Watching the sun brazen its' way through the assembly of storm clouds on Sunday morning, steeped in silent wonder at the transforming scene rising, I felt the cold chill of Winter caught in rapture of life's moistened essence. Well maybe it wasn't quite that dramatic, but Winter does direct us into this dark, quiet pool of a harbour within. Her frosted fingers point to something underneath as the shortened days offer up an invitation to rest, rejuvenate, reimagine and take an energy meter reading.
Winter is the most yin of all the seasons. Yet while it appears on the surface to be in dormancy, the external cloak of stillness it wears hides an underbelly of activity - energy regathering within like some secret underground rebellion organising itself for battle.
In the 5 elements system which underpins Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) we are offered a map to navigate the subtle energetic rivers whilst we semi-hibernate in postures sustained by the flow of breath and the sensations that call from deeper recesses. Winter is the seasons associated with the element of Water. The tributaries which relate to this element and season are the Kidneys (yin) and the Bladder (yang). Together they offer a connection to the source from which all life springs.
The Kidneys are the body's blood filtration system and consist of two bean shaped organs each the size of a fist. They are situated just below the rib cage either side of the spine. Kidney health directly impacts all the fluid systems of the body. Their yang partner, the bladder, like all yang organs is hollow; it works quite simply as a transportation system carrying away the waste water.
According to TCM theory the kidneys house essence - jing. Jing is considered to be our life force. We inherit this pre-natal gift of jing from our parents. Once the jing account is expended, that's it, We Are Done, or undone! The Kidneys are regarded as the mansion of fire and water, the palace of yin and yang and the connection of life to death. Jing rules production of the bone marrow and is therefore directly related to growth. The bone marrow produces red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body delivering nutrients and maintaining life. The harmony of yin and yang, flow of essence and removal of toxins is essential for physical, mental and emotional well being.
Excess heat can weaken the kidneys as can over spending on energy. This is particularly connected to the degree of stress we experience. When stress is prolonged or extreme it can easily turn to exhaustion as the adrenals that sit on top of the kidneys churn out hormones that create a high state of alert in the nervous system by invoking our sympathetic response - fight and flight mode.
Now unlike nature we don't tend to alter our patterns of living according to the seasons. As much of the animal kingdom is hibernating right now, we do the opposite - cranking up the dial, especially towards the festive season.
For balance to reign in the house it is vital to cultivate periods of precious time for stillness. This time allows us to see through the exhaustive clouds of activity and become more aware of where we are over expending our energy and what conservation practices might need to be implemented. When we are continually depleting our reserves and failing to re-nourish through rest and nutrition and mental reflection, our life essence seeps out. In a yoga practice the simple act of deepening into longer held, low to the ground poses can instigate a shift. Dragonfly, wide leg seated forward fold for example, targets the inner thigh area and lower back and with props to support the chest we might lean in and find there an opportunity to press pause ... sensung how our moment to moment our own flow proceeds.
The qualities of water are reflected back to us via our capacity to move through life with ease - to change direction and overcome obstacles, either by patient persistenc as we gradually wear the obstruction down or through the tenacious discovery of an alternative perhaps even inquisitive path. With a quintessentially fierce grace, water morphs from the soliloquy of quiet pools, resplendently bathed in calm to babbling, chuffing brooks that then become meandering rivers and which gradually build in velocity to emerge as violent torrents of power fuelled crashing waterfalls whose molecules hurl themselves lemming like into an abyss of foamed obliteration. So endlessly versatile and capable of transforming in state; liquid to gas to solid manifestation, this chameleon element re-imagines itself like a nature born Kylie Minogue, adapting to fill the space of whatever contains it.
In our bodies water is the substance that flows resilient and rubber like as the unencumbered flexibility of youth. Oh but too quickly and sadly this declines during the arc of age - we quite literally dry out. Our joints become more rigid, bones may become brittle and the deeper tissues of the body less inclined to glide smoothly. We may feel this dehydration in areas close to the kidney and bladder organs - the lower back in particular is a common area for complaints to get lodged. The bladder meridian actually begins its course at the inner corner of the eyes. It then runs over the head, down the back of the skull and neck, descends the back body as two streams running just lateral to the spine. It trots on merrily through the bulls eye of the buttocks and shimmies down the back of the legs. With that in mind one can see how stretching the posterior line of the legs might benefit both kidney and bladder channels (branches connect the yin and yang organs) and encourage water element energy to flow.
