Thursday, 9 March 2017

What is qi / ki?

I've just finished reading this book: "The Spark In The Machine" by Dr Daniel Keown. Its a fantastic book about the connections between the science of Acupuncture and the mysteries of Western medicine. Totally recommended!

As you might imagine, in the book he talks a great deal about qi (chi, or in Japanese, ki), and I'd like to tell you something of what he says.

It seems to me the concept of qi has always been problematic in the Western world because qi actually represents a number of different concepts in Western understanding. It's been variously translated as "energy", "vitality", or "life force" as they are the closest words or phases we have to encapsulate all that qi is. I think "energy" is the closest word, so let's have a look at what kinds of energy can be included in the concept of qi.

Electrical energy

I've written about bioelectricity before. Firstly we have the nerves. All the cells in the body naturally generate a slight imbalance between negatively charged potassium ions on the inside and the positively charged sodium ions on the outside. Neurons have a much larger imbalance than others, and when the body needs to send a message from one place to another, it uses neurons to create a cascade of electrical signals to carry these electrical pulses of information. These signals are not like current in a wire because the information sent is in the form of a pulse of polarity changes called an action potential. So we have the electrical pulses of energy that travel down these pathways of connected neurons that we call nerves.

Fascia is connective tissue in the body – it's like the plastic wrapping around everything, defining the edges. Muscle fibres are encased in fascia, and the whole muscle itself is again wrapped in fascia – together they're called myofascia. At the end of the muscles, the muscle fibres peter out leaving just the fascia, which comes together to form the tendon. Ligaments are also strong cords of fascia. The organs are wrapped in a layer of fascia, and there is fascia connecting the skin and the flesh underneath. Arteries and veins are walled by fascia, it forms the lens of your eye, and bones could also be seen as crystallised fascia. Amazing!

The collagen triple helix structure
Fascia is made of collagen, which is formed of a triple helix of protein molecules. These helices spontaneously wrap around each other to form a "microfibril" and these microfibrils are laid down by the body along lines of physical (mechanical) stress. Per weight it is as strong as steel! The collagen proteins form a semi-crystalline structure, meaning it conducts electricity. Actually, it not only conducts electricity but it can generate electricity through the piezoelectric effect – the ability to generate electrical currents through deformation and pressure.

So that means that any time fascia (which, remember, is located everywhere in the body) is stretched or moved, it will generate tiny electrical charges. This is nothing to do with our nervous system, but to do with movement and mechanical stress. There is speculation that collagen will conduct electricity much better down its length than across it, meaning the microstructure may have far more order and importance than we realised (for more info read "Anatomy Trains" by Tom Myers). Woven into the fabric of our body is an electrically conducting and generating lattice - amazing!

The contact surfaces between different fascial planes (for example, the fascial wrapping around a muscle and the fascial wrapping around the organ it's next to) offer routes of "least resistance" for the transmission of these electrical currents. These routes are thought to form the basis for the Chinese energy channels.

In the book, Daniel Keown calls all this electrical information "ElecQicity" – the electrical component of qi.

Chemical energy

We take in oxygen through our breathing, and that gets attached to haemoglobin in the lungs and transported around the body in the blood. We also take in food which gets broken down in our gut into a number of chemicals including glucose. Cell respiration is a series of reactions in which glucose is oxidised to form carbon dioxide. The energy released in this reaction is used to make ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and when ATP is broken down in the cell, the energy released is used for processes such as DNA replication and muscle contraction.

The blood also carries hormones, which are body-wide chemical signallers. This information is also a form of qi energy.

In the Chinese system, the Kidneys are associated with the psycho-emotional state of fear. Attached to the kidneys are the adrenal glands which produce adrenaline and cortisol (amongst a few other things). When we sense danger, the adrenals kick in and the resulting hormonal release signals the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, the air passages of the lungs to expand, dilate the pupils, etc. The result is we feel scared or fearful.

