Trade your cosy sweater for spandex and hit the yoga studio – you’ll be happy you did (even on the coldest day of the year). Here’s why you should do yoga in the winter.
A winter yoga practice
When it’s freezing outside, it can sometimes feel strange to don a tank top and hit the yoga studio. After all, yoga comes from the hot climes of India. Although this ancient form of exercise is very much an import, it’s still perfect for the dry, cold Canadian winter. Whether you’re taking a calming restorative class, a vigorous Ashtanga practice, sweating through hot yoga or just rolling out the mat at home, your body will thank you when you try yoga this winter. Here’s why.
1. It can help you beat the winter blahs
Numerous studies have linked regular yoga practice to improved mental health: it fights seasonal affective disorder, depression and stress. All exercise reduces our level of the stress hormone cortisol, but a full yoga class can take you from a vigorous flow into a state of total relaxation laying on your mat in corpse pose.
Poses and tips: “Moving a bit quicker can really alter your energetic state,” says Wendy Martin, owner of Sacred Breath Yoga in snowy Huntsville, Ont. If your mood needs a lift, go for an energetic class, such as a flow or Ashtanga. Meanwhile, focus on your exhale in class – exhalations stimulate the de-stressing hormones in your body.
2. It stretches out tight muscles to keep you balanced
Treading on snow and ice in big, clunky boots can throw off your alignment. In particular, your hip flexors can get tight after a day of running errands or skiing. Yoga can help get the lower body back to where it should be – hopefully in time for the next ice storm.
Poses and tips: Any kind of lunge, such as warrior, can help open up the hip flexors. Also work your core in plank pose. “When you work on the core, you feel more steady on uneven ground,” says Martin, who often teaches yoga at retreats in Algonquin Park.
3. It can help relieve arthritis symptoms
The cold days of winter can make the pain and lack of mobility of osteoarthritis even worse. Yoga, which limbers you up from head to toe, can make a difference. A review study published in 2012 found that 20 years of studies into yoga and the chronic pain condition show it has a big impact on arthritis symptoms and disability.
Poses and tips: Vigorous classes could cause inflammation and pain to flare up. Try a restorative or gentle Hatha class where there’s lots of slow and steady movement.
4. It can boost your circulation
Many of us deal with cold hands and feet throughout the winter – just because of our physiology, or due to a medical condition. But a yoga class that gets your blood moving can spread the heat around.
Poses and tips: Choose a moderately vigorous class with lots of sun salutations at the start. Or, when you’re feeling chilled at home, pull out your mat and do a handful of sun salutations.
5. It boosts your immune system
Spending so much time indoors exposes us to a lot more germs in winter. The fact that we eat fewer fresh fruits and vegetables – or eat ones shipped long distances – and live less actively does not help. Yoga helps the body cleanse the kidneys and liver and lowers our stress level; all of which provide an immune boost.
Poses and tips: Martin thinks restorative yoga that calms the body down and works on stress hormones is best for the immune system. Meanwhile any pose that opens up the chest -like a bridge or camel- will improve your immunity.
6. It soothes asthma symptoms
Anyone with asthma knows cold air and their lungs just don’t mix. Breath-based yoga encourages asthmatics – and anyone else with breathing concerns – to really open up the lungs and get them working at full capacity.
Tips and poses: Many longer yoga classes will incorporate extra breathing exercises that can wake up the lungs. During any practice you can use deep ujjayi breathing: a breath through the nose where your tongue rests on the top of your palate and you sound like Darth Vader.
7. It can help you avoid winter weight gain
While yoga isn’t as strenuous as the treadmill or a spinning class, it’s a smart part of a weight maintenance routine. One study that surveyed 15,500 people found that those aged 45 to 55 who did regular yoga over a four year period gained on average three pounds less than non yogis. (Overweight people in the same group actually lost an average of five pounds over a decade while non-yoga practitioners put on 14.)
Poses and tips: Select a vigorous class to burn about 400 calories an hour. Best choice: Hot yoga (also called Bikram) where you’ll burn more than 500 calories in an hour-long class.
8. It provides a much-needed break
In warm weather, a walk in the sunshine can take you out of your regular routine – that type of break is harder to find in winter. Yoga allows you to block out the world, focus on your breath and poses, and feel as toasty as you would on a beach. It’s not quite a Caribbean vacation, but it’s an affordable alternative.
Poses and tips: “Winter is about turning inward and quiet reflection,” says Martin – who loves doing a gentle yoga practice in a warm room in view of snow falling outside. Make the time for a full hour-and-a-half class when you can and when you’re there, don’t think about your chores or your job, just breathe deeply and go all in.