Misunderstanding Chinese Medicine and Traditional Martial Arts
Disclaimer: Insofar as herbal remedies go, this post is by no means a way to prescribe or self-diagnose. So, with that, let’s begin.
Since the dawn of popularism surrounding eastern martial arts and medicine in the west, there have been widespread misconceptions as to the mechanisms by which each work. Chinese medicine and the martial arts have been attacked by the religiously devout and modern western medicine with equal fervor. The devout criticize both as shamanism and occult, accusing martial artists and doctors of TCM as tapping into evil, mysterious powers. While this criticism holds substance if one sees both as working with some mysterious unseen qi force, it discounts the scientific and biologic mechanisms that work in the background.
Regarding the practices and training of eastern martial arts, in particular the traditional Chinese martial arts, these incredible demonstrations of physical prowess can now be more easily understood through modern western medicine and scientific study. Where the misunderstanding of such feats comes from is in the mistranslation and misconception of qi within TCM. Qi translated from Mandarin very literally means “gas, air, or breath.” Looking at qi from a scientific standpoint, we know that various gasotransmitters like Nitric Oxide play the role of qi in martial arts and TCM. Too much Nitric Oxide in the body can burn nerve endings and cause serious problems. Too little Nitric Oxide and our body cannot function properly either. The practice of qigong in traditional Chinese martial arts seeks to balance the level of Nitric Oxide in the system, regulates the production of Testosterone (Yang) and Estrogen (Yin), massages the primary organs in the abdominal cavity through the inhalation and exhalation of breath by means of the diaphragm and lungs, and serves to oxygenate the blood through mindful and deep breathing. (Mindful in this case meaning active attention to the inhalation and exhalation, as opposed to the inattentive, natural breathing mechanism for bodily survival). In so doing, the body is able to function at an optimal state, and thus serves martial artists in their intense training.
We know that in regards to neigong iron body training, small shocks to the skeletal structure (not enough to cause contusions or breaks) signal the brain to create more “rods” within the bones to make them more dense. In this case, then, the “dark powers” criticism becomes a moot point. The day-in day-out training of the skeletomuscular structure of serious martial arts masters is in fact a scientific training method utilizing the biologically innate mechanisms of the human body. While not fully understood until a more modern age, thus creating an illusion of mysticism and shamanism among the religious west, we are now more fully able to understand the physically unbelievable demonstrations of strength and agility that serious martial artists possess. We are not possessed by demons, nor do we draw from dark, demonic powers in order to be in the physical condition that martial arts requires.
Having explained much of the mechanisms behind qi in martial arts and TCM, we can now focus on the misunderstanding of herbal usage in TCM. Once again criticized by both religion and modern medicine, we must observe the actual mechanisms by which herbs work. Herbs are not working on some etherial spiritual plane, and in fact can work in conjunction with modern pharmaceuticals. In TCM, most modern chronic conditions can stem from a myriad of causes. Take fibromyalgia for example. Fibromyalgia can be caused by both excess qi, but also by qi deficiency. For the poorly trained acupuncturist, most of whom jumped on the bandwagon in the 60’s and 70’s and who fully believe that TCM is exclusively spiritual healing, a patient may be prescribed the wrong herbs and thus will not reap the benefits. Take a common herbal formula like Bu Yang Huan Wu Tang: a qi tonifying formula and blood mover which can increase blood circulation. While not necessarily indicated for fibromyalgia, for those with deficiency type Fibromyalgia, this formula can work wonders. This formula would in fact be contraindicated and dangerous for those with excess type Fibromyalgia, and can explain many of the accusations against TCM by modern medicine. By this I mean the accusation that herbal medicines only have limited placebo effect. The western medical studies done on particular herbal formulas take a pool of people who have a condition which could potentially be treated by herbs, but fails to take into account the different types of conditions which TCM doctors can diagnose and treat. As mentioned earlier, chronic conditions can be caused by many different types of conditions in TCM, and one pool of people with such a condition may not all have the same type. Those with excess should not take tonic formulas, and those with deficiencies should not take formulas which drain or remove in most cases. Because these studies show limited and therefore “placebo” effects, the criticism of herbal medicine stands.
Second and perhaps the last, is the timeframe in which a person on an herbal formula would see results. Because herbal formulas are meant more for treatment of the root cause and for preventive treatment, someone with a chronic condition may not see immediate result. Where modern pharmaceuticals treat the side effects of conditions and are so concentrated that immediate result is the primary focus, of course an herbal formula will pale in comparison. That said, in TCM, it is recommended to shift one’s diet as well. Just like modern pharmaceuticals and medicine tell you not to consume dairy while taking cold medicine, the same stands for TCM. There are no evil foods in TCM, just foods that may not jive well with a person’s constitution. For a lanky, thin person with a weaker constitution, oily and fatty foods are going to be a better fit until the constitution improves. For an obese person, those foods would be completely contradictory to their constitution, and would only serve to increase their obesity. While taking an herbal formula, the western fast-food centric diet is not recommended. Studies which fail to take into account a subject’s diet and habits outside of the study set herbal formulas up for failure. Those who staunchly refuse to change their diet in order to become healthier will not reap the benefits of herbal formulas, just like in modern medicine. There is no magic pill that will take the fat away in a healthy manner, neither in modern medicine nor in TCM. Chalking up TCM as shamanism and herbalism from misconceptions is a disservice to the masses that may benefit from it.
Without wading too deep into the dietary and herbal guidelines of TCM, I’ll end it here for today. Thanks for taking the time to read!
Like all posts regarding TCM, the FDA requires the statement “these statements have not been reviewed by the FDA. This post is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”.