Nadia Marshall explores how Ayurveda balances out that heavy feeling in winter.
We all have a tendency to gain a little weight over winter. Most of us come out of our winter hibernation feeling a bit stodgy, sluggish and somewhat unattractive as the weather warms up and we have to reveal our flesh once more. But why is this? And more importantly, how do we avoid it? Is there a way of emerging from the colder months feeling light, energetic and comfortable in our own skin? With the help of Ayurveda, the answer is a resounding 'Yes'!
Winter is a time when the Earth and Water elements in our body naturally increase due to their increase in the environment. This is a reflection of the Ayurvedic teaching of Like Increases Like - when we are exposed to certain qualities in the environment, our food and other sensory impressions, these same qualities are increased in our body and mind.
In Ayurveda it is understood that Earth and Water exist as a united force in the body and are referred to as Kapha. Kapha is one of three doshas or functional intelligences, the other two being Pitta (Fire/Water) and Vata (Ether/Air). Kapha brings strength, structure, stability and lubrication to the body and its principal qualities are cold, heavy, static, slow, damp and dull. Kapha naturally increases in winter due to the cold and damp qualities of the environment combined with the heavy overcast skies.
But how does this affect us? How does it feel when Earth and Water increase in our bodies and minds? Well... it feels cold, heavy, static, slow, damp and dull. The cold quality is obvious, felt as a deep chill to our bones. The increased heaviness is literal, which is why winter is naturally a 'stoutening' time of the year. It is also expressed, along with the slow and static qualities, as increased lethargy or laziness. Dampness may be experienced as an increase in mucus leading to sinus congestion, coughs and colds; and dullness is usually felt most obviously in the mind, as melancholy or even depression.
When we feel this way, we don't have to despair or start asking ourselves, 'What is wrong with me?'. Nothing is wrong with us! We feel this way because it is winter. It is nothing personal, it is natural.
What isn't quite so natural is the way we tend to react to feeling like this. Instead of responding to these qualities by skilfully introducing their antidotes, we often exacerbate the problem by adding more of one quality in particular - heavy).
Why we do this has everything to do with our digestive fire. Ayurveda teaches that in the winter months to help avoid heat loss the warmth of our bodies moves from our periphery towards our centre. As a result our central digestive fire actually becomes much stronger. This is why most of us have a much stronger appetite at this time of year. To appease this fire we tend to crave heavy foods like meat, eggs, dairy, bread and pasta as well as warm, sweet desserts!
But heavy, sweet foods both increase Kapha further, particularly in the way we consume them these days! So here is our dilemma - how do we balance the heaviness of Kapha and appease our winter digestive fire at the same time?
The answer, as always, lies in the qualities. The opposite of heavy is light. So we need to bring in more lightness to our meals, while maintaining enough heaviness to satisfy our appetite. Don't worry, when I say 'light' I don't mean salads and juices - these are all cold and too light. The perfect winter foods are actually porridges, pancakes or stewed fruit (for breaky) and soups, casseroles, stews, curries and daals served with light grains (eg rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat) or warm breads for lunch and dinner.
Pulses and legumes (eg mung daal, red lentils, adzuki beans, puy lentils) and root vegetables are the perfect winter foods because they are sweet and filling but still light in comparison to the heavy foods listed above. A light sprinkling of roasted nuts on meals can also provide the heaviness we're craving in a digestible form. But if you want to eat heavier foods, like meat, eggs, dairy and wheat, they can be prepared in a way that makes them lighter and easier to digest, reducing their stoutening effect on the body. Let's go through them one by one:
MEAT: chicken and fish are the lightest choices. Meat that has been slow cooked, prepared as a soup or casserole, minced or shredded is also lighter and easier to digest, particularly if it has been prepared with warming spices (turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel, black pepper, ginger, garlic) or fresh herbs.
EGGS: fresh eggs from chickens that have roamed free are lighter than their counterparts. To make them easier to digest, always serve with herbs (like parsley) and black pepper.
CHEESE & YOGHURT: too much yoghurt and cheese is best avoided in winter because they have a strong congesting effect on the body. Having said that, young, white cheeses like ricotta, fetta and cottage cheese and organic plain yoghurt are the lightest choices.
MILK & BUTTER: unhomogenised, full fat organic milk is lighter than highly processed milk. To make it lighter again mix it half and half with water, and bring it to the boil with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and ginger. Butter can be made much lighter and more stable by clarifying it into ghee which involves removing the milk solids and remaining buttermilk.
PASTA: try choosing spelt pasta, an ancient form of wheat that is much lighter and easier to digest than modern wheat. Avoid processed sauces and use plentiful garlic, black pepper and herbs like basil, oregano, thyme or parsley in your sauces.
BREAD: choose spelt or kamut-based loaves that are much easier to digest than wheat and always toast before eating. When making wraps, choose a yeast-free option (like mountain breads or soorj) and try making your own spelt chapattis to go with winter soups, casseroles and curries.
With all of these heavy foods, it is particularly important to avoid mixing too many together in a single meal. For example, a beef lasagne with loads of cheese served with garlic bread and chips may be comforting but is hugely taxing to the digestive fire. On the other hand, a slow-cooked chicken and veggie casserole served with rice is equally comforting but much, much lighter and easier to digest.
The principle of making heavier foods lighter to reduce excess heaviness in the body isn't just a winter thing - it can be applied at any time of the year. Whenever you feel a little too heavy, apply the antidote of light.
I can't write a column about winter and Kapha without also mentioning exercise. The most effective way to break up excess Kapha and reduce the qualities of cold, heavy, static, slow, damp and dull in the body and mind is to move. But your exercise doesn't have to be hardcore. Just a daily 20-30 minute walk in the elements, preferably at the beach or at your local park, will make all the difference to your winter weight gain, creating warmth, lightness, movement and clarity. Also, although you may be tempted to sleep more during the darker winter months (again, this is natural) it is actually important to not oversleep or sleep during the day as this also increases the qualities of dullness and heaviness.
Ayurveda is a beautiful science because it encourages us to feel into the qualities of nature, the seasons and of our bodies and mind. If we do this precisely, with warmth and patience, we can begin to intuitively apply our own medicine. And the medicine is usually just common sense!
Find Nadia's recipe for Thai Sweet Potato Soup in our Recipes archive
Nadia Marshall is an Ayurvedic Consultant, Cook and Health Writer and Managing Director of the Mudita Institute & Health Clinic in Byron Bay. Their 'WARMTH' cookbook is available as a free download from their website at: www.muditainstitute.com
Nadia Marshall is an Ayurvedic Consultant, Cook, Health Writer and Managing Director of the Mudita Institute & Health Clinic near Byron Bay. Their ‘WARMTH’ cookbook is available as a FREE download from their website.