Teya Skae shows how to find a healthy balance with the Five Elements of TCM, beginning with the element for Spring, Wood.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), life is viewed through the cycles of five universal basic elements - Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. In the beginning was the Tao (the totality of everything that exists) and the Tao split into two - Yin and Yang, (symbolised as opposites, such as, feminine/masculine, night/day, dark/light). The principles of Yin/Yang are found everywhere - on earth, in nature, in crops, foods and in our bodies. The Yin/Yang phenomenon is also exemplified in the production of electricity, where the forces of attraction and repulsion create electrical energy; so, too, the Yin/Yang forces in nature are the sparks of life. Yin complements Yang and Yang complements Yin. The two need each other and, if one or the other is dominant, imbalance results. For example, if we spend too much time in action - doing things, running around, being in a Yang mode, we burn out. The same is true for the opposite: too much time spent in reflection and contemplation, as pleasant as it may be, might not fully get things done or completed. The ideal is to balance the two in life. It is not that one is better than the other - balancing the tension between the two extremes is what being on Earth is about, because life on Earth is all about dealing with duality.
On earth, Yin and Yang express themselves as the Five Elements (or Five Agents) of life. The Five Elements - Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water - are found everywhere around our planet and govern the four seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter. Even though the Five Elements do not exist in our bodies, as such, they are universal qualities that govern our 12 meridians (or Qi channels). The 12 meridians are the physical template of our whole mind-body system and supply Qi (energy) to our 12 organs (liver, gallbladder, heart, small intestine, pericardium, thyroid/adrenals, spleen, stomach, lung, large intestine, kidney and bladder). Each of the Five Elements influences a Yin and a Yang organ. For example, the Wood Element is involved with the Liver (Yin) and Gall Bladder (Yang). The Chinese see this as a husband and wife relationship within the house, or within the element. The analogy is that of the wife (Liver) planning and working in some way all the time, and the husband (Gall Bladder) works only when needed or as required, such as digesting fats. Perhaps husbands haven't changed that much over the centuries!
The balance of the Five Elements is maintained by the Shen and Ko cycles. The Shen is the nurturing cycle, in which the energy of one Element flows into and nurtures the energy of the following Element.
Water nourishes the plants and trees, generating Wood
Wood can be burned to generate Fire
Fire leaves behind ashes that are absorbed into the Earth
Earth contains the ores that form Metal
Metal (mineral ores) enriches the Water
The Ko Cycle applies constraints to the relationships between various Elements. By this law, balance and harmony are maintained when one Element exerts appropriate control over its opposite Element.
Wood can deplete the Earth of its nutrients
Earth absorbs water, channelling and containing it
Water can overcome Fire
Fire can melt Metal
Metal controls Wood (as metal tools can cut through trees)
The theory of the Five Elements is based on TCM's Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine, of which there are several versions. The most common source known, and the most recent, was compiled by Wang Ping during the Tang Dynasty (2nd-3rd century BC).
TCM is based on the belief that humanity is part of the natural environment and health (balance) can only be achieved when one follows natural law, adapting to changes of the seasons, environment, and the ever-changing circumstances in life. This is the philosophy of the Tao.
Applying the law of the Five Elements to our life and our mind-body relationship, we see the bigger picture of where our imbalances stem from. With this understanding, we can balance our life by balancing our meridian energy system - the template for our physical body - and thus balance our whole being (mind and emotions). We can do this by starting with our most basic life need - nutrition - by choosing to cook with wholefoods, as opposed to living on conveniently processed foods. We then work upwards to our thought patterns, emotions and live our life purpose by following our heart's wisdom, rather than living our choices from the mind and thinking our way towards happiness. Happiness is not a destination or a goal, it is a state of being and is an attitude that we choose to adopt.
When we follow our heart's desires and wisdom, we are naturally seeking balance and become more in touch with ourselves, our environment and all life. It is not an intellectual exercise but more experiential. We learn as we go - and we learn as we eat, drink, think and feel - along the lines of following seasonal changes and living in harmony with the Five Elements. We acknowledge our emotions and move through them, rather than avoid them. Everything is one continuum that affects everything else. That is the way of the Tao. The heart understands this but the mind cannot fully grasp it, because the mind is so conditioned to a linear cause-and-effect mode of thinking. Yet, the heart feels the truth and what is right at the time.
In TCM, there is no division between the physical, emotional and mental aspects of our life events, all of which reflect the balance or imbalance of our Five Element energies. Therefore, it is believed that the more we stray from living in harmony with the Tao, the spiritual laws of the universe, the more certain it is that no form of external medicine or treatment could make up for the stresses that will affect the mind body spirit.
Spring is the time of the Wood Element at its peak. Wood is associated with growth and development, with making decisions, initiating new projects and taking positive action. In nature, this is reflected in the season of Spring - when nature begins its process of blooming after a period of hibernation during the winter. Any imbalances manifesting in our Wood Element - physical, emotional or spiritual - may become most evident at this time of year.
