Easter tips for Renewed Energy

So, this Easter I am not able to celebrate in the traditional Polish way… Almost! I am typing this at midnight as my teenage son decided there can be no Easter without the super elaborate fudgy “mazurek”, so he is now making it under my guidance. I have to say, this feels quite good as a parent - I have managed to transmit some of my culture to him, despite the fact that I have lived abroad for most of my life now. And we will of course get up early to make each other soaking wet in the forever fun (and slightly cruel) “Smigus Dyngus”.

But back to the topic at hand. Spring is the time for growth and expansion - it belongs to Wood in the Five Phases model, and accordingly, I would like to share with you some tips on how to renew your energy in the Spring.

According to Chinese Medicine, this is the time to get your Qi moving and replenished, to get “unstuck” from the constriction of winter.


  1. Eat plenty of living foods

    As everything around grows and turns green, let your plate reflect that! The chlorophyll abundant in fresh, green food, helps to detoxify and will help to cleanse your body after the winter (and all those Easter cakes and chocolate ;) ). At the same time, it is a great blood and immune strengthening agent, as we say in Chinese Medicine, “it builds blood”. This may be because its structure is similar to human haemoglobin, the red pigment that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen.

  2. Eat sour, crisp and fresh flavours

    Slightly sour and crips foods, such as radishes, soured/pickled cucumbers, grapefruits, lemon and lime will help to get your energy unstuck and flowing smoothly. In Chinese Medicine, sour is a flavour that belongs to the Wood phase of spring and the Liver, which is the system responsible for making sure both energy and emotions cycle smoothly.

    My Mum made a great salad that combines all these flavours and is fab for balancing the gut thanks to the use of enzymatic soured cucumber. Recipe follows below!

  3. Sleep!

    It is really nearly impossible to overestimate the importance of sleep. You might know that sleep restores the energy and allows tissues to heal. But did you know that sleeping well helps the brain to retain information you learnt the day before? And that losing just one hour of sleep reduces your reflexes, regardless of how strong you feel, by as much as drinking a glass of alcohol. My Chinese Medicine teachers taught me that whatever the ailment, if there is troubled sleep, this needs to be treated first. Only then the body can regain the strength to return to homeostasis.

  4. Go out and get moving: Practise Qi Gong, Taiji, walk or run!

    As the world is buzzing with energy and awakening, so should be your body. It is difficult to feel the magic of the seasons - and reap the benefit from their cycle - if we are spending most our time indoors. As the weather is warmer, try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. I practised Taiji and Qi Gong in Snowdonia last weekend and it was a fabulous experience. Having to balance barefoot on an uneven rock, feeling the wind and the life of the landscape around me, I felt that my practise was shaped in new ways.

  5. Soak up the sun

    Sunshine is really important: studies began to show that its benefits are far larger than just enabling us to synthetise vitamin D. Sunlight balances the mood, and it strengthens eyesight. (In fact, to avoid shortsightedness, the time you spend outside is more important than the time you spend reading or looking at screens. Meaning, you can get away with a lot of the latter, provided your eyes enjoy sunlight about 2 hours a day. Even direct sunlight is great when your eyelids are closed). One way to call sun in Chinese is Tai Yang, or the Supreme Yang - it is the best and purest source of Yang energy for us, and it is completely free!

And now as promised, the Spring Salad recipe:

salad.jpg

It is made using soured cucumbers, which are naturally fermented foods rich in enzymes. They help support a healthy gut biome. These are cucumbers that have been left to ripen in salty water with herbs, without the addition of vinegar. You can get them in many Polish shops and even in Tesco as “Ogorki Kiszone”. The ones that Tesco sells in ugly pastic bags are superior to many others, in fact.

INGREDIENTS:

A whole bunch of radishes, INCLUDING LEAVES.

Half a big, organic cucumber

2 soured cucumbers

1 hard boiled egg from free range, happy hens

1 Tbsp of olive oil

lemon juice to taste, about 1 - 2 Tbsp.

(optional): chives, red pepper cut into thin strips.

PREPARATION:

Wash your radishes and radish leaves really well and cut finely. The leaves are extremely nutritious and have a spicy, peppery taste. Dice the cucumber into 1/2 inch - 1cm cubes, cut the egg into small wedges, and slice finely the soured cucumber. Sprinkle with olive oil and lemon juice and mix well.

Enjoy and please let me know if you actually make it!

The meaning of my secular Christmas: Polish traditions that are worth celebrating Christmas for

A winter without a proper, lengthy and labourous Christmas feels somehow wrong. The pain of it, the extra work, the rush – I love it all! I want to share with you guys what makes Christmas so special for me, because as a meditating-reincarnation-affirming acupuncturist it is not really the birth Jesus. Neither is it the tinsel and the presents, I grew up in communist times when people were poorer and craved less, there were NO ads for the next flashing, beeping thing trying to convince you that you (or your children) needed it. So – to my dear secular husband, my Chinese friends and my British friends alike, here is a write up of what is so special about Polish Christmas:

1. It is the celebration of new Life and Hope coming to us when we most need it

It is no coincidence that Christmas is celebrated just around the winter solstice, when the nights are the longest and the days are the shortest. No one really knows when Jesus was born, and the end of December was chosen by the fathers of the Church for a very particular reason: ancient Romans already had a great feast on this day. They celebrated what was known as “Saturnalia”, and the general populace was so fond of this celebration that there was no way to ban it, Rather, they were told that from now on, they will celebrate… pretty much like they did before… but for the sake of Jesus Christ.

