The Dao of Longevity - Seasonal Harmonization for Winter
Dr. Henry McCann
In the dark of night a silent blanket of white covers the earth, and everything assumes the posture of bowed head in quiet solitude. This is the season of winter. According to the Lü Shi Chun Qiu (The Spring and Autumn Annals of Lü Bowei; 呂氏春秋), during winter the Son of Heaven wears black robes and wears dark colored jades. This time of year everything was supposed to be sealed away and stored, and nothing that had been buried should be unearthed. Throughout the ancient Chinese kingdom winter was time to repair city walls and check that locks were in working order so that everything could be sealed and guarded appropriately. This basic image summarizes what we need to know to understand the season and how to maintain health and happiness this time of year.
Yin, Yang and the Five Phases of Winter
Winter is the segment of the year where the beginning growth of Yin previously exemplified by autumn grows and matures. Yin (陰) represents contraction, quiet, cooling, slowing, retreating, and lowering. Yin is the phase of ultimate decline and death. Previously we discussed autumn as the “Lesser Yin” (shao yin 少陰), since autumn is the time when everything that is in the movement of expansive growth of summer-Yang slows down and reverts to its opposite. While autumn begins the stage of cooling and harvesting, winter takes up this Yin movement and brings it to its extreme. Because of this winter is called the time of “Greater Yin” (tai yin 太陰).
In Five Phase Theory (五行理論) this Greater Yin movement is called “Water.” Recall from our previous articles the famous eight-character phrase from the Huang Di Nei Jing (also known as the Nei Jing for short), the ancient core text of medicine in China: “Spring gives birth, Summer grows, Autumn harvests and Winter stores” (春生, 夏長, 秋收, 冬藏). The Water phase is summarized by that one word associated with winter – “storage.” Winter is the season when everything is in a state of utmost inward contraction and storage. In the Shuo Wen Jie Zi, the Han Dynasty dictionary that gives detailed explanations of the images of Chinese characters, the definition of winter is “the end of the four seasons” (冬：四時盡也). However, the ancient character for winter is even more interesting. It is the image of the sun locked up and stored in an inverted bottle (Fig. 1). Winter is certainly the dark time of the year when “light” (Yang) is in storage, hidden away from the earth.
Water is associated with midnight and the Mercury planet in the heavens. It represents coldness and the color black. In the body it is the Kidney among the Zang-viscera, and the Urinary Bladder among the Fu-bowels. By extension from these internal organs, Water represents the bones and marrow, the ear, and the sense of hearing. The taste of Water is salty, its associated grain is the bean, and the domestic animal is the pig (see Table 1). The Confucian tradition speaks of the Five Constant Virtues (五常), and the virtue associated with Water is Wisdom – Zhi (智). Also in the Confucian tradition, the mental poison of the Water phase is disdain and agitation – Fan (煩) (see Table 1).
The Nei Jing on Winter
The second chapter of the Su Wen section of the Nei Jing is titled The Great Treatise on Regulating the Spirit with the Four Seasons (四氣調神大論). This chapter gives basic descriptions of the four seasons and, based on Yin-Yang and Five Phases theories, how we harmonize ourselves with each. In the section on harmonizing with winter the Nei Jing first defines for us the essence of the season – it is the time that denotes “closing and storage” (閉藏).
After defining the movement of the season The Nei Jing tells us to “not disturb the yang - go to bed early and rising late. You must wait for the shining of the sun.” Qi is Yang, and Yang represents the opposite of closing and storage. To harmonize with winter we have to adopt the posture of Yin. During sleep, Qi enters the interior of the body to warm the internal organs (the Zang-viscera). Therefore, to encourage the Yin movement of Qi to the interior so as to warm and protect the inner organs, during winter we should get more sleep by going to bed earlier and staying asleep longer.
In modern life however we rarely pay heed to the change of the seasons. In the depth of winter we work just as hard and just as many hours as we do in the warmer months, and most of us likewise stay up just as late. Our fast-paced modern world also encourages us to keep moving faster, higher and louder. We shun old age, preferring to live in a culture of clinging to eternal youth. Taken all together we are constantly striving for more and more Yang, failing recognizing that for balance and true health we need Yin as well. Actually, this is not only a disease of modernity but, perhaps, a constant part of the human condition. This explains an interesting but important addition of one very specific word in the above quote from the Nei Jing.
