The five elemental phases, also known as the five elements, are a key theoretical structure of Chinese medicine.
This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about summer, late summer, fall and winter. Read below to learn about SPRING!
The five phases are:
- Water / 水 / Shui
- Wood / 木 / Mu
- Fire / 火 / Huo
- Earth /土 / Tu
- Metal /金 / Jin
The phases are not static, but flow in a cycle, one generating the next.
The Chinese correlated each of the phases to a season. The water phase element relates to winter. The wood phase element relates to spring. The fire phase element relates to summer. The earth phase element relates to late summer. The metal phase element relates to fall. At the time I am writing this article, we are at the end of winter moving into spring. This means we're experiencing the shift from the Water phase element into the Wood phase element.
In Winter there is Water.
A few years ago I was lucky to be in Hawaii for a class in February, and I spent a lot of time on the beach just sitting and looking at waves and listening to their rumble and crash and swish. For me it was an experience that was healing. The wordless time helped me to refuel after a depleting stretch of months. The water phase has this quality. In East Asian traditional medicine it is thought to be the original source, a deep well of energy that you are born with and draw on through your life.
It is dark, quiet, a womb, wordless, original and first.
It corresponds to winter, which in nature is the time of hibernation, sleep, the time of waiting and regeneration. Water is the mother of the next phase or element, wood, but we can’t rush that transition (as much as we might want to get to Spring sometimes) we have to give it it’s quiet time so that we can sleep, and heal, and regenerate. We need to go inward to the dark, to listen to our deepest quiet self, to give ourselves time to just be. All of nature in our latitudes needs this quiet time. If we try to skip it, try to push through we risk burning up and burning out.
Wood comes soon enough!
Water can also be compared to a seed. Buried underground and in some places under snow. Dormant. Waiting. But at some point, the seasons change. We start to move into Spring. There’s a different feeling in the air. Maybe it’s the little more sunlight that signals us. Spring starts to move, everywhere around us and in us as well.
The Wood element is all about that feeling of spring.
Wood refers to living plants. Its color is that bright, new green that you see in new leaves, just as they pop out. There’s a tremendous amount of energy in this new phase. Think of what it must take for a seed to go from this thing that almost looks like a little rock, to burst up and out and grow and grow and grow, as much as it can, as exuberantly as it can, until it reaches the potential of who it can be.
That drive to grow and change and be is incredibly powerful. People who have a lot of wood energy tend to have a voice that always sounds like a shout. Little kids tend to be more woody than adults—think of a playground and all the yelling and exuberance.
The emotion associated with the Wood phase is anger.
This can be a tough thing. Some of us (I’m thinking of myself) tend to avoid anger. And why? I’d say for myself I’m afraid of that anger that comes from frustration and lashes out indiscriminately. I don’t want to get hurt by that stuff! And I don’t want to hurt other people. And that can be what Wood anger is if it is repressed, or stifled, or misdirected.
But Wood anger can also be a virtuous thing. It can be thought of Constructiveness, or Heroism. Healthy Wood anger is seeing that things are unfair, to yourself but especially to others, and using that tremendous energy of Spring, of the growing plant, to speak up, do something to correct that unfairness. It’s Robin Hood and Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King Jr.
There are ways we can best stay in balance as we move into the Wood phase element.
- Like a growing plant, we need to move! Get your body moving with a walk, dancing, or other exercise every day. This will help with releasing stress and improving circulation, two aspects of a healthy wood element.
- Clean out the waste from winter so that you can use all that Spring-Wood energy! Drink lots of clean fresh water every day. The organs of Wood are the liver and gallbladder. Herbs such as Milk Thistle, Burdock, Oregon Grape and Nettles can be supportive to your liver and gallbladder health. Nettles are also great for spring allergies.
- Garden! Plant your own leafy greens, which are also great for liver health and feed healthy gut bugs.