The 5 Branches Of Chinese Medicine
The term ‘Chinese Medicine’ (or, if you prefer, ‘TCM’ – Traditional Chinese Medicine) is a broad one, and it really encompasses a way of thinking – a holisitc approach to health, well-being and treatment.
There are many techniques and therapies that fall under the umbrella of Chinese Medicine, and in this article, I’ll briefly run through the main ones,
Within Chinese medicine are 5 main therapies or techniques
- Tui na massage
- Tai chi / qi gong
- Dietary therapy / nutrition
Together, they form a complete system for health care, treatment of disease and personal cultivation and development.
These 5 branches are united by a shared understanding of human health and illness based on the interplay between the different systems and energies that make up a human being. Although each branch uses a different method for treatment, the diagnostic process and the language and theories used to describe the current state of health or illness are the same for all 5.
This holistic approach to health and illness is important because of the complex nature of most illness, particularly chronic and degenerative conditions. Modern Western medicine likes to look for a singular cause of an illness, like a mechanic looking for the broken part of a machine. Once the broken part is found, it can be fixed or replaced. Chinese medicine, in contrast, takes a systems approach, and looks for overall imbalances. There is rarely a single cause, but rather a number of contributing factors.
Although you may think of Chinese medicine as a treatment for illness, these arts are also very powerful tools for maintaining health and well-being, and preventing disease and illness. Indeed, they have always been used for this purpose, and to help to bring us into the highest possible state of physical, mental, emotional spiritual well-being, which is sometimes called ‘radiant health’. This is what’s known as Yang Sheng or ‘Nourishing Life’
In my Bristol Chinese Medicine Clinic I regularly help people in this way – with regular maintenance and ‘top-up’ sessions to keep them well and prevent illness.
Acupuncture & Tui Na – The Energetic Body
Most people are familiar with acupuncture, which involves the use of tiny needles at specific points in the body, in order to treat illness and maintain health. However, most have never heard of Tui Na, the Chinese massage and acupressure therapy. The crossover between the two is that they both work very directly with the ‘energetic body’ – the channels and acupoints.
According to this ancient understanding, our Qi flows around the body in a set pattern, following certain channels, sometimes called ‘meridians’. These channels flow all around the body, creating a matrix of interconnecting pathways both on the surface, and within. They link and unify all parts of the body, carrying Qi and Blood, and connecting the interior and exterior.
Arranged along the channels are specific points, called ‘acupoints’ at which the Qi flow can be influenced. They are the ‘gates’ or ‘valves’ that an acupuncturist or tui na practitioner can use to access the flow of Qi and Blood around the body.
Traditional Chinese medicine recognises something like 365 acupoints, spread out all over the body. These points each have a Chinese name, and are also numbered along the channel. For instance the 36th point along the Stomach channel is just below the knee, it’s number is Stomach-36 (abbreviated to ‘St36’) and it’s name is Zu San Li.
There are also a number of ‘extra’ points that are not located on, and are not related to, any particular channel. These tend to have quite specific functions, for instance the point ‘anmian’ located behind the ear, helps insomnia.
Finally, the category of points called ‘ashi’ points have no fixed location, and are determined by the practitioner by palpation. The ashi point is simply a point of local tenderness or pain, and can sometimes (but not always) correspond with the Western concept of a ‘trigger point’.
Nutrition And Herbalism – The Energetic Properties Of Plants
According to the principles of Chinese medicine all foods and herbs can be categorized according to their energetic temperature, whether they are Cold, Cool, Neutral, Warm or Hot. What this describes is the effect of the food on the body, quite simply, what it does to you when you eat it.
Foods and herbs are also described by their flavours, routes and actions. When these are all combined, we can get a very detailed understanding of the effect of that substance on the body, and understand in which circumstances it would be beneficial, and in which circumstances it would be harmful.
In this way, herbal formulas can be built up that contain herbs with exactly the right balance of temperature, flavour, route and action to address the condition in question by treating the underlying imbalance. The best (and worst) kinds of food to eat can be worked out in the same manner.
For instance, the fact that a banana is high in potassium, with abundant fibre and vitamins C and B6 is largely irrelevant to a traditional Chinese medical practitioner, as these concepts do not form a part of the medical framework in which he or she is working.
However, the knowledge that bananas are Cold & Sweet and nourish Yin has immediate relevance – for a person who has a diagnosis of Yin Deficiency, is on the Warm and Dry side, and who maybe suffers from constipation, bananas would be an ideal food. On the other hand, for the Cold, Damp individual bananas might aggravate an existing condition.
This is not to say that knowing the chemical make-up of a food or herb has no value, and indeed the modern practitioner will often make use of this information, but using the traditional energetic descriptions of foods and herbs aligns the understanding of them with the Chinese diagnosis and treatment plan.
T’ai Chi and Qi Gong – Exercising the Qi
While most westerners have heard of T’ai Chi (or ‘taiji’), the term Qi Gong (or ‘chi kung’) is still slightly less well known. In practice, the 2 are very closely related and the boundaries are blurred. Qi Gong means something like ‘energy work’ and is actually quite a broad term which includes T’ai Chi, so technically T’ai Chi is a kind of Qi Gong.
In any case, T’ai Chi and Qi Gong are ancient practices normally involving specific movements, breathing techniques and mental devices such as visualisation or meditation. There are many different styles, and practices vary hugely between one and another.
You might recognise T’ai Chi as the slow graceful movements practised by elderly Chinese in parks or other public areas in the mornings – this is a common occurrence anywhere that there are a few Chinese families living nearby.
The exercises of Qi Gong or T’ai Chi normally consist of a few slow movements in sequence combined with specific breathing techniques, and sometimes visualisations. Sometimes no movements are used, especially in meditation exercises. Most styles have many different exercises for different purposes. When practising, short but regular practice is normally encouraged rather than long but infrequent practice.
One of the distinguishing factors between T’ai Chi and Qi Gong is that T’ai Chi generally has one or more sets of movements or ‘forms’, and Qi Gong tends to consist or smaller or simpler movements. The T’ai Chi forms may consist of many hundreds of movements, each one flowing into the next. The longest forms can take years to learn, and a lifetime to master! During practice the aim is to concentrate completely on the movements, and empty of mind of distractions. For this reason it is often called ‘meditation in motion’.
In my opinion, these are health-promotion exercises par excellence – and pretty much everyone can benefit from practicing them. Although I no longer teach classes, I often teach people who come to my clinics specific breathing exercises or other Qi Gong techniques to practice at home – this can be a great way of maintaining health and boosting the effect of a treatment.