And Finally! Exactly what is Traditional Chinese Medicine?


Essential Healing Systems for the Yoga Student

Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM) explains, understands, diagnoses, and treats  patients. It is based on the principles of medical diagnosis:

  • takes the human body as a whole

  • treats individuals as unique

  • detects subtle imbalances in the body

  • provides treatment before a disease fully develops

  • is an excellent form of preventative medicine.

It works by using the theory of:

  • five classical elements (earth, fire, water, wood, and metal)

  • Yin and Yang

  • both energy channels (meridians) and centers

Initially beginning as myth, it is believed that two great emperors, the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, and the Red Emperor, Yan Di (also known as Shen Nong, the Divine Farmer), wrote the classics of The Divine Farmer’s Herb Classic and Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Despite the apocryphal nature, these books are still the foundational principles that came from categorizing hundreds of herbs, minerals, and animal parts.

Some of the earliest recorded uses of TCM are accounts of procedures in 400 BCE and acupuncture in Han Dynasty tombs (206-200 BCE).

The Five Elements

The basic foundation for Traditional Chinese Medicine is derived from the five elements, The elements are not fixed, but dynamic and reflective of seasonal changes.  Such as winter rains (water) giving rise to new growth in spring (wood) which then would be burnt in the summer (fire) and creates ashes (earth) where metal ores can be extracted, and metal in an urn is cold causing water to rise and evaporate.

Thus, we see the elements as part of a necessary cyclical balance in the TCM worldview, expanded to correlate to every aspect of life; the five seasons, five directions, five colors, five tastes, five sounds. With respect to the body, five organs that correspond to the elements, such as water for the kidneys and wood for the liver.

Yin and Yang

The secondary foundation comes from Yin and Yang, which has the concept of opposites; male and female, light and dark, positive and negative.  While not strictly referring to gender, it symbolizes the great importance on balance: too much Yin can cause cold, while Yang in excess causes heat.

Meridians and Energy Channels

The physiological and energetic concepts that are key to understanding TCM are meridians, the energy channels through which distributes qi (life force or energy) throughout the body.

We have both physical and energy bodies simultaneously, hence the idea behind acupuncture treatments directing or diverting flow. If there is good flow, the body is like an ecosystem: everything in balance and growing in harmony with each individual part – which is very different from the Western view that the body is like an automobile and divided into individual parts that comprise a very mechanical system, treating the symptoms more often than the cause.

Spirit and Essence

Crucial to understand in addition to qi are shen (your spirit) and your jing (essence).

  • Essence/Jing is physical and stored in the kidney, which is derived from your parents.  It post-natal and made in the spleen.  Jing is thus heavily affected by your diet, and as such, can be replenished and improved,

  • Congenital spirit/shen cannot be improved by diet,  but can be compensated for by the post-natal jing. Shen is difficult to elaborate, but essentially can be the spirit seen in someone’s eyes.  Usually bright, moist, and radiant or shiny, the person is usually full of life and ecstasy. Someone with weak shen would appear dry, dull, and have very muddled thinking.

Treatment in Traditional Chinese Medicine often comes from herbal tonics and diet, bodywork and energetic treatment through medicinal qigong (similar to yoga workouts and flows), acupuncture and acupressure.

Qigong (or chi kung) means “movement of energy” is used to explain the principles of the martial art Tai Chi (or Taiqichuan): by being internally healthy and in control of your own internal energy capacity and flow, you are a greater warrior; You have good health and the greatest battle is your own mortality.

An example of treatment would be multiple acupuncture sessions, a few herbal tonics to take with your food, and physical exercises through Qigong.

Interestingly one of the medicinal Qigong styles that is taught throughout China, Dragon and Tiger, is used for cancer and chemotherapy patients to become active and healthier.

Phew!  You’ve learnt TCM faster than you thought possible!

Looking at Traditional Chinese Medicine, we can see overlap between yoga and Qigong, Ayurveda and TCM principles for balance and preventative health, and herbal tonics.

What’s great about TCM is that many of its tonics, acupuncture treatments, and Qigon,g all supplement a yoga student’s life and practice; from opening up the energetic and physical level of the body, to applying special ointments like dit da jow,   Dit da jow helps with bruises and sore muscles, especially used by Shaolin monks and not difficult to obtain in the Age of the Internet—extremely useful for yoga injuries too.

It is also not uncommon for a Qigong student to practice yoga as well, because simply by looking at the secret relationship between yoga and martial arts, we can see from the Embracing the Tree stance and the principles of energy flow that yoga helps out very well with body conditioning, just as yoga benefits from the therapeutic and herbal practices of TCM.

Yogasync Me: Try the traditional Rishikesh Yoga Series

Yoga for the whole of me

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About John Chuidian

John (known to friends as Johnny) is a lifelong vagabond and specialist in international development, whose primary work has been social enterprise in Southeast Asia and East Africa. When he's not busy trying to make the world a better place, he's writing fiction (along with his soon to be released first novel, The Durian Diaries), playing guitar, filming short films and taking pictures or training in martial arts and parkour.

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