Four Tips for a Well-Balanced Winter

Traditionally in Western civilization, winter is a season of holidays—a time for celebrating, eating, drinking, socializing and avoiding loneliness. This is the exact opposite of how we are supposed to behave according to Chinese medicine! 

TCM tells us that we need to minimize yang exertion in the cold months because it’s in hibernation. Meanwhile, the yin aspect needs to be cultivated through focusing on rest, peace and quiet, stillness and inner reflection. Given that we so often ignore this principle, we see why it’s so common for people to feel especially run down at the end of the year, get sick during the holidays, and struggle to fight off lingering and recurring illness throughout January, February and March. 

When we exercise hard and party harder in wintertime, we are going against the natural pace of the change of the seasons. Our grandparents and their parents before them followed the change of seasons for basic survival. They would work the fields in the summer, fish and hunt in the warmer months, start to harvest foods in the fall to prepare for winter, and rely on what they had stored up to get through the cold season. 

In TCM, we describe these seasonal shifts by talking about the elements. When the colder winter temperatures set in, we shift from the metal element, associated with fall, to the water element, associated with winter. This means there’s a different set of requirements to keep your Qi in balance. Cyclically speaking, we’re moving from focusing on nourishing and strengthening your lungs to settling in and slowing down to stabilize the kidneys. 

What is wintertime good for?

Winter is my favourite time of year because we are naturally encouraged to take advantage of the benefits of being one with ourselves. Yes! Time for me and my Qi!

The winter months ask us to surrender to the pause that nature is suggesting for us. This is a time for looking into our depths and reconnecting with our inner being. Because the winter season reflects the natural process of withdrawal, everything enters a period of dormancy. Without having this rest, there wouldn’t be enough energy to produce an emergence of growth in spring. The practice of resting in the winter is necessary so our energy can emerge healthy and strong in spring. The simplest way to keep our bodies in tune with the natural cycles of the environment is to focus on stillness so everything internally can replenish. 

The work our bodies are doing on the inside during winter can be some of the hardest and most exhausting healing work of the year, which is why our outer physical layer needs to be as still and slow as possible. It’s basically a season of retirement for your yang Qi. Don’t overextend the yang in the cold months, or else you won’t have any left for spring and summer!

So what does all this concretely mean? Read on to learn about the four areas to focus on during the winter months to help your Qi stay in harmony with nature!

1. When it comes to your emotions, winter is a time for chill. 

Work on changing the way in which you observe and judge emotions. Don’t label your emotions; simply observe them and let them move through you without any attachment. Your brain will react to whatever emotion you tell it to feel, and that will trigger the production of neurotransmitters that are specific to that chosen emotion. So don’t dwell; the winter months are for peaceful and nourishing thoughts. 

This is an excellent time to practice self-acceptance. Instead of judging your fears, learn to recognize them so you become more open, and your Qi will be able to flow! Take your cue from the winter weather: we can’t make the bad weather stop, but we can learn to observe it, lay low for a while and let it pass. 

2. Make like a bear and hibernate!

Take advantage of the cold weather to really slow down your pace. Change your routines from the summer and match them to your yang Qi in hibernation mode. Don’t exhaust yourself with overexercise; reduce your workout routine by 30 percent or so in order to preserve your yang Qi. Then, when spring and summer roll around, you can ramp it up because in those seasons, you have the warmth in the environment to hold and balance all that yang Qi, and to allow it to recover. 

Like a bear, you need to hibernate in the winter, sleeping to conserve the energy you will need for the next season. Think of winter as a time to replenish your Qi reserves, to be prepared for the surge of spring. This is also a time to focus on being patient and listening with patience, no rushing and no agitation. Let the season unfold to prepare the seeds for growth and abundance in the warmer weather. Listen to what your inner thoughts are telling you but don’t analyze them. Just observe. Be still. This is the perfect time to practice what I call “selective participation” (otherwise known as laziness). 

3. Help your digestion by choosing winter-appropriate foods. 

In winter, we need to eat plenty of foods that are naturally warming, easy to break down, and don’t exhaust the spleen yang Qi. Because we’re in a hibernation mode, it’s important to eat foods that require the least amount of energy for the body to break down. 

Focus on soups, stews, porridge, congees, chilli, and anything you can throw in a crock pot—if it’s slow-cooked, it’s easier for your digestive system to handle. No salads, no raw vegetables, no ice cream. Just because these foods are readily available at the grocery store during the winter months doesn’t mean they’re a good fit for your Qi! And, because winter is the time the kidneys need the most focus, it’s best to eat less salty foods. 

Be sure to include root vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains and small amounts of meat and fish in your diet. Add some spice, too. Ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, onion, chives and garlic are all great choices! And don’t forget to drink lots of water for hydration, since we tend to run more dry in the winter months. 

4. Dress properly for the cold weather! 

No, it’s not okay to run outside for a quick second to grab something from your car when you’re just wearing a t-shirt! It’s just that easy for the wind and cold to invade your body and hit your immune system. In TCM, wind is considered one of the most common and forceful of the six evil pathogens; it makes your head and neck easy targets due to exposure. Wind attacks the skin and if you are already weak from stress, a poor diet and overwork, this wind invasion can lead to sudden illness. Wind invasion opens the door for other external pathogens (evils) so don’t give it free admittance! 

In fact, even if it looks sunny outside or you’re feeling warm, you still need to protect yourself from the elements. For instance, if you’re sweating or just finished a workout, and your pores are open to release the sweat, you are susceptible to invading pathogens that can cause illness. So, don’t take chances! Wear a stylish hat and scarf, and wrap yourself up in a cozy sweater to stay protected for the cold weather.

To wrap up, these four tips can really help you stay healthy all winter long. Your Qi needs to simmer in the winter months, just like a crock pot slowly cooking for hours to produce something delicious. Or, to get back to our bear metaphor—If you can slow down, chill out, eat hearty and get cozy, you’ll emerge from hibernation in the springtime fully replenished and ready to burst out into the sun with a roar!