If you experience sciatic pain try targeting these channels by placing the body in a bent knee caterpillar pose (seated forward fold). While you linger from anywhere between a few minutes up to maybe 20, you could palpate or massage the backs of the knees. Oh hello bladder 40 (Bend in the Middle). Then work your way towards the calf area with the same massaging pressure and should you find a tender spot, possilbly toward the lower part of the calf you may be in the realm of bladder 58 - another good acupressure point for relieving back pain, as well as headaches.
It's not just our hydration that suffers in the coldness of Winter though, our will power can become frozen too. Yin and yang represent a play of opposing energies which together bring balance and health. The will of water is twofold, it literally mimicks the chemical compound itself. Yang Will relates to our stamina and drive, our libido and our power to shift from one state towards another. Yin Will however is more ethereal. It is akin to acknowledging and understanding our destiny and then being able to wisely flow towards it without effort, propelled by an under current which moves seamlessly beneath and intuitively knows the way. We may naturally dry out as we age and thereby need to work a little more instinctively with the management of our energy reserves and transportation networks but the pay back is the wisdom we garner. Wisdom must be earned through lived experience, it cannot be given. Quite possibly this is the key to ageing gracefully, an understanding of the requirement to take only what you need; to rest before the tank hits empty; replenish with appropriate nourishment and then in stillness, oh so quietly witness how the river flows buffered between known and unknown.
The emotion associated with a kidney meridian imbalance is fear. Fear doesn't really appreciate the unknown. And whilst we must acknowledge that a healthy amount of fear is necessary to keep us safe, irrational or recurring fears can seriously deplete our resources. Being able to respond to an imposing threat quickly is the bodies natural response to danger but deeper seated fears have a different character. They will fester and brood and breed in dark corners. They have a tendency to turn up to the party uninvited and proceed to raid the fridge, break the TV and stoutly refuse to leave even long after all the other guests have gone home! In nature, water will naturally chose to flow in spirals. But when water is forced through right angled channels in pipes to our homes it loses its vigour and arrives at the tap lacking in essence - virtually dead. The emotion of a distressed water element is related to our fear of not having enough. This sense of lack inhibits our will to complete projects, make plans and plant the seeds of ideas and dreams for germination over Winter ready for Spring. Fear saps our energy reserves. In those moment when the burden of fears threaten to overwhelm, try lightly placing the finger tips in the area just below the collar bones and tapping - for about 30 seconds to a minute. This point is known in TCM as Shu Mansion. It can bring about a sense of calm, create an emotional reset and offer a still point whereby you can serve yourself a refreshing alcohol free yin tonic.
Allowing nature to be our guid opens our ears to the call to rest. And the water element meridians are said to open into the ears. Tuning into the body, listening deeply not just with the ears but through the echo of sensations humming through the entire body matrix, we surrender to the pouring in of reflective stillness. This is a time for slow practice. A seasoned resolution to immerse up to the neck in sustained, unhurried postures lapped by waves of gentle breath undulating in to the natural nature born rhythms of sequesterd ebb and flow tides.
In the 5 elements system of checks and balances, the element that comes before is regarded as the Mother. In respect of Water this is Metal. Metal creates boundaries akin to river banks which channel flow. Equally important is the controlling element which disciplines. Earth relates to the spleen and stomach channels - food nourishment. When we think of this subtle energy flowing through these myriad channels we might relate it to electricity moving through wires in a home. When the current flows uninterrupted to its destination all the appliances work as they should. Just as there are different types of electricity so there are different types of Qi (energy). Defensive qi is rooted in the kidneys and nourished by the Earth element (Spleen and Stomach). In a symbiotic relationship the energy of the lungs spread this around the body, metabolising fluid essence and helping to bolster the immune system. Finding appropriate nourishment during the Winter therefore becomes vital in supporting this element - think hearty soups and warming stews.
Your kidneys are in essence your life battery. So to cherish the jing this Winter, keep them warm. Cultivate a plentiful reserve of energy and an appropriate balance of will and surrender so that the light of wisdom can shine into Spring. With that sustenance of flow you can plan your emergence with focus, clarity and resolve to literally burst forth into Spring, push up from the Earth carried on the triumphant beat of a thrumming pulse that has lovingly nurtured seeds sown in the dark and is awakening to the excitement of new life as it bursts into bloom.
"I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding." John O'Donohue