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.
Often when you hear the phrase ‘speak from the heart’ or ‘play from the heart’ we take it to mean to connect and express ourselves from the very core of our being, to say what we feel without any reservations. And this is generally regarded as a healthy thing to be able to do. But, what is often misunderstood is that this phrase is not merely metaphorical- it is now known that the physical organ of the heart has a vital and complex role in our social and mental-emotional health, and is not just a mechanical pump.
“Over the past several decades, several lines of scientific evidence have established that, far more than a mechanical pump, the heart functions as a sensory organ and as a complex information encoding and processing center. Groundbreaking research in the relatively new field of neurocardiology has demonstrated that the heart has an extensive intrinsic nervous system that is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a “little brain” in its own right… Containing over 40,000 neurons, its complex circuitry enables it to sense, regulate, and remember.” Rollin McCraty, Phd.
The human heart emits the strongest electromagnetic field in our body, much larger than the brains. This electromagnetic field envelops the entire body extending out in all directions, and it can be measured up to several feet outside of the body. Moreover, this field contains information specific to each person, and can be measured as an indicator of someone’s mental-emotional state.
The Institute of Heart-Math, in Arizona, USA, has made awe-inspiring progress in understanding these mechanisms and processes. A mile-stone discovery was made showing that the Heart Rate Variability (the moment-to-moment change in the speed of the heartbeat) is a clear indicator of positive and negative emotions, and that when we are in a positive state, the hearts powerful regulatory effect on all the other systems of the body creates an over-all improvement in bodily function and health. In other words, feeling good is good for you!
The Heart-Math Institute has gone on to plot the intricate relationships between the brain and the heart, discovering that there is an optimum balance achievable, which greatly improves our cognitive and physiological functioning. This they term coherence and is a natural state that occurs when we feel ‘in the flow’. By lightly placing our awareness in the area of our heart, regulating our breath, and generating positive mental feelings, this relationship can be easily established. Specific methods for heart-brain coherence are freely given on their website, adapted differently for people with health conditions, anxiety, PTSD, or for children. In many ways the secret to creating this relationship lies in the breath and learning how to regulate the breath in different circumstances with ease. At the end of this article we will look at one such method.
Some of the proven benefits of heart-brain coherence are:
Of course, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) it has long been known that the heart holds an influence on every system in the body, on all aspects of health. In the 2000 year-old foundational text of Chinese Medicine, the Huang Di Nei Jing, it is stated,
“The Heart is the Emperor, and from it stems the awareness of one’s being. It is responsible for intelligence, wisdom, and spiritual transformation. The Lungs represent the Prime Minister, which advises and helps the Heart in regulating the body’s capacity for change and transformation.”
Awareness (the mind’s resting ground) is known in TCM as the Shen, and it is rooted in the heart and expressed through the eyes. It is interesting to see how this old wisdom is starting to be reflected in modern science. By using the method of lightly bringing our awareness to the area of the heart, we can think of it as having the effect of centering a scattered mind or bringing it home to rest. It is also interesting to note how the lungs were traditionally considered second in hierarchy to the heart, assisting in its function of ruling over the rest of the body.
The modern understanding on the function of the lungs and respiration is that it is primarily concerned with gas exchange, inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. However, there is another vital role it takes in human health and healing which is often overlooked- it acts as a regulator for the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs all the unconscious functions of our body. (The vast majority of all our biological functioning is unconscious) The work of Stephen Elliott has clearly established that when the breath is regulated in a certain way, it enters a coherent relationship with the heart, optimising blood flow and heart rate variability, and has a balancing effect on the ANS. The importance of this is highlighted when we consider how crucial ANS balance is to our everyday functioning and health.
The ANS has two main branches that work in tandem with each other to assist us in our everyday activities and biological functioning- the sympathetic branch, which kicks in during activity and is known as the ‘fight or flight’ mode, and secondly the parasympathetic branch, which is known as the ‘rest and digest’ mode and is essential for healing and restoration. A great deal of modern maladies could be thought of as resulting from sympathetic dominance, people being overly adrenalized and hyper-stimulated, not being able to stop or fully relax, often resulting in mild but constant fatigue and low-grade anxiety. The method I will now describe is a simple but effective way to bring balance to the ANS and create a coherent relationship between brain-heart.
