Late Summer

Acupuncture in Exeter: Courgettes. Late summer, or chang xia, is the fifth season in the Chinese calendar, and in my view, the missing one in our own. As we stew in that classic August combination of warmth and humidity, just consider for a moment how different this month feels from June, and you can quickly see why this period in the year justifies its own seasonal division.

Tomatoes. In traditional Chinese culture, energy now is considered to be at a stillpoint, or to have plateaued after a peak in June, and before its descent into autumn. We experience this as a sense of restfulness in the world: much of the country seems to be on holiday, and nature too takes time off. Birdsong is less noticeable, now that they have found mates, raised fledglings and left empty nests.

Sunflower at Robin's acupuncture clinic, ExeterEvenings have drawn in by an hour or so. The rays of the sun are more watery compared with that penetrating, almost Mediterranean, overhead brilliance that we see in June in Devon and Cornwall. The exciting, vibrant greens of spring, have given way to darker, mature foliage in woods and in our gardens. Plant and lawn growth has slowed.

Beetroot. The theme now is about to become one of harvest and abundance: blackberries appear in the hedgerows, and your allotment bears fruit. The corn is tall in the fields. It is a time of reward for your efforts, when nature pays you a return on your investment.

Apples at Robin's acupuncture clinic, Exeter So what should we draw from all of this? Notice this moment of stillness before we take a little tilt down and autumn appears over the horizon. Soak up some soft rays of lower, August sunshine whilst filling a bowl with blackberries. Make sure you have had a holiday; this is a late opportunity to supplement your reserves ready for the coming winter. Above all, I hope you will find profound enjoyment in the beauty of late summer, and our constantly revolving seasons.

Looking After Ourselves in Summer

Health advice in summer from Robin Costello's acupuncture clinic, Exeter May has been a little unsettled weather-wise, but the days are nevertheless approaching their longest. If you love the great outdoors or tending your garden, you can put in a full day at work, then still enjoy two or three hours outside. During the day, the sun in south-west England takes on a more brilliant, overhead quality, and you can see why artists are attracted here to paint.

Chinese health advice in summer: daisies at Robin Costello's acupuncture clinic in Exeter In ancient China, summer was seen as “Heaven on Earth”, when the full splendour of heaven’s energy is manifest around us. This is nature at its zenith, and the time of year when our energy and activity levels peak. As regards health advice in summer, it is considered wise to rise earlier in the morning, and it’s fine to stay up later into the evening. Spend time outside and soak up the sunshine and fresh air, as if you are charging your battery ready for the eventual return of winter. If you have been contemplating beginning an exercise program, then now is the moment, especially if it’s an outdoor sport you would like to take up; if you are short of time, you could start walking or cycling to work.

Strawberries grown at Robin's acupuncture clinic, Exeter It is easier also over the next few months, to adhere to the traditional Chinese dietary advice of eating produce which is locally grown and in season. (“Food miles” is a recently introduced term, often invoked to draw attention to the cost to the environment of putting say, kiwi fruit on the UK shelves in December, but in energetic medicine, food which has travelled vast distances is also considered slightly denatured and less wholesome for the body.) Bee activity on the chives at Robin's acupuncture clinic, Exeter Because summer weather is more favourable, and our bodies are not struggling so hard to maintain a warm, dry internal climate in an energetic sense, you can sample the full variety of salad vegetables and all the health-giving berries on offer.

Traditional Chinese health advice in summer from acupuncturist Robin Costello in Exeter. Finally, if you are very physically active, and still up and about late on a summer’s evening, consider a short siesta on days when it’s practical. Just twenty minutes lying horizontal somewhere between around 1.00 and 3.00pm, is considered very replenishing.

Looking After Ourselves in Spring

Looking after ourselves in spring: field near Crediton The three months of spring are called the time of releasing the stale. Heaven and Earth rise together and the ten thousand things thrive. It is a time to sleep in the evening and arise early. Walk in the courtyard; absorb the radiance and relax the body. – Sùwèn (3rd-2nd century BCE)

Spring tulips in south Devon. For the purposes of this article, the period of spring is around early March to mid-May. It is defined usually by milder days and an increase in activity in nature. We have enjoyed daffodils for a few weeks already, and the primroses are flourishing on Devon’s sunny banks and verges. We arrive soon though at the equinox, at which point we truly move into the more Yang phase of the annual cycle. The length of the day will then for the next six months, become greater than the length of the night.

Spring or Chuntian The Chinese character for spring depicts the sun (the rectangle with a horizontal bar bisecting it) pushing up the vegetation from below. In its own way, this is quite correct. The sun’s energy was chemically stored in the seed or roots beneath the soil the previous summer, and is producing this growth now.

South Devon bluebell woodAncient Chinese culture traditionally saw this season as two phases: a sprouting up (fa) and an unfolding (chen). The character for fa is a bow and arrow, with the ground being pierced open by something which has been held back ie the arrow. Chen then refers to the proliferation of growth which we witness in our gardens, woodlands and verges.

Plum blossom in Exeter Whereas in winter, old Chinese wisdom teaches us to retire earlier to bed and to rise later too, with the coming of spring, we should continue to retire early, but can now begin to rise earlier. The mornings are getting progressively lighter, and the birds are greeting the dawn with enthusiasm and joy in their song. This is a time of day which offers you the opportunity of a moment of meditation, a moment which will stand you in good stead for whatever the rest of the day may hold. Try to take a walk before work, or even just sit in your garden if it’s not too cold. The Qi at this time of the morning is fresh and renewed, like a sparkling, clear brook from which you can sip. If you cannot be outside, then begin the day with some stretches, as if awakening your body from its long, winter sleep.

