Winter is coming.

The gentle fall winds have shifted and its downright blustery and cold. Its dark so so early. Every morning it gets light so much later. I am feeling it, this downward energy. I am moving at a glacial pace, contracting like ice.

From now until the winter solstice all of nature is in a rapid descent into darkness and quiet. Winter is the time when all of nature goes inward. The trees have pulled back their sap. Many animals are hibernating or less active. Even the water in the lake freezes into stillness. This is the time of year when we too are called to rest, or to move more slowly, to sleep longer and stay by the fire. If we slow down just a little we can feel it—the pull to linger in pajamas or curl up to sleep a little earlier.

Of course, modern culture does not cooperate with this movement does it? In fact we are about to kick off the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Don’t get me wrong—I LOVE the holidays—the music, the lights, the food, the connection! But if we are not careful, the holidays can really deplete us at the time of year that nature is asking us to rest. Once upon a time when the depth of winter really did take over life, the holidays were about holding each other dear through the darkness, spreading a little cheer so we could make it through, giving us a little hope at a bleak and cold time.

Now, in an era of constant 24/7 connection, light and activity, that notion has taken off into a manic frenzy of gift giving and socializing on steroids. The pressure to buy piles of gifts and to attend countless holiday parties stretches our resources. We find ourselves running around, pushing against or completely ignoring nature’s signals that we are in a season of rest—no wonder so many of us get sick at this time of year!

I have said it so many times. The ancient medical classics tell us that one simple way to stay well is to follow nature’s wisdom. Look outside and see what the trees and animals are doing–and do that!

If you have a busy few weeks ahead of you, with lots of work, family commitments and social engagements on the calendar, you may want to work in some “winter practices” to help keep you balanced. Or, if you have a quiet holiday season planned, these winter ways can help you get the most out of winter’s break. Like the bulbs we plant in our gardens, if we winter well, we will have the energy to spring up when the weather warms up again!

Here are some very simple ways to align with the energy winter:

    Sleep more. Give yourself permission to nap in the afternoon when you can. Maybe by the fire. Or pick one day (or more) a week when you will wake up with the late rising sun. Turn off your alarm and allow yourself to sleep as long as your body needs. Take advantage of the darkness and rest more.

    Allow yourself to experience the dark. Electric lights make it hard for us to really understand the signals winter is sending us or truly experience winter’s energy. It becomes hard to turn off and rest with the lights keeping us in endless summer. Pick one or two nights between now and the winter solstice and dim the lights or turn off even half your lamps and use candlelight or firelight to cook and dine by. See how you sleep and how you feel the next morning.

    Experience quiet. Turn off the TV, radio and internet. Try a social media fast for a few days or a week or more. Some of my friends have started to adopt technology free time periods at home—no phone, internet, TV or computer from 5:30-8:30 pm. If you try these things, notice how you feel in the absence of all the noise. Do you feel rested? Or restless and anxious? The restlessness may be a sign that you need a break from the stimulation.

    Practice stillness. If you have a meditation practice, winter is a wonderful time to recommit to it. If you don’t, that’s ok too. You can create your own meditative rituals. Start small. Take 5 minutes a day and just sit quietly and breathe. I recently discovered a great free app (Calm) which offers short guided meditations and sends reminders to me to take a break. Or take 5 minutes to just drink your morning coffee or tea—no multi-tasking—taste what you are drinking and really enjoy it! Sit in your car for a few minutes before pulling out of the driveway and set your mood. Set your alarm at work and give yourself 5 minutes to do nothing. I have been using the time my computer boots up in the morning to close my eyes and feel my bottom on the chair and my feet on the ground. Start with small moments of stillness.

    Take a hot bath. There is nothing like a soak warm water to remind us to rest.

And speaking of hot—Its especially important to be eating warm nourishing foods this time of year. If you are in the habit of grabbing a salad to go for lunch, try replacing it with soup. Warm breakfasts are especially important–oatmeal, eggs and even pancakes are so much better than cold cereal or yogurt. Below you will find recipes for my favorite warm foods. The pumpkin amaranth porridge is an amazing qi builder and seasonally yummy to boot. But let me also speak a few words in praise of congee.

Congee is an Asian rice porridge, traditionally eaten at breakfast but great to eat for any meal. It is easy to make in a slow cooker or crock pot and is perhaps one of the very best qi building foods out there. It’s wonderful when you are sick or recovering from any kind of illness but especially one that has done a number on your stomach. It’s both savory and sweet, easy to digest, delicious, nourishing, warm. You can make a bunch and keep it in the fridge, heating it up on demand. You can eat it in the morning and unlike oatmeal it doesn’t leave you sleepy! And its trendy too—I recently saw it on the brunch menu at Volt! Three cheers for Congee!

Recipes for Congree and my favorite winter breakfast–pumpkin porridge below!

Wishing you peace as we move into the quiet dark,

Congee (makes about 4-6 good sized servings)

1 cup of rice (any kind -white, brown, jasmine works)—I like to use the black rice that the Chinese call “forbidden rice”—You can get it at Trader Joes. Trader Joes just calls it “black rice”
6 cups of a liquid. You can use water but for more flavorful and nutritious congee, use broth for some of all of the 6 cups. Any kind of broth works great—veggie, chicken, beef, lamb.. I use whatever is in my freezer or fridge and sometimes mix leftover broths together. If I don’t have homemade broth, I use a low-sodium broth from the store.
Put the rice and liquid in a slow cooker on low for 6-8 hours. Or cook on the stove, covered, on the lowest setting, stirring now and again until you get a thick porridge like consistency.

You can eat congee just plain. Plain congee feels good when you are sick and there is not much you can stomach.. That said, the great fun of congee comes from the toppings. The Chinese top their congee with all sorts of savory goodness. Sliced pork, radishes and scallions is one very traditional option. I have friends who throw in hard boiled egg slices. I like to use left overs from the night before heated up – nothing like a little shredded baked chicken, broccoli or roasted root veggies on top. My most recent serving of congee was topped with a few pieces of leftover bacon, caramelized onions, roasted sweet potatoes and pickled beets from Number One Sons at the Silver Spring Farmers Market (those beets are addictive!). That was divine!

You can find all sorts of inspiration on line though I like to look in my fridge and use my leftovers to make a delicious mix. Yummy congee can be quite simple–sometimes one or two ingredients is all that is needed.

The idea is to have a good balance of flavors to balance out the sweetness of the rice–something rich like meat or mushrooms, something tangy/sour like pickled veggies, earthy tastes like root veggies, maybe something with a real kick like kimchee. Experiment and let me know your favorite congee combos–If I hear from you I will pull something together to share!