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Insights From Taoism and Qigong During the Pandemic

May 28, 2020

"The energies of 2019, the start of the epidemic, suggested problems with spleen (Earth), possibly causing dampness, the internal condition associated with spleen pathology as well as depletion of kidney water and imbalances in the lungs/large intestine."

by Kenneth Cohen

The novel coronavirus developed during the last quarter of the year of the Earth Pig. In the Chinese calendar, each year has a heavenly element which relates to the mind, spirituality and an earthly element, which in turn influences our homes, environment, economy and physical body. The prediction for the Earth Pig year was a conflict between the heavenly element (Earth) and the earthly element (Pig = water). Earth absorbs water, which means that they are considered mutually destructive or controlling (xiang ke) rather than constructive (xiang sheng). In this configuration, the energies of the earthly element are being depleted—again water is being absorbed by Earth. To put it simply, the year of the Earth Pig suggested weakening of home, environment, economy and health.

Let’s look at these elements as they relate to the internal organs. Earth is expressed in the body as the spleen. Water relates to the kidneys. Earth absorbs water; spleen becomes congested and the body’s core reserves stored in the kidneys are depleted. Another way to express this in terms of classical Five Phase (Wu Xing) Theory is that a deficiency in one organ causes its controlling organ to become excess. Hence, deficient kidney water leads to excess spleen Earth.

Moreover, the burden placed on the Earth imbalances metal because metal is mined from the Earth. In the body, metal means both the lungs and large intestine. If Earth (spleen) is afflicted, it cannot feed its child metal or the lungs. And if lungs are deficient, then the paired yang organ—the large intestines—becomes excess. These two organs are in a see-saw relationship; when one organ is up, the other is down. As expected, as the lungs weaken, there are gastrointestinal effects.

Thus, the energies of 2019, the start of the epidemic, suggested problems with spleen (Earth), possibly causing dampness, the internal condition associated with spleen pathology as well as depletion of kidney water and imbalances in the lungs/large intestine. Not surprisingly, opinions among both frontline Tradition Chinese Medicine doctors in China as well as Classical Chinese Medicine clinicians and theoreticians elsewhere is that COVID-19 falls into two diagnostic categories.

First, it is a damp febrile (fever-causing) epidemic 濕瘟. More specifically it is a condition of damp toxicity 濕毒 in which the initial dry cough masks an obstructive accumulation of sticky phlegm in the lungs. As the disease progresses it moves more deeply into the body as a smoldering heat and stagnation, with increasing depletion of kidney and lung yin and a general weakening effect on the qi.

The diagnostic category du (toxicity or poison) suggests that the invading force or pathogen is especially severe, and when combined with dampness the disease tends to linger and is difficult to remove. It has been described as oil that has seeped into flour.

Connection to Climate Change

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, member of the British Parliament, said: "I don't think anyone who thinks hard about how one tiny microscopic virus has brought the whole of humanity to its knees can be indifferent to nature anymore. So this is going to make us more sensitive to issues like climate change."

I hope that the last part of Rabbi Sacks’ statement is true. Doctors of Chinese Medicine do believe that the sudden appearance and spread of the virus is linked with climate change and the unusually warm early winter of 2019 in Wuhan. (This is not to deny the disastrous effect of delay in Chinese government response and initial lack of social distancing.) Sixty percent of current infectious diseases are zoonotic (originally caused by human/animal interaction) and 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. Such diseases are increasing not only from unsanitary conditions at meat markets and feed lots, but because of loss of animal habitat due to climate change and human greed.

Even more ominous, as ice, permafrost, and glaciers melt, ancient viruses become active again and have already infected people. Human beings have no resistance to these pathogens. It sounds like a scary science fiction movie, but the situation is real and supported by hard science.

Viruses are about 1.5 billion years old; and if survival and adaptability are signs of power, then human beings are weaklings by comparison. Luckily our immune systems have some memory and intelligence, and so we develop resistance to viruses that have been part of our recent biological history (whether through exposure or vaccination). However, both ancient viruses and new viruses are emerging, and COVID-19 is just one of them.

