Why Herbs?

In ancient times, even before agriculture, people discovered the healing properties of the wild plants growing in their regions. For countless millennia  in China, botanical remedies have been used as part of a holistic approach. Medicinal plants were an essential part of the Shaolin monk’s regime for healing, strengthening, and for recovery after battle. Shaolin priests and nuns were the doctors of their regions, using kung fu and qigong exercises, medicinal foods and herbs, bone and muscle manipulation, and acupuncture to cure sickness.

Nowadays, we have access to potent, wild, medicinal plants from China, the Amazon Rainforest, Africa, Siberia, etc … The safety and the efficacy of these remedies have been reexamined by scientists, medical doctors, naturopathic, homeopathic, and integrative medical practitioners of all persuasions, in the lab and in their clinical practices. In fact, understanding how best to assimilate whole, healing plants safely and effectively, which ones do what, and how to make them into the most balanced and effective formulas, has become an exact science.

Today’s pharmaceutical medicines are extractions of the whole plant, just the “active ingredient,” but once the active ingredient is isolated, it becomes inorganic matter and is hard to assimilate, and produces potentially hazardous reactions and accumulations. Spagyric processing, created in Greece one-thousand years ago, is a method for extracting the essence of herbs without destroying their enzymes and keeping the whole plant’s matter intact.

Reading directly from the label of a popular med for stiffness: “may increase the chance of a heart attack or stroke that can lead to death. It should not be used right before or after certain heart surgeries. Serious skin reactions or stomach and intestine problems, such as bleeding and ulcers, can occur without warning and may cause death.”  —  These risks are far worse than the symptoms they are supposed to alleviate.

The basic causes of most diseases are: poor digestion, poor metabolization, poor immunity, negative stress, and environmental  toxins. (negative thoughts can be included in this under stress). The blood and qi stagnate from all of these factors. Healthy exercise, good diet, fresh air, pure water, and the right herbs move and cleanse the blood, and make you feel good.
In the same sense that our channels get blocked by toxins, so do we pollute the earth’s channels – the waterways, the air, the soil – which further threatens our health as it makes its way back into all living things on earth. Our thoughts become toxic along with our bodily tissue. Indigenous people and their plants are endangered as their habitats are encroached upon by the onslaught of the expanding industrial world.

Rewrite of earlier article, published in “Inside Kung Fu.”
Kung Fu’s Silent Training Partner
Herbal medicine has its roots in most cultures. Native Americans used the local flora for healing, as did the ancient Greeks. In China however, the use of herbal medicine is far more extensive than anywhere else in the world. As long as 5,000 years ago, the early Taoist Sages were developing their cosmological views which are the cornerstone of Chinese civilization.

Breathing exercises and the use of herbs were already well established when the legendary Bodhidharma brought Buddhism from India. The ever-practical Chinese managed to integrate these philosophies (Taoism and Buddhism), which over the centuries have evolved into a cohesive approach to health, self-defense and longevity.

Herbs can infinitely improve a lifetime of vigorous Kung Fu practice. Thousands of years of trial and error (one early Taoist poisoned the emperor with an elixir containing toxic minerals and metals) produced a vast amount of herbal, and sometimes animal (such as deer antler, tiger bone, dried sea horse, “dragon ” (crocodile) blood, bear bile, ground beetle…) combinations to increase longevity and virility/fertility, combat illness, repair injury, relieve depression, flatulence, sore throat, acne, cultivate the spirit, improve meditation, enhance internal and external training … practically every condition known are documented in Chinese and English. Kung Fu training formulas abound, some having been kept secret for centuries. Masters of Kung Fu treasured their knowledge as dearly as their forms as a source of power for themselves and their trusted students.

Herbs contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, essential oils and unrefined pharmaceuticals. Their unusual flavors, aromas and textures repel germs as they medicate. There are usually a host of beneficial side effects as opposed to most medications we see in America, where the use of antibiotics, for example strips the intestinal lining of its friendly, nutrient assimilating bacteria as well as the disease producing type. Our organs have an affinity for most herbs when administered correctly. Can you recall the difference in your response to smelling a pine forest on a hike as opposed to the smell when you walk into an environment filled with acrylic carpet fibers, linoleum, paint and plastics?

Nothing replaces a basic healthy diet. Sun Ssu-mo, a famous early (590–692) Taoist doctor said, “A truly good physician first finds out the cause of the illness and when having found that out, he first tries to cure it by food. Only when food fails does he prescribe medication.” But food is not our only source of nutrition. Performing Kung Fu regularly requires tremendous physical and mental concentration and in order to meets its demands the best nutrition is a prerequisite.

What constitutes a healthy diet is much debated. Some vegetarians are more selective and thoughtful about what they eat and their health reflects that concern. Animals are fed processed feed, shot up with growth hormones and then overcooked or processed so that the much-needed enzyme content is destroyed. It is toxic and twice dead before it its ingested.

Our soil has been depleted of minerals and infused with toxic chemicals. Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed, organic animal protein are the basis of a healthy diet.

Supplements along with a diet of processed foods will not be effective. In fact, it would be better to eliminate the supplements and invest in a higher quality of basic food. Herb teas do not replace the need for six to eight glasses of pure, clean water a day. Herbs should be regarded as food as they provide nourishment on many levels. The addition of supplements such as maca, blue-green algaes and many other herbs added to a high performance diet will produce good outcomes.

