NEWS

Please note classes will be running through July and August, but not every week--check the schedule here before you head out to the Regent Centre.

Your Daily Spa Moment, Brought to You by Transdermal Magnesium

Maybe you're feeling a little bit bunched up by the demands of the day. Maybe you hit your last workout a little too hard, and your muscles are letting you know. Or you've just hit that part of the evening where you'd like to start the long, slow, gorgeous slide into bed that is usually fraught with potholes and bumps. 

Ideally, you would call upon your personal masseuse or masseur to come and help you out. And then you would enter your private sauna where a trained monkey would feed you grapes while placing cucumber slices on your eyes and pouring fresh herb-infused water on the hot rocks from time to time. 

Okay I don't have anything for you that awesome (note to self: arrange for trained monkey immediately), but I do have an update on my previous post on the magic of magnesium

Transdermal magnesium, when I first read about it, sounded a little ho-hum. Oh, you spray it on your skin? And it's another way to get more magnesium (one of the most significant missing links in almost everyone's diet) into your body? Okay great fine great. I am currently working on offering my body a gram of magnesium daily in order to remineralize my system, so pursuing more than one method of taking it seemed wise. I ordered some pre-made magnesium "oil" (so called because it's oily in consistency - there's no actual oil in it) and decided to give it a go.

I am not one to back down when trying something new, so I decided to really give it the old college try and see what transdermal magnesium could do for me. I picked a time when I wanted to spend 20 or 30 minutes chilling out. To avoid TMI I'll just say I thoroughly covered my skin with magnesium oil, grabbed a book, and sat down to wait for whatever was going to happen. 

At first, nothing happened but a light stinging, especially on my hands and forearms. (This is salt water, basically, and our recent acquisition of two kittens means we always have scratches.) After five minutes, all my muscles began to relax. Basically, everything started to uncoil. The awesome thing is that this effect kept going for the next fifteen or twenty minutes. 

Although some people claim they just put on lotion following transdermal magnesium application, I have found that it's a little bit itchy as it dries. If you put a lot on one area, there's a certain sticky tackiness that occurs. Because magnesium can pull toxins and heavy metals out of your cells, my thinking is that it's best to rinse it off. Just a quick rinse in the shower and you're good. I feel that the magnesium makes my skin a lot cleaner once it's rinsed off - squeaky clean, in fact.

There is no danger in putting on magnesium oil and then throwing on your clothes. It can leave a salt residue on the clothes, but this does not harm them and will rinse out when you wash the clothes. Typically I wait until after a workout, when I would normally grab a shower anyway. I delay the shower 20 or 30 minutes, use the magnesium oil, throw my workout clothes back on, and do whatever - a little writing or editing, dinner prep, what have you - and then shower. For a truly amazing experience, I've even followed the magnesium oil with a soak in an epsom salt bath. Yum.

I've had good luck with Ancient Minerals Magnesium Oil (no affiliation - it's a good product). There are also blog posts out there (like this one) that will tell you how to make your own magnesium oil from magnesium chloride flakes and water. (Note this is not epsom salt. There are mixed thoughts on this but some researchers claim that the magnesium sulfate in epsom salts is not as well retained in the body as the magnesium chloride. There is nothing wrong with an epsom salt bath, but it's ideal to use magnesium chloride if you're serious about getting magnesium into your system.)

If you want to take things to the next level (I do, and I did), you can also make an absolutely incredible body butter that is infused with magnesium. I used Wellness Mama's recipe. I have never made lotion before, but I made this, and it worked beautifully the second time I tried it. (The first time I got cocky and subbed out an ingredient and rushed the emulsion stage.) I use magnesium oil for a daily spa moment, but I rub the body butter on my feet last thing at night to help create a gorgeous, deep, relaxed sleep. 


Qigong and Tai Chi Technique: Really Relaxing for Real

One of the things - maybe the thing - that separates Qigong, Tai Chi, and the other internal martial arts from other forms of exercise is the way you do it. Qigong and Tai Chi are supposed to be done in a complete state of mental and physical relaxation.

