WINTER & THE WATER ELEMENT
In our seasonal blogs on the application of Five Element Theory into daily life we focus on transitional periods and seasonal shifts, and the things that can we do each day to support this process. The earths cycles affect us in profound ways, and we have a choice: to honour them, adapt and ride the ebb and flow of natures rhythms, or we can allow the circumstances of life and our schedules to dictate the pace in which we choose to live.
Taoist philosophy teaches that everything can be learned from nature. Everything we need to know is being displayed for us in the natural world, continuously showing us ‘the way’. So how can we can tune in deeper to natures teachings, particularly when climates everywhere are changing and unpredictable and the seasonal transitions are no longer as distinct as they once were? So far this winter has been a mild one, more wet, damp and windy in northern Europe and with the south feeling more like an extended autumn. Whilst rain can have cleansing qualities and wind can be clearing, our bodies need to be protected against damp and the invasive nature of wind during winter.
Winter is a profound season and it is the one that completes the cycle, providing much needed rest, rejuvenation and the space from which everything else can emerge. It is a time for slowing down and taking stock, turning inward with the focus on storing and regenerating.
Us human beings tend to carry on as normal, keeping up with day to day routines and maintaining the structure and schedules of our lives. Trying to keep up during winter goes against this natural rhythm and we may notice that things can seem a little slower, harder work or not so fluid during this time. Our bodies can often feel heavy and lethargic especially if we are pushing ourselves to maintain the usual routine when really, deep down, the body is craving rest.
Sometimes there can be a tangible physical contraction in the body in response to the change in conditions and temperature during winter. A layer of tension emerges that braces against the cold, wind and damp, a heaviness that envelops from the lack of sunlight and warmth on the skin. It may feel like we are literally shrinking inside, contracting and curling up for protection. Creating internal warmth and maintaining that feeling of being warm ‘in the bones’ – through our food, nutrition and health/self care – is going to provide us with the best conditions for keeping healthy and sustaining our energy during winter.
Winter is the time of deepening relationship, with ourselves and with others, and in consolidating. We may still choose to be actively social during the winter season but prefer smaller, more intimate gatherings in a calmer atmosphere. We may also notice ourselves choosing to spend less time on general ‘socialising’ and instead being drawn to quality time with close friends and family, or feeling the need for time alone. It is also the season for conserving, which seems ironic in a time that is full of the excess and material extravagance of the festive period. Do we know what we are celebrating and why? How do we navigate Christmas ‘expectations’, present buying, excess eating and drinking, social engagements etc? And how do we emerge from the festive period into the New Year – full of inspiration, gratitude and optimism or clutching a list of unrealistic things we must change about ourselves before we can feel good enough?
Allowing ourselves to accept the gifts of winter can set us up with a solid foundation and deep roots for the coming year. Let’s take a look at how Five Element Theory can help us with this.
In Five Element Theory the winter season relates to the element of Water. The water element is source. It is essence and vitality. The earth is practically 3/4 water and our body is made up of almost 80% water (decreasing as we age). Life simply does not exist without water.
This is the most yin of the five elements, representing our deep reserves and ability to survive and thrive. It is also a gestational time, gathering and storing the energy that will in time burst forth into spring. Whilst nature is still on the surface there is much inner work taking place and this time of stillness does not at all mean everything is stagnant.
Water is a powerful teacher revealing to us the wisdom of adaptation, yield and flow, formlessness, non-attachment, creative expression and connection. Observing water we can see that it doesn’t struggle, it simply adapts to whatever situation it finds itself in and seeks for open channels to flow effortlessly through. Water never loses its essential nature and doesn’t strain or strive or waste time trying to get through an obstacle or blockage, it finds a way around anything in its path. It also shows us what happens when things stagnate and get cut off from the flow, as pools eventually fester and rot, leaving few signs of life, vitality and energy.
Stillness and stagnancy are two completely different things. Within stillness there is expansion whereas stagnancy has a contracted quality. The aftermath of a storm, or after turbulent periods during our life, we can experience profound stillness and clarity. Just as the churned up silt of the ocean or river bed sinks back to the bottom and the waters become clear again, reflecting in us in what we know as the ‘calm after the storm’.
