Today, Monday March 5th is the start of the Awakening of Insects seasonal node (jing zhe 驚蟄), the third seasonal node of the year. This is the next segment of Spring, and as the name suggests it is the time when we start seeing the very initial stirring of life in the world outside. The three 5-day periods in this seasonal node are Peach Trees Begin to Blossom (tao shi hua 桃始華), Orioles Sing (cang geng ming 倉庚鳴), and Hawks Transform into Cuckcoos (ying hua weijiu 鷹化爲鳩).
Last week I returned from a teaching trip to Australia. It was great there – the weather was warm and I got a short taste of summer (as well as some sunburn from the beach!). I was a little scared of returning to the cold weather, and the end of last week here in NJ we had a Nor’easter with mixed cold precipitation including some snow and heavy winds. However, the day I returned home I noticed the crocuses starting to push out of the ground in spite of the lingering cold. This early sign of Spring was just on time.
The first ‘to do’ for this period of time is to guard and protect the Yang qi. Even though we are in Spring, this early part of the season can be cold as we have seen this past week. Continue to dress appropriately, especially since there is going to be a wide fluctuation in temperatures from day to day. As Yang qi continues to grow in the natural environment, this is also the time to start doing slightly more gentle exercise. This recommendation comes from the second chapter of the Neijing Su Wen, the The Great Treatise on Regulating the Spirit with the Four Seasons (Si Qi Tiao Shen Da Lun). There Qi Bo recommends that during Spring we should “upon waking take a walk in the courtyard, loosen the hair and relax the body, thus focusing the will on life.” Movement, especially in the morning, is a Yang activity. The Neijing recommends that “in Spring and Summer nourish Yang, and in Autumn and Winter nourish Yin (春夏養陽，秋冬養陰).”
The ‘to avoid’ during Awakening of Insects is undo stress and strain. As Chinese medicine practitioners we all know the mental pattern associated with Wood phase, and thus Spring, is anger. Patients who are prone to Liver depression or Liver repletion patterns should be monitored during this time period to be sure qi is circulating smoothly. This is the time when formulas in the Chai Hu family are appropriate for many people. For patients prone to resentment and anger, contemplative practices such as Japanese Naikan are appropriate.
Diet for this time of year should help protect the Yang qi as well. I generally recommend that people eat warming foods such as leeks, chives, and scallions. Likewise, it is appropriate to drink a little alcohol, provided the patient does not have specific sensitivities, morbidities, or medications that require abstinence. All of these food, including alcohol, are warm and acrid, and thus course and warm the qi. I also suggest that everyone consume slightly more white noodles. In general, wheat husk (bran) is cooling, while the endosperm (inner white portion) is warming. White noodles, especially in soups, have the function of warming and supplementing the qi. I had a nice bowl of ramen in Sydney last week with an old friend, and it was the first bowl of authentic Japanese noodles I’d had in a long time.
One traditional dish for Awakening of Insects is clear fried amaranth. Amaranth is called Xian Cai 莧菜 in Chinese, and in Chinese groceries it comes commonly in long bunches of beautiful dark green and purple leaves. Sometimes it is sold as “Chinese spinach.” Amaranth’s taste is mild. The basic preparation of the vegetable for this dish is to rinse clean (it often has a lot of grit), and then quick fry in an appropriate amount of cooking oil. Garlic or ginger can also be included for taste, and a small amount of salt and fresh ground pepper can be added at the end of cooking. In Chinese medical terms this dish clears heat and resolves toxins, disperses swelling and stops pain. People with spleen vacuity cold should be cautious with this recipe, unless a good amount of ginger is used in the cooking to counterbalance the cooling of the amaranth. If the weather is very cold still, I recommend that everyone use ginger or garlic in preparing the dish.
The last recommendation I’ll offer for Awakening of Insects is the traditional Chinese practice of Pai Da – stimulating acupuncture points and channels by patting. As mentioned above, Spring is the time to increase movement. Liver (the organ of Spring) ensures the free coursing of Qi and Blood in the body. Thus, any exercise or practice that opens and circulates the channels of the body will have a beneficial effect on the Liver. One basic Pai Da technique is to use the hands held in loose fists to pat acupuncture points on the upper limbs. Start by patting the shoulders – the area of Jian Jing GB-21. Alternate right and left while patting. Then, continue with patting the sides of the elbows at Qu Chi LI-11. Finish with tapping the He Gu LI-4 area. Practice this daily to help circulate Qi in the arms, and thereby encourage Qi circulation in the entire body.
In the Hunyuan system of Qigong and Taiji I teach there is also a much more involved set of exercises that incorporate Paida. In this series we have a standing and moving posture for each of the 12 primary channels as well as some of the extraordinary vessels. Then, in addition to the postures, we use a special sack filled with rice and a Daoist lineage herbal formula that contains herbs to move Qi and soften the sinews (for example, the formula contains Ji Xue Teng and Shen Jin Cao); this sack is used to pat and tap along the channels. The combination of physical movement, breathing, visualization, and then mechanical stimulation of the channels is a very effective way of moving the Qi and Blood internally to balance the channel system. I teach this set at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (for students and alums of that program), and every Thursday morning at the Wushu Kung Fu Fitness Center in East Hanover, NJ.
Next installment we reach the Vernal Equinox!