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Autumn and the Metal Element: Tools from Traditional Chinese Medicine to Bring Balance and Healing

In TCM Autumn is associated with the Metal Element. A key theme for balancing a healthy Metal Element is embracing the 'art of letting go'. As the leaves fall from the trees in Autumn, we too are reminded that to live in harmony with nature and conserve our vital energy, we can't always be full and that there is a time to let go. Nature sends us signs to let go of the fullness and abundance of summer, to take stock of what is not needed or no longer serving us, and to begin preparing for the stillness of winter. It asks us to turn towards our inner field, to let go of striving and being overly productive and make space for rest and the things that really matter to our wellbeing. Letting go of the stale in our lives, invites in a receptivity to the pure and receiving anew. It also allows us to come into contact with who we are in our very essence and to value what is most important in life.

Metal Element Vinyasa Flow Video:

I have recorded a Vinyasa Flow Practice to celebrate the ritual of inviting in Autumn but it can also be practiced for balancing Metal Element, by reflecting on some key themes of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In this practice we will focus on asanas that target the lung and large intestine meridians (a lot of deep shoulder opening) to connect us to Metal Element. We will also use our breath and deep exhales to release what needs releasing. This video from my Patreon Platform yoga video library will be freely available on my YouTube Channel for the month of May 2021.

The Five Elements Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine:

During Autumn, the Metal Element is in its height and so it is a particularly potent time to work on balancing Metal element within ourselves. The seasons are, however, not the only time that you can turn to the elements to find balance in your life. In TCM we are all connected to one dominant element- Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Understanding what your dominant Element is helps you to understand your tendencies, characteristics and vulnerabilities. Working with the elements in your yoga practice and understanding your unique composition, and possible areas of unbalance, is thus a way to restore harmony in your body, mind and spirit. However, the elements relate to each other in a dynamic way and so a deeper dive into their nuanced relationships is necessary. It should be noted that the TCM elements are different to the Five Elements of Ayurveda- Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether- in both their substance and characteristics, although some overlaps do exist.

TCM asserts that Qi (vital energy) flows along meridians (channels) in the body. These meridians are associated with different elements and the smooth flow of Qi along these energy channels ensures the balance of a person’s multifaceted health and wellbeing - physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. Five Element Theory and the Theory of Yin and Yang are used in TCM to describe all phenomena in the universe and our bodies are seen as a reflection and microcosm of this more expansive cosmos. The interaction of yin-Qi and yang-Qi also helps to explain how the elements interact with one another.

The two main ways in which the elements interact with one another are in the ‘promoting cycle’ and the ‘controlling cycle’. The promoting cycle or mother relationship between the elements refers to how each of the elements nurtures and encourages the other to grow and expand. In this cycle Wood nourishes Fire; Fire nourishes Earth; Earth houses Metal and Minerals; Metal and Minerals enrich the Water; and Water helps Wood to grow. The controlling cycle or Grandfather relationship indicates how one element acts as a restraining force to ensure balance and that the opposing element doesn’t exert an unrestrained strength or grow too quickly. The control cycle is: Wood digs through Earth; Earth is able to absorb Water; Water can extinguishes Fire; Fire is able to melt Metal; and Metal cuts through Wood. So understanding the characteristics of each element, what your dominant element is and signs of imbalance (excess or deficiency) that show up in the form of physical, mental and/or emotional ways can help you to take action to restore balance.

Lung and Large Intestine and Metal Element:

(Image: Lung Meridian, Source Trimurti Yoga)

The Elements are also associated with various organs. The lung is the key organ of Metal. The health of our lungs enable us to take in Qi and oxygen and then to filter out what is not needed. Similarly, it is the lungs in TCM that enable us to release stagnant energy and strong emotions of sadness and grief. One only needs to have mindfully used the breath in your yoga practice, or in life, to know how a simple deep exhale can truly be powerful in aiding us to release heavy emotions. However, Metal is not just about letting go, it is also about our ability to take in and absorb the pure; just as our lungs take in the pure, crisp and cool air on an autumn day. The secondary organ for Metal is the large intestine, which absorbs liquids and nutrients and releases waste and what is not needed by the body. So when in balance, the intelligence of Metal element and it’s supporting organs, helps our body and mind to know what to absorb and what to release.

(Image: Large Intestine Meridian, Source Trimurti Yoga)

Metal is also associated with the skin, our respiratory system, immunity system and with the nose and our sense of smell. Metal element and the lungs are said to house the ‘Po’ or the corporeal soul that is attached to our body, in other words, it is the somatic expression of our soul. The Po is directly affected by sadness and grief, which constrain its movement and affects our breathing and flow of QI. Conversely, constricted breathing will prevent the smooth flow of lung Qi and the effective removal and release of sadness. Grief is the emotion associated with Metal element. Grief can be a natural and appropriate response to various experiences of loss that we encounter in our lives, a healthy expression of grief can helps us to release these experiences. However, an imbalance in Metal element can lead to imbalanced and inappropriate expressions of grief; either excessive and overwhelming grief or an inability to express grief.

