Now the holidays are over and we’re still in the midst of winter, it’s easy to start to feel a bit less shiny, and “ho ho ho!” People who have been powering through the festive season, fueled by pies, spicy mulled drinks, and jolly holly-ness. Once the decorations come down and the gingerbread house is no more than a pile of crumbs and a distant memory, folks can start feeling a slump in energy. Unless you’ve been keeping a healthy energy balance, chances are that you’re experiencing something like a humongous sugar crash, after a month-long drip-feed of rich, delicious treats! And that crash can leave us vulnerable to low mood and lethargy—if we’re not careful, it can start to put a negative slant on our outlook, and cloud our perspective.
At the time of writing, the Northern Hemisphere is in the week of “Blue Monday.” This was originally a marketing campaign by UK company Sky Travel, who used a “scientific” calculation to determine the most depressing day of the year! This was based on factors like weather conditions, level of debt and many more. As a concept, it’s since been written off as “pseudoscience,” and even decried by the scientist who came up with it. But it’s definitely something that companies in the UK still use widely in their marketing! So why is it considered so effective if it’s not “a thing”?
The energetics of winter
Whatever your opinion on the idea of Blue Monday itself, from a practical (as well as energetic) perspective, it does reflect an aspect of the Winter season. There’s definitely a sense of shrinking in or contraction at this time of year (in the Northern Hemisphere). You might think of it as that feeling of just wanting to curl up into a little ball, while outside is in sub-zero temperatures, snow, sleet, and razor-sharp winds. Or when you want to curl up under your duvet and hibernate, instead of getting up to go to work. After the outwards-facing energy of the socialization and generosity of the festive season, it’s completely understandable that our energy levels, bank balances, immune systems and plain old zest for life might be flagging a bit!
In TCM, winter’s energy direction is described as inwards moving/contracting—the opposite of the Summer’s, which is moving outwards and expanding. It’s a time of the year when nature brings life within itself. Animals who haven’t migrated will often hibernate to conserve and replenish energy, and many trees shed their leaves drawing their life energy within. They can appear to almost be dying, even though they’re actually resting. They need to do this, both to survive, and also to be able to push back up and begin their growing cycle again in springtime. Plants at this time also bring nourishment and protection to the earth, with their fallen leaves breaking down and replenishing the soil with the rich nutrients they release.
Why Winter’s energy is so important to our modern lives
Living in this 24/7, 365 world of “always on-ness,” it’s incredibly easy for us to get caught up in outwards-facing energy patterns, without taking the time to properly rest and nourish ourselves with quiet and reflection. This means that our sympathetic nervous system (responsible for emergency survival—”fight or flight”) can be over-active. This has some very bad consequences for our body’s ability to repair and be healthy, and our mental health also takes a knock. By honoring Winter’s energy, and taking time to turn within and listen to our physical and emotional need for rest, you’ll be putting yourself in a great position for the new growing cycle in spring! In fact this energetic cycle can also be used to represent the monthly menstrual cycle, as I discussed in this article on my Menstrual Medicine Circle experience. The advice on the Winter phase of the monthly cycle is also very applicable during the earth’s season of Winter! And if there’s something preventing you from taking time to slow down and rest, there’s a great piece of advice from Jane Legge in this article on Menstruality, about finding a gesture to honor your winter. Just taking 5 minutes to do something small and symbolic to you, can have a really positive impact on your wellness on all levels, because you’re harmonizing your inner energy to align with nature.
This actually has an extra layer of aptness for this article, since Winter embodies the high-point of feminine energy, in TCM!
So without further ado…
Introducing the Water element
The element associated with winter is Water. It associations are:
- Meridians: Kidney and Bladder (pretty self-evident);
- Sensory association: hearing (Winter can be quieter than other seasons);
- Sound association: groaning (“Oh no—I can’t bear to get out of bed!!”);
- Emotional association: fear (think shivering with cold, chills down the spine, frozen to the spot, and other fear imagery associated with the cold);
- Color: black or very dark colors (Yin – the dark half of the Yin/Yang symbol).
What does balance look like in Winter?