If you've played Tai Chi or practised Qigong for any length of time at all, you know that this is actually a big challenge. Too often, we want to hit our workout like a hammer to let out all the tension we've allowed to build up since the last one. We groan and strain and clench and grasp, all the while waiting for our bodies to relax. An hour of practicing in tension passes (all while we tell ourselves we're plenty relaxed, thank you very much!). Maybe more goes by if we've been training for a while and we're nice and strong. At last we're too tired to strain and clench and grasp any more, and finally, we relax.

We can do better.

In this post I want to talk about a couple of concrete standards by which you can measure your own relaxation, and how I personally came to work with them to improve my Tai Chi and Qigong.

The standards come from Cheng Man-ch'ing's T'ai-Chi, a wonderful book with good practical advice for the practitioner. I pricked up my attention when I read this advice on how to tell if you're relaxed:

I would say a good start is made on relaxation when the student is able to go through a round [form / set] without letting outside influences into his mind. 

Okay, fair enough! And wow! Anyone who has done Tai Chi long enough for it to go into muscle memory knows how easy it is to allow your mind to drift to anything and everything except what you are doing. There are times when I swear my mind saves the most bizarre and ridiculous things especially for my practice time. (It does, and if you're doing Tai Chi effectively, yours probably will too at some point, and there are reasons for this, but that's a post for another time.) The more I thought about this definition, however, the more brilliant I realized it was: if a focused mind is relaxed, then a wandering mind is a cause of tension. 

While anyone familiar with meditation will tell you that focus and relaxation go hand in hand, I guess I've always thought that these two things needed to be balanced, rather than thinking of them as the same thing. As a creative person (I'm a fiction writer as well as a Tai Chi player), I find a certain enjoyment in allowing my mind to drift, but this is a totally different feeling than the hectic ricochet that the mind usually gets up to if you let it do what it wants. 

When I first started to really (for real) work with the concept of focus, I told myself that the workout was a time when I didn't have to think about anything else. It is actually a treat to let everything else go. This worked wonders, but it didn't quite get me where I wanted to go, especially considering the rest of Cheng Man-ch'ing's passage on relaxation: 

But this [not letting outside influences into the mind while performing a set] is only the first step. The next step is to do the exercises in such a manner that you are nearly exhausted at the conclusion. When your shoulders feel heavy you will know you are approaching real relaxation. This is a result of "swimming in air."

Okay so. We know that none of this exhaustion effect is going to be achieved by tension, right? Tai Chi is NOT isometric, neither is Qigong. You're supposed to be harmonizing with universal life energy here, not fighting yourself. So how do you get to this feeling?

The answer is to go into your workout already relaxed. No, put down that beer. What I'm talking about is getting in touch with the part of yourself that is already soft, always calm. Even if that part is only a tiny sub-molecular dot, you can access it.

(There are all kinds of Tai Chi manuals and advice about sinking the chi into the lower dantian and directing the breath. If you try to do any of that stuff too soon, you will get into falsely manipulating what should be a natural process. The best thing you can do is to get in touch with your inner cool and stay in touch with it as you move.)

Here's a simple exercise for contacting your inner cool. You can do this whether or not you are planning to perform Tai Chi or Qigong afterward. It's very beneficial to get in touch with your inner cool and operate from there. You'll have a much better time of things, and so will everyone around you!

Direct your mind deep within your core, seeking an area of calm. If you wish (recommended for Qigong and Tai Chi practitioners), focus awareness on the lower dantian, three finger widths below the navel and two finger widths inside the body. Take a deep breath. As you let it go, see, feel and imagine yourself dropping into that inner space. Ask yourself, "How am I doing?" You may find a word, feeling, or image comes up. Take note of it and continue.

Take a second breath. As you let it go, see, feel and imagine dropping down another layer, deeper into that inner spaciousness. Ask again, "How am I doing?" You may find a word, feeling, or image comes up. Take note of it and continue.

Take a third breath. As you let it go, see, feel and imagine dropping down a third layer, still deeper into the calm centre within. Ask, "How am I doing?" and take note of the word, feeling, or image that might come up.

Don't expect that the words, feelings, or images will all be positive. As you drop down you are dropping through the crusty layers of tension that under normal circumstances make it difficult for you to feel relaxed and calm. It is typical for the first word or two to be kind of negative or unpleasant, with only the third word becoming positive. Just accept whatever imagery, feelings, or concepts come through. This is information about yourself and your current state of being. The only guarantee you have is that it will change, so if you don't like it, just know that it will be different next time.