That same mid-winter feast was known among various pagan nations of Europe. Have you ever wondered what does the Christmas tree have to do with Jesus? The answer is: nothing. There were no coniferous trees in Bethlehem, there were palms! The idea of bringing in an ever green tree originated among the germanic tribes, and then spread across Europe. Much like Saturnalia, it was about celebrating life in the middle of the coldest, darkest season. With the biting frost and the bare branches, the winter has claimed almost all life, but not all. There are those whose green life perseveres. We celebrate this perseverance against all odds, in the toughest conditions, by celebrating the tree itself. Both Germany and Poland have carols which are about the evergreen tree, that do not mention Jesus at all.

In modern Poland, the imagery of baby Jesus takes on the symbolism of new life emerging against all odds. It is also a symbol of God sending hope and love to people when the times are the darkest. Even if you are not religious, it is a beautiful message that resonates with everybody – who among us does not know hard times, and does not enjoy the feeling that there is light at the end of every tunnel.

2. It is the greatest celebration of Motherhood

Christmas in Poland is as much about Jesus as it is about his Mother, who is having a baby alone, with no family or friends to help as would have been normal in those days, and with no material luxuries or even necessities. Our songs praise her and tell of her love and gentleness as she spends sleepless nights rocking the baby to sleep, protecting him from cold and the harshness of the world. Indeed, the baby in the our carols is very different that the English little king, who, as expected of royalty: “no crying he makes”. He is a real, tender baby, cold and hungry for the lack of provisions. One of my favourite carols describes how Mary takes of her head scarf to wrap cold little Jesus, and how she tries to make a pillow from the hay she lay him on.

Again, these are not some abstract religious feelings, but sentiments which every parent can empathise with. But through Christmas, that selfless parental love becomes something holy, something sacred and worth celebrating. In fact, many a mother I know would hum a carol to her little baby as a lullaby, maybe quietly contemplating how this new life at her breast is a perfect miracle.

3. It is about remembering those gone or lonely: the empty place at the table.

There is a tradition in Poland that I have not encountered anywhere else: it is one of leaving one full place setting empty on Christmas Eve. This empty place symbolises firstly, all the loved ones who cannot join you on the day, and secondly, people who are not fortunate enough to enjoy the company of the family on this special day. It can only be filled if a lonely stranger knocks on your door. While I have not actually had this happen (apparently, this right was often used by soldiers in world world one who were far away from their homes), tradition dictates that if you know of anyone who is going to be alone on Christmas Eve, you invite them to join. I think it is a beautiful tradition, it is one I am most happy to pass on to my children.

And here are some beautiful Christmas carols in which Mary sings to baby Jesus, for you to enjoy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqYdJpgtasI

Life lessons from our Wushu Grandmaster

Grandmaster Teng comes into his training centre and quietly brews a pot of tea. He has a plastic tupperware box which hosts many tiny Chinese teacups. He will set one out for himself when he is alone, when I come, there would be a second one for me. When three Chinese grannies show up for a taiji class, the tea is the first thing to take centrestage. They stand and chat, then – they sit and chat. Then at some point, maybe when all the talking subjects are exhausted, they decide it is time for a warm up. The ladies warm up themselves, while the master looks at them, sips his tea, and smiles.

Then, they practise. He sips his tea, looks at them, and smiles.

There is a sense that everything must take its time and happen in its time. A sense of calm and of things evolving at their own pace.

When we first arrived, we were greedy for training. We wanted to train all the time, feel worn out, feel that we are taking full advantage of this opportunity. The Master would see us get out of breath, me freezing up in my form because my brain cannot quite assimilate more, Huan Huan falling on the ground, he would smile and say: “have a break. Have some tea. You have time”.

This does not mean being lazy. “Whenever you have time, you must practise” - we often hear. Comparing that to our western impatience, I think it reflects a kind of humility towards the process. You allow the process to happen, being respectful of it, and letting it take its course. You do not attempt to force the process to bring you a result earlier than it can. I am thinking of how impatiently I stretch for that splits of mine, of how eager Huan Huan is to start winning gold medals. Maybe I try to empty myself of the craving for the goal. I contemplate trying to respect the process more, view it like a river, calmly and patiently preparing the path for the water to flow through.

After all, whether we achieve something or not, is not fully within our means. The world is too full of surprises. All we can do is support the process.

Like a wise sage from Chinese tales, the Master takes things as they come.

His whole being emanates a sense that things must take time. You cannot stretch in one day. You cannot perfect a form in one day. Your muscles will not get strong because you will them to. It is all a process, like water carving a riverbed.

Rather than focus on the “now” - what happens now, and what does not happen “now”, we are all becoming parts of a process. A long process that encompasses the past, the future, were threads of ancient tradition are interwoven with out aspirations and where the seeds for the future are planted now, but grown steadily, organically, cared for but not forced.

“If you are tired, take a break. If you are hungry, go eat.”

The “now” doesn’t really matter that much in itself.

Pointing at my son, the Master smiles and says, “this boy, he learns fast. In three years, he will be good”.

How much further we can go, I wonder, in our work and daily life, not just in training, if we manage to keep such calm focus only on the process itself.


Life lessons from Taiji Quan practice (2)

Hello Dear All Who Ventured Here,

Firstly, a very personal thank you to everyone who took the time to write to me to tell me they enjoy reading these thoughts of mine! Your encouragement means a lot :)

I have been training Taiji every day for two weeks now, and I have to say I feel so much more joy in practising the form. It is never boring, just like a river can never be boring: it is a flow that you learn to enjoy and move with, and the better your movement, to more enjoyment you get.

