This is the second clinic newsletter, and is for the Autumn Equinox on September 23rd. I like to make these quarterly newsletters where I share self-healing tips for each season. Hope you enjoy the info!
-Scott Schauland, LAc
Chinese Medicine view of this season
Right now is a time when yin and yang are more balanced compared to other times of the year. In summer, there was more yang, and the days were longer and hotter. Later in winter, the days will be short and colder, and there will be more yin. But here in Autumn, there’s a balance between the two (although this is the period where yang is decreasing and days are getting shorter…compared to the spring, when the opposite occurs).
In our Western calendar, September 23rd (the equinox) is the first day of Autumn. But in the Chinese Medicine calendar, the equinox is the middle of the Autumn season. We’ve already been in Autumn! All of the seasons are like that; Chinese Medicine “Autumn” started August 7th and will continue until November 6th.
At the very beginning of this season, there’s not really anything noticeable in terms of what we recognize as the Fall…but it’s actually halfway between the longest day of the year (Summer solstice) and one of the most balanced days (Autumn Equinox). Yet, it still seems like Summer in terms of the weather. Well, the Chinese account for this, because the next “solar term” (periods of 15 days) after the “Start of Autumn” solar term, is called “Limit of Heat”; they named it that because it’s typically the hottest time of the year. So, the Chinese medicine calendar acknowledges that it doesn’t seem like Autumn yet, when they say it’s Autumn.
But in terms of the amount of yang, and sunlight, it has decreased enough at that time to begin to implement the health tips that Chinese Medicine recommends, when appropriate.
For these newsletters, I send them out during the solstices and equinoxes (as opposed to when Chinese Medicine says the season starts) because these are the peak times of the seasons, and they are the best times to practice the self healing tips I recommend.
Foods and Drinks
It’s the season of pumpkin spice lattes. Please don’t drink those too often, because they contain a ton of sugar: roughly the equivalent of two candy bars per cup. Once during the whole season is probably the smartest option.
To satisfy the craving, try cooking up some pumpkin, which has a natural sweetness and a REAL fall flavor, and add a little bit of fresh ground cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg to taste…that’s a much better Autumn ritual than getting a pumpkin spice latte, and is much healthier.
It’s a good time to make chili. I like to make a paste from dried chili peppers ahead of time (need to wear gloves doing that; I like to use ancho and chipotle peppers), then adding the paste to flavor the chili. I’ve found that it increases the internal warmth, where the stomach actually feels warm from eating it, as opposed to merely having a hot flavor on the tongue as is common when using chili powder or hot sauce. In the Autumn, as the air becomes colder, we want to increase our internal temperature so as to combat the cool crisp winds (which are thought, in Chinese Medicine, to correlate with getting sick more often. The Huangdi Neijing says “the qi of heaven becomes tense” to describe the crisp nature of the air. Some herbal texts call it the “killing wind” due to how often the Autumn makes people fall ill). In terms of having heavier/greasier foods and animal products, like chili, Sun Simiao’s chapter on nutrition says that it’s good to avoid such foods during the time from the Summer Solstice to the Autumn Equinox, but after the equinox it’s okay, because then they’re less likely to cause digestive troubles.
Aside from that, it’s a good time of year to eat what’s in season locally. Root veggies are good. Soups are good. In summer we could eat lighter, but in Autumn, we don’t want to eat too light (such as raw salads every day), because it can decrease our temperature and make us vulnerable to illness.
A Chinese Medicine recipe for people who have a dry cough in Autumn: cut the core out of an Asian pear, leaving a hole in the center. Put a spoonful of honey in there, steam the pear until soft, and then enjoy. Sometimes herb powders are added in as well, for increased efficacy in treating the cough. These steamed honey pears increase “lung yin”, or moisture, which will counteract the dryness. But this recipe can be too sweet for most people, and will create internal dampness if eaten in excess.
Autumn Qigong Exercise
In regard to this season, the Huangdi Neijing Suwen says to “cause the lung qi to be pure”. A way to do this is through breathing practices. I’ll share what one of my qigong teachers called the “One Breath” – specifically, the “water and fire” version of it (it’s called water and fire because it creates an internal steaming process, which generates qi from within).