I've found that taking the time to "drop in" before working out sets me up to bring my best, most relaxed self into my Qigong or Tai Chi practice. The first time I did this, I had an incredible sitting meditation session afterward that confirmed for me how much more profound my practice was. I took that practice session very slowly, only working on a few movements of Ba Duan Jin in order to keep the sense of calm, and yet, I felt happily wiped out at the end. My students have reported that a round of Qigong and a Tai Chi set, which under normal circumstances could be considered a good warmup, are utterly exhausting when approached from this sense of relaxation. Chi spreads much more readily throughout the body as you work if you begin by getting in touch with your centre in this way.




Are Vitamins Bad for You?

I don't often post about specific things you should or shouldn't do to protect your health (beyond doing Tai Chi and Qigong), since I believe that taking charge of your own wellbeing is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself. All the information you could possibly need to help yourself is out there, but lately I've become more aware that it is sometimes hard to sort through the vast field of research. I also think it's more and more important to add my voice to the chorus of those encouraging people to take charge of their own health and healing.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical doctor. I'm writing this based on my personal experience and on the writings and research of people much more knowledgeable about the science of nutrition, for what it's worth. However I am an excellent critical thinker and on every level this information makes so much sense to me.

There has been a lot of stuff in the media lately about the supplement / vitamin "controversy" - largely stirred up last fall by some news outlets that reported on some studies and editorials that claimed that taking vitamin supplements can be detrimental to your health. I am not a scientist but I have a PhD in English literature, so I know how to analyse sentence structure and argumentation very well. "Docs Say Stop Taking Multivitamins" is not a good title or primary claim for an article that quotes one doctor. It makes it sound as though every single doctor out there agrees that multivitamins are bad for you.

The problem is, in part, one of the appeal to authority. When it comes to your health and wellbeing, we might expect that medical doctors would be the best authority. Makes sense, right? Here's the thing: have you considered that medical doctors are trained in techniques and approaches to health that are very specific? What I mean is that when it comes to acute care - broken bones, major physical emergencies - modern medicine is second to none. But what about those chronic conditions - your arthritis pain, your fibromyalgia, your feeling of dis-ease with one thing or another? This is just not the focus of modern medical training. Neither is prevention. Neither is optimal health.

The fact is, medical doctors receive relatively little training in nutrition. According to this article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "most graduating medical students continue to rate their nutrition preparation as inadequate." The average amount of time medical students have with nutrition instruction is 23 hours. That might sound like a lot, but seriously I've spent at least that in the past three weeks educating myself on the correct dosage and numerous health implications of a single mineral, and I've only just scratched the surface. What you take into your body on a daily basis is the singlemost important cornerstone of your health. Without the necessary macro- and micro-nutrients, the body can't function the way it's meant to. Exercise takes a close second, I'd say. We are meant to move.

I once had a raging debate with a friend of mine who had just graduated from med school about what happens to your body when you don't take in the right amount of nutrients. His claim: you would have to eat nothing but Twinkies and ice cubes for a month in order to suffer nutrient deficiency that would impact your health.

When you look into many of the studies vaguely referenced in these articles that argue against vitamin and mineral supplements, you'll find that the supplements they're talking about are low-dose, low-quality synthetic vitamins, that the studies are over twenty years old, or that they were done on specific populations or people with specific medical conditions that might require a different course of treatment.

These studies often say nothing about what taking higher-dose, high-quality supplements, tailored to your personal needs, can do for you.

The thing that concerns me most is the undertone of much of this argumentation. There's a grand sweeping theme that seems to want to undermine people's attempts to do right by themselves. The message is, whatever steps you might be taking to take charge of your own health, you should give up, that taking care of yourself is not something you can do or should try to do. I've seen the same tone in comments on internet articles about supplements for health. Many people have accepted the message that you can't take charge of your own wellbeing, and even go so far as to try to police other people who are making positive efforts to give themselves the best chance at better health.

