How Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches us to live in harmony with the seasons – Winter

As Autumn draws to a close and we move into Winter, Traditional Chinese Medicine (“TCM”) prompts us to consider how the Yin cycle continues to its peak. 

The leaves have all but gone; the landscape is stripped bare. The light is pallid and a quiet descends, drawing us down into the depths of reflection and introspection. 

Winter is the season associated with the element of water: where we are invited to gaze honestly upon our reflections without yielding to the false narrative of harsh self-judgement; to descend deep beneath the surface and plumb the depths of our inner selves. Do we like all of what we see? What patterns of behaviour, ways of living and being do we hold on to that create imbalance and hold us back? What can we release during this time of quietude to help us seed healthier intentions that will burst forth when the Yin of Winter eventually gives way to the rising Yang of Spring.

The energy of repose during Winter allows for all of nature to restore and rejuvenate. And so too for us comes the time and the space to rest. Surrendering to contemplation and solitude, to recoup what we have expended during the yang seasons of spring and summer that have gone before.  

Kidney (yin) paired with the Bladder (yang) are the organs in TCM associated with Winter and with water. 

Kidney resonates with the emotion of fear: in its healthy expression, fear keeps us on our toes, so we are ready and capable of moving forward through life. Fear is transmuted to courage and willpower with which we overcome adversity and achieve the kinds of things we might otherwise talk ourselves out of being within our reach. But where our fear tips into excess, we are frozen in the icy grip of anxiety, and stagnation prevails. 

And so Winter is the time to nourish the Kidney, as the house where our very essence, our “Jing”, is stored. Think of our Jing – the energetic substance in TCM that enables our growth, reproduction and a healthy, long-lived life – as the candle. Qi – our “Life Force” – is the energetic flame that powers all our life processes, while our “Shen” – our consciousness, spirit and vitality – is the energetic light the candle emits. How we live determines how our Jing is used over our lifetime. Overwork, stress, and excess stimulation – the injurious ways from which we are invited to step away during the season of Winter – will burn the candle from both ends and accelerate the ageing process…

No surprise then, when we also learn that it is the Jing from our Kidneys (along with our Qi) that controls our Shen. And it does so through the heart; the organ in TCM where our Shen resides. For the Heart and the Kidney are also energetically linked as a Shao Yin pair. If the two are in harmony and balance, we enjoy a peaceful spirit. In Western Medicine, we see how the Kidney regulates water metabolism and is inextricably linked to cardiac health: impaired Kidney function can lead to hypertension and, beyond that, the development of heart disease.

In TCM, once the Kidney has extracted the pure parts of the element of Winter – transporting it to our cells to lubricate and nourish for healthy memory, strong bones, healthy libido and flexibility, and to galvanise us towards our goals – the Bladder receives the impure water that is left over. From there, it is to be eliminated as waste, but if the Bladder energy is impaired and imbalanced, we risk fatigue, depression, and struggle with resistance to change.

In the season of Winter, TCM guides us to resist the seduction of over stimulation. Embrace the time for healthy seclusion and rest, rather than seeking the distraction of bright lights and noise as a means of avoiding ourselves. Walk outside and take in the cold winter air, while keeping the lower back and kidneys warm. Savour the silence, and take advantage of the slumberous energy that blankets the world during Winter so the ears can truly listen. The ears are the sensory organ associated with the Kidneys and so a keen sense of hearing is indicative of good Kidney health.

Meditation, reading, keeping a journal. The practice of yoga and QiGong. All are beneficial activities for Winter. Favour food that is cooked low and slow: bone broths, stews and hearty soups, along with steamed greens, whole grains, black beans, kidney beans and roasted nuts. Warming spices – clove, fennel, cinnamon, ginger, star anise – rather than chili spice. Drink warm water to stay hydrated rather than chilled beverages.

Massage: LI4, ST36, SP6, LIV3, DU14, back massage along the Bladder Primary Meridian, K1, K3, K7, K10, K16, K27

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