How to shake off the winter blues and embrace spring
Here comes spring, finally peeking its timid head around the corner. Well, sort of. In New York, our lows are still in the 40s. Even worse, parts of the Midwest are still getting hit with blizzards and “bomb cyclones.” I like winter, but I’m over it by now. And the winter blues are dragging me down, emotionally and mentally.
Anxious to escape my lingering winter funk, I reached out to my friend, Jeanette Volpi, an Ayurvedic health counselor and meditation teacher (as well as the head of communications for North America at Visa).
Developed in India more than 5,000 years ago, Ayurveda is considered the oldest health care system in the world to still be practiced today. Jeanette describes it as “a preventative science that encourages staying in touch with yourself and your body to protect and maintain health in the healthy and combat disease in the sick. Practicing it is about paying attention to little signals to prevent illness from happening.”
Ayurveda is all about finding balance through a holistic view of diet and lifestyle, and Ayurvedic tradition views the changing seasons as a key time when that balance can be difficult to maintain.
The heart of the winter blues: kapha
Jeanette tells me that the problem I’m experiencing (as many people probably are) is a buildup of something called kapha. Kapha is one of the three doshas (the other two are pitta and vata). In Ayurveda, doshas are “life forces,” or energies, that characterize all of us. Each dosha represents certain qualities.
Kapha is inherently cold, heavy, smooth, soft, slow, stable, solid and wet. “You can see how those qualities correspond to the seasons,” Jeanette says. “Think about the heaviness of winter, the softness of snow, the wetness and slowness.”
As we come to the end of one season and transition to the next, we tend to have an abundance of the dosha (kapha, in this case) that is dominant during the season we are transitioning out of.
This means that, as we enter spring, we may still be holding onto the sluggishness that feels so normal in wintertime. When winter begins, it’s perfectly healthy to curl up on the couch under a blanket. But by the end of the season, that sedentary tendency persists for many of us. For me, this can translate to sluggishness, depression and isolation. Not to mention the physical impact, as the winter blues can also bring slow digestion, weight gain and sinus congestion.
Like attracts like and opposites balance
“The good news is there’s something you can do about it,” says Jeanette.
Ayurvedic theory emphasizes aligning with nature’s rhythms to achieve balance. To do this, one notion that underlies a lot of the practice is: “Like attracts like and opposites balance.”
To balance out my sluggishness and pull myself out of the winter rut, she tells me I need to do the opposite: Get warm. Get active. Go out and do things. Here’s how:
1. Eat in season
To balance out the “cold” quality of kapha, Jeanette says, “Focus on eating warm, cooked foods, instead of cold foods like yogurt, cereal and salad. And you can counteract the heaviness of kapha by cooking a little lighter.” She recommends focusing on steamed or sauteed vegetables, and limiting heavier foods like meat, dairy and sugar. She says you can use some olive oil, coconut oil or ghee, but try to use less of it.
“In the dead of winter, you need heavier foods. But when you’re transitioning out you need to start lightening up. The best thing to do is focus on eating what’s in season.”
This time of year, that means embracing the bitter, pungent and astringent flavors of spring greens and vegetables — things like asparagus, radishes, sprouts, rhubarb and certain berries.
She also recommends cooking with warming spices like ginger, sesame, black pepper and mustard.
2. Mix things up
“Another thing you can do is recognize that you’ve been in this slow, steady and stable state, and think about how you can mix it up.”
This could be a tiny thing like taking a different route to work, varying your schedule or simply getting outside more. She also suggests making yourself wake up earlier, especially if you’ve been hibernating a bit through the winter.
3. Consider a cleanse
Jeanette is a big proponent of spring cleaning cleanses to get rid of “excess buildup of certain elements.” The Ayurvedic kitchari cleanse she recommends isn’t extreme or scary — it’s not about fasting, consuming only juice for a week, or robbing your body of nutrients in any way. It’s about limiting yourself to eating simple, cooked foods — lentils, rice, vegetables and spices, without processed foods or unnecessary additives — for a time as a way to reset.
4. Workplace hacks
To embrace these changes at work, Jeanette recommends making your lunch instead of running out to grab takeout with (oftentimes) mystery ingredients.
“As it gets warmer, try to go for walks. And try to eat lunch away from your desk, taking a break from your phone and your computer. It doesn’t need to be an hour — forcing yourself to take 10 minutes can go a long way” toward helping yourself reset. She also recommends trying to shift your way of thinking: “I’ve been asking myself how I can look at work differently, and find new ways to see value in what I’m doing.” That could mean taking on a new project that interests you, or bringing a new approach to shake things up.
Jeanette acknowledges that it can be hard to make these changes part of your reality and recommends starting small: “You only have so much control over your routine at work: You probably can’t just say, ‘I’m not going to this meeting anymore,’ but you might be able to control your commute, or to suggest conducting that same meeting while walking around the block.”