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Archive for October, 2010

 

Today is Hallowe’en which is based on the Celtic holiday of Samhain, dedicated to the feasts of the harvest and commemorating the dead. With the introduction of Christianity to the British Isles, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year. The night before became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve.

This is the time when the veil between the two worlds is at its most translucent – the one we inhabit day to day and the beyond. There is a dance with death, with the dark forces, with the lower spirits – most notably seen in the choices of many costumes for this holiday.  Popular creepy horror movie characters, skeletons, ghosts, anything “sexy” (insert Cat, Nun, Pirate, Nurse) are all displayed on this Hallowe’en night.

At this time of year, Nature is dying around us, the darkness is upon us, Persephone has traveled to the Underworld to remain until spring returns. In Chinese medicine, this is the time of the Po spirits, as discussed in my last post, The Po Spirits of Instinct. (scroll down)

We are now in the element of Metal, connected with the Po Spirits. This is the part of the soul that dies with the body and descends to earth. The Po represent our survival techniques (can we see, hear, smell, taste, touch danger?), in the arena where consciousness is a matter of instinct.  It is in the moment, expressed as a gut response, a bodily knowing.  Often called the Animal soul, it may arise for humans as a nagging suspicion that drags our attention to look at something we are ignoring, most likely because it may prompt us to make a change …. scary, frightening, panic-producing – true Hallowe’en fears!

Within the Chinese character for Po is embedded “bai” for white.  Linked to the light of the waxing moon, the color of bones buried in the earth, this spirit energy is reflective and yin.   Compare this to the Sun shining out, which is yang and connected to the Hun, the part of the Soul that lives on past death, associated with the Spring element of Wood. The Po spirits descend into the earth, eventually becoming the crystals, minerals, metal ores, stones, rocks, diamonds – the inner treasures of this planet.

So, as you dress in costume for this evening’s festivities, help your children do that, or simply see others engage in this seasonal ritual, take a moment and reflect on your own instinctual, animal spirits living within your body.  Communicate with them and request they whisper their desires to you.  Hold their wishes.  Let them know that later, soon, you will Mind them, and decide how best to satisfy their urges.

Then howl
at tonight’s
waning
crescent
moon!

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Gut Instinct
Have you ever walked into a room and felt danger, and later discovered something was indeed amiss? Perhaps you once met someone and felt a visceral animosity, seemingly unprovoked.  Later on that person does something reprehensible and you recall your initial feeling of mistrust.  Conversely, maybe you have encountered someone who by all outward appearances seemed dangerous, yet you found yourself instinctively reaching out in friendship – a first trust which later proves true.

These are all Po movements, the spirits connected to Metal.  Po are the animal spirits, linked to momentary reactions.   Po are of present time and space, their response quick, unplanned, instinctual.  When presented with a charged situation, these spirits do not consider planning for the next day, or even the next minute – they respond immediately.

The Po Soul until Death
Each person has a po soul, which is the part of the soul that is indissolubly attached to the body and descends to earth with it upon death. The Po spirits are the corporeal soul, the visceral life force, the animal wit that cautions you in the moment to respond.

The Po are considered to be the somatic expression of the soul, and are expressed as we see, hear, eat, cry and most importantly breathe – the most fundamental of all our instincts.  Our first breath marks the entrance of each human being leaving the womb and entering life on

As my teacher, Lorie Dechar, writes in her book Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological And Spiritual Healing, says of the Po spirits:

“They are closely related to the autonomic nervous system, the sensory receptors, especially the primitive touch responses of the skin, and the interior sense receptors of the visceral organs. … The po are our embodied knowing, our animal wit, our street smarts, the part of us that can sniff out what’s right or wrong, good or bad, safe or unsafe.  Deep below the level of our conscious ability to articulate in words what we think about a person, place, or situation, the po spirits already know, and whether or not we realize it, our body has begun to respond by contracting or expanding, hardening or softening.”

Listen to the Po
The Po are considered the lower spirits, and often overlooked in our modern, cerebral world.  However, during this time of Metal, pay close attention to that gut instinct, that wisdom that only your body holds.   Mind will attempt rationalizing, dismissing or ignoring the Po spirits, but the Po will continue to prod the body, speaking louder and louder until its message is heard.   Our body-mind reacts in distress.   Illness – whether of mind or body – may result if we cannot hear these lower spirits.

This does not mean acting in the moment on whatever gut instinct we pick up, but it does mean listening to ‘what’s not right’, ‘ what needs to be changed’, ‘this is dangerous’, or even the converse statements which assure us that we are in the right place at the right time.   We need to integrate the messages of our Po soul into our life in the manner that is appropriate to our heart-centered connections on this earth.

