Rope knotWorry. It’s the force behind that knot in your stomach, the clenching of your jaw, your trouble falling asleep and the furrow in your brow. You know it’s not accomplishing anything, but your mind resists getting off the hamster wheel.

How can you change the channel? Turns out, there are points for that. The Stomach and Spleen are responsible for digesting not only our food, but our lives: absorbing what’s useful, letting that nourish us, and passing on the not-so-useful stuff to the Large Intestine so we can let it go. Worry is the mental equivalent of sluggish digestion, or chewing on the same thing over and over again without swallowing. Just as there are points to aid digestion, there are points to help dissolve the mental knots. Here are three:

SP 5

Spleen 5

Spleen 5 is the point to use when your compassionate heart leads to a worried mind and you can’t stop thinking about the problems your friend (or your kid, or co-worker) is facing, even though you know there’s nothing you can do to change their situation. This is empathy gone astray. First, summon some compassion for yourself – it’s tough to watch someone you love go through something hard. Then, find the point on the inner foot, just below and in front of the bony bump on the ankle. Press this point firmly with your thumb, and massage in circles for a minute while thinking to yourself “I let go.”

Lung 7

Lung 7 is the go-to point to help clear your mind of worry. Like the breath itself, this point helps anchor us to the present moment rather than projecting into a future that may never come to pass. Take a long, slow breath and massage Lung 7 – Make a “thumbs up”, and HT 5 and LU 7locate the point about an inch towards your elbow from the thumb/wrist crease.

Heart 5

Tap Heart 5 when you’re worried about what you’re going to say. This point helps you express what’s in your heart, so it’s especially useful for speaking your truth, confronting someone, or having to say “no.” Located on the inner wrist, one thumb-width up from the inner crease, just inside the tendon that leads to the pinky. Tap this point gently for 30-60 seconds, visualizing raindrops striking and bouncing up from a puddle at the point.

Changing your relationship with stress is the most powerful thing you can do for your health. If you’re ready to revamp your nervous system for more ease and confidence, check out your bodymind toolkit:

 Calm Yourself: Self-Care Strategies for Stress and Anxiety

 

 

 

 

RunningRecently one of my patients -a beautiful, strong, and conscious, woman- told me that her qi gong practice has taught her to examine the difference between health and fitness in her life. She went on to explain how some of the things she had been doing to “stay fit” were actually compromising her health. Too much running and biking were causing back pain, knee pain, and fatigue. But in moderation, these same exercises helped her feel great. Listening to her body’s wisdom, she was able to keep herself feeling pain-free and energetic through doing less of what her mind was telling her she needed in order to be fit. Some days that meant a gentle walk rather than a vigorous run.

I could relate. My own internal “should” voice can be very strong. And loud. At times shrill. And I have definite ideas about what I need to be doing in order to be healthy, which don’t always line up with what my body needs. Is it better to force myself to get up and meditate, or get an extra hour of sleep? Green smoothies can be wonderfully healthy, but is my digestive qi up to the challenge of digesting them in the cold, damp, winter? Maybe oatmeal would be a better choice. My intellectual mind doesn’t always know the answers, but my bodymind does. That information is always there when I bother to tune in and ask, rather than let my mind run the show.

Qigong is a practice of turning into the bodymind. But the benefits of the practice are not confined to the half hour of going through the qigong routine: there’s a spillover effect. Tuning into what’s going on inside moment by moment, day by day, we allow the what the Taoists call “right action” to arise by itself, which is the secret to living in harmony with nature, and with one’s own heart. And that’s where the joy lives. Interestingly enough, the 2011 study by Massachusetts General Hospital showed increased grey matter density in brain in areas associated with self-awareness, introspection, compassion, empathy, memory and learning, decision-making (plus decreased size of the region associated with stress) when participants practiced meditation for 30-minutes a day for 8 weeks.

Could you benefit from a practice of tuning in? A new qigong session begins January 4, and another on Feb. 1. I invite you to sign up.

DandelionIt’s getting to be that time of year where a remarkable number of people here in the Willamette Valley start sneezing, dripping, and itching with seasonal allergies.  Fortunately, there are a number of natural steps you one can take to mitigate or even eliminate allergy symptoms without suffering the drowsiness and other side effects that often come with taking pharmaceuticals.

