I’m happy to announce that I’ll be leading a retreat at  Breitenbush Hot Springs Aug. 24-27, 2014!

Breitenbush is a really sweet place.  The quiet just seeps into you as soon as you leave the parking lot.   Mountains. Hot springs. Hiking trails through old growth forests. Geothermically heated cabins.  Delicious meals.  It’s the perfect spot for a retreat. Mine will be about:

Easing Up: Chinese Medicine Self-Care for Your Nervous System

Chronic stress is evil: it messes with hormones, sleep, digestion, and immunity. It worsens pain and makes us tense, tired, anxious, and depleted. It’s also not fun. Read more

Here’s a winter comfort food (vegan, gluten-free) I’ve been making about once a week — perfect antidote to the cold, damp Oregon winter. Enjoy!



Yam, kale, chickpea and coconut stew (aka Brodie’s winter comfort food)

2 TB Coconut oil
1 large onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, pressed
1 1/2 TB grated ginger
3 garnet yams, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (or winter squash or sweet pototo)
1 25-oz. can chickpeas
1 bunch kale, stems removed, chopped.
1 red or orange pepper, diced
1 can coconut milk
1/2 cup water
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. coriander powder
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
zest and juice from 1 lime
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus a handful for garnishing

In a large pot, heat the coconut oil. Over medium heat, saute onions 5 minutes until they’re slightly glassy, then add garlic, ginger, and yams, chickpeas. Cover, cook 5-10 minutes until yams are slightly soft. Add everything else. Bring to a boil, turn down to simmer 10 minutes or until everything is cooked. Let sit for at least an hour so the flavors have time to get to know each other. Serve alone or over millet or brown rice.

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.

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My practice.  The love in my life.  Eating ripe cherries off a tree. The internet.  Being able to walk without pain.  Air travel. The roof over my head.  My amazing patients.  Tea. Music.  Sight.  Hot, running water inside my house. That the Earth continues to orbit around the sun without my help. These are just a few things I’m feeling grateful for right now.

In Chinese Medicine, our qi is said to follow our intention or mental energy.  And different mental and emotional patterns do different things to our energy: over-thinking  and worry knot the qi; anger makes it rise up , fear sinks it, sadness dissolves it, and so on. In addition to having directionality, mental/emotional activity also affects the internal organs.  For example, habitual worry tends to affect the Spleen, like a knot in the gut, resulting in digestive problems. Habitual anger tends to affect the Liver, resulting in high blood pressure, tight neck and shoulder muscles in its partner channel, the Gall Bladder.

I have not come across references in the Chinese Medical classics as to what gratitude does to the qi, but in the laboratory of my body, it provides a kind of gentle buoyancy and softening. I have used it to shift out of many less desirable mental/ emotional states. Of course, the so-called “negative emotions”  are part of life, and they are to be fully felt, digested, and integrated. But when any mental or emotional state becomes habitual or excessive, or when it limits our ability to experience anything else, it’s time for an intervention. And gratitude is great one.

  • Gratitude turns scarcity into wealth, whether the scarce resource is time, money, or energy. I remember my father in horrible physical condition after a particularly brutal week of chemo and radiation, tuning into the feeling of the sun on his face and saying “I’m a happy man.” It has turned me from completely broke to among the wealthiest people on the planet without altering my bank account one penny.
  • Gratitude can stuff a sock into the mouth of the shrill inner “to-do” list reciter.  When I tune into what I’m grateful for in my life, I realize that not accomplishing all the stuff on the list usually does not jeopardize any of it. When there is a potential consequence, that becomes the priority, and the rest can be let go.  Clarifying.
  • Gratitude can silence the inner critic.  Is it possible to be critical and grateful at the same time?  I don’t think so.
  • Gratitude makes loss bearable. In coping with loss of loved ones from my life due to deaths or break-ups, I have found that gratitude doesn’t wipe out grief or loss, but coexists with it, walking with it arm-in-arm in a way that allows moving forward.  Celebrating the life of the loved one who has died or the relationship that has ended helps the sadness to recede.
  • Gratitude ends worry. Worry is too much thinking about things that may or may not happen in the future or things beyond our control.  Gratitude reflects the present moment, which is the only moment that counts, or even exists. If I can find something  happening right here, right now that I can truly appreciate, that trumps any hypothetical future that may or may not ever transpire.