Wintertime is the most Yin phase of the year—with its cold, dark, earthy, stark beauty. But what does this mean for us staying balanced? If there’s so much Yin, shouldn’t we try to balance it out with even more Yang energy? While this idea might seem logical, in fact it’s not as straightforward as “too much x is bad so do lots of y to counterbalance it.” Yes, too much cold and dark isn’t good for us—but then neither is too much of anything! But the answer isn’t to negate it or literally “balance” it out with the same concentration of its opposite—apart from anything else, this would mean that Winter would have too much energy compared with the rest of the cycle!
The TCM concept of balance
The idea of balance within TCM isn’t about seeking perpetual homeostasis. Rather, it’s about achieving balance within the ever-moving ebb and flow of life and its cycles. The large-scale is mirrored in the small scale. The earth’s cycle does have an overall balance of energy, looked at across the year as a whole. The movement from season to season is an intrinsic part of life, and is mirrored on different scales throughout nature (as with the menstrual cycle, mentioned earlier). Without this perpetual expansion and contraction of energy across the year, there would be no movement. Movement is crucial for Qi (life energy), and Qi is what makes everything in the universe. So no movement = no anything!
Moderation, then, is the order of the day—but how do we achieve that? Well, going back to the subject of modern Western-style winter celebrations, it seems to me that we tend to go into a sort of hyper-yang phase. We embrace a very outwards-facing energy, with an emphasis on lots of parties, socializing and huge amounts of consumption over a prolonged period of time. It feels to me almost like this is defying or trying to counteract the Yin qualities of the season, because resting and digesting are ideas which run counter to the principles of perpetual growth that our cultures and technology embrace! And rather than balancing the Yin, this extreme Yang is very much at odds with the predominant season’s energy.
So then when we hit January, it’s only natural that we might feel depleted and low. The drop from the artificially high energy of the celebrations and revelry, down to the actual realities of the season, is a pretty stark contrast! I feel like at this time of year, a healthier and happier approach would be to accept, embody, and move through this season with moderation, mindfulness and making space for quietude. We need to be in harmony with Winter, because that energy is as much a part of us as it is for the rest of nature—on all levels. By honoring that need, we can choose to embody the spirit of the season, and fulfill our own inner needs for replenishment.
So in the spirit of moderation, and self-care, I’d suggest finding ways to honor the Yin of the year, by supporting our own Yin whilst keeping a kernel of Yang in there to keep the balance. After all, there can be no Yin without Yang—and vice versa (think of the dots in the Yin/Yang symbol).
A few practical ideas for balancing your energy in Winter
- Protect your core from the cold! This could mean adding an extra thermal layer to your daily winter wardrobe, or tying a pretty scarf around your waist. Or you might want to invest in a Haramaki (AKA Belly Blanket or Core/Kidney Warmer). These nifty cosy fabric tubes are designed to protect your Kidneys from the chilly weather, as well as feeling lovely and cosy. They can look pretty awesome as well, with lovely colors and patterns!
- Take short, mindful walks. Despite the very natural draw of staying indoors where it’s warm and cozy, we do still need fresh air and movement to stay physically healthy and look after our mental health! So why not bundle up nice and warm, and go for a short mindful winter walk? Although bare trees and muddy fields may not make you gasp with delight, why not try to see whether you can connect with the beauty of the season? It’s still there—it’s just a different type of beauty. If you’re in a more urban environment with less trees, you might take a moment to enjoy the cloud patterns, the strange shadows and theatrical quality of light cast by the low sun. Even the feeling of brisk coldness that reminds you you’re a physical being can be beautiful! Winter can be a great time to work on our mindful presence and staying in the moment—it’s hard to stay lost in thought when you’re concentrating on keeping your balance on the ice, or when there’s freezing air funneling in through your nose and making you sneeze! Embrace the whole experience, and try not to ignore or judge the less “pleasant” bits.
