Winter – The Forgotten Season of Modern Society
How we are out of balance with the movement of winter and how this affects our health and wellbeing according to Chinese Medicine.
Many people say that they are feeling very tired or burnt out right now. Our modern society is built on measuring success in productivity, this has pulled many people out of balance with themselves and often the well-being of the person is forgotten in lieu of ‘being useful’. Whilst being productive and busy is useful for accomplishing things, if it keeps on going non stop with no periods of rest in the winter, you will end up being less efficient; you are likely to be working on empty and in time you may start to ‘burn out’.
If we look at what happens in nature in the winter; everything withers or dies, animals go into hibernation, the leaves fall off, the growing stops, the energy in plants and trees goes from the branches and leaves towards the inside, the trunk and the roots. Everything goes into a resting mode in order to survive the winter and to be replenished in time for spring. Compared to the summer it is considered a very Yin time, meaning that it is a time when the energy and the spirit naturally grows more still and everything in the environment is less active.
What we have forgotten is that the same thing happens inside our human body; the energy travels from the exterior of the body and the limbs towards the interior; the organs, the Jing (life essence) and particularly the Heart. Human beings and animals are connected to the environment; consequently our spirit will become stiller and naturally find it easier to sink deeper inside our body and consciousness during practices such as meditation and Nei Gong in the winter. The Heart houses the Shen, our consciousness in Chinese medicine. As our energy sinks deeper towards the interior it nourishes the heart, the blood and the mind. It nourishes the Yin aspect of our being, the part that enables our mind to be stable, settled and gathered. If you are in tune with the environment you are likely to feel some effects of this; unless you are very busy and distracted you probably will be aware that your spirit wants to go inside and be quiet. It is more common for people who do internal arts or Nei Gong practice to be aware of this movement, as the person’s connection to the environment and energetic sensitivity increases.
During wintertime it is a very good opportunity to nourish the Yin of the body and the mind. The Yin is the aspect that keeps your mind cool, settled and allows you to have restful sleep without a racing of thoughts rushing through your head. This means that it is good to avoid things in the winter that would cause an excessive amount of mental activity. This can be tricky, but if you can make small changes, for example; it would be more balanced to do breathing practice before bed instead of using your Ipad which will cause lots of mental activity. A lot of things in modern society cause a lot of mental activity and consequently people’s brains are very busy, stressed, have low concentration span and less ability to focus. There is too much activity and Yang basically, creating restlessness of the mind, the heart and the emotions. Now when we are entering the winter Yin period it will be easier to start changing this for the better if wanted, by for example taking some physical and breathing space from media and all these things that are occupying the modern brain all the time.
Yin also allows you to store vital substances and energy that you need for a long, healthy life. If you want to go further than “just” good health and you are interested in self-cultivation, as mentioned previously; the winter is a very good time to cultivate Yin and go deeper in meditation. The focus should be on conservation and storage. The sages were said to cultivate Yang energy in the spring and conserve Yin energy in the winter. From right timing and practice, growth would come naturally.
The cold and the Yin qualities of the winter have dominance over the Yang (growth, activity, warmth) and hence it is important to not overuse the Yang energy. If you exercise, you do not want to sweat excessively, because as this happens the Yang Qi is used up and it moves towards the surface of the body. Of course it is still good to move in the winter, but compared to the spring and summer you want to push yourself less strenuously. If we were to explain it in a simplified way; whilst doing physical exercise it would be better to move more towards holding static postures than trying to increase your fitness heavily by going for very, very long runs and doing lots of cardio work. If you already have a higher fitness level it would be more balanced to maintain it in the winter and giving the body time to replenish. Then in the spring and summer when the energy and growth in the environment picks up, work on increasing it again. Build up at the right time, rest when it is appropriate.
If you were to push your body and your mind in the same manner as in the summer, you will lead the Qi outwards when it is supposed to go inwards, slowly depleting your body of Qi instead of letting it go inwards to nourish your interior and your spirit. If you look at these facts it should be obvious that exercise and the working days should be shorter in the winter than in the summer or your body and mind will become deficient in nature.
In Chinese medicine it is beneficial to look after your kidneys and to conserve your Jing (life essence) in the winter. To do this you need to keep the lower back and abdomen warm and not over indulge in sexual activity as this expels the Jing. The latter especially applies to men. Keep your Jing hidden like the roots of a tree and treat sex like it was a ‘hidden treasure’. For women to maintain good health and Jing it is vital to regulate your menstruation. If you treat your Kidneys well and conserve your energy in the winter you are much more likely to have good health throughout the whole year according to the “Yellow Emperor’s classic of medicine”.
There are also specific guidelines for how to best eat in the winter according to Asian food therapy. You want to eat meals like long cooked stews, preferably with a little bit of meat in it to nourish your Qi and Yang (warming) energy, or for example things that have been roasted in the oven for a longer time. Also use a small amount of herbs with warming properties such as ginger, pepper and cinnamon. If you want more detailed information on how to eat best in the winter, look up Paul Pitchfords book called “ Healing with Wholefoods”.
In the winter the days are shorter and there is less energy-giving sunlight. According to “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine” you should wake up with the sunrise, which is later in the winter and you should also go to bed earlier. If you are someone who feels like they want to huddle up under a warm blanket in the winter, you will be happy to know that it is actually more balanced to sleep more in the winter, even for us humans!
Do society and people need to be as productive in the winter when there is less light, less energy, it is colder and the energy is sinking inwards? All the time we come up with new ways and new machines to be more productive, but we do not ever give ourselves more time or quality of life by it, instead we just fit more things into the extra gained time instead.
Winter seems to be the season that is hardest for us all to connect with, due to stress and the societal conditioning of needing to be productive all the time. It is often forgotten that we also need to replenish ourselves in order to be able to go on healthily and efficiently throughout the whole of the next year.
So allow yourself to enjoy a more restful period where you can charge up your batteries this winter! I know it might be hard if you do not get much time off from work, just tell your boss to look outside and see what is happening in nature, and they might understand! Or maybe we’re not quite there yet… It is time for some change, the amount of hours people work is too much, its not normal, how are people supposed to also have time to find a passion and fun in life when there is no energy or time left!? I read an article last year on tribes who still had a hunter and gatherer lifestyle, and the amount of hours they had to work every day was about 3-4 hours. They were very strong, agile and had good health naturally from their lifestyle. So has our lifestyle really improved from past times? In some way, I don’t think so…
To live in balance with winter time:
- Conserve and contain energy
- Meditation and stiller Nei Gong practice will be especially efficient in the winter
- Be careful to not overuse the Yang energy
- Do not push yourself physically as much in the winter
- Avoid excessive mental activity
- Use your Jing sparingly; not too much sex.
- Go to bed early and rise later
- Keep lower back and abdomen warm
- Eat warm meals with warming properties