One of the saddest things I hear in my practice is, “I must be getting old.” I hear this from patients as young as 29, and I know the feeling: nothing makes me feel like I’m 85 quite like back pain that I’ve had since I was a teenager.

Maybe you don’t have the energy you’d like. You feel stiff. Maybe your back hurts (or your hips, knees, neck, or shoulders). The world feels like it’s moving too fast.  But it’s not true that you have to fall apart before you die (If you have pain in one shoulder, why not the other? – it’s the same age!). You also don’t have to live on ibuprofen and caffeine, or outsource your wellness to your doctor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, or chiropractor. It’s possible to feel younger, even as the days go by.

Little things add up. Ever notice how you get an immediate surge of energy when you get an unexpected visit or email from a dear friend you haven’t seen in years? Notice how a couple days of eating processed food while visiting family makes you feel bloated and toxic? Or how about how not getting up from your desk for 15 hours when you’re under deadline can lead you to conclude that your shoulders are now cemented to your back? These all add up. It’s the things we do every day that most determine how old we feel.

 

6 things I wish everyone did every day to feel great:

 

  1. Get 7-9 hours of sleep a night
  2. Move your body in a way that feels good
  3. A body-mind practice to calm your nervous system and reconnect to yourself
  4. Drink water (half your body weight in ounces)
  5. Eat whole foods (mostly plants)
  6. Connect with love

Looking for a way to do 3 or 4 of these things at once? Keep Reading…

Let me introduce you to a good friend of mine. Her name is Qi Gong. She’s Yoga and Meditation’s less-sexy, easy-to-underestimate cousin — and she’s AMAZING. She’s less flashy than her cousin Yoga. But don’t overlook her — those still waters run deep.

Here are 10 reasons why you’ll love getting to know Qi Gong:

  1. She’s an incredible healer.  She can reduce arthritis, chronic pain, heart disease, fatigue, diabetes, and inflammation, while boosting your immunity, energy, bone density, sleep, focus, and balance. She’s even got the studies to prove it.
  2. She’s over 3000 years old and still looks great. She’s got gorgeous curves. Unlike the straight lines of her angular cousin Yoga, Qi Gong moves in circles and spirals: she flows.
  3. She’s unpretentious. There’s nothing showy about her.  Her movements are slow, mindful, graceful, and powerful.  While she’s great at building strength and balance, her moves aren’t particularly difficult, and you probably won’t see her on the cover of a glossy magazine sporting lululemon. No stretchy pants are required to hang with her.
  4. She’s energizing.  Spend just 20 minutes with her and you’ll feel revitalized, more positive, and more mobile throughout your day.
  5. She’s easy to be with. Unlike her cousin Meditation (who’s awesome, but let’s face it, can be kinda uptight sometimes), Qi Gong doesn’t ask you to sit there and try to not pay attention to your thoughts. Instead, she helps the mind and nervous system to settle down by giving you lots to pay attention to, like your breath, and simple movements that repeat.
  6. She’ll help you relax. She can help tame anxiety and stress. You might even sleep better.
  7. She’ll help you get out of your head better than Yoga. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll love Yoga forever, but a lot of what she does is so challenging that it often feels like a “mind-over-body” practice rather than one of mind-body unity. It can be hard to get in touch with your body while at the same time trying to dominate it. With Qi Gong, the struggle to do it “right” or make it look like someone else’s practice goes away. The simplicity of the movements make it easy to feel the qi flowing in your body and between your hands.
  8. She’ll make you feel good. She’ll love you no matter how strong or how flexible you are, and you’ll love her back.
  9. She’ll help you love your body. Rather than seeing the body as something you need to ignore or transcend (like Meditation sometimes says), Qi Gong encourages you to tune into the body as a focal point for concentration. Your body becomes a portal for tuning into the more subtle layers. (So she’s kind of a feminist — none of that “body is dirty and mundane” baggage here.)
  10. She’s sophisticated. She’s got different routines designed to support each system of the body. She’ll even teach you some points that acupuncturists use to get qi to move properly.

Want to meet her? She’s available. And I’d be delighted to introduce you.

My new home-study course, 12 Treasures Qi Gong: Your Movement Multvitamin is now available.

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Did you happen to catch Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk that’s been making the rounds on Facebook recently? I loved it. In her talk, Monica asks who among us hasn’t done something regretful at the age of 22? She calls for us all to have greater empathy and compassion for people whose missteps or out-of-context statements become fodder for viral videos and internet memes. She says this with the authority of someone who was humiliated nearly to the point of suicide. I couldn’t agree more on this call to create a more compassionate culture.

While I have not (yet) been publicly shamed on a global scale, I do know what it’s like to face relentless criticism at every turn, to be torn down and bullied 24/7, as I used to do this to myself. You may not know this about me, as it’s not exactly a point of pride, but I (used to) have a raging inner critic. I have been trying to get her off my back for years, and slowly but surely, it’s working. She used to be really loud and obnoxious, tearing me down even in front of other people. (Now she speaks in whispers.)