Wood Element governs how we see ourselves and others. When we focus on what we do - our actions and the actions of others - we see everything as either good or bad, right or wrong. If we can move beyond these judgments, we are able to see the bigger picture. With a bigger vision, we are able to cultivate a more balanced and compassionate view of ourselves and of others - and the world in general. This is the essence of a harmonious Wood expression that yields peace of mind, better health and greater fulfilment in living.
If our Wood Element is stressed due to anger or being judgmental, we may feel stuck in all areas of our life - physical, mental and emotional. Hence, Wood is also about flexibility and flow. If we are not moving towards our goals or desired outcomes, then we are not moving in our life. This may cause pent up frustration, which leads to despair. Wood is also about hope and aspirations. The key action for Wood is movement. Regular daily exercise, whether yoga or more dynamic forms of cardiovascular or resistance training, is most beneficial for Wood imbalances.
One of the major Wood imbalances has to do with the liver and its relationship with digestion. The liver is responsible for over 500 biochemical functions in the body. When the liver energy stagnates due to lack of flow in our life, we can become brittle and inflexible in both mind and body. (Brittle nails are one reflection of this imbalance.) The Wood Element also controls the tendons and ligaments and the way in which these interact with the muscles. If the liver has not cleansed the blood sufficiently or if there is a deficiency of blood, the tendons will suffer from malnutrition - giving rise to stiffness, particularly in the neck and shoulder region.
How do we know we are out of balance in our Wood Element? Experiencing resentment, aggressive behaviour and bitterness are definite signs. Even having a bitter taste in the mouth is a sign of liver imbalance. Physical signs manifest as pain on the right side of the trunk, migraines/headaches and general difficulty in the mind-body system.
Liver and gall bladder are affected by emotional stress and toxic emotions, such as anger, frustration and bottled up resentment. These emotions deplete our energy levels and can lead to long-term health problems. TCM practitioners see short bursts of anger as very productive, as this energy initiates action, which brings about change. Conversely, if we are not expressing our anger appropriately, suppressed anger has a devastating effect on our physical health, which eventually leads to apathy or depression. One way of viewing depression is anger without enthusiasm!
Incorporating regular detoxifications and emotional release work into our lives pays off in more energy for life and moving on from "being stuck".
According to oriental practitioners, detoxifying the liver is not something we do once a year but, rather, weekly or even daily. One of the best ways to promote liver cleansing is by eliminating sugar from our diet. (There are many wonderful healthy, natural alternatives to sugar, such as stevia and xylitol. These are actually beneficial and still satisfy our taste buds eager for sweetness).
Also, a good Wood attitude is to welcome change on all levels, as life is about changes, flow and creating new experiences, whether to our health, body, exercise regime or approach to life. This, in essence, is what the Wood Element is about - positive change and flexibility. It is about becoming more like a willow tree, bending with the forces of the winds and rising up in strength when the winds have subsided, unlike the oak tree that is fixed and stoic. If we are not flexible in our body, we cannot fully be flexible in our mind and attitude, as those two are the reflections of one another.
As the liver and gall bladder are both associated with the Wood Element and Spring exacerbates imbalances to do with Wood, it makes sense to do a simple detox at this time of year. When referring to a detox, it is on all levels. Releasing what we no longer need fosters new beginnings and promotes flow in a positive direction. This is Good Wood!
Contrary to what many people believe, doing a juice detox is not a good way to detox the liver. In fact, fruit juices aggravate the liver, as the liver does not digest fructose. In small amounts, as in one apple, it is okay - but a concentrated amount of juice without the fibre creates rising blood sugar levels in most people. Celery and cucumber juices are exceptions, but flooding the liver with carrot, apple and pineapple fructose causes blood sugar imbalances and promotes hunger. Light soups for lunch and dinner are much gentler nurturing way to detox and give the liver a chance to de-stress as well.
Improvement is more noticeable when we adopt the notion of "what we don't put in our body, rather than what we add". This strongly applies to the liver, particularly with the caffeine alkaloids found in tea and coffee. These are very much a part of the Western diet and are very harsh on the liver and the central nervous system. Rather than totally giving up, why not replace these caffeinated drinks with organic green tea or organic decaffeinated coffee in small quantities? Herbs, such as cardamom, cumin, ginger and horseradish, help with liver stagnation, while very spicy foods, such as cayenne and chillies, aggravate the liver.
Enjoy your spring cleaning, releasing and being in the flow - as, every time we let go of something we don't need, we open up to receive something that we do.
Teya Skae M.A., B.A., ATMS. AKA
Dip. Health Sciences, Dip. Clinical Nutrition
Jennifer Harper. Body Wisdom, Chinese and Natural Medicine for Self-Healing.
Michio Kushi, How to see your Health Book of Oriental Diagnosis.