I have terrifying little time to write though, somehow between training every day, procuring the food and getting the laundry done, there just is not much of the day left. And I absolutely cannot compromise on sleep, as then I would be in no shape to train. So, here is short and sweet instalment number 2 of life lessons from Taiji Quan:

3. Have a strong foundation: always stay rooted in yourself.

Whether you are stepping forward, back, to the side or doing a leg press, a Taiji movement should never compromise your balance. Actually, the form can be seen as an exercise in moving from one balanced position to another balanced position. Whichever position you assume, you will probably be aiming to have your legs slightly bent, and your back – straight. When you stand like this (try it right now: legs slightly bent, back as straight as can be) you develop a sense of rootedness, groundedness. It is as if the physical stability of this position radiates and gives us a comparable degree of mental, spiritual stability. It is a lovely feeling. You are rooted in yourself, you are grounded in your stance, in balance, at peace. And as you move, you keep that feeling.

When practising, I began to feel that this has implications for life outside of taiji as well. One should aim to move through life never compromising one’s sense of self. Not giving away my balance as I strive for something too hard. Not reaching out or bending back in a way that compromises my centre. This sense of being centred, of being rooted, can relate to different things: for me, it is staying true to the values I hold dear, and the goals I really have (such as helping as many people as I can with my acupuncture skill). I almost lost myself to the promise of money last year, when I was invited to form a company with a friend. Then I slowly realised I was losing my balance and my sense of direction, I was being pulled to become a sales person and away from my true goal of helping people with my skill.

Moreover, in life - just like in Taiji - you need to flow, to adapt in an ever flexible way. But adapt while not losing your balance! That may be the key to the life’s wisdom, don’t you think?

This is me practising Snake Creeps down along a treetop walkway in the KL Eco Forest Park.

This is me practising Snake Creeps down along a treetop walkway in the KL Eco Forest Park.

The Zen of eating durian fruit

What is fruit supposed to taste like?

If I were asked that question not long ago, I would have said:

juicy,

sweet,

and slightly tangy, maybe a little sour.

Mmm, those lovely crunchy apples from our garden, summertime plums and forest berries!

Now, in Malaysia there is a fruit that will turn any new-comers’ understanding of “fruitiness” perfectly upside down. Much has already been written about durian, and Youtube offers man a clip of someone trying the fruit for the first time, but I shall add my two cents nonetheless. In my mind, eating durian was a very multi-layered experience, not to say transcendental.

It happened like that: our lovely friends here, Mr Nee (the father of a kung-fu champion girl, XingYing) and his family, invited us to go to Chinatown. En route from the parking lot, I saw a stand proudly featuring rows of the famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) spiked durian beasts. The stand had a small plastic roof and plastic tables to the side, and you could either purchase little portions of durian, pre-packaged in plastic, or a whole fruit, and should you wish to, devour it right at the tables provided on little plastic plates.

I wanted to purchase a small sample, but our hosts did not believe in half-measures, they ordered two huge heads of durian, which the vendors promptly sliced with huge machetes, and oferred to us accompanied by a box of plastic gloves and about a hundred paper napkins each.

Soon the reason for this became apparent: durian produces a very strong smell (think maybe… garlic soaked in vinegar and then mixed with something rotting), which rather does stick to you.

Huanhuan eats durian - smaller.png

But smell aside, there is the issue of the TASTE. So you must be asking yourself at this point, how does this relate to Zen?

Well, I found that the only way to eat durian is to rid yourself of any expectations of what fruit should taste like. Any at all. As long as you remember fruit, think of fruit, allow yourself to be guided by past experiences of eating this or that, you will likely experience an overpowering gag reflex.

Actually, you should empty your mind of any expectation of what food should taste like. This is easier said than done! Especially when faced with the durian. Durian is not sour, not bitter, not umami, definitely not sweet or salty per se. It is… well, it SMELLS rotten, but it tastes something different altogether. I think feasting on durian should be used as a test on some unsuspecting monks :)

This humble culinary experience can become a powerful metaphor of how we should live. It is easy to have a habit of expecting something because of what we experienced in the [past of what we were taught to believe. Say, just today, we moved from a spacious AirBnB apartment to a tiny hostel room. The kids started off hating our cozy little room with a passion. Why? All because of their expectations of what a “hotel” should be. Here, there is no swimming pool, no sofa, no space to be in apart from the bed, and the corridors are made of bare concrete (although swept clean). Yet once they managed to forget about their expectations, they became open to the experience as is, and we found we can actually get very well organised, all three of us with our mountains of clutter, in this minuscule space. And with no other distractions, we have to be actively spending time with each other, and actually the brother and sister had plenty of fun playing simple, old fashioned games.

Here is a picture of just how tiny this room was, wall to wall:

BunkandBulik room smaler.png

The Zen mind is to allow things to unfold without the need to put them into your preconceived framework of good or bad, comfortable or uncomfortable, etc etc.

Now, I can actually enjoy durian! Though I find it as strong as liquor in some sense, and cannot take more than two or three pieces. I hope I manage to always enjoy the unexpected that way.

Life lessons from Taiji Quan practice (1)

It has been four days that I have been practising Taiiji with Master Teng. The Master has been very generous with his knowledge and according to him, I have made as much progress as his Taiji regulars make in 4 months of lessons twice a week. I am sure this is mostly simply the benefit of 1 to 1 tuition, plus a tad of utter determination - after all, I am not a Taiji Regular at his Centre, I have this special time set aside for learning, in the midst of my acupuncture practice and raising three kids. So I do my homework as well as daily lessons. I have been even falling asleep repeating the form in my mind. It feels lovely to practice, although I still experience acutely the awkwardness of my movements. But this awareness is also a part of learning – to be increasingly aware of your own body, to be aware of its limitations, is a marvellous thing.