In the Chinese system the Liver is associated with anger (i.e. feeling "livid"). The liver is primary organ for breaking down histamine, and histamine is the hormone of irritation. Of its many functions, one is to make the body irritable to infections, and we all know its effects when we have an allergic reaction. If the liver isn't working properly, we get a build up of histamine, and since frustration is the precursor to anger, we can see how the liver and anger are connected.

The Chinese system sees the Spleen as being associated with worry and with dwelling on things and ruminating. One of the hormones that is widely seen as being responsible for maintaining mood balance is serotonin (the so-called "feel good" hormone), and there's a link between a lack of serotonin and depression. And of course, dwelling or ruminating on thoughts is part of how depression works. In the body, 90% of the serotonin floating around is found in the gut (with the rest of it being in the brain). Of the serotonin found in the blood, 99% of it is in the platelets (involved in making blood clots), and one of the main functions of the spleen is to store (and destroy old) platelets. So if the spleen isn't functioning well then our serotonin levels are adversely affected and we may end up ruminating on things and feeling worried or anxious.

"The spleen and pancreas are so closely linked that they could be considered one organ" so Daniel Keown says (p188). There's strong evidence that these two organs share a common evolutionary origin, blood supply, and fascial connections. He goes so far as to suggest we rename the two together the Spancreas! The pancreas has two functions – one to provide enzymes for digestion, and the other to produce the hormone insulin to regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates (sugars), fats and proteins. One of the most important hormones for regulating the release of insulin is... seratonin!

Mental energy Intention/will

What is intention and action if not a coordinated direction of energy towards achieving a particular result? I would hazard a guess that human intention has at some level shaped everything you can see around you now – it's a very powerful form of qi.

Interestingly, the kidneys are also associated with will-power in the Chinese system. Most dopamine in the body is made (and found) in the adrenal glands, and we know that dopamine is very associated with risk-taking, reward, will and drive.

When we set our mind to it, we can coordinate all our various resources and direct them to great effect. Researcher Dan Siegel defines the mind as: "an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information." But we have to remember the mind isn't the brain. In the Chinese system the brain plays a minor role in the whole system, being described in some sources as a "special form of bone marrow"! Actually, the point where the brain ends and the body begins is not easily definable. The brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves are like one, but these peripheral nerves also blend with the organs. And whilst the nerves tell the organs what to do, the organs produce hormones that equally affect the nerves.
The mind is truly "an embodied and relational process" – it's in the body and it's all about relationships and connections. 

Organisational energy

The last form of qi I wanted to discuss I'm going to call organisational qi. It's the energy arising from evolution – how the body organises itself to form and grow as an embryo to baby; and how the body later organises repairs and fights of diseases.

Keown talks about this at length in the "Spark In The Machine" book. Some parts of the body are more complex than others, so you could say concentrations of organisational qi exist in different places. For example in the face there are many contours, sensitive muscles, and the eyes. The fingers and toes too represent transition points. It's no coincidence that all these areas are connected with the beginning or ends of the energy channels. When we injure ourselves, then a concentration of qi forms around the injury in the form of white blood cells and other repair cells.

One of Keown's definitions of qi is "intelligent metabolism" – an organised and directed movement of many forms of energy throughout the body.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Friday, 27 January 2017

A person of great strength does not lift his legs

Zen Master Shogen said "A person of great strength does not lift his legs."

The first time I read this I thought it said "does not lift his leg" – well of course! How uncouth, lifting your leg like a dog...

Needless to say, this koan is not talking about peeing on a passing tree trunk. And it goes on to say "and it is not his tongue he speaks with." So what's all this about?

A person of "great strength" is another way of referring to someone who is awake to themselves, who knows their fundamental nature. "Great" here means something like expansive or encompassing. So an enlightened person does not lift their legs, or use their tongue. Does that mean they just sit still, dumb as a stone?

Here's another koan that points in the same direction (and useful for this time of year):

One day a monk asked Zen Master Tozan, "How can we avoid hot and cold?" Tozan said, "Why don't you go somewhere that is neither hot nor cold?"

In this case, the monk then got a chance to ask what he meant.

