As the New Year begins, I find it very instructive to approach the tradition of New Year’s resolutions from an Ayurvedic perspective.
For many people, January and the New Year bring thoughts of turning over a new leaf, or resolving to change a habit, or in some cases start something totally new. Here in the U.S., the new year is traditionally seen as a time for new beginnings. Out with the old! In with the new! Throw out your old calendar with its weight of past obligations! Start fresh with a crisp new version: three hundred and sixty-five blank squares to fill with a whole new set of dreams and aspirations. The year is a sheet of fresh paper for you to make beautiful.
While new beginnings are important, the emphasis on reinventing yourself can sometimes backfire. The pressure to have your New Year’s resolutions all ready when the clock strikes midnight can have the opposite effect—particularly in our culture of dramatic, radical, media-ready reinvention. Rather than feeling inspired, we can sometimes feel like we didn’t do our homework. The new year is only minutes old and we’re already falling behind.
The tradition of New Year’s resolutions is well-intentioned. New beginnings are worth celebrating. But from both a practical and an Ayurvedic perspective, in terms of actually following through on the changes we wish to make, we’re stacking the deck against ourselves.
Approaching our resolutions with a focus on stillness and deep nourishment, rather than radical change, allows us to start the new year with a solid foundation of wellness to build on.
Ayurveda teaches us to take our cues from nature when addressing change in the body and mind. There is a time for every purpose.
Consider the timing of the new year. While many of us intended to focus on self-care and managing excess during the holidays, the reality is that—by midnight on December 31st—we’re dragging ourselves across the finish line of a weeks-long holiday marathon. Our bodies are weighted with travel stress, social fatigue, late nights, rich food, and more than a few holiday drinks. We’ve spent less time than usual in our own restful spaces. And then we expect ourselves to hop right into the saddle and tackle an ambitious list of new goals!
More importantly, the science of Ayurveda tells us that winter should be a time for grounding down and replenishing. The elemental nature of winter is light and crisp. The snow falls, the wind blows and the days are shorter. As Vata season transitions to Kapha season, we’re not at our most focused or energetic. Now is not the time for bursting forth with new life and new ambitions. Rather, we should be conserving our energy to carry us through the cold months until spring. This is a time to warm yourself by the fire; bundle up when you venture outside; curl up with a book or your journal, and wrap your hands around something warm. It’s a time to deeply nourish yourself.
I advise my clients and students to use wintertime for reflection and cultivating vision for the burst of energy that springtime offers. Consider journaling a visualized path towards your goals. Where the qualities of winter are more subtle and delicate, the energy of spring has a heavy, stable quality of earth coupled with the fluidity of water. This is also the energy of morning and it’s why it’s best to rise just before daybreak and do your “heavy lifting” during a time where you have the weighty energy of earth and water on your side.
The way that we approach personal change can also be challenging. In our culture, this resolve for change is often targeted at the body and, in general, in a not so gentle way. We’re probably all familiar with the image of fitness centers filled to capacity with straining New Years’ resolution-makers. In our image-conscious culture, the motivation to renew ourselves often turns into militant fitness regimes, aggressive poundage goals (either lost or lifted), and the drive to remake our bodies.
“Shredded” is a word often associated with bodies undergoing contemporary fitness; the word reflects the aggressive, mechanical process to which we often subject ourselves in the quest for annual renewal.
In order to achieve real, lasting wellness that will carry us all the way through the new year (and not just into an exhausted heap after a few weeks) we need to be deliberate, yet gentle. A wise teacher of mine once said, “Hold to the vision, stay flexible with the plan.” In this case, the vision is the goals that you have for the new year; the flexibility comes with recognizing that you don’t need to punish yourself into shape in order to get there. As circumstances change around and within you, the plan for achieving your vision should change accordingly. Allow yourself some space to adapt within your vision.
Practice #1. Tend to your sleep and nourishment. Balance the chill with warming and grounding foods. As always, make soup.
Soup offers an opportunity to easily work with an array of spices and flavor profiles; because it's warm, and typically easy to absorb, it imparts a great deal of nourishment without being too taxing on the digestive system.
Soup is also a great delivery system for the six tastes, which are a cornerstone of healthy nourishment. The six tastes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent and pungent. In the American diet we are typically heavy on sweet, sour and salty foods, but not so much on bitter, astringent and pungent. Adding turmeric root or dandelions greens brings bitter in. Think parsley and lemon for astringent. Ginger, onions, and chili peppers are pungent.
When possible, I make my own stock—but I also keep several quarts of boxed stock on hand. I tend to favor vegetable or chicken stock. (If you have a Wegmans Grocery near you, their Thai Vegetable stock is exceptional for packing in loads of flavor in a hurry.) Use fresh vegetables wherever possible: the closer they are to being picked when they’re consumed, the more prana (life force) they impart. In the winter, I often reach for flash frozen vegetables. I've been making soup for a while, so I tend to make my recipes up as I go along.
Practice #2. Care for your skin with good quality oils and practices like Abhyanga (self-massage).
The body needs a certain amount of lubricant to function optimally. a good quality oil (one that you would just as happily put in your mouth) applied to the skin holds a double benefit: not only does it lubricate the skin surface—you literally drink in the oil through the skin, and lubricate internal systems at the same time. There is also the added bonus of the compassion you generate by caring for yourself in a loving way.
Practice #3. Feed your mind with good books.
I have so many books I have turned to for inspiration in the depth of winter. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Bhagavad Gita are my favorite texts. There is a myriad of translations available for both.
Practice #4. Get in touch with your vision through meditation, yoga, and other gentle physical and enlightening spiritual pursuits.
I find meditating on a mantra to be very helpful. Some yogis work with a mantra given to them by a guru. Those mantras remain private and are deeply personal. I am fond of using my personal mantra as well as a universal mantra of Soham. Soham, practiced with the breath, literally translates to "I am." Soham or Sohum (सो ऽहम् so 'ham or so 'Hum) is a Hindu mantra, meaning "I am He/That" in Sanskrit. In Vedic philosophy, it means identifying oneself with the universe or ultimate reality.
Practice #5. Create a yearly wellness plan in your journal.
I like to base my yearly vision on a wheel. I draw a circle, cut it into pie slices, and label each with an area I wish to cultivate. I also look at the cycles of the year; this allows me to compare my personal goals with the yearly cycles and choose when I should work on each goal.
• I know spring is charged with upward and forward movement: the days are getting longer and the weather is still cool. I like this time for building and making bold moves.
• In contrast, winter is light and mobile, and so I target more ethereal pursuits like reading and writing during this time.
• Summer days are long but hot; the propensity to burn out is high, so I parse out my projects and divide them into shorter bursts.
• Fall is for turning things over— a great time for sorting, cutting ties and letting go. Think of leaves falling to the ground and returning to the earth.
Practice #6. Spend time with people you love.
Winter is a time when one naturally seeks warmth, and nothing warms the heart and soul like the company of a good friend. (This includes yourself!) Make time to connect. Better yet—see if you can work some of these wellness practices into your existing relationships. Books, journaling, and soup-making can all be transformed into social events with wellness-minded friends, and wellness massage is a wonderful practice to incorporate into an intimate relationship.
The newness of a change in a year can be alluring time to start fresh. By all means, ride the wave of this inspiration. I invite you to consider what nature is doing right now and take a cue. Imagine your vision and new habits like seeds in the earth: they may seem dormant but they are lying just below the surface, nestled in the earth, ready to burst forth in spring with all the energy of a shoot pressing its way to the surface to find the sun.
Let's begin your wellness journey together. — Laura