As the seasons shift, so do our bodies and minds. This guide to maintaining balance in the winter will take you through the Ayurvedic dietary and self-care practices that will best support you to optimize your health and well-being, how to maintain balance and a peaceful mind this winter.
Follow the Flow of Nature and Slow Down
If we follow the flow of nature and observe what is happening around us, we will see that as the seasons shift from fall to winter, nature starts to slow down, animals hibernate, leaves fall from the trees, it gets darker earlier, and there is a natural pause. Winter offers a great opportunity for us to follow this flow of nature and slow down.
Winter brings a specific set of qualities that can either pacify or aggravate our unique way of being. For some of us, the cold of winter will agitate us and for others it will make us feel better. By understanding Ayurveda, yourself, the qualities present in winter, and adjusting your nutrition and lifestyle choices, you can stay balanced and healthy.
My goal with this guide is to share with you an overview of Ayurvedic principles that are easy to adapt to your life, so you can feel your best this winter. This guide will cover:
If you are new to Ayurveda or want a refresher check out my "Introduction to Ayurveda" blog.
I hope you enjoy learning some of the wonderful tools Ayurveda has to offer!
Living in the Winter Season According to Ayurveda
It’s important to not just pay attention to the time of year, but what is the weather doing and how do those qualities impact your doshas (unique constitution) – think about:
Likes increase likes and opposite balance.
In California and especially the Bay Area, the weather drastically can change in one day and for sure within a week. It might be sunny and warm at lunch, but by dinner the fog comes and now kapha is more present with its damp cool qualities.
The prominent doshas present in the winter are kapha (primary) and vata (secondary). At the start of winter (especially at the transition from fall to winter), it is often cold and dry, which disturbs vata. As winter progresses, the cold and damp weather begins to increase kapha (especially in late winter). In general, pitta constitutions do better in winter because of their fire element which keeps them on the warmer side.
Winter Months: December, January February (end of November can be included as it is a seasonal transition)
Winter Elements: water, earth, air
Winter Gunas (qualities): heavy, cold, wet, slow, dense, cloudy, static, dry, cold, windy, clear
Gunas to balance winter qualities: warm, dry, light, stimulating (vata & pitta)
Kapha provides us with the stability to navigate the winter season, but it needs support from vata with its qualities of lightness and movement, plus pitta’s initiative, otherwise we will want to hibernate and curl into a ball until spring.
Ayurvedic Nutrtion Guidelines for Winter
We can handle heavier foods this time of year because there is more kapha present and we need these qualities to stay warm and healthy during the winter season. There can be a tendency to gain weight to keep warm for the winter, but don’t stress this extra weight gain will shed off in the spring if the doshas stay balanced. It’s important to not overindulge (a kapha habit) during the holidays, so don’t use that as an excuse to gain weight.
General rule for winter: include healthy fats in your diet (ghee, sesame oil, olive oil), avoid raw and cold foods, enjoy warm nourishing foods, warm and hot drinks.
People who have kapha as their prominent constitution can do light fasting for a day or two, especially if they are feeling heavy (drink water and some apple or pomegranate juice during fasting). A good time to do a cleanse is specifically during the transition between seasons. The heavy, cold and damp qualities of winter provokes kapha, which leads to wet cough, colds, flu, and sinus congestion.
Balance these qualities with light, warm and dry foods, drinks, clothes, activities, etc. to not increase kapha in the body. So if you have a tendency towards these kapha challenges in the winter, cleaning the doshas that have accumulated in the body during the fall can really help remove excess kapha, which will keep you healthy in the winter.
In the body kapha is in charge of growth, building and strength, which enhances our natural immunity. So if you can keep kapha balanced through winter you are looking at a healthy season. Echinacea is a good herb to use during winter because it supports kapha and the immune system, so if you're needing an extra immune boost take some echinacea.
Enjoy the following list of ideal winter foods that have been recommended by important Ayurvedic figures like Vasant & Usha Lad and John Douillard.
Try to avoid raw and cold vegetables. Enjoy warm roasted, steamed or sautéed veggies. Soup and curry are great winter foods.
Leeks & Onions
Meat & Fish
If you eat meat, winter is a good time to do it because agni (digestive fire) is strong. In the fall the body starts to store fats and proteins for the winter, so the body needs more of these things (see ‘Oil’ and ‘Legumes’ below). Eggs are considered meat in Ayurveda.
Eat these moist, warm and with a healthy oil to help balance vata. If you notice a feeling of heaviness (kapha) eat less grains.
White & brown rice
In Ayurveda, fruit is typically eaten on its own separate from other meals. Some fruits can be cooked into food and then it’s considered ok.
Apples (cooked with cinnamon)
Limes and Lemons
Use these good fats to cook and add to meals to help balance vata in winter. Pay attention to the gunas present in your body and environment. If dry, rough, sharp and hard are present then add more oil. If you are feeling heavy/sluggish (kapha) physically, mentally or emotionally, use less oil and lighter oil like coconut or sunflower oil.
In general during winter you want to avoid dairy because of the kapha qualities. However it is a good source of fat and protein. Avoid eating cold dairy, place it out on the counter 1-2 hours before eating.
Cow's Milk (warmed)
Goat's Milk (warmed)
Nuts & Seeds
A great source of protein, especially in the winter. According to Ayurveda, you should only have about a handful of nuts a day. In the winter time this can be increased.
Good for kapha and a great source of protein. Use warming spices, cook them thoroughly and add a dollop of ghee or other oil to pacify vata.