In previous articles we saw how the Nei Jing gives parallel general seasonal recommendations. What is important to notice is that only in the recommendations for winter does the word “must” (必) appear. Qi Bo, the person giving us these recommendations in the Nei Jing text, says, “You must wait for the shining of the sun.” Qi Bo is certainly a sage who understands human nature. During winter Qi Bo’s recommendations are more an imperative. He understands that human nature means we don’t want to rest, we don’t want to slow down, we don’t want to mimic the quiet inward movement of Water-winter. However, unless we take time in our lives to move into a Yin state, over time our Qi dissipates and we suffer premature ageing and disease. Thus Qi Bo says “must.”
In addition to more sleep and rest, during winter our state of mind should be quiet and reflective. The Nei Jing continues with, “Allow the mind-will to enter into a hidden state as if shut in – not unlike someone with secret intentions, not unlike having already made secret gains.” Interestingly, even in the western world we have traditions that encourage this quiet reflection. Thanksgiving is at the end of November every year (in the Chinese calendar winter is November through January), and it is a time, after the harvest, for giving thanks and reflecting on the gifts we receive from everyone around us. New Year is also the traditional time for making New Year’s resolutions. What is a resolution? It is the act of reflecting on our lives and making plans for the year to come. We don’t have to actually start acting on our plans (acting on them is a Yang movement associated with the beginning of spring), but at the least we engaging in self-reflection and plan making (a Yin movement).
Lastly the Nei Jing says, “Avoid the cold and seek warmth. Refrain from sweating as it causes the Qi to be carried away quickly. This is in resonance with the Qi of winter and the Way to nourish storage.” Since winter is the coldest time of year we should guard against being too chilled. While sweating is appropriate in warm weather as a natural method of the body’s thermal regulation, sweating too much dissipates the Qi. In winter dress warmly but avoid overdressing which can lead to sweating even in cold weather. If we are able to do all of the above we have successfully resonated with the ultimate of Yin that winter represents, and by nourishing storage (yang cang 養藏) we can nourish our life (yang sheng 養生).
“The three months of winter denote closing and storage. Water freezes and the earth breaks open. Do not disturb the yang - go to bed early and rising late. You must wait for the shining of the sun. Allow the mind-will to enter into a hidden state as if shut in – not unlike someone with secret intentions, not unlike having already made secret gains. Avoid the cold and seek warmth. Refrain from sweating as it causes the Qi to be carried away quickly. This is in resonance with the Qi of winter and the Way to nourish storage.” (The Great Treatise on Regulating the Spirit with the Four Seasons, Su Wen Chapter 2) 《四氣調神大論》冬三月，此謂閉藏，水冰地坼，無擾乎陽，早臥晚起，必待日光，使志若伏若匿，若有私意，若已有得，去寒就溫，無泄皮膚使氣亟奪，此冬氣之應養藏之道也。
Cold – The Pathogen of Pain
The weather pattern and therefore disease evil (i.e., pathogen) associated with winter is cold (han 寒). Cold is yin, associated with the Water phase. In the body cold has the tendency to create the movement of Yin, which, is actually a lack of movement. Therefore cold creates stagnation, a lack of movement in either the Qi, the Blood, the Fluids, or something similar. Chinese medicine has a saying – bu tong ze tong (不通則痛), “when there is no movement there is pain.” The two Chinese characters for pain recognize this concept. First, there is the character teng (疼), composed of the outer radical for disease (疒) surrounding the character for winter (冬). Teng-pain is literally a disease of winter, or rather, a disease that mimics the Yin nature of winter.
The second character for pain is tong (痛). This character is composed again of the outer radical for disease (疒), now surrounding the character for a corridor or path (甬). Notice the same inner character for corridor or path is used to make the word for movement in the phrase above (tong 通). Pain is the result therefore of stagnation in the literal corridors or pathways of the body – the channels that are stimulated during acupuncture. Even though during winter it is appropriate for the body to move into the phase of storage of the Qi, nothing is absolute. When storage and closing happen too much, or at an inappropriate time or place, pain results.
