Rooted and Strong

My children’s school group recently discussed how animals will respond when faced with environmental change. The three responses were to adapt, migrate, or hibernate. Each year, as the days grown shorter and colder, I quietly wish that I could be a migratory bird and take off for warmer climates. Instead, I begin to resolutely attempt adaptation. What that means for me, I’ve observed, is the same as what it means for most folks I know: putting on more layers of clothing, wearing warm outerwear, and turning on the heat in the house. What I’ve tried to become more conscious of is discovering true adaptation to the seasons, which means a little more than external factors.
Autumn is a transitory time of year. In our neck of the woods, nature gets chilly, windy, and much drier. I can feel myself having moved from the summer period, when my joints and skin felt lubricated and the warmth of the world had me moving a little slower, to trying to “keep up” with the swirling of life, as if I, like the wind, must move in all directions. I notice my body getting drier and more creaky. I dislike the scattered mind and dry body I tend to get in the fall if I’m not careful. It’s the scattered, easily distracted and aggravated mind that tends to keep me from making time to connect to people and activities that keep me sane and whole. It’s the dry body that leads me to digestive, skin and join ailments that wreak havoc on my daily physical well-being and make practicing difficult, and sometimes impossible. So, if I have learned to fly and embrace the possibility for great heights in the summer and early fall, and as we head into late fall and winter, I now need to learn to rest, and become attentive to the internal needs necessary to balance the external changes around me.

I’ve learned that embracing the seasonal fruits and vegetables of this area helps to keep me eating in conjunction with the season, which is good for my digestion. I’ve made it a priority to change my daily care routine to include more sleep, more oil on my skin and in my food choices (adding more olive oil and avocado). I am conscious of my tendency to stay indoors as the weather cools and to look for or create opportunities to get outside, breathe in the crisp air, and find some gratitude for the darkness that comes with the slowly waning light. I am also trying to root myself a little deeper in my physical yoga practice, so that becoming grounded is given greater focus over taking flight.

Becoming grounded on the mat means slowing the practice down enough to notice the subtle shifts physically that provide more release in a pose or perhaps build greater strength. I begin to look this time of year at creating what is referred to as the “Goldilocks position” in a pose. This is not a pose in itself, but rather a way of being in poses, in which the pose, like the beds in the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, is neither too hard nor too soft. This is where the effort in the pose becomes just the right amount of work and of letting go. It’s a more yin way of being in the practice, because it is not a matter of striving to get better, to grow stronger, or to meet some form, but rather a way of adopting the mantra, “We don’t use our body to get into a pose, we use the pose to get into our body.” 
So I begin to instruct my students, and myself, to move from the roots first. In order for the tree buds to grow again in the spring, the bud must first go through a period of cold that helps to solidify the hormone needed for growth. As the chlorophyll drains from the leaves, and the leaves eventually fall from the trees, the process of photosynthesis is completed with the nutrients left over from the processing of chlorophyll, recycled into the branches, bark and roots of the tree. This helps the tree structure to maintain its health through the period of little or no growth during the winter months. I like to imagine that as yoga practitioners, we can do the same. The uplifted energy that allowed us to flourish and fly, can be recycled to generate warmth and the sensation of being grounded through the late fall and winter. All of the breath work and energy we created to get ourselves to take flight can be refocused into our feet, legs and pelvic core. In this way, we begin to protect and nourish the structure of our body, so that we can sustain and nourish ourselves during this transitory seasonal time.
I might ask students to press firmly in their feet and to spend more time engaging their feet, their legs, their pelvic muscles before lifting up into a pose like warrior or triangle, for example. And as we remain standing, I may encourage students to keep their awareness on their feet, continuing to press and engage downward. Then, the energy of rising upward is still a part of the pose, but we’re solidifying the roots of the pose first, and sending the energy downward to preserve that strength. It’s a relatively simple, though not necessarily easy, way of changing the focus of the poses on growing lighter and taking flight, to becoming more rooted and ending with the sensation of being grounded and focused. It requires the willingness to go slower in the poses, to contemplate the nuanced feelings that the poses create in the body, and to find that Goldilocks place of balanced effort. From this work, comes the ability to use the pose to get into our body.
I’ve come to think of this time, when I am working to get into and stay in my body, as a time of nesting because it’s this time that allows me to contemplate how I conserve and plan to eventually channel my energy. In the science of Ayurveda, winter is a time of building energy reserves that allow us to grow and flourish in spring and winter. Slowing the work I do does have the quality of building strength and stamina, both physically and mentally. It is strong physical work to stabilize the foundation of the pose and strong mental work that allows us to stay focused with and through the physical. This work then gives me the stamina to stay rooted and “nested” through the winter months–the quality that all of us flying warriors must also cultivate. We are not hibernators, so we can’t sleep through this time. Nor can most of us fly away and continue to soar with the warm air. Nesting requires us to touch down, to hunker into ourselves with the strength of one who’s built enough reserves to be able to contemplate the richness of life; to contemplate what soil we’ll eventually tend, what seeds we want to give energy to through the winter months.
I need a steady mind and healthy body to sustain all that’s demanded of me, especially it often seems, at this time of the year. So I adapt. I eat a little differently, sleep a little more, make more space for breath and slow movement in my life. And in doing so, I steady myself for this time when I can potentially use the practice of yoga to examine myself a little more deeply. Eventually, I’ll fly again. But for now, I’m pulling inward, becoming watchful, and strengthening my roots for what’s required of me.