This simple exercise can have remarkable benefits if practiced regularly and brought into daily habits. If the counting aspect is cumbersome for you, try entraining your breath with this recording:
To learn more about balancing the breath and heart-brain coherence join one of my qigong classes and tea ceremonies or have a look through the links provided below.
Acupuncture and Herbs are well known about in the West- over the last few decades millions of people have experienced their healing effects. What is less known is that both acupuncture and herbal medicine are branches of a larger tree that is Traditional Chinese Medicine and that there are many other modalities and techniques, such as cupping, gua-sha, moxabustion, tui-na massage, medical qigong, facial reflexology and dietary therapy. All branches of TCM have their own strengths and special benefits and therefore can be chosen specifically to address different issues. All share the same underlying principles, foremost of which is that prevention is better than cure. All the following treatments can therefore be experienced and enjoyed just for their preventative and health enhancing effects as well as to tackle specific illnesses.
Gua-Sha is a hands-on medical treatment that’s been used throughout Asia for centuries. Traditionally it is most often used as a first-aid treatment at the immediate onset of cold and flu symptoms- it’s fantastic to ward off colds! This is due to its powerful effect on the immune system. In any case where the immune system is compromised Gua-Sha may be of benefit. It is also commonly used for pain conditions and muscle stiffness around the neck, shoulders and back- it resolves spasm and pain by strongly increasing micro-circulation to the area between the skin and muscles. Gua-Sha also has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, and on not just muscles and other soft-tissues, but also on organs as well, which accounts for its use in conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, gastritis and liver disease.
The technique involves using an edged massage tool and rubbing deeply along the surface of the body, usually with the aid of therapeutic oils. It feels like strong massage and has the same after-effects. However, the key to its potency lies in producing what is known as ‘Sha’- the appearance of redness on the skin. The appearance of Sha is different depending on the amount of tension and stagnation in the muscles and fascia, but in all cases will gradually clear in a few days. Gua-Sha creates a four-fold increase in micro-circulation to the surface tissue, can boost immunity and reduce inflammation. It also feels great!
Moxabustion is a form of heat-therapy that is often combined with acupuncture. It is used for its prized ability to bring warmth deeply into body, and is particularly useful when coldness has penetrated and become lodged in the body. This can be thought of as when blood-circulation is poor or when muscles contract and go into spasm. For this reason it is used in many pain conditions, from stiff neck to period pains.
It involves the burning of a specially processed herb known as moxa, which is the blossom from the Mugwort plant. It can be rolled up into cigar-like sticks and then held over points and areas of the body, or it can be rolled into little pyramids which are burnt directly over acupuncture points and lifted off as soon as the heat is felt. What makes moxa special is that it burns very slowly, at a very high temperature, and emits a high amount of infra-red light. It is not only used for colds, muscle pain and stiffness, but traditionally it is used to strengthen and nourish the body, and so is useful in many conditions where tiredness and weakness are present. A great example of this strengthening effect can be seen in the Moxafrica charity, which has been using Moxabustion to combat tuberculosis in Africa. (www.moxafrica.org)
If you experience moxabustion yourself you would certaintly appreciate the effects- it feels soothing, relaxing and nourishing at the same time.
3. Tui-Na Massage
Tui-Na massage is steadily growing in popularity as more and more people are discovering its potency. Although it can be used for relaxation and for its preventative benefits, it’s real forté lies in its medical uses. In China, there are whole departments in hospitals that specialize solely in Tui-Na.
Some of the massage techniques share similarities to deep-tissue or Swedish massage, however there are many techniques which are quite different and unique- such as rolling techniques, plucking, patting, vibrating, or acu-point massage. Another difference is that most Tui-Na is performed with clothes on or through a cloth. It is often thought of as being an intense and vigorous type of massage, although actually there is an entire spectrum of styles depending on what is being addressed and the practitioner’s background. Of course it excels in treating pain and physical problems, but also can be beneficial for all types of things from gynecological and digestive issues, to stress, insomnia or headaches.
