Extract from the upcoming book TAO OF MOVEMENT
Spleen – the mother of the muscles
According to Chinese medicine, the spleen is one of the most important organs of our system in its close connection with postnatal Qi. The term “spleen”, in Chinese “Pi”, from the Taoist point of view on the human body means the cooperation of two organs, the spleen and the pancreas. Both organs are involved in the transformation of food into Qi. Western medicine has observed that the pancreas produces pancreatic juices that contain important enzymes needed to break down macronutrients, the basic energy sources of sugars, fats, and proteins. In addition, it contains specific cells, the islets of Langerhans, which produce insulin, a hormone that ensures that glucose enters the cell and there it is converted into energy. Western medicine does not attach as much importance to the spleen, the small organ behind the stomach on the left side of the trunk. But the Taoists do. They know that food enters the stomach, which digests it and sends it to the small intestine to process and extract the necessary nutrients. At the same time, however, they are convinced that the spleen “pulls” from the food and water the subtle essences, the energetic part of the nutrition, and transports it to the lungs and heart. In the lungs, this food Qi is enriched with air Qi, and the postnatal Qi produced in this way is transported in the form of blood thanks to heartbeats throughout the body via the vessels – the pathways of the bloodstream. Of course, the spleen is also closely related to the kidneys, the source of prenatal Qi. It is the main organ responsible for digestion and assimilation of nutrients. At the same time it transmits and transforms water and moisture in the body, it participates in the regulation of fluid metabolism. Thus, it transports the delicate essence of food and at the same time it transports the fluids needed for each tissue to be nourished and moisturized. Fluids that have not been used are immediately sent to the kidneys.
Old medical records call the spleen a “blood maker.” It controls blood production through food processing and at the same time preserves it. By preservation we mean that the spleen can use its Qi to keep things in place. If it has strong Qi, it keeps organs and other parts of the body in place and prevents them from falling. These include a drop of the stomach, uterus, bladder, but also a slip of the intervertebral discs. In this context, it is also responsible for keeping the blood in place, i.e. in the blood vessels, so that it does not spill over the body. If we bruise excessively and often, and we do not even know how it happened, or we have more cracked veins than usual, it is a sign that Qi of the spleen is weak. Of course, something else are bruises as a result of a bump or a fall. Even in this case, the rate of regeneration of cracked capillaries and veins indicates the quality of Qi of the spleen.
Muscles – their performance, but also their shape
The spleen is of great importance for the mover. The quality of the Qi of the spleen depends on how much Qi we process from the food needed for our achievement, but also of what quality will the muscles be. Abundance and harvest, which are the themes of the EARTH phase, are embodied in the human body in the form of muscle mass. I am amazed at how “generously” nature has shaped our muscle mass. With great imagination and generosity, it gave us about 640 muscles of various sizes, widths, lengths, strengths, but also abilities. Our muscles are fine, short, narrow, small, long, dense, wide, coarse, flat, or even round or spindle-shaped. The smallest muscle measures only a millimeter, the longest muscle of an adult can measure up to 50 – 60 cm . We have more than 40 mimic muscles, and we need 10 of them to smile. We can control some muscles with our will, and with the same will we can also work on their strength, flexibility or volume. These are the skeletal muscles that we control during movement and on which our movement depends. However, nature controls certain muscles itself and does not let us interfere. These include the heart muscle and smooth muscle – for example, the muscles of the inner walls of the intestines that help transport food, or the muscles of the uterus that help expel the baby at birth. Muscles also participate in matters that we are not even aware of. Pupil size changes, bladder enlargement, swallowing, or breathing. The vocal cords, which we do not normally perceive as muscles, are one of the most perfect muscles in our body. They can oscillate in different directions and with different intensities.
Muscles are a truly fantastic world and every mover and performer should feel obliged to take adequate care of them. Thanks to them, we can move, often in an unusual and persistent way. We have the strength to lift, push or pull, but thanks to them we can also sing or use the face in acting. However, in addition to their performance, muscles are also protectors of internal organs and bones and at the same time an energy shield against the penetration of external pollutants into our interior. And they are also the “sculptor” of our body, they shape our figure. And when we realize that muscle mass makes up about 35% of our body weight, we realize that it is something that deserves our attention and care.
