Today, December 21 at 11:28am exactly (in Northern NJ), is the astronomical Winter Solstice. This was the moment when the elliptical orbit of the sun reached the point where, because of the tilt of the planet, the sun’s rays hit the Tropic of Capricorn at 90 degrees. This angling of the planet towards the sun means the least hours of daylight for the northern hemisphere out of any day of the year, and in the most northern latitudes there is 24 hours of darkness. However after today, the path the Earth takes around the sun changes such that the tilted northern hemisphere will gradually be hit more directly by the sun’s rays, slowly making the days longer and the warmer.
The Winter Solstice (dong zhi 冬至) seasonal node, the last node of 2017, begins tomorrow December 22. The Chinese term for Winter Solstice literally means the “extreme of yin” since Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year. Symbolically this node is represented by Hexagram 24, which is comprised of one Yang line at the bottom of 5 Yin lines. Hexagram 24’s name is Return – Fu (復). What is returning? The Yang and the light are returning. One of the basic laws of Yin-Yang theory is that of mutual transformation. When something reaches an extreme, then it naturally reverts to the opposite. Now is when Yin has reached its extreme thereby giving birth to Yang. This is why Winter Solstice is the time of many important holidays about birth and renewal. The Material Manifestations for this node are Earthworms Congeal (Qiu Yin Jie 蚯蚓結), Moose Deer Shed Their Horns (Mi Jiao Jie 麋角解), and Aquifers Stir (Shui Quan Dong 水泉動).
During Winter Solstice we should consider the Chinese folk saying, “dong zhi yang sheng you da dao, xia bing dong zhi shi miao zhao” (冬至養生有大道，夏病冬治是妙招) – “Nourishing life at Winter Solstice is a great Dao, treating summer’s disease in winter is very clever!” (Yes… It rhymes better in Chinese…) What can we do then to stay healthy during this time period? The first basic recommendation is taken from the Su Wen chapter 1: “zao shui, wan qi” (早睡晚起) – go to bed early and sleep late. Winter is the time of year that is most yin, and ideally we should be sort of hibernating, both physically and mentally. Finding more time for rest and reflection puts us into harmony with the Yin of Winter. That said, too much sleep is also not great. Sleep (which is Yin) when excessive damages the Yang, which is why the Su Wen says excessive sleep injures the Qi (久臥傷氣). The recommendation I typically give patients is that 7-8 hours of sleep is plenty for the average healthy person.
The second recommendation is “chi xu yun dong” (持續運動) – persist in moving. Even though Winter is the time of yin quietude, as mentioned above the Winter Solstice marks the birth of yang. Because movement is Yang it is important for us to “persist in moving” during this time of year. Appropriate exercises include gentle movement such as Taiji, Qigong or Yoga. We have ongoing regular Qigong and Taiji classes here in Northern New Jersey for those who are local (click here for more information on Qigong classes).
To stay healthy this time of year there are also some things to avoid. Since this time of year has an abundance of Yin influences (i.e., the cold and dark) and a lack of Yang, the first admonition is to guard against weakening the Yang Qi. As Winter Solstice is the time of Yang Qi’s birth in the natural world, it is important to be sure that there is adequate Yang Qi in the body. For patients with Qi Vacuity cold it is especially important to avoid excess cold exposure. This is a time period where those patients can apply moxibustion at home on points such as Qi Hai REN-6, Guan Yuan REN-4, or Zu San Li ST3-6. Alternately, they can do moxibustion on Tung’s point Huo Fu Hai 33.07. Another traditional recommendation for this time of year is to try exposing oneself to sunlight as much as possible. If possible, traditional medicine recommends allowing the back to be exposed to the sun, and this can be done inside a warm room with large windows. Why the back? In Chinese medicine the back is seen as Yang while the anterior of the body Yin. Warming the back is a way to warm and strengthen the Yang of the body.
The second thing to be cautious of during Winter Solstice is excessive “bedroom activity.” Since Winter is the time of storage, a traditional recommendation for the season is to guard our sexual vitality. Jing essence is the stored and most precious form of Yang Qi, and is stirred during sex. Hence Chinese medicine suggests guarding against excessive sexual activity in Winter. However, we should be careful to not read this only literally. More broadly, sexual activity is a metaphor for expending our essence on all levels. This is why in many cultures around the world this time of the year is the time of reflection and planning for the next year to come. It is a time to step back and move inwards rather than to expend our vitality outwards.
In terms of diet, this is the time of the year to eat more foods that help supplement the Kidney and Spleen, such as rice congees, lamb, beef, shan yao (nagaimo), and winter squash. It is also appropriate to eat a small amount of mildly acrid foods such as fresh ginger, scallions and black pepper (to help keep things moving and to birth yang). Try to avoid cold foods in general, or foods that are difficult to digest such as greasy, raw, or very spicy foods. This is especially so for those patients who tend towards Spleen and qi vacuity patterns.
Here’s a traditional recipe for Winter Solstice. This recipe warms the interior and builds Qi and blood, and nourished the Heart to quiet the Spirit.
Longan and Lamb Soup 龍眼羊肉湯
- 1 lb. Lamb (deboned and cut into chunks)
- Dried longan fruit (龍眼肉) 15g
- Fresh ginger (peeled and sliced) about 20g
- Scallions (chopped)
- Cooking wine
- Put lamb in a pot with 3 cups water, bring to a boil and simmer for just about 2 minutes; strain out lamb and discard water to remove the fat
- Place lamb back into pot with enough water to complete cover the meat (6-8 cups), the sliced ginger and scallions, dried longan, and a small amount of cooking wine
- Bring to a rapid boil on high flame, then reduce flame to a low simmer and cook for about 2 hours; remove from heat and add salt to taste
In the north of China there is a long tradition of eating dumplings around Winter Solstice. In Japan, where dong zhi is pronounced tōji (とうじ), a common tradition is to take baths in water scented with Yuzu citrus. One of the foods of choice in Japan is kabocha, where it is commonly stewed together with adzuki beans to create a dish called itokoni (いとこ煮). The red color, as a symbol of Yang, is thought to ward off evil and confer good luck. Similar to the tradition of eating adzuki beans in Japan, Koreans make a porridge of adzuki beans and rice cake balls called dongji patjuk. Below is a really fun video on how to make this dish.
So, stay warm and enjoy the gradually lengthening days!