In the hands of an expert it is real treat to experience, and will leave you feeling both relaxed and vitalized!
For the past ten years I have tried to make an annual meditation retreat. The first few were difficult, challenging, but also deeply transformative and profound. After learning the practical aspects of meditation, the basic techniques and underlying rationale, going on retreat became a less daunting experience and something that feels very natural and regenerative. Not only has it become a way of decompressing from urban life, a kind of ‘reset’ button which brings a freshness, power, and liveliness to body and mind, but it also has a re-orientating effect, like a fine-tuning of my internal compass, helping see where I’m at in my life and state of mind, and setting a clear vision for the right path ahead. I find it essential for the healing work that I give.
My principle teacher along the way has been Guy Burgs, a non-religious teacher who has a great skill in synthesizing the great meditation traditions and being able to convey them in their essence to a modern audience. Over the last few years I’ve struck out to undertake solo-meditation retreats, so as to go deeper into the practices in my own pace, which has led me to a unique centre for meditation in a very remote part of the world. There isn’t any particular need to seek remoteness for a retreat, but knowing that you can’t escape easily is a good incentive to stick at it!
Wat Pa Tam Wua is a traditional Thai forest monastery nestled in the mountains of Thailand’s most northern province, Maehongsong. The journey to the monastery is somewhat of a pilgrimage, as it takes around 8 hours of travel from Chiang Mai, and the road through the mountains is both notoriously curvy and spectacularly beautiful. The journey is worth it, though, as Wat Tam Wua is a natural paradise, with streams and rivers, waterfalls, groves of mango trees, a beautiful lake, and many caves in the surrounding mountains. The natural beauty, peacefulness and remoteness of the place make it ideal for meditation.
The daily schedule is simple and follows the basic routine of the monks- rise at 5am for meditation alone, meet at 6.30am to offer food to the monks and share breakfast, 8-10am is walking, then sitting and lying down meditation, meet at 11am for lunch, 1- 3pm again walking, sitting, and lying down meditation, 4-5pm cleaning, 6.30pm chanting the Sutrus and a finishing meditation at 7pm. One can choose to remain silent through one’s stay, or you can talk with others if you like too. The abbot, Phra Luang Ta, is probably the happiest person you’ll ever meet. His ease of laughter and genuine care and love is an ever-encouraging presence. He gives general guidance for meditation, but the more in-depth discourses are given by other English-speaking monks. The place is very spacious and clean, with individual huts (called kutis) given to each guest, and larger dormitories for men when there are many guests. Usually there are about a few dozen foreigners from all over the world and a few dozen Thai people.
The two main techniques used in the Thai and Burmese traditions are called Vippassanna and Samatha. They are like two wings on a bird, mutually complimenting and necessary for each other. Samatha means ‘concentration & serenity’ and is all about relaxing and stilling the mind so that it becomes very stable and tranquil. Once you have this base, the technique can change to Vippassanna (insight meditation), which is all about investigating the mind, learning to directly understand it’s mechanisms and releasing unhelpful patterns of thinking and emotions. Together these techniques can have a remarkable and transformative effect on one’s mind and life. Finding the right entry point and balance between them is the trick, as everyone has slightly different temperaments, which makes certain meditation styles easier or more difficult concordantly. In some circumstances formal sitting meditation is not ideal for people- walking, qigong, yoga, or mindful activities like tea drinking and creative work can have a more settling effect on the mind.
This is actually one of the things that makes the approach at Wat Pa Tam Wua slightly unique- there is an emphasis on walking meditation, a practice which is designed to strengthen the energy of the mind not only for sitting meditation sessions, but throughout one’s normal daily activity. The monastery is part of the Thai Forest Tradition, a movement started around 100 years ago by the famous Isan monk Acariya Mun, of which the Abbot is a direct student. Acariya Mun’s vision for the tradition was to practice in the ways of old, and became known for living and walking through the jungle forest of Northern Thailand as his main practice ground. The mortal risk of tigers was a very real threat back then, particularly when sleeping in the wild forests. One of the reasons for Acariya Mun’s renown was his ability to lay a mantle of protection over the monks who would live with him in the forest, none of whom were ever attacked by tigers, even though they could be heard. The Abbot would joke about these tales, having to contend with tigers and huge snakes back in the day. Thankfully none were to be seen whilst I was there.
