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Keeping a Basic Balance in Your Life

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The overall balance in your life does more than affect your emotions; it goes straight to the bottom line of your physical health. For example, you know how you feel when things start getting out of whack: you're running around, pouring out and not getting much back. Then, of course, you catch a cold.

So far, we've discussed your health mainly from the perspective of Western science and medicine. But as powerful as those approaches are, the idea of balance has been vastly more developed within an entirely different framework: that of Chinese medicine. Learning even a little about that system can lead to a far-reaching shift toward greater health. We'll apply its basic principles to three types of moms. See if one of these patterns fits you fairly well (it's the essence that matters, not all the details), and we'll tell you the Chinese herbal formula that could increase the well-being of each type.

The Classical Chinese View of Mothers
Chinese medicine - developed over five thousand years - is founded on the central idea of bringing harmony to the various forces inside and around a person. In your own life, these could include the interplay of systems within your body or the ebb and flow of your emotions. These forces all exist within the Tao, the mysterious, generative unfolding of the universe, considered to be itself the mother of all things: The Tao is called the Great Mother: / empty yet inexhaustible, it gives birth to infinite / worlds. - Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (English version by Stephen Mitcheil)

A deep respect for mothering is woven into the fabric of Chinese medicine and culture. Traditionally, the Chinese mother is given great care around and after the birth of her child. Since she has poured out so much during pregnancy and childbirth, balance must be restored both by arranging for her to do as little as possible and by replenishing her through rest and nourishing foods and herbs. For at least a month, the woman and her baby are secluded from the rest of the world, and the mother is gently taken care of by others. Afterward, she is nurtured with good foods, exercise, herbs, and acupuncture.

The core elements of Chinese medicine are less mechanistic than the variables Western doctors study, like counts of white blood cells or transfer rates across cell membranes; rather than seeing the body as a machine, traditional Chinese doctors view it more as a dance of subtle energies. The more graceful the dance, the healthier the dancer.

The Mother with Depleted Yin
Two fundamental forces that waltz within a mother are called yin and yang. Yin is the receptive principle, with related attributes of earth, darkness, yielding, rest, passivity, cold, inwardness, pause, quiet, and decrease; it is sometimes viewed as feminine, although yin and yang are present in each person, regardless of gender. Yang is the active principle, and its attributes include sky, light, firmness, activity, initiative, heat, outwardness, speed, noise, and increase; it can also be considered masculine.

The symbol of yin and yang is a circle, with one portion dark, for the yin, and one portion light, for the yang. But at the center of the yin is a spot of yang, and vice versa, which maintains the balance of yin and yang. Within each principle, the opposite one is blooming. For instance, inside activity there must be a center of quiet observation, and inside the darkness of the night sky there must be seeds of light.

Each principle has value: the sky is not better than the earth, and cold is not better than hot. But life becomes imbalanced when a person becomes stuck in one principle and lacking in the other, and this can lead to illness. If a mother is active, afterward she needs a period of rest. If she puts out love and attention all day long, she must receive it as well.

The balance of yin and yang that is harmonious will vary from person to person. To find the balance that is right for you, think about the following questions:

  • What are the yin elements within your life? What are the yang ones?
  • Does the yin principle seem to be lacking? Or does it seem excessive? How about the yang principle: lacking or excessive?
  • How might it be healthy for you to build up the yin in your life? Or to limit it? The same for yang: increase or decrease it?

To put these questions in a larger context, consider the balance of yin and yang in our society. Modern civilizations are very yang, and that excess in combination with a lack of yin is a root cause of the stress- and lifestyle-related illnesses that plague us. It's as if we live inside a giant furnace, with the bellows of media, pagers, corporate culture, and all the rest fanning white-hot flames of excessive speed, activity, and clamor. To restore balance to her life, a mother typically needs to curb these too-powerful yang forces and foster more yin. Fundamentally, it is the principle of yin that mothers the mother. And within this context, a person will often benefit from boosting certain yang elements, such as asserting herself with her partner or taking initiative to find a better job.

Now let's apply these ideas to a mother with depleted yin. Laurie had always been sensitive and a little nervous, but she felt that way more than ever since becoming a mother four years ago. There was a background sense of being uneasy and frazzled much of the time, and seemingly little things could really upset her. It seemed hard for her to settle, and deep inside there was a longing for the nurturance of others, in part because it had become so hard to soothe herself. She felt frayed at the very root of her being.

Physically, Laurie sometimes felt a bit dizzy for no apparent reason, an irritating ringing in her ears came and went, and she often had low back pain. After each pregnancy, she went through many weeks of hot flashes and night sweats. She sometimes felt oddly dry, no matter how much water she drank or lotion she put on. On occasion, she felt a sensation of heat, especially in the palms other hands and the soles other feet.

In Chinese medicine, depleted yin means insufficient calming, cooling, and nurturing. The body lacks the ability to absorb stress and return to equilibrium. In a sense, yin is embodied by the parasympathetic nervous system, which balances the sympathetic nervous system that is triggered during stress; without that regulating influence, the body is left in a continual state of "fight or flight" overdrive.

A formula for this pattern is called Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan.1 Its key herb is rehmania, known to the Chinese as Shu Di Huang. Rehmania is considered to be a richly moistening and nourishing herb - just what a mother with low yin needs.

1To repeat an oft-made point, women who are pregnant or might be, or who are nursing, should not take any medication or herbs without the specific approval of the relevant, licensed health practitioner.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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