But how are you feeling this fine spring day?
Kudos to you if you’re feeling great – you’re energetically in tune with the optimistic, enterprising vitality of the season.
But if your neck and shoulders are more tense than usual, your digestion is a bit off, you can’t seem to get rid of that nagging headache, and you’re a wee bit grumpy despite getting your daily caffeine fix….you’re just as much affected by the changing seasons as your more cheery neighbours, though perhaps in a less enjoyable way. And you’re definitely not alone.
So why do you feel this way? The answer might be simpler, and closer, than you think. In fact, it might be right outside your front door.
Many traditional medical models teach that our bodies are microcosms of nature, and that as our environment changes, so too must our bodies. And change, as we know, can sometimes be a bumpy ride.
In the Five Element system within the Chinese medical model, the spring season is connected with the element of Wood, and embodies uprising Yang-type energy. It is the dynamic energy of a crocus or tulip pushing up from the earth and reaching toward the sun.
And as we see nature wake up all around us, we too may feel energized and invigorated, filled with that same dynamic, creative, courageous power.
Chinese medicine teaches that when the uprising Wood energy is balanced internally, as the season begins we feel a rising sense of inner vitality as we let go of winter’s inner-directedness and expand outward and upward.
That’s if the energy is balanced. But what if it’s not? Here are a few manifestations of imbalanced Wood energy.
- Uneven energy levels – alternating between feeling sluggish or reluctant to move and being driven and unable to slow down
- Muscles and tendons tighter than usual
- More easily frustrated or annoyed
- More frequent and intense headaches
- Disrupted digestion & elimination (possibly even constipation and diarrhea, or alternating between the two)
- Dry, itchy or irritated eyes, or more “floaters” obscuring your vision
- Increased incidence of tremors, tics (such as eye twitches) and even muscle spasms (especially in the upper body)
So why is this all of this happening?
Think of the “average” spring day. Is it drizzly or sunny, warm or icy cold, wildly windy or sweetly tranquil … or even (perish the thought) snowy? In fact it could be any of the above.
You probably learned in high school science class that our bodies strive to maintain a stable inner environment (a concept called homeostasis in the Western biomedical model). As our bodies are challenged to adapt to a rapidly changing external environment, maintaining homeostasis requires more effort.
Biomedically speaking, the liver is one of the key organs that helps maintain a stable internal environment. It removes toxins from the blood (such as those produced by drugs and alcohol) and is responsible for metabolizing fats, proteins and carbohydrates into biologically useful materials. It also performs important hormone regulating functions, which can have a powerful effect on our moods.
From the point of view of Chinese medicine, the Liver is not only the organ associated with the spring season and the Wood element, but also the key organ system responsible for maintaining the smooth flow of qi or vital energy (both physical and emotional) in the body.
The Chinese medical view of Liver function may, at first glance, seem incompatible with the biomedical model of the liver’s many roles in our body. But there is an underlying commonality.
Because the Liver is the main organ involved in ensuring the free flow of qi throughout the body, if it cannot do its job, symptoms tend to show up in seemingly random, widespread ways – mirroring the wide range of functions the liver performs from a biomedical perspective. We may feel easily frustrated, in addition to dealing with that pesky eye twitch. We may experience tense shoulders at the same time as seemingly unrelated indigestion.
In addition, Liver issues often show up in dysfunctions of movement – the movement of food through the digestive tract, the painful blockages of movement in our muscles and tendons, and even those oddball tics or tremors that seem to arise out of nowhere.
These symptoms may arise at any time of the year, but in the spring the Liver is especially challenged to keep things flowing smoothly.
And if the Liver is congested (perhaps due to a sedentary winter accompanied by a fatty or sugary diet) the uprising, enterprising energy of Wood can become stagnant or suppressed, resulting in the aforementioned symptoms such as muscle/tendon tension, irritability, sluggishness, digestive upset, headaches, eye issues and so on.
If we have ongoing challenges in any of these areas (and who doesn’t?) they are likely to become more pronounced in the spring. And even the lucky few who never feel irritable, tense, and sluggish may still feel out of sorts, especially in the early days of spring, when our bodies are still struggling to adjust.
So to avoid ending up with imbalanced Wood energy, do we need to do a complete dietary overhaul, or a full-fledged liver detox?
Not necessarily. In fact, abrupt or extreme changes can worsen existing imbalances, or even introduce new ones. Certainly some people can tolerate full detox programs and benefit from them. But for most of us, gentle but consistent changes that are sensitive to our own specific health needs are the way to go. And these changes are often the ones that stick, and yield deep, long-lasting results.
And if “gentle and consistent” and “deep, long-lasting” sound like cues for a Yin Yoga class, that’s more than coincidental, because adapting your yoga practice to align with seasonal changes can also be a powerful tool.
In my next post, I’ll give you some suggestions for how you can adapt your diet, lifestyle and yoga practice to align your body, mind and spirit with the creative and dynamic energy of spring.
Happy spring everyone!