As we make our way into January, the Northern Hemisphere is just beginning our journey out of the coldest depths of winter. As dramatic weather tears through the eastern United States and much of North America, the particular extremity of this season is apparent. The biting brutality of deep cold can be one of the harshest realities in the natural world, and while it may seem like no more than a [questionably] necessary evil to many, its role is actually quite important in the grander scheme of our yearly cycle. Though, despite its necessity, the late winter season also requires a bit of diligence in maintaining physical and mental health as the external elements transition.
I had intended to write a Winter Wellness article back in November, but due to travel and other circumstances I have had little time to devote to writing. From October to November I spent two weeks on pilgrimage with my lama to Bhutan, the last remaining Himalayan Buddhist kingdom and goldmine of Sowa Rigpa. “Tibetan” Medicine, there known as Traditional Bhutanese or Indigenous Medicine, holds a position of high prestige in this nation famously rooted in the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). With a plethora of healing substances from highly varied climates, Bhutan’s herbal tradition is first-class and impressively comprehensive. During my time there, I had the honor of spending some time with a village Amchi (Sowa Rigpa Doctor) who lives on a remote mountain near the Tibetan border. She oversees care for a community of house-holding chödpas and young monks at the Bhutanese seat of Machig Labdrön’s lineage. After my time in Bhutan, I spent two weeks in Thailand before returning to Europe for teachings with my medicine guru, and am now settled into the UK for the winter.
According to the Explanatory Tantra of Tibetan Medicine, the third of four ancient texts on the traditional practice of Sowa Rigpa, November and December correspond with the season of gun-tö, or early winter. January and February comprise gun-mé, or late winter. At this point in the year, the sun has just completed its journey south (from our earthbound perspective in the Northern Hemisphere), and it has now begun inching northward following the December solstice. In this period, we experience the greatest concentration of lunar energy, while the solar energy has just reached a yearly low. The lunar energy, interestingly enough, is much more conducive to corporeal strength, as our bodies are considered to be naturally more vital in the winter. Mid-summer, on the other hand, is when our bodies are at their weakest, challenged by the depleting potency of extreme heat.
During the early and late winter seasons, which generally encompass November through February, pekén (the phlegmatic energy, similar to Ayurvedic kapha) accumulates in the upper body, particularly in its natural location in the head. This is perhaps self-evident from the usual frequency of sinus issues in the wintertime. But despite the outer accumulation of cold, for many it’s the body’s inner heat that often becomes problematic during the winter months. This is primarily due to an increase in the function of the Fire-Accompanying rLung, one of the five major wind energies particularly associated with digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Due to aggravating external conditions, this energy goes into overdrive, stoking the digestive fire to a point that can become dangerous for weaker constitutions.
Also during this time, the pores of the skin shrink and even become obstructed by the accumulation of pekén, preventing the body’s natural ventilation system from releasing the excess heat. Due to this blockage, the heat from the metabolic fire (mé-drö) has nowhere to go, leading it to potentially burn through the bodily constituents instead. In extreme cases, improper nutrition can lead to emaciation during the winter months and serious challenges when spring arises.
The predominating element of the winter season is water, which corresponds with the kidneys, bladder, and reproductive organs. Since these organs are prone to cold-natured conditions, it’s important to be proactive in protecting them from damage caused by the extreme cold of late winter. It’s also worth noting that traditional medicine observes kidney and adrenal function as being intimately linked, making the adrenal glands and endocrine system another topic of interest during this time. The extreme fatigue and depression that many experience during the dark season is often at least partially caused by going into this difficult (and stressful) season with struggling adrenals and doing little to support their transition. Decreased sun exposure is another major factor in the winter depression (i.e. SAD), fatigue, and decreased immune function that many struggle with at this time.
From a psychological perspective, the winter months are a time for introspection and reflection. The solar new year provides us with an opportunity to make resolutions for the year ahead and to begin a fresh cycle around the sun. But before we set out on the next year's journey, it's imperative to take some time to rest and regenerate. The instinct to hibernate is perhaps understandable, and we can certainly benefit from taking a kind of energetic hibernation during the deep winter. After sloughing off the expired and obsolete aspects of our psychological lives in the autumn, the winter provides us with the opportunity to go inward and discover what's true and meaningful for us now in this version of our projected "selves," before spring pushes us to step forward and be reborn.
To aid in our journey through the next two months, here are Five Tips for Winter Wellness according to Sowa Rigpa:
1. Eat Warming, Nutritious Foods
Due to excess metabolic fire and shorter days, it’s important to stay well fed with warm, nutritious foods containing plenty of protein and healthy fats. For meat eaters, lamb and fish are particularly indicated, as well as any kind of bone broth. As always, any kind of protein-heavy diet should be supplemented with plenty of fiber. Nourishing root vegetable stews, hearty grains, and nuts are great for this time of year.