Shhhh …. listen …. take in, reflect … integrate.

Be well.

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The Large Intestine
In both western biology and Chinese medicine, the function of the large intestine is to transport and discard waste materials.  However, this organ is more than just a vessel for elimination: it absorbs every last bit of water possible from the chyme, or digested food, and even manufactures some needed vitamins and circulates them to the body.   It doesn’t simply eliminate the almost-used-up nutrients – it extricates every last bit of nutrition that the body needs and then throws it out.

In Chinese medicine, the Large Intestine is termed the “Drainer of the Dregs”.   On an energetic level, it literally – and figuratively – performs this action.   It’s not a question of discarding each and every item, person, relationship, idea that no longer interests us, but rather extracting every last bit of psychic nutrient that we need and then letting it go.  Completely.  Over and done with.

The Nei Jing is an ancient Chinese medical text compiled by several authors over several hundred years and has been considered a fundamental doctrine for more than two thousand years.  It compares the Large Intestine to “the officials who propagate the Way (the Tao), and generate evolution and change”.  On a body level, if our colon isn’t working optimally, we become stuck, stagnant and unable to move forward.  On a psychic level, when we lose the ability to let go, move on and change, we are just as stuck and stagnant. It is fascinating that the Nei Jing used the term “Tao” (meaning the Way), a Taoist philosophical concept, for an organ system that is considered dirty and usually overlooked.   (Except when it’s not functioning for us personally!)

Tap Tap Tapping for Colon Health
Here is a simple exercise you can do on your self, your children, and your patients to inspire the Large Intestine to keep moving.   It is best used with a Manaka wooden hammer (photo above), but you can also use your hands to tap instead. This exercise can be done sitting down or lying down.

First listen to your pulse to pick up its rhythm. Then, using the pulse as a metronome beat, tap clockwise around the umbilicus.   You can use your first two fingers as a tapping agent; if you use the Manaka hammer, you place the “needle” (the long stem part) on the body and gently hammer it on top, to the beat of your pulse.

See diagram below, in which the Large X represents the umbilicus.  Starting at “x1” just above the belly button (approximately two of your thumb widths above), move clockwise around the umbilicus.  Do this three times at least.  The movement mimics the movement of the colon, and the pulse beat helps it start the elimination process.  It can be extremely effective.

I have had great luck using this technique with patients with chronic constipation, and with children as well, as well as on myself once in a while.

8x           x1          x2

 

7x         x x3

 

6x         x5           x4

In line with this Season’s energy of letting go, tune into the health of your Large Intestine, literally and figuratively!

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In this blog post, we will continue to focus on our lungs’ health during this season of Metal.  As the yin energy of the earth descends to the earth, dryness results. Looking at the leaves, all around us they are drying up, withering and falling to the ground.   Many of us are experiencing that dry throat, sinuses, and skin – the third lung. It is not only due to the heat we may or may not have on in our houses, but to the climactic condition of the season.

First of all, increase the amount of fluids, water in particular, that you drink.  For skin dryness, you might want to consider adding in or increasing omega 3-fatty acids which are in flax seed oil, borage oil, or fish oils.  For the fish oils, I like Nordic Natural, as it’s a reliable brand.  Careful with flax seed and borage oils, as they can go rancid; make sure to refrigerate them.

Use a neti pot
For anyone with allergies, or seasonal dry sinuses, a neti pot is a lifesaver! When the mucous membranes dry out, they become more susceptible to germs and viruses. A neti pot flushes the nasal passages with warm salt water and is an invaluable tool for sinus health. Neti pots have been around for centuries and originally come from the Ayurvedic/yoga medical tradition. Sold at most health food stores, a neti pot looks like an Aladdin’s lamp, or a gravy boat. They are made of ceramic or plastic – I much prefer the ceramic, but if you travel and want to take a neti pot with you, the plastic one is good in that case.

If you’re feeling congested of if you tend to have sinus, nasal or upper respiratory infections, use a neti pot daily – or weekly as a preventive measure.

1. The best way to start using a neti pot is over your bathroom sink, before a mirror. That way you can see when the water is flowing out your nostrils, and guide it better.

2. Fill the pot with warm water and add a quarter-teaspoon of finely ground sea salt (not iodized). Add a pinch of baking soda to this if you like, as it alkalizes the water and makes it a little gentler on the sinuses.

3. Turn your head to one side over the sink, keeping the forehead at the same height as the chin, or slightly higher.

4. Gently insert the spout in the upper nostril so it forms a seal.  Raise the neti pot so the saline solution flows out the lower nostril. If it drains out of your mouth, lower your forehead in relation to your chin.  Some solution may travel to the back of your throat. Try not to swallow it – spit it out.

