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While much of the U.S. and Europe is locked in an onslaught of winter storms (even LA is facing "torrential rains"), believe it or not today marks the Spring Equinox, and we find ourselves once again in a transition between the seasons. Elemental changes in the outer environment reflect internal shifts taking place in our physiology, requiring a holistic awareness of our dietary and behavioral choices during these times. According to the Tibetan tradition, this season is called chi (dPyid), and it covers the Aries and Taurus periods of the spring. This is considered the astrological New Year in many traditions, and it can also be considered a kind of digestive New Year for our body mandala.
During the cold months of winter, pekén (the phlegmatic humor) accumulates in the body and mind due to heightened lunar energy and cold, damp external conditions. In the spring months, the gradual increase of solar energy in the northern hemisphere causes this internally accumulated pekén to melt, causing it to descend from its natural location in the upper body into the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. This can give rise to indigestion and chest congestion, often triggering flare-ups of issues like asthma, hay fever, and food sensitivities. A compromised liver contributes to occurrences of seasonal allergies, and an imbalanced immune system can easily lead to colds and respiratory infections.
While we’ve spent the winter packing on the calories and nurturing our roaring internal fire, springtime brings in a very different and refreshing energy. Our appetite might start to naturally subside, while our taste for stews and roasts will start to be replaced by a desire for fresh vegetables and light foods. This is our body’s way of organically informing us that its nutritional needs are shifting with the outer environment, and that spring cleaning is upon us.
Spring is associated with the element of wood, making the liver and gallbladder most directly affected by the seasonal changes. The liver plays a vital role in maintaining the body’s metabolic equilibrium during the cold months, offering its heat to maintain balance in our system. This is directly perceptible in the liver pulse, which can present qualities traditionally associated with heat-natured imbalances during the spring. These are natural expressions of the season and not always indicators of disorder, but signals that we need to employ extra caution in the months ahead. Activities and foods that cause stress to the hepatic system should be avoided, while proper cleanses (such as mono-diets like a kichari cleanse) can be employed to detoxify and revitalize the internal organs for the spring season.
Ten days after the Spring Equinox, starting around March 30th, marks the beginning of the period of Dragon Thunder, when thunderstorms are most common in the Himalayas. Similar regions in the rest of the world may notice the same cycles ("April showers" and whatnot... but doesn't dragon thunder sound so much better?), portending a shift in the outer elements. This lasts until around October 1st, 10 days after the Autumn Equinox. If you grow cooling vegetables like arugala, it is good to harvest them before these storms begin.
As always, here are six tips for maintaining health through the spring season, informed by the Explanatory Tantra of Tibetan Medicine compiled by Yuthok Yönten Gönpo:
1. Favor Bitter, Hot, Astringent, Light, and Rough Foods
In order to counteract the increase of phlegm during the spring season, the Explanatory Tantra (བཤད་པའི་རྒྱུད།) prescribes a dietary regiment predominant in bitter, hot/pungent, and astringent tastes. These tastes all contain a hefty dose of the air element, embodying the principle of motility, which helps to counteract the heavy stagnation of pekén with curative rough and light qualities. The bitter taste, in particular, is well known for being a hepatic stimulant – recalling an era when digestive bitters were used in something other than a Manhattan. Bitter foods and herbs, usually high in particular alkaloids or sesquiterpenes, trigger a neurological response in the body that stimulates production of digestive hormones, enzymes, and bile. This is their season to shine.
Rough, light, and warm qualities are also of principal importance during this time, with extra focus on the former two since the real goal here is cleansing, not further melting. Fiber-rich foods, popped grains, aged grains and legumes, raw honey, and cruciferous vegetables are some good examples of foods that can help the internal spring cleaning process. For carnivores, meat from animals raised in arid climates is favored due to it’s rougher quality, though lightening up on meat consumption is wise while focusing on healing the liver.
While you will want to start eating more vegetables (even an occasional salad if your digestion is strong enough), temporarily avoid overly heavy or watery vegetables like cucumber, squash, or zucchini. Bitter greens and cruciferous veggies are great, especially when lightly cooked, and all meals can benefit from being flavored with onions, garlic, pepper, and other pungent spices.
While a moderate amount of fresh fruit can be part of a balanced springtime diet, it’s best to reduce intake of sweet, sour, and salty foods. This is (sadly) an opportune time to stop eating three pounds of easy-peel clementines per week, as this will cause phlegmatic issues in the months ahead (this is mostly directed at myself). In general, it’s good to avoid cold foods (especially cold & sweet foods like ice cream or popsicles), leftover meals, and substances that are particularly fatty or sweet during this time. These qualities will exacerbate and prolong any phlegmatic issues arising during this season, driving imbalance deeper into the system and creating the conditions for more chronic issues.
