This topic has come up a lot in my community lately, for the people I love, and for myself. Autumn is naturally a time of pulling in. Of slowing the chaos and looking inside of ourselves. Chinese Medicine recognizes that as we move out of the vibrant expanding Yang energy of summer and into the quiet, consolidating Yin energy of winter, the emotions that often come up for us are grief, sadness and feelings of melancholy or depression.
Autumn is the time of Metal energy. The in the body, the organ systems controlled by Metal energy are the Lung and Large Intestine. This time of year if we have physical imbalances in these organ systems, they will be highlighted as our bodies’ energy is surging through them, so difficulties with digestion or respiratory issues frequently come up. Similarly, when imbalances are present in these systems on an emotional level, they are also highlighted right now.
We can bring awareness to our breath, mindfully inhale what we need and allow that breath to go deep into our bodies. This helps not only move any stuck energy through the lungs that might be contributing to the uncomfortable emotional aspects of Autumn, but also pushes our diaphragm down. When the diaphragm, the muscular membrane that separates the cavity of the lungs from the abdominal cavity, is pushed down it is able to stretch and helps to massage the intestines. This supports blood and energy flow to the large intestine and helps us to physically, emotionally and energetically eliminate the toxic energy and physical waste that isn’t serving our greatest health. This descending motion of the metal element, from the lungs down through the large intestine, is what Autumn asks of us. The better we can embody this descending energy the less dissonance and discomfort we feel as the seasons shift.
This time of year our bodies, the same as in nature, pull their energy in for the season. The trees shed their leaves and our own focus gravitates inward. This often brings our awareness to emotions we’ve accumulated over the year: maybe we passed them by too quickly because circumstance demanded it, or maybe we were too raw to really process them. Maybe we just weren’t ready. Maybe a thousand other maybes. Now is the time to look at them if we can. As we still our minds and slow our bodies to embrace this opportunity it is very common to find a version of grief staring back at us.
The seasonal energy of Autumn is symbolic of death and letting go. In modern society we rarely sit with this kind of discomfort until we feel like we have no other choice.
Chinese Medicine offers insight into these feelings of melancholy or grief that might be emerging for you right now. The recognition that, as a microcosm of the world around us, the human body is going through its own seasonal change can be a helpful perspective. We are not putting energy into new growth instead we are moving toward hibernation mode. We are putting our resources back into ourselves rather than out into the world. We are being pulled to acknowledge and release (if possible) the parts of our mind, body and spirit that are weighing us down.
As we recognize what is taking up valuable energy and space inside we get to choose to how to clear it out to make space for what we want to bring with us into the winter season. We get to choose how we fill up that space with resources to sustain us when the environment around us is not filling us with its energy. Winter is when Yang (vital energy and life force) is at its lowest and when we are completely turned inside, recharging and restoring ourselves. If we can allow this inward shift to begin now, as uncomfortable as it is, we will have set ourselves up to emerge from winter feeling rested and ready to greet spring.
A breathing exercise to support the Metal element, and help us move through Autumnal grief and sadness:
Find a comfortable position sitting or lying. Close your eyes. Imagine a cool, white light all around you. Imagine that you feel peaceful in this light, completely comfortable. Put one hand on your chest, over your lungs and one hand on your belly button, over your large intestine. As you inhale through your nose imagine the white light coming in with your breath and filling your lungs with peaceful, calming energy. Breathe in for a slow count of 4. As you inhale, push your breath all the way down into your abdomen and feel your belly rise the deeper the breath. Hold the breath in for another count of 4. If holding for 4 is too much, then get as close as you can and work your way towards that. Exhale a calm, controlled breath out through the mouth for a slow count of 6. We really want to focus on pushing every bit of stale air and energy out of the body, this helps us make space for what we need. We are exhaling more than we inhaled. With your breath out, feel your belly soften and fall back toward your spine. Pause with empty lungs for a count of 4. Repeat this 10 times, or as many as you are able to each day. As your breathing practice gets easier, try adding another count to each step, slowing, lengthening, and deepening your breath and connection to your body.
This and many other breathing exercises help us to communicate to our nervous system and emotional body that we are safe and have permission to slow down and drop down into ourselves. This is such an important part of this time of year if we want to feel comfortable and healthy in mind and body. If you find yourself throughout the day needing this message, take 30 seconds and do a round of breathing. See what shifts. Sometimes the simplest exercises can make a big difference.
Culinary inspiration to support yourself through this seasonal transition: reach for white colored, pungent or slightly spicy foods like turnip, parsnips, cauliflower, onions, garlic, horseradish and so many more. Besides being delicious, these foods support the descending energy of Metal, help with respiratory health and elimination. The pungent/spicy flavor clears out phlegm in the lungs and the fiber helps to clean it all out. Here are a few recipes from Chef Kelly you can try to incorporate into your rotation to get you started.
The Huang Di Nei Jing, a very insightful and important founding text for Chinese Medicine, offers us the following:
In the three months of autumn,
they denote taking in and balance.
The qi of heaven becomes tense.
The qi of the earth becomes bright.
Go to rest early and rise early,
get up together with the chicken.
let the mind be peaceful and tranquil, so as
to temper the punishment carried out in autumn.
Collect the spirit qi and
cause the autumn qi to be balanced.
Do not direct your mind to the outside and
cause the lung qi to be clear.
This is correspondence with the qi of autumn and
it is the Way to nourish gathering.
opposing it harms the lung.
In winter this causes outflow of undigested food and
there is little to support storage.
If one acts contrary to the qi of autumn, then
the major yin does not collect.
The lung qi burns and there is fullness. *
*Huang Di nei jing su wen
An Annotated Translation of
Huang Di’s Inner Classic – Basic Questions
Volume I: Chapters 1 through 52
Paul U. Unschuld and Hermann Tessenow in Collaboration with Zheng Jinsheng