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  • By Donald Hughes, LAc.

Weathering the Winter With Chinese Medicine

Winter begins the time of ‘closing and storage’ according to the Yellow Emperor’s Classic. The qi naturally descends and spirals internally. Descending qi moves us towards rest and reflection, the time of hibernation, the time (in places with snow) when the earth dies and the seeds and animals hide in the ground until they are reborn in the spring. The winter also corresponds with an image of a child developing in the womb and a newborn infant, not yet mobile.

We associate the winter with the element of water and the force of cold. (Perhaps we can better translate the five elements as the five transformations or five phases, not as substances, but as verbs or states of action.) The seasons follow the generation cycle of the five elements. We begin the year in the spring which corresponds to wood and the force of wind. The summer corresponds to fire and the force of heat. The ancient Chinese viewed the earth phase two ways, first the earth as Indian summer, and second as the center around which the elements/seasons revolve. We associate earth with the force of damp. Indian summer gives way to autumn, which we associate with the metal element and the force of dryness.

In the Chinese calendar winter begins midway through the solstice and the equinox. It considers the solstice peak yin, but at the peak we see the beginning of the end of yin and the birth of yang as the cycle begins to move towards summer solstice. If we view the yin yang symbol we see that the yang contains the seed of yin and the yin contains the seed of yang. We call this mutual transformation. I recently read a science article about the anomaly of the measurement of different gravitational constants (LOL at the word constant) being represented as a sine wave, in other words an oscillating yin and yang phase. The ancient Chinese viewed yin yang as the law of the universe. We may have much to learn from the ancients, as modern science seems to continually discover and then promptly ignore.

In Chinese medicine, we seek a long term strategy of health. As the folk saying goes ‘Dong zhi yang sheng you da dao, xia bing dong zhi shi miao zhao.’ ‘Nourishing life at winter Solstice is a great Tao, treating summer’s diseases in winter is very clever!’ Like doing the dishes, if one keeps the sink clear, maintenance is easy, but as the sink fills up, the dishes become harder to do. Consider this perspective in opposition to a model where we consider the body a machine and wait for it to break down and then put it back together. One teacher I had called it ‘savior medicine’: a person sins and sins until their body finally can’t take it and rebels. Then they go to a doctor who performs drastic measures in order to alleviate symptoms. Can we consider it wiser to treat disease before it happens? In Chinese medicine, we have the ideal archetype of the doctor reading the pulse and seeing potential disease twenty years in the future. This level ability gives us something to aspire to.

So how do we harmonize with the spirit and the forces of winter in order to promote longevity and health? Recommendation number one, to quote the Su Wen ‘Basic Questions, ’Zao shui, wan qi’ ‘Go to bed early, sleep late.’ Yes, you lovers of sleep can take heart that indulging a bit in sleep is healthy for the winter, but all in moderation. Too much sleep can damage the qi. The meaning of qi here is your basic energy level. Another way to phrase it would be ‘Sleep can make more sleep.’ Seven to nine hours is plenty of sleep for a healthy person.

The second recommendation is ‘Chi xu yun dong’, ‘persist in moving.’ Though we want to move more internally in winter, we need to keep our movement up during the cold times. This means more gentle exercise like stretching, qi gong and yoga, just enough that we don’t stiffen up, but excessive exercise can damage the yang. Think of yang as the body’s metabolism and capacity to warm itself. Keeping the body warm, in particular our abdomen and necks, and investing in a haramaki (belly scarf) and a neck scarf are a good idea. Here in Arcata, we also deal with the damp as well as the cold. The damp is a sticky force which can help the cold penetrate straight to the bones, so stay dry too. Proper gear will save you health troubles down the line.

The bones and the kidneys are associated with winter, so we must look after the health of both. The basic symptoms of kidney troubles in Chinese medicine are sore lower back and knees. The key is keeping the energy from stagnating and keeping those areas warm. Again, gentle movement and stretching will keep the bones from freezing up and causing pain. We naturally spend more time indoors during the winter and seek warmth.

Proper food is another way to stay warm. In winter, we want to avoid cooling foods like fruits and raw veggies and eat more soups and stews. Winter is the time to eat well-cooked root vegetables and leafy greens, as well as beans and meat. Warming foods like ginger, cardamom, or cinnamon are also recommended. But the true key to nutrition in the winter is bone broth. Bone broth is easy if you have a crock pot or a slow cooker. But suppose you don’t. How do we make bone broth?