Since pain is a disease of stagnation and Yin, the treatment should be obvious – tong ze bu tong (通則不痛), “create movement and there is no pain.” Since movement is Yang, any therapy that has a Yang quality can theoretically treat pain. The topical application of heat is one example. In modern times it is not uncommon for patients with chronic pain conditions to visit chiropractors or physical therapists only to have them suggest icing the painful body part. While cold or ice application may be appropriate in the short term for very recent injuries, and may numb and dull pain, according to Chinese medicine the application of ice, especially in chronic pain conditions, eventually worsens stagnation. This is evident in the fact that after icing most people experience stiffness.
Other methods of creating movement and eliminating pain include acupuncture, massage and joint manipulation (i.e., Tuina), and exercise therapies. Some systems of acupuncture actually exploit these approaches together in pain treatments. In the Dong (Tung 董) lineage of classical acupuncture patients are never needled at the site of disease. For example, in modern TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) acupuncture, a person with knee pain may actually have acupuncture needles applied to the knee during treatment. In the Dong lineage a person with knee pain instead would be needled perhaps on his opposite arm or hand, and while the needles are in place he would be asked to move the knee. Since both acupuncture and physical movement are Yang and create movement of the Qi, this double therapy is even more effective for treating pain than needling simply where it hurts. In the Dong Lineage, this is called the Moving Qi (dong qi 動氣) needle technique.
Eating and Drinking for Winter
Winter is the time to focus on warming and strengthening the body so as to protect against the cold. Therefore, our food and drink choices should help support this treatment strategy. First, we must take care to eat and drink food that is literally warm or hot. While in the west people commonly drink iced beverages all year long, traditionally in Asia people almost never drank anything cold. Even hot beverages however can have either a more cooling or a more warming effect on the body. Teas, for example, are not all equally warming even when taken hot.
Green teas all have a cooling nature. This is why in China some famous green teas such as Dragon Well Tea (long jing cha 龍井茶) are consumed in warm weather. Dark processed teas are more warming in nature, and these include oolongs, black teas, and Pu Erh teas. These are the types of beverages that should be consumed in winter. Pu Erh (普洱茶) is perhaps the best of these. This wonderful tea from Yunnan Province is traditionally made from the leaves of wild deep-mountain tea trees. The leaves are harvested and then put through a process of fermentation and ageing, and some high quality Pu Erh teas can be aged for 15 to 20 years or more. Not only is this tea warming but it also encourages the inward movement and storage of Qi that is desirable in winter.
Since all teas contain caffeine there may be some people who want herbal tea alternatives that are caffeine-free. For winter, some of the best options are cinnamon or dried ginger. Both cinnamon and dried ginger are warming herbs. Ginger warms and strengthens the Spleen and Stomach, and cinnamon warms the interior and consolidates Qi in the Kidney, the internal organ associated with the Water phase. Both of these herbs are effective in treating pain conditions since they warm and move the Qi internally.
Similar to drinking teas, winter is the time for soups and stews. One very simple yet delicious soup is the combination of fresh ginger and scallions in a chicken or other clear broth. Ginger and scallion soup warms the interior and also treats early stage colds. Congee, or rice porridge, is close to a soup and a traditional breakfast food in parts of Asia. Although rice is most commonly used, congees can be made by boiling any grain in a large quantity of water until a creamy soup forms, similar to oatmeal. To enhance the warming quality of congees cook grains with ginger, pepper, meats and other warming foods.
Lamb and Millet Congee 粟米羊肉粥 - A Traditional Winter Recipe
- Lean lamb 100g
- Millet 100g (a little more than ½ cup)
- Fresh (peeled) ginger root 12g
- Scallions 3 stalks
- Black pepper and salt to taste
- First clean lamb and cut into thin strips
- Put millet and lamb in about 5 – 6 cups of water (adjust water depending on if you want the congee creamier or more soupy); bring to a boil
- Add in ginger (cut into thin slices or chopped), scallions (chopped) and continue to boil until made into a congee
- Add salt and pepper to taste; instead of black pepper, Sichuan Pepper (hua jiao 花椒) can be used as a substitute to make the soup spicier
Eat on an empty stomach. This congee helps boost the Qi, nourish the Blood, and warm the Center. Patients with internal heat patterns should be cautions about consuming this congee. But, patients with cold patterns or in generally good health can take this congee during winter.
