The final few months of the year often find us in a frantic state of shopping, decorating, traveling, and other high-energy activity. Yet instead of having fun, we often end up feeling ill, anxious, or depressed. The reason, according to Taoist philosophy and traditional Chinese medicine, is that the action-packed schedules we keep at this time of year fall out of sync with the earth's natural cycles.
"We naturally have less energy to burn during the winter," explains acupuncturist Carolyn Cohen, L.Ac., who teaches at Yo San University, a college of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Santa Monica, California. "So when we engage in behaviors more appropriate for summer—staying up late and dashing around town—it's no wonder that the forced cheer of the holiday season can wear a bit thin."
Taoist philosophy conceptualizes universal balance in terms of yin and yang, complementary forces that govern the universe. Yin characteristics are cool, wet, slow, feminine, and quiet, whereas yang is the opposite: warm, dry, fast, masculine, extroverted. Winter, the yin season, is a time for storing and conserving energy in the way a bear retains fat by hibernating, or a farmer stores food for the cold months ahead.
In agrarian cultures, people spend the shortest, darkest days indoors by the fire, eating warm, slow-cooked, nourishing food and sharing stories with their families. The incongruity between winter's restful, introspective, yin nature and the frenetic way many Americans spend their holidays can contribute to seasonal affective disorder, depression, exhaustion, and other manifestations of what is known in TCM as shen (or spiritual) disharmony.
"Winter solstice, just three or four days before Christmas, is the darkest, most yin day of the year," says Cohen. "Instead of turning inward, we're celebrating with excess and yang activity. This artificiality creates stress, and many people dread the season as a result."
To stay balanced during winter, suggests Cohen, conserve your yang energy. Restorative yoga, tai chi, qigong, and walking are best suited for yin season, as they safeguard your energy reserves. "Think of these practices as an investment of your 'energy paycheck,'" says Cohen. "Don't use up what little winter energy you have with overactivity and added stress."
Eating cooked, spicy yang foods provides another good way to replenish energy. Prepare yang-strengthening soups, slow-simmered stews, beans, roasted root vegetables, and warm drinks. Add yang spices such as garlic, ginger, black pepper, cloves, and basil to increase the warming effect. Minimize your intake of yin foods such as raw vegetables, salad greens, and cold drinks.
If you find quiet, more modest ways to celebrate the holidays, you'll stay in tune with the season and feel less need to release tension by overeating or rampant spending. You'll also have more time and energy to connect with close friends and family. If you're out of sync with the mall mobs with maxed-out credit cards, chances are you'll find yourself in step with the quiet, nurturing yin nature of winter.