Cold-natured foods should be avoided during the winter months, including raw vegetables, leftover foods, frozen desserts, fruit smoothies, and excessive dairy. Even though the digestive strength is strong, these foods will further increase phlegmatic accumulation in the body.
Along with content, it’s important to make sure that you eat at the right times. During winter, it’s easy to eat an early dinner and get settled into a snuggly night in front of Netflix. But an early dinner for a rlung or tripa constitution can mean early morning stomach rumbles and ultimately depletion of the bodily constituents.
2. Favor Sweet, Sour, and Salty Tastes
Due to the strength of the metabolic heat during the winter, foods predominant in nourishing, dense qualities are usually favored in order to preserve strength. Naturally sweet foods (which, in Tibetan tradition, includes meats and many animal products) are considered to be the most beneficial for building bodily constituents. This can become unhealthy in excess, of course, as is easily seen when we eat too much sugar. But in the winter months, a healthy incorporation of naturally sweet foods is a good idea for maintaining one’s physical stability. This also acts to pacify the rlung energy, which lies at the root of many of our winter woes.
The sour taste, being predominant in the warming fire element and grounding earth element, is also beneficial in pacifying the rlung energy while supporting digestion and keeping the pekén accumulation in check. Naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut are a great way to get this warming taste into our diet, with the added benefit of supporting microbial immunity in our health-sustaining gut flora.
The predominating fire and water elements of the salty taste are also therapeutic in the winter months, pacifying both pekén and rlung while maintaining healthy function of the digestive system. The best natural salts are also high in essential minerals, which are also quite important during this period.
3. Keep Your Lower Body Warm
With organs in the lower body being particularly vulnerable to cold, it’s important to keep the waist, knees, and feet warm at all times. The knees and feet are physiologically linked to the kidneys (and adrenal glands), so over-exposure of these regions to the elements can end up having a detrimental effect on the internal body. Conversely, those with kidney issues will often experience knee pain as a manifestation of their illness.
It’s wise to wear thick woolen stockings, slippers, or long underwear in colder climates, and to use some kind of wrap around the waist to keep the kidneys warm. It's amazing what a difference even a wrapped scarf can make. Gentle heating pads can also be good for blustery winter days, or for backaches arising from the cold.
4. Bring On the Oil Massage and Hot Compresses
Among the many excellent manual therapies found in Tibetan Medicine, the two most effective methods for treatment of rlung are hot oil massage and compress therapy (namely hormé/Mongolian moxibustion), which are used to smooth the rough qualities of rlung and pacify cold accumulation in the body. They are excellent for anxiety and insomnia, and are gentle enough that anybody can use them. These methods, especially when leaning to the more warming side (i.e. with substances like sesame oil and ginger), are excellent therapies in the winter months, particularly in colder climates.
Hot oil massage can be performed by a massage therapist, a friend, a lover, or even done by oneself. The best oil for wintertime is sesame oil, though more neutral oils (even ghee) can be used by those who have heat-related issues. It’s good to warm the lower back, sacrum, and extremities, and to apply oil to the head and ears (avoid applying heat near the eyes, however). For those who suffer from insomnia, massaging sesame oil into the scalp before bed is a traditional treatment that I have found quite effective.
Hot compresses can be made from a wide variety of substances. Salt compresses, soil compresses, stone compresses, and herb compresses are just some of the gentle manual therapies offered in Tibetan medicine, each administered based on different treatment needs and appropriate temperatures. The most popular form of hot compress in Sowa Rigpa is hormé, or Mongolian moxibustion. This technique was practiced for millennia across the Himalayas, originally performed by dipping felt into hot oil/fat and applying it to the body. More developed methods (and the ones most widely used today) replace the felt with satchels of healing herbs, such as nutmeg, anise seed, and ginger. Gently warmed in sesame oil, these satchels can be applied to specific points indicated for rlung treatment.
5. Prioritize Sunlight and Vitamin D
For those who have access to any sunlight during the winter months (not the case here in Britain), it’s important to prioritize healthy sun exposure. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to a massive number of chronic health issues that we face, including everything from cancer to psoriasis. As humans are beginning to spend less and less time in the sun, our nutritional and supplemental sources of Vitamin D become much more important.
While the sun is the best source of vitamin D (via synthesis from cholesterol in the skin), fatty fish like salmon and tuna are good dietary sources, as well as fish supplements like cod liver oil. Health food stores carry a number of good-quality vitamin D supplements, which I often recommend to patients regardless of their frequency of sun exposure.
As always, please consult with a TTM practitioner for personalized advice regarding seasonal changes and health maintenance, and consult a physician before undergoing "alternative" medical treatment. Advice presented in this article is only intended for educational purposes and not as a replacement for medical advice. Happy New Year, and I hope that you all have a restful, regenerative, and joyful winter.