The monk asked, "Where is a place that is neither hot nor cold?" Tozan replied, "When it is cold, be completely cold; when it is hot, be completely hot."

If we're cold, most of us spend a lot of effort wishing we weren't. "I hate this feeling", "I wish I was indoors", "why can't the turn the heating up?" "I wish I'd worn my thick gloves", etc. The same thing goes when we're really hot. "I'm so hot I can't stand it", "if there was a freezer here I'd get in it", etc.

But if we can simply be cold when we're cold, as Tozan suggests, then there's no problem. There's only a problem is we want things to be different to how they are. Daizan's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, likes to use the term "nari kiru". "Nari" means to become, and "kiru" means cut off – together it means to 100% become one with how things are and to cut off all other wishes or wants. So when we're cold, we nari kiru being cold – then in that moment there is no cold or hot, we simply are, and all concepts of this or that go out the window.

Shogen said "an enlightened person does not lift their legs". Just like being cold, when we 100% nari kiru lifting out legs (say when we're walking), then the concepts of lifting or lowering again disappear. We are just walking.

So the next time you're walking, or indeed speaking, try not lifting your legs or using your tongue...

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Friday, 20 January 2017

Painful shoulder

When I woke up on Sunday morning, my right shoulder felt stiff. By lunchtime it was painful, and by the evening it was excruciating. On Tuesday the pain hadn't gone so I went to see the doctor – she said I should rest until it calmed down. On Wednesday morning it was even worse and on a recommendation from a friend, I booked to see a private physio. He said the muscles in my shoulder had gone into spasm – possibly as a reaction to the way I sit in front of my computer. He massaged the painful area which seemed to calm things down, then taped my shoulder back as a way of reminding me to hold a good posture. Today is Friday and it seems to be feeling better. More of a dull throbbing ache now.

It's amazing how something like this can bring up so much stuff! At first I was trying to work out what I did to tip the balance and make my shoulder start shouting at me. The fact that I couldn't pin it down to something specific was frustrating. Then there was the pain itself. As I've found before with pain, the more I resisted it, the more my body tightened and the worse it got! The key with pain is to do everything you can to soften around it – physically and mentally. But in those waves of excruciating sensation, it took all my concentration to stay with it. The problem with this kind of focus is that it's very narrowing. Like having blinkers on, I found it difficult to be aware of my surroundings or even hold a conversation when my focus was so tight. Pain sharpens and narrows our awareness, which is why softness and relaxation is so important.

When I heard from the doctor that it might take some time to calm down and I should just let it take its course, again up came the frustration, but also fear – what if it takes months? Can I take this kind of pain for months? What if it never heals? How can I continue working and teaching...? This is called "catastrophising", and as humans, we're very good at it!

When I saw the physio and he told me he thought it might've been brought on by poor posture... to that I reacted in indignation! "But I've done a lot over the years to make sure my posture is good... I practice yoga, I have a desk that raises up to standing height, I've been doing Rolfing over the last few months specifically to work on my postural integration, and I thought I sit at my computer with a good posture... How dare he suggest that?!" (that was just my thoughts – I didn't actually say that!).

He had this poster up on his wall (as pictured – Spinal Damage at 0 mph), and of course he's totally right. Even with the best will in the world, we all get caught out. Desks and computers are a major health risk! Hours sitting still with a bad posture puts huge strains on the body. The body was not designed to work at a desk.

Each week I volunteer with the Kings College Hospital Chaplaincy team to go in and visit people on the wards. One of the wards I go to regularly is a blood cancer ward, and now and then I meet someone who relates their story of how they first got their diagnosis. Maybe they'd had flu and got a blood test, or maybe got a test for something unrelated, and boom, it comes back saying they've got leukaemia (or similar). What I've experienced this week is so minor compared to that, but it does make me realise just how grateful I am for what I have.

In health we often go along thinking we'll be fine for ever. We forget life is so fragile. None of us are immune to pain – not even a yoga teacher that tries to take care of his body!

