Summer in D.C.: Secrets for Staying Cool

June 13, 2016

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SUMMER’S HERE. Ready for it?

You can be with some perspective and some pointers.

Sure, temperatures into the 90s combined with humidity make the city feel like a terrarium at times, but D.C. is a great place to be hot. Museums are cool and exhibits plentiful, the city’s tree canopy is at 36%, not too shy of the 40% goal; theaters offer matinees; cafes and restaurants abound with indoor and outdoor seating, and hotel lobbies tolerate idlers checking mobile phones.

Summer just requires a little strategizing.

Growing up in D.C. in the ‘70s and early ‘80s in a Capitol Hill row house without central A/C, I froze homemade popsicles in Tupperware molds, played in sprinklers and gulped water from the garden hose. My friend Leslie and I bought Coca Cola and nacho cheese Doritos from the corner store, then sneaked into the campy Skyline Inn pool (now a swankier Capitol Skyline Inn).

As a teen, I swiped my face with Clinique Clarifying Lotion stored in the refrigerator after swatting tennis balls at the Garfield Park court. A server at Georgetown’s iconic Thomas Sweet, I stayed cool dishing up cones and sundaes. I’d scoop a pint of ice cream at closing time to share with my dad when he picked me up at midnight in the family’s red Rabbit. Days off, I rode what were then much-less-crowded, cleaner and cooler Metrorail cars anywhere and nowhere with friends, or alone with a book, treating the system like a private jet.

For grown-up girls in the 21st-century, work doesn’t stop when the weather’s hot. Each of us has places to be. In D.C., getting around means walking and bike commutes on concrete and asphalt — often in thin-soled shoes — taking breaks on park benches in the shade of trees or beside a public fountain. It means waiting in a bus kiosk with a bottle of water tucked in a tote.

Little girls and grown-up ones delight in thunderstorms and fireflies, juicy strawberries, sweet peaches and crisp corn. We like the breezy, feminine feel of cotton skirts on bare legs, linen dresses without slips and airy sleeveless tops. We pull up our hair in jeweled barrettes, powerful braids and swingy ponytails. Sunglasses, hats and scarves shade the eyes, nose and neck. Summer is textured fabrics in bright prints, chic black and classy white.

When I moved back to my hometown of D.C. last year, I brought with me tips gleaned from yoga study in California’s Central Valley, where triple-digit temperatures can begin in May and last through September, and summer’s more a state of mind than a season and you gotta know how to feel naturally cool.

For additional advice, I turned to Susan Jensen, D.C.-based traditional acupuncturist and massage therapist.

  • Add sliced fresh strawberries, mint or cucumber to chilled water and keep a pitcher handy for frequent sips.
  • Store a facial mist or toner in the refrigerator and spritz your face and neck.
  • Try a yoga cooling breath, shitali pranayama. Roll the tongue like a hot dog bun. Or softly place the tongue between the lips, resembling a macaron. Slowly inhale through the rolled tongue or over the tongue. Exhale through the nose. Try this 8 – 10 times. This breath directly freshens the back of the throat. Imagine you’re inhaling mist from a block of ice. (Bonus: Practicing this breath in a mirror may make you laugh, which will distract you from the mugginess!)
  • After being out and about, pause at a sink and run cool tap water on your inner wrists for a few seconds. Dampen a paper towel and dab cool water on the temples and back of the neck. This is great before a meeting when coming in from a walk or bike commute.
  • After invigorating your pulse points, take a minute and organize your body in yoga’s tadasana, mountain pose. Stand with feet under hips, legs comfortably apart. Raise the shoulders toward the ears and set them down slowly, like a descending elevator. Let the arms rest by the sides, leaving a little space in the armpits as if squash balls could nestle there. Perch the skull on top of the spine, ears over shoulders.
  • Breathe some more. While in mountain pose, notice the breath. Allow the hands to softly open on an inhalation and close on an exhalation, like flower petals unfolding in the morning and drawing in at evening. Count the length of the inhalation and the length of the exhalation. See if you can bring the portions into equal length, extending the inhalation or the exhalation as necessary for an equally balanced breath. Try this for 12 cycles and then resume your natural pattern of breathing.
  • Align with the rhythm of the season. Rise earlier to walk the dog or have breakfast when the air’s fresher. Plan a late evening walk. Remind yourself, Jensen says, to slow down and enjoy the warmth, fun, love and companionship that are part of the summer element/season/energy.
  • Accept and Appreciate. Sweltering summer days are part of life in the city and D.C. residents always find ways to adjust and enjoy whether it’s sitting on the stoop visiting with neighbors after the sun goes down, retreating to Hains Point, walking the waterfront or gathering with friends at a rooftop bar. So, stay out of air conditioning when you can (unless you’re escaping temporarily into a gallery!). Opt for lunch on a shaded patio or take your book to a park to read. “Maintain your cool rather than forcing coldness on or in your body with refrigerated air and iced drinks,” Jensen advises. “When you then go outside in the heat, all your pores are open to the heat which can ‘invade’ and give you a summer sickness. We call it a ‘cold,’” she adds, “but it can be either an invasion of cold in the air conditioning, especially from a draft, or it can be an invasion of heat when you’re all chilled, having to wear a sweater inside because of all the over-cooled air and then getting hit like a ton of bricks with the heat outdoors.”
  • When eating, think fresh. Celery, lettuces and other watery vegetables minimize stagnancy in the body, says Jensen. Avoid stews and slow-cooked foods. They hold more heat than quick-cooked or raw foods. Use judgment with spiciness. Hot food seems to cool some people in hot weather and makes others hotter. Alcohol in general is warming. White wine is less warming than red.
  • At home, get down on the floor. Warm air rises.
  • Fold forward. While you’re on the floor, take a break in a simple yoga pose called child’s pose, or balasana. Kneel on a blanket or rug. Sit back, bringing the bottom and sitting bones toward the heels. Fold the torso forward over the bent legs, resting the forehead on a yoga block, book, pillow or your folded hands. Or, from a chair, simply scoot forward to a desk or table, place folded arms on the surface and gently round forward, setting the forehead your arms.
  • Let go. When you’re resting, whether in child’s pose on the floor, at your desk or in an easy chair with a flute of crisp blanc de blanc, just chill out. Jensen advises avoiding things riled you. “In this election season (which has been more like an election eon than season),” she writes by email from where she’s finishing a sabbatical in France, “it’s easy to get agitated. Limit your time with the ‘news’ if that gets you frustrated or upset with no outlet for your emotions.”
  • Still can’t cool down? Take a brisk shower before bed.

While you’re attuning to the tempo and temperatures of summer, why not add a night of stargazing? The National Park Service’s Exploring the Sky program provides telescopes in Rock Creek Park for the public to use. The bright clear light from the closest of those stars takes more than four years to reach our eyes. That’ll put a few sweaty days in perspective.

— Alexa Mergen
Alexa Mergen teaches small-group and private lessons in yoga, meditation and writing in Harpers Ferry, W.V. and Washington, D.C., and edits Yoga Stanza.

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