Winter brings extra challenges of cold, dampness and less natural sunlight. This all puts an extra burden on our body systems, lessened thankfully by the blessings of central heating, hot water on tap and super warm winter layers… Nevertheless it is common to feel the stress of winter as an increased likelihood of becoming ill or feeling a bit stressed or low in mood.
Five Element Theory and the Seasons
The Chinese five element system has inspired my own yoga practice and teaching for many years. This system is based on the observed changes in the human’s body, mind and emotions associated with the changing seasons. We can adapt our diet, lifestyle, practice and habits accordingly, to best support ourselves as we work with the different energies of the seasons.
Winter and the Kidney-Adrenal Complex Connection
In the season of winter the organs of the kidneys (and the adrenal glands that sit on top of them) are emphasised. This means the kidneys and adrenals come under more strain at this time. We might feel this as an increase in stress, a need to urinate more often or a mid to low back ache. As the kidneys are also associated with the ears and the bones, other symptoms are ringing in the ears or other ear conditions as well as achy or stiff joints.
Kidney vitality is fed by our jing essence, the chi energy that was inherited from our parents at the time of our conception. If we have a high jing essence we are able to age gracefully. Signs of lower jing are hair turning grey or thinning earlier than might be expected. Our kidneys draw on this jing essence when other organs become depleted and need support. Therefore, our general health needs more care and attention if our jing essence is low. However, the good news is we can take steps to preserve the jing. The principle way of doing this is to support the kidneys.
Take Care of Your Kidneys
Looking after our kidneys can be as simple as keeping warm in the lower back area (extra layers in this area are good in winter). Rubbing the kidney area with the backs of your hands (ideally standing in the Wu Wei position) also has a supportive effect. Massaging the sole of the foot with a tennis ball also nourishes the kidneys as there is a supportive kidney energy point right in the centre of the foot. You will most likely feel an aching, slightly pulling sensation here, when you roll the sole of your foot with a tennis ball.
Diet and the Kidneys
Foods that disrupt kidney function are caffeine, cinnamon and alcohol. Foods that deplete kidney qi are cheese, sugar, table salt, fried foods and red meat.
Foods that nourish kidney energy are bone broth; walnuts, black sesame; blackberries; mushrooms and nettle tea. It is also important to stay hydrated. During the winter months it can be good to drink your water warm with a little ginger, lemon and rock salt. Salt is said to support the kidneys, but it depends on your constitution. So if, for instance, you have high blood pressure, it is not a good idea to take salt.
Emotions and the Kidney Energy
Just as foods can deplete or nourish kidney energy, so can emotions. If we take steps to calm nervousness, anxiety and fear, we will be lessening the load on our kidneys and benefiting our whole system. Yoga, breathing and journalling can help to reduce fear and anxiety. Often having a long talk to a trusted friend or family member can help us to feel less anxious and find new ways of addressing difficulties that we might be facing. However, if your anxiety is ongoing it is a really good idea to talk to a counsellor or therapist.
Yoga to Nourish the Kidney Energy
In my experience, yoga practices that helps to nourish the kidneys include gentle forward and back bends. Alternate these throughout your practice, and focus on the kidney area. Imagine sending vital energy (or Prana) to the kidneys and adrenal glands. Ideal forward bends would be child pose; side stretch child pose and standing forward bend at a wall; seated forward bend to a chair or on a chair; forward fold in cobbler pose. The back bends would be gentle such as cobra pose; locust pose and supported bridge pose. Some deep yin style lunges (dragon pose) can also be beneficial. Certainly, add some gentle lying twists and poses to release the inner thighs or quadriceps muscles. You may want to add some joint mobilisations into your practice, especially if the weather is cold. Do seek the advice of a yoga teacher if you have any back or joint problems, as they will be able to adapt these postures to suit your individual needs.
Kidney – Diaphragm Fascial Connection
An interesting anatomical fact about the kidneys is that they actually move up and down with our diaphragm, as we breathe. The kidneys can travel 5cm down and up behind the lower back ribs as we breathe diagphramatically. Diaphragmatic breathing also tones our vagus nerve, which helps to reduce stress, anxiety and nervous tension.
Time to Rest and Restore
Our vagus nerve switches on all the “rest, digest and repair” processes of the body, enabling us to have a good night’s sleep, eliminate waste and repair tissues. The vagus nerve also connects to our immune system function, which is particularly important during the winter months. So winter really is the time to rest and relax. Wrap up warm and enjoy your kidney nourishing practices!