Plucking Your Strings

When we think about Qigong or Breathwork, we often focus on the internal benefits we derive from the induction of vital energy, or qi, caused by the combination of movement, breathing, and focused intention. But there is an additional benefit from doing Qigong or related Dynamic Energy Exercise that we may forget about or not even be aware of.

In Classical Chinese Medicine, we recognize three levels of qi: wei qi, ying qi, and yuan qi. The most superficial of these is our wei qi (pronounced “way chee”), or “guardian qi”, which helps protect us from external pathogens. Wei qi includes not only our immune system, but also our mental and emotional resilience.

You see, “pathogens” or “pathogenic factors” refer to things like bacteria and viruses (a lot of people get a cold in winter), infectious agents or situations (remember COVID anyone?), and even dramatic changes in the weather which can impact folks in any season. They also refer to negative emotional content stemming from uncomfortable or stressful environments or situations, and/or from negative people or unpleasant interactions – in other words, psycho-emotional factors that can reduce the robustness of our immune system.

Your wei qi is akin to your armor. Anything you can do to enhance it is important to maintaining your health AND longevity. When you can set up a strong energetic barrier or bubble around you, you feel safer and more confident. Your wei qi is also associated with involuntary, autonomic processes, such as your heart rate, sweating, and even the peristaltic activity within your digestive system. Pretty important stuff!

One of the fundamental Qigong practices I teach is to “build your bubble” using breathing and intention to build the strength of the wei qi. This powerful practice includes two components that I teach in my course, “Breathing & Qigong for Health and Energy“.

The Other Way to Build Wei Qi

We also build wei qi by exercising. The sinew channels, which include muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, and skin (and the smooth muscles of the gut), are conduits of wei qi.

However, certain types of exercise are more effective than others at strengthening fascia, tendons, and ligaments.

The Daoist expression “Plucking the Strings” refers to the effective exercising of the sinews, especially through our practice of Qigong.

Over the centuries several Qigong forms, such as the Yi Jin Jing (Muscle-Tendon Changing Classic) and the Ba Duan Jin (Eight Pieces of Brocade), were developed to stretch and strengthen tendons, ligaments, and fascia, along with inducing or enhancing the flow of vital energy within the meridians.

Focusing on the tendons and ligaments is the real secret to building and retaining strength and flexibility, which in turn helps us retain our mobility, balance, and vital capacity.

The challenge is this: Much of the exercise we engage in is targeted at building our muscles – which is important, of course. But most people don’t do enough to build and maintain the strength of their tendons and ligaments. As a result, they become less flexible, things get tight, injuries begin to happen. Or they lose the ability to do simple things as their grip strength deteriorates (grip strength is a key marker of aging or, alternatively, relative youthfulness and longevity).

“Plucking the Strings” also infers a sense of play and enjoyment. Practicing Qigong is a fun, wonderful, fulfilling, and minimal impact way to stretch and strengthen without the potential risk of injury from other exercise modalities.

Don’t Get Out of Tune

When I was a child of about eight, my parents gave me my first real guitar. What an awesome gift! I played that thing every day. At first, I imitated popular songs on the radio and figured out the chords and melodies. Soon after, my parents paid for guitar lessons.

I studied classical guitar for about eight years, until I was 17. And I was good. However, I reached an inflection point. My instructor told me that, to get to the next level, I would have to put in even more time practicing and perform with greater frequency in recitals. At this time in my life, however, I was more interested in the high school sports I was playing, keeping up my grades while taking an aggressive course load, hanging out with friends, and beginning to date.

I just didn’t have that burning desire to become a concert guitarist. I came to the decision that I did not have the time to devote to this level of practice or training. I know my instructor was bummed, but he also understood.

So…I stopped taking lessons. Not only that – I also stopped playing, even for fun.

Once in a great while, I would take my guitar out of its case just to play a little. And every time, it would require extensive tuning because the strings would go slack due to the lack of plucking and strumming.

There are several morals to this sad story, but the key message for you, dear reader, is as follows:

Just as a guitar that is not played will gradually go out of tune…so will your body. AND your immune system. AND your vital capacity. So pluck your own strings on a regular basis!

I’ll have more to say on this in my next blog post. Until then, do your Qigong with a playful spirit. Pluck Those Strings!

You Can Do It!

