The fall equinox, September 22, 2005, announces the first day of autumn, when day and night are of equal length. The cooler temperatures and shortened daylight hours following the fall equinox signal the growing predominance of yin. This time of year, both animals and plants become more yin, turning inward to build up the stores of nutrients they will need to get them through the long winter. Trees store nutrients as sap, which descends down the tree, and animals store nutrients as fat, converting everything they eat into that which will protect them from the cold and be converted into energy when food sources are scarce.
Autumn brings on a time when our vital energy also becomes more yin, moving downward and inward, to be replenished, nourished and refined. As in nature, we also must prepare for the oncoming winter months by strengthening our immune system, the body’s defense against colds and flu, which are often brought on by the change in seasons.
The Metal Element
According to Chinese Five Element theory, each season is represented by an element in nature. The metal element is associated with autumn and represents the mineral ores and salts in the earth. Metal is formed and contained deep inside the earth, where high temperatures and pressures cause molecules in molten magma to separate into homogenous layers. Some layers cool quickly into volcanic basalts, while others condense gradually into minerals and ores. Others stack themselves in precise lattice-like structures to form crystals. This process of separation pushes away impurities and molecules of dissimilar composition, forming metals that are pure and distinct.
In the body, metal manifests as the organs and meridians of the lung (yin) and large intestine (yang). The lungs and large intestine, when healthy and in balance, absorb and transform food and oxygen, utilize the food and oxygen’s essence and release what is not needed. An internal weakness in the metal element can result in problems associated with these organs, such as breathing or elimination difficulties. According to Chinese medical theory, the lung and large intestine perform the following functions:
- The lungs purify the air that we breathe. During inhalation, the lungs extract the purest essences from the air and distribute them throughout the body while eliminating impurities through exhalation. Impaired function of this aspect of the lungs can result in breathing difficulties like asthma and general fatigue.
- The lungs defend the body from pathogenic invasion by distributing protective or defensive energy to the body’s surface. This is primarily accomplished through the opening and closing pores to maintain thermal regulation of the body. Dysfunction of this aspect of the lungs can lower immunity, resulting in colds and flu.
- The lungs keep the body dry by dispersing fluids. Fluids that accumulate in the body are dispersed through the skin’s pores as perspiration and through the bladder as urine. When the lungs fail to disperse excess fluids, dampness can accumulate, causing the mucus and phlegm associated with colds and flu.
- The energy of the lungs can be evaluated in the quality of the skin and body hair, be they moist or dry, elastic or limp, shining or dull, soft or rough.
The Large Intestine
- The large intestine separates solid wastes and impure essences and eliminates them in the form of feces.
- Dysfunctions in the large intestine can result in constipation, diarrhea or an inability to “let go” of situations or attitudes. Poor intestinal elimination may affect the skin, another area of the body governed by the metal element.
Tonify and strengthen the metal element through the lungs and large intestine by performing acupressure on Lung 1 and Large Intestine 4. View the previous article Ten Highly Effective Acupressure Points for application and location information.
Emotions and Autumn
As the energy descends during autumn, the lungs and large intestine can be affected on an emotional level. Grief, sadness and depression are possible manifestations of this energetic shift. Just as high temperatures and pressure within the earth transform molten magma into gold and other minerals, the sadness and grief within our lives must be transformed into learning experiences from which we grow our courage and wisdom.
In the action of letting go we face our grief and mourn our losses. Through our losses and honoring our grief we derive strength and the courage to persevere. Although emotionally painful, this process can bring many gifts, crystallizing the essence of what is most important to us. Grief reminds us of how much love we can feel, and there is no greater strength than this deeply humanizing experience. Transforming grief by releasing it keeps our metal element in a healthy state of balance.
Resolve, the gift that comes after grief, is the recognition of what we still have; it is the pure gold that is transformed from the ashes, the distilled essence of what we have and what we can never lose.
Keeping ourselves emotionally healthy can positively impact our physical health. Understanding the connection between physical and emotional health can help us seek courage, strength and clarity to embrace the natural process contained in the energies of autumn.
Lymphatic Drainage Massage
As the daylight hours decrease and the weather becomes cooler, people generally spend more time indoors and at home, participating in more relaxed leisure activities. The lessening of physical activity has a profound effect on the lymphatic system and our immunity to colds and flu. Through inactivity, the immune system becomes sluggish and fails to adequately move stagnant fluid out of the tissues and into the lymphatic vessels and nodes where it can be purified by lymphocytes.
