Harmonizing With the Spring

 Young Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) emerging

Young Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) emerging

The spring is an exciting, transformative, and expansive time. The plants and the earth are waking-up. And, since our bodies are a little microcosm of this larger macrocosm, a little spring awakening is happening within us too! Can you feel it?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and especially 2,000 year old Chinese 5-Element Theory, provides us with a beautiful framework for understanding the spring and its energetics.  Following some simple ancient wisdom described below, we can attune ourselves with natural influences of this season and more easily tap into the rich gifts it has to offer.

This is the concept of harmonizing with the seasons.

 


To more easily begin to harmonize with this magical season, a little background and context will be helpful.....

Spring, the Wood Element, and the Liver-Gallbladder

In Chinese Medicine each season corresponds with an Element and an Organ System.  The spring is associated with the Wood Element and the Chinese Liver-Gallbladder organ system (different from our western anatomical liver and gallbladder) and meridians. Understanding this organ/element pair and its associations is a great place to start since harmonizing with the spring means balancing this element within us, i.e. being sure its not in a state deficiency or excess. 

 Young Nettles  (Urtica dioica ) in early spring. A classic spring tonic. Not surprisingly, in TCM the color associated with the spring and the Wood Element is green!

Young Nettles (Urtica dioica) in early spring. A classic spring tonic. Not surprisingly, in TCM the color associated with the spring and the Wood Element is green!

Keywords and phrases for the Liver-Gallbladder/Wood Element/Spring in balance:
Upwards moving energy, yang, growth, expansiveness, clear vision and purpose, decisiveness and decision-making, ambition, hopefulness, starting new projects, productivity

Sounds just about right, doesn’t it?

In the spring it’s easy to see these actions and influences happening in nature all around us (and also feel them within ourselves!) with buds opening, sap running, plants bursting forth from the ground, melting rivers of snow, new growth and renewal of life.  There’s no indecisiveness there- the plants are going to grow!

Using appropriate foods, herbs and daily practices, is the best way to bring ourselves into alignment with these energetics of this season happening all around us. When we do so, we’ll see these qualities reflected in a balanced way within ourselves, on both a physical and mental/emotional level. The Wood Element in balance is a beautiful and powerful thing! It embodies those characteristics described above.

The Wood Element out of balance, however, in Excess, can look like a quick temper, easily frustrated, lack of emotional and mental flexibility, depression, excess heat and inflammation in the system, tight neck and shoulders, and bodily tension in general. In TCM the formula Xiao Yao San (also called Relaxed Wanderer or Free & Easy Wandered) is the classic and super effective treatment for this pattern.

The Wood Element out of balance, in a Deficiency, can look like indecisiveness, lack of flexibility, stiffness, dryness in the joints (osteoarthritis), lack of motivation, irritability, and loss of good judgement.

Whether you feel you you have one of these patterns reflected in you or not, working with balancing your Wood Element in the spring will help you cultivate within yourself the attributes of the Wood Element in balance described above- motivation, productivity, clear vision, decisiveness, and hopefulness.  These are the true qualities and nature of the spring. But if you do feel this element could use some particular balancing, here's a great thing to know- the spring the time that holds the highest potential for healing within the Wood Element. To me that's a really profound concept to reflect on. We can harness the natural influences of this season to catalyze deep healing within ourselves.


The “Gifts” of the Spring

Chinese 5-Element Theory also talks about specific “gifts” of each season that we can experience when we are harmonizing with the season at hand.

 

Gifts of the Spring and the Wood Element:

Smooth Flow around obstacles, Flexibility

 

The image to think about here is a new plant sprouting from the ground, maneuvering around fallen sticks and debris from the winter (like the Snowdrops below) with ease, reaching for the sun.  Or a young flexible sapling easily swaying in the wind with no rigidity or tenseness in response to the force of the wind, just ease. I just love this visual, especially when challenging situations arise that might tempt my temper- be like the sapling in the wind! How wonderful to think about being able to access flexibility and easy flow around obstacles particularly in the spring!

 Snowdrops  (Galanthus   nivalis)  pushing through the winter debris and leaves with flexibility and ease

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) pushing through the winter debris and leaves with flexibility and ease


Harmonizing with the Spring

Harmonizing our energy with the spring and the Wood Element doesn't have to be complicated and can be as simple as nibbling young leaves, drinking maple sap, or moving our body daily, but there are some basic guidelines and ancient wisdom we can take inspiration from to guide our choices during this season. Read on for some suggestions. Choose what appeals or works for you. If you don't have access to these particular foods or herbs, come back to the flavors described below and let you taste buds guide you!

Food Energetics
Eat light. Lightly cooked, more raw than any other season. Not a time for an abundance of heavy, oily, and salty foods.

MOST IMPORTANTLY:  If it’s growing outside right now, it’s the best food choice we can make.  When we eat these wild foods straight from the ground we're aligning ourselves with this same upward-moving, nothing-can-stop-it energy of the spring. Also, fresh local spinach, asparagus, arugula and greens from the farmer's market, or any spring green grown locally has this same energetic influence!

 Young Knotweed  (Fallopia japonica)  bursting forth. These shoots can grow more than an inch/day.  It really exemplifies the upward-moving, yang energy of the spring! Asparagus is a great example of this too. Young Knotweed shots are delicious- I like to cook them like asparagus and often cook them together. Some folks like to use them in place of Rhubarb in desserts.

Young Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) bursting forth. These shoots can grow more than an inch/day.  It really exemplifies the upward-moving, yang energy of the spring! Asparagus is a great example of this too. Young Knotweed shots are delicious- I like to cook them like asparagus and often cook them together. Some folks like to use them in place of Rhubarb in desserts.

