Introduction to TCM - Traditional Chinese Medicine ~ The Healing Sphere
Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Introduction to TCM - Traditional Chinese Medicine

Basics of TCM
What follows is a very general overview of the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and is designed to show the breadth of its theories, and its application in a wide range of therapies and techniques.

Breadth of TCM
Acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage techniques, diet advice and QiGong are all forms of treatment that are practised in their own special ways. An acupuncturist inserts needles into specific points in various parts of the body, while a herbalist prescribes a variety of herbs, pills, powders and tinctures. QiGong uses movement and exercise to cultivate personal levels of 'chi' and produce balance and health. A Tui Na practitioner uses direct massage techniques. Dietary therapy consists of advice about what to eat which the patient is able to put into practice at home. These disparate areas seem quite unrelated, but there is something that links these outwardly diverse treatments. The linking thread is the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

History of TCM

TCM has a long history: there is evidence that there was a sophisticated approach to medical problems as long ago as the Shang Dynasty (circa 1,000 BC). Archaeological digs have unearthed early acupuncture needles, and discourses on medical conditions have been discovered inscribed on bones. Early Asian shamanic practices are believed to be at the foundation of TCM, and the Chinese emphasis on the balancing and governing forces of nature seem to have developed through the observation of the natural world.

By the 1st century AD the first and most important classic text of Chinese Medicine had been completed. The text was probably compiled over several hundred years and based on the writings of many authors, and takes the form of a dialogue between the legendary 'Yellow Emperor' and his Minister, on the subject of medicine. The 'Inner Classic' expounds the philosophy of Chinese Medicine and a further section deals with the benefits of acupuncture, herbs, diet and exercise. Over the following centuries, these basic writings were expanded upon, and much of the current practice of TCM reflects traditions that have developed over the last 3,000 years. Whichever of the above forms of treatment a person chooses to have, the underlying theory comes from the same root, and this root forms the foundation for a unique diagnosis of each individual.

Basic Components of TCM
There are three main components of the theory of Chinese medicine that are used in diagnosis. Together they enable the practitioner to find the exact energetic cause of a patient's problem.

These are the components:

• Yin and Yang

• The Vital Substances

• The Five Elements

Yin and Yang
One of the oldest classics of Chinese Medicine, 'The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine' (referred to above) states that:

To live in harmony with Yin and Yang means life.
To live against Yin and Yang means death.
To live in harmony with Yin and Yang will bring peace.
To live against Yin and Yang will bring chaos.

These two fundamental forces of the universe are said to be in opposition yet interdependent, to consume each other and to transform into each other. Nature is seen to group itself into pairs of mutually dependent opposites, for example the concept of 'night' has no meaning without the concept of 'day'; 'up' has no meaning without 'down'.

According to the Chinese view, all things in the universe have Yin and Yang aspects, and though the balance of Yin and Yang will vary, both aspects will always be present. Each patient has their own particular balance of Yin and Yang, and when people become ill their balance of Yin and Yang will be affected. Sometimes a person will become more Yang in nature; Yang is associated with fire and the fire may start to rage as it is not held in check by the Yin. On the other hand, sometimes a person may have relatively too much Yin energy which is not held in check by their Yang, and they will experience symptoms of Yang's association with water.

The Vital Substances
The cells form the basic structure of the human body as far as Western medicine is concerned, and physiology is the Western study of the body's 'normal' functioning. The Vital Substances are their equivalent in Chinese medicine. They describe the main constituents of a person and the functioning of the vital substances could be seen as 'Chinese physiology'.

These are the vital substances:

• Qi

• The Blood

• The Jing Essence

• The Body Fluids

• Shen (mind-spirit)

Qi also known as Ki in Japanese. It is the energy that underlies everything in the universe. Condensed it becomes matter, refined it becomes spirit, and everything that is living, moving and vibrating does so because Qi moves through it. An old Chinese text called the Nan Jing says that "Qi is the root of all human beings". Ted Kaptchuk describes Qi as 'matter on the verge of becoming energy, or energy at the point of materialising'. There are many sorts of Qi: Original Qi, Gathering Qi, Upright Qi, Nutritive Qi, Defensive Qi, Meridian Qi, Liver Qi, Lung Qi and so on.

Blood in Chinese medicine is not the same as the 'blood' that we think of. 'Blood' is described by what it does rather than by what it is, and it is seen as the fluid that nourishes and moisturises the body. It also houses Shen (see later). For example, the symptoms of 'blood deficiency' include:

• frequent pins and needles or cramps due to malnourishment of the muscles and tendons

• dry skin and brittle nails due to lack of moistening of the skin

• constant anxiety, poor memory and lack of concentration due to the blood not 'housing' the Shen.

Jing is something that we inherit from our parents and the state of a person's Qi and Blood depend on this 'essence'. The strength of our Jing determines our constitution, it is stored in our kidneys, and it allows us to develop from childhood to adulthood to old age.

The Jing that we inherit at birth is all that we have for the rest of our lives, it varies in amount from one person to another, and most people have an average amount of it. As we get older, our greying hair and failing memories are signs that our Jing is becoming depleted.

Body fluids are referred to as 'Jin Ye' in Chinese medicine. The 'Jin' body fluids are light and watery and are at the exterior of our body. The 'Ye' body fluids are heavier and are found more inside us. If the body fluids are 'stuck' then the free movement of Qi and Blood in the body can be obstructed. These body fluids are the most 'substantial' of all the vital substances in Chinese medicine! Shen by contrast is the most 'insubstantial' of all the substances in the body, and it can be said to be a rarefied form of Qi. It could also be said to be our very spirit itself. It is housed in the heart by the Blood.

Shen, Qi and Jing are called 'the Three Treasures', and together they are seen as the basis of our health. The Chinese will often use the term 'Jingshen' as a sort of shorthand term for vitality or vigour, and the term sends us the message that the basis of a healthy life is a good constitution and a strong spirit. Alongside Yin and Yang and the Vital Substances, knowledge of the five elements and their twelve organs is important in diagnosis so that any imbalance in an individual can be understood.

Read on for The Five Elements of TCM

Rob Lightbearer