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The Chinese word Qì basically means relationship. It describes how different parts of ourselves and our world relate to each other. Spring is the time when hibernation ends and living things reach out.

In the morning I was walking to the Pine Mountain Clubhouse for the Qì Gōng class. I was going there to move my Qì. As I approached the driveway I saw several patches of frozen water dropping in white cascades down the grass. There was also black ice on the flattened brown turf that was slippery when I tested it. Evidence of the cold night still lingered here. When I returned after class the hard ground was soft and aromatic. It was the smell of unfrozen spring mud. The ice coming down the hill was mushy and pocked with holes. In fact, I was less stiff and icebound after class too! On the mountain we know, like the Yellow Emperor, that the night is winter and the morning is the spring thaw. Melting fluids evaporate into the atmosphere. The sky gazers here hope the water will form into clouds and recycle as snow before spring gets any older.

One description of moving Qì is the cycle occurring between evaporating bodies of water and clouds. Qì is a familiar word to practitioners or patients of Chinese medicine and Qì Gōng. Sometimes you will see it written as Chì but it is always pronounced ‘chee’ with a falling tone. The Chinese character gives us clues to its meaning:

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The outer part of the character symbolizes swirling clouds of gas:

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The inner part is a picture of rice grains:

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(Rice is easy to digest, hypoallergenic and a boon to gluten-free eaters such as myself.) Look at the character:

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Do you see grains expanding as they cook? Do you see the steam rising from the rice pot? Qì also illustrates the digestive process. In Chinese medicine the stomach is seen as the saucepan. It must first heat foods that are cold or raw before their molecules are broken down. Nutrients are then released into the bloodstream from the small intestine. In other words Qì is the vital energy we derive from food. One of my patients had a very hot stomach pulse one summer. When I asked, she was not eating any of the usual hotheaded suspects: spicy food, chocolate or coffee. So I questioned her about cold foods. She was eating large frozen drinks daily. Her stomach was overheating from cooking them!

To me, the beauty of the Chinese language (and the frustration of translators) is that the characters contain many different meanings embedded since at least 1046 BCE. As a writer, the more information I have about a word’s meaning, the happier I am. The character for Qì also represents the gaseous state. The picture can be seen as a cloud rather than rice expanding in all eight directions:

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Water rises as a gas and returns as liquid rain or frozen snow. Qì refers to the energy necessary for these changes in state to take place. Its activity is superficial because it diffuses like fumes filling a container or the atmosphere. It is associated with spring because everything starts to move and ascend after the hibernation of winter. Even our radial pulses start to float on the surface. These are the pulses of spring. A slow thaw in spring means you have done too much in the winter. It takes you longer to get moving even though all around you things are sprouting. Spring Qì is movement. Winter is inertia.

If a Chinese speaker says that you are full of Qì, you could be full of vigor or angry or just breathing. Qì inflates us no matter its source. Qì also references the weather or the atmosphere of a room. When Qì does not move in our bodies, it causes pain. Acupuncture moves Qì to restore a lack of flow in any tissue of the body: skin, muscles, blood vessels, joints, bones and the glands that produce hormones. Areas are targeted by the practitioner through her choice of channels, which are like waterways or roadways on a map. The pulse is my GPS. It guides me to the place in my patient’s body asking for help.

Acupuncture channels create access to the whole body because they form a continuum from its surface to its depths. The map demarcates points along the roadways that influence specific parts of the body. One of the most well known is the Tiger’s Mouth on the web between the thumb and index finger. It is used for headaches. It is not always useful to needle a painful area directly until a point further away has diminished its intensity. It is common to see merchants massaging this point who come to trade at Chinese markets. It is also called Union Valley to indicate its ability to help us avoid suffering by accepting a given situation. If the seller will not lower their price, you won’t be angry when you negotiate with the next one in line. Qì is all about change. Spring is the opportunity for new beginnings and a clean slate.

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Alignment

Alignment

The goal of meditation is to quiet the mind in order to hear the truth spoken by your clear consciousness.

We sink into deeper and deeper levels of consciousness as we fall asleep. For those of us who do so easily, the different states may shift too quickly to discern. We slip through the same tiers in meditation without the goal of sleeping. Some people may fall asleep when meditating. They are just tired. Eventually they will catch up on their sleep. Following the body’s inclinations is the key.

Meditation is like putting your oxygen mask on first, before helping others, in a depressurized plane. The first step in any meditation practice is to love your self. If you cannot look in a mirror and honestly attest your love to the image reflecting back at you, start here. In meditation a mantra is one or more words you remember to repeat in between being distracted by extraneous thoughts such as the electricity bill. Self-love is fostered first by the trust developed as a fetus, when all your needs were met. Repeat the phrases: “I trust myself. I love myself. I am a good person. I do good work.” Fear is overcome by love. No matter how traumatic the life, self-love conquers all.