5. When the neti pot is empty, gently blow your nose.

6. Refill the neti pot and repeat on the other side.

If you have chlorinated water, consider using distilled water to remove the possibility of damage through chlorination.  A gallon will last a long time. You will have to heat it up to a warm temperature, but it worth the effort. I have well water in my home but recently when out of town, I used chlorinated water in my neti pot and it burned.

There is a tincture I occasionally use if I feel added immune support is needed.  It’s called Neti-Wash, by the Himalayan Institute. Made with zinc and herbs, you add it to the neti pot water. This is not a commercial, if someone else has another product they like, let me know! I’ve put a link below with a helpful video of using a neti pot.

http://www.himalayaninstitute.org/NetiPot/NetiPotInstructions.aspx

It’s really easy – my 11 year old does it as she hates being congested.  You might feel a slight twinge of discomfort in your sinuses if they’re really blocked, but it will feel so much better when you can breathe through them after using the neti pot.

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Drinking Sassafras Tea as a Lung Tonic

During this time of Metal, we will look at ways nourish the organ systems involved, namely the Lungs and the Large Intestine. Over the next few days, I will be posting self-care tips that will provide this seasonal protection.

Drinkng sassafras tea, or infusion (a tea steeped at least several hours), can provide immune benefits, with its antiseptic, anti-viral and anti-oxidant properties and with its ability to remove toxins from the body, as it moistens the lungs, alleviating dryness.

Sassafras trees are native to eastern North America and eastern Asia. All parts of the plants are very fragrant. The species are unusual in having three distinct leaf patterns on the same plant, unlobed oval, bilobed (mitten-shaped), and trilobed (three pronged) with the rare occurrence of a five-lobed leaf.  The picture above shows how the leaves look in autumn.  What you want for making a tea or infusion are the yellow leaves, just about to fall off the tree, and some of the smaller branches (twig sized).

Drink this tea consciously – as an herbal medicinal ally – and support the Lungs during this season.

SASSAFRAS INFUSION
To make an infusion, you will need:
– A large glass jar with a tight lid.  Ball jars are best; the half-gallon sizes are usually easy to find in hardware stores, or places that carry canning supplies.    Gallon-sized iced tea jars are great, but maybe more challenging to locate.   Some restaurants may have gallon jars – for pickles, perhaps – that you could recycle.

If using a half-gallon jar, for instance, I would use 8-10 large leaves and a few of the thin branches (it’s not an exact science!).  Fill the jar to the brim with boiling water. (See precautions below.)  Cover and let steep 4-8 hours. The longer you steep the infusion, the more mucilaginous and strong-tasting it becomes.  After the 4-8 hours, check and see if the taste and texture appeal to you.  You can remove the leaves and twigs, or let them stay longer.

3. Strain and drink.  Refrigerate what’s not used.  May be reheated gently.  Add honey or sweetener if desired.

Precautions: When filling jar with boiling water: Make sure the glass jar is at room temperature; don’t have the jar sit on cold stone or metal, as the difference in temperature could cause it to crack; don’t let the kettle touch the edge of the glass.

Controversy Over Sassafras Tea Health Benefits
One of the active ingredients of sassafras is safrole and experiments on mice revealed that this isolated chemical, in large doses, triggered liver cancer in the animals. The FDA has banned sassafras tea and also the use of sassafras in foods and beverages.  However, herbalists are of the opinion that isolated experiments where purified compounds from the tree were injected into mice cannot be accurately relied upon to determine plant toxicity.

Firstly, with this tea, we are using the leaves and some twigs; the safrole is primarily in the root bark.  Secondly, many of the herbs which are being investigated by the FDA have been used for centuries, historically providing health benefits with no cancer, liver toxicity or other side effects.  There wasn’t the injecting of huge doses of isolated chemicals into their bodies either.   For instance, in the Gulf South of the US, sassafras (called filé) is a standard thickener in gumbo.  One would expect elevated levels of disease in this population if that were true.

This is an excellent fall tonic, I personally have used it over 20 years, and other herbalists I know have been imbibing these “toxic” herbs for much longer, with no problems except good health and immunity.

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We are continuing with our exploration of the Lungs, which paired with the Large Intestine comprise the organ systems of Metal. This is the season to focus on inspiration and letting go. The inspiration will light our way as we descend into the darkness, the yin time. Letting go, winnowing down, paring away the non-essentials help us appreciate the value and beauty in our lives. We take stock of what is is in our pantry in anticipation of winter; we take personal stock of our many talents and strengths, as we prioritize and recognize self esteem and value.

