Tomorrow is the Chinese new year, and we’re ringing in the year of the Earth Pig!
Think this will be a lucky year for you?
Those of you who have been hanging around for a while, you’ve heard the spiel about the seasons. If you want to skip the details, feel free to scroll down to the bottom.
But for the rest of you, read on.
The Wheel of the Year
When we create a diagram of the year, the most natural shape is a circle. Seasons may be different from year to year, but they happen in the same order.
But because its a circle we need at least one point of reference to “start” the cycle. If the winter solstice, the shortest and most yin point of the year is at the bottom, that puts the summer solstice at the top – the most yang part of the year. Halfway between each solstice is an equinox – a day in which night and day last equally as long.
In the West, we consider each of these points the beginning of the season. But, if this circle represented a day instead of a year, and the bottom was midnight and the top noon, would we say that the day began at noon and night began at midnight?
So both the ancient Chinese and ancient Europeans split the difference again, creating four more points on the circle, and a point to begin each season.
This division is described in Chapter 5 of the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen:
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 Autumn 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
In the West, these same eight “weather terms” are commonly referred to as Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lammas, Mabon, Samhain, and Yule.
This interpretation of the seasonal cycle means that spring is starting now and that Ostara, March 20th, is the middle of spring.
Wait, but I’m still cold
So yes, it’s spring, but there is snow everywhere and you know we’re going to be getting it until April. So what gives?
Did you know that there are three different sunrises and sunsets each day?
The civil sunset or civil twilight occurs when objects start to become difficult to see and the brightest stars are out, but the horizon is still visible.
Nautical twilight happens next. The stars become brighter but the horizon is still visible, making it possible for ships to navigate at sea.
Finally, there is the astronomical sunset or astronomical twilight. The horizon is no longer visible but most of the stars and other celestial bodies are.
Sunrises are the opposite. First, we have the astronomical sunrise, then nautical, then civil.
So let’s look at today, February 4th, 2019.
Astronomical twilight ended at 5:48, nautical twilight ended at 6:23 and civil twilight ended at 6:58 with the official sunrise at 7:29 am. That’s a huge span of time! But what does this have to do with the year?
When I say spring starts on February 2nd, summer starts on May 1st, etc, think of these as astronomical seasons. These dates are calculated the same way our ancestors did – by splitting the difference between equinoxes and solstices, so the astronomically important day would land in the middle of seasons.
The first movement of green below the earth, the first buds on the trees and the first big melt would all be signs of a “civil spring.” There may be a lot of false starts but usually by Ostara spring is in full swing.
A lifestyle of wood
Since summer is fire and yang and winter is water and yin, what is spring?
Spring is rising energy, movement and growth.
If summer is noon and winter is midnight, spring is dawn and the early morning. It is the rising energy of the sun. Because of that it’s associated with the East.
What’s amazing is that this association happened in both the East and the West. We used different words to talk about the same concepts:
Air is spring, dawn, east, masculine, impulsivity and intellect.
Wood is spring, dawn, east, yang, anger, life dreams, artistic inspiration and our ability to empathetically connect with others.
Using these concepts we can create a lifestyle for the season.
Living seasonally this spring
So let’s get down to it for the last time:
These seven tips can help you start living seasonally today.
1. Eating for Spring
I am not one for big diet changes on January 1st. My patients are Minnesotan and I can’t tell you how many people come in the second week of January with bloating and stool changes because they switched to salads and smoothies during the coldest part of the year.
But starting February 2nd it’s different. We’re halfway to the vernal equinox and the days are getting longer. Our bodies are like crocus bulbs below the soil. It’s still freezing up there above the earth but we’re starting our engines because spring is coming.
We don’t want to weigh down this yang energy with heavy foods so now is the time to eat lighter greens. Want to start a diet? Want to detox? Wait for spring.
Foods in the spring should be cooked the least amount of time and left slightly al dente. This mean lightly steamed veggies, high temp quick sautés, and minimal simmering.
Bright, young, green foods are best with sprouts, pungent herbs, and sweet starchy vegetables highlighted in meals.
Just remember that these lighter foods tend to be colder. If you have an issue with spleen qi deficiency make sure to have your salads and veggies with a warm broth or tea.
And don’t make it a sudden change. The seasons dance back and forth for a bit so eat for winter on the coldest days and spring on the warmer ones.
2. Change what you’re drinking
Remember the good news in the winter – drink your red wine and your coffee because it helps support your yang?
Well, we need to leave that behind with the snow.
Since spring is the time of the liver, it’s the strongest but it’s also easily unbalanced. Issues with the liver are more prominent now than any other time of the year and caffeine and alcohol agitate symptoms of liver blood deficiency and liver qi stagnation.
Switch to herbal teas, black or green tea or hot lemon water for spring.
3. Expose yourself to sunrise
In order to keep in accordance with the law of the variation of the seasonal sequence, one should go to bed when night comes and get up early in the morning.Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 2
There is something magical about a sunrise. The air is crisp, the world around you is waking up and everything is fresh and new.
Including your serotonin!
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for managing mood, appetite and memory. It’s made in the gut (which is why I focus so much on diet with my stressed out patients) and is a precursor to….
Melatonin is the neurotransmitter and anti-oxidant you know as the yin hormone that dominates your sleep-wake cycles. Melatonin is released at night and night levels are up to ten times higher than in the day.
But the production of its precursor, serotonin, is influenced by exposure to morning sunlight. No sunlight, fewer building blocks. Fewer building blocks, less melatonin.
So get your morning sunlight and sleep better!
The next passage has a bit to unpack:
In the morning, he should breathe the fresh air while walking in the yard to exercise his tendons and bones and loosen his hair to make the whole body comfortable along with the generating spring energy.Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 2
4. Go for a morning walk
This is an awesome opportunity for you to get some of that dawn sunlight.
It’s also a great time to spend a few quiet moments with yourself. One of my favorite podcasters worked from home for awhile and every day she would “walk to work” by walking around the block. It set a boundary between her working time and her family time while giving her time to listen to some podcasts or music.
Tendons and ligaments fall under the category of the liver which correlates with wood energy, the energy of spring.
This is an opportune time of year to incorporate stretching routines like Tai Chi or yoga into your fitness regimen. Think of it like preparing for the cardio of summer by warming up after three months of winter.
6. Get out in the woods
Yeah, yeah, Jess. You say this every season.
Getting out in nature is important in every season, it’s true. But since this is the wood season, getting out and doing some forest bathing can be especially helpful.
7. Plant the seeds for the rest of the year
Another metaphor for the organs of Chinese medicine comes from an unexpected place – bureaucracy.
The Heart is the emperor of the body, because it’s where our shen resides. Our Liver, on the other hand, is our general. While under the command of the emperor, it’s job is to tell what troops to go where, to continuously and strategically adjust and to plan.
Spring is the perfect time to harness this strategic energy and plan the rest of the year.
What seeds do you want to plant this spring? What steps can you take this summer to nurture them? What would you like your harvest to look like?
Put pen to paper and set your goals down. Harness this awesome yang energy and make it do.
It all comes around again
With this post, I’ll have finally covered each of the five Chinese seasons. Even though I’ve been practicing seasonal living for a few years now, being reminded of the process is so motivating.
Living seasonally teaches you to balance patience with drive, rest with action, planning with implementation.
Whether your goals are health related or not, turning your attention to the world around you will open your eyes to so much possibility.
And if you missed your chance to hibernate this winter or to harvest last fall, remember – it all comes around again.
Get a head start on your self-care this spring
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
Chinese New Year Information
Check out the other seasonal posts:
Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford
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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