Save your bones and roast them in the oven until they begin to turn golden brown and the fat begins to ooze out. Different types of bones take different amounts of time to achieve this effect, but generally plan on 20 to 40 minutes. Then add water and root veggies and put them in a cast iron or ceramic or clay pot in the oven on 210 degrees for 12 to 24 hours. This will prevent the water from boiling out and will break down the marrow and ligaments to create a very nourishing tonic that can be added to dishes or taken alone, nourishing the jing qi.

The kidneys are the source of jing. Some translate jing as seminal and menstrual fluids, but the concept of jing also means a quality of fullness of energy. Jing is the most coarse form of qi. The Taoists speak of turning jing into qi and qi into shen. This means turning physical energy into electrical energy and turning that into spiritual energy. This riddle is the key to long life in the Taoist tradition. Think about restricting sexual activities, especially ejaculation, during the winter. Do not deplete yourself. You will need to keep your metabolic strength to fight against the cold.

In the winter the qi spirals down and inward. If we allow this process, we will find harmony with nature. But anger is energy going up. We must watch our tempers, in particular during the winter. Anger will make our energy too external and can damage the yin fluids and the blood and allow in the cold. Too much anger can cause frustration which can lead to depression. Depression is not a lack of energy. Depression is internalized anger depressing the liver qi. When the liver relaxes, the qi can flow. Maintaining a calm state will allow for proper flow of qi. Meditation and reflection are key.

The final recommendation I will make is to reflect. The element water also represents the dream world. As we end the seasons of activity, the wise reflect on what they have done. It can be difficult to look at ourselves, especially when we never stop moving from obsession to obsession, but we must sit still and observe our own minds or we will never know our true selves. A good exercise is to close your eyes before going to sleep and replay the events of the day. Let your mind wander further into the past. Perhaps you will find something you forgot.

Another way to reflect is called sitting forgetting. This is a basic breathing meditation. To do this meditation, sit with a straight back. You can sit in some version of lotus or sei za (sitting on one’s knees) or in a chair. The important thing is to have a straight back. Keep your tongue on the roof of the mouth. This will help ensure that too much energy doesn’t go into your head and get stuck by connecting the hot and cool channels. The hands can be sitting on the knees or in cosmic mudra, with one hand on top of the other and the thumbs touching.

To do this exercise, breathe into the hara, the area just below your belly button. Take a deep slow breath from the bottom of the diaphragm so that it feels like you are filling your lower abdomen with air. Breathe in and breathe out. Count each out breath up to 10. So breathe in. Fill the lungs from the bottom of the abdomen up, and on your out breath count ‘one.’ Then breathe in again and count each out breath until you reach ten. Then start over.

Do not concern yourself with whether or not you can still your mind. You probably will not be able to. Just do the work. If you forget where you are in the count, then start over. Do not worry that you forgot where you were. Just gently bring yourself back to one. This will tell your brain that you are trying to focus. Different thoughts will bubble up. Push no thoughts away and grasp at no thought either. Simply keep bringing yourself back to counting the outbreaths. Do this twenty minutes a day and you will change your life.

It has been a tumultuous year, this fire rooster year. We are trying to sort out the chaos of the previous fire monkey year which was full of tricks, action, and deception. The fire rooster puffs up its chest and squawks and pecks until refinement is achieved. We have seen a lot of polarization, especially in the political realm. It has calmed down during the autumn, but fire melts metal, so we are experiencing less rationality this time of year than usual. This tumultuous arguing will calm down during the winter as we enter the water phase which boosts the metal element of the rooster. Metal is more scholarly and rule abiding. So expect what has been a time of posturing and blustering to calm down. Next year will be a new cycle, the protector cycle of the earth dog. Let us reflect and nourish ourselves with stillness so that we might be ready for the next phase.

Donald Hughes is a licensed acupuncturist who earned his Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from the Academy of Chinese Culture and Health Sciences in 2012. He has 20 years experience in the martial arts and energy work and 10 years as a body worker. Before that, he taught high school biology in Richmond, California. He can be reached at or 510-923-0079. Visit his website at

Isis is now offering Community Acupuncture with

Donald Hughes, L.Ac Every Thursday from 5:00-9:00 pm.

Community acupuncture is a model where many people are treated at once in order to lower the cost. Acupuncture uses sterile needles to create flow in one’s energy channels and has been shown effective for a wide array of health issues including but not limited to aches and pains, allergies, colds and flus, tummy troubles, women’s issues, stress and emotional disorders, insomnia, post stroke recovery, edema, asthma and dizziness. Come and enjoy a treatment for 30 dollars. Expect to be there about an hour and to leave more relaxed and peaceful.

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