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A Yogi’s Guide to Getting Through Winter (and Warding Off Seasonal Affective Disorder)

December 14, 2014

SmileDo you remember last winter? It was the longest in DC history. OK I don’t know if that’s true but it lingered on and on and for those anywhere on the east coast you’ll recall it was an unusually harsh winter.

People were downright cranky. And even borderline depressed by March.

Talk about depressed, I’ll tell you who’s NOT. Ashley from Canada. I met her last week on my surf retreat to Costa Rica. She was soaking up some last minute rays of Vitamin D and said “it’s -40 back at home so I want as much sun as I can get before we leave.” Minus 40. Yes I said minus. That’s about 80 degrees colder than back home in DC. And for Ashley, it would be a net difference of about 120 degrees. That. Is. Just. Insane.

But what was the tone of her voice when she said “I’m going back to minus 40”? Nonchalance. Like it was no big deal. She’d just put on another sweater and be on her way.

I had no place to complain. That’s when a light bulb hit me. If we didn’t complain so much, talk it up so much, and get so anxious about long, cold winters, then maybe they wouldn’t be so bad.

This is certainly not a new concept but nevertheless it led to more light bulbs and ultimately this:

A Yogi’s Guide to Getting Through Winter

Rule #1. Be present (and stop complaining about the weather already)

To “live in the moment” means to pay attention to what’s happening here and now instead of being wrapped up in what *might* happen at 2am tomorrow when there’s a 90% chance of wintry mix and blustery winds. This moment you are in now, curled up on the couch watching your favorite show with a cup of hot chocolate, is pretty great. Avoid ruining it by worrying about tomorrow. Later, when you’re putting on your snow pants to go shovel the walk, that is when you will feel appropriately uncomfortable and cranky. But for now, just sip your worries away and enjoy yourself.

Just as yoga teaches us to stay focused on what’s happening in the body as we breath and move through poses, we can do the same as we move through the day, staying present on what’s happening right in front of our noses.

Here are some other very practical tips how NOT to make winter worse than it already is.

  • Don’t talk so much about the weather.
  • Avoid people who complain a lot about it being cold.
  • Don’t cancel plans because it’s too cold out. Dangerous conditions are one thing but socializing and being active will do you good.
  • Make a friend who grew up in Minnesota. They’ve got a great perspective.
  • Choose NPR for weather reports over FOX NEWS. It’s far less dramatic.
  • When someone says “Wow, it’s so cold out there,” respond with a smile and say, “Hi, how are you today?”
  • Book a vacation for somewhere warm and sunny in February.
  • Take hot baths and drink hot tea.
  • Take an occasional hot yoga class to enjoy being sweaty for a change.

This is a really important point so I’ll drive it home again. Let’s say something unpleasant is about to happen. We anticipate its awfulness way ahead of time by ruminating on the multitude of ways it’s going to make our lives difficult. This ruminating makes us anxious and ruins whatever we’re doing in the moment. And when the unpleasant thing actually occurs, we’re already so overwhelmed that we’re not prepared to handle it skillfully and we’ve successfully then made it worse that it needed to be. Is there another area of life besides dreading long winters where you’ve done this?

If the anticipation of something awful not only exacerbates the awfulness but elongates the length of time of the awfulness then why do we do it? Why do we complain about it being cold tomorrow when right now, in this moment, we’re on a sandy white beach soaking up the sun? Well, the truth is, we just shouldn’t.

There’s a difference between being prepared for a winter storm and being a drama queen in the face of a 4-6 inches snow drop. There’s no need to catastrophize. Make your preparations and go back to your hot cocoa.

Rule #2. Feel your body.

Something very powerful that yoga has taught me is how to sit with discomfort. If your yoga teacher has ever had you hold Warrior II for a few minutes, then you know what I mean. Instead of overreacting and jumping out of the pose because it’s uncomfortable, yogis learn to be present, observe and feel the changing physical sensations associated with holding a pose for a very long time. Sometimes those sensations are really subtle and sometimes they are quite obvious.

With time and lots of practice, another immensely valuable skill develops: our ability to watch our thoughts and feelings as they arise under uncomfortable circumstances. This is the number one most transformational life lesson yoga has offered me. Just like holding a yoga pose can be uncomfortable and challenging, so can asking for a raise, having a difficult discussion with a spouse or losing a loved one. Yogis learn how to truly stay present in these difficult situations and move more skillfully through them.

What I realized is that being outside in bitter cold weather or being stuck inside with a touch of cabin fever is not unlike holding Warrior II for a few minutes. It’s challenging, it’s uncomfortable and in those moments the changing physical sensations are intense. If I can withstand it in yoga class then why is it any different outside waiting for the bus?

I feel very relieved having realized this. I’ve started practicing it already. And YES it is helping.

A quick note on SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very serious condition and is recognized as a specific type of Major Depressive Disorder. Although the tips above are for anyone interested in changing their relationship with the seasonal weather changes, if you’re experiencing more serious mood, energy or sleeping pattern changes then you should call your doctor.

A big shout out to my friends in NY and NJ who are anticipating a chilly winter. Want some support getting through it? Make sure your health and wellness support network is in tip top shape. You can visit OSCAR to find out how your health plan can support your health and happiness this season.

Rebecca Bly is a wellness coach and yoga teacher in Washington, DC. She works with clients nearby at Circle Yoga and from faraway over the phone. You can email her to set up a consultation.

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