Several years ago I had the privilege of practicing with Chuck Miller, at Purple Valley in Goa, India. I remember him saying that a yogi should be able to break a sweat while standing in Samasthitih on a cold mountaintop. I’ve been reflecting on this concept recently, as we head into the winter season here in the Pacific Northwest. When temperatures drop and we rely more on space heaters than the sun for warming our bodies, we can change the focus of our Ashtanga practice to be appropriate to the circumstances. We should strive to develop stability and strength, emphasizing the dynamic aspects of the practice rather than focusing on flexibility. As we cultivate bandha, Ujjayi breath, pratyahara, and dynamic vinyasa, we stoke the internal fires and produce a purifying heat from within. By adhering to a steady rhythm of daily practice over time, we develop the tapas to “cook” away the obstacles to practice.
The winter season can also serve as a metaphor for the seasons of each individual life. As we grow older, perhaps some so-called advanced asanas that require extreme flexibility become less accessible. We learn to let go of external forms with grace, and continue to practice with ever-deepening levels of internal understanding and concentration. This natural stage of life and practice is as important as any other. It is crucial to keep working on strength and alignment at this time, as well as on the more subtle aspects of asana. Additionally, we may feel drawn to expand our practices to include more pranayama, seated meditation, chanting, and study.
In the heat of India, or the summer time, or even in a hot room, the body opens up with ease, and flexibility increases. If we don’t have the benefit of such a climate, we can turn to the practice itself to ignite and stoke the internal fires. With a powerful Ujjayi breath, we offer oxygen and prana to the divine Agni within. Using Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha, we seal up the pelvic floor and redirect prana that would sink and escape (apana) back up to feed into the fire. The more dynamic movements of the vinyasa, such as jumping or lifting the body, serve to heat the body directly, as circulation is stimulated. Static, strength-building positions like chaturanga, standing postures, or almost any asana done properly (including Samasthitih) work to warm up the muscles.
In the cold of winter, our bodies may not be as pliable as they are in the tropics. Mobility may be gained, but slow and steady wins the race. It is important not to push too aggressively into extreme ranges of motion. Deep backbends and binds that are possible in the summer may become out of reach. Aim for your best-aligned and most complete expression of each pose, and try not to be too attached to the outcome!
Perhaps of greatest importance is the kind of slow, metaphysical heat that we cultivate via the tapas of consistent practice (abhyasa) during this dark period. These are the glowing coals and embers buried deep that keep the fires smoldering. We remain dedicated to our practice and offer the fruits of the practice back into the fire of the practice.