In the Northeast, it appears winter is finally here. New York City had a snowfall that stuck to the ground and accumulated (a rarity), and my friends who live on Lake Champlain report temperatures that will freeze the lake well into March. Perhaps you are a Winter Adventurer excited for cross-country skiing and ice-skating. Perhaps you are of the Winter Hibernator variety, preferring reading and fireside tea-drinking. Regardless of your winter activities, we all share the experience of succumbing to the season’s nudge to spend more time at home. When we do leave our warm caves, however, the art and science of layered dressing is a necessity.
You may be familiar with pop culture references teasing about the claustrophobic sensation of extra socks and long underwear. One of my favorites is depicted in the holiday movie, A Christmas Story, when Ralphie’s little brother is so bound up in his snowsuit that he repeatedly falls over in the snow, unable to get up again because his range of movement is so limited. We might laugh in empathy, but is there some truth to this bound-up feeling as a companion to the winter season?
The challenge we face in the winter is that our bodies feel tight and restricted most of the time, due to the weight of our layers or the boundaries of our homes. Consequently, we may close off to others. Our eyes drop down, our chests cave in, our shoulders roll forward, our spines get rigid, and our hips and legs stiffen. If you prefer a suppler body, open and at ease, being comfortable in your winter body can feel hopeless.
Only recently did I notice a twist in how we experience our mental and physical bodies in winter—one that is unique to the season. Typically we equate being outside with freedom, and being inside with time to connect to our personal space. When we go outside in winter, however, we must wrap up to protect ourselves against the elements. The result is we tighten up and contract our bodies. In some way we might be more closed off to our environment than in the other seasons. Conversely, when we come home, we strip away layers we don’t need and are more available physically to stretch and expand—but only to a certain degree.
Contraction and expansion have value and it serves us well to spend time with each experience. What are the benefits to enjoy and how can we counter the limitations of the winter condition? What if we made the layered dressing and undressing process a mindful physical practice of sorts?
Try out the following practice at least once this season. You may not do all of these tasks each time you gear up for winter weather, but they might make the process more fun if you do! If you can only find the time to add one element to your routine, I recommend you adopt the scarf ritual outlined below:
Sit on the edge of a chair and curve your spine forward to put your socks on—one at a time—and to tie your boots. Notice the snuggling of your toes in the socks, and the path from your foot to your leg as you pull up the sock or lace up the boot. At the same time, allow your neck to relax and your back muscles to lengthen from head to pelvis. When coming home, mindfully unlace the boots, and then playfully kick your socks off and wiggle your toes, allowing them to be free again!
What about laying down on your back and putting your pants on one leg at a time, while stretching and mobilizing your leg and hip joints. Lift your pelvis up for a mini-backbend similar to bridge pose, and pull your pants over your waist—thus providing a little hip flexor extension. You can reverse the pathways when undressing.
Upper Body Layers/Gloves/Hats
Can you put on and take off each layer with care, stretching and pulling the arms, hands, and head through the various channels with curiosity and sensitivity to the different textures and weaves? Sense the weight of extra layers as they go on. Notice the freedom of your limbs and skull when you remove them. Open your chest and stretch your arms overhead to release tight shoulders and look to the sky.
To me, the scarf is the magical winter layering element that signals the beauty of mindful dressing practice. The graceful winding of a long beautiful scarf around our neck wraps us with care, protection, and love as we brave the cold. We can take our time and connect to the sensation of tucking in. In contrast, the revealing unwind of our scarf when we come home indicates a letting go, freedom, and reclaimed space.
Whether you take on the full practice, or just the wisdom of having a scarf ritual, we can imagine we are wrapping and unwrapping a present as we prepare our bodies for outdoor and indoor settings. Perhaps the present is the moment we walk outside, or the moment we come back home. Perhaps the present is the symbol of winter’s gift: a beautiful landscape, and the natural quiet in our hearts and minds.
- TaraMarie Perri