I discovered that whenever I make a mistake, the process of correcting, of “un-learning” that mistake teaches me loads. Here, I will share some of those insights with you.

iga-taiji-KL-croppedsmall.png

1. If something feels difficult and unnatural, it is not right. The right path flows simply.


Ok, this one is a bit risky to put in words. It does not mean we should never do difficult things – pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone is the best way to grow, after all. Let’s start with the taiji context:

A Taiji form is designed to flow, and there are several transitions between the moves which are minimalist. If you accidentally step with the wrong leg, or raise the opposite hand, the flow will be lost, obstructed. You will end up exerting yourself more than needed as your body is contorted in a slightly counter-intuitive way.

(Actually, the Bujinkan Budo Taijustu that I practise, follows exactly the same principle, and I supposed many other martial arts styles, with which I am not familiar, do as well.)

As I practised, I reflected on how this ease should be how we move through life. I believe we all have a sense of gut feeling, an instinct maybe, that tells us what is right for us, what is the correct path forward in our lives. Sometimes we do not follow that because of… well yes, because of what? Maybe our habits. Or fear. Or expectations we put on ourselves, or we feel that others place upon us. Or maybe we try to stick to an idea we just intellectually conceived, without it really flowing from our deepest nature.

I may not have expressed it well. Just practise some Taiji and hopefully you will know :)


2. Put all of yourself behind every move you make

When you move in taiji, typically more than your hand or leg moves. You engage the muscle of the torso, focus your eyesight, as well as shift your weight in harmony with every move. I was failing to do this in one of the steps, and then I understood: all of me has to commit to this move. It is not enough if a part of me goes, while another wants to stay. There is even a saying, that in correct practice (Taiji or Qi Gong) “the mind, the heart and the body are one”.

It is not easy to achieve this unity. In real life, we are often conflicted: for instance, my will from last night wants me to get up early, but as the alarm sounds, I would really rather sleep. Or I am doing something wishing to be somewhere else, or simply not paying attention. Who is not guilty of checking their phone when they are supposed to be in the middle of something else? Or we commit to a new routine, a new endeavour, relationship or job, but only with a part of ourselves, the other part is still holding back, having doubts. The list can go on and own, and it is actually fascinating to reflect upon in the silence of your own mind.

Practising taiji can serve as a beautiful gentle reminder to put your heart, your spirit and your body ALL behind everything you do.

Speaking about which, I should go to sleep. Because I came here to Malaysia to rain Taiji, and now I am writing on my computer at 1am...

Till next time -

Master Teng teaching me. You can see how much more tension there is in my arms and whole body as compared to his!

Master Teng teaching me. You can see how much more tension there is in my arms and whole body as compared to his!

Training in Malaysia 1: Wushu/ Kung Fu stretching in Malaysia

Wushu (Kung Fu) Stretching in Malaysia

Today was our first official day of training. I say official, because at what was understood by us to be a social meet up the day before, Huan Huan* was still asked to show all of his forms, and had most of them corrected.

Huan huan got invited to join the advanced class, which was a treat, because he was the student with by far the shortest training status in the group. The group was full of children who trained for 6 or 8 years, and had won many medals in Asian competitions.

At the beginning, like in most martial arts sessions we have attended, the coach tells everyone to stretch. But forget trying ardueosly to touch your toes… The coach drops into front splits – and everyone in the class is supposed to do the same. You do not stretch for the splits, you stretch in the splits! Luckily, Huan Huan* has worked loads on his flexibility over the last 2 years, and is currently the most flexible in his home club: so he dropped into an almost-split rather effortlessly, and with that, was on par with the Malaysian group. And we sat in that split (or almost split, or something looking-like-one-day-it might-become-the-splits, as mine was), for much more than 20 seconds. No one counted, but my rather educated guess was about 3 minutes. On each side, of course.

Then, after a few “minor” floor stretches, the coach asks everyone to take off shoes and socks, looks at us, the white extraterrestrials, with what I read as a well-contained mixture of contempt and playful challenge, and tells us off-handedly to just rest and watch if we cannot follow. He clutches his heel and up goes the leg… up, up, up… into the famous shaolin “my leg is my umbrella” pose. The Malaysian students cannot quite achieve the same feat, but they do raise their legs pretty high, and - so does Huan Huan. That is something he has been practising in the garden since he saw it on youtube in a shaolin show. Who knew that youtube can come that useful! He must have felt more than a tinge of satisfaction, as when he stretched like that in the UK, he was sometimes accused of showing off by other kids. Here, he fitted right in, or rather, without this ability he would have been shamefully lost. A bit wobbly maybe, but so were the Malaysian youngesters, until the coach told them to go and grab a bar while they do the stretch.

stretching in Malaysia group- smaller.png

And what of me? Well, my leg was not quite as high as Huan Huan’s, but it was relatively high and relatively straight, and I managed to stand without too much wobbling. When the coach specifically pointed at the kids mentioning even their number, when sending them to the bars, he excluded me. That felt strange, it left me wondering if this was because I wobbled less than the others (I really did, yippee, and I attribute this to my Qi Gong training), or, that as an adult attempting this weird thing, I am not even worth paying serious attention to? Never mind, I told myself, I shall persevere, since I want to present myself with the splits for my next birthday.

A word of thank you to Huan huan here, my private little wushu coach. When I attempted to raise my leg like that before, I had thought my efforts were absolutely pathetic. It did not seem to make much sense. And then my little son tells me: never mind how high you can go Mama, as long as you keep at it, it will eventually get higher.

It did! And this allowed me to set my goals even higher yet.

Now, I have two thoughts about this stretching routine that I want to share. One is fitness-related.

Basically, a good one third of the session was done standing up. This is different physiologically as some of your muscles are tense… but anyway, I will not go into the physio of stretching details here. The point I want to make is that for a martial artist, I think this is a very important and often neglected part of stretching – it trains the balance so well in addition to lengthening the muscles and tendons. In kung fu routines, balance is crucial, as there are many poses where not only you have to raise your leg high, but you hold it there. The actual holding of the leg needs not only streched, but also strong muscles (the so called static flexibility), and this one you do not train by just holding your leg high with your hand, Howver, that act also requires very good, that is both strong and coordinated, muscles of the supporting leg and the torso, so that you do not wobble and fall like a badly positioned doll. And these things are trained very well when doing your stretches upright.

