The idea of winter in classical Chinese Medicine embodies the idea of slowing down. Slowing down is exactly what cold does to atoms in nature. To stop for a moment and meditate on the passage of time, to feel time moving inside you, is to practice the value of the winter season, when movements appear underground, when earth’s energy has gone downward and inward. The sun too is on holiday low in the horizon, and cool Venus appears triumphant in a dazzling triangle alongside Jupiter and the waxing and waning Moon in mid-winter. To stop for a moment and meditate on the passage of time, to feel time moving inside you, is to practice the value of the winter season, when nature’s
In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic
or Nei Jing Su Wen
, the oldest surviving classic of the Chinese medical literature, (around 200 B.C.E.),the three months of winter are called “closing and storing.” Here closing refers to the “closing” of plant life, in which the sap, or life force of plants goes deep underground. In fact, clinically, we see that in the transition from late autumn to winter, Americans, people ever-on-the-go, complain of being tired, less ambitious than usual. By the end of December many have become internalized, and start to think in terms of reform, of New Year’s resolutions.
After winter solstice the break that began in autumn is fully realized. The land turns barren. The trees and bushes, but skeletons of their former selves serve as stark reminders of the greens and yellows and reds that once were. So don’t be surprised if you have a little melancholy during this transition. But it is a transition, a movement of forces that passes, and as we reach the longest darkest nights of late December we celebrate festive holidays full of fire and light and gift giving. In fact, this cold dark time is exactly when love between people passes most freely in our society with family visits, gift giving, and acts of charity to the less advantaged.
The Nei Jing goes on to recommend going to bed early in winter, and getting up late. “Everything must be done according to the light of the sun.” Just as nights are longer, so commands our own biorhythms.
The text speaks of “exerting the will, as if buried….” This a reference to the Neolithic practice in China of living inside earthen rooms, like the sod huts of the American north mid-west, and restricting bodily movement, by necessity, as if buried, due to cold, due to enclosure, and due to the swaddling in warm clothes and blankets. We even have a phrase in English, about being buried in one’s blankets.
Winter was not a time to travel, or even to be outside that much, which is still true in places more North than San Diego, but a time to “store,” when everything that was grown in spring and summer and had been collected was used, but wisely and judiciously.
Another idea of “winter storage” is to store our Qi, especially the Qi that is lost by sweating. Contrary to the practice in summer, when our Qi likes to escape outside, when we sweat to cool ourselves, and can do so safely, in winter our Qi is stored beneath the skin, allowing it to be as concentrated as possible, acting as a barrier against infectious attack. There is a reference here to the “Wei Qi” the aspect of the immune system that protects against common cold, bronchitis, and flu.
We mustn’t deplete that Qi with excessive sweating, or do so and allow a chill. Once spring returns, the Qi that is controlled tightly within the body will be able, with assistance from loosening practices like Tai Qi and aerobic exercise, to surge out strongly again.
So paying heed to the “correspondences with the winter Qi” ensures we maintain “the storing of life.” For, “to go against this will injure the Kidney Qi causing, in spring, impotence and weakness, through insufficient supply for the production of life.”
If we live in winter as if it were summer, acting as if surrounded by hot centrifugal Yang energies, rather than cold centripetal Yin energies, our Kidney Qi will weaken, year after year, weakening our immune systems and lungs.
In Chinese medicine the Kidney energy is the root of all energies. It is the energy of development, growth, structure and reproduction. The kidneys supply the energy for the bones and teeth, for the hair of the head, for healthy sexual function, for fertility, for the immune system, for the lungs, and for wisdom. And the Kidney energy is associated with the energies of the Water Element, which is dominant in winter.
So if in Winter the Kidney energy loses its support by “counter-current” living, there will be injury and a cascade of effects. As the Lungs and immune system are taxed already in winter, there the effect will most quickly be seen, especially in folk with a tendency to Asthma, Bronchitis, Allergies, Colds, and Flu. And once you become ill, the body cant store Qi well, and in spring there will be a feeble supply for opening and growth.
In fact the cycle of the four seasons in Chinese medicine is really a metaphor for the circadian rhythms we experience on a daily basis. Winter is night, morning is spring, noon summer and evening autumn.