Ice is a great teacher too. It seems inert, yet somewhere beneath even the thickest ice there is movement. Do we become frozen like ice, physically, emotionally, mentally, sexually? Do we feel cut off from parts of ourselves that have become ‘frozen’ overtime? Are we able to sense the movement that lies beneath and gently invite sensation back into these parts of us?
Kidney/Bladder Organ System
In Five Element Theory each element and season relate to an organ ‘system’ within the body (the word organ taking on a very different meaning and signifying much more than the limited western idea of a physical ‘organ’). Winter is the kidney and bladder organ system. The kidneys are known as ‘the seat of life’ with kidney energy vital to our health. They filter the blood and covert waste products into urine, govern the sex organs and fertility as well as our bones, teeth, hair and hearing. The kidneys are seen as a yin organ and are partnered with the yang organ of the urinary bladder, which collects and stores liquid from the kidneys, ready for urination. The kidneys also host the adrenal glands, which take the brunt of a high performance, high stress lifestyle and if depleted will eventually impact on the kidneys. There is also a relationship with the skin, perspiration being linked to the kidneys, and skin diseases are often rooted in the kidneys inability to filter waste effectively.
So we can see that any kind of ongoing stress, pressure and over exertion is the opposite of what we need to be supporting the kidneys and nourishing the water element during winter. It is not that we come to a standstill during winter or take up hibernation, but that maybe we can move through winter a little slower and more mindfully, honouring natures pace. Our summer retreats focus specifically on low energy, stress and adrenal fatigue and can be a great way to equip yourself early in the year with the tools to address any energy issues and water element imbalances, to see you sailing into autumn and winter!
Keeping the kidneys warm, wearing layers and keeping the mid back covered (maybe even wearing a sash or kidney warmer band) should also be a priority, as the kidneys are very vulnerable to the cold and to wind.
Energy and Stamina
The kidneys house our ‘jing’ energy, our vital life force that is our ancestral heritage. This is prenatal ‘Qi’, given to us at birth by our parents and passed on to the next generation through our own children; so you could say related to our DNA and genetic make-up. We cannot generate more jing energy so must be careful with adrenalin fuelled, stimulant driven lifestyles, as this drains energy resources in time and depletes the adrenal glands which in turn affects the kidneys.
The qualities of endurance and perseverance are connected to the water element and provide valuable material for self refection. We can check in with ourselves to notice how these qualities manifest in us – do we tend to stay in unhealthy situations, relationships or jobs, hoping that things will change, waiting for a tide to turn, enduring and persevering even when we know deep down that enough is enough? Or do we bail out before things have really begun and lack the stamina, commitment and patience for things to naturally unfold? Do we just keep going physically or over exercise when really we need to stop and recharge or find a different rhythm, or are we moving at such a snails pace through life, avoid exercise or even feel a little cut off or disconnected from our bodies physically?
In winter moving a little slower, taking time out to rest and balancing our day to day responsibilities with an extra eye on our self care and self nurturing can really help us flow effortlessly through this season. Stay gently vigilant that this slowing down doesn’t go too far in the opposite direction. Really being honest with ourselves will keep us in check.
Time of Day
The elements and organ systems are also connected to a particular time of day, when the energy of each system is at is peak and at its lowest. The most active time of day for the bladder is 3pm-5pm and the kidneys at 5-7pm, with the energy in this system at its lowest between 3am-7am. Relating this to daily life we can see that the time when the energy is at its most active is the time that many people experience the classic mid-afternoon crash. How many of us find ourselves experiencing low energy, blood sugar dips, feeling restless and tired at this time of the day? And how many of us have unconsciously gone for the high sugar, refined sweet snack or the coffee to give us a much needed boost? If we are experiencing low energy at the time of the day when this organ system is at its most active then it is not functioning optimally. If we are waking up in the night to pee on a regular basis when the bladder is during its rest phase then this can also be a sign that there may be an imbalance.
The water element is represented by the colour black and includes grey, dark blue and dark purple colours. Take notice of the colours you are drawn to, the colours you tend to wear or have around you in your home. Notice those which you naturally stay away from or feel no connection to. For instance we may notice that we tend to always wear black or navy blue and shy away from colour, or that we become depressed if the weather is heavy and grey for too long. And what do our plates look like? Is there a rich variety of different coloured foods or a dull muted shade of beige? Do green foods make you want to run a mile?
