Winter is here! Happy Solstice everyone! My family just returned to a very cold house after a weekend away. Our goldfish are at the bottom of their tank, alive, but conserving energy. The rest of the family feels the same! Instead of heading over to a neighborhood holiday party we watched a movie together and are now making a warm, yummy dinner and catching up on laundry. Aligning with the energy of the season is key to wellness according to the ancient Chinese. Here’s more information on how to stay healthy in Winter according to TCM wisdom, which is how my family aims to live.
The cold is meant to slow us down and keep us in this time of year. While waiting for our house to heat up I was thinking about how it must have been in older, more simple times, especially with agrarian communities. They worked hard to prepare for Winter, when short, cold days limited the amount of activities that could be done outside and also the amount and variety of food available.
I think it’s still important to have this awareness that our activity is naturally limited in Winter. For even though we have electricity, central heating, factory farms, and the ability to ship food from far off countries – this ability to do more during Winter and eat whatever we want whenever we want – is not necessarily good for our health and well-being.
The Energy of Winter
When talking about the changing energy of the seasons, I like to refer to the Yang energy of the Sun as a reference. Yang energy is hot, vibrant, mobilizing, and motivating, while the opposite yet complimentary concept of Yin is cool, dull, stable, and grounding.
At the Winter Solstice, the Yang energy is at it’s lowest and the Yin energy at it’s highest with the darkest days and coolest temperatures. To me, the energy of Winter feels like an emptiness, a void, and a well of possibilities for things to fill it. Like the end of our exhalation, it’s the pause that feels so complete, but there’s also an urgency to fill the space with the next breath.
From the Winter Solstice on we are actually increasing Yang energy until it becomes equal with Yin at the Spring Equinox and then continues to increase to it’s maximum at the Summer Solstice.
I don’t know if it’s my Yang constitution or that I have a birthday in early Spring, but for some reason I’m really sensitive to this increase of energy and get a little too excited too soon. I indulge in Winter vacations in warm places (we’ll be in Hawaii in 2 weeks!) Sometimes I exercise too enthusiastically outside. I’m always at the beach with shorts and flip flops when we get a day of 65°F weather in February. I come to my senses, but it’s usually the common cold that brings me out of denial that we’re still in Winter.
Even though the energy in Winter is increasing, it is still a very Yin time of year. We should stay bundled up, restoring our energy, and adapting slowly – just like our ancestors and all the animals in nature around us.
Adapting to the Change of Season
Changing seasons are a big deal in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) because we embrace the Taoist philosophy that we are microcosms of nature. When the season changes, we need to change our approach to living in order to stay well.
Water is the element predominant in Winter according to TCM and governs the following in humans:
- Organs…Kidneys (Yin) and Urinary Bladder (Yang)
- Sense organ…Ears
- Emotion when out of balance…Fear
- Imbalance indicated in the…Hair
- Adverse climate…Cold
According to TCM, the Kidneys hold our essence, are responsible for our vitality, govern reproduction & development, and manufacture blood, marrow & brain tissue. Abundant Kidney qi gives us determination, strong willpower, and a good memory. The channel that runs through the Kidneys also links up with all the other channels, so the flow of qi and blood in this channel affects the circulation of qi & blood in the others.
Impressive, right? The Kidney organ and its channel are extremely important in TCM! And tonifying this energy now in the Winter can keep you healthy in Spring and throughout the year.
In the coming months we’ll explore the many ways to maintain balance and nourish our Kidney Energy with TCM and yoga. For now, we can get on track by focusing on an appropriate diet with an emphasis on well-cooked warming foods to keep our inner circulation and digestion strong.
When preparing meals think slow cooker soups and stews with meat from organic, grass-fed animals, legumes, rice, quinoa and vegetables. Kidney energy can be increased by including dark hued foods such as black beans, black sesame seeds, seaweed, and pepper. For those of you interested in a more thorough explanation of Kidney energy tonification through diet, I recommend this post from Acupuncture in Bellingham.
In general (not just TCM speak), vegetables and fruits we should be eating in Winter are those available at our local Farmer’s market:
- Winter squash – butternut, pumpkin, etc.
- Root veggies: sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, celeriac, rutabagas
- Green beans
- Brussel sprouts
- Greens: Spinach, kale, collards, mustard
- Lettuce (though eating “cold” raw salads should be minimal this time of year, or just eaten at lunch when our digestion is strongest)
- Oranges, tangerines
By aligning your lifestyle with the Yin nature of Winter you are building a bank of energy and your potential for increased vitality. Winter nourishment is not isolated to physical health though. Our time spent in close quarters with family, friends, and local community nourishes our relationships. Time spent inside reading, journaling, puzzling, meditating, and creating with our hands nourishes our mind and spirit.
I hope you can find peace in the stillness of this special time. You will have a greater capacity to fully appreciate the exciting things to come in the New Year!