Human Hibernation: a Forgotten Art

Does winter get you down a little? Or a lot? Do you sometimes wish you could just sleep it away—at least for a little?


For those of us in northern climes especially, it’s dark. Although here on the Gravel Road, we’re ‘north,’ we’re really pretty far south. We’re at the same latitude as Milan and northern California. My truly northern friends in Scandinavia and northern BC know this so very much better.

And yet, through January, I just want to slow down.

January can be tough! It’s dark and often dreary. Coming at us from all sides are the things we should be doing to make our lives better—lose weight, set goals for the year, get moving after the lethargy and overindulgence of Christmas, “make this the best. Year. Ever.” Add in all the sales and clearances…

I think we’re going about this wrong. I think January is tough because we try to push a rope. We try to go against a natural cycle.

  1. Everything—and I mean EVERY.THING is governed by cycles
  2. Therefore, there is an ebb and flow, an up and down, and in and out, an above and below
  3. We ignore this at our peril.
  4. When we live more in line with these cycles we can be more productive, purposeful and powerful in our creative living
  5. “To everything there is a season under heaven.”

For centuries, Russian peasants would engage in ‘lotska,’ or winter sleep. According to an oft-cited British Medical Journal article from 1900,

Not having provisions enough to carry them through the whole year, they adopt the economical expedient of spending one half of it in sleep.

This custom has existed among them from time immemorial. At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep.

Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, of which an amount sufficient to last six months has providently been baked in the previous autumn.

When the bread has been washed down with a draught of water, everyone goes to sleep again.

The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight.

After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks.


Apparently the same kind of thing occurred in rural France, when, after the Revolution, economists and bureaucrats who traveled into the countryside discovered:

“the work force disappeared between fall and spring…Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence.  As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.”

And while there are studies of animal hibernation (and why we don’t) and stories of inadvertent human hibernation (and why it’s not really a good to use freezing temperatures to induce hibernation), we seem to pooh pooh the notion of hibernation-like living for humans.

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”

― Edith Sitwell


I suggest we need to look at this more closely.

One of the ways I look at the year is through Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Each season is related to a colour, a sound, an organ network, particular emotions in or out of balance, a way of looking at the world. Each season reflects something of what is happening in nature.


The natural world is dormant. Deep underground, seeds are gathering nourishment. Life is in a holding pattern, still, invisible, regenerating. Birds, while still feeding, are much quieter.

For us, it’s a great time to replenish, to nurture and heal, rebuild and rest, reflect and be with family and friends. (See my post on Hygge)

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter is connected to the kidney and bladder meridians, which also connect to adrenal glands, reproductive organs, ears and blood.

When in balance, we feel creative, ambitious and adventurous. We have some willpower and our inner wisdom comes out.

When out of balance on the weak side, fear and over-cautiousness shows up. We feel a lack of direction and lower back issues surface. When over active, we are over-confident, overly fearless and likely to engage in extreme risks.

The colour for the kidney/bladder meridians is dark blue and black. I’m guessing this is one of the reasons there is SO. MUCH. BLACK in the clothing stores! Colour in nature is muted and dark. TCM connects food to this as well, so darker coloured foods can strengthen this energy.

We do some things naturally during the winter and it’s a good idea to be aware of what our systems are naturally drawn to.

We have more soups, stews, root vegetables and less salad, fresh fruit. More warming drinks, fewer cold things to drink.

We cozy up more into blankets and throws—and, in general, want to hibernate.

This past month we’ve also had Mercury Retrograde, which ended January 8, with a shadow til the end of the month. It was a perfect time for Hygge, to hibernate, to go quiet, spend time with family and friends and to not try to put ourselves into full-on drive.

If you felt any particular resistance to planning and goal-setting, as I did, this was part of the cycle. If you pushed, life may have pushed back.

If you felt like sleeping in or felt groggy and somewhat lethargic and it couldn’t be explained by heavy over eating… did you answer the call?

Chinese New Year approacheth. We are slowly beginning to grow through the depths of winter quietness. In China, the upcoming New Moon is a Spring Festival. Over the next week, it’s a time to clean the house, sweep out the old, bring in the new. It’s time to be with family and to usher in the new year.

As I’ve written before, January 1 is only ONE New Year.

My clients are often looking for time. They don’t have time. They’re too overdrawn. They’re too busy and burnt out.

There IS time. There is time naturally built into each day’s cycle, in the monthly cycle (that is, the full moon and new moon cycle), the seasons and in the year (especially following the astrological cycle) to be and do what’s best.

We simply have to act on it.

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