Ancient Lifehack: Spring into Action

The Ancient Lifehack series draws upon the wisdom of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization for inspiration and ideas we can apply today.

According to ancient Chinese medicine and philosophy, everything in the world around us can be categorized as belonging to one of the Five Elements—metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. In Chinese, the term for the Five Elements is Wu Xing, which more accurately translates as “the five movements.” These elements are constantly moving and evolving, just like the human body and the seasons.

Spring, which is now upon us, is associated with the element of wood. Just as plants sprout and bloom, for humans, too, spring is a time of growth. In the West, we talk about spring cleaning, and Chinese also see spring as a time for removing the old and replacing it with the new. Spring is a time of movement and activity.

Springtime, and the element wood, are both associated with the liver. The liver cleanses the body and removes toxins, and so this is a good time to clean up our diets and work off any excess weight put on during the winter.

Here, then, are five Ancient Lifehacks for spring:

1. Sprouts and Vinegar

In the winter we focused on eating warmer, cooked foods, but in spring we can start to incorporate sprouts and green leafy vegetables into our diets. These help the liver detoxify, and also give us a light dose of wood energy. Sour is the flavor representing wood, so we want to add things like lemons and vinegar to our salads.

2. Just Let it Go

Just as the liver removes toxins from the body, it also deals with emotions—especially anger. To avoid energy stagnation that can exacerbate anger and other negative emotions, we need to take good care of our livers. Aside from vigorous physical activity, which helps course the liver’s energy and aids in soothing emotions, we can also do slow-moving exercises and meditation. This, too, will allow the body’s energy to flow uninterrupted.

3. Don’t Look

According to the Chinese medicine and the Five Elements, liver energy is connected to the health of the eyes. This is one reason why allergies and tearing happen more frequently in the spring. We want to make sure not to overuse our eyes and to let them rest, so be sure to take frequent eye breaks, especially if you’re in front of a computer a lot.

4. Stretch

Tendons are also related to the liver and spring. So in addition to being active, we should stretch and work the tendons. This will put a spring in our step.

Ancient Chinese Lifehack: Acupressure

The Ancient Lifehack series draws upon the wisdom of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization for inspiration and ideas we can apply today.

One clear spring morning, our company arrived at the Théâtre du Passage in Switzerland’s Neuchâtel. We had warm-up class backstage before enjoying a charming Swiss-Chinese fusion lunch. Everything was normal as could be.

Then in the afternoon, I was on side stage left waiting to go on for spacing. We got our cue and began to move. Suddenly…

“Ah, Betty, you’re bleeding!” someone said. And I was. My nose was letting out a bloody torrent. Obviously, a dancer gushing out vital fluids before opening night is not a scene to be ignored. In no time, the local staff had me pinned down on a couch.

“I know the pressure point!” more than one lady insisted.

“It’s the ring finger!”

“No, middle!”

“But on the opposite side!”

“Neck! Neck!”

Soon I was being pressed in many places. After some dramatic-yet-comical confusion, the bleeding did stop. And it made me wonder… which point did the trick?

Another Ancient Art

In many ways, traditional Chinese medicine and modern Western science are worlds apart. Chinese medicine believes the universe and human body are interrelated. The universe is a macroscopic manifestation of the body and, inversely, microscopic embodiments of the universe exist inside our bodies.

The body is seen as a holistic entity instead of separate systems (organs, skeletal, nervous systems, etc). Vital energy (qi) flows through pathways (meridians), which run along our entire body to regulate our entire person.

Without CAT scans, surgical robots, or magnetic resonance, ancient treatments were hands-on. With acupressure, key points are massaged to release blocked qi throughout our energy channels. Proper circulation keeps us happy, healthy, and whole. Today, scientists link acupressure with bioelectrical impulses, endorphins, and pain-signal transmissions.

Like all traditional Chinese disciplines, acupressure has layers of deeper meaning. Every pressure point has a name denoting its significance. But when Western nomenclature identifies them with numbers and letters, both the points’ surface meaning and deeper layers are lost. Here are a few examples.

Useful Pointers

While traveling, which we do about half the year and many of you might also do regularly, sometimes it’s inevitable to feel a bit worse for wear. How would the ancients have handled their aches?

‘Union Valley’ – The All-Purpose Booster (合谷)

Where: On the back of your hand, between the bones leading to the thumb and forefinger, above the webbing.

Helps: stuffy or runny nose, headache, sore throat, sneezing and allergy symptoms, fever and cold symptoms; relieves stress, relaxes muscles, strengthens defense system. (*Do not massage during pregnancy, can induce labor.)