Water breath: this is also called “natural breathing” in some traditions. First, sit on something like a meditation cushion with your palms down on your knees. The palms being in that position is known as the “posture of relaxation”, and it helps the body and mind to be at ease. Being relaxed helps qi flow. Keep the tip of your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, just behind your top teeth. As you gently and naturally inhale, let the abdomen below the navel expand in all directions. It will naturally want to expand most forward, with the belly protruding out, but also make sure to feel that the sides and low back are expanding too. It’s kind of as if a little balloon in the center of your lower abdomen were increasing in size during the inhalation. When you reach the top of the inhale, exhale naturally and gently, allowing the “balloon” to deflate back to normal size. During the exhale, very slightly and gently clench the anal sphincter…just activating the muscle, but without force. As gentle as possible. Continue inhaling and exhaling in this fashion, and as you do so, pay attention to the sensations within your lower abdomen. Meditate on them. After a while you should feel more calm and grounded.
Fire breath: once you’re feeling quite calm and grounded, now you can kick things up a notch. This “fire breath” is also known as “reverse breathing” in qigong. During the inhale, clench the anal muscles very gently again, but this time pull the front of the abdomen back and inward toward the spine. At the same time, very slightly bend forward so that your low back kind of opens up. On the exhale, release and bring everything back to normal. During the inhale and exhale, continue noticing sensations within the lower abdomen; that’s your object of meditation with this exercise. You’ll feel some increased energy, warmth, movement, and perhaps a sense of joy or bliss, as a result of the fire breath. Once you feel that, or after just a couple of minutes, you’ve done enough of it and should go back to doing the “water breath” until you feel calm and grounded again.
After doing water, fire, then water breath again, start to end everything by circling your hands up at your sides with the inhale, and down in front of you with the exhale. As you exhale, release impure air by going “hhhaaaa” (similar to a sigh, or similar to when you blow warm breath to fog up a window when it’s cold out, breathing out of your mouth, without making a sound with your voice box).
Then place the palms over the lower abdomen, right palm touching it, and the left palm on top of the back of the right hand. Feel that all sensations from the practice are drawn into the lower abdomen. This grounds our energy, and is the completion of the practice.
Breath work done like the water and fire breath is likened metaphorically to making a good cup of tea. If you steep it too long, it becomes bitter. If you don’t steep it enough, and the flavor won’t be there (the result won’t happen). “Just enough” is the right way to practice. So, just when you feel the effects described, that’s when it’s enough, and doing more would be counterproductive.
When brewing tea, we need to heat up water. If we started with the fire breath, it would be like putting an empty pot on a fire and getting it red hot. If we tried to add water after that, it would spatter and not effectively cook it. So instead, we first add cool water (relaxation) to the cool pot (our bodies). Then we turn up the temperature, so that the water is warm and “steam” is rising off of it (qi, warmth and movement is produced within us), then “turn off the stove” by doing the water breath again (calm down again). Also, if our water is boiling (too much fire breath), then the “tea” becomes bitter (the result isn’t as good) as opposed to being pleasant. If you’ve ever made oolong tea, you know that the water has to be the right temperature for the tea leaves.
There are many types of breathing meditations and qigong. This one, in addition to purifying the lung qi, additionally builds internal warmth and qi, which is important in the Autumn season to ward off illness.
The cool and crisp wind in Autumn can easily cause health problems for us, so bundle up as the days get slightly colder. If you feel the wind on the back of your neck, wear a scarf and/or hat. There are acupuncture points on the back of your head, just below the occiput, which are vulnerable to winds. Practicing the “one breath” can also improve your immunity to ward off catching a cold.
Also, stay indoors a little bit more often as compared to the summer. The Autumn is a time of returning back inward. Similarly, return home earlier in the evening and become cozy before bed, as opposed to living it up partying into the late hours. The days are getting shorter, and if we’re living naturally, we are getting sleepy earlier.
Some people like to go for runs outdoors. Exercise is very good for us, and these people can be quite healthy, but it’s still going against the nature of the season to do this, especially if done at an odd time such as in the evening. It’d be better during the Autumn to do light exercise outdoors such as walking…while keeping the moderate to intense exercise indoors at a gym. And good to exercise during the early or middle part of the day, if possible.
