December 21st is the darkest day of the year and signals the start of the winter season. The solstice is considered the most Yin day of the year and Winter is the most Yin season. You have opportunities or obstacles to face depending on your orientation. The darkness of today and the yin quality of the season are glorious invitations to turn inward and get quiet with your self. If you resist this invitation, you will be pushing back against the natural order of things and against your own innate capacity to organize your physical, and energetic embodiment in relationship to the natural world.
The Kidney meridian, most heavily associated with this season, governs the jing (essence energy) that fuels growth and supports immune function. The health of our essence energy is greatly depleted by stress and overstimulation and this time of year the fight or flight response is in overdrive for many. If we deplete our Kidneys and adrenals now, when the rising energy of Spring bursts onto the scene we will be ill prepared to thrive as creative engines. Now is the time to rest, minimize social commitments, and guard time for personal reflection. Yogis are always looking for ways to simplify and bring more Yin into their lives to cultivate balance but now especially, we can all benefit from following the cues of nature. Donna Eden calls winter the Embryonic Rhythm. That name really illuminates the ideal for me. It suggest that we go inward and incubate quietly, passively receiving nourishment from the internal experience of self as both parent and child.
Here are suggestions for thriving in the cold and dark of Winter:
1. Keep your feet, belly, and low back warm. Wear socks Charleston Yogis! Dress for the weather in general with smart layers. It isn’t that cold here but when it does get chilly I see far too many people inappropriately dressed.
2. Go to bed early as often as possible. Sleep resets the nervous system like nothing else.
3. Eat root vegetables and soups. Focus on warm foods and use healthy fats to cook and season with. You should gain a little weight in the winter as all animals do. The weight shouldn’t come from excess sugar indulgence and yo yo extreme workouts but instead should arise as we rest more and eat more heavy and grounding foods.
4. Keep your workouts more mellow. The Kidneys are often referred to as the house of fire and water. If there is too much rising heat in the body (triggered by stress and over exertion) it weakens the kidneys thereby lowering your immune function. Everyone is different so there are no hard and fast rules here but consistency and moderation are always key to exercise.
5.Give yourself permission to disappoint others in order to take care of yourself. Instead of saying yes to everyone and everything then stressing and potentially flaking on your commitments anyways, say no to begin with and keep your calendar more spacious. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t. Life is short and Winter can offer us the opportunity to create better boundaries and grow our wise discernment.
6. As you lighten up on the Vinyasa and heavy lifting, double down on the Yin Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Tai Chi, Meditation, and Yoga Nidra practices. Don’t give up activity by any means. Prioritize nourishment first and do less stimulating exercise but remember that this is a spectrum. Each persons personal needs are different.
I hope you find the Winter nourishing and subtly transformative. If you find yourself fearful or overwhelmed ask for support. Know that you have the tools and can find the guides you need.
As a young adult I gave little energy to the holiday season. My family dynamics were complicated and I wanted to distance myself from any sense of loss by devaluing this time of year entirely. There is a speech I have memorized for every major holiday about capitalism, the destruction of an indigenous people in the name of personal privilege, and the dogma of a religion that bullied and co-opted many other spiritual practices and cultures in order to gain world domination. There is truth to those narratives but not all of the truth. There is value buried under the bullshit.
Baby step by baby step I have tried to reclaim the seasonal holidays in a way that is meaningful to me so that I can share in the recovery, rest, and communal solidarity that can be observed in a quiet and simple way. In fact, returning to the holidays with less attachment to the status quo, I am free to build the traditions of my family in a way that works for us. Some of my friends are less lucky. They had lovely childhoods with giant families and elaborate traditions which involved a great deal of stress, people pleasing, and over indulging (partially due to the stress). They want to uphold the construct, believing it to be part of their loving connection to family, so they struggle through this season.
Regardless of where you fall on the holiday spectrum, rejecter, embracer, over-achiever…I have some suggestions for you this year to help you stay centered. They are easy tangible actions that don’t require much discipline or forethought.
1. Take time:
to go outside, walk, and breathe. Don’t beat yourself up about maintaining your fitness regimen or your yoga asana practice. If you find the time, by all means, get on the mat, but don’t waste energy worrying about it. The easiest thing you can do on your own or with friends and family is take a 30 minute walk each day.
