As we enter into the depths of Winter, nature is resting and conserving energy. The days are short and the nights are long, animals are hibernating and the plants have retreated into the ground. The trees stand bare, and the sound of the wind groans though their branches. The feeling of this cold and grey annual retreat is an inward motion of stillness and silence, just like the freezing of water into ice. This seasonal picture has more to do with your own health and longevity than you may realize.
Our lives as humans are not separated from the pulse of life or the rhythms of mother nature. This is the simple wisdom at the cornerstone to great health and longevity.
To follow the ways of the natural world is to be aware of and not opposed to the constant changes occurring outside and inside of ourselves . Going "against the grain" of the movements in nature damages our life force and leads to illness. To harvest the gifts of the natural world is to live a healthy, happy and empowered life that embraces the cultivation of the body and mind.
In the Chinese lunar calendar January 20th marked a time in winter that is called the "deep freeze" and is said to carry the energy of "closing of the city gates." Winter is a time of, rest, storage and of going inwards. Above all else, it is a time of conserving life force.
Winter Tips For Cultivating Health & Longevity
Winter is the conservation of energy. It is the natural resting and storing period before the active movement of Spring and Summer. It is natural to feel closed off, introspective, quiet and to have lower energy this time of year because of the natural urge to hibernate. The dual cultivation of the body and the mind, during the Winter season, leads to creativity, action and clarity in the Spring.
The most basic way of conserving energy is to rest . Let yourself hibernate! In regards to resting during winter, In the ancient Chinese medical text the huang di nei jing su wen, it is said:
In winter, the yang qi (warmth) retreats deep into the interior. We must take special care to not exhaust ourselves and waste this precious warmth. It is recommended that one begins to rest as the sun goes down, which is early in the winter, and to rise late with the sun in the morning. Every action we do uses energy whether it is reading, speaking, looking at the phone or computer, thinking or physically working. During the winter we must be moderate and mindful with our actions and thinking. In our culture it is very easy to avoid rest during wintertime and go "against the grain" of the conservation of energy. I am not encouraging one to sit on the couch or sleep all day, but rather, moderate mindful activity that keeps the body and mind moving.
The following has helped me
- Limiting screen time, especially at night. I have found this really helpful, particularly in these political times.
- Not reading too much, especially at night. There is literally not enough time to read all the books that I want to read. I am not talking about light reading. I am talking about reading until one gets that strained sensation in one's eyes and a tired mind. It requires energy to both read and process the information we take it. Excessive information intake can deplete the energy.
- Reflection. For me, having quiet time to reflect and meditate is essential this time of year.
2. Management and Storage of Energy
The management and storage of energy refers to the awareness of that which directly depletes our life force and that which builds and strengthens it. In the Taoist longevity arts, the focal point of practice is on minimizing and eliminating what depletes and drains energy, while doing more of that which builds and stores. Practices like qi gong, dao yin, breathing exercises & meditation are excellent for the conscious management and storage of energy. Here are some exercises for you to try:
As stated above it is equally important to avoid what depletes and drains your energy. As there are volumes written on this subject I will share with you a few of the important ones.
1. The mind plays a very important role in maintaining our energy. It is always sending information into the energetic body and then into the dense physical body. It can be said that cultivating the mind is the most important method of conserving energy. Negative emotions like jealousy, slander, gossip, hate, etc., all damage the life force.
2. Excess sexual activity in general (especially in Winter) drains life force, particularly for men.
3. Eating food that is not nourishing wreaks havoc in the energies of the organ systems.
4. Too much or vigorous amounts of exercise depletes energy
5. Just like how a stream that moves too slow and becomes stagnant, too little exercise creates stagnation in the body and mind.
3. Protect The Yang
During Winter the Yang Qi retreats into the interior. One can think of yang qi as the warm, active energy that keeps life moving. It is essential during these cold months to protect and conserve this life giving energy.
1. Wear appropriate clothing. This seems like a no-brainer.. However, I see chronic pain and other symptoms caused by cold exposure all the time in the treatment room.
2. Eat Warming, Seasonal & Nourishing foods.
Seasonal Winter foods: winter roots, onion, carrots, turnips, celeriac, sweet potatoes, ginger & garlic.
Warming Method of cooking: Stews, stir-fry, baking, roasting, grilling, broiling and barbecue.
Spices: Basil, Bay leaves, caraway, cardamom, chives, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, garlic, ginger, oregano, pepper, star anise.
Here is a recipe of one of my favorite winter meals out of the Thug Kitchen cooking book (this cookbook is awesome).
Drinking warming teas is an excellent way to protect the yang. Try making a tea with boiling water, a few slices of ginger and a date.
3. Don't exercise too vigorously.
4. Avoid sweating too much.
5. Time for stillness, quiet & meditation.
4. Appropriate Exercise
Above is chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching. This passage wisely encourages it's readers to keep the energy in body and mind moving. The nature of the winter season is inward and still, however it is important that we do not ignore movement. Light exercise that doesn't induce a big sweat is ideal for this time of year. Sweating causes the leakage of fluids and energy. A big sweat is more appropriate during the spring and summer seasons.
5. Times of Stillness, Meditation, Reflection.
In my opinion cultivating the mind is the essence of longevity. As stated above, the mind is constantly sending information though energy to manifest physically in the body. Therefore It is of utmost importance for the practice longevity and inner peace that we take responsibility of our thinking. All self cultivation methods I have studied have encouraged me to allow the experience of myself beyond my conditioning, judgements and value systems. With consistent practice over the years I have come to be aware of my desires and attachments that lead to disturbance of my sense of peace and satisfaction. The Taoists tell us that:
" it [craving and desire] will not hesitate to expend energy and sacrifice the body to get what it wants. To be dominated by the wayward mind is the surest way to deplete energy and shorten the life span."
Allowing time for stillness, meditation and reflection is beneficial any time of the year. Winter, being the season of inward motion, is the perfect time for this work. They are like two beautifully resonant melodies in counterpoint, they support each other perfectly.
If you are looking for some inspiration regarding self-cultivation, check out these teachers /books
- Adyashanti "The way of Liberation"
- A Course in Miracles
- "Tao Te Ching" - Lao Tzu
- " Open Mind Open Heart" - Thomas Keating
- "New Seeds of Contemplation" -Thomas Merton
- "The Inner Experience Notes on Contemplation" - Thomas Merton
- "The Zen Teachings of Huang Po" - John Blofeld
- "The Spiritual teachings of Ramana Maharshi"
Practicing the arts of nourishing life is a longterm investment and commitment in ourself. It involves a mindful journey of observing nature outside and inside of our minds. This Winter, I challenge you ask yourself these questions:
- Am I allowing myself to rest enough?
- Am I consciously avoiding things that deplete my vital energy?
- Do I allow myself time to reflect or meditate?
- Am I keeping the energies in my body and mind in motion to avoid stagnation?
- Is my diet appropriate for the season?
Unschuld, P. U., & Tessenow , H. (2011). Huang di nei jing su wen: An annotated translation of huang di's inner classic - basic questions. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Reid, Daniel. The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity. New York. Touchstone An Imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc. 1989
Wong, Eva. Being Taoist Wisdom for Living a Balanced Life. Boston, Massachusetts. Shambala Publications. 2015.
Wong, Eva. Cultivating Stillness A Taoist Manual for Transforming Body and Mind. Boston, Massachusetts. Shambala Publications. 1992.
Yeoh, Aileen. Longevity The Tao of Eating and Healing. Singapore. Marshall Cavendish International Private Limited. 1989.