Secondly, I wanted so touch upon the idea of cultural expectations. This is a bit of a philosophical hobby horse of mine – having lived on many different continents, countries, and cultures, I am fascinated by the idea of how what is assumed to be normal in one place completely is not such in another. So here is the issue of how flexible you are as a wushu kid. Are you a super star because you can do the splits, or is it just the beginning, like the alphabet, without which you aren’t even viewed seriously? When Huan huan joined his local UK club, there was ONE kid there who could do the splits. Our coach does tell everyone to stretch properly, but… the cultural norm speaks it’s own truth. You are the one, the special one, or the odd one out, if you can do it, maybe other kids think you show off, maybe you yourself become boastful about it. Here in Malaysia, you better do your splits quickly and move on!

Likewise however, there is an expectation that old people like myself are better off sipping green tea with the Master, passing their time in contemplation of life and shaping of the youth. Why would I stretch? The Master smiled at me with poblazanie when I told him I want to do the splits, too. “Stretching, it is easier for the kids. At your age, you need to make sure you are very well warmed up to avoid injury.” True, or course, but as long as you humour this old lady doing what gives her a sense of satisfaction, I’m gonna keep at it.

  • To protect his privacy, I will be referring to my son by the name given to him by his Chinese teacher, Huan Huan, or 欢獾..

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Sugar cravings explained: why we crave sweet taste according to Chinese medicine, part 3

In the previous installments of this article, I described situations when emotions, intellectual effort or stress make us crave sugar. However, there can also be very physiological reasons for that craving. 


As a sign of blood deficiency


Blood Deficiency is an interesting concept in Chinese Medicine. You can think of it as Blood not having enough "stuff" to nourish the body with (it is, of course, slightly more complicated and subtle). In many cases, it overlaps with a lack of iron.  My wonderful midwife, Lorie of Long River Midwives in Vermont, taught me this trick many years back: if you really crave something sweet, try to imagine a juicy steak instead (or for the vegetarians among us: your favourite spinach dish). If your inner voice yells "yes please!" even louder, it is a sign that what you actually crave is iron. Mind you, you don't necessarily have to indulge in the steak, but do make sure to use your knowledge I food and nutrition to treat yourself to a few iron- rich meals in a row. The sugar cravings should largely subside and eventually disappear.

Since my midwife taught me this trick, 13 years have passed and I had plenty of opportunity to observe this curious connection both on myself and others around me. A very close friend of mine, for instance, who tends towards anaemia, is also struggling with a habit of putting 2 heaped tablespoons of sugar in her tea. Remember, a low haemoglobin count may or may not be present: if the craving is there and the "mental test" of an alternative food works, the need is there.

Why this mistaken appetite for sugar when we crave certain nutrients? It is not a cruel trick of nature, there is logic behind it. Chinese Medicine explains it thus: Spleen is the chief agent of Blood production, that is, it governs the processes by which our body gets the nutrients it needs. Lacking iron, as well as anaemia, are in CM aspects of Blood Deficiency. Seeking to strengthen its function to produce more Blood, the Earthy energy of Spleen calls for sweet taste.

(As a side note: this understanding of Spleen does have a large, though subtle, overlap with the Western understanding. Did you know that Spleen produces red blood cells and lymphocytes when the body needs extra supplies of these?)

 It will all seem even all logical when you consider this:

What would be "sweet" in ancient china? (or anywhere else)

Let's for a second imagine our ancestors. Our great-great-great.... (insert a few more) grandmother, stretching on the bedding in her cozy cave, or even our great-great (insert a few more, but less than before) grandmother, who spent productive days minding livestock and mending socks some 300 years ago, what would she crave when she fancied something sweet? My grandma loves sweets (still, at the age of 93, she will eat any you put on a plate before her, in any quantity), but when she was a little girl, her biggest treat was... empty ice cream wafers she would get from her dad a few times a year, and a white bread with hot chocolate she enjoyed... on her birthdays. When she was a married woman, home-made, sugared cakes that she made so well according to old traditional recipes were a delicacy to be enjoyed on Christmas, Easter, birthdays and "namesdays".

So before the supermarket shelves and the many nooks and crannies of our minds got populated with chocolate bars, bon-bons, iced buns of all shapes and sizes, ice-creams and sodas and the like, what would those ancestors of ours envisage when they craved something sweet?

My thoughts are that these foods contain the sought after sweetness:

  • raisins
  • dates, 
  • beetroots,
  • pumpkins and similar
  • blood-rich stakes and other meats,
  • animal fat (e.g. crispy streaky bacon)
  • certain fruit

Yes - they ALL taste sweet! Red meat tastes sweet. And if you haven't eaten commercial sugar for a while, the sweetness of a date is outright overwhelming. 

 

How to deal with this type of craving:

Luckily, this one is the easiest to deal with. Make sure you have at least two iron-rich dishes every day, or even better include a source of iron in every meal. And do not forget to add in a source of vit. C.: it facilitates the absorption of iron, so that your body can use more of what you give it. Some ideas include:

  • adding dried plums or raisins to your porridge (warming diet),
  • sautéd liver for lunch with some fresh parsley (warming diet),
  • scrambled tofu (cooling diet),
  • a kale and lemon smoothie (cooling diet, can be "warmed up" with the addition of ginger, banana or date).

It will take a while to build up your iron levels, but if that is what you are lacking, you will see a good improvement in your energy levels. Chinese Medicine considers what we put in our bodies the second basic level of healing, so a good acupuncturist (you can check the BAcC website or a list of practitioners) should give you advice on this as a part of treatment.