Why Practice Qigong?

    1. The most important reason to practice qigong is that it reduces stress, which may improve immune function, respiration, sleep, and decision making.
    2. The belief that you can better manage your own health—an aspect of “self-efficacy”—is the opposite of helplessness and hopelessness. It improves treatment outcome from many diseases and is linked with health-promoting behavior.
    3. Qigong increases resilience, the ability to “spring back” after a physical or emotional challenge.
    4. Various studies, such as those cited in references at the end of this paper, demonstrate direct effects on the immune system.
    5. Qigong increases compassion and sense of connection with the forces of life (qi). Kindness is highly contagious and increases the chances of survival for all.

Appropriate Practices

“The qigong routine I recommend for energy balance is the following, practiced in the order below:

    1. Liu Qi Fa, also known as the 'healing sounds," to harmonize liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys. Benefits attributed to this practice include reducing phlegm and dispersing toxicity.
    2. Standing Meditation to maintain a strong reserve of qi.
    3. Pi Quan (“splitting,”the metal element movement from Xingyi Quan) is an ideal practice because of its direct effect on the lungs and the vigorous push from the feet, stimulating kidneys and spleen. And because Pi Quan is dynamic and builds fitness, it can help reduce stagnation while improving stamina and resilience.
    4. Self-Massage including Pai Da (percussive techniques such as light slapping or tapping) to disperse stagnation.

Also excellent are Hunyuan (primordial) qigong and the Five Animal Frolics. This is not, of course, an exhaustive list. There are many other appropriate qigong styles. During the height of the outbreak in Wuhan, both doctors and patients were practicing the Eight Brocades as adjunctive and preventive therapy.

However, if someone already has the virus, some qigong methods may be too warming, difficult, or taxing except during rehab. When confronted with acute conditions, the emphasis should be on extremely gentle and nourishing methods, such as Inner Nourishing Qigong (Nei Yang Gong) and Qigong Healing Imagery.

Qigong for Social Isolation

During times of social distancing it is especially important to connect with nature and sense the comforting and supportive qualities of the Earth. Practice absorbing qi from the sun and moon and circulating qi with trees. From a western perspective being outdoors has a great added benefit—increase in vitamin D, which has been shown to prevent viral replication and modulate inflammation and immune response. It is important to note that for maximum energetic and spiritual benefit from qigong, it is best to practice at sunrise. However, the highest levels of vitamin D absorption occur at midday. Studies have shown that 30 minutes of mid-day sun is equivalent to consuming approximately 10,000 IU of vitamin D.

I am often asked about the benefits of outdoor practice in polluted cities. Pollution and smoking have especially dangerous effects on a person’s reaction to COVID-19. As an immunologist colleague shared recently, carbon particulates in smoke, air pollution and even incense bond with and may deactivate the chemicals that protect the body against the virus. Yet, even in a polluted city, nature and sunlight have such healing benefits, that, unless you have medical advice to the contrary, it is still important to spend some time outdoors, perhaps in a park, even if you have to wear a face mask.

This is just an outline of a few aspects of Taoism and qigong that may be helpful. Other principles of the Taoist lifestyle include maintaining emotional calm, living with virtue and integrity, reading poetry, and eating healthy. Taoist dietetics is based on common sense principles such as fresh, seasonal, local, organic, sustainably produced, balanced nutrition, moderation, and the use of adaptogenic herbs, especially tea, camellia sinensis.

The core of the Taoist and qigong approach to well-being is best summarized in in Lao Zi’s 5th Century BCE classic, the Tao Te Ching, 人法地;地法天;天法道;道法自然。“People follow the Earth. Earth follows heaven. Heaven follows the Tao. And the Tao follows nature.” Lao Zi is advising us to pay attention to nature, the stars (“heaven”), our spirituality and connections to all of life (the Tao).

©Kenneth Cohen 2020 (reprinted with permission from www.qigonghealing.com). Esalen faculty Kenneth Cohen is a qigong master-level teacher and author of "The Way of Qigong."

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