With so many threads on here discussing gym routines and some pretty interesting views getting thrown around regarding what is ‘best’ (crossfit?) or ‘worst’ for building muscle, getting fit or being an all out GAINZ crazy brah with huge guns, it is necessary to also provide the balancing information which can help to put all of this into the perspective of spiritual development as it was understood by the ancients – namely the ancient Chinese as what I will be describing is the tried and true theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Chinese Medicine’s relevance to spirituality is high as the therapies are aimed at altering the energetic balance of the body, the very same energies which we seek to employ and empower in meditation. In fact, the highest form of Chinese Medicine is meditation of various forms – the circulating energy meditation is described in Qi Gong as the Small Heaven Circuit.
What one needs to understand about exercise routines and spiritual development comes down to one simple factor – Qi. Qi is prana, vital energy, the very thing which we work with when meditating because it is the substance most easily moved by the mind. There is a Chinese saying, “where the mind focuses, so Qi will follow”. But Qi is not just the gateway to the spiritual realm. It is an essential part of the physiology of the body. Qi drives our body’s functions, it moves blood, it warms us up and it renders the body as an organised and interconnected whole. It is that which makes up our soul but also without which we would be very dead. Qi is the gateway of physical substance to the mind, the middle of the three treasures (the three worlds) which acts as a bridge – the physical substances of the body steam upward into Qi which when refined becomes the spirit or Shen. Of course the steaming of the physical substances is dependent on the quality of the Shen as this is the driving force upon it – through the actions of Qi (this is the theoretical foundation of the magnum opus through meditation).
One very important aspect to all of this functioning of the body and soul is the FLOW. The free flow of Qi is essential to having and maintaining an open gateway between the physical and the spiritual as well as avoiding disease. Since blood is moved by the motive power of Qi (think of the function of the heart beating as a manifestation of Qi), the free flow of blood also depends on free Qi flow and sufficient Qi being present to move it. When Qi stops moving or becomes sluggish and blocked, so too does blood. Evidence of Qi and Blood stagnation is PAIN. Any time the body is experiencing pain, it is because of the blockage flow of Qi and Blood. Qi blockages cause general pain which feels more like a dull ache and is spread over a large area and comes and goes. Blood stagnation produces a pain which is fixed in its location and can be intense, stabbing or boring in nature (boring like a power drill not a lecture). Long standing Qi stagnation leads to blood stagnation but blood stagnation can also occur quickly when there is physical trauma or systemic conditions which predispose one to it, such as blood stagnation, qi stagnation or phlegm accumulation in the organs from poor diet, emotional stress and other factors. Qi stagnation also leads to the stagnation of body fluids, since Qi flow promotes body fluid movement also – this results in phlegm formation which is basically dead water in the body which further impedes the flow of Qi and blood. Ultimately, the gateway of Qi between the physical and the spiritual becomes impeded and poor communication between them is the result when Qi flow is disturbed.
How does this relate to heavy exercise regimes? Simple. The evidence of Qi stagnation is apparent after every work-out - soreness and pain of the muscles, usually aching and over a broad area. This tends to go away after a few days, a good sign that the Qi flow has been restored as the body recovers its normal function. But let’s say that the next day you work a different muscle group; more aching pain and evidence of Qi stagnation. And the third day a different muscle group again, leading to a body with aches and pains all over! Moreover, you are hungry and expecting to put on weight so you consume foods high in protein and fat which impairs the digestive Qi flow. You get the picture.
Now many people can and do subject their bodies to this treatment for years if not decades. Those who do at some point invariably develop blood stagnation along the way either by way of an injury or by ‘overworking’ particular muscles and muscle groups. Some experience it more quickly than others and this is because of the Kidney energy which is at the root of all things – the Kidney essence is the physical substance which steams upward to produce Qi and Shen and is subsequently acted upon in order to rebuild the body in the Magnum Opus. This essence is what gives rise to our physical shape and general well being in the face of life and is stronger in some people than others. It is basically our genetic picture so some people will have a stronger genetic picture and be able to maintain longer periods before the body crashes due to these factors. But one thing is certain – if you exceed these boundaries you will ‘run out’ of this essence, at which point life ceases as there is no longer a source for the Qi and Shen from which to arise, and nothing upon which to act for the Shen. Overusing this resource to build large muscles and strain the body in a ridiculous fashion shortens and weakens this essence through consumption, as does chronic disease and a hectic lifestyle. In the very ancient Chinese book, The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (of Medicine) it describes to that effect:
Physical labor should not be undertaken to the point of becoming fatigued, and the body’s
functional activity therefore can remain in order.
So let us examine those who disregard the above theory and work their body hard, producing local Qi stagnation in the muscles daily. Eventually, as the essence declines, so too the ability of the body to recover declines. This leads to more systemic evidence of Qi stagnation – irritability, digestive upsets like bloating and pain. Long standing untreated systemic Qi stagnation can lead to Blood stagnation or phlegm accumulation, both of which can worsen or exacerbate each other. Phlegm according to Chinese Medicine is the ‘source of the 100 diseases’ (meaning much more than 100 of course) but one of which can be and often is fatal is that which is formed by the combination of blood stagnation and phlegm accumulation – cancer. The hard and painful nodules that cancer exhibits is evidence of both phlegm and blood stagnation together and the systemic effects are devastating to all of the bodies’ systems as is evident by the painful manner in which cancer patients tend to die.
So what then is the opposite of all of these self damaging, Qi stagnation producing exercises? Yoga. The opening up of the channels through gentle stretching which does not produce pain (this is why it is important to do poses to a point where no pain is felt and why body builders are endlessly stretching to try and relieve the pain of Qi stagnation) and allows Qi to flow freely and maintain the open gate between the physical and the spiritual. One might argue that the two (hard exercise regimes and Yoga) can be done together to alleviate most of what has been described above but anyone who does this will know that some of the pain of working out hard remains no matter how much Yoga you do, and thus you must be impeding the flow of Qi still to some degree. This might seem of little relevance and importance however when you consider that the Magnum Opus is dependent on building up the Kidney Essence to the point where one can become immortal, obviously weakening it by these exercise regimes is going to lengthen the time it takes to achieve it just as trying to fill a bucket with water which is simultaneously being tipped out all over the ground takes longer than one which is retaining all that is being put into it.