Figuring out how to read the signs the body gives us, and how to be creative with your food to support yourself in a loving way towards health, is a long process. It is not easy, but it is also fun and exciting. I love supporting my clients on their paths to reach a better health, and see the change and the increase in happiness that they find.

 

Sugar Cravings explained - why we crave sweet taste according to Chinese Medicine (part 2)

This article continues from the previous post.

2. Craving type 2: Intellectual overload


Late night work on projects or articles, dissertations, memorising things for exams, preparing for audits – if your Spleen is anyhow weakened, all that can bring about an almost physical need to devour something sweet. Even at a place where people commit to study health, such as a university’s Health and Social Care department, exam revision time brings about bags of chocolate bars, gummy bears and other such not exactly wholesome learning aids. I remember my mild surprise when I witnessed that for the first time. Yet, truth be told, my sweet craving was not far behind. My studies, my book and publishing my research cost me a good number of chocolate bars and handfuls of raisins devoured late at night. My Mother, who is an author of several books, often indulged in such eating habits as well, claiming that intellectual work needs a special "brain" food.


Why is that? Well, Western science reveals that our brain requires plenty of oxygen and glucose – though this organ accounts for only about 2% of body weight, it is responsible for around 20% of energy consumption. Chinese Medicine points to Spleen again: it is our Spleen that houses Intellect. This may sound very strange, as we are taught in the West to consider the brain to be a sort of omnipotent centre of intellectual activity. In CM, on the other hand, there are five different aspects of one’s psyche, and each is primarily governed by a different Organ. Intellect (“Yi”) belongs to Spleen, so if we are engaged in an activity which requires our thought processes to be revved up, it is Spleen's energy that provides that power. Spleen has the function of “ascending the clear” which means, among others, allowing you to clearly focus. And craving sugar in order to stimulate the intellect means that Spleen has no more strength to keep sending nice clear energy to your head: it is asking for reinforcements.

 

How to deal with this type of craving:

Chinese Medicine is all about balance. If you have to think so hard that your Spleen is not keeping up helping your brain to focus, it is a sign that you are asking too much work from something not ready to handle it. So first and foremost I should say: consider not working this hard in this particular way as well as strengthening your Spleen through acupuncture and CM lifestyle and dietary advise.

Apart from those long-term and thorough solutions though, I will suggest to you tools to cope with those cravings as they arise.

1) Take a break and go for a walk – this will help your Qi energy (and blood, with the nutrients and oxygen it is carrying) to flow more smoothly through your body. Spleen will have an easier time “ascending the clear” - which you can take as meaning that your brain will be bathed in the oxygen and glucose that it needs – and your craving should diminish.

2) To the same effect, you can open a window and take a few deep breaths. This will be much more effective if you do Qi Gong or Tai Chi by a window.

3) Alternatively, give your Spleen the reinforcements it is craving, but do it in a way which is loving and gentle to your body. That means, rather than cheap supermarket chocolate bars, prepare something which is equally scrumptious but at the same time loaded with minerals



Craving type 3: In times of stress


Craving sweets due to stress happens often and to many. It has been studied extensively in Western clinical trials, from early studies such as Herman and Polivy (1975) who measured undergraduates’ consumption of ice-cream after a laboratory induced physical threat, to more sophsticated designs of “ego-threats” versus a choice of chocolate, peanuts, chips, grapes (Zellner, Loaiza et al. 2006). The latter study, nota bene, concluded that the no-stress group ate more grapes, the stress group ate more chocolate.

All in all though, apart from concluding that there is often a change of eating habits under stress, the studies do not point to one coherent pattern but rather a richness of variables: type of stress, gender, usual eating habits and many more all play a role and are difficult to account for in Western clinical trial settings. If you are interested in tracing detailed conclusions, this systematic review summarised trails up to March 2006.

Let’s take a step back and look at the problem from the perspective of Chinese Medicine. Stress is a sort of buzz word one hears everywhere, at the same time, it is also a very modern concept. There is no idea of stress in Traditional CM, but people did worry, anger and suffer under all sorts of pressures and tensions since the advent of human society. Yet it is only a particular type of stress that produces the craving for sugar. Try this mental mini-quiz yourself:

In which of these situations are you likely to crave sugar:

A) When an urgent event requires you to take immediate action (e.g. give CPR to an accident victim, call the police, climb a tree to escape a wild boar)

B) when a situation makes you worry a lot, such as working on a difficult project when you are unsure about how you will cope, looking for a job, and preparing for a job interview

C) when something angers you, such as an injustice you have witnessed


In Chinese medical classics, Spleen is associated with the emotion of Worry. Therefore the modern concept of stress is likely to produce sugar cravings when it overlaps with worry. I should add that what is called “anxiety” in the West, largely overlaps with worry as well – when we are anxious, we are in effect worrying about things that may go wrong.

 

How to cope with this type of craving:

You need to strengthen your mind as well as your Spleen. A calm, quiet mind becomes more resilient and cannot be easily swayed by external stressors. Some excellent ways to do this are:

  • meditation,
  • qi gong or tai ji (tai chi) practice,
  • prayer, religious contemplation,
  • practising conscious relaxation techniques
  • and of course – using acupuncture (or possibly acupressure) to calm your mind as well as strengthen your Spleen.

Interestingly, many acupuncture points that affect the Spleen also have the function of calming the mind. SanYinJiiao (SP6) – whose Chinese name means the “junction of the Three Yin” is an excellent example. So while you work in your own time on the some of the methods listed above, see your local friendly acupuncturist for some extra support.

 

The third and last part on sugar cravings is coming in about a week.

