Breathing In, Letting Go: Fall and the Metal Element in Traditional Chinese Medicine

It is the summer’s great last heat,

It is the fall’s first chill: They meet.

–Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt

As spring is associated with the liver and wood, and summer with fire and the heart, so fall also has its own unique associations and characteristics in traditional Chinese medicine. Here is an abbreviated breakdown of Fall’s makeup:

Element: Metal

Body Part: Lungs (yin) and large intestine (yang)

Flavor: Pungent

Emotion: Grief

With the Autumnal Equinox–the moment at which the sun crosses the celestial equator from north to south, allowing the earth’s two hemispheres to receive the sun’s rays equally, resulting in an equal amount of nighttime and daytime (sunlight)–falling on Saturday, September 22 at 9:54 PM, I want to make sure you are ready to float into fall with balance, love, and a peaceful heart.

Lungs: The lung is the yin organ within the metal element, responsible for taking in the new–e.g. breathing in the crisp, fall air, filling ourselves with oxygen and supporting our body function and keeping us going. Mentally and spiritually, the lungs correspond to inspiration and being open creatively and emotionally: just like their intake of oxygen with each new breath, the lungs enable us to receive new and pure ideas.

Large intestine: As the yang organ in fall, the large intestine complements the lungs by being responsible for letting things out of the body. It is the site of the last stage of digestion, cleansing your body of waste and holding onto only vital matter. On a spiritual level, the large intestine helps detoxify harmful behaviors, thoughts or any of the other million cluttering, destructive things that are thrown at us in our oversaturated modern society.

Metal Balance & Grief:

While you may find it strange that grief would be an emotion to focus on and cultivate during the fall season, grief is an important mental and emotional state to pass through in order to maintain wellbeing: it allows us to appropriately honor the people, things and parts of ourselves that we must let go of, giving us the freedom to heal, move on and grow. World-renowned author, psychologist and buddhist teacher Tara Brach teaches that ungrieved loss doesn’t just go away; it stays in the body and mind and manifests as depression. So with a balanced metal energy, you allow yourself to grieve–the end of summer, the falling leaves, whatever it is. You are allowing yourself that space.  

Metal Imbalance:

Metal imbalance can manifest physically in many different ways: as ailments of the lung such as bronchitis, shortness of breath, coughing, allergies, nasal congestion, colds or sore throat, e.g.; or as ailments of the colon such as constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. On a spiritual level, a metal imbalance can cause you to feel stubbornness, negativity, depression, isolation, and a feeling of being constantly unfulfilled even as you seek out more and more material things.

So what can you do to support and boost your metal energy and live in harmony with fall?

Aside from going to see an acupuncturist, who can help restore your metal by activating different, important acupuncture points on your bodies that will help unclog your meridians, allowing your lungs and colon to do their jobs, there are a number of steps you can take to move into a more balanced place.

Do a fall cleaning: Do a thorough sweep of your closet, and really, your whole home, and let go of things that you don’t need, never use and that may have negative energy attached to them. This actual clearing out of your living space can have a powerful effect on the brain and the body, allowing you to feel freer, making space for new inspirations to come into your life. I personally love author Marie Kondo’s philosophy in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing: Kondo recommends asking yourself if a particular object or piece of clothing gives you joy. If the answer is no, then simply let it go. 

Eat warm foods: you may have been enjoying lots of raw fruits and vegetables over the summer. In the fall, it is important to move towards eating warm foods. The warmer foods are easier on your digestive system, nourishing your body and supporting and strengthening your immune system for the colder winter months ahead.  Fall is the time to eat foods such as soups, stews, kitchari, bone broth, cooked veggies and sauteed greens. Swap your cold cereals and yogurt for eggs or oatmeal. Take advantage of the array of delicious seasonal vegetables such as sweet potato, yams, pumpkin, butternut squash, carrots, brussel sprouts and cabbage. Fall is also time to say goodbye to your iced coffee and to enjoy warm beverages instead.

Wear a scarf! Even when you think you don’t need one because it’s not THAT cold, protecting your neck–known as the “wind gate” in Chinese medicine–is very important in the fall. In Chinese medicine, the wind is “the carrier of one hundred evils.” When the acupuncture points (wind points) on the back of your neck are exposed and vulnerable to the wind and cold, pathogens can enter, causing us to get sick. We call the invasion by pathogens a “wind-cold attack” in Chinese medicine. A very simple way to protect yourself from this wind attack and to prevent yourself from getting sick this fall is to wear a scarf, covering those points, and giving yourself an extra layer of defense!

Do breathing exercises or meditation: The energy of fall is inward, which means that, according to Chinese medicine, this is the time of year when the spirit is more accessible. Take advantage of this special time by sitting with your spirit, getting to know it, and engaging with it. Meditation is a great way to do just this. While meditation can sound intimidating at first, and, with our busy hectic schedules, it may seem impossible to find the time, it is an important practice to cultivate if you are truly in search of balance. Further, merely 2-5 minutes a day can make a difference in how you feel! Now is a great time to get a meditation practice started. There are quite a few great meditation apps you can use if you would like some guidance in getting started such as Headspace or Insight Timer. Or if you’d like to keep it even more simple, you can set a timer for a few minutes, close your eyes and focus on your breath. If you get wrapped up in your thoughts, acknowledge that, and then bring your attention back to your breath.