Be inspired by ancient Chinese wisdom and warm up your wellbeing this winter…
Winter, in the Taoist text of the Tao Te Ching, is the season of ‘returning to the root’. And, ancient Chinese medicine offers a wealth of wellness tips on how to rest and reassess when the cooler season arrives. The system is holistic, linking health to nature and associating each season with a number of elements, from colours and crystals to organs and even emotions. Winter is linked to water, the kidneys and fear, among others. Attuning to the season’s qualities and traditional Chinese wisdom can feel like a warm hug of self-care for winter blues.
Professor Song Xuan Ke, founder and principal of Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine, points out: “Western medicine does not differentiate seasons in relation to illness.” But it’s key to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and to keep health at its optimum, the aim of TCM during winter is to maintain warmth in the body and keep damp out.
Katie Brindle, a Five Elements Chinese medical practitioner, is the founder of Hayo’u (hayoumethod.com), a method based on an aspect of the system called Yang Sheng (meaning ‘nurture life’) and the author of Yang Sheng: The art of Chinese self-healing (Hardie Grant, £15). For her, this way of living offers an important way to balance all aspects of life. “Chinese medicine is an integrated approach to health,” she says. “The key to it is an incredibly sophisticated understanding of how the body works – physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
Here’s how to follow the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine this winter…
Balance is baseline to Chinese wisdom for wellness, as is energy; called qi, it’s the ‘life force’ flowing through the body’s channels or meridians.
“Up until the winter solstice (around 21st December) we’re in the yin part of the year cycle, so this is when you should be in your quietest contemplative state, nurturing yourself with a slow pace, early nights and nourishing warm foods,” says Katie.
The reality, however, is often a party season of bottomless Prosecco, late nights and shopping stress. “In Chinese terms, this is a recipe for disaster, getting you out of balance so you end up succumbing to one of the many viruses buzzing around,” she says. “At Hayo’u, we start work a bit later in the winter to align with the advice of rising later and going to bed earlier. This results in much less illness at work, because we are in balance and supporting our immunity.”
She also embraces JOMO (the joy of missing out) as a key accessory for the season. “I go out a lot in the summer, but socialise perhaps once a week in the winter, ideally for Sunday lunch,” she explains. “I go to bed early and deliberately luxuriate in the indulgence of it.”
In the bleak winter a natural approach to exercise may involve lifting your mug of tea to your mouth, and then repeating said movement. Yet the art of balance calls for seasonal adjustments. The adrenal glands can replenish without intense daily aerobic but, simplistically, your qi is activated by exercise.
“Avoid sweating excessively during winter,” Katie says. “The contrast between having the heating up high then going out into the freezing cold leads to imbalance, and winter is about conserving energy.” She suggests gentle fresh-air walks and dynamic meditation forms, such as qigong or yoga. These encourage the flow of qi (energy) and warm the core.
At a time when over-indulgence is rife, it’s important to look at what you’re consuming. “Eating oily, greasy and fried foods can lead to the generation of internal damp, just as much as overexposure to damp in the atmosphere,” Professor Ke says, adding: “The same goes for cold foods.”
Katie agrees. “Viewing salads as healthy, and raw food as being health food, doesn’t sit easily with Chinese medicine theory,” she says. “In this, the stomach is described as a bubbling cauldron, full of digestive fires that are put out by cold. So raw food will sit, undigested, in your stomach. Ideally, don’t eat food straight from the fridge, and both food and drink should be at room temperature.”
Jane Alexander, author of Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living (Kyle Books, £14.99), says a Chinese winter tonic is a real game-changer for winter wellness. “Go see a TCM practitioner for a tailormade tonic at the shift into winter (and every season if you can). A good tonic will permeate right down through the system, balancing and strengthening each and every organ, allowing them to talk to each other in harmony.”
She describes how it works as ‘an upright pinball machine’. “The medicine runs through all the little gates and attaches itself to each ball, or organ, and tunes it as it passes,” she says. “When it gets to the bottom it takes all the toxins and waste you don’t need away and leaves everything cleaner. It’s as if someone went in and polished everything.”
A personal prescription works as it really isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Tonics like ginseng, for example, can overstimulate in some cases, however, one good herb to include in the mixture is astragalus. “This is generally considered to be safe and is great for enhancing the immune system,” she explains. “It boosts the production of white and red blood cells, interferon, immunoglobulins and the function of the adrenal cortex.”
And what’s on Katie’s menu? “Hearty, savoury soups and stews, whole grains, cabbage, root vegetables and steaming cups of ginger tea,” she says. “Choose more salty, less sweet foods, such as miso soup with tofu, cabbage and fresh parsley. Eat black sesame seeds, walnuts and chestnuts as they’re good for kidney support.”
As the organ associated with winter, the kidney is the powerhouse qi supplier for the body, and it’s important to support it during the colder months. The kidney is also linked to the ears and Donna Barritt, manager at Chuan Spa at The Langham hotel, advocates auricular therapy. This involves tiny ear seeds being applied to reflexology points on the ear. “These are left on for the next three days to help regulate the organs and provide an allover system rebalance,” she explains.
Professor Ke suggests winter acupuncture sessions using the Chinese herb moxa which is burned and used to generate heat and warm acupoints. “Also, cupping therapy can help expel cold from points or meridians and promote the free movement of qi,” he adds.
There’s also Pai Sha – a tapping ritual that uses bamboo and helps that go-with-theqi- flow feeling needed at this time of year.
Winter is linked to the element of water, and Katie suggests a foot bath, as Chinese Medicine experts believe that soaking the feet is a great detoxifer. “The slightly raised body temperature unblocks energy channels,” she explains. “In herbal foot baths, the skin absorbs elements and these travel through energy channels to target points. Add a magnesium mineral compound to charge up a bowl of warm water; magnesium helps the brain produce neurotransmitters that induce sleep and reduce stress.”
The emotion linked to winter is fear. Jean Haner, the author of the upcoming book, The 5-Element Solution (available June 2020), suggests we while away long cold evenings with energy clearing sessions. “In winter, the world’s energy naturally goes inward, and so does our own,” she says. “We can use this positively and do some inner work to release old stuck emotions, pain or stress from our past, and any baggage that we’re still carrying.”
Attuning with nature ancient Chinese-style is echoed in using feng shui at home. To re-set your space to suit your winter mindset, Jean suggests adding warm colours to your room, even in little ways.
“The twinkling holiday lights many people put up in winter are actually feng shui to keep energy in balance, as are lighting candles and having a fire in the fireplace,” she adds. “Clutter clearing, especially in the rooms at the rear of your home, is especially beneficial in winter.”
The Chinese also favour a deep house clean before Chinese New Year in February, but until then, when all you want is to curl up with a copy of a good book, why not take a leaf out of the Tao Te Ching and remember: “Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” Not long now…
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