Muscle care can be divided into several levels. The first is diet, i.e. the care of the spleen, which provides the muscles with nutritional and energetic nutrition. The second is the level of physical use of the muscles, which includes appropriate and sufficient preparation of the muscles for physical performance, proper care of the muscles after physical exercise, or “maintenance” of the muscles during the break. By this I mean, for example, a holiday when a person does not have daily training, but also the period after an injury, childbirth and so on, when a person cannot move with such intensity as before. The third level is our relationship to the muscles – this includes conscious work with our own body during training, rehearsals, or performances which ensures that we do not abuse the muscles during the movement excessively.
Diet – nutritional and energy nutrition
The diversity of the muscular world naturally requires a large dose of quality nutrition. Chinese medicine says that the condition of the muscles depends not only on the movement itself but also on the state of Qi in the spleen and stomach. These two organs are most responsible for food processing and its transformation into Qi and blood. In Chinese medicine terminology, we would say that the muscles are nourished by the subtle essences in the blood, produced and transported to the body by the spleen. The muscles are naturally very bloodshot, so they are conditioned by the state of the blood. The spleen, of course, works with the stomach to digest food, so the muscles also depend on the quality of the stomach Qi. In short – what we eat and how we eat is reflected in the quality of our muscles. And as soon as we neglect these two organs, we also neglect the muscles.
Normally, we are in a hurry to eat, so we gulp the food and do not chew it enough. As a result, we cannot digest food thoroughly, that is, take everything important from it. In addition, we expose the stomach to stress, which results in fermentation in the gastrointestinal tract and subsequent acidification of the body. Acidification is already perceived today as an important cause of many diseases. In terms of muscle, the body’s acidification is noticeable, for example, because the muscles become sensitive and painful when pressed. However, under normal circumstances, it is possible to compress a muscle almost to the bone without hurting it. The concentration of acid in the muscle causes fatigue, so overacidified people are always tired even without physical exertion, sleep poorly and have a very difficult time recovering.
Muscles need a regular intake of a variety of foods, especially protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats, ideally in their natural form. Vitamins, especially A, C, E, which help muscles reduce pain after exertion and accelerate their regeneration, cannot be missed. During physical activity, vitamins C and B are the most consumed. Iron is undoubtedly important for the formation of red blood cells. Other minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium are also needed. From the point of view of Chinese medicine, these are naturally the foods that support the spleen and the entire EARTH phase. You will find them at the end of this chapter in the section on diet. In addition, muscle cannot function well if it is malnourished, dehydrated or non-oxygenated. So plenty of fluids and a supply of clean air are just as important for the muscles as all the food components mentioned. Smoking reduces the level of oxygen in the blood, thus damaging the muscles. Alcohol, in turn, dehydrates the muscles and prevents the absorption of the necessary nutrients for the muscles. Thus, both of these activities weaken the spleen and the muscles cannot give sufficient performance. When I see my colleagues or students smoking through training breaks, before or after a performance, I get a chill running down my spine.
Muscle nutrition by exercise
Muscles love movement, it provides them with Qi and nutrition. Only when the body moves can Qi circulate in it, and organs, muscles, tendons, bones, skin, or body juices can be revitalized. This minimizes blockages, pain and other problems. Of course, movement must have its measure. Yoga, Qigong, dance, but also various recreational sports are ideal for the average person. In the world of mover, this rate is often exceeded.
It is important to prepare the muscles for exercise, to warm them up, and to calm them down even after exercise and restore them to their original state.
