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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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
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
Larken Bunce, Herbstalk 2014
Clearpath School of Herbal Studies
Chris Marano, Clinical Herbalist