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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