East Asian medicine, always ahead of its time, has long stressed the importance of exercise when it comes to maintaining health. Yet, with our culturally-conditioned preconception of fitness as having to do with aerobic exercise and its cardiovascular benefits, it is easy to dismiss Chinese health exercises, at first glance, as soft and ineffectual.
I remember when I was eighteen or nineteen, my roommate introduced me to a Chinese health exercise known as Ba Duan Jin, or the Eight Pieces of Brocade. As a longtime martial artist who was accustomed to doing "real exercise" with exciting leaps, spinning kicks, and sparring that got you real sweaty and tired, I smiled to myself as we went through the eight gentle calisthenics. There was one where you raise your arms up over your head, palms to the sky, as you breath in. In another, you stand in a low horse stance while turning your torso sideways and making a motion like you're an archer pulling a bow. Another one has you stand straight and gently turn your head from side to side. You get the picture: boring!
I dismissed the Eight Pieces of Brocade as a useless exercise that fell in the same category as the calisthenics that you see old Asian people doing in the park in the early morning, forming a big circle around the pile of their backpacks and thermoses, circling the wagons so gui luo thugs can't steal their belongings.
Years later, when I was in acupuncture school, I was re-introduced to the Ba Duan Jin by a wonderful kung fu teacher named Linda Darrigo. As an earnest student of traditional Chinese medicine, I practiced faithfully, paying more attention to my breathing and the movement of qi (internal energy) within my body in the hope that this would make me a better doctor. But, as I got caught up in the excitement of treating patients in the student clinic, my interest waned and I stopped practicing the exercises.
Now that I'm pushing forty and discovering that my body doesn't maintain its elasticity all by itself, and that injuries that would have fixed themselves ten years ago now stick around for months and turn into chronic pain, I have developed a new regard for the Eight Pieces of Brocade. I'm realizing that there is great wisdom in this type of exercise that moves every body part in a gentle manner but with a big range of motion. You see, as we get older, we tend to settle into a very limited range of movements. If you're like me, you very seldom have to reach your arm higher than the level of your shoulders in your daily life. It's no wonder that people get "Fifty-Year Shoulder," if they've stopped moving the shoulder joint through its natural arc. The same is true of all our other moving parts, but especially our backs because with our sedentary lifestyles it's just as easy to stop moving the back through its range of motion as it is the shoulder. How often are you doing something other than sitting, standing, walking, driving, or lying down?
Doing your daily Eight Pieces of Brocade, with their gentle flowing, twisting, and bending movements, can really help to combat the stiffening that comes with age and inactivity, and the injuries that come with that stiffening. Come by the clinic sometime and I'll show you the movements. If I get my shit together I'll even have a handout for you to refer to when you do them at home. Aside from the value of the exercises themselves, there's something very healing about starting each day with some fresh morning air and the day's first light on your face, your body and mind waking up as the world wakes up around you.