Ch ch ch chaaaannngges (of season) and what they mean for keeping fit in the cold months ahead..

When I first moved to my previous home city of San Francisco some years back, I had trouble adapting to the seasons there. You know the Mark Twain quote, the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” As suggested, summers in San Francisco were not really summers at all but winter masquerading as summer. Suitable clothing for a July day was a wool coat and thick socks. But I was a rebel. I would schlupp around town in flip flops, a light dress and jean jacket, ducking into cafes, shops or trains for a few moments of warmth, mumbling to myself, “It’s summer damn it. And I will wear flip flops.” Suffice it to say, I got sick more during my early days there. I like to think I have gotten wiser as I age. That, along with adapting my diet and lifestyle habits based on the season (called ritucharya in Ayurveda) has kept me cold and flu free for almost 3 years now. Yup. That’s true

It is a Buddhist truism that suffering is optional. While we may have been brought up to think that certain things are inevitable, in this case fall and winter being synonmyous with cold and flu season, this is mistaken thinking. The amount we will suffer in the coming months is directly related to what we are doing NOW, as the seasons are just about to shift. It’s a tricky time of year.

According to the Ayurveda, the atmospheric changes that occur as the seasons change disturbs the balance of the five elements - air, ether(space), fire, water, and earth. The elements combine to form doshas  - vata, pitta and kapha. The doshas are forces that express particular patterns of energy and are present in all things in nature -including us as we are beings of nature. Spring is governed by Kapha dosha, Summer by Pitta and  Fall and Winter by Vata. What this means practically is that the seasons are unique, and if we pay attention to what the season is doing, we can learn also how our own inner ecosytem wants to adapt to the outer. This also means that the shift in the seasons - the transition between - requires a pause to let go of the past season and welcome the new one in a deliberate way.

Let’s first look at the season we are exiting - summer. Summer is the Pitta season – which combines the elements of fire and water. Pitta has the qualities (or gunas) of heat, mobility, sharp and flowing. Sound like how you would describe summer? In Ayurveda, like increases like, so we aggravate these Pitta (summer) qualities by eating certain food or drinks that have the same qualities of heat and sharpness (spicy foods, caffeine and alcohol are a few common culprits), or having too intense a lifestyle by working too long or too hard (burning the candle at both ends), exercising too intensely or during the intense heat of the day. This puts pitta into overdrive. Not a good thing. If your individual constitution is predominantly Pitta, you are even more sensitive to anything that increases Pitta (warm temperatures, food and lifestyle choices mentioned above). You already have a lot of fire internally, so any environmental or lifestyle choice that brings more fire will start to burn you out even more.. leading to a major accumulation of Pitta by the end of the summer. We call this a “pitta imbalance” in my world.

Signs of pitta imbalance include acid reflux, diarrhea, skin irritations, a “sour” taste or breath, smelly sweat, inflammation, and (my personal favorite), increased irritability, irritation and tendency towards a hypercritical outlook. If you live here in Munich, add in 2 weeks of Oktoberfest debauchery filled with tons of beer and heavy, meaty foods (Pitta increasing), staying out late and sleeping too little (also Pitta increasing)and it is no surprise at all that the first cold weather sicknesses come even in early September. It’s just too much Pitta!

So, the transition between seasons is an important time in Ayurveda. We can see that the season itself, regardless of the season-appropriateness of our diet and lifestyle habits, accumulates or becomes imbalanced. If we don’t do anything to let go of the previous season, we carry that imbalance into the next season, leaving our body filled with excess ama (physical, mental and emotional toxicity - explained here), and a weak immune system that can’t handle the sudden and dramatic shift into the cold.

That’s why we typically detox in the Fall – to clean up excess Pitta, clean up any ama that built up, and build up our immunity for the cold months ahead so we are fit even in the cold months. This is also why I offer my 10 week course at these seasonal junctures when the body really wants a system reset of not only the physical/food body, but also the emotional/intuitive body and the mental body so we can be our innate blissful selves.

Transitioning to fall…

Fall is governed by Vata dosha. Vata has the qualities of being cold, dry, rough, and mobile. I don’t do a major detox, as I keep things healthy and follow good habits all year round, but I do shift my eating to warm, moist and oily foods, slow down, and do a lot more to bring vatas’ opposite qualities of stability, groundedness and oilyness. Porridge in the morning soups, warm veggie dishes and with seasonal produce like beets, pumpkins, squashes and the like.

Opposites Balance One Another.  Beyond diet, I also change up my daily routines to bring these same opposing qualities. I do more grounding exercises like slower yoga flows at home or a walk in nature bundled up in a scarf and hat. I am always a sleep Nazi, but especially in the cold months when getting 7-8 hours a night is non-negotiable for me - for me, I think this habit is the #1 reason why I have stayed so fit (and it’s a big focus of my course). I also stay in more, snuggling with my sweetie rather than trying to cram even more classes, work stuff or friend meet-ups. It takes some thoughtfulness, and discipline, to do these things, but in my mind that is a small price to pay for a season of waking up feeling good every day, rather than picking up every flu from every person around me. Soooo not worth it!

Colds and flus are optional. Before I started studying Ayurveda, I assumed they were just part of the season and the best I could do was try to hasten my recovery to get back to my life as soon as possible. I didn’t know that following simple diet and lifestyle changes could help. I wasn’t brought up in a preventative mindset, and by default fell into a victim mentality of my health during those sensitive parts of the year. No more!

Fall is an optimal time for a full body reset. Won’t you join me on this journey? I have opened up for a few spaces in my next course starting October 14 - December 16.

Kari Zabel