Winter – a nourishing time for rest and inner reflection
Updated: Jul 30
Traditional Chinese medicine directs us to live harmoniously with the seasons. According to TCM, there are five natural elements that exist within us, as they do in nature. Each season belongs to a particular element and has unique characteristics and correspondences. By studying nature’s patterns and cycles, we can learn how to support our own health and stay well year-round.
Winter represents the most Yin aspect in Chinese Medicine. Yin is the dark, cold, slow, inward energy. This is in contrast to the Yang of Summer whose energy represents light, hot, quick, expansive qualities.
As we approach winter, we arrive at the best season to slow down and conserve our energy. With its snowy and still landscape, the cooler and darker days invite us to enter into a meditative space to rest and reflect. Whatever your own “winter hibernation” might look like (comfortable sweatpants, an early bedtime, bottomless cups of tea), it’s essential that we take this time to replenish our resources that have been depleted throughout the year.
It is the concentrated, internal force of winter that enables a seed to burst forth in spring growth.
The energy of winter is deep and potent. With rest, we gather our energy and hold it in reserve for the coming months. This deeply nourishing Yin time gives us the energy, vision, and purpose we need to emerge into spring – a season of growth, renewal of spirit, and fresh starts.
In this most Yin season, there is an energetic predisposition to turn inward as our Qi flows more deeply within us. There is a depth to the winter season that invites us to connect with the core of our being and our untouched emotions. The death we see occurring in nature reflects our own turning away from stimulation, excitement and activity. For some, the Qi of the season can easily contribute to depression, loneliness, and seasonal affective disorder. Others may feel relief as the opportunity to pause and do internal work arises.
THE WATER ELEMENT
Winter is ruled by the water element: the most nourishing and essential substance for life. This element stores much of people’s reserves of energy. That’s why rest is crucial in the winter. At this time of year, over-work and lack of sleep easily depletes the water element as well as the Kidneys.
The wisdom of water is to flow. Water moves effortlessly and takes the exact form of whatever contains it. A balanced water element is able to move smoothly through the season with strength, courage, and willpower. There’s a sense of flow and ease, and an alignment to one’s purpose or destiny.
There is depth, darkness and mystery to water. The emotion associated with the water element is fear. In appropriate amounts, fear is essential to survival because it enables us to navigate situations with care and caution. When the water element is out of balance, one might experience excess fear, phobias, and lack of courage.
THE KIDNEYS + URINARY BLADDER
The Kidney and Urinary Bladder are the organ system that belong to the water element. Not surprisingly, perhaps, both organs play an important role in fluid regulation. There are acupuncture points along their meridians that can be used to fill the reserves and tap into that place where our real strength, courage, and wisdom reside.
According to TCM, the Kidneys are the storehouse of our vital energy and our Jing, or Essence. Jing relates to our genetics and governs growth, reproduction, and how we move through the cycles of life. Our bones, joints, teeth, ears, brain, and marrow are influenced by the Kidneys.
The Kidneys – also referred to as the Storehouse of the Vital Essence – ignite all processes and functions of the entire body, mind, and spirit. They provide the Qi (energy) and will power needed to overcome obstacles, move forward to accomplish our goals, and live out our fullest potential. We draw upon the energy reserves of the Kidneys just by the virtue of living, working and aging.
The Kidney meridian accessed through acupuncture begins at the bottom of the foot and travels up the inside of the leg to the pelvis, lower abdomen, and ends at the chest. Our body lets us know when we’re exhausting our reserves because symptoms along the Kidney channel will arise, including low back ache, weak knees, frequent urination, and menstrual or fertility issues. Other signs of Kidney imbalance include: exhaustion, autoimmune flare ups, low motivation, excessive fear and anxiety, and skeletal disorders.
The Urinary Bladder is compared to a reservoir where the waters of the body collect. Its acupuncture meridian is the longest of the body: beginning at the eyes, the channel travels over the head to the back of the neck, down both sides of the spine to the sacrum, then to the backs of the knees, down the calves, and to the ankles, ending at the outside of the little toe. Physical signs of imbalance include back pain, bladder pain, vertigo and headaches, vision issues, and urinary incontinence. Due to the Urinary Bladder’s role of “holding on” to urine, emotional signs of imbalance relate to this “holding on” function: refusing to let go of grudges, old jealousy, and fear.