The Buddha described those of us that hold on to particular views, ideas, beliefs, wishes, etc, as stuck wheels (dukkha). You know, like when the brakes on your bike are done up too tight and they stick on the rims... Moving forward takes a lot of effort and we suffer. The trick is to let go and soften, and not just to know but to live the truth that everything is always in a state of change (anitya).

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Friday, 16 December 2016

The pelvic floor in detail

In this article I'm going to turn my attention to an area of the body I've been trying to develop more of an awareness of for quite some years – the pelvic floor (which I have written about before).

The pelvic floor is a multi-layered sheet of muscle and fascia that functions like a hammock at the bottom of your torso. The weight of your organs rest on it and in doing so it helps to maintain optimal intra-abdominal pressure. The muscles work to help maintain continence, and stabilise the hips and the whole spine-leg connection. Once it would've also lifted and wagged your tail! It's also the location of your muladhara chakra.

Over the last year I've been reading and digesting the book "Pelvic Power" by Eric Franklin. It's a very good little book. Franklin specialises in using visualisation to help your awareness and functional coordination of your body, which is great and makes it kinda fun! But as far as I can work out there are a couple of mistakes in his diagrams and I've been left feeling a little confused as to exactly what's what.

No surprise really since the pelvic floor is actually a very complex area!


Let's start with the bones to get our bearings. Here's an image of your pelvis from the front. If you can feel your hips sticking just underneath your waist, they're your Iliac Crests. The two protrusions sticking down underneath your bum are your Ischial Tuberosities (commonly known as your sitting bones). The two halves of your Ilium come together at the front at the Pubic Symphysis – commonly known as your pubic bone.
Credit: Pearson Education, Inc (2015)

That seems relatively straightforward...

Take a moment to identify the four "corners" of your pelvic floor with your fingers: your pubic bone at the front and your tail bone (coccyx) at the back, and the two sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) underneath. Actually touching these points really helps in getting a sense of where we're at in the body.


From now on we have to be careful as there are some differences between the male and female anatomy. I think this is what has confused me for so long, as the books and sources I've read often show what it's like for a woman and don't say how it's different for a man...

(1) The deep layer

So let's start by looking down on the pelvic floor (as per this beautiful image of the female anatomy from There are three main muscles here: the pubococcygeus and the iliococcygeus (which, together with the puborectalis are collectively called the levator ani – literally "anus-lifter") and the coccygeus.

The Pubococcygeus forms the the top layer and connects front to back – tail to pubic bone. To engage this one, visualise drawing your coccyx and pubic bones towards each other. You might even feel some movement in your coccyx as you do this (you're wagging your tail!).

In men, contracting the Pubococcygeus muscle (and/or the abdominal muscles) can voluntarily engage the Cremaster muscle to lift the testicles. Normally the Cremaster is under involuntary control.

The Iliococcygeus and Coccygeus sit underneath and connect the tail bone to the sides of the ilium (a touch back from the pubic bone). The fibres of these muscles form a triangle (or fan) with the apex at the tail bone.

Fan shaped pelvic floor. Credit: Eric Franklin
The levator ani muscles can be thought of as a fan radiating out from the coccyx. Engaging and releasing these muscles shorten or lengthen the distance between the hips and the coccyx (putting your tail between your legs). Credit: Eric Franklin

The puborectalis forms a sling around the rectum helping you hold things in when you need to... Squatting when you poo helps relax this muscle and eases the exit channel.

(2) The mid layer

Moving outwards, the next layer is the Urogenital Diaphragm. This is composed of the Deep Transverse Perineal muscle and the Urethral Sphincter (a ring muscle around the urethra – what you wee through).

The word perineum usually refers to the part of the pelvic floor between the anus and vagina/scrotum. The deep transverse perineal muscle sits under the levator ani muscle group and connects side-to-side (sitting bone to sitting bone). It's function is to help support the perineal body (central tendon running north-south along the perineum), the expulsion of semen in males, and squeezing the last drops of urine out for both sexes. To engage it, visualise pulling your sitting bones towards each other. This might take a bit of practice (you can tell when someone is trying by the look on their face...)