‘Foot Three Miles’ – Digestion (足三里)

Where: Four finger-widths below the knee, outside the shinbone. A muscle appears when you flex your ankle.

Helps: Soldiers used to massage this point after every three miles of marching for general well-being and energy reinforcement. Helps with abdominal pain and digestion disorders. Harmonizes the stomach, spleen, and intestines. Promotes blood and qi circulation.

‘Inner Pass’ – Motion sickness (內關)

Where: With the palm facing up, two finger-widths down from the center of the wrist crease.

Helps: Nausea from motion sickness, anxiety, stomach bugs, morning sickness, etc.

‘Spirit Gate’ – Insomnia (神門)

Where: Palm up, in the depression on the pinky side of the wrist.

Helps: Insomnia caused by nerves, overactive thoughts, and overexcitement. Relaxes the heart and spirit.

So, what about nosebleeds? Since the body is such a connected whole, there are numerous points to combat most ailments, and points also work together. Multiple points, from head to toe, help stop nosebleeds. Here are four of them:

‘Bright Eyes’ (睛明 ) – Also helps with eye discomforts. Where: Hollow inside and above the tear duct.

‘Maximum Opening’ (孔最) – Together with ‘Welcome Fragrance’ (迎香) also alleviates sinus issues. Where: seven finger-widths above the wrist crease. Welcome Fragrance can be found outside the nostril on the smile line.

‘Celestial Residence’ (天府) – Also for lung ailments. Where: three finger-widths below the armpit, between the shoulder and bicep muscles.

‘Hidden White’ (隱白) – Also for regulating blood. Where: inside the inner corner of the big toenail.

Sailing the Seven Seas

“My heart yearns for the sea,” sighs a sailor as he gazes wistfully into the horizon, where the sky and sea seem to blend together… What was so appealing about the sea? The intrigue of the unknown? The tantalization of treasure? The exhilaration of adventure? Behold—the lure of the sea!

Perhaps I got a little carried away, but don’t you think life’s so much more exciting when there’s a bit of imagination? For us, life on tour is one big routine: get up, go to the theater, have dance class, eat, warm up, perform, go back to the hotel, sleep. Repeat, for a few months. So I like to inspire myself sometimes by changing my perspective. These days, I’m musing about life on the vast ocean.

Did you know that the stage is actually very similar to a ship? I realized this connection the other day when sitting in the auditorium, staring at the stage. The curtains lining the two sides of the stage looked like small sails and the main curtain was like the main sail. As our stage manager walked solemnly across the stage with his hands clasped behind his back, I was reminded of a ship’s captain surveying the deck.

A ship’s staff is called a crew and theaters have stage crews. Sailing terms for sides of the ship have stage parallels: the bow is like the downstage, the aft is upstage, port side would be stage left, and starboard stage right.

All successful ship journeys start and end at a dock, and our theater experience begins and concludes at the loading dock.

The ship has a rigging system for pulling up the sails, and theaters call their system of ropes and pipes “rigging” as well. A captain of the stage might lift his head and holler, amidst the tumult of clangor around him: “Up on the rail, fly out number 35!” And a muscle-bound man some 80 feet above will pull on the rope, lift the counter weight, and fly open a beautiful new sail.

Moo-sically Challenged?

As a dancer, I love attending dress rehearsals for the Symphony Orchestra tour.

Just imagine—all of Shen Yun’s dancers and artistic crew cozy in the plushy blue seats of our music hall, enjoying our orchestra perform favorite pieces from the previous season’s tour. After a long day of intense training and rehearsing for next season’s dance production, this rare treat—no sweat, no pressure—is total pleasure.

As the concert begins, I’m on the edge of my seat. The urge to jig along is impossible (and needless) to suppress. I’m enjoying the maestro’s fun, energetic conducting, seeking out musician friends I don’t often see, and smiling to myself at the impressive bulwark of double basses ever so engrossed in strumming their pizzicatos—which to my surprise are rich, warm, and amazingly buoyant.

In the third piece, a flute and clarinet duet trills out opening notes of Poets of the Orchid Pavilion and a familiar scene engulfs me:

Breathless after an exhilarating spin to the Tang Dynasty, I make my way from the dazzling spotlights to the dim of a blue gel-lit backstage. Some strategic (yet by now subconscious) maneuvering helps me navigate around still-winded friends and the dozens of costumes and accessories we’ve raced in and out of during the first three quick-changes of the night.

