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Winter 2016 - Water/Kidney Energy

by Greg Casey

In Chinese medicine winter is related to the elemental phase of water. In the body, water and thus winter relate to the Kidney and Urinary Bladder organ systems. The energy of water is nourishing, holding and sinking. The transition from fall to winter is marked by the continuing decline of yang energy (the sun), and rise of yin energy (cold, darkness). The crisp, cool days of autumn lead to the wet and cold days of winter and beg us all to slow and steady our pace, and move closer to a state of rest and hibernation, making use of the stored up resources gathered from the year’s labor during this time of environmental scarcity. Energetically this is the time of year for turning one’s awareness inward and holding to only what is essential. Water teaches us to find stillness and level. It shows us the path of least resistance and acceptance of all things. It is also that aspect of nature that represents mystery and the unknown. Still to this day we know more about the surface of the moon and some planets than we do about the depths of our own vast oceans. Water is regarded as the substance which nourishes life, and allows for growth and change if we can properly harness and channel it. This is the ideal time of year to turn your attention inward and spend time focusing on things that give you a sense of wonder, excitement and mystery.

The organs of the water element, the Kidney and Urinary Bladder are crucial to our processing of this most essential life nourishing element, and on further inspection, they reveal much more. As the most yin organ in the body, the Kidneys (including the adrenal glands) are viewed in a way as these little beans or seeds buried away deep within our lower torso, and just as beans and seeds contain the genetic material that with some water and light can create a beautiful flowering plant, the Kidneys are thought to contain the body's most vital life nourishing essence, in Chinese called jing. Jing is understood to be the source of the body's physicality itself, and the seat of all our physical potential for growth, maturation and reproduction in this life, as influenced and handed down from the lives of our ancestors. Jing is like the oil in the lamp, and we all know what happens when the oil runs out. This is why there is a huge emphasis in Chinese medicine in protecting the energy of the Kidneys and conserving ones jing-essence. Someone with strong jing, as passed down from their ancestors will have a robust constitution, rarely get sick and deal with illness easily, and have a strong healthy body. This however is just part of the equation, as even the most robust individual can deplete their essence and wither away before their time, and likewise those with weaker constitutions can follow the advice of Chinese medicine sages to boost themselves up for a long and healthy life. As such, many acupuncture treatments, herbal medicines, and exercises have been developed to facilitate this process of conserving and strengthening one’s jing-essence. The Urinary Bladder, as the yang water element organ system helps us to move the waters of life in order to both excrete out impurities and waste and to nourish all the other organs and parts of the body with the Kidneys jing-essence. It does so in conjunction with the Lungs and San Jiao (Triple Heater) and their related meridian systems and connections to the other organs.

To support the health of these organs it is important we adjust some of our daily activity to align with the shift in the season. The sages of Chinese medicine suggest that we follow the sun’s rise and fall to direct us in our level of activity, and during this darkest time of year, for the average person that means more time sleeping and resting and less time doing, working and exercising (don’t worry, you get to do those in spring and summer when it’s warm again!). Winter is not the time of year to be sweating. It is the time of year to hold onto your resources so you can make it to spring. These days we have the crutches of modern technology which allow us to do all kinds of activities that in the past we could not. Our bodies however, as extensions of nature, have not had the time to adapt and evolve to our new ways of living, and in the clinic we see many chronic issues that could be avoided or resolved if only people would live more closely with the seasons that rule their environment, and governed the evolution of our ancestors. One of the most important traditional ways to conserve one’s jing-essence is to practice sexual temperance, as the reproductive fluids are seen as a direct emanation of one's jing-essence, and any expenditure is seen as just pouring out a bit of that oil. Now you may say, fine, I’ll just pour more in the lamp, but unfortunately time has shown it’s not quite that simple. Indeed, many doctors of Chinese medicine believe it is impossible to “refill” the jing at all. Even those who believe it is possible to restore one's jing-essence maintain it is a difficult process; your body must be in peak condition to successfully extract the essence of the foods and liquids you are consuming in order to consolidate them back to the Kidney jing. This is why we believe it is very important to conserve it in the first place through healthy lifestyle habits such as resting when you are tired, not taking too much caffeine or stimulants (which kick your Kidneys and adrenals to burn off some jing), consuming seasonally appropriate foods and drinks at proper times, and practicing specific mind-body exercises (known in Chinese as qigong). It should be noted that the decline of jing is natural with age, and as such, many of the signs of aging are a direct cause of the waning of one’s jing. Weakening and pain of the knees and lower back, loss of hearing and tinnitus, drying of the skin and thinning and graying of hair are all signs of weakening jing, but with modest lifestyle habits, nourishing herbs, foods and exercise (and of course regular acupuncture treatments ;) ), these symptoms can be delayed or avoided altogether.

In Chinese medicine each of the internal organs is said to be adversely affected by a particular climatic factor. For the water element organs, that climatic factor is cold. We all know the basis for life is a balance of heat and moisture. Cold constricts, slows down and numbs. It is the antithesis of life. In Chinese medicine there are few superlatives, but generally we all agree cold should always be avoided if you would like to live a long and healthy life free of chronic illnesses. No cold/iced drinks, no cold packs on muscles, and not too much raw cold foods - especially in winter. To help keep the Kidneys warm and functioning at peak capacity in the old days, a scarf would be tied around the waist at the level of the kidneys to keep them warm, and many Chinese medicine adherents continue this practice in modern days during the winter. It is also a good idea to continue to keep the wind gates covered through the winter. Read the Autumn Wellness blog post below for more on the wind gates.

