This is the third clinic newsletter, and is for the Winter Solstice on December 21st. 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
At this time of year, especially around 11 PM Saturday the 21st for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, “yang” is at its most diminished. This is because the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth is tilted away from the sun during this season.
We can see the effects of this tilting away from the sun in our outer environment: it’s snowy and cold outside! That’s how strong of an effect there is with diminished yang in our environment; and in Chinese Medicine we know that the same changes are happening internally in our bodies.
In terms of the Winter season, in the Chinese solar calendar it began on November 8th, 2019. This is because that calendar considers the peaks (solstices) and balance points (equinoxes) of yang, and it considers those times to be the height of each season. So, it thinks of the Winter Solstice as being the height of the winter season.
It’s important for practitioners of Classical Chinese Medicine to know the seasons in this way because it sometimes changes how we treat our patients, and changes what we do in terms of healthy lifestyle practices (called “yangsheng”, but in modern times most consider it to be “qigong”). We don’t start implementing the winter health advice on the Solstice, which the Western calendar considers to be the first day of winter…we start about a month and a half prior.
Foods and Drinks
Due to the lack of yang in our external and internal environments this time of year, in many cases people can be lacking in internal yang. For instance, if your feet are cold most of the day, that’s a sign of diminished yang.
Meat can be one of the easiest foods to eat that increases a person’s internal yang. Slow cooked meats are especially good, as they’re easier to digest. Beef is generally good, but lamb is considered to be even more warming.
For those who don’t want to eat meat, it’s useful to know that simply eating more calories can increase our internal warmth. If a person feels cold and susceptible to the weather during the winter season, it’s typically due to needing more internal warmth.
There are Chinese herbs that increase the internal warmth, but they typically require a diagnosis to use due to being strong in nature. Cinnamon and ginger, as well as other warming spices, are readily available for anyone to use…a heavily spiced homemade chai isn’t a bad thing to have to warm up.
In our modern culture, many people think that fruit smoothies and salads are healthy things to eat. But think about this: it’s winter time, and these things don’t grow locally at this time of year – it’s unnatural that we have them available due to shipping and grocery stores. Chinese Medicine considers them to be “cold” in temperature, and they diminish the smaller amount of yang that we have at this time of year. So generally, it’s frowned upon to have raw fruits and vegetables, especially if that’s the primary thing that’s eaten, and especially if you’re eating them while they’re cold from a refrigerator. For those who like to get more nutrients from these types of foods, it can be good to cook them as a part of meals that contain other types of food. It’s more natural to eat warm meals in winter.
Winter Qigong Exercise
A good qigong exercise for winter is going to sleep early. It helps to not have unnatural lighting after the sun goes down, and not have electronic screens that we look at. Without those things, the brain senses that the day is over due to the darkness, and our bodies naturally produce melatonin, which causes us to become drowsy at the correct time.
While it’s very challenging in our society to go without screens after nightfall (and also very boring for us), it can be fine to do it for 1-3 days, as a mini vacation. Try it out at this time, around the Winter Solstice. Just have candlelight after sunset, which is at about 5:11 pm, and read a paperback book or listen to music. You’ll probably notice that you don’t stay up as late as a result.
Is sleep really a form of qigong? Yes! It’s incorrect to think that qigong simply means waving the arms around like in taijiquan (“tai chi”). The word, qigong, first came into use in the 1950s, and it applies to earlier terminology of exercises (called “daoyin”, or gymnastics) and healthy lifestyle practices (called “yangsheng”, or nurturing life). We can say that it means doing anything which improves our qi, or our vitality; sleep certainly does that.
There are various forms of sleeping qigong which mainly came from Daoist sources, and they involve certain positions to fall asleep in. But I think the best sleeping practice is to just go to sleep earlier, and not try to be in any sort of position. The natural position the body wants to sleep in is best.
The Neijing Su Wen (translated by Unschuld) says “Go to rest early and rise late”. Although you might wake up very early if you go to sleep earlier, it’s still good to lie in bed and just rest.
