulatory and lymphatic systems. A heating, strong yoga practice like the sun salutation series is ideal, providing it’s done with attention to keeping the body supple and not rigid. Overworking the muscles exacerbates conditions of stagnation. After all, a flower can’t bloom through hard earth! Inversions and backbends are great as they relieve congestion and open the lungs, respectively.
In terms of diet, the junction of winter and spring is the quintessential time to do a thorough cleanse. It’s recommended that we minimize heavy, hard to digest food like cold dairy, meat, sweets, and fatty fried food. Eating lighter in general, with our largest meal at lunchtime and vegetarian soup at dinner provides the liver with much needed detoxification while we sleep. Rising with the sun and finding time to dance, sing, start new projects, and express joy are great ways to embody the lightness of being that spring invites. As the days grow longer and hotter we will find ourselves adapting to summer with ease if the heaviness of late winter and early spring is not lingering in our systems like mud under a canoe. It will only be harder to get “unstuck” in the summer when the heat requires us to slow down.
There is a general principle in Ayurveda that “like increases like.” During the summer when it’s hot outside we may notice symptoms of heat in our bodies or minds like skin rash, loose stools or irritability. Sunbathing, eating spicy food, arguing, and drinking coffee exacerbates these symptoms. It’s recommended to “treat with opposite” qualities. Cooling diet and lifestyle practices such as moon-bathing, swimming, avoiding the mid-day sun, wearing colors like white and blue, and enjoying a light diet full of locally grown veggies are ways to pacify the conditions associated with excess heat. Coconut, watermelon and salad are great summertime treats. Essential oils like sandalwood and rose cool the body-mind. Exercise is best done in the early morning or evening to avoid overheating the system, and as a general rule, back off to 75% of your typical effort. Yin yoga, or a calmly paced yoga flow that incorporates wide-legged forward folds and twists with elongated exhalations is ideal for a summer practice.
Socially and creatively, summer is the time to be in “full bloom.” Take advantage of longer days and warm evenings outdoors, basking in the light of your full expression.
As the weather turns cooler and dryer and trees begin to lose their leaves we can take it as a hint that it’s time to turn our senses inward. Nature is pulling her energy down and into the earth during fall in preparation for the colder months. Our nervous system can easily become frazzled if we don’t commit to a daily contemplative practice that mirrors nature’s inward-drawn direction. Meditation, prayer, and taking a “time out” for relaxation each day are a few ways to interiorize and stabilize our attention. A slow, even rhythm of breathing while practicing yoga or exercising, and cultivating fluidity, flexibility and strength in the lower body, is ideal for balancing our body-mind in the fall.
Physically and emotionally, fall and early winter can provoke dry skin, constipation, anxiety and insomnia. Routine becomes a key antidote. Strong immunity and digestive health are promoted by regularity and it is advised to eat meals at the same time every day, go to bed by 10pm and rise by 5:30am, and apply warm sesame oil to the entire body (abhyanga) before showering as a routine. In terms of diet, we can counter the dry, cold qualities of the fall by eating well-spiced, warm, cooked food and avoiding cold or iced food and drink, raw vegetables, dry fruit, crackers and yeasted breads. Kitchari (curried mung bean soup with vegetables and basmati rice) is ideal throughout fall and winter. Favor root vegetables like sweet potatoes, and enjoy fresh dates and soaked almonds as a snack.
Fall practices carry over through mid-winter as we hunker down. As the astute reader might suspect, winter is a time of hibernation and incubation. We must patiently tend both our internal digestive fire, and our soul’s creative fire to keep our bodies warm and our minds inspired. Spices like ginger and cinnamon stoke the metabolism and improve circulation. Painting, writing, consciously parenting our kids, making music or doing whatever inspires our soul stokes our creative fire, and keeps that vital internal spark lit even as cold winds howl and piles of snow leave us with limited visibility. Like the squirrels that bury and then ration their seeds, faithful that there is enough to get them through the frozen months, we too must protect and nourish the seeds of our creative ideas so they are ready for full expression with spring’s arrival.
There is a saying “where the attention goes the energy flows.” In any season we have the opportunity to observe the wisdom of the natural world and align ourselves with that sacred rhythm. Living this way, interested in seeing and adjusting to the constant flux of life, yields an ease of well-being, vitality and joy, which is our birthright.
“…There is a season turn, turn, turn. And a time to every purpose under heaven…”