Winter is the season of the Kidneys. That growth and development, as well as reproduction and the immunity that is deep within us are ruled by the Kidneys is no surprise when you consider that they also rule the uterus and the brain (the two extraordinary organs in Chinese Medicine). The Kidneys are classified as the most Yin organ, so Yin it is the source for Yang.
Think of Yin as blood and moisture, cool and fluid. It flows, passive and receptive, to nourish the substances of the body. To know Yin we must also know Yang–as they are interdependent. Yang is the energy and warmth that is circulates stuff in the body. Yang is the processes, the things that happen like digestion, assimilation, homeostasis, libido, appetite.
Indeed the Kidneys are full of moisture, they maintain the correct water balance of the body and the correct composition of extrecellular fluids. They concentrate urine, pass it to the bladder for storage until it is released through the urethra. To do this, the Kidneys have about 1 million nephrons and receives 1 liter of blood every minute. The nephrons are lined with many mitochondria, which are helpful since almost all of the glucose and amino acid molecules filtered from the blood are reabsorbed. Someone mentioned to me that it seems like the Kidneys do a ton of work, so does that make them more Yang? The kidneys do a lot of work, yes, but they do it in a very energy efficient way. The work in the Kidneys are done with the help of concentration gradients, which employes movement from a region of greater concentration to a region of lower concentration. This is also known as diffusion, which is the process of random motion to form a state of equilibrium. It uses no energy. That certainly sounds Yin to me!
In the “Chih” entry, I mentioned that the Kidneys rule over the bones and marrow, joints, sexual-urinary organs. Here are some typical Kidney imbalance symptoms. Note if any of these issues happen to you only in damp, cold environments or seasons.
- Joint problems and pain
- Weak knees, wobbly legs, weak ankels
- Fertility, sexuality, hormonal issues,
- Urinary and kidney problems, night time urination
- Morning loose/watery stool
- Teeth problems
- Brittle bone
- Fear, paranoia, lack of will power
- Poor memory especially short-term, senility
- Thinning, loss, or premature graying of hair (including body hair)
- Premature aging
- Hearing and ear problems
- Leg edema
- Low-back pain and weakness
Kidney imbalances are not just some esoteric things that only apply in a Chinese Medicine context. Western medicine gives diuretics for swollen ankles. A friend of mine had some sort of kidney failure as a child, and has since had teeth problems. People with anxiety problems tend to also have loose stools. And now we know why sometimes too much sex can make your legs wobbly (it’s not just the straddling . Honestly though, touch the small of your back or your partners after sex and see if it feels cool to the touch. If it does momentarily it is not a concern, but if it stays that way some warming Kidney Yang tonics could be of help (with a little break from hitting the sheets).
Some of the signs of Kidney imbalance mentioned above overlap with the principle of Cold, like achy joints, loose stools, and urinary and menstrual problems. If the lower back is sore, I think Kidney. If not, I lean towards Cold. This is not be a catch-all way to differentiate as there are many exceptions, but it helps me to begin somewhere.
Here is a link to a wonderful Yin yoga sequence, to restore and revitalize. http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/2545
Tierra, Lesley. Healing With the Herbs of Life. 150-160.
Purves, et. al. Life: The Science of Biology. 105, 1079-1082.
Have you discovered Iona Marsaa Teeguarden’s The Joy of Feeling? Teeguarden practices Bodymind Acupressure (known as Jin Shin Do), and demonstrated through this book that one can use “negative” emotions as a means of transformation into a more harmonious way of life. I have never received Jin Shin Do, but nonetheless her book has been a powerful teaching tool for me. Not only have I have gained a deeper intellectual understanding of the organ systems of Chinese Medicine and the interrelatedness between acupuncture points, but I have been able to see the emotions associated with the organ systems and their excessive or deficient states.
Since it is around 15 below zero with 30 below wind chill right now in northern Minnesota (and it’s 12:30 in the afternoon!), I have been reflecting on what winter means in Chinese Medicine. The North, or winter, as called by Teeguarden, is the “Watery Land of Chih”.