Flavor
Eat foods that emphasize aspects of yang- upward moving, rising and expansive. The sweet and pungent (aka spicy/aromatic) flavors have this influence on our body.

What….what? Sweet and pungent for the spring? You were probably thinking sour and bitter, for the liver and spring, right?

Paul Pitchford puts it best:
“One misunderstanding often arises regarding the use of flavors for seasonal attunement:  The flavor associated with each Element affects the organ in that Element in specific, therapeutic ways, but it is not used for general attunement to the associated season. “- Healing With Whole Foods, By Paul Pitchford

So, in other words, if you have a hot, angry, over-heated liver, i.e. the Wood Element in Excess, then yes, the flavors for you are bitter and sour, as they are very cooling.  But if you’re looking to attune with the spring, the best flavors to emphasize are sweet and pungent. Why? In TCM it is said that the sweet and pungent flavor have upward-moving, yang energy.  So eating this flavor helps harmonize one with all the seasonal influences of the spring that we’ve discussed above.

It’s important to remember that very few plants have just one true flavor. Look for plants that contain the pungent and/or sweet flavor, which you will almost never find alone, which is fine! Common pairings are bitter/pungent, salty/sweet, and bitter/sweet.  Many other flavor combinations are possible!  And of course, a little bitter in the spring (or anytime really) definitely doesn’t hurt!

Pungent Foods and Herbs
Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), Bee Balm (Monarda sp), Catnip (Nepeta cataria), Oregano (Origanum sp), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), Dill (Anethum graveolens), Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum), Scallions/Green Onions (Allium fistulosum), Garlic greens and Spring Garlic (Allium sativa), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Evening Primrose Lvs (Oneothera biennsis), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Spearmint (Mentha spicata), Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Onions (especially Spring Onions), Shallots, Mustard Greens, Arugula, and so on. These are all wonderful plants for the spring and among the first to come back in the garden and hit the farmers markets!  And remember, if it's growing from the ground outside right now, it's absolutely the best food you can find for harmonizing with the spring!

 Young Catnip  (Nepeta cataria)  emerging. Catnip comes back very early in the spring and is pungent in flavor. Add the tops to salads, make tea, or just nibble on from the garden!

Young Catnip (Nepeta cataria) emerging. Catnip comes back very early in the spring and is pungent in flavor. Add the tops to salads, make tea, or just nibble on from the garden!

Sweet Foods and Herbs
In terms of getting that sweetness in- we’re not talking sweet like sugar or really even honey. What we want is that mild sweetness found in many greens (that is often paired with some bitter and salty flavor), especially in the spring when that yang energy is the strongest. Remember that many greens are sweetest in the spring before they become more bitter in the summer. In terms of domesticated species, the Brassicas like kale and collards, asparagus, spinach and some lettuces really exemplify this. Spring Asparagus is quite sweet too. In terms of wild greens, Dandelion Lvs (Taraxacum officinale), Violet Lf (Viola sp), Plantain (Plantago spp), Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album), Chickweed (Stellaria media), and Nettles (Urtica dioica) are have some sweetness to them, particularly in the spring.  A garden plant with lots of sweetness is Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).  And don’t forget the roots! Dandelion Rt (Taraxacum officinale), Evening Primrose Rt (Oneothera biennsis), Burdock Rt (Arcticum lappa) all have some sweetness paired with the bitter flavor, and are quite abundant in our northeast bioregion. And don't forget the early spring fruits like Strawberry, and also sweet fruits in general clearly contain the sweet flavor and are appropriate.

Supportive Daily Lifestyle Practices
Create a little Spring within! Launch new projects, be decisive, forage for wild foods, get plenty of movement and exercise, plan and set goals for the year, get your hands in the dirt- grow something! Keep trying to embody that flexible young sapling swaying in the wind, or the daffodils or spring bulbs pushing through the leaves and sticks without an hesitation, yet with flexibility and ease. Nature is truly our biggest teacher- when in doubt look to her for inspiration.

Wishing you all a wonderful spring full of flexibility, ambition, decisiveness, and clear vision and purpose.


Some spring recipes and articles from this blog to get you going

 Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Folks often confuse this with Violets, but Garlic Mustard has a more curly edge to the leaf, comes-out earlier (it's our earliest wild green!), and- of course- smells strongly of garlic when you crush the leaf. This pungent wild green contains the wild and expansive essence of the spring, and harmonizes us energetically with the spring.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Folks often confuse this with Violets, but Garlic Mustard has a more curly edge to the leaf, comes-out earlier (it's our earliest wild green!), and- of course- smells strongly of garlic when you crush the leaf. This pungent wild green contains the wild and expansive essence of the spring, and harmonizes us energetically with the spring.


 Spring Garlic (Allium sativa). Simply harvest some of your garlic early in the spring before it fully matures. It is delicious and quite pungent- perfect spring medicine

Spring Garlic (Allium sativa). Simply harvest some of your garlic early in the spring before it fully matures. It is delicious and quite pungent- perfect spring medicine

References

Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition
By Paul Pitchford

Staying Healthy With the Seasons
By Elson M. Haas

Foundations of Chinese Medicine
By Giovanni Maciocia

The Web That Has No Weaver
By Ted Kapchuk

The Yellow Emporer’s Classic of Medicine/ The Neijing
Circa 200-400 BC

“Living Medicine”
Larken Bunce, Herbstalk 2014

Clearpath School of Herbal Studies
Chris Marano, Clinical Herbalist