Before modern society provided the convenience of grocery stores and refrigerators, winter was a time that required conservation of resources and energy. New crops would not be available until warmer days so people rationed their stores of potatoes, beans, grains and other foods that can be kept for long periods of time. They conserved their energy. Before the invention of electricity, sundown was a signal to wrap up one’s affairs for the day, and get extra rest because even keeping warm when it is cold outside requires a little more energy.
Consider how much time you spend on a daily basis relying on human-made lighting. Now consider that many of the body’s natural circadian rhythms depend on external stimuli of light and darkness. From inside your office or den, there may not be any visible cues to signal time of day or time of year, and even if you can see out the window that it is night time or it is winter, the bright lights indoors are enough to interfere with healthy sleep and seasonally appropriate lifestyle.
In this fine season of winter, the darkness is welcome. It is a metaphor for that which is unknown. It resonates with fear (and courage). At this point in nature, much of the flora above ground appears to have died. Trees go into dormancy. Animals go into hibernation. Seeds that have been buried prepare for all the springtime activity that awaits. Winter is akin to the concept of potential energy—it encourages us to replenish our reserves so that we may be poised to spring into action when the earth thaws and the moment is right.
The symbol of yin-yang, represents balance and interdependence between dark and light, matter and energy, cold and heat, contraction and expansion, and so on. The most yin time of year is the winter solstice, and the most yin time of day is the middle of the night. To live in harmony with nature requires that these be the times when we are most contracted, most turned inward, practicing the gift of stillness.
Water, the element associated with winter, provides clues regarding the vibrational nature of the season. Water flows along and fills the bottom of its container, whether it be a bottle or a riverbed. It moves to the lowest place available, and in this position it holds great power. The vibration of water, which is yin in nature, resonates with the color black/blue, the salty taste, the Kidneys (more yin) and Bladder (more yang), the bones, the ears and the ability to listen deeply, willpower, wisdom, faith and courage.
The water element is all about survival: management of resources (like money, time and energy); flowing with the currents (of nature, time and space); listening to one’s surroundings to understand what threats or opportunities may exist; and transforming fear into courage.
To truly tap into water and the yin energy requires stillness and receptivity. Many people in this fast-paced age may not remember the last time they experienced this. It is accessible through meditation and many healing arts like massage—and even then some people have a difficult time quieting the mind or letting down their guard. There is resistance to receiving. With practice, however, everyone can access the soft quiet of an extended pause.
Take a moment right now to simply listen to the sounds outside, and then inside, and then inside yourself. Can you hear your breathing, your heart beat, your creaking bones? Close your eyes.
The Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, which I affectionately refer to as simply the Su Wen, is an ancient Chinese text that discusses ways to live in harmony with nature. It describes the energetic movements of the five seasons and ways for human beings to honor these natural rhythms in order to maintain good health. After all—and before all—we humans are nature.
Let us examine the Sun Wen text for guidance for living in harmony with the winter season. This translation is provided by Paul U. Unschuld and Hermann Tessenow, in collaboration with Zheng Jinsheng:
“The three months of winter,
they denote securing and storing.
The water is frozen and the earth breaks open.
Do not disturb the yang [qi].
Go to rest early and rise late.
You must wait for the sun to shine.
Let the mind enter a state as if hidden, [as if shut in]
as if you had secret intentions;
as if you already had made gains.
Avoid cold and seek warmth and do not [allow sweat]
to flow away through the skin.
This would cause the qi to be carried away quickly.
This is correspondence with the qi of winter and
it is the Way of nourishing storage.
Opposing it harms the kidneys.
In spring this causes limpness with receding [qi],
and there is little to support generation.” (p. 49-50)
Many people get sick in the winter months. Just as the advice above suggests that failure to embrace the winter lifestyle may result in springtime consequences, similarly those who do not follow the autumn lifestyle are more likely to experience illness in winter. If you are dealing with illness this month, I sincerely wish you get well soon, and I encourage you to identify ways that your lifestyle in the autumn months may have been in opposition to the energy we observe in nature (e.g. winding down, letting go). By drawing your awareness to these actions, you empower yourself to learn from the past and make different choices the next time autumn rolls around.
When we proactively carve out time to rest in winter, living and breathing with the tempo of the season, we can avoid falling into a cycle of illness. In fact, one of the beautiful things about winter is that it is a time of renewal. Regeneration. Getting in touch with our inner power. It is a time to wipe the slate clean. This makes winter to perfect time to adopt the seasonal lifestyle commitment. Winter medicine is extra rest, warm food and hot water—these things are easy to check off our to-do lists because they feel good and they do not require us to expend much energy. In contrast, if we skip over the advice for wise winter living, and wait until spring to start dancing with the seasons, we may not have the energy required to spring into action, or for the expansiveness of summer.
If you are thinking that slowing down is “easier said than done,” I hear you. With a little creativity, it can be done, and it does require that you first acknowledge the value in slowing down. Rather than feeling guilty that you are “lazy,” “wasting time,” or “unproductive,” know that that effort you make in winter to recharge will help your energy levels and productivity tenfold during the rest of the year.
Perhaps you are someone who abides by the motto “go-go-go”, and maybe you even enjoy it—choosing a life full of commitments, appointments and social engagements. Or perhaps you feel obligated to keep the same pace and complete the same itinerary year round, without regard for your personal energy levels. Whether you find yourself on one end of the spectrum or the other, or anywhere in between, I encourage you to take time to intentionally sink into winter. Here are some ways to nourish the yin within:
Substitute! Take a walk instead of a run. Seek out a restorative or yin yoga class for the season, in place of a more active fitness regimen.
Sign up for a silent retreat. Resist the temptation to reach outside of yourself. Talking and various forms of entertainment often act as distraction from the internal experience. Get in touch with yourself.
After dinner, dim the lights if you can (I love the glow of our Himalayan salt lamp), and focus on getting as comfy-cozy as possible. Hot herbal tea? Absolutely. Flannel jammies? Heck yes.
Go to bed early—like, really early! And sleep in! Make it a habit.
Drink plenty of water everyday.
What are some other ways you have learned to quiet your mind and find stillness in your body? If you need support finding your way into this yin space and/or aligning yourself with the season, book an appointment with your acupuncturist. Remember, the more stillness, quiet and peacefulness you embody, the more these qualities are present in the world.
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