How to be Winter...
The bare bones.
What is known of the unknown?
What wordless wisdom
lies down deep within my bones?
Beneath the skin,
beneath the flesh,
beneath the firing circuitry
Winter has asked me
to be heavy
to drop deep
to let myself steep
in the obsidian tonic of sleep.
Winter's wisdom seeps
down to my bones
and all that is not known
It is fine to not know.
with faith as my stepping stone.
Drop me down.
Drop me down to the level of bone.
I can face what is not known.
Embracing unseen mystery,
Winter says to me:
I am not the rising sap of the tree
I am not the beckoning bloom
I am not the ripe, round fruit
I am not jeweled leaf, descending
I am the root
entwined in cold, damp earth.
I am the seed that sleeps dormant,
teeming with potential,
my destiny coiled and ready to spring,
But for now I sleep.
I surrender to the deep,
to the unknown,
to what is known
only in the bones,
to the wordless wisdom
of buried root and seed.
The above poem came to me last year as I contemplated the energetic quality of winter. The darkest time of the year, this is a time when we too go into darkness, into greater stillness and quietude. In this dark, still, and quiet place we can sit with the mystery of life; we can discover what wisdom or insights might lay dormant beneath the surface of our conscious, active minds.
Winter is an opportunity to drop down into our depth of being. To do this, we need to shift down into a much slower pace. We also do this shift so we can preserve and replenish our vital energy. Winter is the season of deep replenishment, deep rest, deep repair. A time for restoration and going inward. Hibernation. If we never stop moving in life, we will burn out. Winter is the time to stop, or at the very least, to really, really, REALLY slow down the pace, as much as we can.
"Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice."
~Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching
In the system of the Five Elements, Winter is the season of the Water element. Water teaches us so much about surrender, about yielding, about dropping down into one's depth. Water is also a great source of vitality and power; it is the essence of life itself. In Chinese Medicine, winter and the water element are connected to the kidneys, which are understood as holding our deepest reserves of vitality (in western physiological terms, we can think of the water element as relating to the adrenals, hormones, and the nervous system).
Winter is a time to nourish our Water element: we support the health of the kidneys and balance our adrenal function. We shift our nervous system from being predominantly in sympathetic mode (fight, flight or freeze) to parasympathetic mode (rest and digest).
But how, in practical terms, do we do actually do this? How can we actually shift to be in greater alignment with winter and the water element? The short answer: less output, less input, and waaayyyyy more rest. Here are some practical ways I suggest embodying the energy of winter...
*Do less (less output):
It is a great practice of seasonal alignment to simply make and accomplish fewer goals in winter than you do in the other seasons. Pare down your "to do" list to only what is absolutely essential, or stretch out your "to do" list so that what you might do in one day gets spread out over a few days instead (or even a few weeks if you can). If there is a big project or goal brewing inside of you, try waiting until early spring to start it. For now, dream about it and hold it inside you, like a seed that awaits the sun of springtime to sprout and grow.
The days are shorter in winter; keep them simpler, and do less. Allow yourself to actually physically move more slowly through your daily activities, with much greater mindfulness. This is not being lazy, though it does go against the grain in a society that places so much value on outward activity and productivity. But this is actually how we replenish our vitality- by slowing down, and even stopping. Winter is about conserving our energy, it's about preservation.
There needs to be the balance between the doing-ness of yang and the being-ness of yin. Winter is a time to do less. Like a bear in a cave, like a seed dormant in the ground, we store and preserve our vital energy in the season when the yang energy (of activity and manifestation) is at its lowest.
*Pare back on screen time/technology (less input):
Though it does have some virtues, modern technology is really wrecking havoc on our nervous systems. Aside from the negative effects that excessive screen use and wi fi has on the physical body, on a spirit level it is depleting to be constantly consuming all of this information and stimulation through our eyes and into our consciousness. This constant input into our nervous systems takes a toll physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This is especially true at night, when we should allow our consciousness to drop down into a place of greater quiet and stillness.
*Sleep more (replenishment):
Just as the sun sets so much earlier this time of year, so too should we move into sleep and darkness at an earlier time in the winter. I recommend going to bed an hour earlier than you do in the spring and summer, and no later than 10:00 pm, with 9:00 or even 8:00 being ideal for some people's optimal winter replenishment.
Sleep is how the tissues in our bodies repair themselves, and it's how our minds process and release content. As my incredibly wise teacher Thea Elijah says regarding sleep, "If there is something you can do for eight hours and feel completely transformed at the end of it, that is not inactivity. Something unbelievably profound is happening. Something without which we could not survive even with all the willpower in the world. Healing does not happen through activity. Healing is a rest state response."