Meditation is a way to hibernate on a daily basis. The breath moving through the nose connects to the depths of the body at the kidneys. These organs are considered the seat of the self in Chinese medicine. Meditation reconnects us with our own deeply held beliefs, whatever they are. For this reason it is nondenominational. It provides a regular break from the constant input of the outside world telling us what to do. It is a chance to relax in a culture that bombards us with information and often asks us to do too much.

Meditation is commonly practiced twice daily for 20 to 30 minutes. The best way to foster the habit is to do it at the same time everyday. Healthy routines are just as easy to develop as poor ones. If you need, start with once a day and make it 10 or 15 minutes for some real baby steps. It is a good idea to dedicate the corner of a quiet room to the practice. Do not meditate after eating. Our digestion is responsible for the ability to focus in Chinese medicine. It cannot do this effectively while digesting too. Meditation is not necessarily suitable for everyone. Look at the area below your nose where there is a groove running down to your lips. If it is a deep cleft, you will benefit from exercise the most. If the lips are full, you respond more to dietary interventions. If the chin is strong, meditation gives you the biggest bang for your investment. Ultimately you are the one to decide where you dedicate your time for self-care.

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Your comfort while meditating is important. Commonly one sits on a comfortable pillow cross-legged with the back unsupported. The pillow under your butt should keep your knees at hip level or below so the back lengthens and relaxes more easily. This is not necessarily something you may be able to achieve yet. Sit in a chair where your feet are flat on the ground. If your legs are short like mine, you may need a pillow on the floor under your feet. You may even require a pillow to support your lower back. As your physical flexibility increases with exercise and stretching, your goal is to sit with your perineum at the front of the chair. Your back needs to be strong for this step because the chair no longer supports it.

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Your hands may be open on your thighs to absorb heaven’s energy, perhaps with only thumbs and middle fingers touching. Your thumbs can be interlaced to communicate with the divinity of the self. Alignment is important. Keep the tip of the tongue on the roof of your mouth to close the circle of energy you create. Feel the tailbone descend, curling subtlely and the top of the head rise as if a string pulls it from heaven.

The knob on Buddha's head where the heavenly cord attaches.

The knob on Buddha’s head where the heavenly cord attaches.

First and foremost you must sincerely love yourself, check out the mirror again if you want reassurance! If your face does not yet inspire these feelings repeat the mantras suggested at the beginning.

Defined by love, you are ready to let go of the thoughts that enter your head, pleasant or unpleasant. With compassion and understanding you acknowledge their existence. You may imagine them floating skyward or you might repeat the mantra “Let them go” in your mind. Letting go is a process unique to you. Transcendental meditation employs the repetition of certain mantras to discourage thinking. Some thoughts may not leave so easily. In this case just keep letting them go. Meditation can be a slow process because it removes the garbage we accumulate in our minds. How deep is your rubbish pile? Clearing the mind leaves it more open to being in the moment. If we persist in defining our experiences according to history, we will repeat it over and over again. The mind becomes flexible without the weight of all your previous assumptions. It becomes more finely tuned to your personal mandate on earth.

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King's Canyon, photo by Ginny Blades

King’s Canyon, photo by Ginny Blades

Many people on the mountain gaze at our clear blue skies this winter and shake their heads at the lack of snowfall. Winter is related to water not just in our community but in Chinese medicine as well. Snow brings frozen aquifers to the mountaintops that melt slowly providing year round water. Winter is the time of consolidation and storage for the coming seasons of growth. Our energy hibernates in the winter like a bear; it sinks down into our cave-like kidneys to sleep. Cold creates this downward movement, strengthening our bodies through solidification. Unseasonable warmth and dryness interferes with this process by encouraging excess activity in so-called ‘good weather’. This creates possible health challenges in subsequent seasons due to lack of rest. The effects occur on a microcosmic level in our bodies as well as in the big picture of the community and planet.

Snowy Glade

Snowy Glade

Winter dryness affects the health of our forest and crops. It also challenges our kidneys, where fluids are consolidated just as they are on winter mountaintops. Parts of the body become inflamed due to lack of irrigation. Other parts retain dampness, like puddles in a shrinking river. The American continent exhibits a similar dichotomy: currently the west is arid and the rest is cold and wet.

Though we can do nothing about the weather, we can make allowances for it in our bodies. The Yellow Emperor is the archetypal Chinese sage. He is credited with writing one of the oldest Chinese books still in existence, his Classic of Internal Medicine. He says that if an individual changes then the whole state is affected. The transmission of wisdom from a single individual to many people occurs like the contagion of family dysfunction. Isn’t it reassuring that functionality goes viral too? One person’s balance with nature resonates first throughout the household, then the community and ultimately, the planet. These personal insights continue to ripple outward like a stone dropped into the substance of the cosmos.