This image shows this mid-layer for both the male and female anatomy and how they correspond.

Credit: Antranik

(3) The superficial layer

For this layer it's helpful to look from underneath. As I'm sure you realise, the pelvic diaphragm has a number of holes in it... At the back we have the anus (surrounded by the deep levator ani muscles). At the front we have the urethra (and vagina for women) surrounded by the ischiocavernosus and bulbospongiosus muscles. In men, the bulbospongiosus surrounds the base of the penis and is the big spongy muscle you can feel running front-to-back along your undercarriage. It helps hold an erection and also helps ejaculation. In women, it contributes to clitoral erection, and closes the vagina. For both sexes it contributes to the contractions of orgasm, and also squeezing those last drops of urine out.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There's also the Superficial Transverse Perineal muscles which are narrow muscular strips connecting sitting bone to the central tendon on either side. In some people they may be absent or connect slightly differently.

Here's another diagram from Fraklin's book showing the geometry of these muscles on the bottom surface of your pelvic floor (note: diagram is of a female anatomy). There's the triangle at the front formed of the Ischiocavernosus and Transverse Perineal muscles, then the figure of 8 formed by the Bulbospongiosus and anal sphincter. With these shapes, Franklin does a good job in simplifying things to help you work out what's what.

The triangle and figure of eight of the pelvic floor. Credit Eric Franklin
Credit: Eric Franklin

I'd like to finish by noting that these layers of muscle are (of course) all wrapped in fascia, forming the whole connected integrated (and complicated) pelvic diaphragm.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Buddha's enlightenment

I'd like to tell you a story. Are you sitting comfortably?

Axial age

It's around 500 B.C.E.. The Persian king Cyrus was preparing to invade Babylon. Pythagoras was alive and Greece’s experiment with democracy was flourishing. The great philosopher Confucius (Kong Qui) was beginning to teach in China and Lao-tzu was laying the foundations for Taoism. Zoroaster founded Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion in Iran up until the coming of Islam. It was a time of revolutionary change the world over – some historians call it the "axial age".

In India, the dominant religion was the Vedic faith, which had been around for a good 1000 years at this point. The Vedas are texts that lay out descriptions of particular rituals (and their associated poems, hymns, etc) for things like fertility, rain, bringing good luck in battle, etc. Over these 1000 years, the highest caste Brahmin priests had assumed more and more power since they were the only ones allowed to perform these rituals and communicate with the Gods. As you can imagine not everybody was happy with this situation...

At around this time a kind of protest movement, or peaceful revolt, to this Brahmin domination started. People from the lower castes, typically the warrior/ruler Kshatriya caste, started renouncing the Brahmin-controlled system and going out into the forest-wilderness to search for another way.

Siddhartha Guatama

At this same time, a boy was born on the very edges of the Vedic/Brahman culture, in Lumbini on what is now the border between India and Nepal – in the foothills of the Himalayas. The little boy, who was called Siddhartha Guatama, was born to the Shakya family clan, and his father happened to be the tribal leader of this small kingdom.

When the baby was born he was taken to the fortune teller (as is the custom in India to this day) and they gave two possible destinies: (1) he was going to be a great, wise and wonderful ruler, or (2) he was going to be a great, wise and wonderful spiritual leader. His father, being a ruler himself, didn’t really like the sound of the second option, so the boy was brought up to be a ruler. He was also brought up in complete luxury with his family not wanting to expose him to any kind of suffering at all. He had a palace for each season, only good-looking, courteous people to wait on him, and as he got older, no end of dancing girls!

One day in his 20s, as he was preparing to take over the rulership of the kingdom, he went out with his chariot driver, Channa, for a drive to have a look around. As they were heading down the road they encountered a sick person hobbling by. The young Siddhartha had never actually seen anybody who was ill before – the old texts says he didn’t even recognise the person as human. “What’s that?” he says, and the chariot driver explained to him. A little further on he saw an old person, slumped over, and again he came to the realisation, through the gentle guidance of Channa, that everybody (including himself) was going to get old. Further down the line still they saw a dead person carried along in a funeral procession. Again the prince was dumbfounded and realised that not only will he get ill and get old, but he will also die.