Winter is an opportunity to focus on the health and spirit of the Kidneys and Urinary bladder, restore their resources and better manage our reserves. Slowing down, getting plenty of rest, eating well and in-season (more on winter-time foods below), drinking lots of fluids, and adapting a restorative wellness routine will support these organ systems and boost their vitality.
The classic texts of Chinese Medicine urge us to follow the cycle of the seasons in order to stay healthy. The Huang Di Nei Jing ("The Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor"), contains some of the oldest teachings about winter and its relationship to the Kidneys:
“During the winter months all things in nature wither, hide, return home, and enter a resting period, just as lakes and rivers freeze and snow falls. This is a time when Yin dominates Yang. Therefore, one should refrain from overusing the Yang energy. Retire early and get up with the sunrise, which is later in winter. Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret. Stay warm, avoid the cold, and keep the skin covered. Avoid sweating. The theory of the winter season is one of conservation and storage. Without such practice the result will be injury to the Kidney energy. This will cause weakness, shrinking of muscles, and coldness; then the body loses its ability to open and move about in the Spring.”
Maintaining an appropriate balance between activity and rest is crucial to the health of the water element. In addition to the advice from the classic texts, here are some self-care tips to follow for the winter months ahead:
Food therapy: Focus on foods that share the qualities of the water element. Colors are dark, taste is salty, content is hydrating and nourishing. Examples include: nuts, seeds, legumes, shellfish, salt water fish, seaweed, dark colored berries, root vegetables, whole grains, stews and soups. We are also including mostly warm and cooked foods, and limiting cold and raw foods. Use warming spices like garlic, ginger, and cardamom.
Adaptogenic herbs: Focus on herbs that strengthen the Kidneys and adrenals, boost immunity, lift depression, ease anxiety, and help the body adapt to stress. Holy basil, ashwaghanda, astragalus, oat straw, and rhodiola are herbs that can be taken daily as supplements or tea. It’s best to consult with a health care practitioner before adding supplements to your wellness regimen.
Essential oils: Oils such as geranium, ylang ylang, jasmine, and basil can be used in a diffuser to strengthen the water element. The floral oils are mostly middle or base notes, resonating with the deeper layers of our selves. Floral oils nourish Yin, lift the spirit, and connect with our inner beauty and essence. Basil is used in blends for fatigue, depression, focus, and memory.
Look inward: Rest is important for revitalizing the Kidneys, which is why some animals hibernate in Winter. It is also a good time to look inward, reflecting on ourselves with meditation, writing, or other inward practices such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong. These practices help us connect to our inner selves and support kidney energy. They are very helpful to relax the mind, calm our emotions and raise the spirit. Schedule more time to discover yourself through reflection.
Go deep: While we are often inclined to seek out things that bring us light and joy this time of year – holiday parties, dinner with friends, and outdoor winter adventures – make sure to keep gatherings simple and relaxed. The season calls for making deeper connections with those close to you, but without overextending yourself. A mindful balance of Fire (Yang, activity, joy) and Water (Yin, stillness, introspection) can be helpful to our psyche and wellbeing.
Care for Kidney and Urinary Bladder acupuncture meridians: Important acupuncture points along these channels are at the feet, knees, low back, and neck. These points are used to strengthen Kidney and Urinary Bladder function, support immunity, and treat emotional imbalances of the water element. Keeping these areas warm and covered will maintain the integrity of the channels and keep you well physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
WINTER’S ASSOCIATIONS IN CHINESE MEDICINE
YIN ORGAN: KIDNEYS
YANG ORGAN: URINARY BLADDER
SPIRIT: ZHI (WILLPOWER)
COLOR: BLACK/DARK BLUE
SENSE ORGANS: EARS
VIRTUES: STRENGTH, COURAGE, WISDOM
Winter is about storing up potential and using our resources (Qi, money, abilities) wisely (discernment, boundaries). The classic texts tell us to use our Qi wisely and to expend it only on activities that align with our heart – who you are and your reason for being – not to fritter it away or waste it with things that don’t fully engage you. Such thinking asks us to seriously evaluate all the ways that we are spending our Qi. In preparation for winter, our focus should turn to strengthening our water element and practice that which we observe in nature: stillness and conservation.