Abandon: The Bitter Months and Survival Mode

Some notes on kapha season (now through march)

When we first learned that my niece had cancer, the doctor said she would survive but this year would be hell. We’d lose our ability to trust life. In order to get through it, she said, think of something in the future. Think of her wedding day. Think of her graduating from college. Think of her as a healthy, happy adult.

I think oncologists are practical magicians. Holy scientists. They are death ministers, life breathers. They spend what most of us think of as mundane days, just ordinary nine to fives, being real with the question of lives coming and going. I took solace from her words then - even if they did knock a hole through my heart - and I’ve continued to go back to what she said whenever suffering comes up in the news, in a student’s life, or in the forecast.

We need to act on faith.

We’re not trying to root it out or bring to light right now. We’re not even trying to plant the seeds. Those are the ministries of another season. If anything, we’re simply trying to trust that it is there. This is a season of protecting. Strength, endurance, and loyalty are the boons of this season. Out of balance the same things become despair, lethargy, and waves of bitterness.

I’m coming to realize abandonment plays an incredible role in people’s lives. Probably my own. Certainly, the collective. The voice of scarcity haunts us, from women who are afraid of not being loved to men who are afraid of losing face to privilege afraid social change is a direct and personal threat.

I’ve been deep in developmental psychology recently. I’m studying the language for the ways we are first, as infants, a whole and unified universe. Then, as toddlers and children, we find ourselves suddenly independent, or confusingly both independent and dependent, and in a sense severed. In our journey from toddlerhood to young adult, we’re more often told no than we are loved unconditionally. Social regulation, gendered roles, and delaying impulses and gratification make chaos of our once tidy little bubbles. I’m developing words for how pivotal experience is, how important relationships are, to the development of a sense of self.

Few of us have the equation of autonomy and relationship down well. Most of us have been abandoned, in some very tender ways, at key points in our lives. Learning to not abandon ourselves - here and now - is slippery, icy work.

This is the uncanny bit. It shows up in our bodies. It lives in our nerves. It shows up in our habits, and our belief structures. We project clinginess to things or job security. We look for approval in other people’s faces. We brace ourselves with relationship patterns and hide ourselves in postures. It’s in our spending, our eating, where we feel confidant and what kinds of things we say we ‘don’t have time for’. I am fascinated by the heart rate gone up, the tendency to freeze, the way we keep struggling with the same things, decade after decade.

It can be scary. It involves staying in your body when someone pisses you off or when you make a bid at intimacy. It involves possible rejection and developing some inner reserve. Or faith.

But being able to recognize our inner voice of scarcity - or maybe it’s a visceral shutdown, a need to fix, a busyness that gives the illusion of control, a pattern of partnering- allows us to choose. It grants us an opening. Keeping ourselves open is both the point and the hard part.

Developing a trust in our autonomy is one of the essential principles of practice. Oddly, that trust is quite intimate with a knowledge of our mortality and the things we can’t control. You can’t separate the two. Autonomy without condition is narcissism. The conditions with no sense of personal power makes us victims. But the balance is a rich combination.

We learn to say no to what doesn’t work. We learn to stay present and self regulate. We learn the role people pleasing or avoidance plays in our psyche. We learn there is a subtle difference between life threatening fear and out of our comfort zone fear. We learn there is a subtle difference between body signals shouting no and body signals saying yes, but I’m scared. We come to know the fine distinction between dramatic and important, the merely flashy and the actually meaningful. We learn to navigate all of this like an ocean - I mean a vast, swollen, depthful ocean - and we mostly do it in the dark.

Here’s some help:


Occasionally I find myself talking with health professionals about my work in an informal setting. Almost invariably it becomes a conversation about the health benefits of exercise and how to motivate people. It’s just fact: most illness is lifestyle illness, and regular exercise has a greater impact on mental health than mood stabilizers or supplements.

But it doesn’t come in a pill. You have to actually do it.

Because the days are short and the weather is harsh, we tend to slide into couch mode all winter long. The governing energy of kapha is made of earth and water. If we just let kapha build in the next few months, it leads to gunk, weight gain, and a heavy or ruminative frame of mind. The blending of the earth and water elements creates the qualities of heavy, slow, and stable. Kept in balance, this leads directly to great strength and endurance.

But balance is hard. The difficulty of this time of year is of course motivation. Let alone all that dark, and the fact that we tend to feel a bit heavy in the gut and less than healthy in our lungs. Learn that motivation comes during the exercise, not before. Also learn that variety is quite literally the spice of kapha’s life; routine leads to a rut. It gets very easy to skip a day. And then two. And then more days than not.

