Getting along with home practice (part 5) Too Cool For School?

Practicing during a cold snap

There is no doubt about it: sticking to a regular practice through the winter is not easy. The dark mornings make it all the more tempting to hit the ‘snooze’ button. The festive season throws us off our routine. But if I had to name the biggest obstacle to getting on the mat at this time of year it would be the cold.

If you are reading this and thinking: “what is he on about?” You are blessed with an iron – clad constitution. There are some hardy souls out there who are impervious to the cold. They barely seem to notice it. This winter several of my friends are training themselves to tolerate cold water swimming. It is said to have great benefits for mental and physical health. I am in awe of anyone who is doing this. I am definitely one of those lesser mortals who shrink from the cold.

Actually, I suspect that, like most people, I am selective about winter temperatures. I love the bracing, thought – clearing astringency of a cold snap…as long as it stays outside! The great outdoors can be enjoyable in just about any weather. What tests my resolve in winter is a cold room. The kind which illicits that most English of expressions “it’s a bit chilly in here”. You may have found yourself using this phrase to describe your practice space of late. For many of us, being at home for such extended periods is new. If reaching for the thermostat dial has you worrying about enormous fuel bills or negative environmental impact you’re not alone.

The good news is that, with a few tweaks, you can embrace practicing in all sorts of temparatures. The trick is not to focus too much on the location itself. It’s what you do there that really matters. This might be stating the obvious but if you miss community practice it’s easy to end up critiquing the home space, with all its inherent shortcomings. As I write this I am pausing to reflect on some of the unlikely spots that hosted my mat in 2020. The most challenging was a Cornish field which looked flat when I started. I soon realized it was anything but. The fresh morning dew helped me to slide gently downhill every time I moved. That’s trial and error for you. More pertinently, the year has concluded with yet another month of trying to balance on my bouncy living room carpet (without knocking over our christmas tree). 2020 has taught me many things about practicing alone but the most valuable has been accepting that it really doesn’t matter where you are.

On that note, I’m sharing these tips with you as a fellow student more than anything else. They are just observations I’ve jotted down. If you have anything to add, I’d love to hear from you.

The thing we are most likely to resent about our home – practice space is, of course, the temperature. This is because studios or shalas are usually very warm. We associate being warm with being more flexible and sweating heavily with detoxing…ergo the best practice spot must be a hot one. In reality, artificial heat is not at all necessary for this practice. Breathing with sound and combining it with movement (vinyasa) is what actually heats us up. The process is internal. At ambient temperatures the heat builds gradually and is not always that noticeable. Hot or humid rooms simply amplify a natural process. But the outside heat doesn’t ramp up the benefits. If anything, warm rooms make the body less inclined to heat up (which is why we sweat). Therefore, it’s better to ‘heat’ yourself, not the room. It’s also safer. Too much external heat can make you ‘feel’ more warmed up than you are.

This leads me to one of the most important pieces of advice in this article. The biggest effect on the way your joints and muscles feel is not the room you’re in. It’s what’s been happening (and where you’ve been) the rest of the time.

If you’ve had a really sporty or outdoorsy day, you’ll notice it most when you next practice. So an afternoon run or a even a long walk on a cold Monday is what makes your hamstrings feel tight or your shoulders gnarly on Tuesday. I’ll wager you could practice in a sauna at this time and still feel the same! I always shorten and simplify my practice if I am doing a lot of outdoor activities (especially mountain sports) in the winter months.

On the subject of trying to heat the room, It’s worth pointing out that nowhere ever feels as warm as a shala. I speak from experience, after years of wishing it were not so! The kinetic energy of others has a profound effect not just on room – temperature but our perception of it. Over the years I have found that it’s better not to try and make domestic practice spaces feel “shala – hot” because -sans company – they rarely do.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t heat your rooms at all. If your home feels warm enough for all your other activities it is probably just right for practice. There are ways to make your space feel cozier and more shala – esque…without turning it into a sweat lodge.

Lighting really helps. Glaring lights look ‘cold’ and glowing lights are, well, glowing. It might sound a bit daft but at the moment I’m practicing by the twinkly lights on the Christmas tree. Once this has gone I will use tea lights and candles…. although I usually save a string of LED lights from the tree and use them to fill a glass bowl or vase. You could drape the lights across shelves or mantelpieces for the same effect.