Lymphatic drainage massage (LDM) is an excellent means of assisting in this process. A massage therapist performing LDM moves his/her client’s skin in different directions: lengthwise, horizontally and diagonally. These movements, which stretch the microfilaments just below the skin that control the openings to the initial lymphatics, allow interstitial fluid to enter the lymphatic system while stimulating the lymph vessels to contract. Fluids are propelled forward through the lymph vessels and away from tissue areas where fluid has pooled from inactivity. LDM stimulates the lymphatic vessels to contract more frequently.
As the lymphatic fluid flow is enhanced, the body is put into a parasympathetic state, which slows the heart rate and breathing, relaxes muscles and allows organs to resume normal functioning. A deeper, more relaxed rhythm of breathing occurs during this massage and the therapist can work simultaneously with the client to perform specific breathing techniques that rejuvenate the lungs and increase the body’s defensive vital energy via the lungs.
Inhalation nourishes every cell in our body, while the exhale eliminates byproducts and waste that no longer serve us. Every breath offers the opportunity to cleanse and purify the body. The two breathing techniques below can be done separately or combined to ensure maximum expansion of the lungs.
- Abdominal Breathing: Massage therapists can assist their clients with this exercise. Begin by breathing normally. Slowly direct the focus of breathing to the abdomen. Place your hand lightly on the client’s abdomen and ask them to inhale and expand the belly to push your hand upward. At this time, the diaphragm sinks downward, allowing the lungs to expand more fully. When exhaling, the shoulders drop, the chest sinks inward, the diaphragm rises and the belly should contract gently and easily. This action pushes the stale air out through the lungs. Do this exercise for at least three minutes.
- Yin/Yang Breathing: Make a loose fist with the index and middle fingers of the right hand, leaving the thumb and last two fingers extended. Using the ring and pinky fingers, gently close off the left nostril and breathe deeply in through the right. At the top of the inhalation, release the left nostril and close off the right one with your thumb. Exhale slowly and smoothly. At the inhalation, breathe in deeply through the uncovered left nostril. When complete, open the right nostril and close the left one again with the last two fingers, exhaling deeply and slowly through the right nostril. Do this exercise for two to four minutes.
Autumn offers an array of fruits and vegetables that can support the lungs and large intestine as well as our overall health. A week of juice cleansing in early autumn will provide a boost of energy and may eliminate any potential illnesses by flushing out excess toxins. Fresh fruit juices in the morning and vegetable juices in the afternoon or evening are ideal.
Since it is autumn, grapes are harvested and prove to be a fine cleanser, harmonizer and tonic for both the lungs and large intestine. Juice the dark grapes in a juicer with organic apples and pears or oranges, or eat them as a snack during the day. Balance the sweetness of the grapes by drinking a glass of lemon water.
Pungent foods penetrate the lung and large intestine, where they can be used in combination with other foods to affect various disorders in those organs. Eating warming pungent foods in moderate amounts such as garlic and onions, chili peppers, horseradish, fennel, anise, dill, mustard greens, cinnamon, nutmeg, basil, rosemary, scallions, cloves, ginger, black pepper and cayenne can disperse excess dampness in the lungs and large intestine. Cooling pungent foods like radishes, cabbage, marjoram, white pepper, parsnips and turnip roots can help balance excess heat in the lungs and large intestine.
Eating root vegetables in season can strengthen deficiencies and support the lungs and large intestine. Sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots, radishes, ginger, garlic and onions are plentiful in the autumn and help to consolidate the lower body energy so that it doesn’t become too dispersed. Baking and/or roasting foods like squash, pumpkin and meats help draw heat energy into the foods to keep our bodies warmer in the winter months.
Those foods that congest the large intestine are sweets (cookies, cakes, etc.), cheese, noodles and breads. To keep the large intestine healthy and balanced, eat ample foods that lubricate this organ such as nuts (pecans, brazil, walnuts), seeds (sunflower, pumpkin) and oils made from seeds (sunflower, sesame, olive). To support the large intestine, include soups that are made from the pungent food groups, roots and squash, which are also plentiful in the autumn.
Exercise and Meditation
Because the energies of nature are turning inward and becoming more yin, it is important to concentrate more on staying relaxed and loose. Stretching, calisthenics, yoga, tai chi and qigong all keep the body flexible and the energy moving during this season and can be done indoors during the cold months. Meditation is also valuable during the autumn to quiet the mind and regulate our breathing. Setting aside 15 to 30 minutes each morning to focus on abdominal and yin/yang breathing can contribute to strengthening of the body’s vital energy.
Change is a recurring process in nature and in our lives. Adapt to this change in season by taking advantage of lymphatic massage, acupressure, eating seasonal foods, exercising and meditating. These proactive lifestyle suggestions can support the immune system, the lungs and the large intestine helping to maintain our health and vitality during the autumn months.