Sugar Cravings explained: why we crave sweet taste according to Chinese Medicine (part 1)

sugar cravings in Chinese Medicine TCM

Sugar: the perfect love hate relationship: it gets blamed for wrecking so much havoc in our bodies, yet most of us still crave it. The list of crimes attributed to commercial sugar is indeed long: apart from making the pounds or kilograms pile on, eating foods high in added sugar has been linked to enhanced inflammation, weaker immune system function and compromised cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association produced a Scientific statement in 2009 that nicely summarises available research, including where studies on people are not always feasible or conclusive. It is available here: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/120/11/1011#sec-4


Much longer than the list of crimes, though, is the list of sweets in any supermarket. Intricately decorated cakes adorn bakery windows and make our mouths water. It is often thought that we are evolutionarily hard wired to be attracted to high calorie food, because for our predecessors such food was scarce, and therefore precious. The question remains, though, why some people prefer fatty, others salty or spicy, and yet others sweet foods, or why our cravings may appear at particular times of the day. Also, while the evolutionary explanation may help not to blame ourselves for giving in to a sweet tooth, but to does not help us in managing our diets.

So now, I will try to illuminate your sugar cravings through the prism of Chinese Medicine. After all, it is best to know your enemy! 
 

How sweet taste correlates to the microcosm of the body

In Chinese Medicine, every kind of taste is associated with a particular type of energy in our mind and body (symbolised by the Five Elements – “Wu Xing”) and one of the key Organs (“Zang”). As such, the sweet taste correlates with Earth and the Spleen “Zang”. Before we proceed, you need to remember that in the Eastern traditions, the understanding of organs is much broader and does not map well onto Western anatomy. The Spleen I will be referring to is much more than the Western spleen: it is the driving energy behind digestive functions, blood production and more. Explaining the whole thing would take a good chapter or two in a Chinese Medicine textbook, so I will discuss just the relevant aspects as we go along.

1. Craving Type 1: Sweet taste as a self-cuddle: enhancing the Earth energy within

You may have had a harsh exchange with your loved one. Or a situation arose at work where your needs and preferences where not taken into account. Or maybe you had to be gentle and understanding with your children, or civil with unreasonable clients, all day long - now you just want to... melt into the sweetness, even for a moment.

This sort of craving happens when we need an emotional hug. The sweetness is just that - it is indulging yourself a little bit to feel nurtured, hugged, comforted. Chinese Medicine (CM) teaches that the Earth energy (with which the sweet taste is associated) is stable, calm and nurturing. If a person is at harmony and this energy is strong within, the situations described above will not produce a craving. But if this energy is weaker or disturbed (which is frequent, and reasons for that can be quite varied) - then we crave sweets to supplement it.
 

How to deal with it

Dealing with this type of craving takes time, patience and commitment, but the results far surpass just improving your diet. They will help you -in the long run - achieve more balance in your life, and develop a sense of a stable, loving core. In essence, you need to develop strategies to boost your Earth energy in wholesome ways – or, in other words, other methods of giving yourself an emotional hug. Ask yourself, when do you feel nurtured? How can you relax and envelop yourself in “loving-kindness”?

Some of my suggestions are:

- a warm, fragrant bath

- meditation

- qi gong

- taking some time to soak up the sun (if there is any!) and look at something green, be it your garden or a green leaf on the window-sill

- giving your face a special massage

Acupuncture can be of great assistance in strengthening the Earth energy long-term. Also, in the short run, it can take the edge of the cravings and help you to be in the right shape to make lifestyle adjustments. With acupuncture we can strengthen the Spleen, which will make it easier to develop and stick to healthy nurturing habits.

. to be continued next week. Any questions – ask in the comments :)

 

The science of acupuncture: MRI and beyond

We are very lucky to live in times when advances in technology are allowing us an ever greater insight into the biomechanisms of acupuncture. This was not the case when acupuncture first arrived in the West. In fact, for many years, our understanding of how it works was so painfully lacking that it cast a stifling shadow of doubt on whether it works, even when multiple clinical cases could attest to its benefit. It clashed with our understanding of what the body is and what medicine should be: pills delivered by serious-looking folk in white frocks. It is still suspected by many to be a “just a placebo”, or is put on par with superstitious folk remedies. Nothing could be further from the truth. - researchers have discovered several tangible, biomedical effects which attest to the fact that acupuncture has stood the test of time, helping people in East achieve healthier bodies and more resilient minds for centuries.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to some of acupuncture’s physiological effects.

1. Influencing your governing body: Effects on the brain

Since quite a few decades ago, acupuncture’s ability to regulate mood lead researchers to hypothesise that it modulates the so-called hypothalamic-pituitary axis: an area responsible for releasing such important “wellbeing” hormone as oxytocin, and many more. Nowadays, another most exciting technological advance: the magnetic resonance imagining (MRI), allows us to take a direct peak at the brain of a patient undergoing acupuncture treatment. Brain MRI / FMRI scans have been used for about two decades to map responses to acupuncture, and they clearly show us that something – something major - is going on. Professor George Lewith thus summarised his 2005 systematic review of such studies: “these studies show that specific and largely predictable areas of brain activation and deactivation occur when considering the traditional Chinese functions attributable to certain specific acupuncture points. For example, points associated with hearing and vision stimulate the visual and auditory cerebral areas respectively.”

Another important finding we can observe on the brain MRI scans is that points which are described in Chinese literature as having a multitude of functions stimulate many areas of the brain, while points traditionally used for very specific conditions, "fire up" two or three “dots”. Just take a look yourself at point ST36 and BL62: the difference on the FMRI is clearly observable even to a completely lay person. In a description of acupoint use, the first one would typically have a few pages devoted to it, while the latter - a paragraph, and modern imaging  confirms traditional knowledge.

