Archive for the ‘Five Elements’ Category

There is No One Way to be Beautiful

This post is very personal and was quite challenging for me. Please keep that in mind when commenting.

Like so many women (and men) I have struggled for a long time with self-image issues. Surely I don’t need to detail the rantings of the demonic monkey on my back, the cultural expectations, the long naked look in a full-length mirror. With or without a bikini on. I’m sure that most of us have some passing familiarity with the feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and shame that come from comparing the ideal of beauty (or fitness or motherhood) that are projected upon us by the prevailing cultural norms. I don’t want to go into all that, there are so many who have detailed the body image struggle before me so much better than I ever could. I want to talk about the beginnings of seeing beauty. That first tantalizing glimpse of the goddess within.

This past Saturday, I was treated to an amazing and eye-opening experience that forced me to ask myself a difficult question: if all the women around me are beautiful in all their diversity of shapes, sizes and ages, why am I not also beautiful in my own eyes? I was in a Korean spa, a most un-American tradition where a bunch of women gather in large rooms to bathe, soak in pools of warm, cold or herbal water, luxuriate in saunas and steam rooms, and scrub their skin until it is as smooth and shiny as a newborn. Oh, and all this is done while completely naked. Stepping into the room for the first time was daunting as my doubts rose to my mind and my monkey shrieked that I was too pudgy, too pale, too hairy and I was met with… complete indifference from the other women. I was just another woman sharing in the ritual of bathing. As I looked around, half expecting to be met with the hard, flat gaze of judgment reached and found lacking, I was met only with smiles and the hints of similar doubts hiding in the other women’s eyes. And I was struck by their beauty, over and over. The older Korean women scrubbing each other’s backs and chatting aimiably; the round-bellied women with stretch marks bearing the signs of childbirth; the incredibly varied shapes of each woman; the different color of skin. All were so very womanly. It was this undeniable womanliness that transcended shape or size and suffused each one with remarkable beauty.

There is no one way to be beautiful.

How does this fit in to a blog about health and acupuncture? In a number of ways. As I’ve said before, health is so much more than just the absence of disease. Health is vibrancy of the whole person, body, mind and spirit. When something as inescapable as our very body causes us suffering, that suffering is not healthy. A wonderful blogger posed the question, why does body image matter? One of her beautiful and well-thought out answers to that question was, ” because we cannot thrive and blossom if we hate ourselves”. And isn’t that what all this is about? Isn’t that true health?

Many of us work so hard to eat right and exercise right in order to be healthy and fit, but often it is the specter of body image chasing us toward the thin ideal we are working towards. And just to be clear, there is a difference between health and fitness. Fitness implies a certain body shape and athleticism to it, but one can have both without being truly healthy. There is much disagreement on this, but I believe that one can be healthy without being skinny or an athlete. A certain degree of fitness is a huge part of health, especially cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health, but not all of us are going to be triathletes. Not everyone who is thin is healthy. Not every healthy body is thin. Not all of us are going to be size 2 or even size 12. Push yourself to be healthy without the attachment to looking a certain way- they are not the same thing. As you refine how you eat (by not eating refined foods!) and how you exercise, your body will find its healthy balance. It may be skinnier than you are now, but then again it may not be. Being healthy depends on what we nourish ourselves with: our food, exercise, sleep, thoughts and emotions.

I am finding that the real question is not, “why am I not thin?” but a whole slew of much more diffucult and personal questions. What is keeping me from health? What beliefs are being played out? What am I getting out of being less: less healthy, less vibrant, less me? Does being unhealthy get me attention or love that would otherwise be lacking? Is it the comfort of being someplace familiar (even if I don’t like it) where I am not forced to grow or change? Are there beliefs of unworthiness, feeling fundamentally broken or lacking? What is keeping me from loving my body, from loving myself wholly and without reservation or caveat or condition? What is underneath the self-loathing? Try writing a letter to your body and see what comes up. It may surprise you. I know it surprised me.

Also worth considering is acupuncture. Five Element acupuncture changed my life many years ago and continues to help me evolve consciously into the person and practitioner I aspire to be. I feel so strongly that it makes me a better person, or rather that it makes me a better me. In Five Element acupuncture, the practitioner seeks out the core of the spirit and carefully crafts treatments from that deep place. Patterns that unconsciously play out as issues of self-worth, self-esteem and dis-embodiment are addressed and can be dismantled. When an element is out of balance in ourselves, we are not living from a space of unlimited potential and are not fulfilling the destiny of our highest selves. In the context of body image issues, if the Wood element is not healthy we may not be able to “see” ourselves properly or without distortion (Wood governs vision on all levels). If Metal is out of balance, we may have low self-worth because we cannot percieve our own value. If Fire is out of balance, our Heart is not at home in our body and we may look for love in all the wrong places/ people because we cannot give it to ourselves. In Earth we see issues of nourishment, when it is out of balance we may find that we are never satiated by food or that we look to food for the comfort we can’t recieve elsewhere. Eating disorders tend to rise out of this element as well. When Water is the core issue, there may be intense feelings of anxiety or powerlessness driving the car. Your practitioner will help identify what is out of balance and help balance it. However, it is still vitally important to continue practicing compassion, acceptance and self-love on your own.