2. Drink Plenty:
of water. If you like herbal tea, drink the hell out of it. First thing when you wake up drink warm water with lemon. Do this before the coffee or tea. In between each adult beverage drink a glass or water (fizzy if yer fancy). Before bed have one last hot herbal tea.
from your cell phone for a day or even a few hours. No really, turn it off. Put it away. As you disconnect from the virtual world you reconnect to the physical world. If you find it tiresome, take a nap.
4. Load your plate:
with veggies and protein first. After that have the stuffing, mashed potatoes, rolls….what ever you want. Don’t go back for thirds but if you do, walking and napping might be even more important.
5. Enjoy the sweetness:
of taking time to be with your self and others in a nonjudgemental way. Take a moment to subscribe meaning to the holiday that is personal to you and remember that gratitude is expressed not by doing but by stopping to feel the fullness of our full and complete lives.
I crane my neck to see the bride come through the doorway. She is petite in stature with a big toothy grin and fierce eyes. As she passes our small enclave of family we all take a collective breath and hold it. There are tears. We are happy for my niece Allison but the tears are because she looks so much like her Mother all of the sudden. We all see it and feel the ache in our lungs that is grief. My Sister Audrey died of stomach cancer back in May of 2014. I didn’t go to the funeral. My biological Mother passed away later that same year also from that bastard cancer. I didn’t attend that funeral either. Anger, denial, and overwhelm eclipsed my judgment. I bottled my grief and it stayed in my chest for years like a paper weight holding down…I’m not sure what. A lengthy depression, an existential crisis of sorts ensued. I lost faith and secretly disliked everyone and everything. If you have studied with me at Mission Yoga, chances are you were around for some of this though I hope I didn’t let on too much. No one wants the person they trust to inspire them secretly feeling deep despair (although you probably should but more on that another day).
Many deep breaths, tears, and a good bit of therapy later, I’m sitting at this wedding finally facing my family, Audrey’s family, and grieving. It’s perfect timing really. The season of Fall is a time to investigate what we are taking in and what we can let go of as we prepare for the coming winter. In Chinese Medicine we are in the house of the Lung/Large Intestine Meridians. Both Spring and Fall are preparation seasons. Summer is our most Yang natural expression and Winter is our most Yin natural expression. Fall is a time to get clear on what is important and to shed baggage, projects, and even people in our lives as we prepare for the dark and cold to come. This season has a bustle to it. The element of fall is metal and there is a charge to the air as briskness sets in. We have a lot to do. The busy quality, though, must be directed towards smart use of time. Minimize your commitments and say yes to less. Follow the intelligence of nature. Drop the leaves and circulate your energy closer to the core. Root down and establish steady rhythms of home and hearth
Now is the time to look at old grief too. You knew I was circling back to that right? Grief is the emotion associated with the Lungs. All human emotions are valid but if we stifle them or let them run wild without context and acknowledgement they create problems in the body, heart, and mind. Grief that is held but not processed manifests in depression, colds, allergies, and asthma. See your acupuncturist, go to yoga and breath deeply, and make some time to engage in the rituals of grieving. They serve a powerful function for us. The energy of grief must be lived through without fear of wallowing or being judged. Loss is part of life and it must be faced. If you, like me, have been too scared to face that pain, know that you are not alone and that this beautiful fall day is as good a time as any to take those deep belly breaths, cry, and feel what you feel.
This is what we’re here to do. We must learn to let go but not before we feel the full ache of each goodbye which clears the way for something new.
BY JAMES WRIGHT
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
Think back to how you felt as Spring gave way to Sultry Summer. We were excited by the salt air and warming water, the sand between our toes, and the late evenings that stretched out like a satisfied cat in a pool of light. Schedules were abandoned and children found their wildness. Students migrated and parents panicked to find affordable Summer camps. Summer was fun, full of playful wave after wave of change. But now we are in the Secret Season known as ‘Late Summer’. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this time of year is associated with a completely different element than summer. We have transitioned from Fire to Earth. Technically, late summer runs from the second half of August till the Autumnal Equinox on September 22nd. It’s generally a short season, but in Charleston, you know the “Indian Summer” extends well into October.