Siddhartha out with his charioteer having his mind blown!

As you can imagine, he was in shock! Further down the road still he and his chariot driver saw a wandering holy man (a sadhu), and the chariot driver explained that this person was seeking for that which was beyond old age, sickness and death. This very much intrigued Siddhartha.

So the young man had a chat with his wife (who'd just recently given birth) and he somehow convinced her that he wanted to go off to search for himself for "that which was beyond old age, sickness and death". He slipped out of the palace with Channa, his charioteer, in the middle of the night and disappeared into the forest. He was about 29 at this point.

His search

I can't imagine what those first few nights must have been like. He'd grown up in this sheltered life of luxury – what a contrast! However, bearing in mind the age he was living in, there was a whole movement of people in the forests of northern India searching for new ways outside the established Vedic/Brahmin tradition. Over the coming months or years he found a number of different teachers (possibly yogis) to study with, and became very skilled at what they had to offer, but none of them could show him that which was beyond old age, sickness, and death.

After about 6 years of wandering and studying, he got really into fasting and reached a stage of eating just one grain of rice a day... He was on the verge of starvation and saw that, far from seeing clearly, his mind was getting duller by the day. It just so happened that one day a maid named Sujata was wandering by, and, looking at his emaciated body, offered him a bowl of milk rice sweetened with lumps of honey. He accepted it.

A very early statue of an emaciated Buddha-to-be
He started eating properly again an getting his strength back. One day he was sitting by the river Neranjara in northern India and sees a boat going past. Perhaps it was a vision or perhaps real life. On the boat there was somebody playing a veena (a type of Indian guitar). This veena had three strings, one of which is so loose and flappy that he can’t get any sound out of it, and one of which is so tight that the instant he touches it, it just breaks. The middle that’s tuned just right where he can get some music out of it. Seeing this, Siddhartha saw that humans are the same: they don’t work well if you over-tighten things (like doing ascetic practices), and too much slackness doesn’t work either (his life of luxury in the palace). He became convinced that the middle path was the way to go.

So with this in mind, Siddhartha went and sat beneath an enormous fig tree (of the type that has a big root structure with little niches to sit between) and began to meditate. He made a commitment: "Let my skin and sinews and bones dry up, together with all the flesh and blood of my body! I welcome it! But I will not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom." He was at a place called Bodh Gaya, in the modern Indian state of Bihar, and was in his mid-30s at this point.

A Bodhi tree with a big root structure ideal for meditating inside.


According to some traditions he sat for just one night. Others say three days and three nights; while others say 45 days. Between his periods of sitting, he apparently mindfully paced up and down a path about 17 steps in length in walking meditation.

After one particularly eventful night of meditation, so it is said, Siddhartha looked up and saw the morning star (Venus) in the golden light of daybreak. At this he had a great awakening and exclaimed "I am enlightened, together with the whole of the great earth and all its sentient beings." He saw in his mind all the life of the world and the planets; of all the past and all the future. He understood the meaning of existence, of why we are here on this earth and what has created us. At long last he found the truth – that which is beyond old age, sickness, and death. The name Buddha means “the awakened one.”

But what is this truth? If you want to know that for yourself, come along to one of our Zen meditation sessions!

Different schools of Buddhism remember the Buddha's awakening at different times during the year. In the Zen school it’s always on December 8th and they call it the Rohatsu retreat – it’s akin to a sort of Zen Christmas! So last night (7th Dec) we sat all through the night (9pm through to 7am) to remember this journey the Buddha took, and to share in his commitment to "not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom".

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Thursday, 1 December 2016

Having a conversation with my deep tissue

Over the last few months I've been going to a guy called Giovanni Felicioni to be Rolfed. Rolfing Structural Integration originates from an American Woman called Ida Rolf who died in 1979, and is all about integrating human structure and function in the field of gravity. This is done through working on the level of connective tissue (fascia) with touch and manipulation and through educating the person in their body use and sensory perceptiveness. It's fantastic!