 

2. Relaxing the fascia

Fascinating new research originated in Vermont, USA, about the effects of acupuncture on fascia. For the non-biogically minded: fascia is a connective tissue that envelopes our whole body on the inside, muscles as well as organs, binding the them together (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fascia). This fascinating structure has been in the focus of research only since relatively recent times – the first international conference devoted to fascia took place in 2007, This is because fascia harden and cannot be comprehensively studied in cadavers – and until the advent of modern imaging, anatomy was studied by cutting up dead bodies, and therefore gave an incomplete picture of what is happening in a living organism. It is now hypothesised that fascia may have a role in facilitating communication, water, nutrient and immune resources (Langevin et al, 2004). Langevin and Yandow (2002) found an 80% overlap in acupuncture points and meridian pathways of the arm and fascia structures (I should add that from an acupuncturist’s point of view, a bigger overlap would not be expected as some points are supposed to sit right on apex of the muscle).

Myofascial release has become a popular technique of body therapists, used in rolfing deep tissue massage to alleviate pain, promote healing of sports injuries etc. The research on fascia indicates that acupuncture is just as effective in relaxing fascia fibers as manual therapies. In my experience, it can also be less painful.

3. Localised immune response (The Splinter Effect)

 

This effect has been described quite early on the history of Western research into acupuncture (see: “Understanding Acupuncture” by Stephen Birch). It works like this:

when you insert a tiny sterile needle in the skin, our body recognises it as a foreign object. It does not differentiate between a splinter and a sterile needle. Therefore, an inflammatory reaction kicks in: there is an increased blood and lymph flow to the site of insertion, and increased immune system activity. As there is no “real” enemy to fight, as no dirt and bacteria enter the body as would be the case with a splinter, all those mobilised resources are free to work on the body’s own problems instead: repairing tissue damage, flushing away old debris, delivering extra portions of oxygen and nutrients, and in general promoting local healing.

Interestingly, this does not cause the immune system to go into an overdrive, but rather regulates it, hence acupuncture is still a useful therapy for those suffering with autoimmune diseases.

Using non-needle techniques, such as acupressure or moxibustion, differs from the splinter effect, however, strong localised stimulation also increases the flow of blood and lymph, and promotes healing through the benefits of higher oxygenation, nutrient supply and immune cell presence.

inflammation

So all in all, we may still not know everything about this ancient system of healing, but as new technologies emerge, we are discovering ever more. We do know for a fact that acupuncture stimulates and de-activates various specific areas of the brain, that it relaxes fascia, which can accumulate tension and which somewhat mysteriously connects all of the body, and that it boost local immune response. These discoveries are, slowly but surely, helping to build a bridge between traditional Eastern Wisdom and modern Western understanding of the body. 

Why Heaven and Earth Health?

Heaven and Earth is an idea which is deeply personal to me, and which also serves as a beautiful guide to your – or anyone’s – healing journey. It is also strongly rooted in Chinese, Japanese and more generally East Asian philosophical and medical thought.

We stand on the Earth and the Heavens are above us. These are the two forces that influence us: humans live in between and ever dependent on them. If you look at a traditional East Asian landscape painting, humans will be portrayed towards the middle, with a good chunk of earth below and a good swash of heavens above them.

Earth is the nourishing, stabilising element: it feeds us and provides support for our feet.

Heaven is the liberating, ethereal element, the energy of dreams and desires.

Together, they circumscribe human existence, govern our fate through the yielding of crops and the passage of seasons. Being connected to the Heaven and the Earth represents also a connection to something bigger than us, an eternal principle or wisdom. It says in the DaodeJing: from the one emanate the two: it needed no explanation to the Chinese readers that these “Two” meant Heaven and Earth. This idea is a philosophical one, not religious (DaodeJing, though used in several religions in Asia, is not a religious text. If you are Christian, you can see this as a way of describing God and his creation.)

The connection to Heaven and Earth is something important also in the study of martial arts,

including tai chi, and healing exercise systems like qi gong. You can see this either on a mystical level or on a very practical one: after all any good physiotherapist or osteopath will tell you how important it is to align our spine, our posture, with the forces of gravity. The feet have to be planted on the ground firmly and correctly, or they will throw the pelvis and the higher spinal structures off balance. The head needs to be gracefully balanced, one cervical vertebra stacked upon another, or else it will result in a lack of balance below. Take a look here at the second video lesson posted by Jet Li’s TaiJi Zen (but please don’t try this alone if you already have degeneration of the cervical vertebrae).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvEG7CBKa6c

 

And how can the principle of Heaven and Earth apply to your journey to health and wellbeing? It is simple:

Earth symbolises starting exactly from where you stand.

Taking into account your personal history of lifestyle choices, illness, injury, work, stress, diet, as well as your current commitments and time-constraints. For instance, if you are advanced in age and struggling with several degenerative disorders, perhaps have been taking medication for a long time, it would be unreasonable to expect all your ailments to go away with just a little commitment and a few acupuncture sessions. (In general, the more long-standing your ill-health is the more time and commitment it needs to improve). But on the other hand:

here comes the Heaven principle: dare to reach for the best health you can hope for!

Let us not limit ourselves to what we think we are “sentenced to”, let us not become complacent in our hearts with the ill health we suffer, but rather, let’s reach for the stars! I see all too many people living with frozen shoulders, carpal tunnel syndrome, indigestion, insomnia, or recurring headaches. But this is the only body we have, should not give it the opportunity to heal as best it can?

We cannot take a shortcut, I am afraid. There are no miraculous rockets that take us there, they exist in acupuncture no more than one-pill wonders do in pharmacology. It requires commitment, but what is more worthwhile? To paraphrase Lao Zi: The journey to a better health begins with a simple step.