Traditional Chinese medicine may have first been created thousands of years ago, but it’s still as useful today as it was then. Claire Munnings looks at how we can integrate its…
It’s easy for some to dismiss early systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as ‘ancient’ and simply not applicable in our lives today. But the truth is the holistic principles behind their teachings can benefit us in more ways than we think.
This is certainly true for TCM, which is used to great effect across the world today. “Chinese medicine is the main medical system that China has used for more than 2,000 years,” explains Alex Jacobs, a qualified Chinese medicine practitioner and president of the Register of Chinese Medicine (daomedicine.com). “Chinese medicine is part of the main provision of national healthcare in modern China where it is regarded as serious medicine.”
For those who don’t know much about TCM, at the heart of the philosophy is the idea of internal balance. It suggests that the mind and body are intrinsically linked and for optimum wellbeing, qi (our life energy) needs to flow freely through the pathways in our body and be well balanced. The concept of yin and yang (opposing forces) is also key, and our health is said to depend on the yin-yang balance operating in our body.
“The ancient Chinese recognised that the body is always trying to maintain a balance between extremes of heat and cold on the one hand and dampness and dryness on the other,” Alex explains. “As our external climate fluctuates throughout the seasons, the body needs to adjust. If it doesn’t adjust well, imbalances can occur. The ancient Chinese also understood in great detail how different imbalances can create specific emotional states and how different emotions can create imbalances.”
In TCM teachings, these imbalances are the root causes of most illnesses and by realigning our bodies we can enjoy greater wellbeing.
TCM practices encompass a wide variety of things including herbal remedies, complementary therapies such as acupuncture and massage therapy, feng shui, breathing and movement exercises, and dietary choices. Many versions of these are offered across the UK by Chinese Medicine practitioners but you can also benefit from some of the concepts of TCM yourself at home.
The idea of yin and yang is applicable in all areas of our life – including our diet. “Meat, grains, warming herbs and spices, and cooked food are all more warming and yang,” Alex explains. “Vegetables, fruits, cooling herbs and spices, and raw food are all more cooling and yin. We need a balance of both in our diet.” As Alex explains, TCM practitioners believe that if we eat purely cold foods, the stomach often does not have enough digestive warmth (yang qi) to function properly. The result can be issues such as loose stools, bloating and indigestion.
Much has been said in recent years about the benefits of acupuncture and this complementary therapy is a significant part of TCM teachings. It’s believed that by stimulating certain points in the body through the insertion of needles, you can influence the flow of qi and help reduce blockages, improving both your physical and emotional health. An easy way to try this at home is through acupressure – which uses the same concept as acupuncture, but features applied pressure instead of the insertion of a needle. One key point Alex recommends if you’re feeling stressed is He Gu – the space between the thumb and forefinger. “TCM states this point is good for all disorders of the head, particularly the front of the head,” he says.
Looking to take your meditation practice up a level? Try qi gong breathing – which is essentially whole body breathing. “This kind of breathing can create a deep state of relaxation while also giving a massage to internal organs,” Alex says. “To begin with, shift the focus of the mind from thinking to tuning into your physical body. As you do this, imagine you are breathing in and out of different body areas. You can also visualise light at the same time which deeply reprogrammes the mind and internal physiology.”
Use herbs to boost your wellbeing
Chinese herbs and spices feature prominently in TCM teachings, and if you look in your cupboard you may already be using many of them. Ginger and cinnamon, for example, are believed to be important warming herbs that help yang qi. “Ginger warms the stomach to promote digestion and so can be good for food intolerances,” Alex explains, adding that cinnamon can also be used to promote our circulation. “TCM practitioners often recommend this as a way to ease pain, particularly when it is caused by cold stagnation of fluids,” he says. Another lesser-known Chinese herb is job’s tears (or the coix seed) “These hard white round seeds boost the energy of the stomach and are good for digestive issues,” Alex explains. “You can add them to sweet or savoury dishes or boil them in water until soft, put the water aside and drink it like a tea.”
The TCM practice of tai chi aims to help the flow of qi around the body and has a balancing, calming effect on the mind too. “In our everyday lives we tend to live in our heads. Where the attention goes, the qi energy follows, so our energy all tends to get trapped in our head and upper body leading to tension and overstimulation,” Alex says. “This also means that when we get into stressed emotional states, we can feel like there is no way out because our only solutions tend to be to ‘think’ more. Tai chi enables you to reconnect your attention with your physical body and anchor your qi back down in the body.”
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