Although the touch can often be very strong (elbow deep into the side of my thigh, for example), the work is surprisingly subtle. His fingers are doing something on my back, but it's not massage... Massage is about relaxing muscles and that I can understand. But with Rolfing, my mind is often filled with the question "what is he doing?" He also asks me questions, and they also often leave my thinking-mind reeling. Like a Zen koan, they can't be answered by thinking about it, but only through feeling. While my rational mind is dazed and confused (and a bit put out that it's so useless), my intuitive mind is right on it. I often cannot put an answer into words so I say "I don't know" and Giovanni replies saying "don't know is a great place to be! It's a place of potential, of exploration."

I've come to see Giovanni's touch more like communication than massage. He's having a conversation with my body (through the fascia and tissues). What my rational mind can't work out is the language of the conversation – that's why it feels so put out! Besides the more direct work on releasing the unblocking the fascia in certain parts of my body, he's also helping my system to make new connections and relationships. Part of the conversation he's having with my body (I think) is about saying things like "hey, what about making friends with this part over here?"

I said to Giovanni at our last session that I understood our work to be on the level of connecting body and mind. He thought that was too simplistic! He thought it better to think of the work on four dimensions not two:

Physical tissues

This would be the muscles, fascia and bones that make up your body. The physical stuff.

Mind that makes sense of things

This is the part of the mind that likes to make sense of things, make storylines, and interpret what's going on. For example, "my pelvis has an anterior tilt (bum sticks out) because my hip flexors are tight and my sacrum isn't free to move easily", or "I round my shoulders forwards because I feel timid", etc.

Coordinative function

So we've got the physical stuff of our body, but when we bring that into movement that's a whole different story. How we coordinate our movements and actions are a function of things like who we learnt from, our environment, our habits, past injuries or traumas, etc.


This would be on the level of the way you perceive yourself, or how you'd like to be perceived in the world. For example "I'm a hurt person", "I'm a big tough guy", "I want to stand up straighter", "I want to be more confident", etc. These are the intentions or resolutions that we make that influence how we coordinate the physical tissues and how we make sense of all that.

I feel like I'm just starting on this Rolfing journey. It's a whole different wisdom which isn't yoga, but is. Ida Rolf studied yoga in her early life and yoga was a major factor in her understanding of the human system. Giovanni also teaches yoga based in the Scaravelli method.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Thursday, 6 October 2016

From a clockwork universe to the uncertainty of quantum mechanics

Before the turn of the 20th century, most people (physicists included) thought the universe ran like a clockwork machine. If you could measure the properties of the universe accurately enough, you could predict how it was to behave in the future. It was, in other words, "deterministic". Much of this was down to the ideas of Newton.

Newtonian mechanics

It's probably fair to say that no single individual has had a greater influence on the scientific view of the world than Sir Isaac Newton. He was a genius (a god in the physics world!), but like all genii he lived in his particular era of history. In 1543, a century before Newton's birth, Nicolaus Copernicus launched a scientific revolution by rejecting the prevailing Earth-centred view of the Universe in favour of a heliocentric view in which the Earth moved round the Sun. Galileo was summoned to appear before the Inquisition in 1633 charged with heresy for supporting Copernicus' ideas. As a result Galileo was "shown the instruments of torture".

Newton's great achievement was to provide a synthesis of scientific knowledge to explain why the planets went round the sun (among other things). He discovered a convincing quantitative framework that seemed to underlie everything else – he proposed his law of gravity. By combining this law with his general laws of motion, Newton was able to demonstrate mathematically that a single planet would move around the Sun in an elliptical orbit. For the first time, scientists felt they understood the fundamentals, and it seemed that future advances would merely fill in the details of Newton's grand vision.

An orrery – a mechanical clockwork model of the motions of the planets in the solar system

Newton's discoveries became the basis for much more study, and the upshot of this was a mechanical world-view that regarded the Universe as something that unfolded like clockwork – predictable and mechanistic. People thought that once this mechanism had been set in motion, its future development was, in principle, entirely predictable. Hence the Universe was thought to be "deterministic", and physicists felt very safe with this idea.

