Chinese/ Taoist Principles for Maintaining Health Through the Seasons, 12/18/10
When crafting a seasonal lifestyle from a Taoist (i.e. Chinese medicine) perspective, we need to understand the energetic aspects of each season. This is the same as understanding the energetics of what are known as the Five Elements or Five Phases. This is the foundation. This understanding will allow us to discern guiding principles for each season. Once we have established these principles, we can translate them into the realms of diet and activity to give us the specific ways we should adapt to each season. If we explore the energetic nature of our constitutional health issues, we can also use these principles to support our health in this more macro scale, but this is beyond the scope of this post, so we will focus on application to the seasons. This post is more concerned with the energetics of seasonal living. For more specific dietary suggestions, see
Note: Because we are speaking in English we translate these Chinese characters/ concepts into English, but we must be careful not to impose our English mind’s understanding of these words and concepts onto the Taoist understanding of them. Let the paradigms and their respective concepts and ways of thinking dwell in their respective spheres. This will help us avert some of the confusion that surrounds these ideas and allow us to grasp them more fully.
As I see it, our general task is to nourish yin and preserve yang. Yang is the vitality of life, and without yang there is no life. Yin is what feeds and supports yang. When our yin is depleted, we have no foundation for our vitality and it disperses. In general, cooked foods are much easier for us to digest and their nutrients are easier to assimilate.
Winter is the expression of the predominance of shui, the water phase/ element. It has a yin, cold, consolidating, still nature. Life is still on the surface and potent on the interior, hibernating and waiting for the rise of yang to manifest its potential. Our principles are:
1) Nourish the yin. (Rest. Eat nourishing whole foods. Warm, cooked foods including soups and stews are best. Take time for quiet sitting and activities like reading and the arts.)
2) Preserve the yang. (Refrain from excessive vigorous activities that deplete our reserves. Eat warming foods. Protect ourselves from the harsh weather.)
3) Activate the yang to balance the abundance of yin. (Use gentle activities such as walking, qi gong, tai chi, and yoga to keep our energy circulating, build warmth in our body, and counter the accumulation of stagnation that can build up from too much stillness and cold. The yang of movement generates heat that counteracts the cold of yin.)
Spring reflects the bursting forth of yang from the depths of yin. It is a young yang full of vitality and vigor. It expresses the nature of mu, the wood phase/ element. It has a pointed outward nature. The buds and shoots appear. Our principles are:
1) Incite the yang. (Get outside, be active. It is a time for vigorous activity within reason. We must awaken ourselves from the hibernation of winter. A little bit of sour food such as vinegar or lemon can be beneficial.)
2) Move the stagnation/ accumulation from winter. (Be active. Eat lighter foods that will help clear and activate, such as fresh greens. Bitter foods such as radishes can help us clear out accumulation. Steaming and light saute are appropriate methods of cooking for spring.)
3) Regulate the yang. (We want to tap into this upsurge of yang, but we don’t want to let it get out of control or become chaotic. Be purposeful in action and don’t go beyond a healthy limit. Spring initiates what will be the year’s growth. We should make sure our actions and decisions are in line with the growth we want to cultivate.)
Summer expresses the predominance of huo, the fire phase/ element. It is the culmination of yang, heat, expansive, free flowing, open. Life is in the exterior. The flowers open and blossom, revealing what was hidden. The potential is manifest. Our principles are:
1) Nourish the yin to balance the yang. (Eat some foods of a yin, cooling nature such as fresh fruits and vegetables and eat less warming foods. Bitter foods such as radishes, celery, apples, and pears can also help us to clear excess heat. In summer we can eat a little more raw foods if our digestion is able to handle them. Refrain from activity that is too yang during the extreme yang weather- try not to perform vigorous activity under the full heat of the sun. Too much yang depletes the yin.)
2) Nourish the yang. (It is a time to be outside enjoying the weather and our social life. Whereas winter is a time to rest and be inside, summer is a time to be active and outside. The yang is abundant, and we should soak it up.)
Late Summer illustrates the nature of tu, the earth phase/ element. This is the shift that comes after the dry heat of July and August and turns into the more humid, damp heat of September. It is still warm, but the dew collects on the grass in the morning and the nights are a little cooler. The harvest comes in. Life is abundant, still, full. The yang has reached its zenith and has not quite turned inward on itself. Our principles are:
1) Harvest the abundance of qi. (Eat well of the fresh harvest. We are building up the reserves that must last the winter. It is a time to begin building the winter coat as the cold will soon approach. We should be active, but not necessarily vigorous. It is good to be outside, getting those last rays of sunshine before the yin seasons dominate.)
Fall is the manifestation of a predominance of jin, the metal phase/ element. It is the time when the yang begins to recede back into the interior. The yin is growing and dominating. It is has an inward movement, refinement, contraction, a letting go of what is unnecessary. Life is moving back inside towards the roots. The leaves are shed and the vitality is returning into the roots. Our principles are:
1) Support the yin. (We should mirror this inward movement with gentle activities such as quiet sitting, meditation, soft qi gong, and other quiet reflective activities. It is a good time for taking some solitary space to reconnect with what is essential in us. Just as nature is returning to its roots, we too can come down for the summer heights back into our roots. It is a time of refinement, shedding the excesses of the past year’s growth.)
2) Guard the yang. (As yin begins to dominate, we must protect our yang. We should spend more time inside and not expose ourselves to the harsh wind and rain and cold that comes in with the fall. We should remove the clearing, cooling, yin foods from our diet and eat more building foods such as root vegetables, legumes, squash, whole grains.)
3) Nourish the yin. (Foods rich in nutrients and micro-nutrients will help us nourish the yin. These include animal foods such as meat, fish, dairy etc, legumes, and micro-algae among many others. Stews, soups, congee, and other warming cooking methods are more beneficial).