Body, Mind & Spirit According to Chinese Medicine

by Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

The integration of body, mind and spirit is essential to holistic healing practices and is gaining an increased level of importance in the conventional medical world as well. Having once been considered non-scientific, this trinitarian concept is becoming embraced by Western medicine and accepted as an integral basis for explaining the cause of certain health disorders, especially those considered to be idiopathic or psychosomatic. 

Chinese Medicine has established a theoretical model that's based on this trinity as well and forms a framework to help us understand these concepts systematically in order to gain greater clarity about the integration of our body, mind and spirit.

 

The Trinity of the Triple Heater System

Early Daoist philosophers who were fundamental in establishing Chinese medical theory were also intrigued with this trinitarian concept of body, mind and spirit. These philosophers articulated this trinity in terms of Heaven, Humanity and Earth to explain our connection to the universe. Superimposed on the body, the microcosmic system of this macrocosmic trinity is referred to as the Triple Heater.

The Triple Heater is a system comprised of three energy centers: the head, the chest and the abdominal/pelvic region.

The head is part of the Upper Heater and relates to Heaven; the chest comprises the Middle Heater, which relates to Humanity; the abdominal and pelvic regions comprise the Lower Heater and relate to Earth.

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The Upper Heater Relates to the Level of Heaven

The Spirit can be related to the Upper Heater of the Triple Heater system by virtue of the brain and the sensory organs of the eyes, ears and nose.

According to Daoist teachings, the sensory organs of sight, hearing and smell are considered gateways and when 'opened' allow an awakening of perception to higher dimensions of consciousness.

In Chinese Medicine, the head - because of its location on top of the body - is in closest proximity to Heaven's energy above. This gives the brain a close relationship to the energy of Fire. Since the brain as an organ is supported by the Kidney system, it also relates to the element of Water.

This creates an interesting association of the brain as Fire and Water - two energies in opposition based on the control cycle in Five Element theory.

Since the brain has aspects of both Fire and Water, a healthy balance of these two energies is required for optimal function.

Chinese Medicine has established diagnostic parameters for assessing the activity of these energies within the body which helps guide the treatment process to bring these energies into a state of greater balance. Through this process, a normalization of organ function can be achieved to impact one's mind, body and spirit.

 

The Middle Heater Relates to Level of Humanity

The Middle Heater of the Triple Heater system is comprised of the chest and relates to the Heart and Pericardium organs which are associated with the Fire element and the level of Humanity.

The Shen, or spirit, is stored in the Heart.  Fire energy is about "intelligence" and "awareness" so in this way we see the correlation of the Heart and the Middle Heater with the level of Humanity as an expression of higher intelligence.

Physically, the pericardium is a protective membrane around the heart and in Chinese Medicine the major function of the Pericardium organ is more metaphorical as it protects our spirit from emotional trauma.

It is said that the Pericardium holds the traumas that occur in one's lifetime and therefore protects one's spirit from being disrupted by past emotional stresses.

However, if there is an excessive amount of trapped energy in the Pericardium from past emotional stress, a person's heart and mind will be impacted physically and psychologically causing health disorders of the heart itself or mental illness.

 

The Lower Heater Relates to the Level of Earth

Corresponding to the Kidney system and the Water Element is the Lower Heater and this level energetically most closely relates to the health of the body itself. Water comes from the earth, so the energetics of the Lower Heater helps us gather energy from the earth to sustain our physical life.

Your Jing, or Essential Qi, is stored in the Kidney system and corresponds on a cellular level to your genetic material, the chromosomes and DNA.

Since Jing or Essential Qi is stored in the Kidneys, the health of your physical body intimately relates to the Water energy. Daoist practices are generally based on the idea of "Yang Shen", to nourish life. From this perspective, we see how nourishing our life is about sustaining cellular health and maintaining healthy gene expression.

Telomeres, a segment of DNA at the end of chromosomes, are indicators of cellular health. As the telomeres shorten, the lifespan of the genes shorten, so we can see how the integrity of the genes and the process of aging relates to the abundance of Water energy contained by the body.

In this regard, maintaining the health of the Kidneys, including the genitourinary and reproductive systems as a whole, is integral to maintaining the health of the physical body.

 

Balance Among the Triple Heaters is Essential to Balance in Body, Mind and Spirit

Historically, the belief in psychosomatic causes of disease was readily accepted in Chinese Medicine.

Chapter 8 of the ancient text the Ling Shu, or Spiritual Pivot, the canon of Acupuncture dating back to the 5th Century B.C., states that "all diseases are rooted in Spirit."  

From a Daoist Chinese medical perspective, it's clear that maintaining the health of the spirit supports the health of the mind and spirit. With these aspects being rooted in the Triple Heater system of the body, we can understand that maintaining balance of these heaters on a physical level is essential to having balance in body, mind and spirit.

 

You can learn fundamental practices to balance this system in my twice monthly Triple Heater Qi Gong classes. Learn more and register now. I’ll also be sharing elements of this practice in the Yin Yoga Integration Teacher Training.


Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic run by he and his wife, Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine. Salvador is a leading U.S. practitioner of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare form of non-insertion Acupuncture using Gold & Silver needles. More information at 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