For the next few months, have three or four exercise options on hand rather than one (one routine or practice is better for our more frenetic, scattered, autumal and vata characters).

10 minutes a day is enough, with a longer or more intense work out happening once a week or so. Cardio and aerobic exercises are kinda the goal. I say that knowing those words sound horrible to most of us, unless we are running or gym addicts. It isn’t so bad. And it’s completely relative: cardio means one thing to a 25 year old and another to a 60 year old. Dance for two songs. Get a jump rope (I’m totally serious). Get on the elliptical or hop on a trampoline. Once a week, join a Zumba class or something. A dance class would have the added benefit of play and relating, rather than isolating and ruminating as we’re wont to do just about now.

While it isn’t always possible, exercising during the kapha time of day (6-10 am ish), helps clear low mood, stimulate lymphatic and digestive systems, and encourages stable energy throughout the day.

Get outside

Studies on sunlight and nature’s effects on mood are similar to those on exercise. We know it works; we just have a hard time making it a priority. Every year I become more aware of how hard winter is personally and how real Seasonal Affective Disorder is generally. I bumped into a friend the other day and asked how she was. “It’s winter,” she said; “everybody gets depressed”.

A student and I talked of the winters of childhood. It seems so long ago as to be mythic, and so very different as to be almost unbelievable. It would be frigid and mid-storm but we’d bundle up in snow-suits and waddle our way into the yard. We’d be out there a long time, despite snot faucets and cheeks red as berries. Thumbless in our mittens, starfished in our snowsuits, we’d roll and fall and climb and sit right there in the snow. I remembered the burn in hands and feet after coming back inside, the battle of mittens and snow pants and hats sliding over your eyes, the urgency of getting out of the layers in time to pee. But somehow none of this mattered. We still played.

Grown ups have a much harder time with the idea of play.

(There are actually deep Ayurvedic reasons for this, youth is different than maturity. It IS harder for adults, let alone the aged, to handle the weather).

Yesterday the sharpness of the sun surprised me after days and days of bleak sky. It was misleading. The temperature had plummeted. But teaching a class I cracked open all the blinds to let some of that gold and rarified light in. After teaching, I laid in the light like a cat.

Do what you can. One of the best ways to work out is in nature, not in artificial environments. But even if you can’t exercise outside, do try to get outside every day. Use your lunch break for a walk, or at least get out and about rather than sitting at your desk. Take advantage of the weekends or more temperate days to go for a hike or get out with the kids for some sledding. Get to know some woods or a local park - the changes day to day will keep you alive. We are so technology driven that our technology and society have supplanted our relationship to the environment. Getting back to nature has a profound effect on our well-being. Remember you are nature, so this ultimately helps connect you to yourself. Keep the earbuds out. Set the smartphone aside. Don’t zone out when you work out; check in. Listen to the air, watch the birds, study the trees.


Yoga teachers say the damndest things. So I’m just going to go with it.

Sing, out loud, while you are driving or in the shower or doing housework. Again, there is a lot of science supporting the mood elevating quality of music, specifically singing out loud.

Do it every day for a week.

Then, start to take up the wild and mysterious practice of chant. (join me for an intensive or online if you want to start exploring this. It’s so central to the tradition. And it’s so under taught.)

Or just stick with singing. Join a choir. Go to church. See live music.

Care: loofah, body scrubs, Neti

Our skin tends toward dull right now. The body in general tends toward water retention. It’s all a little moist and cool.

Before or during bathing, try dry rubbing your skin in vigorous, long strokes toward the heart with special silk gloves, a loofah, or just your hands. I’m a fan of the latter, but I tend to use a body scrub. My skin tickles, pinks, and recirculates. The dead falls away. This is a circulation and immune system superpower. In less than two minutes in the shower, my body feels like it spent a day at the spa with facials and massages. Cracked heels and ashy arms and cold fingers go away.

Anything you put on your body should be edible. If you can’t put it in your mouth, you probably shouldn’t put it on your skin.

Fortunately, this also means you have an apothecary in your kitchen.

We want to shake things up and get kapha energized; this scrub uses sea salt as an exfoliant. Tulsi/Holy Basil promotes lightness in the body. Lemon essential oil is also light and uplifting. Rosemary and sage are stimulating herbs and help with congestion of the lungs and sinuses. This scrub is light on the oil, since kapha is already oily enough.

You can make a scrub out of anything: beans, flours, flowers, spices and herbs. This one is light on the oil because the season is already heavy and oily.

