As modern technological people we tend to forget we are a part of nature, but according to Chinese medicine living in harmony with the seasons is vital for staying healthy. And spring is the most important time year to optimize your health in the seasons that follow. After the energetic retraction of winter, the expansive energy of spring and the changeability of the weather can cause some people discomfort. Other people who didn’t get to rest all winter, or experienced trauma, can also start to feel ill in spring. Signs of being out of harmony in spring are irritability, headaches, muscular tension, and depression - strategies are walks in the park, do a detox, or book a session.
In the Chinese Five Element system spring is the wood time of the year, associated with the liver and gall bladder. Metaphors of growth and gardens illustrate spring wisdom in Chinese medicine. After the rest and withdrawal of winter, spring is when we emerge and start new growth. Like farmers, if we miss this opportunity to plant, we will miss the bounty and beauty of summer. I would, seriously, encourage you to close your eyes for a moment and try to visualize your life, as a garden. Is it barren or is your inner environment vibrant? In spring gardeners are deciding what they’re going to plant. Visualizing and planning are associated with the wood element in Chinese medicine. How much do you want to accomplish before next winter? Or do you need to focus more on personal happiness? If so, the time is now to think about how this summer could be the most wonderful summer of your life. A lot of these ideas are grounded in common sense. For example, if your idea of happiness in summer is going to the beach, most of us need to be getting to the gym NOW.
If you didn’t close your eyes to visualize your garden try now. The reason that this inner work is needed is because the wood element of spring is about being true to yourself. Is your inner garden overgrown and choked with weeds and brambles? Some people need drastic pruning which could mean changing relationships. Do you really want to take your summer vacation or spending weekends with frenemies? You might need to do some pruning in the form of spring cleaning to clear space for an exciting new person or project. Sometimes lonely people have told me that if they met the perfect person today there wouldn’t be an empty chair in their home in which a second person could sit or a surface free for a cup of tea! Dispatch the stacks of paper, dead wood, that have accumulated over the winter. Do the spring cleaning NOW, before the spring flowers are here and think of spring as a practice run for the full blossoming of summer.
Farmers plow in the spring which is like the universal impulse to do a spring detox. It’s nearly impossible to be truly productive and vibrant with all the toxins and cravings of the past. Now is the time to get your energy back up and get going. With the increase of light, giving us more energy it will be easier to do a detox now. Lent, the spring season in the Christian liturgy, also reflects this universal impulse. A wise Father taught me that giving up something we love for Lent, as a sacrifice, is not the truest intention, but that we should separate from the thing that is keeping us from from our higher true self. Alcohol is frequently a good substance on which to focus. The spring foods which Chinese medicine associates with the liver are all beneficial for detoxing - bean sprouts, lemons, apple cider, onions (especially spring onions), cabbage, mushrooms, and all greens. Historically Chinese medicine does not recommend the harshness of fasting, but I would urge you to bite the bullet and choke down some psyllium husk every day for awhile or do something else major to increase fiber. Part of a detox for me is to make a large pot of cabbage soup and a take a round of the herbal formula Lung Tan Xie Gan (Gentian Clear Liver Pill.)
One of the most famous Chinese herbal formulas for the liver is called “Free and Easy Wanderer.” The name reflects the qualities that benefit the liver - emotional gentleness, creativity, going with the flow. We gain insight into how we want to grow or be productive, not on the subway on the way to work, but from activities like wandering in gardens or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or walks by the sea. Spring is the time to try some new things to see if you like them. Keywords for the liver are “explore” and “experiment.” The gallbladder, the other wood organ associated with spring in Chinese medicine, is involved in decision making. After the creative visualization of spring we should be able to come to some decisions. Creativity does not require that we make ultimate decisions, just that we decide what is next.
You might be someone who dislikes summer and feels uncomfortable in the heat. Chinese medicine teaches that if you tend to feel unwell during one season, then you’re not living in harmony in the previous season. For those of you who tend to feel unwell in the summer, it’s even more important to take care in the spring. Chances are, a detox will help you to enjoy summer - or book a treatment. It’s not too late.