However, on the eighth evening of my stay at Wat Tam Wua we experienced a monumental deluge- a true tropical monsoon. The next morning it became apparent that all the power and water supply had been flooded out, and so instead of the usual afternoon routine, everyone went upriver to build a damn and repair the pipes. Coming together to carry heavy sacks of sand and big water pipes was actually a welcome break by this point. Strong physical work feels very good after putting in so many hours of strong mental work. It was also heart-warming to join our efforts with the monks, who were working just as hard and directing the operations. After some hours it seemed that we had achieved enough for the day, so I chose to go up to one of the meditation caves to settle the mind and continue the practice.
About an hour in the rain started again, so I decided to continue in meditation until it passed. But it only got stronger and stronger, until I realized the sun had set, darkness had set it in and I would have to venture back through the storm. When I arrived down from the mountain, thoroughly soaked, I came to the main bridge, which I would have to cross to return for the night. As I approached I could hear what sounded like gunshots being fired, but then realized was the sound was of huge boulders being swept down the river, along with fully-grown trees. A river in full-flood is an awesome sight, but crossing one is another thing altogether! The waters had swelled at least three times, right up to the steps of the bridge, and were so rapid and powerful that they commanded you to take stock. A test like this at the end of the retreat proved to be a real boon- I was presented with something truly fearful, and through my practice was able to keep a composure that I doubt have would have had ten days past. This gives you courage.
The next morning we awoke to a real flood, with the only road in flooded, and much damage to the monastery along the river. Apparently monsoons like this happen every 5-10 years. The Thai army was sent in to help with the repairs, which distinctly changed the atmosphere of the place. The abbot seemed to be as peaceful as ever though, and gave me a bottle of wild mountain honey for the journey home. With some help I managed to get my motorbike across the flood, and started back through the mountains.
Some might see the whole idea of meditation retreats as running away from life’s problems, as a form of escapism. In a sense, there is an element of this- by cutting ourselves off from our daily world we do gain a certain escape from the immediate pressure of modern life- breathing space. For many- the initial desire to go on a retreat comes from a recognition that life is becoming overwhelming and even untenable. But it is a mistake to think meditation is a quick solution or release from life’s difficulties, for we carry all our emotional baggage wherever we go. Even in the paradise surroundings of Wat Tam Wua you can’t escape life’s storms. Rather, meditation offers a holding space to safely bear witness and release our internal stormy weather. After the storm, we not only find a delicious freshness in the air, but also a calmness and a clarity. We then can then re-enter our lives renewed and resilient.
For more information on learning meditation or qigong feel free to contact me.
If a frog falls in a pot of boiling water it will instinctually jump straight out and survive. If a frog is placed in a tepid pot of water and a very slow heat is applied, the water will gradually come to boiling point, the frog will not think to jump out and he will boil alive. This is because frogs aren’t good at detecting small shifts in temperature; they just acclimatise to the heat slowly and unfortunately won’t have the wit to figure out what is happening. This is known as the boiled frog syndrome.
Unfortunately a similar situation has happened with us, the modern urban-living human: instead of unknowingly being boiled alive like the frog, we have acclimatised ourselves to an environment that is increasingly hazardous to our health. This process of acclimatisation has, admittedly, been going on for some time, but in the last 50 years the heat has become intense.
The main hazards of our environment are three-fold: primarily we are being exposed to increasing levels of chemical pollution in our air, water, food and the built environment. Secondly we are being exposed to increasing and unrelenting levels of different kinds of technological pollution. Thirdly, we are gradually being overwhelmed by mental-emotional stress to such a level that it is impacting on many aspects of our health. Through this article I will look at a few examples of this noxious trinity, and give some practical solutions to help buffer these hazards and fortify your health.
