There is no hiding it behind poinsettias, twinkly lights and enhanced TV schedules anymore. Winter is here. And for those of us not living by a ski slope, or near a palm tree, its a slog. The next nine weeks are usually something that has to be endured. Endure is such a dowdy word.
I have decided that this year, rather than just getting through it, I am going to embrace the cold and the grey and make the season work me. Please feel free to join, if you are not doing this stuff already.
First of all let me say that I understand why we in the West have developed a pathology of mass midwinter avoidance, projecting ourselves into the future, viewing the next couple of months as time for relentless self improvement and buying more kit. I get it. It's more fun to think about the beach body we are going to build, than to sit on our freshly fattened posteriors, feeling glum.
But there is a third way.
The secret, is to look East. Both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine completely live in the NOW when it comes to the chilly months. Both believe that if you do winter right, you will bounce through the rest of the year. The good news is neither approach involves buying anything new or depriving yourself in anyway. Both disciplines have helped me out of tight spots in the past, so I trust them.
Essentially, what these older traditions prescribe is embracing winter rather than fighting it. Its dark and cold out there. Traditional Chinese Medicine says that that this is the time of year for us to store energy not expend it. Think squirrel (or bear if you prefer). They also believe that winter done well - ie "quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret" can be an opportunity to boost your immune system for all of 2014.
Exercise should be moderate and done in the morning. Exercising to the point of sweating like a proverbial pig is not recommended as it will "deplete the reserves that you are building for the seasons ahead". And here is a nice surprise, we're not supposed to cut out the booze. A little wine with dinner is seen as warming in TCM, so is the occasional whiskey by the fire. We are to leave the cold pressed juices for later; they are too raw and astringent. Warm, salty and sweet is what our bodies want right now.
I like a website called, The Straight Bamboo, which recommends staying 70% warm and 70% full in winter. Apparently keeping your feet warm and your head cool while you sleep is ideal. I have rather seductively taken to wearing socks to bed and I think I'm sleeping better.
We are also told not to fight the increased appetite that comes with the cold. Fasting is for the "purifying" months that come later. Right now we need fuel to "fire up the furnace". Just don't eat crap. Its the quality of the fuel that matters, because it also sets us up for the seasons ahead. Go for organic root vegetables, cabbages, kale, anything from the cruciferous family, soups and stews. If you are a meat eater - let rip. I am trying to eat less meat so I am experimenting with the weekday vegetarian thing. Last night I stewed courgettes, sweet potato and portobello mushrooms in tinned tomatoes with red wine and butter beans. I threw in some of the warming spices that the Ayurevedics suggest, like ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and tumeric. I served it over mashed potatoes and even my very veggie-suspicious, twenty year old son liked it.
If you want to start something new because it is a new year and all, this is the perfect time of year to start meditating or take up yoga. Anything that is calming and helps you bring energy inward. Qi Gong is a favourite of mine. I took classes one winter from a very posh woman in her seventies who credits the slow wacky movements with her recovery from breast cancer twenty years ago. Its fun to do outside as part of your moderate morning exercise.
Ayurveda describes winter as the "strengthening season". We want to nourish, mind, body and soul right now. Apparently not only is our digestive fire stronger at the moment, but we also listen better in winter. So it is a good time to work on relationships, with others and oneself.
And for a final flourish, I am to suggest a sartorial 'refresh'. Tis the season to wear lots of clothes after all. A busy friend of mine in New York pays a woman to put outfits together for her from items she already owns. She has told me how mind-blowing it is to have your wardrobe looked at from a different perspective. The woman takes polaroids leaves her with her very own look book. I did my own version recently by spending half a day playing with my warmest threads, pretending I was an Italian stylist. Needless to say, I have come up with a few new looks of my own and my enthusiasm for winter dressing has been revitalized.
So to recap: Take off the Dr Dre's, do a downward dog, have a few friends over for dinner, drink some good wine, put on a pair of bed socks and see how it goes.
If the sages are right, come springtime we will all be ready to blossom.
A couple of recipes to get us going:
Margot Henderson is renowned for making delicious, cozy food. Here is her recipe for Lemon Potatoes from her cookbook, You're All Invited. my friend Amelia says they are beyond yummy (serves 4):
1kg Cyprus potatoes
1 tsp paprika
500g tomatoes, cut into quarters
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 lemon, cut into quarters
70ml olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 220c/fan200c/425f/gas 7
Peel the potatoes and cut them into halves or quarters, depending on their size. Put them on a roasting tray and add the oil, paprika, tomatoes and crushed garlic. Squeeze over the lemon quarters and add the lemon skins to the tray. Season with salt and pepper and give it all a big mix. Roast in the pre-heated oven for 40 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180c/fan 160c/350 f/gas 4 for a further 15 minutes.
The potatoes will be ready when they are crispy on the outside and soft when squeezed. When serving, make sure everyone gets some of the crispy bits on the bottom.
Immunity Boosting Spices
Here is a spice mixture for enhancing immunity from Maharishi Ayurveda's website.
2 parts turmeric
3 parts ground cumin
3 parts ground coriander
6 parts ground fennel
1 part powdered dry ginger
1 part ground black pepper
1/4 part ground cinnamon
Mix all the powdered spices well and store in an airtight container in a cool place away from direct sunlight. For daily use sauté one teaspoon in ghee or olive oil. Heat until you smell the aroma and immediately remove the pan to avoid burning the spices. Drizzle over cooked rice or add steamed vegetables to the spice mixture while still in the pan and stir. Add salt and pepper to taste. This spice mixture should be used regularly to flavor one dish for the main meal of the day to boost immunity and enhance digestion.