In Chinese Medicine, we distinguish between two main types of allergies: those where heat or cold predominates.  Wind, joining forces with either heat or cold, invades the body from the outside, causing an acute attack of those symptoms we all know and don’t love: sneezing, nasal congestion or runny nose, itchy eyes, tiredness, and even diffiuculty breathing.

Symptoms of wind-cold type of allergies include very drippy runny nose with clear mucus and fatigue, while the wind-heat type is characterized by itchy eyes, itchy throat and thick yellow or green mucus. Both conditions are made worse by the presence of phlegm.  Phlegm is which is basically accumulated turbid water that the body is trying to throw at what it perceives as a dangerous pathogen: the evil, invading pollen.

So what can you do besides hide indoors?

  1. Use a neti pot to rinse your sinuses to get the pollen out of your respiratory tract. Combine warm water and enough salt so that the water tastes like a teardrop, and rinse your nasal passages twice daily.  Flushing the allergens out of your body gives the body a break from having to perpetually react to them.  Plus, freeing the flow of qi in your sinuses makes it less likely for stuff to percolate there and become infected.
  2. Eat strategically: Making sure that you’re digesting well and therefore not creating more residual crud to hang out in your system as dampness or phlegm is very important.  Keep damp-producing foods like dairy products, refined sugar, bananas, alcohol, and refined flour products to a minimum (Though yogurt and kefir with active probiotic cultures can help the immune system, you may be better off with fermented foods like miso and kimchi — or taking probiotic supplements– which are less mucogenic than dairy.) The taste of bitter helps to transform phlegm, so including lots of leafy greens in your diet can be helpful.  If you have wind-heat type allergies, cooking with spices such as rosemary, oregano, turmeric, and mint can be helpful. For wind-cold type allergies, cook with onions and fresh ginger.
  3. Drink tea:  Both green and black tea are especially rich in quercetin, a component of plant-based foods that has anit-inflammatory properties. Other foods rich in quercetin include red onions, lovage, capers, red grapes, and green leafy vegetables.Tea made from nettles can be highly anti-inflammatory: steep the leaves for 10 minutes in hot water (and handle with care!) Chrysanthemum blossoms (steeped covered for at least 5 minutes) is especially good to relieve itchy eyes.
  4. Take Herbs: Herbs are simply stronger foods. Ready-made Chinese herb formulas like Pe Min Kan Wan, Bi Yan Pian, or Xanthium Pills are all aimed at treating the wind-heat or wind-cold to decrease symptoms of allergies, and many people find to be effective symptom relievers without the side-effects of pharmaceutical drugs. (available at Life in Balance Acupuncture.)
  5. Get acupuncture.  A study published in the Australian Journal of Medicine suggests that acupuncture provides safe, effective treatment for persistent seasonal allergies, even 12 weeks after the course of treatment. But you may already know that!

I said this to a patient today, and her mouth literally dropped open: so radical, apparently, was the concept that we slow down BEFORE our bodies force us to, out of sheer exhaustion.

This is winter — nature is hibernating, and so too should we be. I find that the same schedule that felt fine to me a few months ago now feels draining. I need more sleep, I’m craving time alone. I want to curl up and read with my cat. And I have been hearing a similar refrain from almost every person who has passed through my office in the past few weeks. Hence this blog post: you are not alone if you feel exhausted. Especially if instead of doing less, you are packing more into your schedule to prepare for the holidays.

So here’s my radical proposition: what would it be like to feel rested and peaceful for the next two weeks? Conjure that up internally. Now, what could you do to get there? Is it going to bed an hour earlier? Lowering your expectations of how your house has to look? Taking a half an hour to walk outside to give yourself a break from the houseful of people you love? How could you stop the yang (activity) madness and be truly rejuvenated by yin (rest)?

I’d love to hear your intentions.

I’d edit this post, but it’s past my bedtime.

Wishing you and your loved ones the happiest and most peaceful of holidays.
Brodie

A colleague showed up at my office yesterday and asked “what are you doing tonight at 7:30?”  For the first time in weeks, the answer was “I don’t have any plans, actually.” She smiled, presented me with a free ticket to the Aviv String Quartet’s performance that her husband wasn’t able to use, and left.

