As with nearly everything in Chinese Medicine, nothing is ALWAYS true. Everything is dependent on the season, our external environment, our constitution, time of life, and current health condition. This medicine is so effective because it is incredibly adaptive and recognizes the necessity of nuance. It's an ongoing joke in Chinese Medicine circles that every good doctor or professor will answer any student’s question with "it depends".
So.. the answer to the questions “I thought sweating was good for us, aren’t we supposed to sweat every day?” is… “ it depends”.
In the winter the direction our Qi moves in naturally is inward, deep into the Kidneys and internal organs and away from the periphery. Going with this natural flow of qi is vital to our ability to sustain our health. In this case it means allowing our bodies the space to rest and recover in the stillness of the deepest Yin months (Winter) so that as Yang starts to become more active again come Spring we have the energy to flow in that direction with vibrancy and health.
If we stay "active" all year long, pushing our qi to be in a Yang state of circulating at the periphery by doing, pushing and spending energy like we would in the Yang months (Spring/Summer), we will quickly become Yang Deficient. This means we become exhausted and eventually find ourselves in a state of imbalance and illness. This, unfortunately, is really common in western society where we fail to recognize and align ourselves with our natural environments and seasonal Qi. We ignore the seasonal and internal changes that are necessary throughout the year, and we strive to be active, productive and “on” the whole time. We wear ourselves out and wonder why we are sick and tired.
An easier way to wrap our heads around this same concept would be to think about the 24 hour cycle, rather than the year cycle. Ignoring the inward turning of our Qi in the Winter, on a 24 hour cycle would be like skipping sleep every night and choosing to work through it, then still pushing in the morning when the sun is up without ever giving ourselves rest. Would you then wonder after a few nights why we feel so awful? It would feel more clear that what you need is good, restful sleep.
It is the same with the year cycle, but rather than literal sleep in the autumn and winter, we need rest. A slowing of our pace, a calming of our minds, an inward turning of our Qi, so that our vital organs can receive all of the energy they need to recharge. When we stay in active outward pushing Yang mode year round, we start to experience Yang deficiency symptoms and other imbalances that ultimately leave us with unwanted symptoms and illnesses over time.
So what in the world does this have to do with sweating?
Sweating, means we are pushing our yin and yang (Qi) to the surface. We are either exposed to high heat or we generate high heat internally with exercise (or fever) that pushes our Qi to the surface, because heat rises.
When heat builds under the surface of the body, the pores to release the heat. When we sweat it means 1) we are losing fluid, this is Yin and 2) we are losing heat, this is Yang.
If our Qi is moving to the surface then we are asking it to move away from our Kidneys and abdominal organs. This is the opposite of recharging at that deep, necessary Winter level. Instead, by sweating we are embodying the energy of a Yang season, not the Yin inward stillness of Winter.
If we're working out and sweating all winter long, when Spring comes we will experience depletion of Qi, depending on other factors it might look like dryness, Qi stagnation or deficiency symptoms.
The only time we should be aggressively sweating in the winter is when we have a wind-cold illness, like a head-cold, virus, respiratory infection, fever etc. When we are sick, we need to use sweating as a kind of medicine, to help the body restore its healthy physiology. The goal is to clear the cold symptoms, and in order to do that we want to open the pores and sweat to clear the congested heat at the surface that has build as a result of this acute illness. In this case, we bundle up, take hot baths, drink hot teas and soups to generate a complete sweat to drive the congested heat to the surface of the body. Once we break a good sweat a few times our body is able to clear out the congestion and pathogen and our system can return to homeostasis. The body will then send it's Qi back to the the internal organs for the winter.
Of course in balance there is nothing wrong with sweating a little bit in the Winter months, a gentle sauna or a workout can be really nice, but when done excessively in the winter we are going against our body's natural rhythm and setting ourselves up to deal with imbalance and illness as time goes on. I know everyone in the West wants to fight me on this, but it is what it is. Shifting your workout routine for the winter to something less aggressive and more passive like yoga, walking, qi-gong, tai chi, stretching and the like, is a much more effective way to support your health, if health is truly the goal.
How do we know if it’s a good season for big sweats?
If we ask ourselves "which direction is the seasonal energy naturally moving right now and how can I mimic that with my activities?
In the summer, our Qi is at the periphery and we should easily and abundantly sweat. Our energy easily flows outward to vent extra heat we generate as a result of the warmer weather. Sweating is great. Sweat away! Just stay hydrated.
In the fall, our Qi starts to move inward and descend, we should allow for gentle gentle sweating to keep the lungs moving freely. Lungs control opening and closing of the pores, so to avoid too much dryness or dampness in the respiratory system during fall, we want this system to be moving properly this season. We want gentle sweats, not the big aggressive activities of the summer, but hot baths, and our workouts should be getting slightly less intense as we bring in more stretching and walking and flowing type exercises.
In the winter, we should avoid sending Qi to the surface and sweating, we want to keep it all tucked deep inside to refuel our vital organs and conserve energy, like hibernation.
In the Spring our Qi starts to ascend once again and we start to embody movement to shake off the stillness of the winter Yin months. Opening detox pathways (sweating is a big one!), Clearing out stasis, generating movement, and allowing for new growth is important. We can start sweating again without causing harm. We want to encourage blood flow and get the tendons and sinews moving, this is the time of the Liver and the Liver controls these connective tissues.
And then we’re back to the big heat of Summer. Sweat it out.
Humans are as much a part of nature as any plant or animal. Even if we aren't living in the forest communing with the trees we are still subject to the natural rhythm of the seasons and Qi flow to maintain our health. By recognizing these patterns we can empower ourselves to feel our healthiest and most vital year round!