Chi at Your Spa: How to Elevate Your Spa Therapies with Vital Energy

Adapted from articles written by the author, Jon Canas, for Spa Asia Magazine, October 2005 and Spa Management Magazine, March 2007

Because the Body is More Than Solids and Liquids

All “energy medicines,” of which Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a great example, have a common fundamental philosophy, namely, the belief that the body is not, as we are taught in Western schools, made only of matter (solids and fluids) but also of energy. We are not talking about constant energy releases caused by the multitude of chemical activities taking place within the body. Vital energy, as it is called In Western countries, is a very subtle form of energy essential to all life forms and critical to their proper function. It is called “chi” in China. In Japan it is referred to as “ki” and in India, as yoga practitioners know, it is “prana.”

The traditional Chinese medical view of body parts and functions is very holistic: Everything within the body is interrelated and forms what you could call an ecological system. That is opposite to the views that have traditionally prevailed in Western medicine whereby the body is treated somewhat like a machine where a bad part can be repaired or replaced without too much concern for the effect that action might have on the rest of the body.

Inherent to that difference between the two systems is the idea of vital energy. Since it has a constant flow covering the entire body and linking all functions, nothing can be isolated or eliminated without deeply affecting the rest of the system. That is because of the interconnection caused by chi flowing not only from head to toes and right hand to left hand and back, but also from the inner parts to the outer parts and vice versa. Nothing within the body is isolated from vital energy.

Energy medicine is not exclusive to Asia. Hippocrates, the great Greek philosopher and father of Western medicine, instructed physicians to find the blocking influence(s) both within a patient and between them and the cosmos in order to restore health and life. He believed nature is the source of healing, not the doctor–a fundamental truth that was lost along the way.

When ancestral energy medicine was broadly popular in China, there was an astute practice that would ensure that doctors would be focused on the health of their patients as opposed to reacting to sickness and disease as is the case today in most modern countries. It is said that the family physician was fully paid so long as all the family members were in good health. When someone became ill, the physician’s pay was reduced or suspended until everyone in the family was well again! Whether historically true or not, this anecdote illustrates the importance of preventative health care in TCM.

Internal Energetic Flow and Balance

Illness in TCM is always viewed as a disruption, an imbalance in or a blockage of the natural energetic flow, therefore a health-oriented regimentation necessarily aims to maintain or restore the internal energetic balance. A treatment might be strictly preventive or geared to addressing an existing problem.

The focus of a TCM treatment is not the symptoms as much as the root cause of the illness. In both cases, the field of attention is the energy flow and its quality and freedom of movement according to very specific pathways called the meridians of acupuncture. Treatments might involve ingesting certain herbs and other natural ingredients with specific energetic properties, or they might be at skin level where the energy flow can be accessed, in particular, when acupuncture is involved. 

TCM has very ancient roots and evolved during an era when the metaphysical beliefs of Taoism prevailed in China and therefore it was influenced by those beliefs and related cultural implications. Taoists believed that to live harmoniously man needs to be in accord with the energetic laws of nature. They saw a strong parallel between the cycles of nature (such as the seasons) and the life cycle of man. They also believed that man functions as a small individual ecosystem within a larger cosmic ecosystem. The Taoism symbol is the well known and very much overused yin and yang figures forming a circle, the symbol of eternal perfection.

As TCM evolved, it came to include acupuncture, reflexology, herbal prescriptions, dietary principles, massage and tai chi, sometimes called “shadow boxing.” Traders, missionaries and diplomats who visited Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries returned home with reports of these classical practices. During the nineteenth century wave of immigration into the United States and Europe, Chinese immigrants brought these traditions to their new countries and Westerners began to take note of their positive results. France and Great Britain, particularly, became well informed about TCM principles as a result of their colonial excursions during this period, yet it was not until the early 1970s, after President Nixon opened diplomatic and cultural relations with communist China, that the U.S. medical community became thoroughly exposed to TCM.

In the meantime, well aware of the benefits of energy medicines, Europeans were getting reimbursed by their social security and health insurance for such treatments. Far Eastern concepts of vital energy are now getting broader recognition in North America as reflected by the popularity of Ayurvedic treatments in spas, acupuncture practices, herbal medicines, therapeutic exercises (tai chi and chi qong), and yoga. The spa industry’s continued exploration of new therapies for wellness and skincare creates renewed possibilities for TCM to flourish in esthetics and wellness. It should because of its significant potential.

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