Much ado about the art of doing (exercise)


( versión española estará disponible en breve )


It’s very hard to strike a happy medium with exercise. Firstly, you are in effect traumatizing your body and then need to recover. Secondly, you need to make sure that you have enough energy to exercise (to aid the recovery) and finally, why do it in the first place when you can walk the dog instead? Actually, in truth, you may as well walk the dog (I am serious about this) especially if you still feel tired after regular exercising AND still retain the same injuries but still put your body through an army fitness routine (boot camp / cross fit) or you like to think that you missed out on working on a building site and go to the gym instead -building muscles. Of course, do exercise, any exercise because exercise is good- but lets put a bit of mind and spirit into it. Please read on…


Appropriate –V- Inappropriate exercise


Probably the best kind of exercise is one that utilizes the WHOLE body and is both invigorating and mindful at the same time. We could call this intelligent exercise as it has a purpose, and isn’t one that switches off the mind as you do repetitions but, in fact, engages you in the WHOLE moment and experience. The Chinese have a word that is used mainly in martial arts which is called the Yi and is written as 意  which means intention and is associated with intelligence and awareness.  I personally prefer to avoid the term “exercise” in this context, as martial arts aren’t really a form of exercising, as we in the West know it. Its more of a way of life and actually, when doing a Chinese style “exercise “ such as Tai Chi Chuan or I- Chuan, then it is the YI that is most important. Often, when this Eastern “exercise” is practiced well, you can feel terrible while you do it BUT, when you finish, you feel great! Western type exercises is often the opposite, you feel great when you do it, but terrible after. Also, people who regularly exercise often do so to de- stress, confusing tiredness with relaxation. What we want is a balance, where the exerciser is actually benefitting from the exercise and can maintain it on a regular basis. Any form of exercise you do is generally good but your main consideration should not be on the results (i.e. to loose weight, or look stronger or whatever) but rather on what you are doing at the time of exercising. You should also enjoy it, even if you must suffer. Focus on the suffering and not the results as suffering can mean that your doing the exercise correctly. I use the word suffering very precisely because it is the point where you connect with your body which can often reveal the weaker link that needs to be strengthened. The point is to look at why your suffering.


Striking a balance


As we are now in the hot summer*, and its quite humid, then we don’t really want to engage in too much heavy or strenuous exercising. Its better to do this heavier stuff in the winter when your energy is working more on the inside (to keep vital organs warm). In the summer, we want our energy to radiate out, so its better to do moderate type workouts that are more systemic such as using lighter weights, light jogging or gentle swimming or just walking the dog but let the dog walk you!. However, the way you approach this also depends on your constitution type. I will in a following blog go into more detail about this perhaps with more emphasis on diet, but for the moment I will write about two basic types. Yin Deficiency heat- type or Yang deficiency cold- type constitution.  It can be further sub divided as you can have Yang within the Yin, or Yin within the Yang plus there are other aspects such as body shape and certain features or personality traits that are taken into consideration. Below are the two most common “general” types.


Yin deficiency heat type ( blood stagnation ) constitution.


Lets say you are male, fairly robust ( but could be overweight ) and have a lot of body hair around the chest upper back and forearms. For women they tend to have thick hair and quite robust in the upper body. You prefer to sweat and radiate heat out  when you are Yin deficient but would function better as Yang deficient ( i.e your a little cooler ). You sweat a lot to cool your self down, like spicy food and feel better after passing a stool (or having sex). For you, exercises that are fairly systemic, such as sprinting in short bursts during a jog or cycling up hills is very good. You wont like doing long distance runs, as it will make you too hot and you will feel tired for days afterwards. With this type of constitution you could be prone to a bit of depression so its good if you can learn to move your body and not sit around too long.


Yang deficient cold type constitution


Yang deficient type constitutions tend to be over workers. They will usually be quite slender yet muscular in appearance (but can also have a lot of body fat). They basically don’t know when to stop a task they are doing. This is a very unfortunate character trait. They make very good employees but wont hold down a job for that long. Because they don’t know when to stop they are almost certainly are “gym types “ or have careers or habits that preoccupy them for long periods of time. They often like long distance running as it warms them up and also; they carry on with the task regardless of how long it takes. The down side of this constitution type is that they can become tired very easily and may suffer with cold extremities or muscular problems such as stiff neck and shoulders. This type of constitution will benefit by doing more heavy exercises that use core muscles. If you are a regular gym goer, think again and use your intelligence or Yi when you exercise! Learn how to squat (see below) with really heavy weighs, but do a few repetitions so your body is really tense and then relaxes. Introduce this principle in other exercises that you do. Really focus on this. In general do only a few repetitions, forget the salad or fruit juice on the way out of the fitness centre- and go home! Learn how to stop and save your energy. You will have a lot more when you need it.


A simple method


Oriental medicine is very individualized and in this context there isn’t really a one size fits all approach whether it be diet, exercise or the treatment approach the practitioner uses. However, there is a degree of flexibility and if you can grasp a principle from the above, then it will serve you well. One principle is worth a thousand techniques! For both Yin and Yang constitution types, take hold of the task in hand with a bit of intention. A simple yet very effective exercise I teach people in my clinic is the age-old classic Box Squat. My teacher Edward- Sensei passed this very simple exercise on to me in Tokyo, getting me to practice it on a regular basis. Thankfully it has paid off as my lower body is stronger and I can stay on my feet longer in clinic without my legs feeling too tired. I also hold a 16k Kettlebell when I do it and tense my whole body so the movement is very controlled going down and coming up. Its actually easier to do it with a weight but in the beginning your own body weight will suffice. Your knees shouldn’t pass your toes as you squat. This has the effect of lowering the center of gravity, so that you have to use the internal core stabilizing muscles around the lower abdomen, which also strengthens the lower back. You can use a chair as a marker, so sit first in the chair, feet shoulder width apart, and then stand up normally and then perform the squat. As you go down then you will actually think that the chair is not there and there could also be a point where you “fall” onto the seat. You don’t want to do this; you need to keep the movement controlled keeping your mind alert and your body involved in the whole process all the way down. Gradually as you get better you can dispense with the chair and do it alone going down as far as you can without the knees passing the toes.


If you are a Yin deficient heat- type constitution as described above, you should sweat a bit when you do this. If your more prone to cold, then you should do it just a few times, until your body starts to warm up. Don’t sweat. In oriental medicine sweat and blood form the same fluids, so as a cold person, your sweat is valuable too. Remember this when you a working out at the Gym!

* this blog was written in the summer months, but not posted as site was being changed a bit and there were a few problems with the way my Facebook account was set up.


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Illustration by Etsuko Nagahama // Photos by Harumi Urano
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