Winter is the time of storage of energy and hibernation for some plants and animals. Observe nature around us and see that life has turned inward and is waiting for the first signs of spring’s warmth.
Because many of us spend more time indoors, sickness often spreads quickly. Water balance, bloating, edema, infections of the bladder and kidneys, high or low blood pressure, headaches, colds/flus, and other symptoms may manifest more often during this season. Also, more than ever during this season, protect the righteous inner energy of your body. Keep covered up and avoid strong winds and downpours. Spend time reflecting on life.
Very subtle patterns in our lives can emerge during this time period. This is the close of one cycle (year) and the beginning of another. The contraction of the previous year (which mirrors all living cycles no matter how short or long) ends with the symbol of metal in the 5-element system. Funny thing is that when water (the element of winter) passes over metal or rocks long enough, part of the metal (minerals) leach into the water, feeding another cycle. Water carries information. Water is a storage vesicle for other substances. Humans tend to become attached to things. Have we fully let go enough to open space for new things in our lives? This is what spiritual edema is like. We cannot dream new dreams until we let go of the old. In addition, if we live from fear, this will be mirrored in fear of the unknown, fear of silence, dark and emptiness. Can we float like a raft upon the water? That is the image of winter in TCM. Floating energy. The opportunity of this season is to recharge our batteries, so to speak, for the coming cycle of manifestation of dreams. Those dreams begin during winter (or death and afterlife cycles). Annual plants die off before winter, spreading their seed so that another cycle can begin in the spring.
Dietary choices – traditionally a time to use up the prepared foods from the warm seasons such as canned and dried foods/herbs. Macrobiotic people believe sun-dried foods are high in Vitamin D. Sun-dried foods absorb the sun’s essence, which is what our skin does on a sunny day. This essence is “translated” into a “hormone” called vitamin D. This is also a time to acclimate to cold. We do this by taking in cooling elements like bitter and salts (in small amounts). This helps our energy to go deep and inward/downward. The exterior body adapts and we feel less “chilled” during this season.
Another excellent method to adapt to cold is to take “air baths” of varying lengths with less and less clothing. One gets covered up and warm, then takes off layers of clothing, leaving the body exposed for longer and longer periods, before covering back up again. This can be repeated over and over. Begin by exposing yourself for 10-20 seconds, then cover up, then do it again. Over time, you will see remarkable results in your ability to adapt.
However, for those in poor health, especially those who have deficiencies (feel cold, skinny or soft type overweight, pale, no drive, soft voice) need to use bitter sparingly. Bitter can be combined with tonics like licorice and full sweets like animal food, grains, beans, nuts/seeds, and vegetables. Another warning is to eat salty foods in moderation, as excess salt can make us like beef jerky, tough, tense, and inflexible.
Since this season is dark, dark colors are indicated to eat. This energy of dark colors tends to take more energy to the symbolic and cellular reproductive organs and kidney/adrenal system. We need more grounding foods, more oil, salt, and heat to maintain our balance during this season. The taste associated with this season is salt, so all salty things — like sea vegetables, sea salt, and long-time pickles, are good to include in the diet. It is very important to eat more warming foods during this season, to drink hot liquids and avoid cold soft drinks, ice cream, beer, and cold wine if we are prone to feeling “chilled to the bone” during the winter.
Many winters I experimented with eating more hot foods, avoiding sweets, most raw foods, and cold liquids, and I experienced no illness and felt warmer on those bone-chilling days. Try to eat local root vegetables also during this season — carrots, burdock, daikon, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, radish, ginger, onions, and garlic. Cooking styles include tempura or quick deep fat frying, fried foods, long-time sautéing, stewing, and simmering. Grains to make staples are buckwheat, quinoa, short grain brown rice, and soba noodles (made from buckwheat). Vegetables to make staples are winter squashes, cabbages, Kale, kuzu or kudzu (a thickener made from the root of a vine), and dried vegetables. Fruits should be minimized, but if you live in a subtropical bio-region, then citrus fruits, kiwi, apples, pomegranates, persimmons, and more, will be in season. Dried fruits can also be consumed. Other foods are all beans, azuki beans, dark sesame seeds, chestnuts, kombu and ginseng tea (decocted together), and spring or well water. Take herbs suited to your temperament in hot teas, soups, baths, and other ways. Some herbs to help with maintaining and building heat are ashwaganda, ginsengs, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, dry ginger, fenugreek, ho shou wu, and rehmannia. A good herb to add some MINERALS to the diet is nettles.
Mild bitters – burdock root, turnip, daikon radish (better cooked in this season or try dried daikon), lettuces (on warmer days), parsley, endive, escarole, celery, rye, oats, quinoa, amaranth, ginsengs, citrus peels, chicory
Salts – unrefined salts, barley, miso, celery, Swiss chards, beet greens, umeboshi plums or the vinegar, shoyu, seaweeds
Warming tonics – ginsengs, carrots, ginger, onions, cloves, black beans, fenugreek, walnuts, fennel seeds (seeds only), lamb, oats, eggs, quinoa, sardines, clams, salmon, trout, cinnamon
“Yin tonics” – asparagus, millet, barley, tofu/soy, seaweeds, mung beans, black beans, potato, wheat, crab, dairy, ghee, soft cheeses, aloe vera
Beans – darker beans are more indicated by the Macrobiotic teachers, but eating more beans during this season will keep one drier and water metabolism better
Water metabolism foods/herbs – seaweeds, parsley, fennel, barley, nettles, millet, black soybeans, mung beans
Roots – eat more roots to nourish your own roots (reproductive organs, bladder, kidneys, colon, legs)
Vegetables – choose darker vegetables and more fibrous sturdy ones such as kale instead of soft lettuce type vegetables. The more fibrous foods make the body work harder to digest, which creates more body heat.
Cooking tips – take time in the kitchen this season. Use the oven regularly. Prepare warm, hearty, rich foods from the bounty of summer, or from local harvests. This season is about the rationing of heat, using heat to remain comfortable. The ways we do this are by insulation, penetration, and skillful use of cooking techniques. Thicker pots such as cast iron, big pieces of food that absorb more heat than tiny fragments, and cooking under low heat for longer periods of time. We can also leave tight fitting lids on while cooking, use preserved/canned/cultured/dried foods, and eat warm foods.
Baking – a cauldron of heat, absorbed by the food
Stews – gentle simmering offers wet, warm energy
Pressure cooking – penetrating warmth from this technique
Animal foods preparation – see section on animal foods
Skillful cutting and use of heat absorption – cut vegetables and other pieces of food much bigger than other seasons. Full rounds, big stew type pieces, thick coleslaw cuts for greens, and big diced pieces make for fun and variety. In macrobiotic cooking schools, we speak of “friendly sized” pieces, so don’t leave your vegetable cuts too big so you cannot chew them comfortably.