2. Protect your Metabolism with a Hot Beverage
A simple way to protect your digestive fire during the spring season is to drink hot with raw honey after waking. Raw honey is a phenomenal substance for cleaning out mucus build-up in the stomach and sparking digestive heat. It’s important to note that you won’t get the same effects from filtered honey, however, so be sure to find a good raw option. Ingesting local honey is also a great way to adapt your system to local pollen, making it a powerful tool against seasonal allergies, so it’s highly recommended to find a local beekeeper (check a farmer’s market!).
If your digestion is more seriously compromised and you find yourself suffering from a lack of appetite during the spring, then it would be good to add some ginger to your beverage, providing extra support for your metabolic heat and aiding in digestion. In case this causes a headache due to excess heat, stop using the ginger and return to simply raw honey.
3. Get Active
Winter is the season for hibernation. We may find ourselves binging Netflix shows with take-out pizza and a bag of chips, failing to break a sweat for weeks on end. But in otherwise healthy individuals, this sedentary lethargy starts to wear off in the spring months as heat and motility begins to come back into our environment. This is important to follow, since exercise is a great method for balancing the pekén energy and regulating metabolism.
Spring is considered to be the best time for losing weight, due to the lightening and upward-moving qualities of the outer environment. Exercise is best done in the morning while the air is still chilly, ideally while the phlegmatic energy is most active in the early morning (around 7-10am). Tibetan tradition recommends prostrations for low-impact exercise, a devotional practice usually equated to Indian sun salutations. Other exercise should be tailored to one’s constitution and environment.
Napping should be avoided during this season, since daytime sleep causes oily and heavy qualities to increase in the body. In the later spring period, when the mid-day heat can become overwhelming and cause lethargy, it’s good to beat the heat by relaxing in a shady location. Don’t physically tax yourself in the midday heat.
The body isn't the only part of you that can benefit from some fresh spring energy. This is a great time for starting new projects, exploring new opportunities, and getting your life in order. Intellectual stimulation is great this time of year, so consider picking up a new non-fiction book or enrolling in a course to get your brain out of the winter fog.
4. Perform Dry Massage
Traditionally in Tibet, dry massage was performed with roasted chickpea flour, which is applied to the body (usually after an oil massage), then vigorously rubbed and sloughed off in order to exfoliate the skin and open the pores. This helps both to purge the accumulated pekén in the skin and lymphatic system and to allow pent-up heat to escape the body.
Today, it’s often far more convenient to use an Ayurvedic dry brush, available online and at many natural health stores, for this therapy. Indian medicine has also used this technique, called garshana, for centuries. These provide a simple tool for opening the pores and stimulating lymphatic drainage, accomplishing the same effect as the chickpea flour massage with less mess.
5. Reduce or Eliminate Alcohol Consumption (For Now!)
With the liver in a particularly vulnerable state, spring is an important time to avoid alcohol consumption. When we drink, the liver takes on the difficult task of processing and detoxifying alcohol while attempting to orchestrate the assimilation of nutrients into the bloodstream. This creates undue stress, and the buildup of carcinogenic toxins can cause severe hepatic damage over time.
The liver is like an architect, responsible for planning out many of the metabolic processes that are so central to our homeostasis. When the liver is compromised, especially through alcohol or hard drug use, it slowly loses its capacity to assimilate nutrients in a healthy way, eventually leeching toxins into the bloodstream and producing a long list of chronic diseases.
It’s traditionally advised to wear cooling oils like sandalwood and amber during the spring months, especially in late spring when the heat begins to accumulate. In western literature, these scents are known for their calming effects on the mind. Tibetan medical Oils can be used as perfume or in an essential oil diffuser, while sandalwood and amber incense can be used in a well-ventilated area. Both amber and sandalwood have profound curative effects, particularly in regard to cleansing and cooling the blood, and their scents can also be used for healing.
A Note on Climate Differences: It's important to note that seasonal changes are also informed by the local climate, meaning that places like Bangkok, Kathmandu, Los Angeles, and London will all have slightly different transition timelines and qualities between seasons. Climate change complicates matters, with freak weather and shortened frost periods. However, many of the overarching principles still stand, and subtle elemental changes will still take place on a cosmological timeline. It is important to use discernment when augmenting your diet and behavior, and it's always best to consult with a TTM practitioner for constitutionally and climatologically-tailored dietary advice. Of course, please consult with your doctor before undertaking herbal or dietary treatments (because law). To book a TTM Consultation in Los Angeles, please click here.