My fingers are working to unfasten a Tang-styled hairpiece—the beginning of another (less hasty) transformation—because soon we’ll be zipping a few millennia further to take part in a pre-dynastic fable. Meanwhile, my eyes are scanning for a lotus fairy gown and a Han-court robe, waiting patiently to be collected and re-hung with care. In the distance, a calm, mystical melody rises out of the orchestra pit accented by the brisk powerful sounds of the scholar’s fans as dancers swoosh them open and snap them shut.

A few songs into the second half, delighted gasps emanate all around me as another favorite begins: The Mystical Udumbara. This time, the girls break out in action. All across the balcony, lithe arms pop up and start swaying in sync:

Right-left-right, bud together, and then open with a bloom. Then tra-la-laaaaaaaaa! The conductor swooshes down the final fermata and every girl (within her plushy blue seat) strikes a final floret pose.

If strangers had suddenly walked in on this scene, they might have thought we were doing “the wave” at a classical concert. Yet we’re having more fun than they could even imagine, reliving cherished memories as elusive flower fairies from the previous season’s performance.

Keeping Our Altitude

As Shen Yun tours around the world, we usually stay in each city only two or three days. There are some exceptions, of course (New York, San Francisco, Sydney, etc.), but on average every group performs in two cities per week, which amounts to about 30 cities and approximately 100 shows per troupe in every five-month season.

This means that as a performer, you must be able to adapt quickly to rapidly changing weather, stage conditions and sizes, even different languages in our emcees’ introductions. But there’s one other important factor that is hard to prepare for—altitude.

Especially as we travel across the U.S., we occasionally perform in cities with high altitudes. According to the United States Army Medical Department, high altitude exposure begins noticeably affecting physical performance around 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) above sea level and becomes more prominent in heights over 7,870 feet (2,400 meters).

Over the years, I’ve performed with Shen Yun in quite a few of these cities. Just this past season, my group (Shen Yun Touring Company) performed in Denver (5,280 ft.), Colorado Springs (6,053 ft.), and Mexico City (7,382 ft.). Fear not though, as the effects are limited to “slight” breathing difficulties due to thinner air, increased sleepiness, and “mild psychological disturbances” that take the form of some groaning before morning dance class.

But in all honesty, it does become very difficult to breathe, especially during the show. Sometimes after the curtain falls for a dance piece, we don’t have the energy to get up immediately—though we have to if we don’t want to be run over by other dancers or a piano. Our woodwind and brass players, as well as the vocal soloists, have to overcome some difficulties as well. No matter how hard it gets though, you put on a smile and get over it as soon as the curtain rises.

I still vividly remember a couple years back (then with Shen Yun International Company) when we performed in Colorado’s Beaver Creek—a beautiful skiing destination 8,080 feet above sea level. The shows were very successful. As I stood there waving during curtain call, as elated as I was exhausted, I couldn’t help but think: Thank goodness this stage was small.

Building Dreams, Climbing Mountains

There’s an old saying, “A dream is just a distant reality.” One thing I’ve learned in my training to becoming a professional dancer is that when we summon the courage to challenge ourselves, we can take our dreams just a little closer to that reality.

It’s easy to have a dream, but not everyone has the audacity to take that extra step to achieve it. People often draw back before even taking the first step, daunted by the unknown. After all, that one step could send you plunging into terrifying depths, or soaring to conquer mountains. In the moment before that first step, you don’t really know what you will find.

Six years ago, I found myself at a crossroad and I took my first steps on the path of dance. I can’t say I have conquered the mountain yet, but I’m sure I haven’t fallen off any cliffs. I don’t know if I’ll reach the highest summit, or even if I’ll ever find that peak, but I’ve gained so much, come so far.

For what it’s worth, my mother likes to think I’ve covered many mountains already. “Before you started dancing, you would trip over your own feet,” she says. “Now, you can do flips at the drop of a hat!” Fair enough.

For me, the most treacherous mountain to conquer was the aerial somersault. While my classmates made lightning progress, I could only stare as the instructor demonstrated, thinking, “Do I lift my right leg or my left leg first? How does he get his feet above his head without crashing to the floor? Why don’t his hands touch the ground?” Even when I managed to answer the questions muddling my head, my body had trouble translating understanding into action. I’d tell my right leg to kick first, but my left leg would be first to respond.

I will never forget my first successful aerial somersault. It was a Sunday afternoon. I had strewn several blue exercise mats across the battered floor of the dance studio. The last rays of sun glinted off the shiny duct tape (and sweat) that covered the rips in the mats. After hours of throwing myself on the floor, “give up” was the one coherent thought floating in the puddle that was my brain. I glowered at the black, sticky, sweaty squares of foam and asked myself, “Am I really going to give up like this?”