Although, if it’s a matter of necessity with your schedule to exercise outdoors in the evening: it’s better to get exercise than to not.
Meditation practice suitable for Autumn
The Huangdi Neijing says, “Collect the spirit qi and cause the Autumn qi to be balanced. Do not direct your mind to the outside”.
In the Summer, our attention was focused outward. We were outdoors, going for nature hikes, swimming at the beach, seeing all of the plants around us in full bloom, taking in as much life as we could. That was great to do back then.
Now we’re in Autumn, and even if we wish we could have an endless summer, now is the time to go inward and collect ourselves. Enjoying the different nature of each season is a sign of internal harmony, whereas wishing to have only one season is a sign that different elements are stronger and weaker, and are therefore slightly imbalanced. It IS possible to enjoy this time of year just as much as summer, only the enjoyment is in a different way. Try to get into the spirit of the season to get a sense of its enjoyment: go to an apple orchard, have a bit of spiced cider, go on a hayride, carve a pumpkin in October, etc.
In the summer newsletter, I shared a particular meditation for that time, where we meditated on an external object.
For Autumn, in order to be in accord with the nature of this season, we want to do a different type of meditation. To “collect the spirit qi” and “not direct the mind to the outside” means to not be focusing on anything in particular. It’s kind of like merely resting and relaxing…that’s all there is to it!
My favorite instructions for this method are called the “six nails of Tilopa”. Tilopa was an accomplished meditation practitioner from India, and “six nails” means: six precisely worded key points on how to practice. Here is a translation by Ken MacLeod from the Tibetan written instructions:
“Don’t recall. Let go of what has passed.
Don’t imagine. Let go of what may come.
Don’t think. Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t examine. Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t control. Don’t try to make anything happen.
Rest. Relax, right now, and rest.”
By simply resting and relaxing, and when the “monkey mind” jumps around (in other words, when we end up getting caught in thoughts about different things) reminding ourselves that all we have to do is rest, and going back to doing that…our spirit is no longer drawn outward toward external objects, or outward toward our own thoughts and feelings, but is gradually collected inward into its home.
It’s good to perform this while sitting in any comfortable position in a peaceful environment, but it can also be performed at any time throughout the day, even with your eyes open. It’s not necessary to sit in a meditative posture with this. Just whatever is comfortable. It’s good to close your eyes when doing a seated practice of it, so that your attention isn’t going out to random objects. It’s also important to be awake during the practice of resting and relaxing…otherwise it’s merely sleeping, and is not meditation.
A hand mudra that can assist in this meditation: tuck your thumbs over your palms toward the base of your pinkies, and have your four other fingers covering them and holding onto them. It can feel unnatural at first, but just hold that hand posture while doing the six nails meditation. The Yangxing Yanming Lu (written some time between 650-763 CE) says that this fist clenching posture, “…shuts the doors and gates of the hun and po (helps your spirit stay within and not leak outward). As a result, this strengthens the root of your lifespan and brightens the eyes – it’s a method which increases one’s years and can even make one’s grey hair revert to having color. If held for the entire day, then illnesses won’t be able to take hold in the body, and negativity won’t come near you” (interpretation of the writing based off of Michael Stanley-Baker’s translation in his thesis on the book). Furthermore, Baolin Wu (who wrote Qi Gong for Total Wellness) says that the thumb represents oneself symbolically. This mudra represents the self going inward.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning some lifestyle and self healing tips for this season. I plan to always share them freely in these quarterly newsletters.
If you have any health problems you’d like to get resolved with acupuncture and herbal medicine, see my website to schedule an appointment: www.ginkgoleafacupuncture.com
Additionally, if you want to know the particulars of qigong or meditation, or if it didn’t make sense from merely reading the instructions in this newsletter, you can attend a meeting with my Grand Rapids Qigong and Meditation Club (which is always free to attend): https://www.meetup.com/Grand-Rapids-Qigong-and-Meditation-Club/
Have an enjoyable Autumn,
Scott Schauland, LAc