  • 1 cup salt

  • 2 tbsp dried sage

  • 2 tbsp dried tulsi

  • 2 tbsp dried rosemary

  • ½ cup safflower or sunflower oil

  • 10 drops lemon essential oil

In a spice grinder or food processor, blend the dried herbs into a fine powder. Combine the herbs with the salt and add the safflower oil. Mix well and add the essential oil. Store in an air-tight jar for up to 3 months.

Spice: Pepper

Native only to the tropic, evergreen forest of Kerala, pepper today is grown in Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil. Pepper is s wild jungle bloom, an actual flower, one of the original treasures moved along the spice trails of antiquity. Hippocrates included it in his medicine chest.

Attila the Hun and the Visigoths included pepper as part of the ransom fee after sacking Rome. Medieval French used the saying ‘as dear as pepper’ in their trade, and the ability to cook with pepper was a definate status symbol in the Middle Ages. Dockworkers of the 16th century were subjected to a dress code that demanded clothing without pockets or cuffs to prevent stealing peppercorns. Pepper could be used to pay rent and was often included in the dowry of a bride. The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama navigated a trade route to India that led ships around the Cape of Good Hope, challenging Arab control of the spice trade that went back to 1000 B.C. Christopher Columbus set sail looking for gold and pepper. Pepper made Salem, Massachusetts, the richest port in colonial America.

As colonialism and trade routes spread, pepper at one point accounted for 70 percent of the spice trade. Increased availability resulted in an unwillingness to pay the high cost, and regional varieties as well as ease of access drove prices down. Not, however, before pepper had influenced cuisine across the world.

Although there are different varieties of peppercorns, they are all the same pepper fruit picked at different stages of maturity. Pepper stimulates the digestive fire, improves circulation, stimulates the appetite, and flushes toxicity. It is antioxidant and antibacterial. White peppercorns hold a heat like the white parts of flame, green peppercorns hold a more subtle tang, and black peppercorn adds sharpness and pungency. Pepper is incredibly versatile and can enhance any savory dish. It is best freshly ground and added right before the meal. Pepper can also change the qualities of dessert; the pungency can actually amplify the sweet and add an unconventional flavor profile. Whenever your dessert features fruits, lemon, lime, or chocolate, give it a grind. It sharpens sweet. It accentuates tart.

Late winter and early, early spring are a great time to explore quintessentially spicey, historically bold blends such as India’s garam masala, ras el hanout from Morocco, the quatre épices of France and all the varietals of Cajun and jerk blends in the Americas.

Drink: Ginger

Ginger is the fire-keeper.

Precious and central to cuisines the world over, ginger has also been important in medicine cabinents and beauty regimes down through the ages. Indeed there is something lofty and reverential, something of the whispered divine here. Ayurvedic texts call it ‘the universal medicine’ and ‘the most sattvic of spices’, which is no small endorsement given the terseness and moderation of traditional texts. Ginger shows up in the Koran, in Confucius, in middle eastern proverbs, and in Shakespeare. In a sense, ginger is a spiritual herb. It’s referred to with respect. Ginger is linked to prosperity and is sometimes considered to be a gift to humanity from a higher power.

Sattva is any thing - emotion, word, action, scent or spice - infused with lightness, clarity, intelligence, compassion, and wisdom. Those are useful qualities.

It’s close relationship to our internal fire (agni) is where the vaunted benefits of ginger originate. But its role as fire-keeper spark off into a really stunning variety of health benefits. From stimulating digestion it will prevent build-up and burn through accumulated build-up (Ama). As a side effect, joints stay comfortable. Traditional formulas for joint pain all include ginger. Also a side effect of improved digestion, we are better able to absorb and assimilate nutrients and the post-digestion process will be less burby, burny, gassy and bloated. Peak agni is also related to strong immunity, which means reliable resilience, stable energy levels, improved strength, joy, and vitality. Finally, ginger is related to the lungs and lymphatic system. It supports healthy expectoration and breathing. It keeps vata and kapha imbalances - both of which commonly show up in the chest and throat area - at bay. Being sattvic, ginger is tri-doshic, so even a person with a lot of pitta can handle ginger. But of course it’s all about moderation and context. I can use myself as an example: I am predominately pitta. Most of the time, tomato and citrus and ginger are irritating to me. But January-March, they are wildly appealing, pretty freaking satisfying, and pique my interest.

Peel (use the tip of a spoon) a knuckle of ginger and rough chop it. Boil in a small pot of water and let steep for another ten or fifteen minutes. Sip throughout the day.

Or just get some ginger tea.

Chip Away: small things matter, big things overwhelm

I was advising someone to stop thinking of writing ‘her book’ and start thinking of fifteen minute time slots. I’m not making that up: it’s a writing technique I’ve been taught and retaught in many different contexts. And it’s something that personally surprises me with it’s efficacy, whenever I remember to actually do it.