One night a few years ago still stands out in my memory: I was doing my best to make two dinners at the same time: one bland for the kids, one with actual flavors for my husband and me. Food bubbled on all four burners of the stove while veggies sizzled in the oven. The timer for the roasting veggies beeped just as a pot threatened to boil over, so I quickly quieted the timer, turned the heat down on the stove and gave the pot a stir. Then somebody asked a question, which I answered while adding the cilantro and lime juice to the curry. The veggies in the oven, completely forgotten, charred beyond the point of edible.

“Seriously???” I demanded of myself, loudly. “I can’t believe I let this happen. I even set a timer. How hard is it to take something out of the oven?”

Sensing my distress, my step-son Jack sprang up, threw his arms around me and reassured me, “It’s OK, Brodie. You’re still an amazingly awesome person!”

At that moment it sunk in: now that I’m a parent, I need to do something about this inner critic bullshit, because I now have witnesses. I definitely don’t want my new 9-year-old feeling like he needs to take care of his step-mom.

The irony is that compassion is one of my super-powers. Empathy for others is incredibly natural for me, and I would never dream of inflicting such a harsh tone or shaming questions on anyone else. Clearly, I had (and sometimes still have) a different set of standards for myself than I do for anyone else on the planet.

I have been doing this work on self-compassion for years. The work has taken many forms: breathing, meditation practices, self-compassion rituals, heart-opening qi gong, applying essential oils to acupoints, in addition to acupuncture and herbs. And I have made remarkable progress. My inner critic is no longer the loudest voice in my head.

In moments of shame when I am tempted to self-flagellate, I am able to meet myself with compassion. I know that perfection is not the metric. I can see when I’m putting WAY too much pressure on myself, and scale it back. I can even laugh about it. And I am a way better parent now that I can role model self-compassion.

After many years of walking this path myself, I’m ready to share with you the practices that have helped me in my journey. This summer at Breitenbush Hot Springs, we’ll cultivate the qi of self-compassion. We’ll also practice being super sweet to ourselves, laugh, get curious, and explore a whole toolbox of strategies.

What do I mean by self-compassion? Self-compassion isn’t merely the absence of an inner critic; it’s embracing who you are. It involves knowing yourself, respecting yourself, recognizing your humanity, and getting the ego out of the way. It’s also about self-care, knowing and respecting your energy and its limits, and knowing what you need to do to show up as the best version of yourself. Getting good at self-compassion is the opposite of self-indulgent; it helps everyone around you.

Join me for a self-compassion retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs, August 23rd – 26th.

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Woman with tea looking awayEvery fall I wonder if I’m depressed. I have suffered from depression off and on throughout my life, and know all too well what it feels like. Here’s what happens: I don’t want to go anywhere. Time alone seems far more precious than connecting with friends. I want to sleep more. Sometimes I feel sad for no particular reason. Sitting on the couch with a steaming mug of tea and a cat feels better than going for a hike. I want every meal to involve sweet potatoes. Knowing the signs, I inquire within: should I be worried?

Then I remember that it’s totally natural to feel this way. In Chinese Medicine, our bodies and minds are connected to the cycles of nature. Autumn is the transition season from the yang of summer to the yin of winter. To clarify the terms: Yang means active, hot, moving, and external: in the summer, it’s hot, the days are long and many of us are busy, active, and non-stop social. Then the season shifts to autumn, and the world gets colder and darker, bringing with it a natural shift towards yin: a drawing inward, wanting rest and stillness. And chai. And the aforementioned sweet potatoes.

If you don’t follow the cycles of the seasons, you set yourself up for disease. So here are 5 tips for fall.

  • Let yourself rest more than you think you “should.” You might well need more rest to fight off the colds and flus which start flying around this time of year. Greet your need for rest with compassion rather than judgment.
  • Switch up your diet to include more cooked vegetables, soups, stews, proteiny grains like quinoa and millet, and meat if you’re so inclined. This time of year we want to build the body’s yin: that which moistens and nourishes to prevent things like dry skin, dry lips and throat, dry cough, dry stools, — pretty obvious forms of dryness, but also those less obvious — muscle and joint stiffness, insomnia, hot flashes, the ability to feel calm. Protein tends to be warming and helps to build the body and fortify it for winter. Root vegetables like winter squashes and sweet potatoes can be especially helpful for nourishing yin, feeling grounded, and ready for winter. Use gentle warming, pungent spices like fresh ginger, cardamom, leeks, and garlic to take the chill off. Eat fewer salads and more sautéed veggies: white mushrooms, bok choy , cabbage, radishes, leeks and cauliflower, are especially appropriate. Apples and pears (and dairy products if you’re good at digesting them) can help moisten the Lungs. You’ll notice many of these fruits and veggies are white, the color that corresponds with the organs of the Lungs and Large Intestine.
  • Don’t freak out if you’re feeling melancholy – the dying of the harvest, the waning of the vibrant fullness of summer involves a sense of loss, an emotional pulling downward and inward, which can feel like sadness. Feel it and let it flow through you. It’ll pass. And if it doesn’t, consider if there’s anything you haven’t let yourself grieve. If there is, allow it to flow through you so it can go on its way. Unresolved grief can inhibit the immune system – it pulls the lung qi inward, and we need the lung qi to power the protective qi on the surface of the body to keep pathogens at bay.
  • Get exercise. Those days when I just find myself tearful, exercise never fails to shift me out of it.
  • Do some qi gong for the Lungs. Stand with your feet aQigong for lungs comfortable shoulder distance apart. Inhale, and float your arms up and out to the sides, shoulder height. Exhale and bring them forward, crossing your arms in front of your chest. Inhale and expand the chest, opening the arms to either side as in the picture below as though you’re shooting a bow and arrow: left hand extends the index finger and thumb to lengthen the Lung and Large Intestine meridians, right hand makes a fist at shoulder height. Hold the breath. Then exhale and bring your arms in front of your chest. Repeat three times per side. This exercise can help with immunity, any breathing issues, and letting go of grief.

