Musings on Winter: Yin within Yin

Out of silence comes song,
Out of stillness comes movement, 
From movement comes dance, 
And dance to confidence.


By Dr. Anna Gold

Ask yourself: “What do I need to feel restored?”

I have been asking myself this question since the Winter Solstice.

As we cross the threshold into a new year, there is pressure to start anew. Our tradition to make resolutions promotes a sense of restlessness and anxiety.

What if I give you permission to rest? Let me propose an alternative to the busy to-do lists of New Year resolutions. Winter should be about honoring repose and respite. It is the season for turning inward.

Winter, in the Daoist cosmology, is considered the “Yin within Yin” time of year. The world exists on principles of Yin and Yang. Yin is substantive, receptive, still, introspective. Yang is energetic, dynamic, expansive. One cannot exist without the other and within each lies the seed of the other. Yin and Yang are opposites but complementary, always engaging and interacting.

As microcosms of the Universe, our bodies want to sync with the world around us. When Winter arrives, cold and darkness restrict activities. When Nature slows down, your body and mind also want to pause. By honoring that feeling, you follow the body's natural inclination. By doing so, you have access to resources on a profound level. Following Nature's rhythm can recharge you with resounding energy and prepare you for when the Light returns and the Earth turns again toward the Yang.

I recently listened to a podcast about burnout. During the podcast, Ezra Klein, New York Times journalist, interviews Dr. Gloria Mark, a professor at UC Irvine who authored the book,” Attention Span.” In her research, Dr. Mark finds that people have a set amount of focus everyday. Executive function, the part of the brain that filters out distraction, is limited. She discovers, “when we get tired, when our cognitive resources drain, executive function doesn’t work as well as it can. And so we get into this downward cycle of getting more exhausted. Our executive function can’t do the work it should. We become more susceptible to distractions. We try harder to stay on track, to stay focused. And the end result is, we get ourselves exhausted.” Dr. Mark’s research also supports activities which replenish the brain's resources. These activities include napping, meditating, exercise, and walking in nature. 

Gloria Mark’s research on executive function is reminiscent of TCM principles about Qi. Qi, or life force, combines “pre-heaven and “post-heaven” components. "Pre-heaven Qi" refers to one’s constitution and genetics. "Post-heaven Qi " draws from one’s lifestyle, for example, the quality of food one eats, the regularity of exercise, breathing patterns, emotional states, quality and quantity of sleep.  Similar to the research on executive function, if one overuses one's resources without properly replenishing them, overtime exhaustion and burnout will ensue.

I am recovering from a year of enormous changes, including the completion of a six year construction project housing my new office in Berkeley and the deaths of multiple loved ones. Intuitively, I find it much more crucial this Winter to hibernate. To stop and turn inward when Nature, too, is prioritizing stillness, helps to harness the deep resources available during this season of Yin. 

Thus, instead of a New Year’s resolution, I've resolved to prioritize to following:

  • Time alone to sit in silence and space to contemplate.  
  • To slow down and commit to one task at a time.
  • To make time to walk slowly enough to observe the things around me. Slowing down gives insight into Life which I would otherwise miss.
  • To prioritize sleep. I need to honor my sleep, because it is in the deep recesses of slumber where conflict is resolved and new ideas germinate. 

During the dark days of winter, give yourself permission to rest. It is in the nature of resting itself that seeds of activity are birthed. This is the concept of Yin/Yang.  If you store up enough energy during the Winter,  you will feel ready again to release that energy when the Spring arrives. 

So for now, take your time. Fill up on Stillness. Be quiet. Contemplate. And when the Light begins to overtake Darkness you will be ready to move forth.

Click here to read about practical ways to nourish yourself in the Wintertime.