What begins with ‘w,’ ends in ‘ater,’ comprises 60% of our bodies, and is so vital to our existence that going without it for more than a few days leads to death?
You guessed it…WATER.
In Chinese Medicine, the water element is related to the winter season and the kidney and bladder meridians so before winter slips away I thought I’d pay homage to this sweet nectar of life that keeps us humming along in so many ways.
What word comes to mind when you pause and think about water? For me, it’s ‘adaptive.’ Water intrinsically and continually adapts to the confines of its given surroundings, whether in nature in the form of rivers or lakes or in your household in the form of water bottles, ice trays, bath tubs, fish bowls, and so on.
Just as water shape-shifts to accommodate the parameters of its environment, the water element encourages us to be similarly adaptable, yielding to and accepting of the ever-changing nature of life. To ‘go with the flow,’ if you will.
A healthy water element is manifest in the individual who is intuitive, introspective, independent, and calm. Water types, or those in whom the water element is both strong and balanced, may possess a certain intangible and ethereal quality that is attractive to us, perhaps because it may be something we lack and desire for ourselves.
Water goddess I am not, but I can say with confidence that, with a lil TLC for your own water element, you can evoke that go-with-the flow, at-peace-with-the-world vibe that feels so elusive amidst an overly-scheduled and obligation-heavy existence.
I could, of course, wax poetic on the personality characteristics of the water element for a small eternity but 1) ain’t nobody got time for that and 2) the kidney and bladder organs and meridians that represent the water element have more than a few interesting physical, mental, and emotional functions (and associated dysfunctions) that are relatable to the masses so I best give them the attention they deserve.
So with that as preamble, let’s put on our speedos and dive in (pun intended, yet again)…
The water element is associated with winter, and therefore, cold. Which is not to say that the kidneys like the cold, because they don’t.
Frigid winter weather drives us indoors and compels us to turn inward, making winter an ideal time for reflection and for recharging our batteries. Most of us can’t go into full-on bear mode and hiberate for three months every year (dare to dream though, amiright?), but swapping out some of our energy-consuming regularly-scheduled commitments for more restorative practices should be both feasible and not too much of a tough sell.
The water element is related to fear, and fear is said to make qi descend, with effects ranging from urinary issues to depression and lack of motivation.
Fear can also immobilize us; we often hear about the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress and fear, but I think the concept would be better represented by the inclusion of the team ‘freeze,’ as many of us react to fear by curling up in a fetal position by way of self-preservation. This may serve us in certain scenarios but on a repeated basis, the freeze response prevents us from facing the world, learning, and growing.
The color of the kidneys is black; eating black foods such as blackberries, black beans, black sesame seeds, black lentils, black rice, and black walnuts will strengthen the kidneys.
We can expand this scope to include blue and purple foods, such as blueberries, purple sweet potatoes, etc. We cannot expand this scope to include black raspberry ice cream. Sorry.
Alternatively, you can take a sartorial approach to embodying the essence of the water element by wearing shades of black, blue, and purple. I haven’t personally invested much energy into this practice, and as someone whose wardrobe is composed almost entirely of Lululemon yoga pants and hooded sweatshirts, I’m probably not what you’d call an ‘authority’ in this realm.
The kidneys are said to control the bones, which makes sense if you think about bones being the deepest, most internal tissue (relative to muscles, tendons, blood vessels) and the winter season representing the period in which we retreat indoors and recuperate in preparation for the growth and activity that comes with the spring season.
Bone issues, both those that are present at birth (certain bone deformities, osteogenesis imperfecta) and those that develop during the lifetime (Rheumatoid Arthritis, osteoarthritis), tend to have an undercurrent of kidney weakness. Ditto for dental issues.
The kidneys ‘open to the ears’ and hearing issues can be related to kidney imbalance – deafness, declining hearing, ringing in the ears, etc.
The kidneys play a pivotal role in growth, development, reproduction, and aging so it goes without saying that they’re kiiiind of a big deal.
The kidneys supply the fire that energizes all of the organs and their respective functions, so they understandably have a tendency to become depleted. Any chronic illness or even chronic stress will drain the kidneys, leading to numerous undesirable symptom ranging from fatigue to sexual dysfunction to GYN imbalances to water metabolism dysfunction to problems with thermoregulation (cold intolerance or night sweats or even both), and more.
The kidneys also become depleted over time simply through living one’s life – explaining why many kidney imbalances look a heck of a lot like symptoms of the natural aging process. Because the kidneys store something called pre natal essence, which functions as a sort of blueprint for one’s constitution, including mental, emotional, and physical strengths and weaknesses, and because essence is doled out in finite amounts that cannot be added to, it makes sense that the kidneys have a tendency towards deficiency.