Practical Advice for Winter from the Yellow Emperor’s Classic
1)In winter, get plenty of rest, more than your normal amount. Cast away Puritan guilt and Cowboy pride about getting by on lack of sleep. Leave martyrdom to the religious fanatics.
2)In Winter cultivate meditative lifestyles, do Tai Qi or Yoga in a warm sunny room, meditate every morning for 15 minutes or more, be kind to your friends and loving to your family. Winter is dominated by the water element, and water is soft.
3)Conserve your sexual energy a little more in winter, depending on your age and constitution. Sexual energy is a deep energy of the kidneys; semen in men and menstrual fluids and breast milk in women are pure essences manufactured from the energy of the kidneys and blood.
If you have excessive monthly bleeding, this is treated with herbals and acupuncture. If you breast feed, make sure you nourish yourself well. If you are male, conserve your semen by transforming sexual energy into love energy, moving the energy from the lower body to the heart. The books by Mantak Chia give more information about that.
4)Stay warm. Don’t go out into the cold after bathing, and don’t go outside with wet hair. Stay in a little after bathing. So rushing out the door right after a morning shower is a really bad idea. I had one asthma patient report great improvement in her symptoms after stopping going out with wet long hair, which her grandmother had always advised against.
5)Generate heat with thermogenic foods and spices. Slightly heavier foods, like more lentils and oils if you are a vegetarian, and a little more flesh if you eat meat. All the warming spices are good, according to your constitution. Ayush brand Pro Kapha and Pro Vata Spice and Pro Kapha and Pro Vata tea are delicious and appropriate for this time of year. I like to start my day in winter with hot black tea, mixed with milk boiled with saffron, ginger, clove, cinnamon, and cardamom.
6) Avoid cold foods, especially in winter, like iced beverages, cold fluids from the frig, salads, raw foods in excess, ice cream, frozen yogurt. Forget the protein shakes and smoothies, but if you have to have them make them room temp, or figure out a hot version. How about hot soy milk, protein powder and banana with flax and a dash of honey or agave nectar?
7) Hot cereals are great, and hot soups greater–they warm you up and stimulate secretions in the nasal passages and lungs. It is very smart in winter to make soups using sea vegetables, which provide minerals like potassium, calcium, and iron, and iodine, as well as carotene and fiber. Foods from the sea are said to strengthen kidney Qi. Seafood soups in moderation are great, as fish and shellfish have the strong energy of the sea, which re-enforces the kidney energy.
Here is a recipe from my kitchen to yours.
Chick Pea Miso Soup with Celery Root and Scallops
1 cup scallops or other sea food
1 cup chopped celery root
1 cup chopped burdock root
1/2 cup white, brown, or fresh shitake mushrooms
1 cup small broccoli florets
4″ piece of kombu sea veggie, cut into pieces with a scissor
4″ piece of wakame sea veggie, ditto
1-2 slices ginger root
2-3 chopped scallion
2 quarts water
1 tbsp chick pea miso paste or mellow white if unavailable
1 tbsp sweet white miso paste or more to taste
a dash of white pepper if desired
1) Bring water to boil and add the root and sea veggies. Cook on a medium high boil until the roots are soft and the wakame has dissolved into beautiful dark pieces. 2) Add the sea food and mushrooms and cook on a low boil for around 10 minutes depending on the sea food. Cook until almost all done and turn flame down to simmer.
3) Stir the miso paste into 4 oz. of water in a cup or small bowl and make a thick liquid. Add this miso liquid with the broccoli florets and scallion, and simmer for 5 minutes.
Serve with Buckwheat Soba noodles or just by itself for a low carb alternative.
Miso is like wine. Or more closely like beer or yoghurt. It is a fermented product with lots of health attributes, that originates in Japan, the land of longevity, and is made from rice or other grains or beans. It is only as good as the producer who makes it.
Artisanal miso, which is not that expensive relative to other things, can be had at the health food coop or Whole Foods Market. Oddly, its hard to find good miso at the Japanese market in San Diego.
Simply think of miso as a vegetarian soup base. Different types of miso, depending on the artisan and the grains or legumes used in production produce varying tastes. Someday, try them all!
The easiest miso soup? Boil water; add miso. Life should be so simple.
copyright Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac. San Diego, CA All Rights Reserved, Use With Permission