February 1, 2012

Winter Wellness Guide

I think a lot about the creative process: how there are sparks of ideas and bursts of activity followed by periods of inaction. That period of inertia is what always drove me mad. What are we doing if not getting better and moving forward? Something important, it turns out. Like a field that’s given up its harvest, we’re lying fallow: rejuvenating, gathering reserves, collecting our energy for the next big burst.

This, I think, is what is so sweet about winter. When the world slows down, as it naturally does this time of year, we can take the time we need to prepare ourselves for our next surge of growth–whatever that may be. And so we stay close to home, write in our journals, practice yoga, linger over our coffee, and take the time we need to reflect. Its not laziness and it’s not inaction; it’s the practice of shoring up, and equipping ourselves with the care, thought, and ideas for whatever comes next.

In Chinese Medicine, winter is associated with the element water. Water is “the stage of energy before structure; it is potential,” writes Lorena Monda. “To access this phase of transformation, we must create space and quiet within us to mindfully look and listen. We direct this deep looking and listening to the world inside and around us. It is here that we begin to know what we want or what is necessary. It is here that we set our intention.”

Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home. ––Edith Sitwell

Light candles. Even when we’re watching TV and eating dinner on the coffee table, I let a tall pillar candle flicker in view. Scatter candles in the bedroom, neglected corners, the bathroom, and anywhere the flame can bounce off mirrored surfaces to bring a little more warmth home.

Bring in nature. A basket of pine cones. Forced bulbs. Branches of bittersweet on the table or a jade plant by a reading chair. The outside world is sleeping, not dead, and these little touches remind us of that.

Inspire lingering. Encourage couch-reading and daydreaming with linger-long touches: a cozy blanket on the back of a sofa, a soft duvet, big pillows to prop up on for bedtime reading.

Cook. Is there no other time of year more inspiring to stand by the stove and stir, chop this and that, plop it in a roasting pan, and go lie on the couch with a crossword while it roasts away? Also: soup.

Winter’s power is deep…It is a time to conserve energy and resources and not be wasteful with your active, outward energy.”–Staying Healthy with the Seasons

Movement. Spin class might not feel appealing right now, and there’s a reason for that. Chinese medicine says winter is a time for gentle movement, like stretching and brisk walks. Take a walk when the sun is brightest and drop into yoga or dance classes (seriously, zumba is fun!).

Self-Care. I’m fascinated by the tradition of saunas and ritual, social bathing in other cultures. What a beautifully symbolic––and pleasurable!––way to slough off the old and begin anew. Seek out a Korean spa, a holistic-type hot tub by-the-hour rental (they exist!), or as I sometimes do, try to luxe-up the sauna and steam room at the gym with essential oils. Brave and hardy souls can DIY the hot-cold experience in their own shower. There’s also dry-brushing, self-massage, and an old-fashioned soak in the tub. No matter your method, the idea is to cleanse, purify, relax, and to treat your body well. When you’re done, swath yourself in soft fabrics–silk, flannel, crisp cotton.

Reframe the season, letting the cold weather be an impetus in getting your needs met, rather than a hindrance.” ––Aruni Nan Futuronsky

Learn. I spent the last three weekends sitting cross-legged in a yoga studio with eight other students and one teacher. For seven hours a day, we practiced together, and helped each other into handstands; we read philosophy and talked about mind-bending cosmology. I brought home a manual and homework, and felt so happy to be reminded of what it’s like to be a student.

Allow yourself to be inspired by something new, whether that means staying home with a book or podcast, or venturing out for a reading,  museum talk, or a knitting drop-in hour. Whatever you choose, learning can bring some freshness to a gray season.

Pranayama. Alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana pranayama, calms and quiets the mind. If you’re curious about meditation but feel intimidated or directionless, alternate nostril breathing is a great place to start. This rhythmic method of even breathing in and out through one nostril at a time requires enough concentration that your mind may be less likely to drift to your grocery list or what happened at work. Read how to practice alternate nostril breathing here.

Connect and nourish. Fewer seasonal obligations–goodbye office parties and cookie exchanges–mean you can focus your social energy where you truly want to. Connect with people you really like in ways that are meaningful and nourishing.