Winter is a time to get whole lot more sleep, allowing our bodies to heal, and our minds to untangle and release their various knots. We also strengthen our immune system with more sleep, which of course is vitally important this time of year! If you want more sleep, but struggle with insomnia and sleep issues, I recommend the previous two suggestions of less output and less input, as well as the following suggestions.
When we drink too much caffeine, especially coffee, we send our body into a stress state response, where more stress hormones such as cortisol are released. Caffeine sets our nervous system to the fight, flight or freeze mode. We may feel more alert and productive, but we do so at a steep cost to our adrenal health and our kidney energy (in CM understanding, caffeine depletes our kidney energy and water element). Tiredness, after all, is an indication not that we need more caffeine, but that we need more rest (or that our body needs tonification, which Chinese Medicine can greatly help).
*Regulate your stress response:
Easier said than done, but necessary nonetheless! The negative health effects of chronic stress are simply too many to list, as I'm sure we all know. All of the other suggestions listed above will be helpful to having a more balanced stress response; so will having a daily stress management practice such as meditation, yoga, tai chi or qi gong.
In addition, acupuncture can be greatly beneficial for stress and anxiety. In my clinical practice, I use the synergy of acupuncture, bodywork, personalized herbal prescriptions, nutrition, and lifestyle counsel to help guide my clients into a calmer, more balanced state of body and mind.
In the summer, I love to make salads made from quinoa mixed with a flavorful herbal green sauce. To this I will add seasonal veggies, olives or artichoke hearts, and sometimes a sprinkling of feta cheese or pumpkin seeds for more protein. Quinoa itself is one of the more protein-rich grains (though to be accurate, quinoa is actually considered a "pseudo-grain"). Quinoa is also gluten-free, and in Chinese Medicine nutritional theory it is considered to be slightly tonifying to kidney yang, thus strengthening the body's overall vitality.
On warmer summer days when I want to eat something that is both nourishing and light, quinoa salad really hit the spot. I make my quinoa salad using one of two different green sauces: either classic basil pesto or a cilantro/parsley Moroccan green sauce (known as Chermoula). Aside form being insanely delicious, both of these sauces use dark leafy green herbs that are healing and slightly cleansing to the body; they also include garlic which is an important herb for cardiovascular as well as immune health. Add to this salad some fresh, seasonal veggies and some nuts or seeds (or feta if you tolerate dairy) and you have a delicious, light summer meal or side dish.
I have always felt a deep, soul-level connection with the natural world. Nature has been my teacher, my healer, and my closest friend. It is not a coincidence that for my vocation in life I chose to practice a form of medicine that is completely based upon observing the patterns and principles of nature. In Chinese Medicine, we use these patterns and principles of nature to diagnose as well as to help guide people back into a greater state of balance. As practitioners of this wise, nature-based medicine, we use the ancient technologies of acupuncture, herbalism, Qigong, lifestyle guidance, and other modalities.
With nature being the bedrock for both my personal and professional life, as well as the muse for most of the poetry and prose that I write, this month I'd like to share some of my personal contemplations on the different ways in which nature manifests as medicine for the soul. Each different facet of nature has its own energetic healing qualities; we all will connect with these facets in our own unique way. My hope is that these personal reflections will inspire you to deepen into your own personal relationship with nature, and to explore for yourself what healing medicine the natural world holds for you.
Tomorrow is the spring equinox, marking the season of the wood element in the ancient Chinese Medicine system of the Five Elements. On an energetic level, this springtime energy within each of us is the dimension of ourself that can bounce back and keep growing towards the sun, just like a tree or plant, in spite of life's obstacles. You know when you see little plants coming up through the sidewalk, or the roots of a tree breaking up the concrete? That is the wood element: determined to keep aspiring and growing, concrete be damned! A wonderful symbol of the wood element that many of us can connect with is a redwood tree. Strongly rooted in the earth, they are able to sway in strong winds without snapping or falling down. And always they aspire higher and higher towards the sun, while firmly rooted in the earth. This is the energetic quality of wood and springtime.
When we hear the word "super food" many of us might think of things like spirulina, royal jelly, bee pollen, and acai. But the humble egg, as ubiquitous as it may be, is actually quite the nutritional powerhouse. When eggs are sourced from pasture-raised chickens, they are not only rich in protein, but also in the fat soluble vitamins A and D: nutrients in which many people are deficient. Pasture-raised eggs contain choline and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are nutrients important for brain health. In addition, eggs are rich in sulphur-containing proteins that are necessary for cell membrane integrity.