Dr. Karen

Be Like the Winter Buddha

“Winter is Coming?” No, Winter Is Here!

Finally, here in Central Texas, we’re experiencing winter weather. Ice, freezing rain, temps in the 30s and 20s. Not much snow, though.

So far it has been a very mild winter for us. When I have my Qigong classes perform exercises to support the Kidney organ system, as we do in Winter, it feels a little funny. However, it’s important that we follow the seasonality inherent in the Five Elements, or Five Elemental Phases, which help support our health AND the prevention of illness or disease.

If you’re not familiar with the Five Element Framework, here’s some background:

The Five Element Framework is ancient and deeply woven into the fabric of Chinese culture. Five Element theory is the foundation of Chinese disciplines such as feng shui, the martial arts, and the I Ching (The Book of Changes); and it provides a comprehensive template that organizes all natural phenomena into five master groups or patterns or phases in nature: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. From a health enhancement and medical perspective, the Five Element Framework provides a master blueprint that diagrams how nature interacts with the body and how the different dimensions of our being impact each other, as well as a diagnostic framework to recognize where imbalances in the body, mind, emotions, and spirit lie.

The Five Elements align with the five Yin organs (and their corresponding Yang organs) as well as with the seasons, as follows:

-METAL ELEMENT: Lung (Large Intestine), Fall

-WATER ELEMENT: Kidney (Bladder), Winter

-WOOD ELEMENT: Liver (Gall Bladder), Spring

-FIRE ELEMENT: Heart (Small Intestine), Summer (Heart also includes the Pericardium and Triple Warmer)

-EARTH ELEMENT: Spleen (Stomach), Late Summer (Spleen also includes the pancreas)

In our Qigong classes, we practice exercises from an ancient set of Dao Yin exercises (the Wu Xing Jing) which are similar to Qigong exercises. However, they were developed thousands of years ago and are thought to be precursors to Qigong. Certain Dao Yin forms have come down to us from ancient times and are still practiced today, although they may not be as well-known and therefore not taught as widely as Qigong. There is a specific exercise for each of the Yin organs (which therefore also benefits its Yang organ pair). The exercises have physiological benefits and help move internal energy to where it’s needed (or move it away from where it is excessive), help heal or maintain health of the organs, and open the energy pathways of the body. The movements of each exercise stimulate blood and lymphatic flow in a controlled and gentle manner. They bring vitality into the body and help keep us feeling vibrant and healthy.

The Kidney is the repository of our “Jing”, or pre-natal qi or essence. We are each born with a finite amount of Jing and it’s important to safeguard this precious resource. It is the reserve generator of energy in the body and supplies extra Qi to the other organs when necessary.  From a western medical perspective, Jing Qi relates to our cellular DNA and our body’s hormonal reserves that support healthy aging.

The Kidney corresponds to a complex system of organs and structures including the reproductive system, the adrenal glands, the ears, the bones, and the brain.

Fear is the emotion associated with the Kidney. If you often have severe panic attacks, anxiety, and fear, or you’re just afraid to make a decision or go for something, or feel like you lack willpower — your Kidney energy may be running low or be imbalanced.

Balance and harmony in the Kidney manifests as courage or confidence, strong willpower and endurance or persistence. We can draw upon wisdom and our inner knowing to overcome our fears.

Winter is the season associated with the Kidney and its partner organ, the Bladder. During this season, we include specific exercises which focus on our Kidneys when performing our Qigong. We also eat foods that support the Kidneys, as well as adopt a slower pace. In fact, during winter, it’s important to slow down, conserve energy, sleep longer – in other words, go with nature and “hibernate’, renew, and get more rest.

So follow the example of the “Winter Buddha” (see above photo). It’s snowing, it’s cold, yet the Buddha maintains an impervious, quiescent state. But don’t let the apparent stillness or lack of activity fool you! Inside, Jing / Vital Energy is being replenished, old fears are being worked out and transformed, and the important systems such as the central nervous system (brain and spine), bones and marrow, and important hormones, are rebuilding.

This quiescent cycle will help restore your energy and reserves so you are ready to burst forth in the spring.

To learn more about the Five Elements DaoYin (Wu Xing Jing) including the full set of exercises, click here. Discover the master blueprint to a powerful health practice – in 6 short weeks!