The world in winter is withdrawn and cold. Plants and animals have retreated and are building their energy so that they can bloom and prosper in the spring. In agrarian societies, after the exertions of summer and the fall harvest people would sleep. Winter is the time of year for rest, recovery, and preparation. It’s time take care of yourself. It takes more energy to stay warm and it’s natural to feel more tired, to want to sleep more. It’s healthy to sleep late whenever you can. People feel more sensitive to the world and it is healthy to feel more introspective and withdrawn. It’s also a time to focus on inner warmth - physically by drinking warming beverages, emotionally by spending time with loved ones, and spiritually by doing activities that inspire us. Read a book that will relax your mind. If you need to make changes in your home, do the planning now, but delay strenuous efforts until spring. Do household projects that you can accomplish while watching a movie. Inspiration could could come from meditation, but could also be catching up on a favorite video series that has captured your imagination. Winter is a time to take stock of your life and plan how you will use the increased energy of spring to move forward. Coming in for a treatment during winter will raise your spirits and replenish your energy.
Winter is a time to focus not only on rest, but also on contentment. I have a client who is an extraordinarily grounded person. Hardworking, he’s had an illustrious career. At a reception in the White House he met President Clinton and had the presence of mind to joke around and make the President laugh. His best friend says that if he’s made his mind up not to do something, it’s just not going to happen. And yet, he’s known to be a generous, loyal, and diligent friend in times of trouble. In Chinese medicine this grounded energy is usually learned from one’s mother and I’ve always been interested in hearing about his mother. Once, he tested me and asked me what I thought she was like. I said that her home was always comfortable, that there was plenty of food, and that if her children were upset, her frequent advice was to take a nap. All of this was true, but he replied, “you’re getting the idea of a perfect mother, right?” He went on to explain that there had always been a lot of food, but she was a terrible cook. Her home was comfortable for kids because she didn’t care about housekeeping, driving his father crazy. She loved to nap. But she taught her children the most important lesson of contentment. In the United States we often talk about our happiness which we generally associate with achievements, but contentment is not valued. Contentment takes practice and is in harmony with winter.
The winter holidays, as typically celebrated, do not encourage living in harmony with nature. In ancient times, people saw the shorter days as a time of hope, not knowing for sure if God would choose to renew the world until the winter solstice, when the daylight began to increase again. The Christian liturgy before Christmas still is focussed on the end of time, the Apocalypse, and like Lent, is a time of introspection. The idea in Christianity is to reflect on where you would be spiritually if the world were to end. Santa Claus, jingle bells and office parties are modern distortions. The Christmas symbology - stars, evergreens, and a birth - is associated with hope in a time of darkness. For busy people that inner assessment could be about nourishing our closest relationships, and so spending time with loved ones, focussing on inner warmth, is in harmony with the season. But Christmas, as celebrated in modern times - shopping, parties, traveling - is an anathema to ancient wisdom. Many people, especially those seeking the “perfect Christmas” as presented in Hallmark movies, are doomed to exhaustion after the holidays, when winter has barely begun.
One of the mistakes I see people make in staying in harmony with winter involves over-exercising, often to stave off the holiday weight gain. Current research is that effective that weight loss is ninety percent diet and only ten percent exercise. Current research also correlates weight gain with poor sleep. People would lose more weight by getting enough sleep and spending more time organizing healthy food. Winter, in Chinese medicine is the Bladder and Kidney time of the year. The bladder meridian is the meridian that goes down the entire back and is associated with the most exterior levels of energy in the body where we keep our energy reserves and maintain our boundaries. Our backs are stiffer and more vulnerable in cold weather. The bladder meridian represents our boundaries. The example I use to illustrate this is after you’ve been to the tropics and eaten great food and gotten caught up on sleep. If you then return to the city and someone yells at you, their energy bounces right off you and you feel sorry for them. But when you’re tired and cold, the noise and harshness of the city gets to you. I see so many people out jogging in bitter cold weather in shorts, which might be all right for some young people with very strong constitutions, but from a Chinese perspective, is a prescription for illness. I see people at the gym at night doing intense workouts under bright lights which is contrary to both modern research on biorhythms, and Chinese medicine. It is never healthy to prioritize exercise over sleep, especially in the winter. The exercise focus in winter should be more on staying mobile with indoor exercises -yoga, Tai Chi, light aerobics, preparing for increased activity in spring and building towards an all out effort in summer. The main idea is to stay active enough to keep your energy going, without tiring yourself. If you have access to a jacuzzi use it!