The human mind tends to think in big pictures and end results. This leads directly to procrastination, perfectionism, and deflated motivation. We’ll wait around forever for the will power to do the things we dream of, precisely because it isn’t will power that gets such things done. It’s surrender.

I see it with things like meditation and exercise and learning all of the time: people talk and talk about what they want or intend to do, but months go by and nothing happens.

Small steps, several times a week, is more effective than ‘someday’.

This applies to social change, personal savings, advanced degrees and intimate relationships. I think it applies to asana practice, learning new skills, and marriages.

Small things matter. Big things overwhelm.


Eat: Citrus

Nature provides. As we’re smack in the middle of cold, bleak winter, citrus season is in full swing.

This is helpful, as we often need to provide our own sunshine right about now. Ayurveda sees the whole process of ‘food’ as an esthetic, communal, ritual one. That is, you can’t separate a food’s health benefits from its context. The color, the preparation, the mood of the cook and the look of the plate are all more valuable - health wise - than anything so flat as ‘nutritional content’.

Simply walking through the produce aisle in the grocery store, lifting a grapefruit to your nose, noticing the sharpness of diffused moisture (“squirt” is it exactly) as your thumbs first break into the peel can give you a sense of what I mean.

There is a liveliness to citrus that is completely salvific on a cold winter afternoon. Just the names starts to juice the imagination, if not the salivary glands: rangpur, pomelo, tangelo, blood orange, ruby red. There is something to the vibrancy of citrus color and invigorating scent of citrus that activates the sluggish, brown washed winter mind. Their sour activates digestion. Citrus warms the body internally. All this can be as real and felt as a good sunset.

Fruit in general is energizing but heavy (sugar, sugar). This is why Ayurveda generally recommends that they be eaten alone (spiced or salted or peppered still counts as alone. But banana splits are different than peppered peaches). Again, nature provides: the pith of citrus balances sweet with some bitter. Bitter is detoxifying. Eating citrus with some membrane retained preserves the natural balance of nutrients - sweet combined with sour and bitter. Orange or grapefruit juice, by contrast, reduces fiber content and the bitter, detoxifying element as it removes all the pith. Juice also increases the serving portion (and sugar content) from one piece of fruit to perhaps three or four. This is why we should juice our vegetables but eat our fruits (generally. There is nothing wrong with a glass of oj. Just don’t live on juice).

Grapefruit chutney: (use all late winter long).

1 ruby red grapefruit, peeled, sectioned like an orange with some pith retained, then cut or torn into small pieces
1/2 red pepper, diced 
1 small jalapeno, diced 
1 T fresh ginger, grated 
1/4 cup mint leaves, thinly sliced 
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped 
1 Tbs olive oil 
1 Tbs apple cider vinegar 
salt and pepper to taste

Put it all in a bowl and let marinate for 40 minutes. Eat with an avocado, rice or dal, or just eat it with a spoon. Put the leftovers in a jar and use as a digestif (I eat a teaspoon or two of my chutneys as I prepare meals or with the meal itself. They are a simple way to ‘balance’ meals and improve our digestive capacity).

Spice your citrus

Try cut grapefruit with cinnamon, cardamom, and a drizzle of honey.

Or cut various citrus into finger food: circles, triangles, half moons. Display prettily, toss with a tiny teaspoon of rosewater (optional), sprinkle with mineral rich salt, rosemary, and pepper. The prettiness, the scent, the spice are all going to counter midwinter bleh. The scent lingers on your fingers. It’s a perfect thing to set out when the family is gathered or for a social event, or simply to have on your desk for snacking. Details matter.

Inspire and find solace

Those things that allow us to lay our weariness down are beneficial when times are dark. Don’t take this lightly.

Weeping and bowing can be baptismal. Just laying there and listening can be communion. Having something to look up to and fall back on saves lives.

Use your time on the mat as sacred time. Connect to a teacher or the path with an invocation or chant before you start. Pray. Call together a consortium of angels, saints, mentors and spiritual leaders. Keep them alive in your life. Light a candle for a personal hero or an ancestor. Talk to archetypes and myths in your journal, your art, or your prayers. Have a mala or an icon or an altar but keep it alive, don’t just do it symbolically. If traditional religions have any personal relevance for you, lean in. If they leave you cold or angry, open up to reverence, awe, and things being beyond your will. If you can, let someone else take you to their spiritual places and be deeply appreciative, not all appropriative and belittling. If you’re going to burn sage, you better have some real respect for and relationship with natives. If you’re doing asana, honor the tradition implicit at it’s roots.

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