After the rush of the holidays and with the knowingness it will still be awhile until summer, you may be inclined to hunker down — hibernate, if you could — or at least slow your pace and spend more time attending to your inner world.
As I wrote about fall being the time to get your affairs in order, winter is the time for introspection.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (“TCM”), winter is associated with Water: the element with the characteristics of a philosopher.
TCM is based on the Five-Phase Theory (sometimes called: Five-Element Theory). This theory suggests that there are five elements in nature that cycle in phases through the seasons and our organs: Earth, Water, Wood, Metal and Fire. The five elements represent energies that succeed each other in a continuous cycle. Being aware of this cycle and recognizing the relationship between the elements is essential for maintaining (or creating) optimal balance in our physical body as well as for mental and emotional health.
In order to maintain this optimal health, we also need to support an unobstructed flow of Chi through the meridians in our body, and keep a generative balance between the elements. This is why it is helpful to have an understanding of how the seasons and the elements are related.
The water element has introspective qualities; it is often referred to as The Philosopher. This element fosters modesty and sensibility. Water is associated with wisdom, stamina and endurance. It is quiet until overwhelmed; too much activity, overdoing anything, and too much focus on the outer world, will deplete water and leads to imbalance.
When water is out of balance, we will have difficulty with social situations, with trusting and with being confident; we will become withdrawn and detached, or will lose a sense of self-awareness.
The organs related to water are the kidneys and urinary bladder. According to TCM, the kidneys store our essence energy (called: Jing), which is our source of vitality, resistance and longevity. The kidneys play an important role in the proper functioning of our endocrine and reproductive system; they are considered the source of creation. An imbalance in the water element, affecting the kidneys, can therefore lead to issues concerning growth, libido and stamina.
TCM also suggests that it is our Jing that produces bone marrow to create and support our bones. A lack of vitality because of depleted kidneys may therefore have a degenerative effect on our bones, specifically the lower back and knees.
The emotion associated with the water element is fear. The fear of heights, the fear of spiders, the fear of not being good enough, and any other fear; in other words: the fear of extinction. In TCM, emotions are simply considered expressions of energy. Energy is neutral and our emotions are therefore not inherently “good” or “bad”; they are what we make of them.
Chronic fear can deplete our kidney chi, and deficient kidney chi can result in feelings of fear. It works both ways. Taking quiet time to connect with the fear, and allowing it to be there to give it space, is a potent way to balance kidney chi and the water element.
In general, introspective practices like meditation and Yin Yoga are good ways to support the Water element and stay balanced in winter. A simple Yin Yoga pose that affects the kidney meridian and so enhances chi flow into the kidneys is Butterfly Pose. This is how to do it:
To get into the pose:
- Start in a seated position with legs extended.
- Bend the knees and bring the soles of the feet together. The legs make a diamond shape.
- Place the feet at some distance away from the groin, allowing space in the hip joint.
- Let the spine round forward and the head come down towards the feet.
- The hands can rest on or by the feet.
- Don’t pull on the arms to come down, but rather let gravity do the work.
- If the neck needs support, place a yoga block, a bolster or a folded blanket under the forehead.
Recommended hold time:
- 3 – 5 minutes
To get out of the pose:
- Inhale and slowly roll the spine up to a straight position.
- Place the hands under the knees to help the knees back together.
- Hug the knees into the chest with the arms and take a few breaths.
- Then lie down on the back with legs extended, to notice the effects of Butterfly Pose.
The use of essential oil* is also an effective way to support our emotions and overall well-being. Juniper Berry essential oil encourages us to face our fear. It acts as a catalyst by helping to access and address those fears and issues which have long been avoided. Juniper Berry teaches that there is nothing to fear when we acknowledge and accept all aspects of the self. This is a great oil to diffuse during the night while sleeping.
Basil essential oil is an excellent ally to improve fatigue, low energy, overwhelm, and the inability to cope with life’s stressors. It brings rejuvenation of vital forces after long periods of burnout and exhaustion. Basil essential oil can be applied over the kidneys (lower back) or under the feet.
Sandalwood essential oil aids in quieting the mind and offers support with meditation and spiritual practice. Applying a drop to the forehead or crown of the head invites a sense of peace. This oil can also be inhaled straight from the bottle or diffused in a diffuser before, and during, meditation.
Understanding what your body — and mind — need during the winter months will allow you to stay balanced and healthy. Take 5 minutes a day to sit still and notice your breath, or just practice one Yin Yoga pose. Spending some time journaling, taking a hot (foot) bath with lavender oil and Epsom salt (add 5 drops of oil to 1 cup of salt before putting it in the bath), or quietly drinking a cup of your favorite tea without doing anything else are simple ways to support yourself and keep the Water element nourished.
*make sure to always use Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade essential oils
Guest post by studio BE mindfulness teacher Marije Paternotte.
Marije Paternotte, E-RYT 500, offers a unique approach to yoga; balancing movement and breathing practices of traditional Hatha and Tibetan Yoga with the stillness of the Taoist Yin Yoga, awareness of Chi flow, and an emphasize on mindfulness and the Buddha Dharma. Her teaching style is understated and compassionate. She has the ability to present complex concepts, and an in-depth knowledge of yogic anatomy and philosophy, in a simple and approachable way, for which she is loved by beginning and advanced practitioners alike.
Marije was born and raised in Amsterdam where, after her training to be a professional ballet dancer, she studied law and worked as a corporate lawyer. A yoga retreat in Bali led her to the United States where she took her first yoga teacher training. She currently lives in a small beach town in New Jersey with her husband, and teaches yoga workshops, retreats, and teacher trainings around the world, as well as locally. Marije is also a guest teacher at the renowned Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts and the Mandali Retreat Center in Italy.
Marije received both her foundational and professional level yoga teacher certification at the Kripalu Center, and is certified to teach Yin Yoga and Mindfulness by Sarah Powers’ Insight Yoga Institute.
Feature photo by CK/Adobe Stock