Looking after ourselves in spring: spring daffodils near ExeterIn early spring, the Chinese taught that the body’s pores are beginning to open. This is considered to reduce our resistance to cold. Because cold weather might still linger through the first half of April, we should not therefore cast off too many layers of winter clothing prematurely. Our own cultural parallel is of course, “Ne’re cast a clout ’till may is out.” This probably means do not abandon your winter clothing until the may or hawthorn tree blossoms, again usually after some warmer days in late April. If you feel at all chilly, then you are underdressed, and need to take prompt action.

We can also now become generally more physically active again. For some it may mean returning to a favourite outdoor sport. For others, it might mean engaging with the garden. Be careful to avoid a springtime injury, by just building back up to things gently.

Self-Care in Late Winter

Snowdrops near Okehampton If you have a window ajar morning or evening, you will notice that the birdsong is becoming more enthusiastic, and the snowdrops, crocuses and camellias, are bringing colour back to our gardens. The energy within us which had lain deep and still through December and January, is stirring, and like seedlings beneath the soil, we feel the first signs on slightly warmer days, of an awakening within.

Lambs near Crediton If over the next few weeks you like to sow seed, you will know the importance of adhering to the recommended planting depth, for each seed only contains sufficient energy to journey to the soil surface from that depth. Similarly, we only have sufficient energy to reach the spring intact, if we continue to pace ourselves carefully over this final phase of winter.

Winter lane near Chagford Around the boundary between late winter and early spring, people can feel unexpectedly tired: we have survived the coldest and darkest part of the seasonal cycle, and our batteries can accordingly feel a little flat, but a proper re-charge is still a little way off. Traditional Chinese advice is to continue to get plenty of sleep, and to adhere still to a winter-based diet of warm, cooked foods. As a scattering of milder days come to Devon, we should not be tempted to leave off too many layers of clothing: warm weather when it is still relatively early in the year, catches the body out, and as a result of going out in only a t-shirt, we can come down with a cold.

Late winter crocus at Robin's acupuncture clinic in Exeter Keeping in mind these simple measures from traditional Chinese medicine, should help you to reach springtime in good shape, and with a sense of rising vitality.

Self-Care in Winter

Winter sunset near Exeter From December, I notice a good deal of tiredness afoot among my patients: the days are shorter, giving us a subtle yet powerful cue to slow down, expend less energy, and sleep longer. Despite this, what happens in our modern culture? People instead seem to have to work ever harder through this month: projects at work have to be finished before the Christmas holidays, and we have preparations to be made in our own lives at the same time. Life actually gets relentlessly busier! Couple all that with the emotional strain which the last 20 months has unfortunately been for many people, and you can see why we should remember to be kind to ourselves at this point in the calendar.

Frozen foliage near Cullompton We are now having some frosty mornings, but for the last month, it has mostly felt damp in Devon. The damp of an English winter, especially if combined with cold, can be a challenge to the body if we are inadequately dressed. In Chinese medicine, it is particularly important to protect your lower back (considered the seat of your warming Yang Qi), and your joints (considered vulnerable to adverse climatic factors). In Britain, rheumatic aches and pains are unfortunately very common: I treat a lot of people who can categorically state that their troublesome joints are more uncomfortable when the weather is cold and/or damp. (These associations have been confirmed by research from the University of Manchester: see my post of 24 October 2019 under Arthritis & Joints.)

Winter health tips: Winter birch near Crediton The Chinese recognised this pattern centuries ago, and gave it the name “Bi”; it is described in a medical text dating from 610 AD. Sometimes, but not always, there is evidence of osteoarthritis in the affected joint(s); other times, it may instead be an old injury which plays up in unfavourable weather. What can you do to help yourself if this sounds like you or someone you know? When I am treating this condition, I recommend that my patients wear additional warm layers over the joint concerned, that they avoid the damp eg kneeling on damp ground if the knee is affected, that they have an appropriate diet of warm cooked foods, and that they take up the right kinds of exercise. Acupuncture and self-help can mean that winter need no longer herald in the dreaded rheumatism.

Hexagram 24: Fu - The Return.To remind you that winter will not last forever, remember this symbol from the ancient Chinese Book of Changes or Yi Jing. It is hexagram 24, associated with the winter solstice. The solid line on the bottom represents the yang beginning to stir deep within the earth, ready for the lengthening and warming of the days.

Dartmoor offers endless, bracing winter hiking routes.If your mood does tend to be lower at this time of year, be sure to soak up plenty of daylight at every opportunity: try to work by the window for example, as the intensity of natural light is many times greater than artificial light, even when it’s dull and overcast.

For a really invigorating winter walk, head for the coast at Exmouth, Budleigh Salterton or Dawlish. If you have more time, go out and explore the Devon countryside for a longer trek: clamber down into some of our deep, wooded valleys, and follow rivers like the Bovey or Teign, to tune into the stillness of a season which is actually very special in its own way. Let the meditative state of mind which can be induced by walking, help you to reflect quietly on the year that has gone by, and the year of opportunity which is to come.