I love gratitude and have a few practices that I employ daily.  Before I eat a meal, I take a short moment to tune into gratitude for the plants, sunshine, earth, water, farmers, and cooks that went into creating the food, as well as the people with whom I might be sharing it. I try to thank each patient and student for coming in to see me, thus allowing me to do work I love, and to learn and to grow.  When I stretch out after a workout, I send mental thank-yous to the parts of my body that I am feeling:  the muscles, bones,  my heart pumping my blood, my lungs giving me oxygen.  I do these things because living in gratitude feels great, and that’s how I want to feel.

A Note on the Misuse of Gratitude:  I sometimes hear from patients  “I should just be grateful, because so-and-so has it worse than me” or because “people are starving in other parts of the world.”  These people are often extremely burned-out caregivers, castigating themselves for not being able to feel gratitude, but more significantly, for having any needs at all when they perceive that someone they love has it worse.  Note the use of the word “should” and the implied “I should just shut up.” This person is denying her own needs. What is called for here is acknowledgment  and honoring of the unmet needs, followed by self-compassion. (and perhaps strategizing as to how those needs could be met). Then gratitude can follow.

How does gratitude feel in your body? What does it do for you? I’d appreciate your thoughts.

 

*A photo I took at Cafe Gratitude in Berkeley, CA. That day, I was grateful for being with my sisters, and for  delicious raw vegan strawberry cheesecake.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Chinese Medicine is based on the notion that humans are connected to the cycles of nature,and that everything that happens in nature also happens with us. Each of our internal organ systems resonates with a particular season of the year (and an element of nature, a color, an emotion, a taste, etc.) In the season of autumn, the days grow shorter, the weather gets cooler and the leaves begin to fall off the trees: nature moves from the fullness expression of yang to yin. In our bodies, the season of autumn, the Metal Phase, resonates with the Lungs and Large Intestine, those organs in the body responsible for letting go of what we no longer need. The Lungs breathe out carbon dioxide which allows us to take in fresh oxygen, the Large Intestine eliminates the waste products from digestion. To do this requires discernment: knowing what is valuable and what is not, which is another virtue attributed to and empowered by the Lungs.

So right now, nature presents to us the opportunity to discern what is the essential sap we’d like to bring down into our trunks to nourish us through the winter, and what aspect of our lives, belief systems, and behavioral repertoire can we drop like the autumn leaves? This process can be helped along by being a little less busy, as we begin to gather our energy inward for the winter as nature herself is doing.

Autumn is nature in decline, slowing down, letting go, dying. The emotion associated with the phase is sadness, loss, loneliness – -what we often feel when we have to let go of an experience or a person we have cherished. (And, incidentally, what many people are currently experiencing without knowing why, simply because it’s part of the qi of the season.) As emotions are all simply qi, feeling whatever comes up, experiencing it, crying it out or otherwise expressing it, and letting it go allows the sadness to move through and not weigh down the Lungs.

But there may not be sadness; there may be gratitude and joy. There’s a lot to appreciate about the Metal Phase, the season of decline and death: I’m grateful for the death happening within my body: right now, cells that have mutated or dysfunctional are dying off. (Cells that do not die are cancer — hooray for cell death!) My immune system (aided greatly by my Lung qi) is killing off viruses and bacteria to keep me healthy. I appreciate that I as pay attention to what thoughts cause me stress — usually old beliefs that I no longer need, I am able to weed them and let them go with mindful exhalation. And I’m grateful for the finiteness of life that gives meaning to how I spend my limited time on the planet.

May you receive the gift this season has for you.

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!

Right now, the abundance of the Earth is being harvested. In Chinese Medicine, this time of year gets its own label “Late Summer,” and corresponds with the Earth element, the Spleen and Stomach, the digestive system. It’s distinct from the fullness of intense heat and activity of the summer, and yet it’s not quite autumn. This is harvest time. Here a few questions for reflection inspired by the season of the Earth element:

1) Digesting your life. A primary job of the Earth element (the Spleen and Stomach) is to produce qi by transforming food into nutrition, to convert input into something useful to the body. There are two aspects to this equation: 1) the quality of the input itself and 2) how you are processing it .What have you been filling your life with? What have you put your energy into that is nourishing you? And what are you having a hard time “digesting” and integrating into your life?

2) Enjoying the fruits of your labor. What have you put your energy into this year, this month, this week, or this day that you can appreciate? After climbing up a mountain, it’s worthwhile to stop, stand back and take in the view.

3) What goes onto your plate? Are you living solely on one dish over and over again, expecting it to provide you with all that you need? Are you sampling from everything that the life’s bounty has to offer? Are you piling your plate too full with “good stuff” that nonetheless is far too much for one person to attempt to consume? Are you happy with the portion sizes? Is what’s on your plate providing a balance of nutrients for your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions?

May you feast on your life
!

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!)