It is something that every teacher of dance, yoga, sports or any physical activity should teach their student and devote time to it. If I have students who do not know how to take care of themselves yet, I urge them to come to class for at least 15 minutes before the start so that they can prepare their bodies for the performance with various stretches and warm-ups. It is the so-called “warm up“. At the same time, I get used to designing the classes so that we have time together to calm the muscles and tendons and to “cool them down”. The second thing is how. Recently, in addition to the basic yoga asanas, I have also used Qigong to teach students how to use it for this purpose. A certain small thing is also important – after training or after a performance, take off your sweaty clothes, which are in direct contact with the muscles, as soon as possible. Why? Because the spleen does not like moisture and therefore moisture also destroys muscles.
In the context of Chinese medicine, dampness is a pathogen that most harms the spleen of all organs because it prevents it from performing the function of transforming food into Qi. It can enter the body in two ways. Internally, we get dampness into the body by consuming moisture-forming foods, which weakens the spleen and the entire digestion. With respect to the spleen, we should avoid them. They are listed at the end of this chapter in the section on diet for the EARTH phase.
Dampness from the outside can enter the body during a longer stay in a humid environment, for example during a longer stay in a swimming pool, greenhouse, steam sauna or in damp homes. As for the muscles, the most tangible and closest moisture we can expose them to is staying in sweaty clothes after some physical activity. With the opinion that “it will dry on me”, we can weaken the muscles in this way with a longer and regular exposure to moisture. Dampness, which acts on the muscles for a long time, causes them to gradually weaken and weaken, and penetrates deeper through the muscles into the spleen itself. The spleen then does not have enough Qi for good digestion, nutrition does not get into the muscles and we are in a vicious circle. Therefore, let us make sure that we carry spare clothes with us and change our clothes as soon as possible after sweating.
In addition to problems with the spleen and muscles, dampness can also manifest itself in various smaller or larger soft swellings, especially in the lower part of the torso or body, because moisture as such is naturally heavy and therefore falls down. Furthermore, it can manifest by various degrees of non-control of the limbs, strong angulation in the lungs, but also in the genitals (discharge), diarrhea, heaviness in the head, sticky saliva and the like. Dampness accumulated in the body into the mucus is heavy, it does not want to move too much, and therefore a person can feel heavy, numb and clumsy overall. At the mental level, a person is not able to think clearly, has a clouded, dull mind, cannot think constructively, even this condition can develop into depression. Dampness is also eliminated through the skin, acne is a typical example of moisture in the body, also associated with heat.
In connection with the conscious care of muscles, it is also necessary to mention muscle fever, which every mover certainly knows. Muscle fever always occurs when we expose muscles to excessive physical exertion without prior preparation, when we do not devote enough time to warm up the muscles and tendons for exercise, and when we do not take enough care of the muscles after exercise. Muscle fever is a natural reaction of the body, which is basically a kind of manifestation of the “instinct of self-preservation” of our muscles. They do not want further ill-treatment, and therefore they prevent us from it with pain. Some sources say that lactic acid is excreted during muscle strain, causing muscle fever pain. Modern research, on the other hand, claims that if we load unheated muscles suddenly and in excessive amounts, small muscle fibers literally break. These are, of course, microcracks. These cause small inflammations that induce a different biochemical state in the muscles, and we feel it as pain and inability to move the muscles as we would like. However, I know from personal experience that persistent extreme muscle fever may not occur. I am a professional dancer who performs great performances in a studio or on stage. However, I am also “freelancing”, so I do not have a completely regular workout, which means that my body also experiences longer breaks. I really know what is muscle fever. In recent years, however, I have found that the longer I practice Qigong, the less the body suffers from muscle fever. In addition to various stretches in preparation for physical performance, I involve Qigong in my warm-up. Qigong distributes Qi in a wonderful way to every cell of every muscle fiber or tendon. Where there is Qi, there is heat, so Qigong also warms up the muscles, even if we do not really move very intensely with it. At the same time, by clearing the Qi flow, the Qigong allows the muscles to receive the nutrition from the organs that belongs to them. Qigong is also suitable after exercise. It definitely regenerates them better than a hot shower, which can hurt the muscles even more then.