- Have lots of variety in your diet (local seasonal foods are best). Listen to your intuition when choosing what to eat. I’m talking felt bodily cravings rather than the appealing image of a certain dish. Long slow-cooked dishes made without too much water are perfect for this time of year, as your body doesn’t have to work too hard to digest them. Salty-tasting and fermented foods are also good for Kidney energy—but it’s a good idea to swap out regular table salt for stronger-tasting sea salt, rather than increasing your salt intake. Also good are flax, pumpkin and black sesame seeds, kidney beans, blue and black foods, walnuts and chestnuts. Also plenty of green leafy vegetables, like cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Also try to limit your fresh fruit intake to 2–4 pieces per day (more than that will be difficult for your digestive system to handle).
- Early to bed, late to rise! Avoid burning the candle at both ends, and in fact it’s ideal if you can get more sleep than at other times of the year. So in the party part of the season, it’s probably okay to compensate for late nights of revelry (yes, it does still count if it’s over Zoom!) with the same number (or more) of early nights, relaxing and pampering, maybe a pajama day watching box sets, or getting stuck into a creative project. If possible, avoid too much alcohol and caffeine, or give your body a good break from them between parties, if you can.
- Savasana or Yoga Nidra. This doesn’t have to be a huge deal—it’s something you can actually do to help get to sleep from the comfort of your own cozy bed! I found it invaluable when I was a stressed-out Civil Servant spending half my time living in hotels in London. There are loads of free (and paid) meditation apps out there, but one I love (and am in fact now a Teacher on) is called Insight Timer. But whatever app or site you choose to use, whatever your preference, whether it be guided meditations, chilled-out trippy music, singing bowls or silence and interval bells, there’s definitely something out there that’s perfect for you!
- Gentle exercise like Qi Gong or Taiji are always great, but in Winter, they really come into their own. This sort of exercise promotes the healthy flow of energy around and within the body (which is great for the whole body, and particularly the Kidneys, since that’s where the body’s Yin and Yang are). It has the added benefit that it doesn’t take any physical exertion, as conserving energy is the thing to aim for, during Winter. The fact that you’ll be connecting with your own energy with mindful awareness is also awesome for your Kidney energy!
- Daily “you” time for 5 minutes. Take the time to really check in with yourself, accepting whatever you find with friendliness and support. What’s it like to be you right now? What do you notice? What do you feel drawn towards or repelled by? Then, like a supportive friend, honor your needs on that particular day, bearing in mind how you are, and adapting what you’re doing to suit those needs, where you can.
- Aromatherapy massage (self-massage, or massage from someone else where allowed—depending on local rules at the time)! At this time of year, essential oils can be especially nourishing, helping soothe and open our airways, calm coughs, and ease away pains, strains and stresses. Not only that, but massage and other stretching therapies (like Tuina, Gua Sha and Cupping) are absolutely great for the Bladder! Way to detoxify, get your Qi moving, and get pampered—and all at the same time!
- Be selective, so that what and whom you spend your energy on (think time, money and attention) is in sync with your heart. Go with your intuition. Connect with your felt sense, and trust what you find there! Spending time (whatever that has to look like) with people who make you feel great will boost your energy, instead of leaving you depleted.
- Do things that you love, and feel drawn to (even if you can’t explain why). Celebrate and revel in your “you-ness” through doing whatever really makes your heart sing! It could be (literally) singing, writing, drawing, crafting, baking, learning a language, designing a board-game, reading… Whatever it is, do it only for yourself, and enjoy some quality one on one time in your own company.
- Wear layers, and dress seasonally—this is not just for your core! If your home has cold floors or draughts, wear 2 pairs of socks, or some slipper boots! I sometimes even wear a muffler indoors when it gets particularly frosty out. Staying warm is crucial to our winter wellness, and the extremities can really suffer if you don’t pay attention to their needs. No-one wants chilblains—believe me. No one!!
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Treat yourself to lots of lovely hot drinks throughout the day, to keep you hydrated, warm and cheered! A lovely mug of your favorite herbal tea (especially a spicy one with things like ginger and star anise) can be just the sort of little thing to cheer and warm you up when the weather’s chilly and dark.
What are your favorite wintery well-being activities?
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Photo: Unsplash; Ema Melanaphy