As it turns out, I've been having headaches and stomach cramps ever since arriving in China. It was easy to volunteer myself as the guinea pig and give Chinese medicine a try.
My first stop was the Beijing Medical Hospital. I sought out Dr. Wan Hui Min who, I had heard, was an acupuncture specialist. She teaches in a classroom full of student desks and charts which indicate age-old points for needle insertion. Not that I ever associated being a human pincushion with feeling good, but I broke into a cold sweat watching Dr. Wang Hui Min unwrap the long needles to insert them in my head, neck, knees, and stomach. To my surprise, it didn't hurt at all! In fact, soon after Dr. Wan Hui Min began inserting the needles I felt a pleasant, warm, and tingly feeling.
Eastern doctors would attribute this tingly, warm feeling to the body's Chi, or vital life force, also called energy? Which runs along lines in the body called Meridians. This network of energy flow doesn't match up in any way to the systems of nerves, muscles, and blood used by Western doctors.
How might a doctor of Eastern and Western Medicine treat the same ailment? Diagnosing a patient with tremors, the Western doctor might examine the brain and spinal cord for nerve and muscle problems or the brain for lesions. Presented with the exact same patient, the Eastern doctor might examine the pulse and condition of the tongue, suspecting the problem to be an internal wind or perhaps an imbalance of the heat in the body.
Many westerners attribute the effects of traditional medicines to the “placebo effect." That means that your brain believes in something so strongly that your body actually experiences a true physical benefit, even if no medicine was actually given. Tests have confirmed the placebo effect. For instance, when a group of balding people were told they had taken a great new drug to grow hair, a small percentage of them actually grew more, even though they were only given a sugar pill!
Next I tried Chinese healing massage. This is much more vigorous and louder than relaxation massages popular in the U.S. In one technique I particularly liked, a karate chopping motion with the hands made sounds like popping popcorn! This technique increases blood circulation and helps remove toxins from sore muscles.
Later I went to Beijing's People's Park, where people arrive before sunrise to practice all kinds of exercises. They swing on adult-sized jungle gyms and kick karate-style. They also practice the fluid, almost ballet-like meditative dance called Tai Chi and the more vigorous exercises of Chi Gong, which are prescribed for specific health problems. Most of these exercises share the goal of moving Chi, that vital energy, through the body. I've read that Tai Chi can actually help people live longer lives. In addition to increasing general health and well being, one study showed that Tai Chi specifically led to better balance and fewer broken hips in the elderly, a common mishap that contributes to health decline and early death.
I decided to give Tai Chi a try. I simply joined in on one of the many groups of people moving and exercising. We stepped rhythmically in turning patterns, swaying our arms as if we were moving an imaginary beach ball. It was easy to get the basics, and though I stood out like a sore thumb in my red pile jacket, the Chinese elders welcomed me. When I was done, I felt like I not only moved my Chi, I loosened my limbs, got my heart pumping, and made a few new friends.
After two days of trying all sorts of traditional Chinese healing techniques I still don't know if I can explain how it works. All I know is that I'm all psyched up to cycle into the Taklamakan Desert tomorrow. Both my headache and my cramps are gone. Maybe getting my Chi moving swept them right out of my body?
Going with the flow.