Reflect. The quiet potential of winter might not be best-suited for taking on big projects and initiating grand plans, but it is the perfect time to take stock and prepare. What makes you feel most alive? How can you bring more joy and gratitude into your daily life? What do you need more of to feel your best, and what could you do without? Let yourself be drawn inward and see what fires are glowing there.

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  • Sarah G: Oh Sarah, thank you thank you thank you for these words. I am currently knee deep in grad school and internships, desperately trying to want to go to the gym, and in the early stages of a kitchen remodel–all good things, but draining nonetheless. As I read through your wisdom I felt my shoulders begin to come down from around my ears, and began to exhale this breath that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in. There’s something magical about being given permission to rest, to restore and take stock. Thank you for that.6 years ago

  • Joanne: I love the winter because it’s the one time of the year that I can easily convince myself that it’s okay to let my chores slide and spend the time curled up in front of the fireplace with my dog and a book. Other times of the year, it seems like the need to be responsible overcrowds the need to relax… but for some reason, the cold outside and the barrenness of the landscape make it okay.6 years ago

  • Sarah R: I suppose then it is no mystery why I felt compelled to buy an orchid at a home-improvement store the other day. I love waking up every morning and seeing the gorgeous purple spikes next to my bed! This time of year, its important to have some little bit of beauty and summer in your life.6 years ago

  • Sarah G, That’s a lot for one woman’s plate! I hope you’re able to find lots of pockets of time to breathe deep and relax.

    Joanne, That sounds like a cozy scene indeed!

    Sarah R, Home Depot has surprisingly lovely orchids, don’t they?6 years ago

  • Kristen: Sarah—Thank you so very much! Lovely thoughts and reflections; they make me excited to nurture different aspects of my winter time life. I appreciate you!6 years ago

  • Lesley: What an inspirational list! I’m going to try to incorporate some of these this month. Only one more month of winter left. 🙂6 years ago

  • Rachel: If there’s anything that could make me miss winter in NYC, it’s this. Beautifully said.6 years ago

  • Monday's Nugget: On the first of the year, Jim brought me home a beautiful calla lily with yellow blooms. He said he saw it in the store and it just seemed right. I think what he was trying to say is exactly what you managed to put into words. Sometimes we need reminders that under the heaviness of winter everything is still alive and vibrant.6 years ago

  • Kristen, Yay! So glad to reenergize your winter life. 🙂

    Rachel, As long as there aren’t those giant dirt-snow-slush puddles at the corners, winter in New York can be great. Ha!

    Monday’s Nugget, What a beautiful, beautiful image. Also, I love this: “under the heaviness of winter everything is still alive and vibrant.”6 years ago

  • Julie: This is just perfect. I read yesterday, and was so inspired, I made a little sugar scrub this morning to use in the shower and put my last paper white bulb into some rocks (I keep a stash in the fridge all winter for when the mood strikes!). You are so great at posts like this!6 years ago

  • Eleanor: This is so interesting to me because my boyfriend is studying for his masters in marine science and was just explaining to me what “water potential” is. I had no idea that people could – and do – measure the potential energy of water, according to wikipedia, because of “the tendency of water to move from one area to another due to osmosis, gravity, mechanical pressure, or matrix effects such as surface tension.”

    When he was describing it to me, I thought, “water potential? Who knew!” Well, now I know who knew. THE CHINESE.6 years ago

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams: Small wonder, then, that I’ve struggled to start anything lately. I’d much rather curl up and read the Little House on the Prairie series for the twelfth time.

    Thanks for this, Sarah. It’s hard to give ourselves permission to relax, but ’tis the season for it.6 years ago

  • Wanda: I Like your blog and love this post. This is exactly how I’ve always felt about winter–you said it perfectly–you got it all.6 years ago

  • Ms. Mischief: Longtime fan of your blog! Why is it that your posts always seem to perfectly express EXACTLY what I am feeling at that particular moment?! This one was no exception–I regularly struggle with those periods of inertia and you perfectly encapsulated everything I feel about winter. Please don’t stop writing!6 years ago

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