Day light savings has been hard on my family. Driving my kids home from school last week around 4:30PM, when the light was already waning and evening quickly setting in, my son Jack asked from the back seat, “When is the darkest day of the year?” I was surprised by the foreboding tone of my voice when I uttered, “Oh, it’s coming, it’s coming soon.” Jack replied, “I don’t like this time of year. There isn’t enough light.”
I hear you kid.
There isn’t enough light. Do you feel this too? Heaviness, sadness, agitation, fear. I see it in myself and the heavy heart I’m lugging around. I see it in my daughter who is more tender and quick to tears these days. I see it in clients who report increased depression. I see it in a dear friend I ran into at the market who shared, “I totally broke down this past weekend”. There isn’t enough light.
This dense restlessness in the atmosphere – what is it? In the Vedic and yogic traditions, it’s called Yama Damstra and it is the juncture point in the calendar that marks the ending of autumn and the start of early winter. The exact date is November 22 – next Wednesday. It’s the time of year when the earth changes its course from a southerly to northerly direction, and according to Ayurveda, is the most crucial time of the year in terms of our health. It is a time of ultimate vulnerability and a period when our weaknesses and challenges will be magnified more than any other time. It’s also when are susceptible to illness – colds, flu, upper respiratory infections.
The legend goes that on Yama Damstra, Yama (aka the Lord of Death) goes prowling for souls. Yama sweeps in to take away the dying and unhealthy souls who don’t have enough life force to make it through a tough winter. Sensing Yama’s approach, it is a time when all creatures are filled with fear. I know…rather morbid material but to me also strangely comforting to know I’m not alone in my recent restlessness.
Luckily the Vedic tradition is rich in practical strategies and solutions at all times of year, including Yama Damstra. Due to the vulnerability that is natural at this time, it is necessary for us to practice commitment and a deep abiding trust in Sadhanas, or the practices that restore balance in the body and mind like meditation, yoga, and breathwork.
Here are 6 practical tools for moving through this period of vulnerability (specifically November 15 – December 9) with good health and less fear. These practices also teach us that there actually is enough light, we just have to source it from within.
1. Asana. While all asana is re-balancing and fortifying for the system, there are several poses that are particularly strengthening for your immune system by flushing away stagnation. Begin this sequence with 2-3 sun salutes to warm the body.
- Wide Legged Forward Fold – This inversion increases the circulation of lymph. Lymph is affected by gravity so anytime your head is below your heart, lymph moves into the respiratory organs where germs often enter the body. When you return to an upright position, gravity drains the lymph, cleansing out any germs or bacteria. Hold 10-15 breaths.
- Supported Bridge – As the cold weather sets in, our shoulders automatically begin to hunch forward. This pose counteracts this tendency by opening the chest, shoulders and heart space, as well as inverting the body which enhances the immune system. Hold for 3-5 minutes.
- Legs up the Wall – This is perhaps the most powerful immune bolstering pose. Similar to the previous two, it is an inversion. It grounds the nervous system, boosts immunity, and keeps stress at bay. This pose also provides new perspective because we typically look down at our feet, but in this pose we are looking up at our feet, opening up the possibility for a fresh vantage point. Stay in this pose 5-8 minutes. Consider also adding the affirmation, “I am healthy” when inhaling, and “I am well” when exhaling.
2. Pranayama. Since colds and flu often attack the lungs, working with breath capacity through pranayama can build immunity. When stressed or overwhelmed, our breathing naturally becomes more shallow and irregular, setting us up for a weakened immune response. I like to combine 2 breath techniques for building the immune system. The first is Kapalabhati which flushes away stagnation and increases the resistance of the respiratory tract followed by Nadi Shodna which brings balance and increases the resistance of your sinuses.
- This sequence is 3 rounds of Kapalabhati (36 forceful exhales in each round, resting between rounds, for a total of 108 breaths) and then 5 rounds of Nadi Shodna. Here is a video leading you through this practice.
3. Lean into the vulnerability and fear. It’s no joke that this is a dark time of year and our shadows and challenges are more apparent now than ever before. All of us avoid fear by buying more stuff, getting lost in mental stories, drinking several glasses of wine each night, or throwing ourselves into busy work. And yet this habit of avoidance prevents us from fully living. To start this process, ask yourself some questions. “What is happening right now in my life?” “What am I resisting?” “What is asking for attention?” “What is asking for acceptance?”. The difficult work of facing our fears does promise some gifts. Tara Brach writes, “The other side of resisting fear is freedom. When we stop tensing against life, we open to an awareness that is immeasurably large and suffused with love.”
4. Avoid toxicity. Toxic food and drinks. Toxic people. Toxic environments. Ironically, this is a time of holiday parties and family gatherings with bountiful opportunity to fill our bodies with foods and beverages that don’t really serve our highest health. It’s also a time where we often are around challenging people we perhaps only see at the holidays, and so we may use food and drink to numb out the intense emotions. I’ve totally been there – drinking another glass of wine to lessen my annoyance and sadness about the situation at hand. Because this is a season where our bodies and minds are more vulnerable, safe guarding and only filling yourself with things that promote health is essential.
5. Nourish yourself. There are endless ways to nourish your self. Take care of your body with good food, water, rest, hot baths, massage. Take care of your mind with meditation, uplifting words, affirmations. Take care of your heart with loving connections and being around those who bring out your best.
6. Meditate. Sometimes I’m struck by how meditation feels like a solution for almost every problem. Perhaps the reason why meditation is such a balm for our many pains is that it teaches us to sit and be present with what is. It teaches us to hold space for the myriad of emotions, thoughts, and memories that float through our consciousness. It is a practice of acceptance and being rather than striving and doing. A regular meditation practice has changed my life more than any other healing work I’ve done. Whenever I begin my meditation practice, the first thing I do is sink in to my heart for several breaths. What I’ve noticed in this past month is a restless heart, an anxious heart, a wild and beating heart. The practice has taught me to be OK with all that the heart is experiencing.
During this critical time of year, use discernment about what will lead you toward health and what will lead toward death (perhaps not literal death by Lord Yama but those things that lessen, dampen or kill your life force). These dark days are essential for our growth and transformation, preparing us for an eventual fresh start. In your darkness you may just discover a part of you that is essential to your being.