Health is, in a sense, a synonym for integration: It refers to totality and whether or not a system is in harmony or discord. It’s no wonder, then, that many of the world’s most time-honored medicinal practices, like the three included in our Get Well series, are rooted in holism, treating our individual systems in relation to the larger system that connects us—how we are integrated with nature.
Words by Indra Budiman
PHOTOGRAPHS BY LESLIE ZHANG
Styling by Audrey Hu
My grandmother was always the one to banish sickness from our bodies. As immigrants, we couldn’t afford a family doctor or expensive medications, so my Mak was our medicine man. I remember sleepless nights, when I was kept awake by the humming humidifier and the spicy camphor smell of Tiger Balm permeating the air. When one of us fell ill, my Mak would drag a quarter dipped in Tiger Balm in quick, long stripes across our backs until scarlet welts emerged—a sign of healing. After a night’s rest, the marks would fade along with the sickness. The wind had been expelled, and the body was in alignment once again.
The methods my Mak used were rooted in the ancient practice of traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM. In contrast to Western medicine, which focuses on the physical body, TCM promotes holistic health by tending to the intersection of the mind, body, and soul. TCM is rooted in Taoist philosophy and sees the human body as a microcosm of the universe, meaning that our bodies are formed from the same patterns that shape the Earth and cosmos. In order to heal, we must listen to the teachings of the natural world.
I practice TCM to make it more accessible to people like me—queer and trans people of color who seek healing but don’t know where to begin. Disease stems from disharmony: We cannot expect to heal the body without understanding the causes below the surface, such as emotional stagnation or unprocessed trauma. Queer folks and other marginalized people, especially, tend to hold onto our pain and trauma. We carry it on our backs with nowhere to put it down and nowhere to rest our heads. TCM allows us to get in touch with our pain—not to repress it but to see it as an inherent part of our healing journey. Chinese medicine is a people’s medicine; it’s important to me that TCM be something that can be shared within communities as an ethics of mutual aid and care.
If our bodies heal when we are in alignment with our environments, how can we honor this sacred connection so the healing can flow in both directions?
Because Chinese medicine wisdom is so aligned with the rhythms and patterns of the Earth, our healing is inextricable from the healing of the land. Methods like cupping and gua sha aim to dispel the body of toxins and stagnation, and our planet deserves the same treatment. If our bodies heal when we are in alignment with our environments, how can we honor this sacred connection so the healing can flow in both directions? What healing could come through the mind-body-soul-land connection? We can find immense power by taking healing a step beyond the individual body and into communities, by building strongholds that resist destructive capitalist structures and tend to the momentum of local resilience.
Medicine grows all around us, whether it takes the form of the herbs growing in our disturbed spaces or the ways in which we support one another. The moment we are honest with ourselves, release the fear of pain, and choose the path of healing, we discover the greatest medicine has been within us all along.
Learning to heal myself with TCM has given me a greater sense of autonomy: If something feels off, I have the tools I need to seek alignment again. Chinese medicine theory believes that the regular flow of qi, an energetic life force that powers our basic functions, is essential for optimal wellbeing. Qi flows through 12 channels, called the meridians, each of which relates to a specific organ or system. TCM practitioners needle certain points along those meridians to stimulate an intended organ or system and promote balance.
When practicing body work at home, you can press around these points to mimic acupuncture’s effects. These sensations may be quite intense, especially if this is your first time. Please go at your own pace, and remember that while these methods may hurt, they will not harm you.
Here are three points that relate to general wellbeing:
2. Tan Zhong, or Chest Center, is located at the center of your sternum, at the midpoint between the nipples. Stimulate to circulate qi in the lungs and relieve chest tension.
3. He Gu, or Union Valley, is located at the depression where your thumb and index finger meet. Massage by sandwiching this point between your other fingers and applying increasing pressure. This relieves tension and treats headaches and emotional distress.
You can use these points in acupressure (acupuncture without the needles):
1. Press firmly on the point with your fingertips, increasing pressure intermittently.
2. You may increase the movement to tapping in order to stimulate the movement along a channel.
3. To guide qi downwards, direct the tapping movement toward your feet.
You can also use these points in gua sha—meaning “scrape the wind”—by scraping the surface of the skin with a hard edge to create a mild abrasion, opening the blood vessels and creating a passageway for pathogenic wind to flow out. TCM believes that wind is one of the six pernicious influences that can cause disharmony in your body and weaken your qi. You can gua sha wherever you are feeling any kind of pain—just imagine you’re creating a passage for pain to release and escape. I use it on the chest to treat congestion or to clear respiratory airways, or on the side and nape of the neck for headaches.
1. To use these points in gua sha, you’ll need a coin and some ointment, such as Tiger Balm. Position the coin with its edge flat on the skin and scrape horizontally, never vertically.
2. Scrape from the center of the heart toward the outside of the body on your chest, below your collarbone, or wherever there is stagnant pain.
3. Move the coin in quick, long stripes along skin until redness appears.
TALENT Chaoyu Xie, Hangxin Hua, Wenhui Lin
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