Inspiration is a key motif of this season. Just as we expand our lungs to take in air, the pure qi, so too do we expand our entire beings to receive divine inspiration. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the surface area of the alveoli, the microscopic branches of the lungs, could cover a tennis court. Think of this expanded lung surface area as you take in your next breath, filling all these minute spaces with air and extend that metaphor to the inspiration potential that expands our every moment.

I will explain a variant of yogic breathing which I like to call 360* breathing. Doing these types of breaths during your day can give you many benefits. I formerly worked in an acupuncture clinic which primarily serviced patients suffering injuries sustained from work or car-accidents. Most patients were in severe physical pain, which naturally extends to psychological challenges as well. I noticed that most of them were breathing quite shallowly. When I would ask someone to take a breath, there would follow a short intake of air. I would ask them to take a deep breath, and the patient would take two short intakes of air, reporting that it “it hurts to breathe.” We would do very gentle 360* breaths ….. and magic happened. The ones who continued with this self care at home came back to clinic reporting that their back pain had improved, that they had more energy and they felt calmer. They all experienced better breathing, their nasal passages not as congested, and the few of them who were on asthma inhalers said they had decreased their usage significantly.

Why did this happen?  With regards to the back pain, very often the quadratus lumborum, or QL, is stiff and tense upon palpation.   Breathing deeply gently lift the pleura of the lung – of which there are many running down the back (not just the front of our chest!) The quadratus lumborum runs from the iliac crest and attaches to the 12th rib and the top four lumbar vertebrae.  It stabilized the 12th floating rib (just above the waistline) when you are breathing.  But – if you have back pain, you might tend to breathe shallowly, which causes the muscle to stiffen, which causes more back pain and the cycle worsens. 360* breathing gently massages these muscles and helps lower pain, breaking the cycle. The added oxygen and in turn blood and qi are benefits as well.

With regards to the increased energy, this type of breathing massages the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. The in and out breath simultaneously stimulates and then calms the adrenals, helping to relieve adrenal fatigue and burnout.

The increased oxygen levels from full 360* breathing brings mental clarity. By supporting the nervous system, this breathing brings calm, peace and well-being.

Try these full breath exercises below and notice that with each breath’s expansion, comes a feeling of expansion in our bodies and eventually in our lives – we are body/mind beings.

FULL BREATH EXERCISES
You can do this type of breathing anywhere – sitting down, reclining, in a car, standing on line, walking about. However, if you are new to this breathing, it’s best that you consciously pay attention to the steps until they become second nature. You may find eventually that in a stressful situation, you will go to this full breath to relax. But at first, it’s best to stop other activities to take this breath break.

Position your body
Sit in a chair, cross-legged on a cushion, or (best for this beginning practice), lying down, arms at the side, palms facing up feet uncrossed. This is called the Corpse or Shavasana pose (shavas meaning corpse in sanskrit).  In particular this is a good posture to use during the Metal, as we return to yin energy as Nature dies around us, combining the Large Intestine energy with the Lung, an inspiration and expiration movement.

If this is new to you, you may want to start the breath with your eyes closed, in order to shut out visual distractions and focus just on the movement of air in your body. Eventually you will want to open your eyes, aware of your environment to allow this type of breath to integrate into your waking, walking, working life. Integration accentuates the yogic background of this breath. Yoga means “union” and the ability to be in union with oneself, the Divine (however you term that), and the external world is a continual challenge and goal. Closing your eyes and being a yogi within is one thing; opening your eyes and engaging with the world as a yogi is another. Both have their place in life.

Three parts of the full yogic breath:
1) Abdominal breathing
Observe your natural breath. You will notice that as you inhale the abdomen rises and then falls with exhalation. Watch this for a few moments to check this flow, then deepen, lengthen and extend these movements.

  • place one hand on abdomen below the navel
  • start with the exhale and completely void all air from your lungs, exhaling through the mouth. Using your hand, gently push the last bit of air out of your lungs and body.
  • Inhale through the nose, lifting your abdomen (which will lift your hand) to its utmost position. Only breathe into the abdomen, the chest is not involved yet.
  • Continue with this for a few breath cycles or so and then stop.

2) Middle Chest breathing
Again observe your normal breath, this time focusing your attention on the middle chest, the ribcage area. You will notice this part of the chest moving slightly up at inhalation and down with exhalation. Again observe this pattern for a few moments. Now again, begin to deepen, lengthen and extend your breath.

