5 ways Yoga Can Keep Your Body & Mind On Track This Festive Season
Christmas can be a surprisingly busy time of year; rather than actually taking time to relax, spend time with loved ones and recuperate after a long year, we often end up rushing around buying more presents than Santa would even deem necessary, indulging in endless ‘can’t-say-no’ Christmas drinks, and letting our physical health and wellbeing slide a little...
While of course it’s a good thing to make the most of this time of year and get involved in all the season has to offer, we soon remember that January is just around the corner, and it’s important to start the year feeling our best!
If the festive season is eating up all your time and you can’t fit in your scheduled time to exercise and do something for yourself, then here’s 5 Yoga postures and practices to keep you on track and ensure your body and mind are at their best even after the big day.
1. No time to work-out? Work in...
The practice of meditation allows us to take a look inside the mind, where we may have avoided venturing for a long time (it can be a scary place).
A regular meditation practice helps us to recognise the mind’s thought patterns, behaviours, and habits, and gives us a clue as to why we might make certain decisions. Specifically, when we meditate, we’re not ‘meditating’ in the truest sense of the word. Meditation is something that spontaneously occurs through the constant effort of dharana meaning ‘deep concentration’ paralleled with letting go of external distractions – also known as pratyahara or ‘sense withdrawal’.
There’s definitely a lot to distract us at Christmas time; all the senses are overworked and often over-fed, and it’s when we get caught up in external distractions that we start to slip into habitual behaviour and make decisions that aren’t necessarily healthy or in line with our core values.
We can also face exhaustion and burnout at this time of year as we attempt to get everything ‘wrapped up’ before the end of the year and provide a perfect Christmas for the whole family. A study conducted in 2008 found that mindfulness and meditation was especially effective at preventing and even curing burnout in some of the people in the busiest and most caring profession – critical care nurses. 
A calm, centred person makes different decisions from an agitated, stressed person. These include making wise food choices, choices about how much to drink, and how long it takes you to get into that inevitable argument with the relatives while you’re all still wearing colourful paper party hats!
A strong mind is just as important as a strong body, and it enables us to make strong decisions that are more in alignment with our core values and beliefs, instead of being thrown about in accordance with our varying emotional state. Start your day with a short meditation practice and see how it effects your decision making and state of mind for the rest of the day.
2. Rest and Digest
Many Yoga postures are well known to aid in the process of digestion, but it’s not just which postures you practice, it’s also the way you practice them that matters.
The nervous system is largely responsible for the state of the digestive system – the vagus nerve in particular - which starts at the brain stem, runs all the way down through the body and actually ends in a mass of nerve endings in the stomach itself – plays an important role. The word vagus shares etymological roots with ‘vagrant’ and ‘vagabond’, denoting how much it wonders through the body. On the way down it ‘radiates out to the heart, lungs, heart, stomach, liver, spleen, colon, and other parts of the abdomen’. 
The vagus nerve’s historical primary function is the slowing down and regulation of the human heartbeat, therefore calming the nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system which becomes ‘activated’ when we’re calm and relaxed, is also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system, largely because the body’s ability to optimally digest food comes from being in a calm and rested state.
If we’re always in a stressed-out state of being, we’re mainly living with the sympathetic nervous system switched on, otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight system’.
When the body is in a state of stress, assuming it may have to ‘fight or flee’ at any moment, there’s no time to properly digest food – it’s all about survival! Help your Christmas dinner go down well by practicing deep belly-breathing, which encourages the digestive organs to work most effectively. Postures especially known to aid digestion include twists and prone backbends like salabhasana or dhanurasana, as the gentle pressure on the abdomen improves the circulation of blood and oxygen to that area, benefitting the digestive process.
3. Stay Strong
If you’re concerned about developing a Santa-style belly over Christmas, it’s useful to know that the body actually burns more calories by maintaining muscle mass than it does fat mass, so in order to keep the metabolism strong, practice getting strong! 
Postures such as plank, Bakasana (crow pose) and navasana all help to build core and upper body strength, and it’ll only take a few minutes of practicing each one to build some heat in the body.
4. Maintain a Healthy Mind
Although the festive season is full of celebration, the Winter months bring less-than-cheerful weather and low levels of sunshine. Vitamin D is essential for the function of the immune system, energy and mood levels. You can ensure you’re getting enough vitamin D from food sources such as oily fish, eggs and supplements, but there’s also a way to generate your own sunshine...
Surya Namaskar or ‘sun salutations’ were traditionally practiced at sunrise to honour a new day beginning, and are still practiced today often at the very beginning of a Yoga class as part of a ‘warm up’. 
Starting the day with dynamic movement is essential for boosting circulation, respiration, and those all important endorphins to combat the Winter Blues. If you’re not the sort of person to opt for a morning run, sun salutations are a fantastic way to wake up the body and provide some much needed movement and cardiovascular activity at this time of year, particularly if you’re dealing with anxiety and S.A.D (seasonal annual depression).
In a study conducted by the Yoga Biomedical Trust in London, 94% of people reported that their anxiety condition was greatly improved due to practicing Yoga, and 84% of those with insomnia noticed vast improvements too. 
5. Boost Your Energy with Backbends
Backbends un-do most of the physical habits we get into over Winter and Christmas: sitting, slumping, and slouching in that big comfy armchair with a whole lot of chocolates to get through...
Backbends not only open the psoas (a huge muscle running from the lumbar spine all the way to the femur bone, responsible for flexion of the hip and having a huge impact on our emotional wellbeing), they also have a very powerful effect on the amount of energy we feel we have.
If that wasn’t enough, it’s been scientifically proven that ‘they can, in fact, counteract the deterioration of the disks that lie between the vertebrae'.  When the body is in a slouched position with a collapsed chest and rounded shoulders, the respiratory cavity (the upper body, housing the majority of the breathing apparatus) becomes crushed and isn’t able to function as fully. If this slouched position becomes a habit, the muscles surrounding the lungs become constricted and tight, causing a shallow breathing pattern and a low mood.
A collapsed posture actually indicates to the body that there’s a reason to be positioned in this way – often associated with fatigue, sadness and social insecurity. The way we stand and breathe has a huge impact on how we feel, there’s a reason ‘power posing’ exists! 
The mind and body are inextricably linked, and so when we change the position of the body, the nervous system sends a message to the brain to alter the chemical process happening, and therefore determines which hormones release chemicals, and how much of those mood-altering chemicals to release. Backbends like Ustrasana (camel pose), urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog) and urdhva Dhanurasana encourage a release of endorphins and open the chest and muscles surrounding the lungs, therefore providing an energy and endorphin boost that could make your Christmas a whole lot merrier this year.
 William J. Broad (2012). The Science Of Yoga. New York: Simon & Schuster.
 Swami Satyananda Saraswati (2003). Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. 4th ed. India: Bihar School of Yoga.
 Timothy McCall, M.D. (2007). Yoga As Medicine. New York: Bantam Dell.
 William J. Broad (2012). The Science Of Yoga. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Emma is a 500hr qualified Yoga teacher, massage therapist, published writer and wellness blogger. She teaches regular classes and workshops in the South of England and co-teaches retreats and Yoga teacher trainings internationally. Emma’s passion is to help others uncover their full potential, and find their most healthy state of being in both body and mind. Yoga, swimming and cycling are her favourite ways to stay healthy and full of vitality.