In addition to teas and soups, winter is the time to eat foods with a warming and supplementing nature. In general, all animal meats are warming, and can be consumed by people who have a cold and weak constitution. In particular, meats such as lamb, mutton and venison are most warming and seasonally appropriate. Cooking methods that add more warmth to foods include roasting, baking or slow cooking. Since these are all appropriate to cooking meats, use them more often in winter.
Most green vegetables are slightly cooking in nature, and before refrigeration or importation of foods, they were less readily available in the cold seasons. Focus instead on warming and seasonal plant based foods such as yams, sweet potatoes, garlic, onions, pumpkin, and other squashes and root vegetables. Alcohol in moderation is warming and invigorating, especially when traditional mulling spices are added in (such as in mulled wine). Spices like pepper, nutmeg, cumin, and fennel seeds warm the digestive organs and improve digestion.
People with what Chinese medicine characterizes as damp-cold conditions, manifesting for example with chronic pain or fatigue (e.g., patients with many types of chronic arthritis) should be extra careful to follow the aforementioned guidelines. The should avoid cold foods such as duck, rabbit, chrysanthemum, mint, milk or yoghurts, oranges and orange juice, tropical fruits, and overconsumption of refined sugars.
Acupressure, Patting, and Soaking for Winter
Patting or beating at acupuncture points or along channels, a technique know as Pai Da (拍打), is an important method of health preservation in both Chinese medicine and Qigong circles. The main organs associated with the winter are the Kidneys and Bladder, and in particular the Bladder channel can be stimulated with patting during the cold seasons. One important point on the Bladder channel for patting is Cheng Shan, Bladder channel point number 57 (BL-57; 承山穴). It is located below the bellies of the gastrocnemius muscle on the posterior lower leg, approximately half way between the knee and the heel (Figure 5).
Cheng Shan is an important point for treating pain as it moves the Qi in the Bladder channel. Therefore it treats back pain, leg pain, pain or heaviness in the knees, and pain in the heel. It is also an effective point for treating hemorrhoids and rectal pain. To stimulate, use the thumb to press deeply into the point until there is a heavy or numb sensation that may move slightly down the leg. Hold pressure for a count of 30 seconds and then release. Repeat several times throughout the day. Alternately, use an acupressure device to do the same procedure.
In addition to acupressure at Cheng Shan, Pai Da is done at this point. With an open hand or loose fist slap or pat the area of Cheng Shan with moderate intensity. At the beginning the technique should start more gently which is known as Wen Pai (文拍; Scholar Patting), and then progress to stronger stimulation known as Wu Pai (武拍; Military Patting). If comfortable while bending over pat both right and left side of the body at the same time, or if not possible stimulate one side at a time. Continue patting for 5 to 10 minutes (or longer) until the skin of the leg turns red. In Chinese medical terms patting draws the Yang Qi to the surface of the body area being stimulated, and this is especially useful for when we have conditions where cold has entered the Bladder channel leading to pain.
In addition to patting just at Cheng Shan, Pai Da can be done along the lower part of the channel. The Bladder channel is the longest channel in acupuncture theory, containing 67 points in total and running all the way from the inner corner of the eye, over the head, and down to the heel and then tip of the small toe (Figure 6). While it is difficult for an individual to pat along the entire channel, an effective alternative is to pat down the lower portion. Start with patting the buttocks and then slowly move down the back of the leg to the heel. Since the Bladder channel moves in this direction (from the buttocks down to the feet), patting in this direction helps stimulate the circulation of Qi. This technique is also appropriate for people with pain in the joints or along the pathway of the channel, anywhere from the back of the neck down to the legs.
Another home remedy for winter is foot soaking. The most important acupuncture point on the bottom of the foot is Yong Quan, the first point of the Kidney channel (KD-1; 湧泉穴) (Figure 7). Therefore, the entire bottom of the foot is governed by the Kidney channel. Soaking the feet in hot water warms the Kidney channel, relaxes the body, and encourages mental calm. Epsom salts can be added to the water as salt is the taste and mineral associated with the Kidney. An alternative to Epsom salts is to boil sliced ginger root in water and then, when cooled down a bit, used as a hot soak. Since ginger is warming and moving in quality, this ginger water soak is better for pain conditions.