Lentils (brown and red)
Always try to use natural sweeteners when possible and use in moderation.
Honey (never cooked)
Typically all spices are good in the winter, especially warming spices like ginger, pepper, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, and mustard seeds.
Avoid cold and iced drinks. This is not the time of year for smoothies.
Warm or hot water (kapha can add lemon, vata can add ginger, pitta can add mint)
Black tea & coffee in moderation (good for balancing the sluggishness of kapha)
Red wine is actually recommended in Ayurveda during the winter because it’s heating, improves digestion and circulation (only 4 oz before or after dinner)
Winter Meal Suggestions
Breakfast: Spiced oatmeal, cornmeal, barley soup, kitchari / drink warming tea (dry ginger, cinnamon, clove - pinch)
Lunch: Kapha soothing & vata balancing – whole wheat bread, steamed or roasted vegetables, lentil or bean soup, plus add some extra healthy fat to the food (ghee, coconut oil, olive oil), if you eat meat have some turkey, chicken, fish or eggs
Snacks: Seasonal winter fruit that is pacifying in kapha and vata (pay attention to how you feel and what your constitution is – kapha predominant should avoid snaking)
Dinner: Typically you want to eat a lighter dinner and it can be similar to lunch foods. If your constitution is kapha or you feel heavy you can eat a lighter dinner or skip it all together. Vata should never skip a meal.
Ayurvedic Lifestyle Guidelines for Winter
Kapha is slow and steady, so don’t rush in the winter. Remember to take time for yourself amongst all the holiday socializing.
The shorter days, darker nights, and cold, gray weather of winter tends to bring us down, and we lose motivation, feel lonely, dull, and attached (kapha qualities). To counter this, connect to a purpose for the winter season and find the motivation to push through the sluggishness, you will feel better!
Wear bright warming colors to lift your mood and bring more color into your life during the grayer months. Dress in layers to keep warm. You lose 60% of your body heat through your head, so when it’s cold outside wear a hat, plus cover your neck and ears.
More sleep is allowed in the winter so the body can restore, but sleeping too much can increase kapha so ideally go to bed around 10 or 11 pm and wake up around 7am to feel energized. Napping increases kapha, slows the metabolism, and reduces agni (digestive fire). It gets darker earlier in the winter and evening comes sooner inviting a more restful time, so naps aren't needed.
According to Ayurveda, you can have more sex in the winter because it’s kapha time and that is the stronger constitution that can withstand the energy of sex.
Surround yourself with people who bring you joy. Nurture relationships that feel supportive, make you laugh, and have fun. Winter is a good time for connecting, but remember to also take time for yourself. Winter is a time to slow down, turn inward, and reflect. The heavy and slow qualities of winter provide a rare opportunity and even an excuse to check-in with yourself and retreat.
Establish a routine that feels supportive during these winter months. Take it easy, don't rush or put too much pressure on yourself, but also keep some energy flowing to not fall into the kapha trap of laziness.
Wake up around 7am and start your day with an energizing routine. Go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, clean your tongue.
Start your day with a cup of warm water to awaken your digestive system.
Take a warm shower and get dressed in bright colors that bring you joy.
Have a warm breakfast.
Enjoy your day and don't rush, take it easy, and remember to take breaks.
Take time to sit down and eat lunch. Eat warm nourishing foods, avoid raw and cold foods.
Continue your day with ease and at a pace that feels good.
Have a lighter, healthy, and warm dinner. Try to finish eating before 7pm.
Before bed, have a cup of warm milk spiced with a pinch or 2 of turmeric, ginger, and cardamon to help get the body read for sleep. You can even add a little bit of ghee or coconut oil to it (good to balance vata).
Be off electronics by 8 or 9pm and try to wind down for sleep by 10 or 11pm.
Daily exercise for 15-30 minutes is one of the easiest ways to stay healthy in winter, especially exercise that gets the heart rate up, is great for the circulation, digestion, and keeps kapha in check. The best time to exercise is during the kapha part of the day between 6-10am (or between 6-10pm if you don’t have time in the evening).
During the winter laziness or lethargy can take over, so use the moving quality of vata and the stimulating quality of pitta to motivate you to move daily. Pay attention to what qualities are present and use the opposite to balance through exercise. If you feel run down, do vata-pacifying exercise like walking or QiGong. If you’re feeling sluggish, give kapha a kick and push yourself with a tough hike or long bike ride.
Ski / Snowshoe
Tai Chi & QiGong
Winter Yoga Practices
Asana: During the winter you want to maintain a more active practice to stimulate the body, preserve warmth, and increase circulation to prevent the common winter diseases. This style of practice will keep both kapha and vata balanced in winter.
Sun salutations / Surya Namaskar
Camel / Ustrasana
Fish / Matsyasana
Warrior I & II / Virabhadrasana I & II
Locust / Salabhasana
All Chest Openers
Boat / Navasana
Shoulderstand / Sarvangasana
Bow / Dhanurasana
Headstand. / Sirsasana
Cobra / Bhujangasana
Reverse Warrior / Viparita Virabhadrasana
Pranayama: Breath control practices that are heating and bring a sense of lightness to the mind are great for the winter. Prana is the life force within us: it is our breath, and we can use it as a tool to keep us balanced. In winter you want to do breath practices that promote circulation, improves digestion, and creates heat in the body.
Bhastrika (Bellows Breath/Breath of Fire)
Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath)
Surya Bhedana (Solar Breath)
Three Part Yogic Breathing