Fasting was (and still is) practiced by early Taoists. Powerful herbs that purged mucus and other matter from the colon were taken. “All physicians know that the unobstructed circulation of fresh blood and vital energy are the most important factors in health. But if the stomach and bowels are blocked, then the blood and energy stagnate,” said the tenth century A.D. physician Chang Tsung-cheng.

Seasonal cleansing is a good way to give the system a much-needed rest from consumption. Relaxing activity or qigong meditation during these periods should be practiced rather than strenuous workouts. A good book to consult about fasting is Staying Healthy With the Seasons, by Elson M. Haas; M. D. Haas recommends herbs appropriate to the particular season. The changing of each season is also the time that our internal geography makes its climatic transition. For example in the Winter (extreme Yin) plants and animals turn inward and shut down their functions (store their qi). In winter, we need the more roots, which store energy, are best taken at this time to revitalize the organs particular to the season. In summer, we need more fruits and leaves.

Fruits and vegetables begin to lose their vitamins as soon as they are picked. Although food begins to decay as soon as its cooked, most herbs can be stored in jars on the shelf indefinitely and still retain their value. (Derivatives of herbs were used to preserve the Egyptian mummies.) Consider the strength and longevity of a tree. One can understand how early people would be led to experiment with different substances.

Many herbs found in Chinese formulas are grown in the West as well – ginger, licorice, corn silk, ginseng, angelica… “The Energetics of Western Herbs – An Herbal Reference Integrating Western and Oriental Herbal Medicine Traditions,” by Peter Holmes. is an excellent guide to using more familiar herbs. Holmes’s historical background for each herb, use of Oriental and Western terminology, and thorough explanations gives the reader the confidence to try the herbs independently. Most are safe with only positive side effects.

A common household herb is fennel. Consider its many functions. It settles the stomach, dissolves stones, benefits the vision, promotes expectoration, relieves incontinence-coughing-wheezing-hoarseness-voice loss-vomiting-nausea, promotes menstruation, increases estrogen, clears parasites, prevents colds, stimulates immunity, benefits the skin and breasts and antidotes poison. And tastes good in Italian food, too!

The downside is not with the herbs themselves, but with the way we deal with our discomforts. Most people wait until they are incapacitated to seek help. Often herbs and acupuncture are used as a last resort and when other methods of treatment have failed. Herbs, like Kung Fu, are best utilized when incorporated into our daily lives. They will often prevent illness before it grabs hold, just as Kung Fu training prevents illness and serious hostile infractions.

Correcting the internal imbalance that is causing the pain or sickness is the way Chinese medicine functions. Types of pulse, different tongue coatings, emotional states, the complaints of the patient, physical, mental and spiritual are a few of the signs a Chinese doctor looks at. (It is easy to prescribe drugs, but difficult to diagnose disease.” – Ancient Chinese proverb.)

The present day doctor of Chinese medicine is analogous to a Kung Fu fighter in terms of alertness and sensitivity battling pernicious elements that dog the spirit and plague the mind. He or she descends from a long and continuous lineage of healers. According to the Yellow Emperor Classic “Nourishing the spirit is the highest task.” Huang Ti, the yellow emperor is reputed to have lived one-hundred years and all of the Chinese are regarded as his descendants.

Shen Nung, the Divine Farmer, is revered for having invented agriculture and discovering the use of medicinal herbs. Real people became figureheads who assumed mythic qualities over the millennium. Archeological digs reveal an ancient civilization in North China that had practiced shamanism, elaborate burial rites and might have been matriarchal. Could women have been the original herbalists, unaccredited in a society that became patriarchal?

This ancient sea of wisdom that harbors China’s historical evolution is an integration of philosophy and science. The resulting systematic approach to diagnoses, herbs, acupuncture and Kung Fu exercises is a vital part of that body of knowledge. The offshoots are our Kung Fu schools of today. As practitioners, we experience the refinement of our most basic instinct – survival. When our training does not suffice for immunity against attack from infectious origin, the availability of these outside sources is a welcomed respite.

“Between Heaven and Earth — A Guide to Chinese Medicine,” by Harriet Beinfield, L.Ac. and Efrem Korngold, L.Ac., O.M.D., is another highly recommended book for gaining an understanding of TCM or traditional Chinese medicine. The fact that an herb can function on so many levels simultaneously is much more fathomable after studying how the organs, the emotions, and external factors all interact to create conditions in an individual.

Acupuncture is often used in conjunction with herbs. In lieu of needles, it is safe to practice self massage to stimulate a flow of energy (Chi) in the body. Practitioners of this art will often prescribe herbs that deal with the same problems addressed by the acupuncture. The notions here require no great leap of faith for the practitioner of Kung Fu, utilizing terminology such as yin and yang, energy blockages, chi stagnation, five elements, harmonizing of opposites, etc …

Surgery was performed in China almost 2,000 years ago. The famous doctor – Hua Tuo (a popular herbal tonic in the Chinese pharmacy bears his name and picture) would operate, if herbs, moxibustion (applying heat to specific points) and acupuncture failed to cure the patient. Generally, the Chinese approach delves for the underlying cause for the complaint and seeks to heal from the inside-out.

The West is beginning to acknowledge the wisdom of the East, in some circles, and there are many crossovers in the healing arts – for example, medical doctors who study natural healing, or acupuncturists and chiropractors. As modern day practitioners of the art of Kung Fu, we can improve our workouts with the supplementation of herbs, as did the wise, old sages that gave us our arts.

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