Wednesday, March 12, 2008


"When He is born, man is soft and weak; in death he becomes stiff and hard. The ten thousand creatures and all plants and trees while they are alive are soft and supple, but when they are dead they become brittle and dry. Truly, what is stiff and hard is a 'companion of death'; what is soft and weak is a ' companion of life'. Therefore 'the weapon that is too hard will be broken, the tree that has the hardest wood will be cut down'. Truly the hard and mighty are cast down; the soft and weak set on high."

from the TAO TE CHING
translation by Arthur Waley

People are interested in health and their well-being. Health centers, spas, and clubs proliferate. Books on exercise, diet and relaxation fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries. There is genuine concern about health, and yet we often have only the vaguest idea of what real health is. Since disease in its many forms has been classified and studied extensively, we seem to know more about disease and understand it better than we do health.

However, certain trends are beginning to emerge that shed some light on what it means to be healthy. We are discovering that disease is very often psychosomatic in nature where stress, tension and emotional disturbances are frequently a factor. The body and mind work together, an attitude or a way of life can make us tense and physically sick. Most of us suffer from tension and yet few of us ever really feel the degree to which we are tense or where those tensions reside. Becoming aware of our tensions can come as a shock and a surprise.

Oriental medicine has the concept of tension as a cause of disease. Oriental medicine understands tension as blocked energy, tension can be experienced as a blocking or a dammed-up force. Tension can feel like a heavy weight pressing down on us or it can be a gripping or pinching sensation. There is a word for this sense of our internal state of tension. This is the kinesthetic sense. It is a deep awareness of the self and for many people it is a buried and lost sense. The tensions that contribute to making us sick are usually more than a temporary condition. Our patterns of tension are often laid down at an early age and stay with us for a lifetime. This is not the way it has to be, but the way it usually is. These patterns of tension shape our character, our way of life, thoughts, feelings, and of course, our bodies. We are not in good shape as long as we remain chronically tense. Traditional exercise and diet will not in themselves make us much healthier as long as tension has us in its grip. Deep muscle and organ relaxation are important components to really good health.

Good health is characterized by a state of ease and relaxation. The relaxed body breathes fully and has a sufficient supply of oxygen in the blood. Relaxation permits the blood and lymph to flow to all the tissues of the body and for toxins and waste to flow away. Tension limits this flow and so the tissues and organs affected have decreased vitality and greater susceptibility to breakdown and disease.

Excessive tension is a waste of energy. It is energy directed against oneself and against the natural course that life would take if unimpeded by chronic stiffness and tension. Tension twists our bodies out of shape to the point where many of us really have no idea what a body in good shape looks or feels like. Chest up, stomach in, hard muscles, tight gut, shoulders back, are not the characteristics of a healthy body.

There are three direct and related approaches to restoring natural equilibrium and good health to the body. These three approaches to better health are:

1/ Stretching all the muscles in the body, especially those that are contracted with tension. Also limbering and loosening every joint, including those in the spine.

2/ Meditation or any of a large number of relaxation techniques including Transcendental Meditation, Progressive Relaxation, Autogenic Training, or the Relaxation Response.

3/ Massage, especially the deeper massage strokes found in Swedish massage, Shiatsu, acupressure, trigger point or Rolfing.

Each method can be used separately to restore the organism's health and equilibrium, but used together they constitute a powerful tool for human growth and development. Each method offers difficulty. A stiff, tight body does not want to stretch too much because it hurts to stretch very tight and short muscles. The pain of chronic tension, and the increased arousal that comes with stress, makes us restless and busy and so the stillness required in meditation and relaxation techniques can seen disturbing or uncomfortable for even a short period of time. The pressure of fingers and thumbs on tense muscles can bring out the soreness in these muscles. A tight body is often a very sore and painful body and a little pressure can bring this soreness into awareness.

These are probably the most effective means available to relax the body and to awaken us to our lost sense, our kinesthetic sense, a true gauge of health and well-being. Once we are aware of ourselves as blocked and gripped, stiff and tense, we can begin to take responsibility for our own health. We cannot depend on doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, or physical education instructors to make us healthy. Sensing the kinesthetic, we then have a better idea of what we must do and how to do it. The kinesthetic sense becomes our guide, teacher, and inspiration. We have discovered what it is our bodies really want and need to do to become healthy, and may even find the time, the energy, and the self-discipline to do it.