I'll leave it to Dr. Mercola to make the case for supplements in general, and Jonny Bowden to rebut one of the more pernicious cases of attack on vitamins, but I do want to say that before you remove any potentially helpful thing from your personal health program, investigate it thoroughly. Do your own thinking. (And do some Tai Chi or Qigong.)

Magnesium: Are You Getting Enough?

I don't often post about specific things you should or shouldn't do to protect your health (beyond doing Tai Chi and Qigong), since I believe that taking charge of your own wellbeing is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself. All the information you could possibly need to help yourself is out there, but lately I've become more aware that it is sometimes hard to sort through the vast field of research. I also think it's more and more important to add my voice to the chorus of those encouraging people to take charge of their own health and healing.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical doctor. I'm writing this based on my personal experience and on the writings and research of people much more knowledgeable about the science of nutrition, for what it's worth. However I am an excellent critical thinker and on every level this information makes so much sense to me.

Lately I've been sharing this information about Carolyn Dean, an MD and natural health researcher who has done a lot of work on the benefits of supplementing Magnesium. This simple mineral is important to somewhere between 300 and 800 body processes (depending on whose research you're reading). Chances are, you're deficient in it. (Yes you.) A 2009 American Family Physician article claims that 75% of Americans don't meet the recommended dietary allowance for magnesium

I've found it is often typical of mainstream medical articles that they will push the idea that you can and are getting enough nutrients from food if you eat a reasonable diet. Here's the thing, though: none of us are really eating a reasonable diet. Unless you know for a fact that the farmer who grows your produce is actively working on remineralizing the soil, your produce is not going to contain sufficient magnesium for you. The people who are working on remineralizing soil, like the folks at the SEER Centre in Scotland, can give you tips to work with your own garden or farm to remineralize the soil and give the plants a chance to take up those minerals, but otherwise, we are stuck with sub-par produce that is insufficient in this essential mineral.

According to Dr. Dean we are lucky to get 200mg of magnesium a day from dietary sources. What happens if you don't get enough? 

According to the NIH, magnesium deficiency signs are loss of appetite, nausea, weakness, numbness, tingling, heart irregularities, personality changes, seizures, and a few other nasty things. This all sounds very scary and if you go to that article I've linked at NIH it will sound like this level of deficiency is downright impossible if you eat food.

However let me ask you if you live with muscle cramps and contractions? That morning charlie horse is part and parcel of magnesium deficiency. If you're in magnesium inadequacy - just not quite getting enough - chances are you won't expire but you are probably still experiencing symptoms including muscle cramps and tics. 

Alternative healers tend to be much more inclusive in their lists of magnesium insufficiency signs. Dr. Andrew Weil includes the following in his list of magnesium deficiency symptoms:

Physical and mental fatigue

Persistent under-eye twitch

Tension in the upper back, shoulders and neck

Headaches

Pre-menstrual fluid retention and/or breast tenderness

Low energy

Fatigue

Weakness

Confusion

Nervousness

Anxiousness

Irritability

Seizures (and tantrums)

Poor digestion

PMS and hormonal imbalances

Inability to sleep

Muscle tension, spasm and cramps

Calcification of organs

Weakening of the bones

Abnormal heart rhythm


If that seems like a crazy catch-all list, it is. Magnesium is responsible for so many body functions that it can affect all these different systems. A longer list that is worth reading (skip it if you want to get to the stuff about what to do) is included in Dr. Weil's article, quoted at length from a piece by Dr. Sidney Baker. I'm including the whole thing here because it is may help you rethink some of those little things you live with that you have come to think of as normal but which are actually a sign that you might need more magnesium. I was personally blown away by this list:

“Magnesium deficiency can affect virtually every organ system of the body. With regard to skeletal muscle, one may experience twitches, cramps, muscle tension, muscle soreness, including back aches, neck pain, tension headaches and jaw joint (or TMJ) dysfunction. Also, one may experience chest tightness or a peculiar sensation that he can’t take a deep breath. Sometimes a person may sigh a lot.” 
“Symptoms involving impaired contraction of smooth muscles include constipation; urinary spasms; menstrual cramps; difficulty swallowing or a lump in the throat-especially provoked by eating sugar; photophobia, especially difficulty adjusting to oncoming bright headlights in the absence of eye disease; and loud noise sensitivity from stapedius muscle tension in the ear.” 
“Continuing with the symptoms of magnesium deficiency, the central nervous system is markedly affected. Symptoms include insomnia, anxiety, hyperactivity and restlessness with constant movement, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and premenstrual irritability. Magnesium deficiency symptoms involving the peripheral nervous system include numbness, tingling, and other abnormal sensations, such as zips, zaps and vibratory sensations.” 
“Symptoms or signs of the cardiovascular system include palpitations, heart arrhythmias, and angina due to spasms of the coronary arteries, high blood pressure and mitral valve prolapse. Be aware that not all of the symptoms need to be present to presume magnesium deficiency; but, many of them often occur together. For example, people with mitral valve prolapse frequently have palpitations, anxiety, panic attacks and premenstrual symptoms. People with magnesium deficiency often seem to be “uptight.” Other general symptoms include a salt craving, both carbohydrate craving and carbohydrate intolerance, especially of chocolate, and breast tenderness.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO
Consider supplementing with magnesium. Here's a summary of what I've learned so far from various sources.

FURTHER DISCLAIMER: Don't rely on my information here. Look it up for yourself or ask a naturopath to help you. Here is an article on contraindications - reasons you might not want to take magnesium. Here is another (second last paragraph on the main article).

The body naturally excretes magnesium if it can't use it / doesn't need it. This is good news because it means that unless you have certain very specific medical conditions, it is virtually impossible to take too much unless you are shooting it. The body excretes magnesium through the urinary tract and more noticeably from the bowels. If you get all excited about taking magnesium and take a ton of it all at once, you will probably experience diarrhea. At that point you are pooping out more than you're probably taking in, so don't go past bowel tolerance.

Natural Calm is a product that has helped a lot of people. It's magnesium citrate that you dissolve in water. You can sip it a little bit at a time, which will help you avoid dumping a ton of magnesium into your system all at once and therefore help you avoid hitting bowel tolerance. (You'll know when your bowel movements become loose. You want to back off on the dosage when they do.) The best advice I read was to start with about 200mg/day, hold at that level for 3-4 days, then up the dosage by 100mg, keep taking that for 3-4 days, and so on, until your bowels tell you that you've hit the right level.

For some people, bowel tolerance happens long before symptoms go away, so in that case you might look into transdermal magnesium (magnesium baths with epsom salts or magnesium flakes; magnesium oil).

There are also magnesium supplements that claim to have a lesser impact on the bowels. You can read more about those at Carolyn Dean's website.

MY EXPERIENCE
I exercise a lot, so muscle soreness and tenderness is a familiar friend to me, and something I accept as a sign that I got a really good workout in the day before.

More disturbing are the muscle tics and pings that would sometimes come up. I am familiar with the eye tic that comes with stress. (No big deal, I'm stressed, eye is ticking, it will go away, right? It always has before.)

The idea I try to work with isn't okay or acceptable health, though: it's optimal health. I'm not talking about absolute perfection, just the best health I can access at any given time, including where it's worth putting in effort to include something new into the routine.

Background: I've become aware in the past several months that I am not dealing as well with my stress as usual. I had a few back-to-back stressful incidents that each were okay on their own, but all put together seemed to be wearing me down. My usual tricks and tools - giving myself Reiki, making sure I get my meditation in, paying extra attention to my sleep and relaxation - were not working as well as usual.

Basically, feeling "uptight" didn't begin to cover it.

I began taking magnesium on a Tuesday, starting with 200mg that I sipped over the course of about 4 hours. Within twelve hours, the black cloud that had been following me around totally lifted. In very short order I went from feeling like I was in a profound and uncomfortable fog to a state of mental clarity and a rational perspective.

I am continuing to supplement with extra magnesium (I was already taking about 300mg in my multivitamin, but clearly it was not enough). I'm very happy with my results so far. Muscle tics and pings are down, my mood is up, and my energy levels are way up. I can't wait to see what it will do for me in the long term.

SOURCES
A new edition of Magnesium Miracle is coming out on March 7, 2014, so if you want to read a whole book about it, I'd look into that.

A video talk with Carolyn Dean and a nice summary of the magnesium issue is here at Dr. Mercola's website.

An interview with Carolyn Dean at Radio 314 is what got me interested in all this.