  • cross your arms over your chest and place hands around ribcage
  • again, starting with the extended exhale, relax and contract the ribcage, emptying out the chest and lungs completely. Use your hands gently to release extra air.
  • inhale, expanding the ribcage to its limit
    In this step, keep the abdomen still, moving only the middle chest. Do this for a few breath cycles and then stop 

    3) Upper Chest breathing

  • place one hand on upper chest
  • again, starting with the extended exhale, relax and contract the upper chest, emptying out the lungs completely.
  • inhale, expanding the upper chest to its limit
  • In this step, keep the abdomen and the ribcage still, moving only the upper chest. This is a shallow breath, but the purpose of it is to familiarize yourself with the various degrees of breathing. Don’t worry about “getting it right”, just focus on the intention of breathing into the upper chest only. Do this for a few breath cycles and then stop.

    IMPORTANT NOTE: All of the above steps should be done in a relaxed, with no straining. This is free-flowing, effortless, wu wei (action through inaction) method of breathing. At first this breath may be mechanical, filled with bumps, pauses and uneven movement. Stay with it, as you visualize a wave like pattern expanding and contracting. You are aspiring to minimum effort with maximum rewards.

    FULL YOGIC BREATH
    This is a continued movement of the three parts above:

  • Slowly exhaling, relax and contract abdomen, then ribcage, then raise upper chest.
  • Slowly inhaling, expand abdomen, then ribcage, then raise upper chest
  • The full breath is one continuous flow of air, qi, oxygen and movement. Repeat slowly, steadily, consciously.

360 DEGREE BREATHING

  • As all three areas are expanding (Abdomen, Middle Chest, Upper Chest), pay attention to the pleura of the lung which continue down the back of the spine to our low back. Feel them inflate with air, like balloons expanding.
  • Imagine every part of your body expanding as well: the head, neck and shoulders, arms and hands, chest, pelvis, legs and feet.
  • On a cellular level, imagine every cell expanding as well, filling with oxygen.
  • In Chinese medicine, our first breath connects us to Heavenly Qi Energy and continues until we take our last breath. Qi flows through our body in inner pathways called meridians. By controlling our breath and ensuring that every part of our body expands, oxygen, qi and blood move effortlessly and continuously. Blockages which result in pain – on a body, mind and spirit level – can be moved by this free flow.

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    Continuing with this 7-day series on Metal, we will begin to understand the physical attributes of the lungs, from both a western and eastern perspective. Ways to support the Metal during this season will follow in later postings.

    The Biological Lungs
    The lungs are a pair of spongy, air-filled organs located on either side of the chest. The trachea (windpipe) conducts inhaled air into the lungs through its tubular branches, called bronchi. The bronchi then divide into smaller and smaller branches or bronchioles, finally becoming microscopic.

    The bronchioles eventually end in clusters of microscopic air sacs called alveoli. The total surface area of the alveoli (tiny air sacs in the lungs) is the size of a tennis court. In the alveoli, oxygen from the air is absorbed into the blood. Carbon dioxide, a waste product of metabolism, travels from the blood to the alveoli, where it can be exhaled.

    At rest, a person breathes about 14 to 16 times per minute. After exercise it could increase to over 60 times per minute. New babies at rest breathe between 40 and 50 times per minute.  By age five it decreases to around 25 times per minute.

    The Lungs from a Chinese Medicine Perspective
    The function of the Lung is to descend and disperse qi throughout the body. Taking in “pure qi” through the breath, and exhaling the waste, or “dirty qi”, this organ helps distribute fluids around the body. The Lung governs the skin and hair and is also the main organ involved in our defensive system, as it is directly connected to the external environment.

    The Lung is considered in Oriental medicine to be the “tender organ.” This is because the lung is the uppermost organ in the body and especially susceptible to wind, cold and dryness, which is the predominate quality of the climate in autumn.

    During the season of Metal, the sap in the trees descends downward to the roots below, the leaves drying up and falling down. The strength of every plant and tree goes below to the roots,  making it the ideal time to harvest medicinal roots to obtain maximum nutrients.  Root vegetables are abundant in local farmers’ markets. The movement of all of Nature is descending – a yin movement.

    The lungs mirror this energetic direction as well. As we inhale, the breath descends inward, as the energy of the earth descends inward. This is a time for introspection as we take stock of what we have in store for the winter months ahead.   We exhale the breath after it has been metabolized, releasing the waste by-products of respiration, just as the trees release their leaves once they are no longer viable.

    Inhalation, exhalation …. inspiration, expiration. This is the seasonal energy of the lungs.

    CLOCK TIME for METAL
    The Lung’s peak time is between 3-5 am.  Practicing Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or Yoga, meditating or just breathing deeply is a perfect practice during this time.  Deep breathing stimulates the Large Intestine to eliminate (good for those with constipation) between 5-7 am, its peak hours.

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