Holistic medicinal traditions across the world emphasize the importance of employing multiple techniques to maintain health. In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture represents one of many tools used to restore balance to the body and mind. Along with herbal medicine, mindfulness exercises like meditation, yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong can help foster balance and improve the body’s somatic (dealing with the intersection of mind and body) defenses against disease.
Yoga is likely familiar to most of the Western world by now. Like acupuncture, Yoga is part of a spiritual tradition dating back thousands of years. Yoga facilitates flexibility and relaxation in the body and clarity of mind, leading to greater physical and mental health.
Our muscles and organs are surrounded by fibrous tissue called fascia, which protect them and keep them in place in our bodies. Over time, the fascia can become rigid, leading to significantly decreased flexibility and even physical pain as the nerves in these organs are prevented from conducting signals to and from the rest of the body. Yoga loosens the fascia and stretches inflexible muscles so that they can return to their normal state. Like acupuncture, yoga improves energy and blood flow through the body, increasing overall physical health.
While the most visible aspect of yoga is its physical practice, it is much more, combining elements of metaphysics and philosophy to bring the mind and body under control. If this sounds a bit like Chinese medicinal and philosophical tradition, it should come as no surprise that yoga can be a powerful adjunct to other holistic treatments.
T’ai Chi and Qigong
Qigong and Tai Chi are types of exercise that have been practised for centuries by millions of Chinese people. These exercises combine meditation, breathing, and carefully choreographed movements to cultivate health in the body and mind. Like other elements of Chinese medicine, the roots of qigong (and t’ai chi, which developed from it) are almost unimaginably ancient, dating back at least 4,000 years. Qigong comes from the deep philosophical tradition of Yin and Yang, and qigong, like acupuncture, seeks to mediate balance between the two within the practitioner.
This is accomplished in two ways: through “static” qigong, or jinggong, in which the practitioner is outwardly still and focuses her mind on the “internal movement” of breath and pulse; and “dynamic” qigong, of which t’ai chi is one type. Dynamic qigong, like tai chi, involves slow, deliberate movements which produce effects similar to acupuncture. Like yoga, these exercises produce immediate physical and emotional benefits to the practitioner, but through long-term practice can have much more far-reaching effects. Not without reason, the Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publications calls t’ai chi “medication in motion”.
T’ai chi, yoga, and qigong share an emphasis on combining physical practices with meditation techniques to clear the mind; Chinese and Indian traditional medicine both place great emphasis on the connection between mental and physical health. Meditation can help train the brain to keep pathways open between emotional, intellectual, and physical centers in the brain–specifically the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Meditation helps us to use more of our brain in a given situation, a skill often referred to as “mindfulness” or “awareness”.
Meditation practices offer self-administered, natural, and non-pharmaceutical techniques to manage stress and powerful emotions that can have powerful effects on the physical body. Being able to understand and modulate our spontaneous thoughts and emotions helps us to be responsible–and healthy–members of our communities.