Foods that are good in the winter are hearty soups, more meat, grains, nuts, and beans. Warming herbs will help a lot - ginger, cinnamon, garlic. Avoid cold foods like salads, but a trick is to take your salad and toss it in a skillet for a minute, turning it into a warm salad. Ginger tea works like magic to warm the interior when you’re chilled and will really help keep you from getting a cold. Bone broth is great if you’re feeling puny, as my country mother says. Recipes for ginger tea and bone broth are on my website (https://jeffvandykemassagetherapynewyork.com/recipes.)
New Yorkers tend to forget that they are a part of nature. We celebrate autumn by purchasing a mum plant at the florist and ordering a pumpkin spice latte. The healthy ones among us actually buy seasonal local vegetables at the green market, which is a great thing to do, because eating local seasonal food is a large part of staying in harmony with the season. But Chinese medicine is based on energy. Classical texts state that if you always get sick in winter it is because you were out of harmony in autumn. Winter is hard and to stay healthy we need to prepare.
Energetically summer is the time of expansion. Farmers work long hours because there is more daylight. We work on our environment by completing home projects. We push out into the world doing things like running and biking out of doors. It is also a time of enjoyment, expanding our horizons by traveling on vacation and reaching out to plan outings with loved ones. Winter, on the other hand, is a time of contraction. There are many obvious examples in nature - the energy of trees withdrawing, animals hibernating. We have less energy because our bodies are fighting the cold and our spirits are lower because the world is darker. Historically, people stayed indoors doing quiet activities, like weaving and sewing, and fisherman mending their nets. Winter was a time of rest, inward introspection, and staying in the cabin with immediate family.
During autumn, a time of transition, our energy is supposed to begin to contract. Winter is hard. Most of us celebrate the holidays and are exhausted by January 1, but we still have months of winter ahead of us. Like squirrels, we should be organizing our food supplies. Like gardeners, we should be pruning and cutting back.
Depending on our own energy and lifestyle we each react to autumn differently. Most people have a favorite season and a season they dislike, based on their constitution and history. For a few years I had difficulty every winter but when I began to try to live in harmony with the seasons my health improved. My pattern was to work too hard during the summer and then in fall realize that I hadn’t been to the ocean or been in nature all summer. I would feel cheated and start trying to enjoy life more, but then I wouldn’t prepare for winter. I would find myself carrying loads of provisions on icy streets in the dark, struggling in the cold. It was depressing. Or I would be dealing with household emergencies because I hadn’t taken the time to do seasonal maintenance. By February I would be exhausted, agitated, and get bronchitis.
Autumn’s focus should be organizing and getting ready to rest and hibernate in the winter. It’s good to to make a large order from Costco and load up on paper goods and foodstuffs, so that on the coldest winter nights meal can be organized without going out. Of coarse that means making room for provisions by throwing things out, which is like pruning away dead leaves. One strategy is to clean out the freezer and take trip to Trader Joe’s and load up on easy meals for cold nights. And get some frozen hors’ d’oeuvres for winter nesting with loved ones. Do finish up on household projects started during the summer, tying up loose ends, winding down all the activity for a winter’s rest. Develop some strategies to stay home more - order books and games, plan some uplifting quiet activities. Plan ahead so you can do whatever you need to do so you can enjoy resting some this winter!
A lot of living harmoniously with autumn means calming down and focussing more on yourself rather than the externals. It’s a great time to do a detox, which might mean limiting watching the news. Do what works for you - more yoga, meditation, start Tai Chi, come in for a treatment. But whatever you do, try to wind down some.
Foods good to eat are all locally grown fruits and vegetables - pears, apples (especially baked), nuts, pumpkin, winter squash, all root vegetables, mushrooms, legumes (don’t forget hummus!) Spices are good to have now - cinnamon, ginger, sage, rosemary, thyme.