In Chinese medicine, one month to 40 days after a woman gives birth is to be spent inside her house, cared for by her family. It’s her month to recuperate, replenish, and re-nourish (or buchong 补充). It’s a month of doing practically nothing but resting, breastfeeding, and bonding with her baby, who is also to remain indoors. It’s also recommended not to wash (especially hair) during this time.
“Horrific,” was my first thought after hearing this when I first came to China in 1997. I never questioned why. I was ignorant to Chinese medicine. “Haha,” we newbie foreigners laughed, “it’s to keep her from getting pregnant again so soon after giving birth.”
This reaction is completely normal to a Westerner, who is usually home from hospital within three days of giving birth, out and about within a week or two. (When I say “Westerner,” I’m mostly referring to America, where I come from; I’ve heard other cultures in Europe have different traditions for new mothers and infants.)
After experiencing Chinese medicine firsthand (profound healing), I’ve come to believe whole-heartedly in TCM and the five elements. It’s a natural theory based on the “whole” rather than just a “part.” The harmonization of physical, energetic, and mental bodies. The balance of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine).
A quick summarization of the cycle of the five elements:
Click here for a web elaboration contributed by my friend and teacher, Cameron Tukapua.
The five elements cycle, just like the seasons, controls and feeds itself. In our bodies, it manifests as our organs, which are connected physically and energetically by “meridians.” When one element becomes depleted or excessive, it causes imbalance in this cycle.
Easy concept to grasp: a balancing act.
For example: If summer this year is extremely hot (excessive fire causes drought), it will affect late summer and autumn (result in bad harvest), which affects humans/animals/plant life, i.e. we starve through winter.
Simple. Balance is necessary to regulate good health in your life.
Back to this “monthly rest.”
When a baby is created in a woman’s body, life essence (jing 精) of both male and female makes this possible. (Fun fact: Jing means sperm, but also life essence.) Life essence is not replaceable. A person is born with a set amount of jing in his/her body, and lifestyle (how you spend/conserve your jing) affects the quality of your life (lifespan and state of health). Jing is sometimes referred to as “constitution.” Some of us have strong – and others weak constitutions – depending on what our parents pass on to us.
After pregnancy and giving birth, the mother’s body is super yin (feminine) and completely open: skin, tissue, muscle, ligaments, bones. The metamorphosis from pregnancy and birth is profound.
In this state of extreme yin or openness, a new mother is susceptible to imbalances at bone level; she needs time to tonify her essences with rest and warming foods. In TCM, she and baby must avoid “cold.” Therefore, no walking around with bare feet or damp hair, no eating cold or icy things, and no unnecessary exposure to outside wind. This is why baby and mother are “confined” to the home for a month. To contract something in such a susceptible state means it’s much more difficult to recuperate from it, because it’s not contracted on the “surface,” but deep in her bones.
Some will think “that’s bull,” and go on doing things the way they want to do it. Chinese medicine thought is very different from Western medicine. TCM believes injury may not manifest itself immediately, but that the imbalance affects your body’s cycle, which slowly manifests itself over weeks, months, or even years, depending on your body’s constitution and your lifestyle.
For me, TCM makes sense.
Oh, and in regards to not showering; back before hot water taps, indoor heating, and hairdryers, it was easier to allow a “chill” into the body. When the body is not strong enough to fight off a chill, the “cold” ensues, causing imbalance or disease in the system.
Our bodies are amazing. What we are capable of just blows my mind. As strong as we can be, we are also so very delicate. The precaution of staying inside for a month to rest after giving birth isn’t confining to me at all; it’s preventative. In fact, I’m grateful to have this knowledge and time to practice caring for myself in this way. I teach awareness in my yoga classes, asking students to listen closely to what their bodies are saying. So for me to be able to quietly retreat after such a stunning experience in exchange for more time on this earth with my family in a state of ease and good health is worth a month of surrender.
Jess Meider is a professional musician who has been living and performing in Beijing since 1997. She is also a yoga teacher and a private vocal “gongfu” coach. For more information, check out her website.
Photos: Christopher F. Photography (Flickr), Wikimedia Commons (five elements chart)