Since World War II, more than 80,000 new chemicals have been invented. Many of these chemicals have been dispersed widely into the environment. Some will persist in the environment for decades and even centuries. Most of these chemicals did not previously exist in nature. Over 2million tons of toxic chemicals are released by industry into the US environment each year, including 36,000 tons of recognized carcinogens. Of the top 20 chemicals discharged to the environment, nearly 75% are known or suspected to be toxic to the developing human brain. In recent studies nearly 300 chemicals have been found in newborn babies, many of which are known to be toxic. This is especially troubling given that foetus’s and newborns are the most vulnerable to environmental toxicity. In short, our landscape, our homes and our bodies are saturated in toxic chemicals.
What I call technological pollution is two-fold. On the one hand we have ‘screen-life’, where our relationships at work and with our family and friends are flattened into 2D smart-phone or computer screens. This flattening degrades our language and the way we express and relate to each other (and the world at large). Our humanity is defined by our language; as a species the health of our language, the way we speak to each other is intricately related to our health and well-being. More significantly, ‘screen-life’ has a developmental impact on children and youth. When we are raised in or become acclimatised to a 2D environment held at close range this gradually limits our ability to keep perspective with the sensuality of the world at large. In short, ‘screen-life’ has a detrimental impact on our relationships, which are also a key part of keeping in good health. On the other hand there is the slightly controversial topic of electromagnetic radiation/pollution. It is controversial because industry and our own entitlement to the comforts of technology make it extremely unpopular and inconvenient to give credence to the notion that mobile phones and Wifi may be hazardous to our health. This creates a significant obstacle in carrying out scientific research- there are still many unknowns as to how EM radiation interacts with our own EM field and health and much of the research is obstructed or tainted by vested interests from the industry. That said, when it comes down to it, it is better to be cautious when there are serious potential risks at play. (The World Health Organisation cautions against prolonged mobile phone use due to it's connection with the development of brain tumors.)
The third ‘boiling frog’ factor is the overwhelmingly high stress levels of modern living. When did you last feel truly and totally relaxed, both in mind and body? If it takes you some time to answer this, we can assume that although we know what it’s like to relax and unwind, there may well be underlying streams of tension that keep you on guard even when you don’t need to be. This tension will have a dampening effect on the incredible restorative, regenerative, and healing capacities of your own body.
The good news is there are many things we can do to counter-act this onslaught from our environment. Here is a list of things I find useful for myself:
- Drink clean water, invest in a water filter.
- Eat clean foods, avoid all synthetic, pesticide-sprayed, non-organic foods as much as possible.
- Be cautious about taking medications when not essential, be wary of becoming addicted to opiate-based painkillers, sleeping pils, or anti-depressants. Always personally research potential side-effects of medications.
- Support the detoxifying capacity of your body- research foods and herbs that support the liver and cleanse the body. Research different detox protocols and get to know how to detoxify your body.
- Find ways to naturally improve the quality of your sleep. Our sleep is the main period for mental and physical restoration, detox and healing.
- Limit your screen-time. Create a cut-off point in the evening where you switch all phones and screens off. Try to make this at least an hour before sleeping.
- Give your self a ‘digital detox’ for a whole day or weekend.
- When making a call on your mobile do not hold the phone next to your head until the other number has picked up. Hold your phone at least 1 inch away from your ear. This simple practice will greatly limit your exposure to the most intense radiation from your phone.
- Learn to self-regulate. Explore your breathing habits, practice awareness-based exercise such as qigong, taichi, yoga, or pilates.
- Make time for being in nature, enjoy your local wildlife.
- Invest energy in your friendships- “True wealth is not measured by a man’s riches, but by the strength of their relationships.”
Even though living in a big city can be highly stressful, it is worth remembering that it is not just the environment that determines the stress, but it is how we choose to respond or react. Being able to adapt to constantly changing pressures is a skill worth developing. This way, we’ll begin to notice when the heat is rising, and jump out of boiling water!