I loved writing The Natural Year. The aim was to produce a book that would act as a friend throughout the year, not badgering or hectoring, but offering suggestions, inspiration, helpful ideas. Whether you want to overhaul your entire life, or just tweak it here and there, the book will hopefully provide a springboard for shift. It’s a bit of a smorgasbord really, with tips and techniques culled from traditions all around the world, from the myriad teachers and guides I met when I was writing a weekly column for the Daily Mail on natural health.
Anyhow, here’s a section from the beginning of the book. Although you can start the book at any point in the year, I kicked off in March, at the start of spring. To my mind, each season has a different focus and, for me, spring is…
THE SEASON OF THE BODY
KEY FOCUS: Getting in touch with your body, playing with your relationship with your physical self.
SECONDARY FOCUS: Starting to think about your life.
CHALLENGES: Introducing a healthy diet; starting to exercise; cleansing, toning the body, boosting the lymphatic system, becoming more flexible.
QUESTIONS: How mind I like to live my life? How do I want to treat my body? Am I willing to take responsibility for my health?
CHALLENGES: Dare to pamper yourself; dance to discover your emotions; try seemingly irrational exercises!
FESTIVALS AND CELEBRATIONS: Spring Equinox, Easter, Beltane
Everything seems possible in spring. This is the young year, the growing year, the season of buds and blossom, of lambs and all young things. It is, to my mind, the perfect time to turn over a fresh leaf, to start anew. Spring is the season of hope, of fresh life and new beginnings. It’s as if each year we get another stab at getting it right or, at least, getting it better.
After the darkness of winter, the days start to get longer and this change in light triggers a deep shift in nature – everything begins to come back to life and vigour. Catkins appear on hazel trees and pussy willow, bluebells cast a hazy sheen through dappled woods, primroses cling to steep mossy banks and larks soar and fall over the ploughed fields. Even within towns and cities, the onrush of spring can be seen in the bright cheery faces of daffodils and other spring bulbs and the frenzied nest-building of sparrows, pigeons and their other city friends. You don’t even need to see visible signs of spring: just stop and sniff the air, there’s something fresh about it, a new energy has arrived into the year.
Spring is pure physicality – it’s the season of the body and the perfect time to start a program to bring you into peak fitness. Take it slowly, one step at a time, and you can alter forever the way you look and feel. Spring is the time when we need to cleanse and detoxify our bodies, to clear out the debris that has accumulated during the relative inactivity of winter. It’s a time to start looking closely at how we feed our bodies; a time to decide on changes that will help our bodies serve us better. You can lose weight now but it’s not the best time of year to launch into a fully-fledged weight-loss regime. Your body has just come out of its winter hibernation and needs to be cleansed and then fortified, tonified. Far better to spend spring easing yourself into good, honest healthy eating, to cut out toxins and junk food and then launch into weight loss proper (if that is what you truly need) in the summer.
Equally, although spring might seem like the perfect time to change your entire life, it’s not a good idea to overturn it right now. Spring is great for deciding upon your focus for the year but it is not necessarily the best moment to kick in your job on whim or to make sweeping life changes. It’s the time to start thinking about what you want from life; to consider what you might need to change. But leave the implementation of those changes until that other dynamic season, autumn.
How would you like to see your body? How would you like to feel in your body? Really think about it. Do you know, in your heart of hearts, that you eat the wrong food, too much food, too much junk food, too little food, too little fruit and veg and fibre? Think about what you’re putting in your body. Think about how all your internal organs, all your bodily systems, pounce on the food you put inside you and try to obtain the nutrients they need to make you function properly. Do you give them a fair chance? Or are they scrabbling around trying to keep you going on a pile of empty calories, a sickly wodge of sugar and a dead weight of salt? This spring the aim is to make friends with your body so the least you can do is give it the bare essentials it needs. Try to follow the healthy eating guidelines given in the book.
What about exercise? Think about the muscles of your body – not just your pecs and biceps but your heart and your lungs. Exercise on a regular basis strengthens the whole body. Think about it.