Eggs also contain cholesterol, which is actually a good thing! For decades the mainstream medical world had advised against consuming dietary cholesterol; only just recently has it come around to acknowledging that dietary cholesterol plays a key role in health, particularly in hormonal health, fertility, and mental health. For ages, traditional cultures across the globe have been consuming wild caught and pasture-raised eggs (as well as other cholesterol-containing foods), without experiencing the epidemic rates of heart disease that we see in our modern western society. Increasingly, scientific evidence is linking heart disease to the consumption of highly inflammatory foods such as sugar and refined flours, as well as modern industrial vegetable oils like soybean oil and corn oil. These modern industrial foods have never been a part of traditional diets; since they have entered the modern diet we can see a proportional acceleration in chronic inflammatory disease (for more information on traditional diets, I highly recommend the book Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice).
Sometimes the most simple self-care rituals can be the most profound, especially when done with great intention. I'm sharing one of my favorite self care rituals for winter, one that is especially beneficial to do when we feel we need to drop into a deep state of relaxation, and fast! Though this can be done any time of the year, I especially love this self-care ritual for winter because winter is the season of the water element, and it is the time of utmost yin, which is the energy of stillness, silence, darkness, and going inward. This self-care ritual of immersing oneself in water and darkness is the ultimate yin experience, and a wonderful way to deeply soothe the nervous system.
In honor of the Winter Solstice I'd like to share a simple and delicious tea recipe that is a perfect accompaniment to this seasonal dynamic. Just as on winter solstice we see the rebirth of the sun from the depth of winter, this warming yellow tea is like a burst of sunlight to warm us on a cold, dark day. Three golden and yellow ingredients-- ginger, lemon, and honey-- come together in a tea that is great for strengthening the immune system and warding of colds, and also for alleviating symptoms if a cold has already set in. I love that the colors of all the ingredients in this tea are yellow and golden; it really does evoke the sunlight we so often crave in the cold and dark of winter.
Tomorrow is the winter solstice, so I'd like to share a bit about what is happening energetically in winter and on the solstice. In the ancient philosophy of Chinese Medicine, we look at nature and the cycle of the seasons as our guidepost towards greater balance and wholeness. Using this lens, we see the cycle of the seasons as a continual dance between the energies of yin and yang.
This is one of my favorite winter soup recipes. It's easy to make, delicious and nourishing. It has plenty of the warming and immune-supportive herbs that are also so delicious: ginger, garlic, and onions. I always freeze a jar of this soup whenever I make a batch; that way I always have chicken soup ready in case I or anyone in my family starts to get a cold. This soup is medicine! If you are grain-free you can simply omit the wild rice. I sometimes will also add a spoonful of miso paste to a bowl of this soup, as miso is medicine in and of itself!
Simple Asian-Style Chicken Soup
1 bone-in organic, free-range chicken breast
2 tbsp. olive oil, coconut oil or ghee
1 and ½ yellow onions
6 celery ribs, 2 left whole and 4 diced
4 carrots, diced
3-4 large slices fresh ginger
3 cloves of garlic, minced
½ cup wild rice, rinsed (optional)
1 tsp. unrefined salt
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
Toasted sesame oil to season
1.)Place the chicken breast, 2 whole celery ribs, and ½ an onion in a crockpot and add about 8-10 cups of water. Turn crockpot to low heat setting and let cook for 6-8 hours.
2.)Using tongs, remove the chicken breast from the crockpot and set it on a plate to cool while you prep the other soup ingredients.
3.)Heat the oil in a large soup pot over low heat. Once oil is warm add diced onion, celery and carrot, as well as ginger slices. Saute veggies on low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add minced garlic, salt and wild rice, and saute another minute or two.
4.)Using a strainer, strain the chicken broth from the crockpot into the the soup pot.
5.)Remove the chicken from the bones once cool enough to handle (and the skin if the chicken breast had skin on). Shred the chicken and add to the soup pot.
6.)Bring the soup to boil, then turn heat to low and simmer about 30-45 minutes.
7.)Add cilantro, green onions, fresh cracked pepper, and a few dashes of toasted sesame oil to taste.
I've just finished up this year's autumn cleanse program in my clinic, and I've definitely got food-as-medicine on the brain! Every spring and autumn I offer these seasonal healing programs as a way to help clients "supercharge" and focus on their health, with a strong emphasis on establishing nourishing eating and lifestyle habits. In addition to three restorative and balancing acupuncture/massage sessions, these two-week seasonal healing programs include a detailed nutritional outline for creating optimal health (if this sounds like it would be helpful for you, stay tuned for the spring cleanse that starts next March!). One of the primary guidelines I put forth in the guidelines, backed up with lots of recipes and meal plans, is to include a minimum of six cups of vegetables a day. This basically amounts to at least two cups of veggies with every meal.
