In darkness, I wake to my 5:30 AM alarm. My dreams, flush with face shots and arching powder turns are suddenly interrupted and replaced by a gnawing feeling of grogginess and fatigue. It’s snowing outside and is poised to be a special day on the mountain. In the cold and darkness it feels odd to be up and active so early. Still, I rise and try to sharpen my senses with some caffeinated green tea.
Here in Tahoe this is part of life- the norm. We wake early, caffeinate, work hard, ski harder, and then go to bed late before doing it all again the next day. After days of this, sometimes I find myself exhausted. But if the conditions are good, I force myself to be out on the mountain day after powder-filled day.
As a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I know that deep down this very active mountain lifestyle that we consider normal can be out of balance with the rhythm and energy of the winter season. Being rooted in nature, TCM offers a valuable guide for recapturing the cadence of winter so that we can respond appropriately to the energy of the season without depleting ourselves.
During the cold of winter, plants submerge their lifeblood into their roots, animals thicken their hides and hibernate, and water hardens into ice. Chinese Medicine tells us that what happens in the natural world around us is mirrored within ourselves. Hence, even though we like to think we are separate and unique, we human beings don’t exist apart from the energy of our natural environment.
In TCM, winter is ruled by the water element, which is associated with the kidneys, bladder, and adrenal glands. It also corresponds to the bones, the lower back, and the knees. According to TCM philosophy, the kidneys are considered the source of all energy (qi) within the body. They store the reserve qi so that it can be used in times of stress and change, to heal, prevent illness, and to age gracefully. During the winter months it is important to nurture and nourish our kidney qi as winter is the time when this energy can be most easily depleted.
I like to think of kidney qi as a trust fund that we are endowed with at birth. The goal is to preserve the principle, so we can live comfortably off of the interest. As we age, it is natural for the kidney qi to be depleted. However, when we will ourselves to do too much, (waking early, over exercising, exposing ourselves to cold, and sleeping too little) we disrupt the natural balance in our body and consequently, the kidney qi decreases rapidly. In clinic, I see the consequences of winter overexertion all the time. It presents as back strain, insomnia, fatigue, cold extremities, low libido, and weak immunity. Hence, many of my patients are depleting their trust funds too quickly.
To be in accord with winter, it is necessary to focus on the yin principle –one of becoming more receptive, introspective, and storage oriented. This also means rest, conservation, and reflection. Our bodies instinctively want to express these fundamental principles, and are actually doing so despite our best effort to push forward. Accordingly, it is important to listen and act upon what the season and our bodies are saying. For most of us, this means slowing down, sleeping more, and modifying what we put into our bodies.
In terms of a winter diet, warm hearty soups, whole grains, and roasted nuts are suited for cold days. Dried foods, small dark beans, seaweeds, occasional organic meat, and steamed seasonal greens fortify the kidneys. In general, it is appropriate to cook foods longer, at lower temperatures and with less water. This type of diet will keep our reserves full while allowing us to exert ourselves outside with minimal depletion.
Winter is a time of quiescence and stasis, yet beneath the surface is the hidden energy of gestation and germination that will bring forth renewal in spring. Nevertheless, a complete renewal will only happen if we put ourselves in harmony with the season now. We can still get outside and do the things we love in the Sierra, while at the same time making sure that we are truly taking care of ourselves.
So taking my own advice, my alarm clock is now set an hour later. I rise with the sun and not a minute before. I have also started going to bed an hour earlier. My days on the mountain are still beautiful and I am no longer plagued by fatigue.
Always pay attention to what is happening in nature and put yourself in accord with it. Your body and your skiing will thank you!