Once your space is sorted, there are some things you can do before practice to make yourself feel naturally warm. A hot drink is great (as long as its not overly stimulating)! The most warming thing to do pre – practice is to bathe. Apart from anything else, arriving on the mat freshly scrubbed ties in with the observance of ‘saucha’ or cleanliness. A warm shower or bath also blows away the cobwebs, which is always a bonus. Practice very soon after you’ve bathed so that you don’t sit around getting cold.

If you are practicing first thing in the morning you may have noticed what I call the ‘lockdown effect’ on how your body feels without the commute to your usual practice space. Even if that commute is short or automated your body feels less awake without it. This applies to leg strength and core stability in particular. it can also translate to feeling less warmed up. One solution is a quick stroll round the block (as long as you wrap up well first).

Speaking of wrapping up well, don’t be afraid to don more layers than usual for the start of your practice. When I practice in cooler spots I dress as if I was going for a run outdoors. It’s better to shed layers once you’ve started rather than  to stop and seek them out because you feel underdressed.  Thermal vests and leggings will make your body feel warmer but don’t underestimate the power of headgear as well. We lose a lot of our body heat via our heads. A snug fitting beanie or a bandana is a really effective remedy and is not going to impede your sun salutes.

As for practice itself: Avoid the temptation to park yourself right beside a heat source. It’ll sap your energy. Don’t do ‘warm up’ stretches before your sun salutes. Allow the surya namaskar to do what they are supposed to and they will wake your body up.

How fast should we practice in the cold? It’s up to you, really. You need to find a pace which feels invigorating but controlled. Think of a brisk walk as opposed to a gallop! If you start this way you’ll naturally adjust your pace to suit your surroundings once you’re on the move.

To enjoy practicing at a vigorous pace, try not to worry if you don’t feel flexible. This sensation can be really off-putting when you start out but it rarely lasts. We’ve all had days when we have been taken aback by the difference between the first sun salute and the third! . If it is taking a while to get going, consider increased repetitions of surya namaskar. Try seven rounds of A and five of B.

If feelings of stiffness prevail, don’t fight them.  Soften your legs and keep them slightly bent when you would normally try to straighten them throughout your practice. Avoid overt flexing or pointing of the feet. Try not to worry about binds feeling deep enough, twists feeling twisty enough… or lotus feeling ‘lotusy’ enough! Make it all about the breath. The deeper and more rhythmic the breath, the more invigorating the practice will feel. On the subject of shifting your focus, don’t get bogged down by technique. Modify the difficuilt postures. There is always tomorrow (and the next day…and the next).

A quick word about transitions. Rememeber that the primary function of transitions is to keep you warm so you might want to simplify them to keep them brisk when its cold. We all love trying to ‘float’ or ‘pike’ up and down, backwards or forwards but to create heat, jumping or stepping through makes it easier to keep up the pace. This also relieves pressure on the upper back and shoulders (not to mention hands and wrists); these are all very vulnerable to aches and pains in the cold. Not just from being outdoors but from using keyboards or hunching over screens in chilly home – offices.

For the same reason, if you have a tendancy to add drills to your practice before difficult poses, or if a tough section of your practice makes you stop and start while you have multiple goes at it, consider taking a break from this until things warm up a little outside. I never try anything more than once at home during cold snaps. It’s a great exercise in non – attachment!

Finally, remember never to skip or rush the closing sequence. Just as the start of practice warms us up at a safe pace, so the finishing poses cool us down in the same manner. Even if I feel very warm when I start my closing, I put any layers I took off back on. When it comes to taking rest make sure that you don’t get cold. At home there is no reason to stay on the floor, which is usually the coldest part of any room. Grab a couch or a bed and wrap yourself up in a blanket. If you do seated practicses like pranayama and chanting, drape the rug across your top half (or grab a scarf). Pop on some socks to avoid the agitation caused by cold feet.

Last but not least: The start of any year, with its focus on resolve, can make us all highly self -critical. If you find yourslef thinking this way, turn it around. Home practice is not easy at the best of times. Whatever form your practice takes, pat yourself on the back for keeping it up against the odds. Our word ‘January’ comes from Janus, the Roman God of beginnings (also, interestingly, endings). He was represented by two heads. One looking back and the other looking forward. These are the directions in which we are pulled by the restless mind, denying us access to the true present – tense. When this happens to me at new year I recite a short note – to – self. I say:

“This year I will look forward with resolve but not ambition. I will look back with hindsight but not regret”.

Then I remind myself  that as I pack away the festive lights for another year the days are lengthening. The spring is coming.