The Yellow Emperor

The Yellow Emperor

Assuming one believes in global warming, it might be said that these unseasonable weather patterns result from the burning of fossil fuels. Crude oils are like the energy reserves in our bodies. When our activity requires more fuel than we have available, we start to overheat like parts of the planet. We become irritable, we have trouble sleeping and our skin gets dry and itchy. Plundering resources through chronic overwork eventually creates hormone deficiencies. In other words the planet is a menopausal woman fanning a really big hot flash. Without sufficient hormones to handle stress, adrenaline from the kidneys kicks in to do the job and causes a flare-up. The hot flash is an important alarm for the menopausal woman because she is over-extending herself. It is time to stop and relax when it happens.

Healing Water

Healing Water

Dry heat leads to craving damp foods: sweets and dairy smother inflammation. Eating like this leads to weight gain. The solution is to start nourishing fluids more directly (some of us have started watering trees on the mountain). Drink a large glass of warm or hot water first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. It filters all the way down through the empty digestion to nourish the kidneys’ reservoirs. Before exercising drink two big glasses. Workouts not only can create more heat, they also help us get rid of it. Water flushes out anything unwanted and cools any friction generated by the exercise. If this amount of water is too much for you, build up to it gradually. You can only do things for which your body is ready. Take time to adjust to new habits (we want to turn the arid desert into a healthy forest rather than a swamp). Depending on your ability to absorb water, wait 30 minutes or one hour before you eat. You will digest your food better. Fruits build fluids too. They cause weight gain consumed as juices. The high sugar content comes from a lot of fruit concentrated in one glass. A single steamed Asian pear not only promotes fluid production, it helps get rid of excess damp. It is particularly beneficial for smokers or those who have coughs.

Asian pears, from eyewatering.wordpress.com

Asian pears, from eyewatering.wordpress.com

Meditation is also a way to train our energy to be calm and grounded rather than volatile. I will discuss its merits in my next blog.

Solstice Canyon

Solstice Canyon

Yosemite Gateway

Yosemite Gateway

No one can deny the great health advantages to living in a mountain community. There is clean air and less stress from over crowding. My husband and I moved to Pine Mountain in November. He was born in Pasadena and I hail from the great white north. I return in my mother’s stead who was born on a Canadian mountain in a cabin without electricity or running water. It is my first winter heating an all-electric summer cottage with a pellet stove. Perhaps this kind of living is in my blood? Each of our reconnaisance trips to the mountain was more welcoming than the last. I heard a lot of people wax poetic about the beauty of four seasons when we were looking for a home. In this case beauty is more than skin deep. Isn’t it usually? Did you know that the majesty of four seasons has benefits for your well being too?

Trusty Pellet Stove

Trusty Pellet Stove

Answers in Chinese medicine come from an ancient source written in 300 BCE: The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. My quarter century teaching and practising seem like a drop in the bucket comparatively! The Yellow Emperor is a sage who generously explains the subtleties of medicine to his inquisitive student. The first page decries the unnaturally short lifetimes of the Emperor’s contemporaries. Why it asks did ancient people live to be over one hundred years when they are now sick by fifty? It is a book way ahead of its time! Abandoning suspense, the second chapter reveals the secret of longevity: living in harmony with our nature and the four seasons. It is worth noting that in our language ‘season’ is also defined as maturing through exposure to the weather.
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Imagine if you had the energy of Bambi bouncing through a sun-dappled glade in spring? I say to dissenters, “You are never too old for lofty goals!” Winter is not just an opportunity for bears to hibernate and stop looking for food and water in our neighbourhoods. People are healthier when they slow down in the colder weather too. Give yourself more time if you have any control over your deadlines at work. Winter is the night of the year and summer its day. It is just as vital to rest now, as it is to get a good night’s sleep. Winter blues are the body’s way of keeping us closer to home so we can get that extra downtime. If depression persists with more rest, then other factors may be complicating the situation such as a lifetime of overwork or an unsuitable diet.

Dappled glade, from Kevin Quinn

Dappled glade, from Kevin Quinn

In the winter the Yellow Emperor admonishes us to go to bed early and sleep late until the sun rises. In the canyon I would say that is a good long winter’s nap! During sleep energy retreats in our bodies the way sap drains to a tree’s roots, causing its leaves to fall. Resting in winter is the same as putting money in the bank for a pleasant retirement. You will have a healthier spring when your winter is well spent. Add those winters up and you will have the vitality to enjoy your retirement, not just the money. Keep your body warm so cold does not damage the energy you are stockpiling for spring. Do not expect to make huge strides in your exercise routine. Save your workout goals for the summer when it is warm. Winter is about maintaining rather than making progress. Choose to spend the season living as if all your desires have been met.
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