03 Oct The Eight Branches of Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine is a vast treasury of knowledge, the product of millennia of practical experience in dealing with illness and maintaining balance of the vital energies of the body. Increasingly more and more people around the world are turning to Chinese Medicine as their primary care therapy instead of going the route of pharmaceutical drugs because of the many risks involved with such potent medicine. As a society, overall we are becoming more conscious of what we put into our bodies and recognize the role that stress and other external factors have on our mental, physical and spiritual well-being.
But what is it about Chinese Medicine that has entered the consciousness of those looking to heal themselves from disease and illness? Our modern culture now has many people putting personal well-being as their lives priority and with this wholistic approaches to health are being sought after. We can easily look to the Chinese as they have been doing wholistic for a few thousand years now. In fact, the blueprint for optimal wellbeing was first established by the ancient Daoists, who had a keen understanding of how to live in harmony with the natural world. This blueprint, known as the Eight Branches of Chinese Medicine, is a comprehensive guide to living a life in all aspects fully oriented towards good health. These eight branches include meditation, exercise, diet, cosmology, feng shui, bodywork, herbal medicine, and acupuncture. Although each branch could be deeply explored with its own article, we will briefly look into this wisdom passed on from countless centuries.
The first branch is meditation, an act so seemingly simple but yet a great challenge for those who are meditators and the countless others that never cultivate a practice. We don’t have the luxury of the ancient Daoists and Buddhists to retreat from society for weeks into mountain huts or cliff side caves, but one of the more important aspects of meditation is to create a time and a place for sitting. In Buddhism it is said that making space for meditation is the primary meditation. Without going into detail of the benefits of a meditation practice, I can say from personal experience and that of countless others, that a daily meditation practice may be the most beneficial thing we can do to make ourselves more whole, peaceful, and happier beings.
Qi gong and Taiji are the two forms of traditional exercise that comprise the second branch, and in fact could be extensions of the first as they both can be considered as meditations in motion. Qi can be translated to many different words but here we can use the word ‘breath’ and gong means ‘skill’ or ‘achievement’. Qigong is a set of exercises that skillfully utilize the breath, cultivating the body’s internal energetic and organ function. Taiji, the cousin to Qigong, is unique as it features a set of flowing movements, akin to a slow dance that enhances physical balance and flexibility, supports and stabilizes joints, improves posture and promotes cardiovascular health. These are great exercises for those who struggle with seated meditation but still want to do something to help relax the heart-mind.
Dietary therapy, the third branch in Chinese medicine looks at the properties of food from a vastly different lens than that we know in the West. Food and drink have energetic properties based on their taste (sweet, spicy, salty, bitter, sour) and nature (hot, warm, neutral, cool, cold), supporting the qi, blood and fluids of the body and affecting its relative balance of heat and cold. This concept is ingrained within Chinese culture as most speak of the benefits of food in terms of its warming or cooling nature, its effect on a certain organ or what food should be eaten at a certain time of year or life. For example, summertime in Taiwan you can find many street stalls selling cooling food or beverages like grass jelly and mung bean soup and post-partum women eat a regimen of warming foods to nourish the qi and blood that had been lost through childbirth.
The fourth and fifth branches, cosmology and feng shui traditionally were the blueprint for how to orient and organize your life and home more harmoniously with nature. Cosmology here means living in tune with the seasons by calibrating your diet, sleep schedule, and activity level based on the time of year. Feng shui, translated to wind-water, is a system that uses various elements and arranges physical space to create a more auspicious environment. This philosophy is still very much alive today and was used in the construction of many buildings in Hong Kong, with the aim to create structures that will bring its residents good fortune and protect the surrounding area. We can also change the energy of our home or office by adding or removing certain elements like colors, plants, fountains, deities or art. This will have a profound effect on your living or working space!
The last three branches, acupuncture, herbal medicine and bodywork are all therapies under the umbrella of Chinese Medicine. Many people are familiar with acupuncture, but understand very little about the other two. Chinese massage, called tui na, is a very invigorating set of techniques that strongly promotes blood flow and softens muscle tissue. In addition, osteopathic medicine was traditionally taught as a manipulative therapy as part of tui na therapy. The cornerstone of Chinese Medicine is contained within the enormous materia medica of herbal medicine, which combines numerous herbs together in the creation of a formula prescribed for the individual disease pattern of a person. Thousands of plant and mineral substances have been studied for over two thousand years making Chinese Herbalism the oldest and most elaborate system of medicine. I feel as if a lifetime of study may just scratch the surface of the depth of Chines Herbalism!
In this fast paced modern world our stream of consciousness is moving towards a healthier, more wholistic way of life. No time is better than now to take control of our own well-being and lead more happier and healthier lives. I invite you to take a look back to the past, to the East, where infinite wisdom abounds and inner harmony can be found!
By Andy Taylor