Lastly, a third option for a foot-soak is hot water with a few drops of sandalwood essential oil added in. Sandalwood has a calming and centering quality, which is why sandalwood incense is used as a traditional meditation aid. This rare fragrant wood encourages the Qi to move into a state of storage internally and is thus quite appropriate for use in winter.
When most people in the west think of acupuncture they picture doctors using fine needles inserted along the body. The word in Chinese that we commonly translate as “acupuncture” is zhen jiu (針灸), really a combination of two words – one for needle (針) and one for moxibustion (灸). Moxibustion is a type of heat therapy applied to the body, commonly at acupuncture points. The source of heat is the burning of mugwort leaf that has been dried and processed into a soft fluffy material known as moxa floss, or moxa wool (ai rong 艾絨).
There are many methods of moxibustion. One of the most traditional is taking small cones of moxa wool and burning them directly on the skin at acupuncture points. With this method, if large cones are used burns often result and thus it is little used in modern times. However, to this day Japanese moxibustion specialists, as well as some Korean and Chinese practitioners, continue the practice of burning moxa directly at the skin but, when doing so, use cones only the size of a rice grain, a half rice grain, or even a millet seed. This allows for a strong and effective stimulation of acupuncture points with little risk of painful burns.
Another method of moxibustion is to burn large cones of moxa at the skin just until heat is felt, and then removing the cones before allowing them to burn to the skin (Figure 8). In Japanese this method is known as chinetsukyu (知熱灸) or feeling the heat moxa (literally, “knowing” the heat moxa). Probably the most popular method of moxibustion today utilizes a moxa stick, also known as a moxa pole. A moxa stick looks like a cigar and is composed of moxa wool packed tightly and then wrapped in paper. One end is lit and then, while smoldering, is held over the skin to warm an area or an acupuncture point. Since the moxa pole should never touch the skin, this method is safer for home use.
Moxibustion has the dual effect of warming and strengthening the Qi of the internal organs. Since it has a warming effect, it also moves stagnant Qi in the channels when applied to areas of pain caused by cold. More importantly however, since at least the Jin dynasty (265 – 419) applying moxibustion has played an important role in disease prevention, and today it is a major part of the Nourishing Life tradition of Chinese medicine. Dou Cai, in his Song dynasty (960 – 1279) text Bian Que’s Heart Method (Bian Que Xin Shu), said that moxibustion is the first method of Nourishing Life and preventing disease.
As moxibustion warms the interior, it is an important health maintenance technique for use in winter. Healthy people over the age of 40 can use moxibustion preventatively by warming certain acupuncture points of the body. Two of the most important are Zu San Li, Stomach channel number 36 (ST-36; 足三里穴), and Qi Hai, Ren vessel number 6 (REN-6; 氣海穴). Zu San Li is located 3 cun below the lateral (outer) eye of the knee on the outside of the tibia (Figure 9). This is also measured as one hand-breath below the knee. This point is one of the paramount points in Chinese acupuncture to promote longevity. It strengthens the Spleen and Stomach, and warms the original Qi (yuan qi 元氣) of the Kidney.
Qi Hai, literally the “Sea of Qi,” is an acupuncture point located on the lower abdomen and is sometimes linked to the Lower Dan Tian (xia dan tian 下丹田) discussed in Qigong practice. It is found 1.5 cun (or about 2 fingers breath) below the umbilicus right on the midline of the abdomen (Figure 10). Like Zu San Li, it warms the original Qi of the Kidney. Qi Hai also treats all types of internal weakness, and all types of abdominal pain due to stagnation and cold. A general disease prevention method is to stimulate Qi Hai with moxa cones or moxa pole. If cones are used, the number of cones should gradually increase with the increasing age of the patient. Moxabustion at these two points can be done at the beginning of winter each year for several days or even daily for a few weeks to prevent disease throughout the season. As there is a risk of burns with any moxa application, before attempting at home please seek guidance from a professional licensed practitioner of acupuncture and Oriental medicine.
Qigong and Meditation for Winter
As already mentioned the Kidney is the Zang-viscera associated with the winter because of the connection with the Water phase. One of the main functions of the Kidney, mimicking the very nature of Water and winter, is to store the Jing-essence (精). The Kidney forms the basis for our physical strength, and is thus linked to our overall vitality and longevity. In winter therapeutic exercise such as Qigong or meditation should encourage the body’s ability to protect the warmth and strength of Qi on the interior, and encourage the body’s ability to store Qi in a state of inner quiescence.
