In the Indian traditions of Yoga and Ayurveda, as well as in Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is believed that there is a vital force in all life, a primordial being that is the foundation of all vitality.
In the Indian traditions, this is called Prana. In Traditional Chinese Medicine ("TCM") it is called Chi. This life force flows through the body in particular pathways called Nadis (Indian yoga) or Meridians (Chinese medicine).
In this article I will focus on the concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Meridians cannot be seen with the physical eye, or with special equipment, yet we can experience their presence by the effect their quality has on our overall health. Meridians are like rivers or tributaries. They deliver nutrients to the organs in the form of Chi. The strength and flow of the meridian system is essential for the balance in our bodies, both physical and mental.
Traditional Chinese Medicine 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. Not the elements themselves, but the movement between them is emphasized in this theory.
In a generative cycle, Wood feeds Fire, Fire creates Earth, Earth bears Metal, Metal collects Water, and Water nourishes Wood. When the cycle between the elements is destructive, one element is being destroyed by another: Wood parts Earth, Earth takes in Water, Water quenches Fire, Fire melts Metal, and Metal chops Wood.
Being aware of this cycle and recognizing the relationship between the elements is helpful for creating optimal balance in our system. In order to maintain this optimal health, we need to support an unobstructed flow of Chi through the meridians in our body, and so 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. Each element has unique qualities, and is associated with a specific organ pair, season and emotion.
The end of summer — when it is not quite fall yet, but there is a definite change in the air — is an actual season in TCM: Late Summer. When we are moving back into some sort of a routine after the freedom of summer (even though in these pandemic times nothing may feel truly free or like a routine) we need to take care of ourselves to stay grounded and nourished.
Late summer is associated with the Earth Element.
The characteristics of the Earth Element are those of the archetype of the Mother: grounding, caring and nourishing. When our Earth Chi is strong and fluid we are able to take good care of ourselves and others. It fosters clear thoughts and a capacity to create a peaceful atmosphere in both our inner and outer world.
The organs related to Earth are the Spleen and the Stomach. In TCM, the Spleen is considered the primary organ of digestion. The Spleen rules transformation and transportation: it extracts the essence from the food we ingest and transforms it into Chi. TCM also suggests that the Spleen governs our blood and keeps it in its proper path. It rules our muscles and is responsible for their tone and strength. Moreover, it regulates the moisture under our skin. Muscle aches and other muscle-related issues, indigestion and difficulty with fluid balance may be a sign of imbalance in the Earth element.*
The Stomach is the organ of receiving and ripening. It is like a cauldron in which we create a nourishing meal. Our Spleen and Stomach health (both physical and energetic) is mostly influenced by the food we eat. It is therefore important that our nourishment is rich in Chi and low in artificial additives; fresh fruit and vegetables, high quality organic grains, and protein that comes from a sustainable source.
The emotion associated with the Earth element is worry; the unending stream of thoughts about anything and everything that could go wrong. When Earth is present in excess (for example, after a prolonged period of relative quietness and introspection, or after being stuck at home for too long, as is the case for many of us nowadays) we become overprotective, meddlesome and overbearing. On the other hand, Earth deficiency (which could be the result of too much planning, or being too assertive) will lead to clinging, wavering and a sense of being scattered. We do not need to know whether there is Earth in excess in our system, or if Earth is deficient.
In general, finding stability without stagnation is an effective way to support the Earth element. This means taking into account a balance between giving and receiving. Nourishing practices like Yin and Restorative Yoga are very grounding. Writing about the questions: “What do I need?” or “How do I nourish myself?” can help to bring more balance. Practicing lovingkindness towards yourself to enhance self-worth is equally supportive. The intelligence of Chi, stimulated by our practice of choice, will bring balance where it is needed.
We can stimulate the flow of Chi through our organs by practicing yoga. Specifically the practice of Yin Yoga, in which floor postures are held for several minutes at a time, is an effective way to direct the Chi to distinct organs. Since the Spleen meridian runs (roughly) through the inner leg line, and the Stomach meridian (roughly) over the quadriceps, any postures that stretch or compress those areas (and thus stimulate the Chi flow) will affect the Spleen and Stomach. Twisting poses that squeeze the abdominal area will influence those organs too. Simply put: the smoother the Chi flow to and through the Spleen and Stomach, the more nourished Earth will be.
A simple Yin Yoga pose that affects the Spleen and Stomach meridians is Dragon Pose.
To get into the pose:
- Start on the hands and knees;
- Bring the right foot forward on the inside of the right hand, so the knee is stacked over the ankle and the foot is flat on the floor;
- Place your hands on blocks on either side of the front foot, so you can come more upright;
- Slide the left knee back until there is enough (not too much, not too little) sensation in the front of the left hip;
- Relax the inner thigh muscles to allow the pelvis to come forward and down.
To get out of the pose:
- On an exhale, move the hips away from the front foot;
- Place the right knee next to the left, and notice the effects of Dragon Pose.
Recommended hold time:
- 3 – 5 minutes
Repeat on the other side
The use of essential oils is also an effective way to support our emotions and overall wellbeing.** Myrrh essential oil is the Oil of Mother Earth. It is especially beneficial for grounding. Myrrh helps eliminate doubt and worry when you are faced with chaos and/or confusion, writes Margaret Ann Lembo in her book The Essential Guide to Aromatherapy and Vibrational Healing. Apply a drop under the feet in the morning and/or before meditation.
Vetiver essential oil is “the restorative stabilizer.” This oil reminds us to grow our roots deep down in the earth, like Vetiver grass does. Apply a drop under the feet before going to bed for a restful night’s sleep.
Understanding what your body — and mind — need during this time of year 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 Vetiver 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 Earth element nourished.
* This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
**Make sure to use Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade essential oils only.
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 via Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock