In Classical Chinese Medicine the corner stone of strong health is the trinity of breath, nutrition, and sleep. This is why the progression of the acupuncture channels begins with the Lung channel then transitions through the Stomach channel and thirdly to the Heart channel (which is most associated with sound sleep). So, self-care begins with attending to these aspects of life- learning about our breath, the art of cuisine and it's connection to the land, and how to optimise our sleep. For tips on this trinity look to my resources page HERE.
This trinity is akin to Maslow's heirarchy of needs, for our life is immediately dependant on oxygen, water, food, and sleep. After this trinity the most essential aspect of self-care is relationship. We are defined as people through our relationships. What would we be without our parents? Who would we be without the shaping our friendships and teachers have afforded us? For this reason, self-care is not simply about ourselves. It is about others too. By giving our attention and energy to our friends and family we are nourishing ourselves. By giving attention to our natural environment and to animals we are nourishing ourselves. By saying 'we are defined through our relationships' this means we are symbiotic creatures. We simply wouldn't exist without these relationships.
So, what happens when we isolate ourselves? Simply put, we start to go a little crazy. Or rather, our craziness and self-delusion starts to reveal itself. This is why traditional meditation requires retreating into isolation, both physically and cutting off from the sense portals- this brings us face to face with delusion and the natural human tendency for craziness. However, we as a community have not entered lockdown for any spiritual pursuit. And so I believe there will be lasting mental-health problems arising from the enforced isolation, particularly with those who do not have strong social networks or are living alone.
My recommendation is not only to invest extra time and energy into reaching out to friends and family, but to use the video apps that are readily available, as we know that being face-to-face with one another is very important for co-regulation. By looking into and responding to other faces we literally are regulating each others physiology. Having a good conversation is like sustenance for the soul, it should be thought of as part of our nutritional intake.
Technology has unfortunately been a double-edged sword in this regard, for we live in what some call a 'polluted information ecology.' For this reason, I've found it very helpful to do a regular 'digital detox'. This means setting an intention to turn off all phones, computers, screens, wifi for a whole day, or at the least a half-day. By releasing ourselves from the grip of technological addiction, you will notice your whole being breathes a sigh of relief. It's a remarkable thing how we become gradually so unaware of the effect technology, social media and news has on us. This is a major cause of anxiety, restlessness, impoverished attention, and stress. By 'de-technofying' ourselves we renew our sense of awe and appreciation at simple everyday things. Try it.
To summarise, self-care begins with attending to our body by freeing up our breath, nourishing ourselves, and giving ourselves proper rest. It is greatly enhanced through friendship and keeping our sense of wellbeing unaffected by smartphones and tech. Lastly, finding an enjoyable way to exercise and move the body completes the picture. I recommend checking out my online qigong tuition is you're interested in learning an excellent way to address all of these self-care practices together.
Down a sleepy neighborhood alley in a busy part of Saigon, there lives an old man by the name of Dr. Tran Dung Thang. In all the street-side cafes and throughout the neighborhood he is well-known and held in high esteem, for over the years he has brought relief and healing to many thousands of people. On a busy day he may treat up to one hundred people. This is despite the fact that he is well into his 90’s. His wizened face, kind eyes and long white beard lends him the air of an immortal sage straight out of a Taoist faery-tale. His bright mind, energy, and powerful voice all support this impression.
However, he is no mountain hermit and does not espouse any magical teaching. He is a man of the people and has lived in hectic Vietnamese cities all his life. He achieves his healing success with an unusual type of therapy- a unique system of Vietnamese facial reflexology called Dién Chân. From appearances, the way he works is by pressing and massaging different points and areas on the faces of his clients, using a variety of massage tools and a type of heat therapy called moxabustion.
On any given day, there is a queue of a dozen or so people waiting for treatment with him or one of his assistants. His studio is fully open to the street, which gives the whole atmosphere one of welcome and friendliness. The people coming to see him are of all ages, from the very young to those his own age, and they suffer from every illness, pain, and disease you could imagine. The treatments are unique to each individual and last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, at which point he playfully pretends to slap each patient, chuckles, and sends them on their way. Treatment is all on donation, a gesture which reflects the ethos and compassion at the heart of both Dr. Tran and of Dien Chan.
Having heard of his renown, I had searched the gentleman down with the help of local friends, and when they discovered who he was they opted to receive treatment themselves. After three days of treatment my friend was greatly surprised to find the nagging and painful ‘tennis elbow’ he had been suffering from had completely disappeared! With some translation help Dr. Tran welcomed me into his clinic to observe his treatments, where I past many days absorbed in fascination and learning. This experience was persuasive enough for me to enroll on one of his Dien Chan teaching courses. I was amazed by his boundless energy and deep compassion, but equally puzzled by how he was doing it. This compelled me to search deeper into the nature and mechanics of Dien Chan which in turn led me to delve into the holistic philosophy at the roots of traditional Asian medicine, the subtle dynamics between the face, emotion and the nervous system, and to ground-breaking neuroscience that stands to shift our entire understanding of health and healing.
The human face is our most familiar image, it’s the first thing we see when born and in time, the faces we come to love are the deepest sources of joy and connection with the world. Unless we are twinned, the face we are born with is entirely unique and tells a complex story of who we are, where we come from, and who we want to be. The face has incredible nuance in its expression and functions both as a shape-shifting mask of communication and as a conduit for expressing our deepest delight.
The more you analyze the nature of the human face the more layers are revealed. Our ancestry, our upbringing, life’s hardship and emotional trauma, our temperament and character, our kindness, hope and wisdom, all of this can be read at a moments glance, for one of our most innate evolutionary skills is to read others faces. We are all experts at it, for our very survival depends on it. This skill is part of what is called the ‘social nervous system’ and operates mostly below our conscious thinking mind. It is an instinct we are born with, and gives us a split-second sense of who and what feels safe or dangerous. In turn, this cues our body to shift into a state of being at ease (essential for health and healing), or into a state of caution and alertness (essential for survival). Also known as the ‘orientation mode’ of our nervous system, this very human ability is both so intrinsic that we are mostly unaware of it and so patterned into our sense of self that it forms the bedrock of our worldview.
Our habitual facial expressions form the emotional template which govern whether we have a healthy ‘orientation response’. The face carries an emotional weighting, which tilts our internal compass for navigating the dangers of life. Because of this, it also plays a key role in health and wellbeing. What was once thought of as just a superficial aspect of the body, like an antennae to the world, is now known to be intimately connected to the deepest layer of both our physiology and psychology. The face does not just reflect the mind, but it is a physical parallel to our state of consciousness- if our face is tense our mind will be tense too. This is a symbiotic relationship- when we relax our mind the face also relaxes and when we release tension from the face we also release the mind and emotional stress.
Conversely, when we see people with a habitual flattening and hardening of the expression, particularly around the forehead and eyes, this very often correlates with a history of suffering from trauma and depression. It is like a layer of emotional armoring has been created to buffer any future interactions that could potentially be painful. This armoring also hampers our ability to mirror other people and develop positive nourishing relationships. We actually all carry a degree of armoring; it’s a natural human behavior to wear different masks to handle different situations, but unfortunately these masks sometimes become fixed, inhibiting our freedom and growth. If we physically wake up the face and re-engage all the physiological structures and pathways, we can create a window of opportunity to break out of emotional patterns.
We now know that there is a direct link between emotional pain and physical pain- they light up the exact same part of the brain. Dien Chan seems to be tapping into these pathways where physical and emotional healing are intertwined. Indeed, regardless of whether we suffer physically or emotionally, the expression on our face is of the same dynamic. One could go further and say that in actuality, there is no suffering that is purely physical or purely emotional, that this is a theoretical distinction that does not match our actual experience. All disease, illness, and suffering effects us on both physical and emotional levels. It is only a matter of degree. To accept and appreciative this basic truth draws us to a more profound realization- that our consciousness and material body are deeply, deeply connected.
If we re-assess our relationship with our face and draw on these understandings of the interconnectivity between the nervous system, emotions and consciousness, we will create an opportunity for significant personal change. We can change how we relate to our body, how we perceive and use emotion, how we interact with other people, and how we perceive the world around us.
The methods and techniques of Dien Chan give us a way to plot out and rediscover all the intricacies and dynamics of our expression and how to tap into our innate power of self-healing. With Dien Chan we can wake up and refresh our senses, giving us an opportunity to change our perception of the world and our relationship with it.
The Wim Hof Method (WHM) has exploded in popularity over the last decade, partly due to the uniqueness and charisma of it’s founder and partly due to its powerful ability to help people’s lives. In a nutshell it is composed of 3 elements- breathwork, cold-water exposure, and mind training. The breathwork technique involves taking 20-30 swift big breaths, then exhaling and holding the breath out whilst relaxing the body. This initially boosts oxygen throughout the body and the breath-hold then increases the base level of CO2 in the blood, which in turn makes more oxygen and energy available to the body. The over-all effect is one of feel light, relaxed and energized in the body and calm and clear in the mind. The cold-water exposure progresses from finishing your shower with 30 seconds of cold, to having purely cold showers and then to cold-water swimming and ice-baths. This invigorates the body and has a potent effect on many aspects of our health, from reducing inflammation and clearing out toxins from the body, to helping with pain and greatly boosting blood circulation. Wim Hof himself has drawn heavily from Eastern practices and through experimentation he has innovated to create this simple system that aims to transform people’s physical and mental health.
If we look at the WHM through the lens of Chinese medicine, we can uncover some useful knowledge about how it is best utilized and gain a different angle on how it affects our health.
The first thing that stands out to people familiar which Chinese medicine is the question of exposure to the cold- is it beneficial or detrimental to our health? From the traditional perspective exposure to cold is seen as playing a definite part in many illnesses. It is thought that when the cold ‘gets into your bones’ it can lodge there and freeze up our blood circulation and general health. This plays a role in the common cold and flu but also significantly in women’s health and digestive health in general. In Chinese medicine all the metabolic processes are envisioned as types of fire in the body, like a digestive fire or a fire in the heart. Maintaining a healthy fire that is not raging but not too low is key to regulating many aspects of our health. As a rule of thumb, unless someone is constitutionally very strong in this area we advise to always keep the feet and waist warm in cold weather and to avoid drinking iced drinks, especially after meals. So, how could having an ice cold shower in the middle of winter be any help at all? Well, we need to look in more detail about our own temperature regulation to understand this.
When we are hot our bodies adapt and self-cool, the pores open and we sweat. When we are cold our body adapts and retains heat in the trunk so our vital organs don’t freeze up. These two extremes can be thought of as reflections of Yin and Yang, with Yang being heat and Yin being cold. The nature of Yin and Yang is that they balance each other, support each other, and also transform into each other. So, when we experience extreme cold, there is a tipping point where our coldness transforms to heat. It’s as if the initial retention of heat in the trunk bounces back and flushes warmth throughout the whole body. If you have ever jumped into cold water you may have experienced this- often people come out with bright pink skin and after the initial drop in temperature the body alights and becomes very warm. Rather than just contracting against the cold this actually opens the blood vessels and boosts circulation. This is also the reason why steam sauna’s are so popular in hot countries, like Thailand or Turkey- after getting very hot, the body releases so much heat that everything feels very cool and clear afterwards. There is a caveat here though in that to initiate this transformation in temperature our body needs a certain kind of strength and energy. If you are too weak, jumping into ice water will just shock the body and give you hypothermia. You actually need to feel this bounce-back of heat rather than just feeling cold after exposure. So, a gradual process of acclimatization is needed.
In Chinese medicine, this aspect of our health, which controls temperature regulation and transformation, is called the San Jiao, which translates as the Triple Burner. Although it is considered an organ, it’s quite unusual in that it is described as having no physical form. Rather it is a process of transformation that occurs throughout the body and in particular between the upper, middle, and lower aspects of the trunk of the body. Closely related to metabolism, it is sometimes thought of as the bodies’ ‘shock-absorber’ and is known to be sensitive to sudden changes in temperature.
This is an important key to understanding the WHM- the goal is not to shock the body, but for the body to slowly acclimatize to colder and colder temperatures. Experientially, this means that when you turn the shower to cold, you don’t flinch and yelp, but allow your body to be non-reactive and contained, and this only works if you find the right temperature threshold where this is possible- not too cold too quick in other words. Gradually this will have an effect of strengthening the San Jiao and help us deal with shock with more resilience. This is where the mind-training aspect comes in- rather than flinching from the cold, both our body and mind become fortified to it, which entirely changes the experience.
Whereas in the West the mind is thought of as being distinct from the body, in the East the mind and body are intertwined at every level. It is said that our mind is rooted to the body not only in our brain, but more significantly in our blood. The experience of feeling our blood flowing through our body and our heart’s ceaseless beating, this is a foundation of not just our physicality but also our mentality. It gives us an underlying sense of our embodiment; feeling our heart beating makes us feel alive much more so than any sensation in the head. And so, when we hear the WHM as exercising and strengthening the opening and closing of all the micro-vessels and blood circulation in the body, we can see this process as flushing open our minds too and unblocking ‘psycho-sclerosis’. This accounts for people’s reports for WHM helping them with all manner of depression, anxiety and trauma. The feeling of invigoration breaks down any divide between mind and body.
In many schools of thought in Chinese medicine, ‘blood stagnation’ is considered the single most detrimental factor in our health. A simple way of understanding this is to compare the blood circulation of a newly born baby with that of a 90-year-old. It is very rare to see a bruise on a baby, even though they are always falling over and knocking themselves- their blood circulation is so good that they heal incredibly quickly. But if you look at the hands and feet of a 90-year-old they constantly look all blue and bruised.
As we grow older our blood circulation gradually slows and becomes stagnant, leading to all manner of poor health and disease. Therefore, a major protocol in Chinese medicine is to ‘move blood’, to get things flowing, warm, and well circulated. For this reason, in acute injury, we only advise icing the injury if there is significant swelling and inflammation, and only at short intervals. For this same reason, many Chinese medicine practitioners might be skeptical of WHM. However, if it is done sensibly in a gradual manner and if we consider it’s potent effect on blood circulation, we will see that it actually works under the same premise of clearing blood stagnation and strengthening the body’s inner fire.
Lastly, let us consider the breathwork. In WHM the technique is known to have been adapted from certain Indian and Tibetan pranayama techniques. In Chinese medicine breathing is considered perhaps the most significant thing that we can change to improve our health. Chinese medicine has five branches, and breathing techniques fall under the branch of ‘qigong’, which is a type of therapeutic exercise used for daily maintenance of health and for healing. Although there are hundreds of styles of qigong, the most common feature in all qigong breathing though is that there tends to be more emphasis on breath structure rather than rhythm and volume. Whereas in WHM the instructions are fairly basic and focus simply on breathing fairly quickly and not straining the body, in qigong more attention is given to gently opening the postural habits and constrictions that hamper a naturally full breath. This means working with the natural expansion of the breath to stretch and release tension in the rib-cage, armpits, abdomen, spine, neck and shoulders. It also means switching from ‘top-down’ breathing to ‘bottom-up’ breathing.
A simple way to do this, which can greatly enhance the WHM, is to physically relax and release the perineum when you inhale. The pelvic floor is considered the base of the body and when our awareness is anchored there it shifts us into a more present state of being, similar to a ‘flow state’. The easiest way to engage this area is to gently squeeze and bring you attention to the perineum at the end of your exhale. When you successfully release the perineum, this will encourage the breath to release throughout the abdomen and fully through the body, which in turn will increase blood-flow and circulation. In qigong parlance the perineum is sometimes referred to as the ‘Stone Gate’, as fully relaxing it is easier said than done. But by simply dropping our awareness to the pelvic floor we will signal our body to reflect inwards, shifting us towards calmness. This will help still the mind during any type of breathing, but particularly in breath retention. It more generally will increase ‘vagal tone’.
When we exhale, and when we pause at the end of the exhale, we shift into a Yin state, where everything becomes very relaxed and restive. This is concordant with our modern understanding of physiology- the exhale slows our heart rate and increases the enervation of the parasympathetic nerve, the Vagus, known as the ‘rest and digest’ nerve or the ‘anti-anxiety’ nerve. This nerve runs from our face down through the front of our body, through all the internal organs. The primary Yin meridian in the body, the Ren Mai, runs down this exact pathway, from the tongue straight down the centre of the body to the perineum. If we mentally trace down the Ren Mai when we exhale we will support this process of shifting towards a Yin state. The most common characteristic of Yin is receptivity. So when we are in this kind of state we are more attuned to our gut instincts, and also have a greater ability to listen to others and integrate all that our senses perceive. This is exactly the same as what is termed ‘vagal tone’. It not only has a huge benefit on many aspects of our health, but actually can make us more effective in everything we do.
A great study which illustrates this is made by John Coates, a stock-broker turned neuro-scientist. He discovered that traders who were more aware of their bodies were across-the-board more successful in gauging the markets. In other words, people who are able to listen to their bodies open themselves to a much greater degree of sensitivity that lies below the conscious mind.
The Wim Hof Method can be approached and used in many different ways; it is a basic but powerful technique that can positively impact your health. However, the way in which you do it is key, as everyone has different constitutions and therefore will respond differently to its techniques. It also acts as a great spring-board for becoming more attuned to your own body and as an introduction to the subtler arts of meditation, yoga, and qigong.
The connections between WHM and Chinese medicine could be elaborated and explored much further, but to keep things practical I will summarize what I recommend in light of these observations:
2. Cold Showers
‘Qigong’ is a cover-all name given to a myriad of Eastern health-related exercises and practices. There are literally thousands of different styles and approaches, and they tend to be much more diverse comparably than the different styles of yoga. Finding the most suitable practice is a matter of exploration and being open-minded.
A good starting place is to first identify your needs- are you primarily seeking the health benefits of qigong? Are you looking for a practice that can bring more peace to your life? Are you looking to feel more energized? Are you looking to be free of your achy shoulders and back? To get better sleep? To have more libido? To have more efficient movement or better control and balance over your body?
Once you have an idea of what you need it makes it easier to match with the right practice. If, for example, you have a lot of tension in the body and restlessness in your mind, a qigong practice that has a lot of movement, stretching and shaking can feel wonderful. If however you are very low-energy and weak or recovering from an illness, this may not be so good- a strengthening practice could be much more beneficial.
All types of qigong are orientated toward particular goals and purposes. Often these goals are shared by different traditions but their way of going about it differs. Out of the thousands of styles of qigong, some come from traditions of martial arts, some come from medical traditions, and some come from spiritual or religious traditions. Accordingly, their goals might range from having extraordinary sensitivity and skill in fighting and self-defense, to being in vibrant health through all the years of one’s life, or for using qigong as an entry point to meditation and spiritual wisdom. All share in a few fundamental principles, but beyond this they can appear quite different.
In general, qigong that derives from systems of martial arts are most appropriate for the young and fit, where-as a certain kind of maturity is needed to engage with spiritual qigong. Some qigong is very much engaged with working on the physical level, with the bones, tendons, and muscles. This type of qigong uses plenty of stretching, specific postural awareness exercises, and self-massage. It is sometimes referred to as Dao-Yin, and is often used as a precursor to more subtle exercises, somewhat like Hatha Yoga. It is fantastic for working with posture, physical injuries, aches and pains, and is most systematically taught within the ‘internal’ martial arts such as Tai-Chi-Chuan or Ba-Gua-Zhang.
Other types of qigong engage more with the mental-emotional bodies. These often use specific sounds to vibrate and visualisations to hone awareness through the body. These types of exercises can be a powerful adjunct in the healing of more deep-seated illnesses. They can also be used to enhance health and rejuvenate both body and mind (this is something that is better felt rather than understood through words).
When it comes to healing forms of qigong, it good to know that a huge amount of experiential research has emerged over the last 40 years in China, with millions practicing qigong, and many hospitals developing specialist wings dedicated to using qigong for healing. Specific approaches for healing cancer, heart disease, and many other illnesses have been developed, and so if you are looking to engage in a healing practice it can be very beneficial to tailor your qigong to your personal circumstances.
