According to Traditional Chinese Medicine the seasons affect our emotions. The idea is that what happens in the natural world also takes place inside of our bodies. Our body cycles through the seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. When we live in harmony with the seasons we discover health. Each one of us resonates with the seasons differently. Some of us are attracted to the cold crisp climate of winter and others resonate with spring, summer, or fall. Who loves winter? Who dislikes the cold?
This year we had a warm fall and then the activities of the holiday season began. And then a cold spell slowed us down. You can tell a lot about a person by how they respond to a snowfall. Do you feel trapped and tunnel out? Or do you bake or snuggle down with a book or a movie? We each find balance in our lives in different ways during winter. Many people feel lower energy at this time of year.
Imagine the Yin Yang symbol: the white and the black, yin is this time of year. Winter is cold, dark, wet, receptive, sinking, slow, contracting. It’s a time of stillness and quietude. It’s the most Yin of all the seasons: the trees are in their skeleton form, outward signs of life have disappeared, blankets of snow cover the earth. There’s a lot of work going on but deep inside. The energy of winter is latent and all potential: in this state of resting deep within, energy is collected and held in reserve.
In a few months we will feel the tumultuous changes of spring bursting forth and then during the warmth of summer we might get out more and engage in additional social activities. Summer is followed by fall, when leaf by leaf the natural world descends into yin, the days shorten, the landscape scales back, and the trees are silhouetted against the white horizon. Winter is cold and dark, qualities that preserve. Yang is the sun, fire, summer.
Each season has a corresponding element, organ and emotion. Winter is ruled by the water element, which is associated with the kidneys and bladder in Chinese Medicine. The meridians or channels of kidney and the urinary bladder travel down the back on either side of the spine and go to the lateral edge and bottom of the foot. Winter represents the deepest part of ourselves, our bones, our deepest fears and our daily anxieties come bubbling up. Often times back, hip, neck and anxiety issues will manifest in winter.
Our bodies reflect the natural world, during winter we tense our shoulders in the cold, or we feel the stiffness and contraction in our muscles, more arthritis and aching joints. Our feet are cold. On a mental level too we can become static or contracted emotionally. We can experience this as an inner coldness or a contraction and have difficulty warming up to people and coming out of our shell. This also can manifest simply as a kind of weariness for how much needs to get done and feeling like there is no will to do those things. After the holidays are over and it is appropriate for us to drop back and cocoon a bit on the coldest days.
Fear and anxiety are emotions associated with winter and water. Fear itself is not negative it can be a healthy response to a situation that requires appropriate action. But when anxiety becomes a chronic response to everything the water element is out of balance. A chronic low level of anxiety and a dread or gloomy feeling of foreboding about the future drains one’s energy. This is a prevalent feeling in our culture, whether it’s not having enough energy or motivation to tackle projects, not exercising enough, or not having resources or money. Whatever form it takes this constant feeling of inadequacy is a sign we need to go gently and balance ourselves with quiet rest.
Fear is an emotion that moves and directs us to remain alert and attentive to our surroundings and situation. When confronted with danger, constructive fear can guide us. When Water is out of balance, fear or chronic anxiety becomes an obstacle to movement. This feeling of being unsettled and being afraid of the future is the unbalanced emotion associated with winter in Chinese medicine. It is hard to relax into the future when there’s so much uncertainty. Without rest, that reserve, fear and anxiety escalates.
Physiologically, fear increases adrenalin production, which accelerates the heart rate; we begin to perspire, our muscles tighten, and we hold our breath. These physical reactions feed our fear. So we look at our activities notice when stress creeps in and drains us and we noticed what charges our battery. According to the philosophy of Chinese Medicine, the kidneys are considered the source of all energy or chi within the body. They store all of the reserve Qi in the body so that it can be used in times of stress and change, or to heal, prevent illness, and age gracefully. During the winter months it is important to nurture and nourish our kidney Qi. It is the time where this energy can be most easily depleted. Our bodies are instinctively expressing the fundamental principles of winter – rest, reflection, conservation, and storage.
During winter the cold rains and snow energetically pulls us inward or downward. Sometimes on a winter day we can curl up and hibernate like bears, far from the responsibilities. We allow ourselves the luxury of sinking down into our home and becoming refreshed. Be patient during these winter times with yourself and others and allow your energy to be recharged trusting that spring will come, and with it a natural increase in energy and the capacity to do all these projects. The energy of winter is like the energy of the seed, it is all potential with very little manifesting during the cold months of winter. The kidneys hold our bodies most basic fundamental energy, what we think of in Chinese Medicine as the source from which our will manifests effortlessly. The corollary in Western medicine when someone drives themselves too hard adrenal exhaustion.
This a difficult time of year to power our way through something. It’s important to respect our limitations and have a clear sense of what can be done and act in accordance and not push our way through situations and become sick as a result. It is believed by harmonizing oneself with this season you stay healthier and prevent disease. So the most important thing you can do is to get enough rest. Allowing ourselves to simply be quiet and still, containing our energy within ourselves.
One thing I noticed quite a lot in my practice is people judge themselves for not being productive. Culturally we don’t value quiet recharging yin activities. We place a much greater value on Yang activities: getting things done crossing things off our list, tackling a project. If we think of all the buds in the Wissahickon and have faith that given the opportunity to gather ourselves we will become more relaxed and less anxious. When I know what my limits are, what I can comfortably do without pushing myself repowering myself through an activity I have learned from the past what needs to get done will. Many people don’t slow down until they get hit with a cold or the flu. Most of us feel better when we are productive but to restore the spirit we cannot always be busy all the time.
So if we think of winter as a time to recharge your battery, to think of it as the time of recollecting, noticing the small transformations. How do I recharge my battery, and how do I do this without feeling like I’m wasting time or not being productive? We’ve all gotten to that point in life where we know this is it. The cold freezing weather invites us to stay home, the rest we have enjoyed allows us to get out and enjoy an activity that recharges us. Sheltering in place from the cold can be fun and energizing.
Winter gives way to spring. In the spring the woods come alive with the possibilities of growth and change. From the Equinox the darkest most Yin time of year the days grow longer. When we are balanced at this time of year we can relax and calm our anxieties and live without fear. How can we ponder all the unknowns without getting overwhelmed. That is the gift of listening, knowing who we are and collecting our thoughts.