 

The Sage’s Kitchen - Eating with the season from an energetic perspective

In the old days, in winter we would be eating whatever has the capacity to be stored away without rotting. These days we continue eating whatever we fancy as if it’s Labor Day all year long. Winter foods include many of the same foods as fall. Seeds, nuts, mushrooms, squashes, roots and dried fruits are all great winter foods. The type of cooking related to the water element and most effective at nourishing you in the winter is the long boil or stew. In this method of cooking you have the capacity to get as many nutrients as possible out of every available scrap of food. This is not something most of us have to worry about today, but certainly some of us do. Soup is also the easiest type of food for your digestive system to metabolize as much of the work of breaking down your food has already been done for you, giving your body a break during the time of year it wants to conserve as much energy as possible.

 

Snacks

  • Roasted Walnuts - lowest temp approx. 170F for 2-3 hours
  • goji berries, blueberries, other small berries
  • Ground sesame and flax seeds rolled into balls with honey

 

Basic Winter Food List

  • Seeds - sesame, chia, flax
  • squashes - same as fall list ( butternut, winter, acorn, etc.)
  • Root veggies - carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, etc.
  • Other “vegetables” - mushrooms, seaweed, miso soup
  • Nuts - especially walnuts for the kidneys

 

Meditation Pillow

Sit comfortably with your spine straight and shoulders relaxed. Close your eyes most of the way, and gaze toward the tip of your nose with a soft focus. Become more aware of your breathing and where your body moves with each inhale and exhale. Gradually let your breath become slow, smooth, soft, fine and even through your nose. Focus on the sensation of its movement through your respiratory tract, filling your lungs, and moving your diaphragm, allowing it to fully descend with each inhale, letting the belly expand and contract with each breath. Paying close attention to the lower back, see if you can feel your breath moving the lower back in the area of the Kidneys. Next, visualize the air you inhale and exhale as a mysterious dark blue/black light that descends through your lungs to fill your kidneys with each inhalation. When you exhale and your belly contracts visualize that light condensing into your kidneys, nourishing and strengthening your jing-essence. Practice can be for as long as you like.

 

Seasonal Poem

Moonlit snowfields lull

Ice trees sigh

Then they whisper

This night is near dawn

·  By Grace Casey

 

Seasonal Qigong Tips

Winter is an excellent time to begin or go deeper with a qigong practice. As the seasonal energy begs us to slow down and do less intense exercise, practicing qigong is a great way to keep fit and give the Kidneys the energy and gentle stimulation they need to thrive this time of year. Qigong improves circulation and boosts immunity while keeping your muscles toned and internal organs well regulated. In winter, avoid practicing qigong in windy or cold places or while you are sweating.

 

Seasonal Qigong practice

Here is a qigong to practice specifically to support the Kidneys.

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, with thumbs and index fingers touching forming an upside down triangle, the thumbs at the level of the navel. Allow your tailbone to sink down and tuck under slightly, so you feel like you are going to sit down. Stand like this for a short while and focus on your breathing, and the area of your lower abdomen, outlined by the triangle. Allow your diaphragm to fully descend with each breath, meaning as you inhale, let your abdominal muscles relax and your belly “fill with the breath” at least 9 times, or as long as you like. Next, bring your awareness to the bottoms of your feet, and as you exhale imagine a stream of energy descending from your belly down the insides of your legs to the bottom of the feet, and visualize it rooting into the earth. As you inhale, contract your toes, and perineum to induce the energy up as you visualize a stream of qi coursing up those roots from the ground into your legs, then your belly and your kidneys. Exhale, and send the energy down, inhale draw it up in the same manner.

Repeat as many times and as often as you like. Finish by focusing on your belly for a few moments and reflecting on how you feel different.

 

Home Remedies - Kidney support foot soak

There is only 1 primary channel acupuncture point on the bottom of the foot, and it belongs to the Kidneys - a point called the bubbling spring. This is where, according to Chinese medicine, humans energetically root and draw yin energy from the earth, and in qigong and tai chi practice a lot of emphasis is placed on exercises such as the one outlined above to enhance bubbling spring’s functions and ability to continually re-energize the Kidneys. A great passive way to do this is hot foot soaks. I recommend dropping in some cinnamon bark, fresh ginger, walnuts, goji berries, ground sesame seeds, honey and turmeric with Epsom salt and letting your feet soak just until they begin to prune. This will help to loosen and relax the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the whole body, but especially the legs, low back and neck, nourish and revitalize the kidneys and gently draw out toxins from the body. Enjoy!

 

Summary of Seasonal Reminders for the Winter

  • Slow down - it's cold outside (or at least it ought to be…).
  • Practice sexual temperance.
  • Don’t sweat.
  • Sleep more - don’t stay up late, burning that lamp all night…
  • Practice qigong instead of drinking coffee and taking stimulants.
  • Avoid cold. Wear a kidney wrap and cover your wind gates.
  • Explore your passions and things that give you a sense of wonder and mystery to strengthen the Kidneys jing-essence.