Lastly, what I’ve termed spiritual qigong is also referred to as Nei-Gong, Shen-Gong, or sometimes ‘internal alchemy’. Often these are rooted in Daoist or Buddhist traditions, and as such place stronger emphasis on meditation, the cultivation of virtue and extending ones practice throughout day-to-day life and social interaction. These traditions seek to engage with the very essence and meaning of life. They can be very powerful.
When it comes to actually learning qigong, much of the fundamentals can be learnt from books or youtube but finding a good teacher will take it to another level. Qigong is a personal practice, so it is important that you resonate with a teacher, that you like him or her. Make sure to listen to your gut instincts and your heart when seeking a teacher.
It should also be known that there are two types of approach taken by teachers. One approach is to convey the teaching through demonstration and explanation. The other is to convey the teaching through transmission. This is a subtle but important difference, as the student-teacher dynamic is quite different from one to the other. Qigong systems that teach through transmission tend to originate from very old lineages, and rely on the power of this accumulated experience. Qigong systems that teach through example focus more on self-reliance. Both ways are wonderful, it is a matter of personal taste as to which suits you.
Qigong is a skill that shows its wonders and benefits most if practiced regularly. A daily practice will reap the most rewards, but a session a few times a week will also be of great benefit. Regardless of what style of qigong you practice, the more you put in the more you will get out. Once you have found what you like, dedicating a regular amount of time to the practice is key.
This journey into qigong can be stimulating both physically and intellectually, at times it can be challenging, but if you find the right way to practice it is hugely rewarding, joyful and fun.
Over the last few decades the practice of Qigong (pronounced chee-gung) has spread from China to the West and has become increasingly popular. In a similar way to the migration of the different systems of yoga from India, the majority of qigong practices are modernisations of very old health and spiritual traditions.
Unlike yoga, there are literally thousands of styles of qigong. This is in part due to a huge qigong boom that occurred within China during the late 1970’s and 80’s, known as ‘qigong fever’. Qigong at this time was the first group activity that gave the Chinese people any semblance of social freedom after the trauma of the ‘Cultural Revolution’. In many ways it acted as a catharsis for the national psyche. This gives us an idea of the nature of qigong- above all it is most esteemed for its ability to heal.
Qigong promotes a feeling of being at home in the body, of being safe in one’s body. When qigong skill develops, a good practice session will create a feeling of radiant contentment, of being utterly at ease within body and mind. On one level, by regulating the breath and anchoring awareness within the body, qigong calms the mind and settles the nerves. On another level, through specific movements, stretches, and self-massage, qigong is beneficial on nearly every physiological system of the body, from the lymphatic to the hormonal to cardiovascular. This is why it is thought of as a preventative medicine. A well-known characteristic of qigong practitioners is that they retain physical suppleness, health and mental clarity well into old age.
Although historically in China it has always been known that qigong exercises have multiple benefits for health and wellbeing, only more recently have studies been carried out to ascertain specific effects. The research so far is very positive, showing consistent results that qigong is beneficial for cardiopulmonary, immune and inflammatory, brain and neurological, bone health, and psychological health.* Not only can qigong be practiced as preventative healthcare, but it is also well known to assist the body in healing and recovering from disease. This applies to anything from quickening recovery from colds or physical injuries and strains, to assisting the body in healing chronic or more debilitating issues such as heart disease, depression, or cancer.
As a simple practice of 10-20 minutes a day, qigong can have a huge impact on physical health, on improving posture, breath, digestion, and sleep. If one chooses to go deeper into a specific system of qigong, it can have a profound effect on every aspect of one’s being. It can strengthen one’s resolve in the face of uncertainty, it can transform negative thinking patterns, self-loathing, fear, anger, and grief. It can strengthen our capacity for love and kindness. In short, it can become a spiritual discipline, but is not bound by any religious conviction. It doesn’t matter if Christian, Muslim or avoute atheist sceptic- qigong is adaptable to any lifestyle or belief system. This is because it is in the most general terms, simply a way of building coherence between the mind, body, and breath.
If you are curious about trying qigong it is worth exploring a few different styles and finding the most appropriate teacher for your needs. Finding the right qigong for you will be explored in a follow-up article to this one.