As I sat in the concert hall, listening, the music worked its magic.  It felt as though the sound waves were massaging my brain into a dreamy, peaceful, yet creative and inspiring state.  I came out of it feeling deeply rejuvenated, like an especially deep meditation or trip to “acu-land.”  While feeling deeply grateful that I was there having this experience,  I was reminded of this passage from the Tao Te Ching:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

Tao Te Ching interpreted by Stephen Mitchell

If there’s no space, nothing happens. We need yin to engender yang.

It’s so easy for me to see space as simply something that needs to be filled up.  This keeps me very busy (usually with things I love!)  but doesn’t allow for a whole lot of spontaneity. What would happen if I left a little more space ?

It’s starting to feel like spring here in the Willamette Valley. Plants are emerging from their winter dormancy, flowers are budding, the days are getting longer. This same seasonal cycle that we  observe in the outer world of nature is also happening inside our bodies. The enlivening and renewing of spring is associated with the Liver and Gallbladder system in Chinese Medicine. This system encompasses not only your physical liver and gall bladder that you know and love, but also with the tendons and connective tissue, the eyes, and the free flow of emotions, the creative drive or as the beginning phase of a new endeavor and the envisioning, planning, decision-making that go along with it, and the emotion of anger (short temper, impatience, frustration also). The upward and outward movement of qi in spring resonates with those same energetics within us.

How can you give your liver a break and move with the natural rhythms of spring?

  • Go outside and breathe some fresh air, exercising for 30 minutes. Healthy lung qi helps invigorate stuck Liver qi.
  • Do some qigong or yoga to allowing your qi to flow freely, and to maintain flexibility in the tendons and connective tissue, which is associated with the Liver.
  • Forgive someone. Holding onto anger and resentment constrains the Liver Qi. Let it go!
  • Eat Lightly.  Our Livers help us get rid of the heavy stagnation we might have accumulated during the winter (which might manifest as seasonal allergies as the sludge moves up to eyes and nose). Leaving behind the heavier foods of winter, especially heavy meats, dairy products, and wheat, can help you move into spring feeling lighter.
  • Consider cutting down on your liver’s workload by eliminating alcohol, refined sugar, and anything artificial like fake sugar, alcohol, pesticides and herbicides. Even if you don’t want to do this  forever, consider giving your liver a week or two off from known toxins — a spring vacation from toxins.
  • Eat green and pungent. Foods with a pungent taste like onions and garlic, peppermint, basil, dill, fennel, turmeric, rosemary, parsley resonate with the upward, outward direction of the season and can be helpful in eliminating venting the winter sluggishness. Young, tender shoots and green leaves, like asparagus, rabe, bean sprouts, and pretty much anything green and leafy kale, collard greens, watercress, romaine, dandelion, parsley are tremendously beneficial to detoxify that liver. If your digestion is weak, stick to cooked vegetables as opposed to raw, which require more energy to digest.
  • Drink hot water with lemon first thing in the morning. A little bit of the sour taste helps to gently help the liver slough off toxins. But too much sour will not be good for the liver, so think moderation.
  • Enjoy life!

Recently, one of my patients recommended I read Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D (Viking, New York, NY, 2009). I am very grateful for her recommendation, as it seems like the number of people I know, both personally and professionally who are dealing with this brutal disease — and the harsh treatment it so often necessitates — is way too high. And yet, there are many things we can do to make our bodies far less hospitable to cancer.

Written by an M.D. who was diagnosed with a brain tumor 15 years ago and was dissatisfied with his oncologist’s assessment that what he did wouldn’t have any affect on his health, this book is highly readable, peppered with interesting scientific studies, and very practical advice. He considers what makes the ecosystem that is each human body conducive to cancer’s growth? Turns out, food, chronic helplessness and other emotions, and toxins in the environment have a lot to do with it.

