tiger in the jungle peering through leaves with graphic of tiger drawing overlaid and text 'year of the water tiger'

The significance of this Lunar New Year in Traditional Chinese Medicine

The roaring twenties are in full swing with today’s Chinese New Year: the year of the Tiger. The first day of February marks the arrival of the Yang Water Tiger, bringing with it bountiful energy, enthusiasm, ferocity, and independence.  Unlike the widely used Gregorian calendar, which is determined by the solar year, the Chinese calendar is lunisolar – meaning that it relies on both the solar year and moon phases. A lunar month is slightly shorter than a Gregorian one, creating an extra month every few years, which is why Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year.      

In China, the New Year marks the second new moon after winter solstice, welcoming the arrival of spring and the flowering of new plants and harvests. It is a time of renewal and clearing away negative energy from the past. Fireworks, candles, and lanterns are kindled to ward off darkness and invite the light in. It is tradition for people to clean their homes, sweeping away unhelpful energies, in hopes that the New Year will bless them with luck and prosperity. Chinese New Year is celebrated by more than 1.5 billion people worldwide, or more than twenty percent of the world’s population, and is the most important holiday of the year for many people and families with East Asian and Southeast Asian heritage.

In addition to the well-known twelve-year cycle of animal signs in the Chinese zodiac, the Chinese New Year involves lesser-known cycles as well. The ten-year cycle of the Heavenly Stems encompasses the five elements of Chinese cosmology – water, wood, metal, fire, and earth – which rotate every two years; the same five elements we consider in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Metal was the dominant element in 2020 and 2021, while this year and next will be governed by the element of water.

There is also a yearly alternation of yin and yang energy. You might recall that yin and yang are the underlying principles of ancient Chinese philosophy and medicine, with passive yin representing feminine energy, gentle strength, and stillness, and bold yang signifying masculinity, action, and assertiveness. There is harmony in life and in health when these two vital energies are in balance.

The three facets which govern a particular year, serve as a guide to the energetics of that year and renew our focus on areas where progress is most possible. The Chinese New Year always brings a change in energy, as we shift away from one set of forces into three new ones, which are potentially very different. With the year of the Yang Water Tiger, we have the reigning yang force, balanced by the yin nature of water, and rounded out with the tiger, who is powerful and fierce when required, but can be equally quiet and solitary.

The tiger is symbolic of power, intensity, courage, precision, and passion. Quick to act, adventurous, and sometimes impulsive, its fixed element is active wood, which is fed by this year’s water element to create ideal conditions for growth. The time of day associated with the tiger is 3am-5am, which is important from a TCM perspective as these are the hours of the lung channel, where qi, or lifeforce energy, is said to originate. The tiger’s qualities may resonate with you if you were born in a tiger year – 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998 or 2010 – or were born between the hours of 3am and 5am.

Looking at the governing facets of this year can provide clues as to the dominant themes for 2022. The tiger brings energy, change, and momentum. If these energies aren’t channelled into action and progress, they can stagnate, resulting in frustration and anger. Differences may lead to heated arguments and damaged relationships if we don’t lead with love and approach disagreements with compassion and empathy. The tiger also embodies drive and accomplishment, so get ready to act on the goals and dreams you’ve woven over the past two years of introspection and inactivity.

Looking at the nature of water, it endures and flows, accepting and driving change. Water is associated with mystical energy, which may spark your interest in all things spiritual. Water can result in a holding onto or bubbling over of emotion, leading to excess fear and inaction. Be sure to manage emotions and overwhelm with grounding practices, like yin yoga, meditation, and earthing.

This year’s yang energy compounds the yang nature of the tiger and its wood element, creating the potential for big shakeups. Yang also signifies the father figure, who encourages and instils confidence and self-belief. Go out into the world and make your mark – see that business idea to fruition, book that overseas holiday or move house. A yang tiger year supports big adventures and bold ventures. The tiger rules freely over her domain and despises being caged – this energy supports a careful emergence from our hibernation over the past two years, with possible rebellion if freedoms are further infringed.

The elements and symbols governing each Chinese New Year are hugely significant in TCM. A truly ancient system of medicine, dating back more than 2200 years, it draws from ancient concepts of astrology and cosmology. Traditional acupuncture points and meridians mirror the cosmic realm, with twelve acupuncture meridians, each one said to relate to one of the twelve Chinese zodiac symbols, according to their level of yin or yang. The five elements, which feature in TCM, correspond to the Chinese terms for Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and Venus. While TCM has been thoroughly developed over millennia to become the precise and evidence-based healing modality that it is today, there is no ignoring the symmetries between our bodies and the natural world.

The five-phase theory in TCM embraces five elements that move in cycles or phases through the seasons, as within our bodily organs. These represent energies that continuously succeed one another. Awareness of this cycle and the relationship between our bodies and the elements can promote optimal health, as we can recognise when elements are out of balance and use acupuncture, herbal remedies, nutrition, and movement to restore balance. This is especially important during pregnancy and postpartum when women become vulnerable to imbalance. This is due to the huge demands placed on our bodies in growing, birthing, and nourishing a baby.

Water is an element of introspection and is often referred to as ‘the Philosopher’.  ‘Overdoing it’ and too much focus on outward goings on can deplete water and lead to imbalance. When this happens, we might become withdrawn, lack self-confidence, and lose our sense of self. Fearfulness, too, is a product of water imbalance; this is especially relevant as we continue to live through a pandemic that has turned many lives upside down. Chronic fear can deplete the qi in our kidneys – one of two organs closely associated with water – the other one being the bladder. It is important that we hold space for feelings of fear that arise, acknowledge them, and let them go, to prevent emotions manifesting as physical depletion or illness. TCM holds that our kidneys store our ‘jing’ or essence, which is the source of vitality and longevity. Our kidneys are essential to reproductive health and regular hormone function. As such, a water imbalance affecting the kidneys, can create problems with libido, growth, and endurance.

As 2022 is a water year, it’s an ideal time to focus on the significance of water within our bodies and act to restore balance if we feel this element is not in flow. Take care to nourish yourself with nutritious food and plenty of rest. Make room for stillness and introspection, with nourishing practices like journaling and breath work, to balance yang’s frenetic influence this year.


Wishing you a happy and prosperous year of the tiger!

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