Welcoming Autumn: The Season of Metal
September has arrived, and in the Northern Hemisphere that means we are approaching the Autumnal Equinox. As this month gently ushers in the first cool breezes and the whisper of changing leaves (or, if you’re in Florida, peak hurricane season and temperatures below 90*), it's the perfect time to explore the nuances of Autumn in Chinese Medicine.
Autumn naturally invites introspection, a season of slowing amidst life's chaos to look within. Metal is the element of the season– Density, weight, and rigidity come to mind. The Metal element rules the Lungs (think of how you might feel like there is a weight on your chest when you are in grief, and that it is the iron in the blood that carries oxygen) and the Large Intestine (the final end of the dense matter elimination pathway, tasked with letting go). Chinese Medicine recognizes that as we move out of the vibrant, expanding, Yang energy of Summer, and into the quiet, consolidating, Yin energy of Winter, the emotions that often come up for us are grief, sadness, even melancholy or depression. On a physical level, this season can bring more internal dryness as the humidity of Summer wanes, and this can lead to respiratory inflammation and infections (hello, “cold season!”) or intestinal imbalances.
Chinese Medicine teaches that the body is a microcosm of the world around us. As the environment around us goes through this seasonal shift, so do we, on physical, mental, emotional, and energetic levels. Just as trees shed leaves to conserve energy, we turn inward, putting our resources back into ourselves rather than out into the world. So how can we work with this seasonal transition to bring ourselves into better balance?
Love Your Lungs!
In the Autumn, the Lung and Large Intestine get more Qi flowing through them than they do in other seasons, which means if there are imbalances already happening in these systems they will be highlighted and demand our attention. Similarly, when the Lung and Large Intestine are flooded with extra Qi, we have the greatest potential for healing these imbalances. We always want to take this opportunity to heal when we are supported by the energy of our environment working with us! One simple way to harness this healing potential and inwardly-directed energy is by placing our awareness on the breath.
Intentional and conscious control and regulation of the breath, now often called “breathwork,” is a central element of the Traditional Chinese wellness practice of Qi Gong. Breathwork can help move any stagnant energy through the lungs that might be contributing to the uncomfortable emotional aspects of Autumn. Additionally, the pressure and warmth generated when the diaphragm (the muscular membrane that separates the cavity of the lungs from the abdominal cavity) is pushed down during a nice, deep inhalation applies a gentle massage to the intestines. This supports blood and energy flow to the large intestine and helps us to physically, emotionally, and energetically eliminate the toxic energy and physical waste that isn't serving us.
This descending motion, a representation of the Metal element, from the lungs down through the large intestine, is what Autumn is all about. The better we can embody this descending, grounding energy and support this natural downward flow of Qi, the less dissonance and discomfort we feel and the healthier we can be.
Breathwork for Fall Wellness
A breathing exercise to support the Metal element, and help us move through Autumnal grief and sadness:
Find a comfortable position, sitting or lying. Close your eyes. Imagine a cool, white light all around you. Imagine that you feel peaceful in this light, completely comfortable. Put one hand on your chest, over your lungs and one hand on your belly button, over your large intestine. As you inhale through your nose imagine the white light coming in with your breath and filling your lungs with peaceful, calming energy. Breathe in for a slow count of 4. As you inhale, push your breath all the way down into your abdomen and feel your belly rise the deeper the breath. Hold the breath in for another count of 4. If holding for 4 is too much, then get as close as you can and work your way towards that. Exhale a calm, controlled breath out through the mouth for a slow count of 6. We really want to focus on pushing every bit of stale air and energy out of the body, this helps us make space for what we need. We are exhaling more than we inhaled. With your breath out, feel your belly soften and fall back toward your spine. Pause with empty lungs for a count of 4. Repeat this 10 times, or as many as you are able to each day. As your breathing practice gets easier, try adding another count to each step, slowing, lengthening, and deepening your breath and connection to your body.
This and many other breathing exercises help us to communicate to our nervous system and emotional body that we are safe and have permission to slow down and really sink our energy into ourselves. If you find yourself struggling with these emotions right now, take 30 seconds here and there to do a round of breathing. See what shifts. Sometimes the simplest exercises can make a big difference.
Emotional Health in the Autumn
This time of year, our bodies make a pivot and begin to pull energy inward, just as do many things we can observe in nature around us. Animals start gathering their resources in anticipation of the Winter months, and trees respond to the declining sunlight by storing energy in their sap or roots. It is not a time of making new life and expanding, but rather a time of contracting, consolidating, and tending to our inner world. This shift often brings our awareness to emotions we've experienced throughout the year. Maybe we passed these experiences by as best we could, with the intent of processing them later because circumstances demanded it, or maybe we were too raw to really process them safely. Maybe we just weren't ready to acknowledge and explore them. The ‘why’ doesn’t matter: Now is the time to revisit these tender places and gently allow ourselves to process them and feel the emotions that come up. As we still our minds and slow our bodies to embrace this opportunity, it is very common to find a version of grief staring back at us.
The seasonal energy of Autumn is symbolic of death and letting go. In modern society, we rarely sit with this kind of discomfort until we feel like we have no other choice.
We are being pulled to acknowledge and release (if possible) the parts of our mind, body, and spirit that are weighing us down. In the wheel of Seasons according to Chinese Medicine, it is said that “Metal collects Water.” In the Autumn, as we recognize what is taking up valuable energy and space inside, we get to choose how we will craft that dense emotional material into a beautiful vessel, so that we can fill that inner space with resources to sustain us when the environment around us is not filling us with its energy. Winter is when Yang (vital energy and life force) is at its lowest and when we are completely turned inside, recharging and restoring ourselves. If we can allow this inward shift to begin now, as uncomfortable as it is, we will have set ourselves up to emerge from Winter feeling rested and ready to greet Spring.