Metal in Balance:

A person with a well balanced metal element Qi has a strong intelligence, a sharp mind and is both strong yet flexible and resilient, just as metal can be bent and fashioned into various instruments without breaking. They are well organized, disciplined, responsible and honest. They have a strong propensity for seeking out spirituality, higher wisdom and philosophy. They are deep people and don’t like engaging in surface conversations or meaningless activities. They are very ambitious people and although often preferring to do things on their own, they can make strong leaders and visionaries.

They thrive within a structured environment, just as metal requires the steady grounding of Earth to thrive, a metal person thrives within a healthy and structured routine. And so our third Niyama of Tapas (discipline and fiery yogic dedication) would be important to a metal person. However, to ensure they don’t go overboard in their discipline and rigidity, they would need to embrace the 5th Yama of Aparigraha or non-attachment, which gives us the ability to know when to let go and the 5th Niyama Isvara Pranidhana, which is the practice of surrendering our efforts to a higher purpose and surrendering to the divine.

Just as metal adds value to water element, the metal journey within us is about acknowledging our own value, our unique skills and dharma on this life path. Metal people can also have a tendency to be hard on themselves and when we don’t recognize our value and are unable to let go, we fall into disharmony.

Metal out of balance (Excess):

A person with an excess of metal energy can be very rigid, dogmatic, a perfectionist and take order and discipline to unhealthy extremes. They can be very critical about others in their lives, imposing their beliefs on them. They struggle to accept criticism and tend to hold grudges. When a metal personality has strong political or religious ideals they can become inflexible and self-righteous. Deviation from routine can create stress. They can become obsessed with physical possessions, power and controlling people and unable to let go or grieve loss. Imbalances can also show up in various physical illness associated with the lungs and large intestine:

  • Chronic sinus with headaches

  • Short breath, chronic dry cough, tight chest, asthma

  • Constipation or diarrhoea

  • Dry skin, hair, nails, lips, nasal passages and mucous membranes

  • Nasal polyps

  • Lack of perspiration

  • Rigidity, stiff muscle movement, clumsiness, stiff posture.

  • Spine, neck and joint problems

Metal out of balance (Deficiency):

A person with Metal Qi deficiency may be grief-stricken and overwhelmed by sadness and struggle to let go of strong emotions and past pain. They may be overly critical about themselves and are always striving for relentless perfectionism, they struggle to acknowledge their own value because their sense of self-worth relies precariously on outside validation. They are very sensitive to criticism and easily offended. They struggle to put boundaries in place and as a result lose their energy and power. They tend to put loved ones on a pedestal, which leads to feelings of loss and disappointment when expectations are unmet.

  • Headaches due to loss or disappointment

  • Shallow breathing

  • Food allergies that disturb bowel and intestines, constipation, loose stools

  • Congested nose, throat, sinuses, asthma

  • Dry skin, hair, lips, and nasal passages

  • Environmental oversensitivity, i.e. allergies

  • Skin disorders: Moles and warts

  • Loss of body hair

  • Cracked, dry or soft nails (mineral deficiency)

  • Depleted immune function manifesting as persistent colds and flu, sinus congestion, postnasal drip, chronic fatigue, Lupus.

Bringing Balance to Metal Element:

So, once we have determined whether our Metal Element is out of balance due to a deficiency or excess, one approach could be to look to the controlling and promoting relationships of Five Element Theory. For example, if you have an excess of Metal energy, drawing on Fire element practices to subdue Metal and if you have a deficiency of Metal, drawing on Earth element practices to promote and nurture Metal element. However, due to the very dynamic way in which the elements interact, not only within the controlling and promoting cycle but also the ‘over restriction’ and ‘counter-restriction/ insulting’ relationships in TCM Five Elements theory, it can be complicated to figure out how to address an imbalance without the assistance of a TCM therapist.

Of course there is value in listening in deeply and trying to give your body, mind, spirit and nervous system what only you can inherently know may be missing. However, when I asked my TCM therapist this question about self-diagnosis and how to use specific elemental practices to bring back harmony, her suggestion was to look for balance in the elements as a whole. This means that essentially there is benefit in working with all of the element, no matter what your primary Element is.

Yin Yoga, Acupressure, Meditation, Breathe and Other Practices to Support Metal Element:

(Image: Shoulder Stretch/ Half Broken Wings)

  1. Acupressure and Tapping of Meridians: Pressing and releasing or gently massaging Large Intestine 4 (LI4), located in the web between the first and second finger, is especially effective to release headaches but also for stress, facial pain, neck pain and toothaches. Lung 9 and 10 (LU9 & 10), located on the fleshy part of the inside of the palm, between the wrist and the base of the thumb (see meridian poin