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Winter... a Time for Stillness and Reflection

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

In the midst of Winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible Summer ~ Albert Camus

Daoist philosophy, the foundation of Chinese medicine, suggests that everything in the universe is part of an unbroken whole, life arises from the interplay of opposites (yin and yang) and we can have a life of prosperity and health by observing nature and its natural cycles. When our bodies are in harmony with our surrounds, ‘the Dao’, we are healthy and there is a healthy supply of qi (chi), which is our life force that runs through an unseen network of meridians across the body. This flow of qi becomes depleted or blocked by living outside of this natural state, by losing that connection with the Dao; so by harmonising yourself with the seasons you can stay healthier and prevent diseases.

Winter is represented as the most ‘Yin’. Yin energy is considered female, dark, cold, slow and inward compared to Yang of summer, where energy is male, light, hot, quick and expansive. In Summer the weather is warm, days longer, and we focus on that abundant energy and joy by being out in nature, socialising and being active. In Winter it is time to go inward, it is the season where we retreat, reflect and rest, which is also reflected in nature where there is little or no growth, the temperatures drop and nature retreats, animals hibernate, trees lose their leaves, and plants become dormant as the nutrients go inward and downward to the roots.

The element for the season of Winter is ‘Water’, if you have trouble transitioning from Autumn into Winter it can be a sign of an imbalance of the Water element. The Water element is associated with the Kidney and Bladder organs/channels, they comprise our water works. The Kidneys control the composition and volume of our blood, by the retention or expulsion of fluids and minerals and excreting toxins, which are then passed onto the Bladder to be stored until they can be expelled from the body. In Chinese medicine, the Kidneys represent more than just their filtration function, they hold our most fundamental energy, known as the ‘Yuan Qi’ (Original Qi), it is our pre-natal essence, which is derived from our parents and established at conception, it determines our constitution and is what sustains us through our journey of life. This pre-natal essence interacts with our post-natal essence, which is found in the qi of food (Gu Qi) and the air/breath (Zong Qi), this pre and post-natal essence is what continually replenish us for the duration of our expected hundred healthy years, we must nurture and not over-extend this energy to have optimal health and vitality. The Kidneys contain both Kidney-Yin and Kidney-Yang; the Kidney-Yin is the fundamental substance for birth, growth and reproduction and is the material foundation for the Kidney-Yang, the Kidney-Yang is the ‘force’ for our physiological processes and what transforms Kidney-Yin. Together they are unified in health, but when the body becomes diseased, we may see the separation occur.

In this season of Yin, the long nights and shorter days leave little time for the earth to warm us and there is the least amount of Yang available to us, so we want to move the body slower and conserve our Kidney-Yang energy for these physiological processes it is more needed for. Activities and exercises in the Winter should represent turning inwards with more time for self-reflection, taking time to slow down and nourish our bodies both on a physical and spiritual level. Yoga, tai-chi, qigong and meditation are perfect options during Winter. This time of nurturing and self-reflection will allow us to be rejuvenated and revitalised and burst with our most abundant energy in the Spring, when we are ready to bloom.

The Kidney and Bladder are sensitive to the cold, so on cold and rainy days we should try to stay indoors as much as possible, the body’s qi is conserved by keeping warm. It is important to protect the lower back, feet, loins and neck in the Winter, exposure to the cold in these areas can be the cause of lower back pain, abdominal pain, painful periods and loose stools.

We need to eat foods that support the Kidney energy, they are foods that create warmth within the body, they help maintain the qi and nourish the Yang. We should focus on warming foods like porridge for breakfast, soups made with hearty vegetables and slow cooked stews and rich stocks/broths. Cooking should be slow cooked using low heat and less water which infuses the food with heat and helps keeps the body warmer. Foods that naturally grow in season are best, such as squash, potatoes, root vegetables, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, winter greens, apples and pears and its best to avoid cold and raw foods, especially juicing in the Winter. Salt is also important to Kidney balance and is the taste associated to the Water element. We have grown fearful of salt with the modernisation of food and processed products that have unhealthy or unnatural amounts of salt and sugar, but using small amounts of high-quality salt and not table salt, alongside a good organic butter with a healthy wholefood diet can maximise nutrient absorption and be very beneficial, especially after a period of stress or fatigue. Other key Chinese tonics that are useful for the Kidney energy are Ashwagandha and berries.

The Water element is related to the emotion ‘fear’. Like Water, fear sinks and is felt low down in the body, effecting the back, pelvis and legs; in extreme cases we see the sinking and descending when we lose control of our bowels and bladder in fright. Fear is a natural and necessary emotion for us if it is arising appropriately. Like all emotions, they are what makes us human and they are not be avoided, they are there to be felt, acknowledged and used to guide us where necessary, then let go of. People may see fear as a weakness, but fear is a natural response to danger or a threat, it keeps us alive, safe and out of situations that could cause us harm; but we can’t be living and existing in a constant state of fight or flight with our lives run by fear. An imbalance in the Water element is not fear that is related to these true dangers, it is an unfounded fear, which can become persistent and hold us back or interfere with our normal daily function. We can also see the opposite sign of this imbalance with people who have little to no fear and are constantly entering risky or excessive behaviours and not protecting themselves from harm. If this state of fear is excessive it will deplete the Kidney energy or Qi, which in turn feeds this cycle generating more feelings of fear, panic and insecurity. The key to breaking this cycle and assisting yourself during these times is to stop, take a breath, bring ourselves back into the present moment and slow down.

Chinese medicine also has ‘Five Spirits’ or ‘Five Shen’, these relate to our mind or our consciousness; when in balance the Five Shen allow us to be in our most natural state, moving with peace and awareness. The Shen associated with the Water element or the Yin organ Kidney is ‘Zhi’; this is our willpower, our knowledge, our wisdom and our memory. It is what aligns us to our purpose and drives our enthusiasm and determination to achieve our life goals or our spiritual practice. If we are feeling lost with our direction, or unable to get through obstacles in our life it will limit our potential to grow and thrive and rebalancing the Water element is essential; it is at the heart of us feeling complete in ourselves and is often seen in those suffering with depression or anxiety.

Winter is the perfect time to retreat and re-align, it offers an opportunity to nurture our body and mind, to look inward and reflect, to find what we are lacking to feel fulfilled, to ask our soul what we need to feel purposeful and connected. Take the time to journal, set goals and plan, nurture your body with good food, rest and gentle movement. Not everyone likes to retreat and rest in Winter, some may even start to feel depressed from the lack of sunshine and less physical activity, so it is important to still incorporate gentle indoor activities to keep the qi flowing and find joy in reading and cooking with our families. Winter can be enjoyed if we live, eat and be active in a way that is best for the season, and it is the time to prepare for the Spring, when once it arrives our energy is rejuvenated and we can take action on our desires, using the force and momentum of the Wood element, the Liver and Gallbladder energy.

Be sure to check in with your practitioner if you have any concerns in regard to managing your emotions or you have noted any changes in the body with regard to the cooler months, such as pain, frequent colds or changes in your digestion. 

Kidney & Bladder Infographic for Winter
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Di, H. (1995). The Yellow Emperor’s classic of medicine: a new translation of the neijing suwen with commentary. (M. Ni, Trans.)

Kirkwood, J. (2016). The way of the five elements.

Maciocia, G. (2012). The foundations of chinese medicine. 2nd Edition.

Maciocia, G. (2009). The psyche in chinese medicine: treatment of emotional and mental disharmonies with acupuncture and chinese herbs.

Pritchard, P. (2002). Healing with whole foods (3rd edition).

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