Winter has finally come to Minnesota. I love it.
I love the stillness and the quiet. Sitting on my couch with a mug of coffee watching the snow fall from under the warmth of a blanket fills my soul. I love the reminder to turn inwards and reflect on the past year and to dream about the year to come.
Good things are born of the silence.
This post was updated October 2018.
The Yin Season
When we think of the big picture of the year, there is the cold season and the warm season. Winter and summer. Yin and yang.
Of course, the year can be broken down further, into the four seasons: winter, spring, summer and autumn or even further, into the eight weather terms:
The heaven has eight weather terms (i.e. the Beginning of Spring, the Spring Equinox, the Beginning of Summer, the Summer Solstice, the Beginning of Autumn, the Autumnal Equinox, the Beginning of Winter and the Winter Solstice), and the earth has the distribution of the five elements to be the guiding principle to breed all things.
Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 5
If we think of the year as a circle or a wheel we can visualize the pattern of the yin yang cycle:
When we look at the seasons on the wheel and think about them in the context of the eight weather terms we can see how the most yin part of the year – the winter solstice – is the middle of winter. And that the winter solstice, being the depth of yin contains within it the seed of yang.
Living seasonally in the winter
Winter is associated with the Chinese Water element. The winter solstice is the darkest time of the year, where we are the furthest from the hot and active summer solstice. It is midnight. It is darkness. If summer is a time of action, winter is a time to stop.
In the three months of winter, all grasses and most of the trees are withered, the insects are in hibernation, the water ices up and the ground is frozen with gaps. Things mostly are shut up or go into hiding to guard against the cold. It is called the season of “shutting and storing”.Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 2
“Shutting and storing” can be thought of as “hibernation.” Winter is a time to rest and preserve energy.
The water element rules the Kidneys. The Kidneys in Chinese medicine refer not only to our physical kidneys, but also the processes of growth, reproduction and aging. This is one of the most important seasons to care for ourselves because the kidneys govern our longevity, our fertility and our mental acuity as we age.
For women, this yin energy is the time we bleed during our menstrual cycle and the time we stop bleeding in our life cycle. Both of these are also time to rest, to hibernate and to care for ourselves.
The Kidneys are considered our deepest organ as they are the root of both our yin and our yang. They are our original source of energy. They are associated with our bones, the deepest and strongest parts of our body. They are the source of our power and our will and the container of our essence and our soul’s purpose.
In European traditions, winter is associated with Earth. But even though the label is different, the idea remains the same:
In both traditions, winter is a time of rest and be still.
A Lifestyle of Stillness
Living in harmony with the seasons is twofold. Firstly, we have to pay attention to the world around us. In the winter animals are quiet, things stop growing and even water stops moving when it freezes.
Secondly, we have to listen to our own animal instincts. In the winter we want to eat comfort foods, drink hot chocolate with friends and family and connect. Even though the summer is a time of action, I fully believe that the holiday season is in the winter because of our desire for connection.
Here are some ways to live in tune with nature this winter:
1. Eat comfort food
There are some basic guidelines to preparing food for winter. The first is to eat foods that take longer to cook. It shouldn’t be surprising that winter is the season of long simmered soups and stews, roasted meats and veggies, and hearty whole grains.
It’s recommended to cook foods longer, at lower temperatures with fewer fluids. This makes winter the season of the crockpot.
We want to eat foods that bring our body heat deeper and to our core. This means eating foods that are saltier than those we eat in the summer, and more bitter. Winter is a difficult time to eat both seasonally and locally, but good options for Minnesotans are:
All of these items either support our digestive system, bring our warmth to our center or solidify our foundations.
While we don’t want to overdo eating rich and tonifying foods during any time of the year, the winter is the perfect time to focus on dense and hearty foods like meats. For the carnivores, adding a day or two of beef, lamb, venison or chicken a week would be good. Remember though that meat is best as a side dish and not a main course.
2. Drink warm beverages
Warm drinks are best during this time of year. The bitterness of black tea and coffee is perfect to cozy up with, but save your green tea for warmer months. While cocoa is bitter and perfect for winter, pre-mixed hot cocoa is extraordinarily sweet, so make sure to have your hot cocoa as a treat.
Red wine is better than white wine at this time of year and though beer is bitter it is also very cooling so be careful how much you’re having.
3. Keep your body warm
Tis the season to dress cozy! Layer up with leggings, socks, scarves, sweaters and blankets.
In this period, one should be kept warm in the room, dress warmly and take strict prevention against the cold, so that the Yang energy may not be disturbedHuang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 2
Staying warm in the winter means you won’t have to tap into your reserves, keeping you healthy and happier longer!
4. Rest when it’s dark
…go to bed early in night and get up late to wait for contacting the sunlightHuang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 2
For those of us at or above the 45th parallel this can seem a little excessive. If we slept when it was dark we’d be sleeping from 4:30 pm to 7 am the next day.
But it should be easy enough to rest. Instead of partying, read a book. Instead of going for a run, do some gentle yoga. Speaking of…
5. Take an exercise break
Winter is a time to rest which means it’s not the best time to train for a marathon.
As Yang energy is shut and being kept inside in winter, so, it is advisable not to massage or do any calisthenics in winter as they would arouse the Yang energy.Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 4
Like dressing more warmly, the admonition against exercise comes from the idea of preserving Yang. We need our Yang not only to get through winter, but to get through life. The Nei Jing doesn’t caution against any exercise though:
…prevent the skin from much perspiring to guard against the consumption or exhaustion of Yang energy.Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 2
So choose exercise that keeps you active, like yoga or Tai Chi.
6. Give your brain a break
Not only is winter a time for physical rest, it’s a time for mental rest too.
…he should keep the spirit hiding and subsiding, like having a private consideration in heart but not revealing or seem to have a definite idea in mind already for meeting the situation.Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 2
It seems like every season is a season for meditation (and that might not be a bad idea) but winter is a season to meditate for no particular reason. Loving kindness meditations are lovely for the summer, mindful breathing meditations are fantastic for the fall, but in the winter? Just meditate for a break.
Meditate without a focus, a goal or a structure. Just…give your brain a break.
7. Spend time with family
Have you heard of hygge? Hygge is a Danish word that loosely means “cozy” or “comfortable” and it’s an idea that’s getting more popular in the US.
Hygge is about living a lifestyle that is focused on good food, good company and good times and winter is the perfect time for that. Warm socks are hygge. Holiday get-togethers are hygge. In fact, pretty much all the recommendations for living a winter lifestyle are hygge.
But one of the most important aspects is family. Use winter as a reason to focus on your family. Spend time together for the holidays. Go play in the snow. Whatever brings you closer to your friends and family? This is the season to do it.
Winter isn’t forever
Winter gets a bad rap. I think I hear complaints about winter from August to July ever year, either complaining about last year, complaining about this year or dreading the coming season.
If you hate the cold, the snow and the ice I encourage you to scroll up and look at the wheel of the year.
Winter is a hard time for a lot of people, and I understand. But we need this time of rest. And every year, no matter what, spring comes again. If we take the time to rest when nature tells us it’s time, next spring will be so much more beautiful and fruitful than you could ever imagine.
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Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Resources and Links
These are excellent resources to start living seasonally by:
Healing with Whole Foods, by Paul Pitchford
The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, by Maoshing Ni
The translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic used for this blog post, however is:
Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine, Translated by Wu Lian Sheng and Wu Qi
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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