What changes could you make right now? What changes do you want to make over the following year? Make a list of everything you would like to improve or change and give yourself a time scale. Also write down how you would do it. For example if you want to start exercising your list might read:
GOAL: improve physical fitness. Be able to run for the bus without gasping. Be able to play netball and go jogging again.
HOW? RIGHT NOW: walk up escalator every day on way to work. Look up gyms and sports centres in yellow pages and check out membership/facilities.
OVER THE NEXT MONTH: join gym and start regular workouts.
WHEN THE WEATHER IMPROVES: fix bike and start cycling to work. Get outside in lunch-hour – maybe start walking or jogging.
IN THREE MONTHS TIME/WHEN FITNESS LEVELS IMPROVE: join team for netball.
Again, don’t try to do it all at once. But do do it.
THE SEASON OF WOOD AND THE EVIL WIND
In the Chinese system spring is the season of the element wood and it is filled with the expansive, explosive energy of young yang. Young yang is boundless energy but can be reckless, impulsive, impatient. It is like an adolescent, straining at the bit, wanting to race out and make a mark in the world but not quite sure of his or her own limits. Wood makes us feel that we need free expression, to find our own way, to try new things and meet new people. It is open and energetic and can lead to great enthusiasm and new endeavors. However it can also become out of control and can lead to the feeling of “spring fever”, obsessive, undisciplined mania. It’s unpredictable – think of mad March hares, April showers, sudden heatwaves that vanish equally suddenly in squalls and sleeting rain, the sneaky frost that can devastate your garden overnight. Spring is also, quite naturally, the season of sex and sexuality. It is the season of procreation in the natural world and, just because we can mate at any time of the year does not mean we are not moved by the primal seasonal urges. Lust rises in spring – it is the time for starting relationships or recommitting to old ones.
The colour associated with wood is, unsurprisingly, green. The direction that governs the spring is east which also rules the beginning of the day, the morning. The secondary element the Chinese associate with spring is wind. Wind is the fresh air of spring, that whisks away the old and sweeps in the new. But too much wind can be harmful and the Chinese say that the great danger of spring comes from the wind “evil”. If we are balanced and healthy then the wind can do us no harm. However if our energy is low or stagnant then we might not be able to cope with the fluctuation in the external energies of wind and wood – the troublesome wind can invade the body and throw yin and yang into even more imbalance. The result is that we go down with colds and flus, coughs and snuffles, hot sweats or even more serious ailments. Some practitioners of TCM say that the wind evil is allowed free rein in our modern world through central heating and air conditioning because they shock our bodies and don’t allow them to adapt to the outside conditions. Microwaves and radiation equally come under attack but then no-one would suggest that radiation is particularly healthy.
Avoiding any of these evils is pretty difficult nowadays, unless you live in a cave up an isolated hill. But there are ways to minimize the damage:
* Fortify your body with good clean food. Avoid sweets, soft drinks and snacks made from refined sugar and steer clear of junk food, deep-fried food and over-processed foods.
* Take a daily good quality multi-vitamin and mineral supplement.
* As far as possible don’t shock your body by plunging from extreme heat to extreme cold. Wear a sweater or a vest rather than turning the heat up high.
* Install an ionizer in your home and office – particularly if you live in a large town or city.
* Keep a window open, especially at night. If you can avoid sleeping with air conditioners or central heating do so. Try using a fan to generate cool air. Time your heating so it comes on an hour before you get up rather than being on all night.
* Practice the techniques of good breathing. The Chinese recommend qi gong breathing exercises be carried out every day and say that twenty minutes of qi gong will re-establish your energy levels, enrich your blood, soothe the nervous system and the endocrine system and put your autonomous nervous system into the calming, restful parasympathetic mode. Practitioners of yoga would say the same for their practice of pranayama, which teaches the art of good breathing. There are plenty of vid clips on YouTube or, for best results, join a yoga or qi gong class and learn how to do it in absolutely the right way.
Read more in The Natural Year - now updated and available in Kindle format.
I also post seasonal tips and recipes on my Pinterest board here.