Just think about this: animals hibernate during this season, some of them staying in slumber for most of it. They’re following the natural cycles of yang, but us humans assume that our lives are supposed to be the same all year long. Prior to the invention of electricity, we were probably closer to living the natural way.
So, that’s a good thing to do for qigong during this season: to set up the conditions to be able to go to sleep earlier.
Another thing you can do: warm foot soaks in the evening. The Yinshu (the oldest extant text on qigong) says, “Keep the feet warm”. It’s good to use a thermometer, and get the temperature warm but not above 110 degrees (burns can happen at 115 and above). Use a small tub, and have the water deep enough that it covers your feet and ankles. Then just relax and keep the feet in the warm water until it becomes slightly lukewarm.
There are many very important acupuncture points in the feet, and by warming them you will stimulate and open those points. In comparison, if your feet are cold in the winter, it’s as if those points are very minimally functioning. A similar thing we can do is to wear warm slippers while we’re relaxing indoors. In the evening, if our feet are warmed, it causes the qi in our bodies to flow downward, which will help with being able to relax and fall asleep.
The Neijing Su Wen says, “Avoid cold and seek warmth”. It’s natural to want to bundle up at this time of year, and to stay inside of heated areas. While sometimes people do polar plunges, or the Wim Hof method of exposure to cold conditions, those things are extremes, and for the most part people naturally don’t want to be exposed to the cold for too long. So, for our health, it’s good to cultivate this more. Bundle up very well so that you’re pretty much always warm.
“The three months of Winter – they denote storing and securing” says the Neijing. This means that we should behave as if being stored and secured, as well. For instance, constantly going out for jogs around the neighborhood is not an example of being “stored and secured” within your house. So, it’s a good time of year to stay in and be more restful rather than overextending yourself.
Some Chinese Medicine thinkers use a lot of metaphors and correlations, to be able to apply the teachings of the classic texts to the entirety of their lives. So, they might suggest that focusing on frugal tips which save money is good to do at this time of year, as opposed to perhaps spending more freely during the summer.
The Neijing says, “Do not allow the sweat to flow away through the skin. This would cause the qi (yang) to be carried away quickly.” I think this does imply that exercise should become more gentle at this time of year, so that it warms up the body rather than causes sweat to pour out… although it’s obviously not healthy to cease all physical activity. I think if you’re exercising in a heated environment, such as the gym, then it’s fine to sweat…but sweating out in the cold is a bad idea. It also strikes me as being better if we exercise in the early part of the day, such as 11 am, which is more yang when compared to the evening.
Meditation practice suitable for Winter
The Neijing says, “Let the mind enter a state as if hidden/shut in, as if you had secret intentions, as if you already had made gains.”
I think this is just another way of saying that someone has inner peace, or in other words, has a warm feeling in their hearts. So a meditation practice that’s suitable for Winter is to get in touch with that inner warmth, and feel it often.
Some Daoists call it the “inner smile”. It’s the same feeling as if you’re actually smiling big, and laughing, except it’s not expressed outward, and the feeling simply radiates within the heart area.
Another way to create an inner smile type feeling is to bundle up with blankets, even covering yourself with them, so that you feel cozy. It’s similar, if you can remember, to when you were a little kid and made a blanket fort.
Yet another way – if you can get into the spirit of this season, in terms of the various holidays that are celebrated, that can help generate this inner peace feeling. It’s similar to simply feeling good about life, and feeling alive.
So, I think the inner smile is an appropriate meditation to do at this time. If this is confusing, and if it’s kind of frustrating to figure out how to feel that, don’t worry…just focus instead on sleeping qigong. The inner smile is something that kind of happens naturally, especially when we’re not trying to do anything and are simply natural. So, if you’re trying to feel this and aren’t having success, just forget it about it for the time being. That way, you’ll be more natural, and perhaps later on you’ll feel it arise. The meditation for Autumn is also suitable at this time, if you want a meditation practice to do.