Setting Boundaries is Essential to Your Health

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

About a year ago, my husband and I adopted a 1 year old Italian Greyhound mix we named Crystal. When we first brought her home from the rescue, she was terrified of everything. In fact, she'd spend most mornings hiding under our China cabinet shivering when we'd take her out of her crate.

She'd obviously been traumatized and likely been abused, so we decided to hire a trainer to help break her out of her fear.

After some trial and error, we hired Mike, an experienced trainer who would gently force her to stay present each time she got fearful and wanted to run away. By essentially forcing her to move into her fear it didn't take long for Crystal to realize she was safe and there was nothing to fear. Through this initially challenging process, Crystal quickly became loving and trusting of our trainer who created a very strong boundary with her.

Crystal loves to feel contained. Boundaries are essential for all beings to feel safe.

Crystal loves to feel contained. Boundaries are essential for all beings to feel safe.

The training worked wonders and though she resisted the process during many of the sessions, Crystal became more relaxed, more trusting and more affectionate after each session. Mike also helped us learn how to assertively yet lovingly hold boundaries to heal her behavior. 

The stronger we set boundaries around her reaction to fear, the more relaxed she became.

As a result, the anxiety and fear that once ruled Crystal settled down, and she continues to feel more safe and be more present than ever.

Humans have similar behavior patterns. Healthy boundaries between children and parents are crucial to cultivating healthy relationships and to prevent enabling unhealthy behavior patterns. Held with love, compassion and respect, boundaries help create a sense of stability and safety.

In Chinese Medicine, this sense of safety and security is supported by the Earth element as the basis for establishing healthy boundaries. 

The Earth element rules our digestive system and helps us process both food and thoughts. Energetically, Earth relates to all transitions - seasonal and otherwise - and is the ruling element of the late Summer. It's most important to balance and strengthen the Earth element during these times, but since change is a constant in life and we're naturally always going through transitions, cultivating a healthy Earth is essential to all aspects of our health year round.

 

Boundaries and the Earth Element

The Earth Element is the fertile soil that allows plants to grow and flourish to provide nourishment and sustenance; it gives protection and shelter as well as stability and substance. 

Earth contains water, creates boundaries to define continents and carries us through space with stability. Earth represents safety, protection and our home base. 

Being centered, calm, and balanced, feeling at home, and having a sense of harmony and peacefulness are the essence of a healthy Earth energy. Creating a comfortable home and cooking for oneself and one's family are essential factors to nourishing the Earth energy in one's life.

Rice fields from our 2015 trip to China. Earth contains water and provides the fertile soil where nourishment can be cultivated.

Rice fields from our 2015 trip to China. Earth contains water and provides the fertile soil where nourishment can be cultivated.

Cultivating a healthy Earth means understanding and prioritizing our needs. If we pour all of our energy into helping others or work excessively, we'll have nothing left for ourselves. If we don't discipline ourselves around our diet and set boundaries around eating generally healthy foods, our health fails. If we continuously go to bed late because we don't have the discipline to stop working or watching TV at night, we slowly but surely deplete our blood, our Yin, and our essence, which accelerates our aging process.

In other words, strong boundaries around how and with whom we spend our time, what we eat and even when we sleep is fundamental to our health.

In the body, these boundaries are established by the Earth element organs that govern digestion, the Stomach and Spleen.

 

Nourishment and the Earth Element

Earth energy is about transformation; transformation of food into energy and raw material to rebuild the body, and transformation of our thoughts so we're not stuck obsessing about negative things and can have clarity of mind. 

Earth energy is also associated with our relationships with ourselves and others, which begins with our relationship to our family, especially our mothers. As the archetype for the Earth type personality, the Mother represents unconditional love and the nourishing qualities that exist within each of us.

Loving, supportive and nourishing parents help children understand they are accepted for who they are, which gives them a deep sense of security. Starting life with unconditional nourishment both through food and emotional support supports a calm and secure demeanor. It also prevents the development of excessive dependence on others to have one's needs met. 

Our first experience with nourishment comes from suckling at our mother's breast, ingesting the colostrum that activates our Earth energy.

Colostrum is so potent for the digestive system that it's been well established as a supplement to heal digestive disorders. For one thing, colostrum restores leaky gut to normal permeability levels. Serious health syndromes which we can recognize as Earth imbalances are now known to be associated with abnormally increased gut permeability. These include autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis. Colostrum can also benefit Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, chronic fatigue syndrome, hepatitis, fibromyalgia, asthma, and allergies. 

Colostrum contains growth factors and hormones to help repair damage to the intestinal lining, including damage caused by NSAIDS and other medications, and restore gut integrity. Colostrum is high in immunoglobulins to help control harmful fungi, such as Candida, and harmful bacteria, such as H. Pylori, which is known to cause ulcers. Colostrum has also been shown to increase the surface area of the intestinal lining to improve absorption of nutrients. And there are no known side effects from using colostrum.

Colostrum reduces inflammation, protects against irritation from toxins, prevents infection and promotes epithelial growth and repair. It's also a useful supplement to quickly boost the immune system following a strenuous workout or periods of intense stress. 

