Balance in winter: Unveiling the Wisdom of the Kidneys - Exploring the Water Element in TCM
By Maria Chah, DOM, AP & Jennifer Troyan
Welcome back to the series of five elements in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).
Previous articles covered:
heart - fire element
lungs - metal element
stomach and spleen - earth element
This month, we are sharing about the kidneys - water element. The water element is the season of winter. Winter is the seabed of life and the seed of all the other elements, the base, the core, and the ethereal essence of all the other five elements. It's a time for us to retreat and go into inner reflection.
When water looks calm and serene, you can see a reflection of yourself. If it's turbulent, you can't see anything. You can't even see what's below it. This is a time for stillness and while it looks serene, there's still activity going on. Even when it looks choppy on the surface, there's still calmness deep in the ocean and it keeps everything balanced.
The kidney represents the water element and in our real anatomy and physiology, the water element/kidney keeps the fire element/heart in balance.
The kidneys are responsible for making sure the fire element doesn't overheat and the fire makes sure that the kidneys don't get bogged down with edema (swelling). Our kidneys operate the best within a certain temperature. They want to be warm enough to move but once it turns ice cold or non-functioning (causes stagnation), they either freeze or can't move and edema-type symptoms can occur. When the heart isn’t getting enough water/fluids, it works harder and can cause symptoms like feelings of anxiousness. For most people, It never occurs to them how important being properly hydrated is to minimize many nuanced side effects both physiologically and emotionally. Most of the time hydration means anything we drink. We tend to dismiss headaches and other pains or emotional upsets, due to lack of nutrition or something to do with misalignment with our muscles or bones. But, as you read on, you’ll learn more about the interconnectedness of our body’s functions due to the vital role of the water element.
Winter is for us as it is for all nature - time for internal work. This is when we hibernate (like bears) and we're supposed to be inside (indoors) meditating, reflecting, preparing, and resting for the spring. Soon we are headed into summer where we play, jump, and be active. Winter is a time for storing up energy and it’s normal to be less active in this season so that we gain strength.
Notice we have two kidneys which look like kidney beans and in the middle of them there is something ethereal called the Mingmen fire, which is your ethereal fire. It's all encompassing, acting like the seed to a tree. It has everything already programmed from your DNA to pass on to the next generation, so you want to conserve this energy and It also plays a role in reproductive/sexual energy. It plays a role in bone development. It plays a role in women's hormones and procreation for men and fertility for women. Along with sleeping in wintertime, sleep is so essential to this element. The kidneys are the body’s essential energy essence and need to stay calm, warm and continuously generating for proper filtration and distribution of the clean life saving element we call water.
If we don’t have water, we're dried up and it's hard to rest or even move. When we have enough fluids in our body, we can sleep and move better.
Just like the seed, every person is different. Some have higher energy like ethereal fire, and they can withstand winter. And others don't. That's why a lot of people come to the South for warmth because their ethereal fire starts to diminish, and they become wearier and may lose a lot of their fluids, mobility and cognitive functions.
The kidneys are really the battery of your entire system. We know this on a physiological level in allopathic medicine that it's the primary element that has the sodium-potassium pump mechanism that makes sure that our electrolytes and everything get flushed through. Then they send back potassium and magnesium, which is sent to the muscles to get nourished. Kidneys play the important role of our battery to sustain energy. It charges the water in our body, which needs water to conduct electricity.
So think of it this way, if we use up all our energy in the wintertime, we won't have enough energy to spring forward because we don't have sufficient strength to do it.
Storing the energy gets us through the other seasons. Rest is so important, and water is our calming element. Stillness and gratitude are our way of feeding this element, like rooting ourselves.
To keep our kidneys healthy it's important to wear warm clothes, and eat warm foods like soups and stews. It really helps the ethereal fire in your body in our natural homeostatic temperature which should be at 98.6 degrees give or take. Abundant reserves of energy, proper rest, fluids and attitude can give us continued courage and strength to withstand the harshness of winter too.
Another interesting point to mention with the kidney/water element represents fear and it's also in the posterior (aka backside). Dr. Maria Chah shared, “I think a lot of people have back pain because we're always pushing through our fears, fear of not being supported, fear of trying to sustain support, to provide.”
We're pushing this fire to keep burning to survive. We also use the kidney to procreate so if you're overly sexual you can drain this energy. You can preserve your sexual essence in a way that can sustain healthy fertility and libido.
It is inevitably important to allow ourselves to simply be still and quiet as often as possible. Specifically in the winter time, your kidneys want to recharge so they can sustain a whole planet we call our body along with all the other elements.
Remember, water takes the shape of anything. You put it in a container, and it will conform to that. So, imagine yourself like this - the more water, the more strength you have, the more resilience you have.
You have better listening ability because your ears represent the kidneys. And if you look at the ears, it's shaped like a kidney (a fetus is shaped that way as well). Chinese doctors and physicians know where to check for imbalances and balances because the kidneys are a root element. It's always one of the first things that acupuncture physicians check because kidneys are vital to the life force of a person. Eating root veggies, and practicing exercises like Tai Chi or Qi Gong, are some of the many ways you can strengthen your water element.
The wisdom of water is to respect your environment and take the time to yield. Suggestions of living in harmony with the winter are to get more rest, schedule more time for your inner life, choose more warming foods, gather around with friends and people and be merry. It’s no wonder we have holidays in the wintertime. This is our chance to connect with others and be joyful for the life sustained in you.
We leave you with this thought:
Water is life-giving. Water is the key element for our planet and what we look for when searching for life on other planets, so it stands to reason just how precious water is to life.
Kidneys within headline image courtesy of rawpixel.
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