The truth is that most of us just don't eat enough vegetables, even many of us who are generally healthy eaters. Why does it matter? One of the primary reasons is that vegetables are really the best source of fiber, and fiber is crucial to completing the body's natural detoxification process. While it's the liver's job to break down toxins, it is the job of the large intestine to make sure those toxins really get out of the body. And without enough fiber that's not going to happen. Not to be gloom and doom about it, but in our modern world we pretty much do live in a "toxic soup." If you think that's hyperbole, just consider for a moment the fact that in 2004 the Environmental Working Group did a study in which they found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants (such as pesticides, mercury, dioxins, etc.) in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants. Sadly, we have such a toxic burden in this day and age that we are passing it on to our children in utero. Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals are even being found in our drinking water. The presence of synthetic hormones in the environment is wiping out populations of fish. From purely a health perspective, these are indeed dire times (and most of us might agree that these are dire times in more ways than one, but we'll keep it to just health discussion here!)
Every day our livers are working hard to manage this constant input: pesticides, xeno-estrogens, chemicals leached from plastics, car exhaust, chemicals in body care products that are absorbed through the skin, over the counter and prescribed medications, alcohol, drugs, synthetic hormones (and even our body's natural hormones, which also need to be detoxified by the liver)... the list goes on and on. So aside from minimizing our exposure to these toxins as much as we can, we need to also support vibrantly healthy livers that can effectively manage the inevitable exposures, AND we need a diet rich in fiber (i.e. vegetables) to make sure the detoxification process is complete with our bowel elimination.
The fiber from certain vegetables also acts as a pre-biotic, which basically means it acts as food for the trillions of gut bacteria that inhabit our intestines. These benefical gut bacteria fulfill a myriad of important physiological functions, ranging from immune system modulation to brain neurotransmitter production to hormone balancing. A healthy micro biome is nourished by a diet rich in fiber and naturally probiotic foods, and a diet that contains virtually no processed or refined carbohydrates. Equally as important as the fiber component in veggies is the fact that vibrant, colorful vegetables are our best source for phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are natural plant compounds that have a protective effect on the the body. A couple of common examples include lycopene, found in tomatoes, which supports prostate health, and beta-carotene found in sweet potatoes and kale, which supports lung and eye health. To get a wide variety of these phytonutrients we should eat a wide variety of different vegetables even day; different colors in the plants often indicate the presence of different phytonutrients, hence the advice to "eat a rainbow".
So now that we've taken a moment to explore WHY we need vegetables, let's discuss HOW we go about getting at least two cups of veggies with every meal. A lot of people get stumped about how to make breakfast a veggie-rich meal. This is especially the case if they are accustomed to the standard American diet practice of eating empty carbs for breakfast (which happens to be the worst thing you can do in terms of disrupting blood sugar balance and energy levels). A wonderful way to get veggies into your breakfast, especially as we move into the colder months, is to make roasted roots. Unlike flour-based foods like cereal and bagels, root vegetables are a wonderful source of healthy, slow-burning carbohydrates. Combine these roasted roots with some pasture-raised eggs for protein (maybe scrambled with leafy greens for even more veggies), cooked in a healthy fat like ghee or coconut oil, and a scoop of probiotic-rich sauerkraut, and you really do have the breakfast of champions. Many of the clients doing my autumn cleanse were amazed at how incredible they felt by making this change in their breakfast routine.
This roasted roots recipe can be kept as leftovers and reheated for 2-3 days, which saves time in the kitchen. An added bonus is that roasting veggies in the oven can take off the morning chill while you get ready for your day (an added bonus if you live in an old country house without central heating like I do!). Another thing to know is that eating root vegetables in the fall aligns us with the energy of the season. In autumn, all the energy begins to descend back down towards the earth, so eating veggies that grow underground connects us with this seasonal energetic (in the same way that eating more sprouts and young leafy greens connects us with the energetic principle of springtime). The rosemary that seasons the roots in this recipe is a great antioxidant and circulatory tonic.
Rosemary Roasted Roots
*Note: be sure to use all organic ingredients!
2-3 sweet potatoes
2 beets, red or golden
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, ghee, or coconut oil
1 tsp. unrefined sea salt
2 tbsp. fresh chopped rosemary (or 1 Tbsp. dried if fresh is unavailable)
fresh cracked pepper to taste
I am a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist with a Heart-centered practice in the Santa Cruz mountains. See my About page for more about me and the work I do.