In this way, colostrum boosts Spleen Qi, which is fundamental for supporting Earth energy and therefore our ability to establish healthy boundaries.

Nourishment begins in the gut first with our mother through breast feeding and evolves into how we nourish ourselves. Thus the connection of the Earth element to our digestive function determines our ability to have healthy, harmonious relationships as well as strong immunity, or Spleen Qi.

 

Earth Element Imbalances

Physiologically, Earth element imbalances most commonly relate to weakness of the Spleen, which manifests as poor digestive function, as well as bruising and hemorrhaging. This is because the Spleen not only transports and transforms food and thoughts, but it is also the organ in Chinese Medicine that's responsible for holding blood in the vessels. A woman who has very heavy flow during her menses for example needs to focus on strengthening her Spleen and blood. Weak Spleen Qi can also cause leakage of Qi, which is a disorder we've discussed in a previous article.

Chronic digestive issues as well as eating disorders are common among people who have imbalances in their Earth element, which may have begun during childhood as a result of lack of nourishment emotionally and physically from one's parents or through excessive consumption of prescription drugs, especially antibiotics, which directly damage the gastrointestinal system.

When there is an Earth imbalance, or weakness in Spleen Qi, dampness or phlegm tends to develop in the body, which leads physiologically to weight gain and psychologically to obsessive thinking. This is why worry and pensiveness are common symptoms of imbalanced Earth energy.

Psychologically, Earth imbalance manifests as neediness, self-absorption, resentment or excessively self-sacrificing and lacking the ability to care for oneself.

A weak Earth also inhibits one's ability to hold strong personal boundaries, making one inclined to meddle in other people’s lives as a distraction from looking at herself or lack the personal boundaries to prevent other people from meddling in her life. 

Earth imbalance often creates a challenging relationship with both food and money, each of which energetically represent a form of nourishment that allows us to feel safe. 

People with an Earth imbalance will not only have digestive issues, but they'll often also have an unhealthy relationship with money management as well as with food, which that may result in eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia or simply addictions to food for comfort.

Balanced Earth means that we know how time, energy, food and money all fit into our lives. It allows us to feel abundant no matter how much we have. Therefore, an imbalanced Earth will cause us to feel lack, especially with our money and our energy.

 

Balancing Earth to Establish Healthy Boundaries

Having a more balanced Earth element helps us feel more calm, secure and nourished. When we feel more peace within, we can make our needs, and therefore our boundaries, more clear. Strong boundaries and a healthier relationship with ourselves allows us to then cultivate healthier relationships with others.

Here are some tips on how to strengthen the Spleen and your Earth element to help you establish stronger boundaries:

  1. Cook - the physical act of preparing a meal nurtures the mind, body and soul.

  2. Eat a healthy, low carbohydrate diet - carbohydrates and sugars increase the damp or fungal terrain in the body so it's important to reduce these foods and increase the consumption of leafy green vegetables, root vegetables and clean meats to clear this dampness, cultivate clarity and optimize your health.

  3. Eat regular meals - Earth thrives on a regular daily rhythm.

  4. Manage your time and money - Earth is about nurturing and abundance. Keeping track of how you spend your time helps you manage your energy. Managing your finances is another way to help consolidate your Earth energy and is an essential aspect to cultivating the feeling of security in your life. Money is energy which when circulated properly helps balance Earth energy.

  5. Journal to replace worry and obsession with contemplation and reflection.

  6.  Get involved in the community - find what organizations, church groups, charities, etc. interest you and see what role you can play to contribute.

Self-care is therefore essential to rebalance the Earth element. When your food, money, time and energy are properly managed, the mind becomes more clear and you're able to naturally set healthier boundaries that allow you to share the best aspects of yourself with others.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com


Move Your Body, Transform Your Mood - and Life

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I was an anxious young woman. Determined to perform my best in a highly competitive environment, I put constant and endless pressure on myself. 

The pressure sourced in my mind built up in my body. To relieve it, I pushed myself physically, through intense cardiovascular exercise, to release the stress.

But the stress and anxiety only seemed to worsen.

Little did I know that the harder I ran, the more heat I was accumulating, and this heat was obstructing my capacity to process my emotions (more on this later).

I continued to run myself physically and mentally from one accomplishment to the next, collapsing during my menstrual periods and spending the rest of the month trying to recover.

Then one day, my mom suggested: "why don't you try Yoga?"

She said it had helped one of her clients and was becoming really popular throughout the Bay Area. 

"Yoga?" I said as I looked over some information she'd sent me. "I can hardly sit still for a minute. How am I going to stretch for 90 minutes? Besides, I'm the stiffest person in the world."

"I think that's the point," my wise mother replied. "Yoga could probably help you get flexible and calm you down. You can't keep pushing yourself and be so anxious."

Yeah, anxious and depressed, I thought. Depends on the day.

Weeks passed and one night my roommate brought up a list of DeCal (student-organized) classes that would be available for the next semester. One of the classes jumped out at me immediately. 'Yoga for Relaxation,' it read. And then a short description of how it can help reduce your overall stress and anxiety. 