In addition to performance, muscles are also involved in building the body and its shape. Muscles also shape our body contours. People who struggle with their weight usually feel the need to get rid of fats. But it is only one part of the whole. The second is that our figure is conditioned by the shape of the skeleton. On the surface, however, it is shaped by muscles and we can work with them. When neglected, they are flaccid, and any weight loss and fat loss under the skin will not help them to look good. In the whole process of a nice body shape, the most important thing is the good quality of Qi of the spleen and stomach. People with impaired Qi of these organs can either fight overweight or, conversely, be too skinny. Many slimming diets go unnoticed if the person consumes food that disrupts the Qi of the spleen. These are mainly cold, raw foods and mucus-producing foods. And common diets are mainly about raw vegetable salads, fruits and fruit juices, yogurts and cheeses. Weight problems can only be meaningfully solved if we fix the spleen. The spleen likes heat, i.e. cooked food. This does not always mean cooking them for a long time, sometimes just quick cooking (blanching) or steaming, which leaves the necessary nutrients in the vegetables, is enough.
Muscle abuse during movement
The last area of muscle care is their conscious use in movement. As a trained dancer, I know a lot about body abuse in dance and for dance. During my 8 years of study at the conservatory, I accumulated a number of health problems because I only learned to use my body there and not to understand it. Unfortunately, many educational institutions do not offer information on how to work with the body consciously. By consciously I mean respecting the anatomy, the natural mechanics of movement and the healthy physio-dynamics of the body in order for the body to stay healthy in this profession for as long as possible. When completely sore after the study at the conservatory, I came to approaches such as release technique, Body-Mind Centreing, Feldenkrais method, Alexander’s technique, or Ideokinesis, I was excited. My body could not wait to be consciously used, reprogrammed and healed in these ways.
By abusing my muscles, I mean their excessive use. In normal dance practice, which has not gone through the process of being aware of movement, we use muscles unnecessarily more than necessary. And often we engage muscles in a movement that we do not need to engage at all. This is because they often teach us to dance in such a way that we just repeat the movement blindly without understanding the mechanism by which the body should perform it. Some things we have to learn very quickly, we are required to be as good and efficient as the best student in the class, which leads to some kind of “racing”. Respect for individual anatomical possibilities is often forgotten. Therefore, in my pedagogical practice I do not focus on the form, but on the principles of anatomically satisfactory performance of movement. However, this takes longer. We can learn to do something with the body in a minute, but learning to do something with the body correctly sometimes takes several days or weeks. And many people do not want to invest time in it or they do not know that they can. I do not mean to say that I do not work with muscles when dancing. I work, but I try to do it economically and efficiently.
Psychic connections and symbolism
In schools, we are burdened with a huge amount of information that we do not manage to process. We are required to deliver a big amount of performances, which we often do till we are drained or even burn out. As professionals, we play a lot of shows and we are part of many projects because we think that if we did less, we would be less valuable. This naturally prevents us from devoting adequate time to the things we do, and thus from doing them truthfully. However, the truth requires more time and attention.
Muscles carry the symbolism of the state of “being seen” and, of course, the symbolism of “strength”. The ability to use force to be seen. Bones, as we mentioned, carry the symbolism of “being true.” They are more in depth, core, essence, and therefore work with them has a longer course. Muscles are more on the surface, and if we work only with them, they lead us to superficiality, to a state in which, due to lack of time and the need to devote ourselves to the truth, we remain naturally more superficial. People working in this way show this by the state of their muscles. Their muscles are extreme, strong, firm, tense, enlarged, protruding, simply sticking out.
Why are many female dancers, so to speak, masculine muscular and sinewy? I believe that because they consciously or unconsciously try to match their dances with men. Female dancers have fewer opportunities than male dancers because there are incomparably more of them than men. They must therefore fight to be seen. They often choose male, yang approaches for this. For fear of rejection, they try to fit into a more yang-oriented environment in which strength, puncture, quantity, speed, performance reign. If we are to go even deeper in this topic, then someone who wants to be seen has a reason or drive for it. This usually conceals the need to compensate for something. From a psychological point of view, this is about compensating for a deficit. Perhaps a deficit of attention that was little received as a child by our parents and the closest people we grew up with and by those who taught us at school.