winter: the time of water

Winter is associated with the water element which is associated with the kidneys and the urinary bladder. It is thus these organ systems that need “tuning up” during the winter season.


As the most yin part of the year, winter is appropriately the time to go within to reconnect with the body’s natural winter spirit. Paying special attention to the internal aspects of one’s being naturally cultivates the yin energy of the body. This means becoming more quiet and reflective to connect with one’s inner nature. This may be especially challenging considering a busy lifestyle. The following are some helpful ideas for shifting into an inner receptive state:

  • Designate special portion of each day as “me time” to sit and reflect on the feelings of your day
  • Go for a walk and commune with nature
  • Listen to music as the kidneys "open to the ears"
  • Cozy up with a book
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Journal writing
  • Enjoy a quiet, nurturing therapeutic massage
  • Practice yoga, T’ai chi or Qigong alone in a secluded spot

During any activity search to find your “healer within”, give yourself the space and time to hear and feel what is going on inside of you. Figure out what it is you truly need and make a plan to systematically provide this to yourself. And at the same time stay active to keep your body supple, even though yin energy is dominant.

Cultivating, nourishing and balancing of the yin aspect of oneself in this way leads to an overall sense of inner calm, self-acceptance and a more carefree disposition.

Winter is a time of year also associated with the virtue of wisdom. The inner wisdom that develops from taking the time for one self is helpful to get through the long cold months of winter. A Chinese medicine “tune-up” provides additional support through balancing yin energy, thereby enhancing introspection – as it naturally becomes a time of retreat, characterized by energy conservation and strength building as preparation for the impending growth spurt of springtime.

The spirit of the kidney provides courage to access innate wisdom
and cultivate desire to perpetuate life.

This yin time of the year is also associated with fear, the emotion associated with the kidneys.  Just as the kidneys are deeply rooted within the body, so is fear.  A modest amount of fear is considered healthy; however excessive fear fosters insecurity and injures the kidney energy. Learning ways to manage fear constructively to reverse this tendency is important for health and longevity. Restoration of the kidney energy during winter tune-ups helps to release excessive fear and strengthen inner wisdom. The following is an easy Qigong exercise called “Kidney Rub for Life” that can be practiced on a daily basis:

  • Stand comfortably and rub over the lower back with loose fists about two inches to each side of spine, until your back feels warm.
  • At the same time visualize Qi circulating throughout your kidneys.
  • Continue this rubbing down over your buttocks, and back center of both legs down to the outside of ankles, sides of feet.
  • Next, rub on the inside of the feet and ankles up the inside of both legs, over the hips and return to the lower back.
  • Repeat 3-9 times on a daily basis.

According to Chinese medicine, the kidneys are touted as the “root energy of Qi”.  They nourish the lower back, govern water metabolism, sustain hair on the head, and determine immunity. The kidneys also determine sexual energy, adrenal function, reproduction, and the aging process. Weak kidney Qi, therefore, leads to challenges for both men and women in terms of ability to create new life.

When kidney Qi is depleted one may feel exhausted, run down or weak. One may also catch more colds and/or flus and feel unusually sensitive to the cold weather. Other symptoms that signify weak kidneys are dark circles under the eyes, pale complexion, fearfulness, groan in the voice, low libido, frequent urination, loss of hair on the head, and difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. Boosting kidney energy is important to allay all of these symptoms which tend to get worst during the winter months. Be especially careful with the following behaviors and lifestyle habits as they deplete kidney Qi:

  • High stress
  • Addictive behavior
  • Poor sleep
  • Too much sitting
  • Overwork
  • Physical, emotional or energetic trauma
  • Excessive sex
  • Extreme exercise
  • Overthinking and worry

When, how and what you eat also has a profound effect on your health during the winter months. The joyous sounds of cooking and happy voices from the kitchen stimulate the appetite and fortify the kidneys. Cooked, warming foods such as hearty soups strengthen the kidney energy and are especially recommended during the winter months to counteract the cold, wet nature of this time of year. A small, regular amount of salty foods in the winter nurture deep inner experiences and preserve joy in the heart. Salty foods include: miso, soy sauce, seeweed, millet and barley.

Tofu, string beans, asparagus, dark colored beans, roasted nuts, dark fruits such as blackberry and blueberry, and animal products including fish, eggs, dairy products, duck and pork all nourish the kidney energy. Make sure to eat them cooked or dried.

The habit of eating at regular times nourishes kidney Qi, as does eating foods with high nutritional value. The following is a hearty black bean soup to fortify the kidneys:

  • Rinse 2 cups of dried black beans, cover with water and soak for several hours.
  • Discard soaking water and place beans in a saucepan with 3 1/2 cups of water and one inch strip of wakame seaweed.
  • Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1 ½ hours over a very low heat until tender.
  • Chop 2 stalks of celery, 1 yellow onion, and 1 carrot and sauté in olive oil until slightly soft.
  • Add the vegetables to the beans along with the zest of a large orange and 2 teaspoons of savory. Continue to simmer over the lowest heat possible for approximately 15 minutes until beans are soft and splitting open.
  • Take the soup off of the stove and stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons of brown miso.
  • Serve hot with fresh lemon juice and a sprig of parsley.
  • Cooking time: 2 hours and serves 5-6 people.

It is essential to rest one’s body, promote inner reflection, and be vigilant to not deplete energy needlessly - but rather concentrate on cultivation, building and storage of energetic resources. According to Chinese medicine, when Qi of kidneys is gone, so is life. Taking advantage of this ancient system of health and healing to promote greater kidney balance and strength is paramount for increasing chances for a long healthy life.