With mercury dipping across the country, people are trying everything to beat the winter chill. Fitness experts offer solutions, from our ancient exercise forms, and traditional foods that will help beat not just the cold, but also build immunity to fight infections that are common in this weather.
"It is all about prevention, and yoga offers several kriyas [practices] that are effective in fighting infections," says PC Kapoor, director of South Delhi's Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre.
Cleansing exercises are a good way to begin. Jal neeti kriya, or nasal cleansing, is one of the many practices that can be tried even at home once learnt properly. In this kriya, a clay pot with an outlet is filled with lukewarm salty water, which is inhaled from one nostril and released from the other.
"This clears the nasal passages," says Kapoor. "In winters, especially in cities like Delhi where there is a lot of air pollution that results in particulate matter getting lodged in the nasal cavity and even the lungs, this kriya cleanses."
Breathing exercises such as kapalbhati also be used to cleanse the nasal passages and to strengthen the lungs.
Technique and timing, however, are important, since this is not just about inhales and exhaling.
If performed correctly, over time, kapalbhati is known to even cure certain ailments related to the respiratory tract.
Also recommended is the surya namaskar or salutation to the sun, a set of 12 powerful asanas that acts as a good cardiovascular workout. It also strengthens the back and muscles and is helpful in developing a flexible body.
The surya namaskar must be performed for a minimum of 10 minutes daily, with two or three rounds of breathing exercises. One can try jal neeti while brushing one's teeth. Experts, however, warn against starting these exercises without correct supervision.
"These are easy exercises and can be done at home regularly, but you have to learn them under the guidance of a skilled yoga practitioner," says Kapoor.
Ayurvedic physicians and experts also vouch for the efficacy of the combination of Ayurvedic medicine and yoga.
In Ayurveda, asthma is known as tamak swash, and is believed to be caused by stomach problems. When food is not digested properly, toxic juices are emitted in the body, hampering the breathing process.
"It cannot be cured with a single therapeutic treatment; the patient is required to follow different therapeutic treatments. Kunjal kriya or stomach wash in the morning, on an empty stomach, with lukewarm salty water is the best method for immediate relief," says Ayurvedic physician and co-founder of Patanjali Yogpeeth, Acharya Balkrishna.
Diet is important too. Even though a glass of water every two waking hours is needed to meet the minimum requirement of eight glasses a day, nothing can be more comforting in winters than a piping hot bowl of soup.
Add ingredients such as garlic, ginger, black pepper and asparagus, and it will become a healthy way not just to replenish the body's fluids but also to help prevent and even tackle ailments like the cold and flu, because of the ingredients' medicinal properties.
"The good thing about winters is the wide range of green vegetables on offer, which can be added to soups prepared at home. These are excellent source of vitamins and minerals and add to the liquid intake," says Dr Umesh Kapil of the department of nutrition at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
Herbal teas with ingredients such as tulsi, chamomile, lemon and cardamom are also beneficial in cold weather.
Some of the items available in winter can do wonders for immunity.
"Amla [Indian gooseberry], for example, which is available for a very short period during winters, is packed with vitamin C and fibre nutrients. Fresh haldi [turmeric], with its anti-inflammatory properties, is good for health since most lifestyle disorders are related to inflammation. Seeds like sunflower, flax and sesame are loaded with antioxidants," says nutritionist Ishi Khosla.
It is also soothing to the nerves to drink a glass of warm milk mixed with half a teaspoon of freshly ground haldi before bed-time. Methi, or fenugreek leaves and seeds, is another food item that works wonders for the health. Either consume its leaves or have it in powdered form; it can aid digestion, ease body cramps, especially menstrual cramps, soothe a sore throat and even help tackle a fever. Methi also improves hair quality as hair tends to get brittle and frizzy due to exposure to dry winds in winter.
"These are all functional foods as they have medicinal properties," says Dr Kapil.
Finally, there is nothing better than a warm bath to beat the gloominess. Herbal and Ayurveda expert Shahnaz Husain recommends adding bath salts to bathing water to ease fatigue and induce relaxation. "Use crystals of the normal salt, epsom, baking soda, borax etc, and soak in it for about 20 minutes for best results," she says.