Some points I found particularly interesting:
The role of inflammation
Cancer can’t grow without supply lines: blood vessels to get it resources. Blood vessels don’t multiply for no reason — only when the body is in need of tissue repair. Cancer hijacks the body’s inflammation process to create the bloods vessel infrastructure it needs to support its rapid growth. Foods that increase inflammation (like sugar, fried stuff, and pretty much everything else in the Standard American Diet) act as cancer fertilizer, and foods that are anti-inflammatory cut off the supply lines.

The power of synergy

Turmeric, a the bright yellow-orange spice common in Indian cooking that adds color and flavor to curries, has long-been recognized by both Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda as an anti-inflammatory herb. It has been shown not only to prevent tumor growth, but to force cancer cells to kill themselves. But when combined with black pepper or ginger, it becomes 2,000 percent more effective.

2-3 cups of green tea per day provides enough EGCG in the blood to settle on the surface of cells and prevents them from being invaded by cancers. It has been shown to even more effective when combined with soy in food form like tofu or miso (and not from concentrated soy isoflavones).

Studies where 2, 3, and 4 anti-cancer foods were combined together showed greater efficacy than administering only one of the anti-cancer foods. In Chinese Medicine, we combine herbs together for the same reason: the blend is more powerful than the individual parts.

Food as medicine

In Chinese Medicine, every time we eat is an opportunity to promote health, simply survive, or to contribute to a disease process. Servan-Schriber makes this point in the his chapter on “the anticancer foods,” as he outlines the healthful properties of berries, citrus, stone fruits, mushrooms, olive oil, leafy greens, colorful veggies, cruciferous vegetables, the mint family, garlic, dark chocolate, red wine, soy and many other wonderful foods. This chapter could easily be called the “anti-arthritis foods” or the “anti-heart disease foods,” as the recommendations are very similar with an edible cast of characters seen again and again as helpful for different diseases.

Breathing, meditation, yoga, qigong and other active relaxation practices produce coherent rhythms in the body, indicating adaptability and thus resistance to cancer and heart disease, increase the body’s ability to handle stress, and boost the immune system.

Connections

Women with breast cancer who could name 10 friends (location unimportant) had survival rates 4x higher than those who couldn’t, in a large-scale study of US nurses.

Empowerment
What I appreciated most about this book is its practicality in empowering people to take action: specifically, to eat a variety of whole foods, vegetables, fruits, and spices; reduce sugar and refined flour, animal fats, vegetable oils and other foods high in Omega-6s; deal with old emotions, stay connected to loved ones, and avoid toxins in everyday life whenever possible. This is completely in line with Chinese Medical theory that we are connected to our environment, that what we do and consume every day can move us towards or away from health, and that chronic emotions like loneliness and helplessness are just as much of risk factors for disease as cigarette smoking. I also love that someone else has compiled such excellent and digestible research that confirms what Chinese Medicine has known for thousands of years, with such great charts and graphs.

There’s lots of stuff I’m leaving out. I highly recommend reading the book. Or at the very least, eating a little turmeric with black pepper every day.

Chinese Medicine is based on the notion that humans are connected to the Nature. What’s happening out in nature is also happening in us. Winter is a time when the world gets dark, quiet, stillness, and dormant. Animals hibernate, trees pull their sap inward, conserving their energy until the spring. This time of year is associated with the Water element, which in the body correlates with the Kidneys.

The Kidney is paired with the urinary bladder and is responsible for anything having to do with aging, the lower back and lower body, bones, teeth, hearing, hair on the head, as well as growth, development, reproductive organs, adrenals, the emotion of fear, and the Will. Here are some tips to support your Kidney qi this time of year and help stay in harmony with the season:

1) As the days get shorter, so should yours. Conserve your qi by going to bed early and getting up with the sun.
2) Get quiet and inward with qigong, meditation, or yoga.
3) Stay warm. Dress warmly. Secure the exterior of your body by massaging your skin with warm sesame oil before bathing.
4) Eat hearty soups, stews, especially those involving Kindey-nourishing beans like black, aduki, and kidney, and other foods with a natural salty taste like miso, seaweeds (especially cooked into soup), millet, barley. Seeds and nuts, as the most yin part of the plant, resonate with the season as well. Walnuts, black sesame seeds, and almonds help support Kindey yang, yin, and Essence respectively. Avoid salads, fruit juices, and adding too much salt to your food.
5) Warm up with spices like cinnnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, if you tend to feel cold.