I was inspired to write this post because a lot of folks I’ve been seeing in clinic are judging the heck out of themselves for wanting to slow down, or for suddenly finding themselves grieving over the loss of loved one. Not only are you not alone, it’s perfectly natural. Not only is it natural, it is wise.

Warrior 2Do difficult conversations make you nervous? Speaking what’s true for you, while staying connected to your heart and being open to the other person can be really tough — especially as stress hormones take over. Paying attention to your body can help a lot.

Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy‘s research shows that putting the body into a “power posture” for two minutes raised confidence-boosting testosterone levels  and decreased the stress hormone cortisol. (If you haven’t watched her TED talk, it’s well worth seeing.) Looking at Cuddy’s research through the lens of Chinese Medicine, we see that High Power postures are the yang ones: big,  expansive poses that take up space. Low power poses are more yin: people making themselves small, collapsing their chests, crossing their legs, guarding their necks.

So here’s how we can apply this scienctifically verified bodymind technique:

Before the nerve-wracking conversation, find some privacy — even a bathroom stall could work. (You could do these poses during the conversation too, but it’s unlikely to create the kind of connection you want.) So take 2 minutes alone and put yourself in any of  the following postures, or a combination:

  •  Wonder woman pose: hands on hips, chest out, chin slightly elevated.
  •  Warrior 1 (a lunge with your arms up overhead)
  • Warrior 2 ( a side lunge with arms out to the sides)
  • Goddess pose (feet wide, knees bent and angled in line with the feet, arms out to the sides and bent, palms up)

Now that your cortisol levels are dropping and your confidence is rising, you’re ready for The Talk, and for some invisible qi gong.  During the interaction, remember these 3 tips:

1)    Ground yourself. Put your feet flat on the floor. Feel the bottoms of your feet connecting with your shoes. And below that, the floor, the foundation of the building, and to the Earth itself. Let its solidness — groundedness – root you to the earth like a tree.  Imagine energy  from the Earth flowing into the bottom of your feet and up your inner legs to your low belly.

2)    Root your breath deep in your belly. This takes you into your center of gravity, or your lower dan tian in qi gong terms.  If you’re nervous, the breath will likely retreat to the  upper chest, which will reinforce to the body that you’re stressed. You can help to break that biofeedback loop by consciously allowing your breath to sink and lengthen.

3)   Keep your heart lifted and arms uncrossed. The heart lift will make it more likely that your communication will be open and compassionate. (The tongue is the sprout of the heart according to Chinese Medicine.)  Arms crossed in front of the chest are low-power poses and can signify defiance and opposition, making it less likely that your conversation will be harmonious.

Want to learn more about what you can do to feel calm and confident no matter what life throws at you? I’m super-excited to be developing my first e-course on self-care practices for anxiety.  Join my email list and you’ll be the first to know about it!  If you learned something here, please share this post with a friend.  Sharing is caring.

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.

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.

I spent five days last week on a qi gong retreat with Masters Liu Dong and Liu He.  As preparation for learning a new form, we practiced a walking meditation and a standing posture in an attempt to get grounded. The walk was very simple, but stylized walk, where every step is put down carefully, deliberately, and yet with a solid connection to the earth.  As I attempted the walking meditation, I could feel my mind wandering. Actually, “wandering” is putting it mildly.  The first day, my mind was racing, top-speed, considering the loose ends of my impending move and potential week or two of homelessness. “Just walk!” I told myself, in an attempt to call my mind back.  I heard my mind’s insistence that this transitional time means that I’m fully entitled to worry, to spend this time going through the motions of walking, instead of feeling my feet connecting with the earth.

“Feel your feet connect with the earth”  another inner voice encouraged. I tried again.   And again.  It’s astounding how many thoughts can arise in the time it takes to pick one foot off the ground, touch it to the standing leg, and connect it to the ground again. “Walk on the Earth.  Just walk – -nothing else.”  It took two days of practicing qi gong upwards of six hours a day, but finally, I felt the thoughts downshift from fifth gear to maybe second.  That’s the magic of qigong: moving the body with breath and intention changes the mind.  I could actually pay attention to walking, and moving the qi, more than anything else.  I got out of my head and into my body, out of the thousand possible futures and into the present.  (At least for a little while!)