The kidneys serve as the storehouse for will power, known as the ‘zhi.’ In the same sense that water will always attempt to keep flowing, the zhi wants to keep us motoring along in life, but circumstances may get in the way. If a stream is impeded by barriers, water will stagnate and become murky and diseased; similarly, if the kidneys encounter too many or too significant of obstacles – cold, fear, constitutional factors, chronic stress or illness – they will stagnate as well, and this may show up as diminished will power or motivation, or even depression.
You may have noticed that I haven’t given much love to the bladder. Please know that I’m not trying to throw shade here, it’s just that the kidneys have a much greater range of functions and attributes than the bladder. The kidneys comprise the yin aspect of the water element and the bladder, the yang. Yin organs/meridians occupy a special focus in Chinese Medicine traditions, and while yang organs/meridians are very crucial and special too, not everyone can get a gold star.
So where does this leave us? You may be thinking, ‘ok Meghan, I kinda sorta maybe partly, well actually totally already knew that 1) winter is cold 2) I like to stay inside in winter and 3) fear makes me have to pee…’
And I feel you.
Some of this is intuitive, and that’s the beauty of Chinese Medicine. A lot of the concepts are actually quite intuitive if you can suspend your well-oiled western world reductionist thought patterns for a hot minute. And to that end, healing, or even simply just feeling better, can be more readily accessible than we’re trained to believe.
And with that, here are some self-care practices to help you give your kidney and bladder systems the nourishment they deserve. (And some embedded videos for my fellow lovers of 90’s and early 2000’s pop culture. You’re welcome.)
1.) Stay warm. I know, I already said this. But really, stay warm. Cold likes to creep in through the back of the neck and the feet. Bundle accordingly and place a hot water bottle or heating pad on your low back if you’re going to be sitting for long periods of time to keep the actual kidneys and the bladder meridian toasty.
2) Eat warm. Another no-brainer, I know. Soups and stews, for the win! And when you get burnt out on liquid-y foods, because you will, think about stir fry dishes and casseroles.
Roasting is actually the cooking method that imparts the most heat; I like to lightly coat a cookie sheet with olive oil spray, spread chopped veggies over it (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, carrots, butternut squash and parsnips are frequent flyers in my house), season with garlic, salt, and pepper, and roast at around 425 until the edges are crispy. Warming herbs and spices such as ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, and cloves are all winners in this department. As are warming teas, such as my main squeeze, Harney & Sons Hot Cinnamon Sunset.
3) Tap Tap Taparoo Selecting a favorite acupuncture point MIGHT be tantamount to selecting a favorite child (or if you’re me, a favorite brand of peanut butter) but if I HAD to pick a preferred kidney point, it would be kidney 27, or as we in the biz say, KD27. This point can be found at the lower border of the collar bone, about 2 inches on either side of an invisible line drawn down the center of the body. This point is actually a reflex for the adrenal glands, so tapping it (both sides) with your fingertips for about 60 seconds is an amazing way to get out of fight or flight mode and give the adrenals some love.
4) Stretch It Ouuutttttt. KD27 and several kidney points below it, each nestling within the spaces between the ribs, are sneaky lil smugglers of emotion, so stretching the upper chest can help liberate emotions that have been stashed away for a long time. I like sphinx pose or supported fish pose for activating and opening this whole area, but go easy, as they can stir up some feels that you may have been consciously or subconsciously burying for months, years, even decades. Throwing in a few rounds of cat-cow poses can also take your water-loving up to 11 because it stretches the kidney channel (cow) and the bladder channel (cat).
5) Breathe and Stop. The most appealing qualities of the water element cannot truly be accessed unless you’re calm and anchored in the present. No better way to attain this seemingly elusive state than to practice breathing exercises. Bonus points because the kidneys, through their relationship with the lungs, are involved in promoting healthy respiration.
I like to keep it simple with several rounds of the following: inhale to the count of 4, hold for a count of 7, exhale to the count of 8. Lather, rinse, repeat until you start to feel more settled, which will be a smoother and speedier process with time and continued practice.
6) Bend and Snap. Ok, don’t snap. But do bend to your heart’s – err, kidneys’ and bladder’s – content in the form of a forward fold, or ‘rag doll’ pose. Feet firmly planted, hinge at the waist, letting the upper body hang forward, bending the knees if hamstrings are tight and displeased with the position you’re trying to contort them into. This will not only stretch and soften the area where the physical kidneys are in the low back, but will also open up the bladder channel, as it traverses the back and hamstrings. Hold for 30 – 60 seconds, or longer if your hamstrings and low back are game.
Forward fold in all it’s magnificent permutations is also a pose that’s all about turning inward, and therefore serves as a complement to the restorative and introspective practices we can incorporate into our winter routines.
That’s a wrap! And since I’m a good lil dispenser of Chinese Medicine wisdom – orrrr because I couldn’t end the post without one last 90’s reference – I’ll leave you with a friendly parting reminder to be good to your kidneys and bladder, and not let your water element run dry…