As much as I sometimes long for it, I’m realizing that there is no one right way to be healthy, just as there is no one right body type or one right diet. That would be too easy. It is hard and tedious work to figure out what is right for me, to find my balancing place of health. Last Saturday I got a glimpse into what it feels like to see myself as being beautiful. Not because I am thin or strong or curvy or any other cultural ideal of beauty. Just because I am a woman. And that is beautiful.


Springtime= Woodtime!

While I realize that much of the country is currently buried under mounds of snow and ice and freezing weather, here in Southern California we are enjoying the first salvos of spring. I’ve been putting off writing a post about healthy spring, but with the sun and the wind and all the lovely green everywhere right now, it really seems time.

In the system of Chinese medicine, nature is central to health. It is ineperable. We are a part of nature, not apart from it, and natural forces are constantly acting on us whether we are aware of it or not. One of the ways we talk about this inward/outward nature is though the Five Elements. I know many of you will say, ‘but wait! I thought there were only four element!’ In this tradition, there are five: Earth, Water, Fire, Metal, and Wood. Think of each element as being not a concrete building block of life, like our periodic table of elements, but more a universal quality of energy. Thus Winter is associated with Water and the direction of north (and many other associations) because it shares the same Qi. Some of the elements are a bit harder to understand, like Wood and Metal. Metal is associated with Autumn and the energy is of letting go, descending into winter and letting go of all that is unneccessary or impure to reach the core of what is truly precious. It is not just metals that Metal shares Qi with, but anything that we place value in; gems, minerals, money, Spirit, and breath. Each element has a season and a pair of Organs associated with it (except Fire, which has 4). I will use capital letters when describing organs, elements or other associations with the Chinese system to differentiate it from western organs. The Heart is different from the heart, even though it may share some functions or characteristics.

Wood is the element associated with Spring. It is the element and season of birth and unfettered growth.  Spring is what the ancients called the Birth of Yang, the time when things are bursting forth in all green glory. There is a huge rush of energy as we move out of Water’s depth and the winds of Wood shake and spin us around. In many parts of the world, Spring is not only the greening time, but also a time of great movement when winds rush through and cause a little chaos. This energy of stirring things up, rustling leaves and feathers, is part of the energy of Wood.

Wood is all about growth and change, movement and regulation, planning and decision making, hope and vision. It is the impetus of a sprout warmed by the sun, pushing determindly through the earth to spring free at last and fulfill the destiny described in its DNA. It follows its plan without doubt or hesitation, growing and changing, adapting to its environment and always pushes forward. Spring is the official time of shaking things up that have been still and quiet all winter.

This element has two Officials or Organs (I hesitate to use the term Organ, because they are less a physical viscera and more a collection of functions and related energy of the body/mind/spirit), which are the General or Planner (Liver) and the Decision-maker (Gallbladder). The function of the Liver is to make plans, the function of the Gallbladder is to carry out those plans by making right decisions. Because it is the Planner, the Liver regulates the even and smooth flow of Qi throughout the entire body. I think of it as the architect drawing up blueprints for a building, figuring out where the plumbing and electrical lines will go so that the construction will be easy and smooth. The Gallbladder is more like the general contractor; the one who decides and executes the details of the architect’s vision. And vision of the eyes and of the spirit are the purvue of the Liver.

This is a time of birth and renewal, of growth and seeking. Think of the sprout that has just broken free of its seed, pushing its way towards the sun. Nothing turns it from its path, it knows its direction and the plan for its birth, life, reproduction and death are encoded in its DNA. Likewise, we each have our own unique Plan, our own destiny. It is the job of the Liver to look inward and outward simultaneously to determine what our Plan is, how we see our future unfolding. It is vital to have a vision for ourselves and our place in the world, and is just as important that we not become locked into one idea of what our life can be. Wood needs to bend in order to not break, and just as trees must sway and flex in a strong wind, we too must learn flexibility in our thoughts, plans and opinions. The tree that cannot bend will break when it meets resistance.

Now is the perfect time to examine our lives, to turn the Liver’s vision inward and take an objective look at ourselves and our patterns of behavior. Are we living the life we envision? What is standing in the way? Is it time to rewrite the plan we had for our lives? What are the ways we have become inflexible? Where are the places that are stuck? What is something new and fresh that we can birth in our lives? And in order to make room for a new vision or plan for our future, we must clean out the old clutter that musties the corners of our spirits. Psychological dust bunnies must be swept away.

Now is the time to take steps towards changing. Now is the time to envision yourself and your life however you would like it. Don’t place limits on your vision, because limits are blockages. Boundaries are healthy, but let your imagination go. And then put it into action, take the first step. Give birth to your life as you always wanted it to be.

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