I turned to my roommate and told her that ironically, my mom had suggested I do Yoga.

"Wanna try it together?" she replied. I shrugged my shoulders and decided to say yes. Despite my initial resistance, my roommate's interest somehow sparked mine.

For the first two weeks of the twice weekly Yoga class, I spent the majority of the class asleep.

The beautiful Native American Yoga instructor (I remember this because she had a shamanic, angelic presence about her) started each class in Savasana and for at least the first couple of classes, I never got out of that posture. I laid there sleeping and the teacher didn't even bother to wake me up. Clearly, she knew something I didn't.

As weeks passed, I started to be more active in the class and I began to feel a shift in my life. I started to practice what I learned at home and soon I no longer felt my heart pounding in my chest throughout the day. Having had severe test anxiety my whole life, I found myself so calm during midterms that I hardly recognized myself. And the results were extraordinary.

Not only did I feel more calm and clear, but I also started performing better than I ever had, setting the curve in some of my most challenging classes.

The biggest shift occurred when I stepped out of Yoga class one evening. I could hear the birds singing, the wind blowing, the cool evening air on my face. Were there birds here before? Was the wind always so gentle? I'd never been aware like this before. And I noticed something remarkable within me...my mind was utterly quiet.

This was my first experience with stillness.

As my body became more flexible, I found an unprecedented sense of ease, presence and calm in my mind. Everything in my life started to change for the better, and Yoga became a regular daily practice. You might even say it became an obsession.

I practiced any time I could during the day and started taking all the on-campus Yoga classes I could fit into my schedule at Cal (at that time, Yoga studios were few and far between).

When I went to register for my last semester of classes, I was completely caught off guard - and I honestly credit my daily Yoga practice for this. My advisor reviewed my coursework, closed the book and took off her glasses. She looked up at me and said, "You're done." I couldn't believe it. Somehow I'd already completed all the classes I needed to graduate. She explained that I could either stay on another semester and work on a thesis or graduate early.

The most incredible part of this experience was that I had come this far in the absence of the anxiety and depression that had distracted me in my life for so long. I felt a sense of inner peace that grew stronger each and every day I breathed through a practice. 

I decided to graduate early and commit to Yoga fully. I registered for a one month Yoga teacher training in San Francisco and subsequently started teaching at local studios throughout the Peninsula. Within two years, I co-founded Yoga of Los Altos, the first Yoga studio in Los Altos, California. Soon thereafter I sold the business and began my studies in Chinese Medicine, which in time led me to meet my husband, Salvador, and to co-create the beautiful community at A Center for Natural Healing. To this day, the heart and soul of my work is in understanding the mind-body connection that I was introduced to through Yoga.

Now, I'm not saying that life becomes easy when you practice Yoga.

Challenges will arise whether or not you practice. But having a consistent practice provides you with tools to better deal with the natural ebbs and flows of life. And that makes life a lot more enjoyable.

I'm sharing this story to exhibit the power of a regular Yoga practice, and to empower you to make positive changes in your life.

Moving your body in the right way can transform your life.

What is the right way to move your body? In coordination with your breath. So whether it's Yoga, Qi Gong, Taiji, or any type of moving Meditation practice, activate the breath of life and your life will unfold in ways you never imagined possible. And these changes can be as simple as a more steady mental-emotional state.

The Mind-Body-Breath Connection According to Chinese Medicine

According to Chinese Medicine, the Lungs are in charge of respiration and are the organs responsible for processing grief. When the Lungs are weak, they hold grief and thus increase our experience of depression. 

The Liver governs the smooth flow of Qi and regulates the emotions, especially anger. The Liver channel runs through the diaphragm, which separates the thoracic cavity that contains the heart and lungs, from the abdominal cavity.

The diaphragm is crucial for respiration. As it contracts, the thoracic cavity expands and air is drawn into the lungs. If the diaphragm is tight or constricted, its proper contraction becomes inhibited and thus less air flows into the lungs. 

A tight diaphragm indicates Liver Qi (energy) stagnation and can cause Lung Qi (energy) deficiency. As a result, we may feel angry, anxious and depressed.

Conventional aerobic exercise pumps oxygen into the lungs temporarily but does not demand the mind-body connection of practices like Yoga, which focus on deep breathing to improve the overall health of the lungs.

Deep breathing also regulates the autonomic nervous system so it's not stuck in a hyper-sympathetic stress state. This allows for the Liver to relax so it can smooth the movement of Qi throughout the body. The result is a more calm and relaxed mental and emotional state as well as improved organ function for healthy digestion, elimination, and sleep.

Coordinating body movements with the breath cools the heat that may otherwise build up in the Liver due to excess strain during exercise. As a result, exercises such as Yoga, Taiji and Qi Gong that coordinate breath with movement can transform your mood and improve mental clarity. And since heat drives inflammation and stress, which are both major causes of disease, this transformation improves your health on all levels.

Deeper breaths. Calmer mind. Stable emotions. Better health.

That's the power of Yoga and movement practices done mindfully to coordinate the body with the breath.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is co-owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California. The Silicon Valley-based health and wellness clinic specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture with a clinic and studio where Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com