This mechanistic view still prevailed two centuries later (up to the end of the 19th century) as scientists continued to stand on Newton's large shoulders and think they just had to "fill in the details". For example, a stormy sea may look random and unpredictable, but this is just a consequence of its complexity and the huge number of water molecules involved. In the mechanistic view, if you had a big enough computer and accurate knowledge of the starting conditions, such a system would be entirely predictable.

Cracks in the clockwork

However, some cracks in Newtons clockwork mechanism were starting to appear. In the late 19th century, a number of discoveries happened that just couldn't be explained by the old model – including the discovery of the photoelectric effect by Heinrich Hertz (1887) and of the electron by J. J. Thomson (1897) and the fact that electric charge occurs in indivisible units called quanta (Millikan, 1909).

Along came Einstein in the early 20th century. He put forward new theories of gravity and energy (he won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for his explanation of Hertz's photoelectric effect). In 1913, Nils Bohr explained the discrete spectral emission lines of the hydrogen atom, again by using the idea of quantization and what later came to be known as "photons" (1926). The "quantum revolution" had begun!

Over the last 75 years or so, quantum mechanics has brought a profound change in human thinking, particularly around the notion of "indeterminism".

The quantum revolution

Quantum physics is concerned primarily with things at the microscopic scale such as atoms and molecules, and how they move and interact. In the quantum world we find a very serious kind of unpredictability that cannot be blamed on our ignorance of the details or our lack of computation clout. Instead it turns out to be a fundamental feature of nature. In the realm of atoms, all we can do is calculate probabilities for different outcomes – and we can never, even in principle, do any better.

A 3D quantum view of an atom formed of protons and neutrons in the nucleus, surrounded by electrons. Electrons aren't really in orbits, but more in fuzzy "probability zones" that look like shells and lobes.

One example is the radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus. Unstable nuclei (e.g. uranium-238) will "spontaneously" decay into a more stable form by emitting a particle. Quantum mechanics allows us to predict with high accuracy the time after which half of a collection of unstable nuclei will have decayed (the half-life), but not when one particular nucleus will have decayed.

Strange behaviour

The problem is things at the quantum level just don't behave like things on a macroscopic level. One of the inherent differences is that single particles (like an electron) sometimes behave as if they're solid "particles" and sometimes behave as if they are waves. This paradoxical behaviour has been known since Thomas Young's double-slit experiment way back in 1805. The fact is they're both, and neither. The concept of a solid particle (like a snooker ball) is inadequate, and the idea of a wave (like a water wave) is also inadequate. What we call particles (like an electron) are really more like packets of wave-like energy and they just appear to behave differently in different circumstances.

We're taught at school that an atom is composed of a small, positively charged nucleus surrounded by electrons that travel in circular orbits around the nucleus (similar in structure to the solar system). This model was introduced by Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford in 1913. It's a helpful way of thinking of things, but not entirely correct. The electrons are not balls whizzing around in an orbit. All we can say is that there's a certain region within which we're most likely to find the electron wave-packet when we look.

in 1927, Werner Heisenberg discovered what he called the "uncertainty principle". It says that one can never know at the same time the precise location and velocity of a "particle". The better you know one, the less certain you can be about the other. It's a consequence of their very nature.


After hundreds of years of thinking of the Universe mechanistically, this old mindset has filtered down into society as a whole. We all, to some degree, view the world as acting like clockwork. If I do this, that happens; cause produces effect – it's safe, secure, predictable and dependable.

But reality isn't like that. Uncertainty and probability are built in.

Uncertainty, fuzziness, indeterminacy are wonderful things! In his essay on the "Seven Radical Principles of Wise Decision Making", Martin Boronson comments that it's because we deeply despise uncertainty that we value decisiveness so much. However it's in holding that uncertainty that and being ok with it that creativity can happen. "New ideas only emerge if we can sustain the tension and anxiety [of the uncertainty] and wait."

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

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