Maintaining physical activity and asana practice in cold months

It’s cold out and the doona is snuggly and warm….. What do you do?

We know that physical activity in the colder months is important for physical and mental health.  Apart from being beneficial for cardiovascular health, lung capacity and general muscle and bone maintenance, it is associated with improved sleep, mood regulation, self-esteem, fatigue-reduction and release of tension and stress.   But just because our logical brain knows it’s good for us doesn’t always mean our motivation follows suit.   What can we do?

Here are some ideas to approach staying active this winter:

  1. Get the basics right.  
    Particularly if you are heading outdoors – which is a great way to get much-needed fresh air and nature  –  your clothing choices should protect you from cold, rain and wind. 

    Base layers of cotton can trap sweat against the skin, making you colder, while wool and synthetics are ‘moisture-wickers’ that keep you drier.  Complete the insulation force field with an outer layer that repels moisture and wind such as nylon or Gore-Tex. 

    Don’t neglect hands, neck, scalp and ears.  You can even look for gloves with a touch-screen capability. 

    For indoors activity like asana practice, opt for layers that can come off easily and importantly, go back over you easily as you start to cool down before savasana. The aim is to be able to re-layer up without disturbing your practice too much by say, wrestling with zips and buttons.  Cardigans, shawls and blankets are good options.  

  2. Discipline is a wonderful muscle to strengthen.
    This is tapas in Patanjali’s niyamas, stoking our inner fire and self-mastery, but it need not be associated with severe sombreness or a sense of forcing. Indeed, it may be as simple as just prioritising yourself high enough to take a walk each day, or to come to your mat for a few minutes each day, to move, stretch and then relish a quiet space to sit with yourself and observe what arises. In this way, you are actually sending your body a clear message of love and care, reinforcing to yourself that you are worthy of making time for self-care.

  3. Find physical activity that lights you up.
    Research indicates that activity motivated by enjoyment and/or sense of accomplishment may be easier to stick to than relying on discipline alone, so find a form of physical activity that gives you pleasure or a sense of achievement, not simply one that ticks all the boxes for physical conditioning.

    If you’ve never had your very own daggy disco dance party in your own bedroom, it is a super-fun way to quickly elevate body temperature and mood and improve circulation!

    When it comes to your asana practice, recall how good you know you feel when you’ve done your practice. Summoning that memory is an example of choosing your thoughts, and as that memory stirs emotions, every cell in your body will respond to that emotion, helping you let go of resistance.  

  4. Shift ‘decisions’ to become ‘habits’.
    Relying on willpower and discipline can work well when you have the internal resources at hand (ie: your cup is full), but it may be more challenging when you’re feeling depleted and flat. Decisions and habitual actions take place in different parts of our brain. Making decisions uses up a lot more energy and resources, so our brain likes using habits to direct behaviour.  We can turn this to our favour! 

    Author of the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, says for something to become a habit we need a cue, an action and an immediate reward.    A cue gives the brain an association to anchor to.  It might be what you do right before (such as lighting a candle or speaking an intention, prayer or chant).  It might be a specific time, a place, specific people and so on. 

    The reward can be something of our choosing (such as coffee with a friend, or hot breakfast), or simply the endorphins and feelgood factor that organically follows.  Duhigg says it needs to be an immediate reward because while the logical part of our brain understands long-term benefits, our perfectly flawed human organism needs an immediate reward or some sort of immediate payoff, for an action to become a habit.

    You can use a combination of these cues and rewards, and then with repetition of the same ones over time, the neural pathways deepen, and we move from deciding to do our practice, to letting it simply be a habit.

  5. Group energy can be motivating
    Being amongst a group can help you feel increased accountability and provide a sense of community. If we can’t physically be with other people, a livestream class may be more enjoyable than a static recording.  

  6. Track your progress
    Some people report increased motivation by progress tracking, enhancing the sense of accomplishment. Your phone, apps and watch can all be recruited to offer you stats around your commitment.   Did more steps this week? Self high-five! 

  7. Re-think the word ‘exercise’.  
    Did you know setting intentions to your household chores or any work activity can be beneficial?   A study showed that hotel housekeeping staff that were taught how to put intentions around what they had previously thought of as incidental activity or activity that didn’t count towards physical activity, showed greater improvement in heart health markers and weight management, than those who continued to see their work and chores as ‘not counting’ towards physical activity.

  8. Break desk-sitting
    If a work-intensive day has you at your desk for long periods on any given day, let go of the all-or-nothing mindset that leads you to believe you need to set aside an hour of your day to do any kind of asana practice.

    Remember that asana’s purpose is to release tension and tightness and to move blocked energy so that we may more comfortably sit in our favourite meditative postures. But the kind of comfortable-sitting we are working towards with our asana practice is very different to the tendencies we display in desk-sitting, often hunched and progressively trapping more tightness, and exacerbated by stressful thoughts.

    Often described as “the new smoking”, desk-sitting habits can benefit enormously from some simple movements that don’t take very much time to counter desk-posture, and can be spliced into your work day. And if you’re working from home, there’s even more more freedom – nobody’s looking – so get up and wiggle those hips, shake those limbs, have some fun!

    Start with a few deep, slow cleansing breaths and try some easy postures and stretches to break desk-sitting:
    – Gentle neck rolls
    – Seated Cat and Cow spinal movement
    – Wrist and finger stretches
    – Seated side stretch and spinal twists
    – Seated cobra backbend with arms wide
    – Sit-and-stand repetitions
    – High squat hip opener
    – Seated forward fold

    Enjoy a 6-minute Yoga With Tim desk break

  9. Try warming aromas
    Certain aromas have a warming effect, such as cinnamon, vanilla and frankincense.  Put your candle on double duty, so while it acts as a ritual to anchor your action to a habit, it also gives off a delicious and warming fragrance.   

  10. Practice self-compassion and stop wasting energy on guilt
    If it didn’t happen today, we can practice being ok with that.  Some people mistake self-compassion for giving up any kind of effort or discipline, or shunning accountability.  But self-compassion expert and author of the book, Self Compassion: The Proven Power of being Kind To Oneself, Dr Kristen Neff, says this is not the case.  

    Dr Neff clarifies that self-compassion acknowledges that we are all limited and imperfect beings.  We can take responsibility for slothing on the couch glued to Netflix when we’d planned to be active, without punishing ourselves for it with negative self-talk.   If we were perfect, we wouldn’t be human.  

    As another cherished author, Louise Hay, puts it, “You have been criticising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked! Try approving yourself and see what happens”. 

You got this, go you good thing! 

Written by Nicole Small, The Yoga Institute 

The Yoga Institute acknowledges the Cammeraygal people of the Eora nation as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which our centre is based.

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