If you honor your yin this season, abundant yang is bound to spring forth in the next.

On the last night of the qigong retreat, (see previous post for more on this) there was a small ceremony honoring the students who had just completed their sixth year of study, including thousands of teaching and practice hours.  Master Liu He presented each student with a scroll, and said that on each one was a secret Taoist word that the student could use to make him/herself into a powerful qigong master.  The first student opened his scroll, but had trouble locating the word.  He turned it upside down, and then turned it over looking for the secret word. Then he smiled, realizing that there was nothing written on the paper.  Master Liu’s point was simple: there is nothing anyone can tell you that will make you a master.  There are no secret teachings which will transform you into a realized person, or whatever you aspire to be.  There is only the dedicated practice of cultivation.

In Chinese Medicine, this internal battle between the thinking mind, the yi, which is associated with the Spleen, and the zhi, the force of will, which is the soul of the Kidney.  I meditate and practice qigong daily, but despite these practices, I have a very active yi: I often believe my mind telling me that it has all the answers. And I don’t always have 50 other people around who are practicing to keep me motivated.  The thing about qigong  or meditation or probably any spiritual practice, is that as you do it, you give it the power to change you. By simply committing yourself to practicing, you put the force of your will into it.  And it’s that “will power” that makes it easier to continue practicing.  You just have to do it.

So if practice begets practice by strengthening the will, how do you get this virtuous circle going?  Some things that I have found support me in continuing to practice are:

  • Community.  Having people around to practice with definitely makes it easier.  It also adds an element of accountability.
  • Routine. If you have a time every day to practice, it makes the mind’s argument that there isn’t time, or that there are more important thigns to do, less compelling. And when something becomes routine, it’s just part of life. Most of us probably don’t have internal dialogues about whether or not we have time to take a shower — we just do it.
  • Flexibility.  Even if I don’t have 30+ minutes to practice, I do something. Maybe five minutes is not ideal, but it’s certainly better than zero.  It still serves to cultivate the will and reinforces the routine.

What helps you stay on track with your practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In the Pacific Northwest, where I live and practice Chinese Medicine, the cessation of the long rainy season (late June this year) marks the dramatic start of summer, and people take off running. More than a few patients report that there is so much they want experience this summer that they pack their schedules full:  entertaining a string of out-of-town guests, tending enormous gardens, going on epic hikes and bike rides, lots of parties and cookouts. And yet, with all the doing of these activities which should add up to satisfaction from getting the most out of life, many people confess to feeling depleted.  They are exhausted as they attempt to keep up with the demands of the season.  Feelings of depression often accompany such fatigue — feelings which can be confusing because adding more “fun stuff” to their schedule is not actually increasing their joy—it’s depleting it! What is happening here is that people are getting caught up in the yang of the season, expending too much of their own yang qi, and burning up their yin in the process.

Summer is the most yang of the seasons. It is associated with the element of  Fire, the emotion of joy.  As we resonate with the season, the urge to do more, to get up earlier and stay up later, and to be more social is natural. But too much of that throws us off balance. Even in the summer, it’s not daytime all the time — we still have to cycle through nighttime. And living in a culture that already emphasizes yang over yin  — doing over being — no matter what the season, it doesn’t take much to tip the balance.

To help you make the most of this active, vibrant season while still feeling exuberant yourself, I offer four tips:

  • Begin the day with gratitude.  What do you appreciate about your life right now, without doing a thing?
  • Schedule in unstructured time.  Yes, I’m encouraging you somewhat ironically to plan to be spontaneous. Doing what feels right in the moment is one of the virtues of the Fire element.
  • Take time to be alone.  Some people need this more than others, but even the most natural extroverts need time to connect with themselves in order to connect authentically with others.
  • Balance your active, productive, busy yang schedule by adding yin items to your “to do” list.  Anything restful, quiet, and peaceful qualifies.  I suggest actually writing in the yin elements of your schedule.  Putting a check mark next to “sit outside and appreciate the flowers” helps to satisfy the need to accomplish something while ensuring that what you’re accomplishing actually leads to feelings of joy, rather than burnout.

May you enjoy the season to the fullest!