Learning to Winter Well

Wintering

Wintering. I wondered over the title of the book by Katherine May, Wintering: The power of rest and retreat in challenging times. Could it be that there would be something new for me here? I wasn’t sure but here I am, in my own period of “wintering,” trying to find some sunny truth that will push me to feeling abundant and joyful more quickly. And so I ventured in to May’s meditative reflections.

I am keenly aware of how much of my life I’ve spent complaining about the literal winter, how much time I’ve spent wishing away the cold in hopeful anticipation of the return of sunshine and summer. It’s nearly the same amount of time, I must admit, that I’ve spent wishing away various other seasons of my life—times when my heart and mind are in their own “winter;” times when my children are particularly challenging; times when the business of yoga has me weary; times when I am physically sick or depleted. Of course, the saying goes that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. Thank you, Katherine May. I must have been ready.

This “wintering” time has been challenging. Yet, I’m noticing a new and quiet beauty to this literal season that I’ve been unwilling to behold maybe ever before—and in doing so, am beholding a beauty in living quietly in this less abundant, more internal season.

What if I get better at noticing and appreciating the season for what it is? Without the leaves, or the lush and tangled plants and brambles of our woods, I can walk unimpeded to an expansive field that happens to be the perfect place to watch the sunset. Bundling up feels like an act of nourishment in the cold. Blankets, hearty soup, thick socks, and no social calendar to speak of—all feels like acts of self-care in a time that my own energy, like the energy of nature, is being conserved for something that will emerge again.

Nature runs on a cycle that I’ve wanted to elude. Katherine May writes, “Nature shows that survival is a practice. Sometimes it flourishes—lays on fat, garlands itself in leaves, makes abundant honey—and sometimes it pares back to the very basic of existence in order to keep living. It doesn’t do this once, resentfully, assuming that one day it will get things right and everything will smooth out. It winters in cycles, again and again…to get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical.”

I recently confessed to my dear friend Kimber, who is gracefully navigating the preciousness of life with her gorgeous one-year-old, that I feel like I rushed past large chunks of my now 14-year-old daughter’s life. Because I was literally rushing through life, and rushing her along with me, there are portions that I know could have been so much richer, held more preciously, had I literally slowed myself down to the meandering pace of a young one for whom I was the whole world. The teenage her has discovered how much less interesting I am.

Back to wintering…I do not, in fact, enjoy being cold; however, I do value being present. In anticipation of what will be, I tend to diminish what is. A kind of holding of my breath as I mentally and sometimes physically rush forward. And yet, when I literally breathe into the moment, I witness so much that is precious and that is also passing away.

What does my practice give me during these emotionally and physically wintering times? A reminder of how to be at home in myself, exerting only as much energy as necessary to survive. Some days I step on the mat and feel the stirring toward something more expansive in me, like those vibrant and warm winter days that come unexpectedly. Some days, I can only lay my head down on my mat and feel the rise and fall of my breath and possibly move a bit in cat and cow. Some literal winter days I find that the sunshine makes me buoyant; the mild temperatures making it too warm for my bundled body. Others, I feel the gray and chill enter my bones. During the times of chill, I am imagining that I could learn to look winter in the eye, greet it without angst as if it might never end, and in the meantime, treat myself like my own best friend–with kindness and love, well-fed and rested, taking myself for walks to watch nature continue living and turning, and ask myself these rich questions from May: “What is this winter all about? What change is coming?”