The consensus among my students is that they are hot, damp, anxious, and tired at the moment. They seem surprised by this. It makes sense. When School starts back we think of Fall, that association creates anticipation for a shift that hasn’t happened yet. We are in a moment of pause.
The quality of this time is a heavy fullness. If we can give in to that earth pull we make room for rest and quiet before the Fall appears with its rhythm of preparation and readiness for Winter. Fall has a bustle that is busy but also serious. Winter means death to any who aren’t prepared (from a hunter gatherer standpoint).
The Spleen/Stomach meridians are associated with this season so it is a great time to consider your diet. The hot dogs and beer may have taken their toll. Put down the meat stick (or the veggie dog, because those aren’t great either) and find what is growing now. Eat that. Lay off the processed carbs and let the Rose craze pass. Oh, you only ever drink green smoothies made of self grown produce anyways? Then stop reading because you’re obviously ahead of the game. But for the rest of us who love health but also indulge and commiserate with friends and family through culturally celebrated crappy diets, now is a time to reset. Of course, we will talk again as the Holidays approach.
“When Spleen chi is in balance, our cycles are in harmony. This allows all aspects of our life to be absorbed for psychosomatic nourishment . We feel earthy, sensual, full. When Spleen chi is out of balance, the whole body-mind will not receive enough usable energy, causing lethargy, weakness, or dullness.” Sarah Powers
I understand the frantic pull of the season around the corner. When we are out of balance now, we feel anxious instead of easeful, worry takes root. But the earth invites us to pause, take in nourishment, and give a moment of being to our drive of doing.
You know what’s funny? Every season I find a way to spin the forecast and prescribe naps. I’ll do it again. Take naps. Little ones. Go ahead….and after that nap, eat well and savor the fullness of Late Summer.
A soft veil dims the tender skies,
The bronzing tokens of the fall;
A calmness broods upon the hills,
And summer’s parting dream distills
A charm of silence over all.
I spend a fair amount of time contemplating the world that the classical and tantric texts arose from so that I can find context for the teachings and uncover how they might fit into my post-modern mind. Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the practice of Santosha. Taken from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Santosha (contentment) is one of the Niyamas of the 8 limbs of Yoga.
There is a feeling among my students and friends that our world today is crashing, roiling, and imploding. I’ve heard many people voice concerns over a suggested practice like contentment in a time where they feel action and change are required for our very survival. That sentiment is valid, however, the world during the period of Classical Yoga was not some better time where racism, classism, sexism, and mindless dogma didn’t exist. While people of that time were more bound to the cycle of nature and less inundated by streaming distraction pumped in on screens of all sizes, life was brutal, and short, and defined by their birthright or lack there of. Human suffering and isolation, the complexities of of the psyche, were front and center in their lived experience. Just like us. The shit has always been hitting the proverbial fan. If this is true, then Santosha might still be a purposeful practice if we can understand it.
I have heard and even mistakenly described Santosha as a practice of acceptance of what is, a practice of making peace with our external circumstances. This view is fundamentally flawed. The outer world is full of circumstances that create suffering, that wreak havoc on people and the planet. We should perceive these circumstances as problematic. We should feel concern. We can act on that concern. The practice of Santosha, when clearly understood, can help us act more skilfully with the external world.
Contentment is defined as satisfaction, fullness, and a feeling of completeness. In general that feeling of fullness is often associated with fleeting external circumstances, but it doesn’t need to be. The practice of Santosha is a remembering, evoking, and acknowledging of our innate wholeness that is not dependent on any thing outside of our selves. Contentment isn’t something that we do, it is a feeling state, an internal ok-ness that is neither given nor taken away by anyone or anything. We can carry our basic wholeness into all circumstances and find ourselves less driven by fear and lack on a core level. Confrontation can become co-creation and cooperation when navigating problems in the structure and organization of our society. We can be content inside ourselves and work with discontent outside of ourselves. We can say I’m ok, yet this is not ok.
I am complete regardless of external circumstances which will rise and fall away.
Now, by all means, go out there and save the world, but don’t do it because you’re broken. You are not a problem that needs to be fixed.