One Qigong exercise applicable for winter is Kidney Breathing. This simple exercise can be done either standing or seated, depending on the physical ability of the practitioner. If done standing start with legs about shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent, allowing the arms to hang naturally at the side. Take a few minutes to simply breath deeply using diaphragmatic breathing (i.e., deep abdominal breathing). Next, when ready, bring the hands together palm-to-palm in front of the lower abdomen. While gently holding the breath, vigorously and rapidly rub the hands together to warm the palms. Once warm place the hands, palm down, on the lower back and resume normal breathing. Close eyes and feel the warmth of the hands on the lower back, imagining that the heat is penetrating into the entire back and lower abdomen, warming the Kidneys.
The next stage of Kidney Breathing is to visualize “breathing” Qi into the Kidneys from the earth below. To do this, on inhalation, imagine that Qi rises up from the earth along the back or inside of the legs into the perineum. It then moves up the lower back into the Kidney by the end of the in-breath. On the exhalation the Qi moves back down along the same path into the earth. Continue this pattern of inhalation and exhalation while visualizing the Qi of the earth moving up into the Kidney and then back down, the entire time holding the palms on the lower back. To finish rub hands together again to warm the palms, and place both palms face down on the navel. Rub the palms in a circle 9 or 18 times over the navel in one direction, then repeat in the opposite direction.
As the Water phase season, winter represents the state of closing and storage. All of nature is in a state of stillness and hibernation. Meditation practices can follow this same idea so as to help our bodies resonate with winter. As such, an appropriate and easy meditation for winter is simple stillness meditation. For those with more formal meditation training, this is an easy version of zuowang (坐忘) or zuochan (i.e., zazen in Japanese; 坐禪) practices.
For basic stillness meditation find a comfortable seated position. One may adopt traditional sitting postures on the floor such as lotus position or half-lotus, or alternately simply sit cross-legged. People with difficulty sitting on the floor can sit comfortably on a chair with feet flat on the floor. Place hands in the lap. Eyes can be closed or kept just slightly open with the gaze directed to the floor in front. Begin by doing diaphragmatic breathing placing one’s attention on the lower abdomen, the area known as the Lower Dan Tian in Qigong practice. Imagine a warm feeling starting to develop in the lower abdomen, continuing a natural breathing pattern. Whenever the attention wanders (which it will), gently return concentration to the lower abdomen. Alternately, while sitting and breathing, simply count the breath for as long as possible, resuming again if the attention wanders.
This type of meditation is an excellent way to guard and protect the Qi, and since it focuses on stillness, it is appropriate for winter. In the first chapter of the Su Wen section of the Nei Jing it says, “Quiet peacefulness, absolute emptiness, the true Qi follows. When Jing-essence and Shen-spirit are guarded internally, where could a disease come from? (恬惔虛无，真氣從之，精神內守，病安從來)” Stillness meditations are thus methods for us to guard and store the original Qi, and by doing so prevent disease. Lastly, considering that the time of day that corresponds to winter is the late hours before and after midnight, meditation can be practiced at that time provided it does not cut down on the proper amount of sleep someone is getting.
Birth of the Light
One of the basic laws of Yin and Yang is the rule of mutual transformation (yin yang zhuan hua 陰陽轉化). This law says that when something reaches its zenith, it naturally transforms into and reverts to its opposite. When Yang peaks, it then turns to Yin and vice versa. We all see this on a daily basis in the cycling between day and night. During the course of the year this happens as cold weather turns to warm and warm then turns back to cold. Winter is certainly the coldest and darkest time of year. Winter reaches its peak, or in other words its greatest state of Yin, each year on the Winter Solstice (dong zhi 冬至).
This year (2015) Winter Solstice is on December 21, and even though this is the longest night of the year, by the very next day the light starts returning. This return, or birth of the light, is the birth of Yang in the natural world. It is no wonder then that many traditional holidays of this season, such as Christmas, celebrate the return of light that heralds rebirth. This time of year, as the days finally begin to lengthen again, is the reminder of nature’s promise that all the five phases constantly move forward, and that the reason we need to periodically retreat into a state of storage and closure, is because that state allows us to move forward into springtime again, both happy and healthy.
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