“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”
— Annie Dillard
Seattle’s winter bathes us in nearly 16 hours of darkness and eight hours of light daily. During this time, the moon and stars reign. From a Chinese medicine perspective, winter is the season of yin energy, embodied in all things fluid, feminine, cooling, heavy, moist, dark, deep and still. It is a time for introspection with a focus on self-care, healing and wellness.
As creatures of the earth, darkness nourishes us as much as does light. We need both. It is impossible for one to exist without the other, as how would we recognize the light of the stars without the night sky for sweet contrast?
There are myriad ways to embrace introspection and wellness during the cold, dark winter, so as to warm and nourish the body and the spirit. Warm foot baths, self-abhyanga, moon-gazing and warm yoga, when practiced with presence, are forms of healing meditation all on their own.
Warm foot baths. Chinese medicine advocates that maintaining warm feet in the winter greatly supports health, particularly if your feet are chronically colder than the rest of you. Don wool socks, pull on cozy boots and slippers and consider warm foot baths. Not only are foot baths delectable, but they preferentially direct heat to and improve circulation of the lower extremities, also. The practice calms the mind, preparing you to relax into a deep, nourishing slumber. Furthermore, Chinese medical theory links chronically cold feet with poor digestion as well as deeply rooted fears and anxieties. Regularly nourishing your cold feet with warm baths often yields positive shifts in digestive health. The practice can also play a role in easing fears, fostering the courage needed to deal with them.
Self-Abhyanga. Abhyanga refers to an oil massage infused with healing herbs. It is a modality rooted in Ayurveda (the traditional healing system of India). In Northwest winters I prefer to use Vata oil from Banyan Botanicals as it is gently warming, deeply moisturizing and grounding to the nervous system. If you’re interested in an herbal oil to balance your specific mind and body constitution, consult a qualified herbalist near you! Or you could indulge in a self-massage with a neutral (non-herbal-infused) oil such as jojoba oil. I recommend gently warming the oil. Begin the self-massage at your scalp. Massage all parts of your crown with your fingertips. Then massage your entire body, top to toes, allowing the oil to fully absorb. Massage your arms, legs, fingers and toes with long strokes, and your joints (shoulders, elbows, wrists, knuckles, hips, knees, ankles) with circles. Then wrap up in a robe and allow the herbal oils to soak in for 20 minutes before showering off.
Moon gazing. In the winter, the moon shines in clear skies by late afternoon or early evening, sharing her light and enabling us to connect with her daily. Moon gazing reminds us of our connection with the universe and with nature, helping us bring our concerns into perspective. As you gaze, your breath tends to slow and your parasympathetic nervous system engages, prompting a sense of calm, facilitating digestion, healing and intuitive knowing. On my walks home from work, and on my evening walks with my pup, I make a practice of stopping to connect with the moon, observing her and her reflection on the lake. Crescent, to quarter, to full, we can both appreciate her subtle shifts and feel held in her nightly presence; even when obscured by clouds, some of her light often shines through. Explore nightly moon gazing before returning home to darkness, allowing the moon, and perhaps some candlelight to be the last luminescence you see before bed. Observe how you sleep and how you feel when you wake.
Warm yoga. In the depths of winter, it is particularly important to balance the cold environment with movement that warms and invigorates the body. Many movement practices accomplish this, and warm yoga is one of my favorites. The yang of vinyasa practice (a dynamic flow linking yoga asanas and breath) enables us to better savor the yin of shavasana (rest pose) at the end of practice. It also enables us to delight in and be at peace with the yin (dark, cold, still) of the season. Lately I’ve been appreciating Sol Yoga in Leschi for its gentle warmth and candle-lit ambiance — a cocoon of a space in the winter darkness that invokes a meditative presence. The warm environment enhances circulation to the muscles and extremities, preparing them for safer mobility. The key is balance and gentle warmth. If the space is too hot, or your practice too exertional, excessive sweating may leave you feeling depleted. It’s helpful to begin with a gentler class, and it’s important to listen to your body.
Essayist and poet Annie Dillard, reminds us of the necessity and allure of winter, reflecting: “The dark night into which the year was plunging was not a sleep but an awakening, a new and necessary austerity, the sparer climate for which I longed. The shed trees were brittle and still, the creek light and cold, and my spirit holding its breath.” Our souls yearn for darkness as much as light, and it is from this darkness and cold that we can shed what is no longer needed, easing ourselves into the promise and newness of spring.
Annie Lindberg is a licensed practitioner and the owner of The Point Acupuncture and Ayurveda in Madison Park