Cyclical Thinking and Chinese Medicine

Across the whole world, our ancestors observed patterns in nature, such as the sun rising and setting, the ebb and flow of the tides, and the waters in rivers and streams changing as winter snows fell and then melted. It never occurred to them that humans were somehow separate from these rhythms, and early myths of all cultures incorporate these cyclical rhythms into their explanations of humankind’s connection to the greater universe. In ancient China, thorough description of the systems of the body were also developed with this view, extending this understanding of different patterns, rhythms, and cycles, to physiology. In fact, the interior of the body has long been considered to be its own environment, with ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys of rhythmic activity.

A central idea of Chinese medicine is if we tune into the natural cycles of our body and adapt accordingly, we effortlessly handle the challenges of the day, the seasons, and the years. If we get out-of-sync, the door opens for a health problem. Some of these cycles are obvious if we care to take notice, happening many times a minute, like heartbeats and breaths. Some demand our attention less frequently, but still several times a day, such as getting hungry, and needing to use the bathroom. And some changes happen much more discretely, like how the blood and body temperature adjust to seasonal shifts, or how our hormones change in response to various internal and external stimuli.

Many of the lifestyle recommendations that we derive from these rhythms are known to all of us. For instance, no one will debate that if we skip sleep altogether, our health suffers. If we breathe shallowly, we know this has an impact on both our physical and emotional well-being. What may be new to us is the idea that by adjusting our activities to the external rhythms of the day and the year, we can promote vibrant health. So, sleeping for 8 hours a day is good, but it is far better to get these hours in when it is actually dark outside. And there are certain times of year when it is natural to be more active (Spring and Summer), and certain times of year when it is natural to be less ambitious (Fall and Winter). By syncing ourselves to the natural cycles, we ride the tide of our environment, and ultimately accomplish much more with much less energy, in a better state of health to boot.

In our go-go-go culture, a message that we actually need rest to get things done, on both a daily and an annual basis, is not always well received. And there are those that think the body is a machine, divorced from its surroundings, which just needs an input of fuel on a semi-regular basis to keep going. These perspectives ignore the thousands of years of human evolution that bonded us inseparably with the natural world. In these posts, we will explore in greater depth how the idea of cycles and rhythms informs the lifestyle recommendations given by TCM practitioners to the generations of patients that have benefited from their medicine. We will start with diet, then move on to sleep, then talk about movement, and finish up with breathing. If we have these big areas of behavior regulated, the specific issues we may be suffering from often self-resolve, or can be influenced easily by a gentle acupuncture treatment or herbal prescription. Yes, we said self-resolve! Our bodies have a tremendous capacity for healing if we just get in sync and out of the way of our recovery!