Yin organ: Kidney Extreme emotion: Fear
Yang organ: Bladder Synergic emotion: Resolution, willpower
Sound: Groan Sense: Hearing
Body fluid: Urine and sexual fluids Body Part: Bone, marrow
Energetic tendency: Rest Element: Water
If we were to think of Chih (winter) as a landscape, it is a swampy place below sea level, a place where many waterways run and collect. Night is longer than day, making the land of Chih dark as well as damp. Moisture is in the air, and if you live in a northern climate this moisture is in the frozen form of snow. If you live in a tropical climate, this is the rainy season. More than any time of year, Chih is the most yin: passive, receptive, resting, absorbing and storing. There is a power of the potentiality of Chih that is most primal. It is not the act of being alive, but that which allows for there to be life, the power of life itself. The water that is held here in winter will be transformed into usable forms of energy in the seasons to come. Soon enough the snow will melt into the thawing landscape, giving the emerging plants nutrition and water to complete their life cycles.
Taoists see water as vital energy of life…just think of the ocean and the incredible linking of life cycles from phytoplankton to great whales. The oceans are just one of the water ways on Earth. Now consider the streams, rivers, underground wells, watersheds, lakes, seas, ponds and the moist atmosphere that recycles the water depending on the seasons and weather conditions. These waterways, these transportation routes are present in our Bodymind as well, and they are all connected like the waterways on Earth. Stagnation or an organ or area of the body can be likened to a dead tree falling over a stream, obstructing the normal flow. One side to the tree will be welling up over the banks as it searched for an alternate route; the other side will be just a trickle or a bunch of separated trickles that each have their own unconnected route. Within our thoughts and emotions we can feel as if there is a log jamming us up when we loose our concentration, become fixated with a feeling, resist change or generally aren’t flowing with life the way we’d like.
“If life is a river, we need to learn to follow the flow of life’s river–not to get panicked by the rapids, stranded on the reefs, or stuck in whirlpools, spinning madly round and round the same thing. (71)” To continuously flow around obstacles we cannot solely rely on our individual energy reserves or we will deplete them. We must realize we are a part of the “grand matrix of energetic forces” and trust there is always energy from the source that we can tap into. During the dark and difficult times, we develop and draw on our awareness of essential inner power, we can access the stored vital energy that resides in the land of Chih.
When use up our available energy but still keep going (perhaps on nervous energy) we then start depleting our energy reserves. The more resources we burn the less equipped we are to navigate life’s rivers. We begin to feel timid, inadequate and inferior; we feel weaker than our environment. Who hasn’t felt this way before? Teeguarden says that the project here is to be in touch with one’s own energy by being receptive to Nature’s energy (the source), absorbing it from our surroundings, then we will be restored with resolution, will, and trust in relation to our environment.
It is easy to conjecture about absorbing energy from Nature…but how does that actually work? It is evident for me by going for a hike on a crisp winter day. At first I am markedly cold from wool-covered head to wool-covered toes, and what little skin is exposed to the air is stung by the cold, but after ten minuets of tromping through the snow I start to circulate warmth. Ten more minuets and my nose is running, and I take off my hat and mittens because I am sweating. The sun hits my face brightening my mood, and I feel as if every molecule of oxygen is announcing itself, waking me up, as it flows cold into my nose. The landscape appears desolate at first, but chirps of chickadees and deer crossing my path remind me that winter is simply a retreat, a hibernation. Upon returning home the parts of my body that absorbed the cold begin to thaw and tingle with the flush of fresh blood supply. For the rest of the day I feel like I did something good for myself by going for a walk, as I enjoy increased physical energy and a subtle sense of peace and calm.
I know this I gained from being in nature. I am sure you have felt it, too. Going on a simple walk out of doors can revive our energy in a physical and emotional way. Another way that we can absorb energy from our environment is by practicing deep breathing, in particular hara breathing. Hara breathing is when we breath in our nose and let the breath cause our abdomen to rise, rather than the chest. After five seconds of inhalation, slowly exhale out the mouth as the abdomen falls. What are your favorite ways to restore your energy?