There is now much research being done on the importance of colour in foods and the depth to the findings are incredible. We can recommend David Wolfes work over to read more about this. In general if we ‘eat the rainbow’ and include a wide variety and the full spectrum of different coloured natural foods in our diet we can access the many benefits of colour.
Finding balance is always the key. It is not to say that just because it is winter you can only eat black beans and seaweed or only wear black or dark clothes. This system is a useful tool to see patterns and habitual behaviour and to observe the connections on many different levels for a full holistic picture.
Salt is the taste associated with the water element and naturally salty food is good for the kidneys, whereas too much injures or ‘tightens’ them. Too much sweet food also endangers the kidneys, so it really is about finding the perfect balance between these two tastes and in observing our cravings. Consuming excess salty food creates a craving for sweet and vis-a-versa, creating a swing from yin to yang/expansion and contraction and back again as the body tries to maintain harmony, playing havoc with blood sugar balance and energy levels.
Getting the right amount of salt for you is an ongoing practice and is fundamental to thirst and hydration. Our water intake will be directly affected by our salt intake and more often than not we eat when really we are thirsty and misread the signals. Try drinking water first when you think are hungry and wait 30 minutes to see how you feel, you may notice the hunger cravings disappear completely.
Salt is an important element in the mineral balance of the body and eliminating it, as often suggested in many food fads, can be dangerous. Mainstream table salt is toxic stuff and is in no way relevant to the salt we are talking about here. Real salt is an important mineral and essential to life. Table salt is cooked at seriously high temperatures removing all trace minerals and electrolytes and often has synthetic ingredients added and even bleached. Great quality pure salt is never that white!
The Water Element and Sexuality
The Water element governs the sex organs (including in Taoist theory the penis, vagina/uterus, ovaries, prostrate and breasts) and sexual Qi is said to originate in the kidneys and bone marrow.
Sexual Qi is described as having a ‘sticky’ quality, it binds and stabilises the bond between the male and female opposing forces of yin and yang with the power to amplify whatever it bonds to i.e intensifying emotions, multiplying the reproductive rate of cells and glandular activity and igniting our creative expression in life and work.
Excessive and promiscuous sexual activity depletes the water element, the kidneys and our jing energy. For men it is wise to limit ejaculation as this loss of life force energy is contrary to the natural flow at this time of the year. There are many Taoist practices that focus on ‘drawing out’ the essence from the sperm and recirculating it to nourish the organs and energy centres. Women can tune into the wisdom of the womb for guidance around forming healthy sexual relationships and in allowing herself to receive the depth of intimacy she may be craving. The womb is strongly connected to the heart and working with practices that balance the water and fire elements can help strengthen the partnership.
The water element is about softness, emotion and depth so it can be useful to embrace this and create an environment of love and trust within our intimate relationships. When we feel safe we can trust and when we trust we open our hearts and are able to move deeper without fear.
Signs of depleted Qi and an imbalance in the kidney organ system are:
* premature or rapid greying of hair
* accelerated aging
* tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
* persistent lower back pain
* low energy and lack of stamina
* frequent and night urination
* low sex drive
* infertility and menstrual problems
* hearing or ear problems
* weak bones and teeth
What to avoid
* foods that create a large amount of waste products such as meat and poultry, foods treated with chemical preservatives and additives
* heavy meat consumption
* stimulants, caffeine, chemicals
* over eating
* excessive or promiscuous sexual activity
* regular late nights
* too much raw food – especially if you have weak digestive fire
* icy foods and cold drinks
* standing or sitting in one position for too long
* overcommitting to things – being more selective with how we are spending our time and energy
…in tomorrows blog we will look at the emotions connected to the water element and winter season, as well as tips around food and nutrition and natural self care.
Our retreats work with this philosophy at the core and apply its many layers of depth to the kitchen, the yoga mat, our approach to nutrition, time in nature and self reflection. The next Bloom retreat is a special women’s Spring Equinox weekend with hormonal balance and the female cycles as its theme. Click here to book your space now!