Winter vitality: learning the dynamics of Yin

The three months of winter, they denote securing and storing.

The water is frozen and the earth breaks open.

Do not disturb the yang [qi].

Go to rest early and rise late. You must wait for the sun to shine.

Let the mind enter a state as if hidden, {as if shut in} as if you had secret intentions;

as if you already had made gains.[Suwen 2]

Unschuld, Paul U., and Hermann Tessenow. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, University of California Press, 2011.

Winter, a time of maximum yin.

Yin – relating to relative qualities of nourishment, internal, cold, dark, still.

The leaves have fallen from the trees, animals disappear in hibernation, the heavens pour down water or sprinkle cold magical flakes. A blanket of quiet. Winter. A stark contrast to the maximum yang of summer with its energies of expansion, movement and warmth.

Over the centuries, in fact over more than two thousand years (on record), skillful souls practicing the art of life, which is Chinese medicine, observed the cycles in the external environment and the way to enhance life by harmonising with these movements of Qi (Yin and Yang). We can learn from this knowledge today and see for ourselves how this supports our health and vitality.

Yin [qi], yang [qi], and the four seasons,

they constitute the end and the beginning of the myriad beings,

they are the basis of death and life.

Opposing them results in catastrophe and harms life.

If one follows them, severe diseases will not emerge.

This is called “to achieve the Way.” [Suwen 2]

Unschuld, Paul U., and Hermann Tessenow. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, University of California Press, 2011.

The water element is said to rule during winter. The water element has correspondences to the kidney and bladder organs, the ears, the bones, the colour black and the emotion of fear. As well as harmonising with Yin energetics, we can also pay attention to the water element in winter and nurture our kidney through choosing appropriate foods and activities.

The kidney organ in Chinese medicine (which includes both the physical organs and its energetic functions) has an important role in reproduction and sexuality and provides energy and warmth. The kidney is considered the root of the body and is the foundation of all yin and yang qualities. The bladder organ is paired with the kidney and together they govern water metabolism.

Lifestyle tips to harmonise with the environmental Qi of winter

We can harmonise with the environmental Qi of winter through our daily practices, what we eat, and how we prepare food.

Winter is a time of stillness and introspection. Here is an invitation to turn inside and tend to the inner fire at our core. We can practice meditation, or dedicate time to quiet internal reflection. Internal cultivation practices like Tai Chi and Qi gong are particularly potent and support kidney energy.

Rest is important for rejuvenating the kidney. In alignment with the cold and shorter days of winter we are encouraged to “go to bed early and rise late”.

Where possible, favour foods that grow locally during winter. These foods naturally warm and nourish us and include (depending where you live) – pumpkin, kohlrabi, leek, cauliflower, turnip, brussel sprouts, carrot, chestnuts, celery, silverbeet, potato, avocado, onion, fennel, orange, lemon, lime, rhubarb.

My box of local winter produce that I ordered this week

Cook foods longer, at lower temperatures, to maximise the internal warming quality of the food. Think of hearty, warming soups, wholegrains, and roasted nuts to maintain our interior warmth.

Include some salty and bitter flavours as these have a sinking and centring movement which promotes storage and brings body heat inside. A little salt is sufficient, as excess salt harms the water organs kidney and bladder. Bitter flavour foods include turnip, lettuce, alfalfa, celery, rye, oats, quinoa, chicory root. Salty foods include miso, seaweeds, salt, millet, barley, soy sauce.

Foods which direct energy to the kidney are particularly good in winter. These are black beans, seaweeds, millet, wheat, black sesame seeds, chestnuts, raspberries, mulberries, strawberries, and walnuts. Bone broths are good for the bones (the body part associated with the kidney) and supplements the Jing – the potent substance contained by the kidney, and can also be included in your winter diet.

See our Winter Wellbeing e-book for detailed information on how to maximise your health in winter through appropriate dress, diet, acupressure and lifestyle informed by the principles of Chinese medicine.