Photos by Elaine
The extreme heat (above 35 degrees celsius) and the rains of this past summer has both helped our plants to grow and mature. Some plants like the Coriander have dried out, which I had expected as they are very fast-growing, short-living beings that need to be plucked regularly for their leaves to continue growth. They are beginning to grow their seed, which we will harvest for next year's growth. We have also discovered a stowaway Tomato plant, growing in our pot of Lupins. It grew late in the season so we will see if it will have enough time to fruit. The Garden Project adventure has gotten many of our team members on the balcony, watering and sharing in its growth. Looking up from Falknerstrasse to see living beings on our balcony is very satisfying. Not just that they are beautiful, green and blossoming, but also to know that life can thrive in the harshest of environments by adapting.
Photos by Elaine
"To retreat" means to take a step back or to withdraw. Often this word was used in war or fighting strategy, which most often presents a negative situation of being in an inferior position or impending defeat. However, there is another indication to it, meaning to take time out or away from our everyday lives to a calm, secluded place. Many spiritual traditions have practiced this as a way of intensifying the connection to the divine, by focusing the mind, spirit, maybe the body in specific practices such as meditation or prayer or physical movement.
This past July, as every July for the past 10 years, my family and I were in the area of Ftan/Scuol, in Canton Graubunden, where the Inn River flows out of Switzerland into Austria. ICM has organized a Tai Ji Quan and Qi Gong retreat in this area for that long along with some Qi Gong colleagues from Appenzell. My husband, Frank, and our colleague, Petra, lead the practice, which lasts half a day ending by lunch. It has been our experience that we visit a wonderful environment, where the energy of the land is strong and nature pure, but we almost never had time outside of training time to see the sights or do our own exploration of the area. Over the years we have planned retreats that last only till lunchtime and participants can go off on their own later in the day to do whatever it is that they need to continue their process of withdrawing from their everyday lives and finding what they need to regenerate, whether it be resting, bathing in thermal baths or taking a hike in nature.
Many times now, we have discussed changing the venue of our Summer Retreat and every time we have decided to stay in this area of Switzerland. Scuol/Ftan lies in the Lower Engadine region of Graubunden. Looking at a map a few weeks ago, I finally found out why it's called Engadine. "En" is the Romansh name for Inn, hence, Engadine is the "Valley of the En River". The Inn River is the only river in Switzerland that ends in the Black Sea as it merges with the Danube River in Passau, Germany. It begins in Piz Bernina (4049m) and flows downward through Scuol (1290m) and then into Austria. It has a special blue-green color and the powerful current enlivens the spirit, inspiring calmness and awe. This is not the only body of water that exists in the area. Between the towns of Scuol, Ftan (1648m), Sent (1440m) and Vulpera (1287m) are many underground springs that flow mineral water, rich in minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium and even natural carbon dioxide, giving the water a natural sparkling quality. Since the 1300s, people have been coming to this area to bathe in the thermal baths and drink in mineral drinking halls. Surrounding all these are mountains over 3000 metres high, many covered in Swiss Stone Pine trees. In the region, Europe's highest forest of Pinus cembra lies at 2400m, grow trees as old as 700 years. The Swiss National Park is close by, where wildlife like deer, alpine ibex, marmots, and plants like Edelweiss and Arnica montana grow freely.
As you can imagine, these are all reasons that draw us to return here every year, to practice Tai Ji Quan and Qi Gong in an environment so rich and vibrant in Qi. My feeling is also that here in these mountains, heaven meets earth more intensely and the 5 elements (Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal) are at their purest and so vividly present, as well as so easily accessible. This is an environment with little industry and I get a sense of respect of the elements from the people who live here. They take care to beautify and adorn the many fountains, through which mineral water from the many springs flow into, with flowers and sculptures. The water is pure, refreshing and perfect for drinking. There is a public thermal bath here that you can bathe in, while looking out into the mountains, which my father described as "being in heaven" when he bathed here a few years ago. All the retreat participants often tell us how well and strong they feel after practicing and being in this environment, even if it were their first time practicing Tai Ji Quan and Qi Gong. So next July ( July 12-17, 2020 ), do come practice with us and retreat into this place of wonder that still exists. You may be surprised by what you find in nature and within yourself.
Photos by Elaine
I became aware of fasting already as a child. In Malaysia, where I grew up, even the Muslim children fast during Ramadan. I grew up in a Catholic household and during Lent season, Good Friday and even Advent season, we either fasted from food or abstained from meat. What is fasting? It means an abstinence from something, often food. But there are many other ways of fasting, as well as many goals for fasting. It is a very personal process.
Every year now for the last 8 years, I have done some kind of fasting in late spring/early summer, as the Qi is closer to the surface of the physical body than in autumn or winter. Sometimes I abstain from all food or certain types of food. Often I begin at the new moon and end either around the full or the following new moon, 2 to 4 weeks. I do this not as a way to lose weight, as so many people imagine (fasting is the worse way to lose weight!), but to let go of energetic blockages, or attachment to food and other behaviours that don't benefit me, or just to get clarity. Thus, beginning afresh. Often, I have fasted with an intention or a dedication to someone. This makes it a little easier, it guides the journey and pulls you back on the path when the moments of vulnerability occur, which they will definitely occur.
This year, I decided that I wanted to do it differently. I didn't need to remove anything from my system but I realized that I could spend more time connecting with my environment and my inner self. I found that I hadn't spent enough time in nature since juggling work and family life. I used to take walks almost every day or hike in nature often when I lived in California. On the new moon in May, almost 2 months ago now, I began my practice of walking in nature at dawn or dusk for at least 20 minutes. Sometimes, I was on the path for 2 hours. It was amazing! No excuses, rain or shine, family or no family, I went on my walk.
Why dawn or dusk? These are very special times of the day. For one thing, there are very few people around. There is a certain quiet in the air. I met an occasional dog-walker but very few people were out and about at that time of day. There is also that detail of light, the moment between light and dark is really special. What I often saw clearly in the bright daylight was quite different in the sunset/sunrise. I felt like I found secret spaces that only opened up at that moment between sunrise/sunset. Kind of like in "The Hobbit," by J.R.R. Tolkien, where the door to the Lonely Mountain would only be able to be opened at that certain time of year, where the light of the moon shone of the face of the mountain, illuminating that secret keyhole.
The sky at sunset would glow red, purple, peach... it was often an artist palette of radiant colours, until the sun dropped, then shades of darkness would engulf the sky and all around. Then, the stars would shine. A few times, I encountered animals, birds often, once a fox, so quick I almost wasn't sure it was even there, and once a deer, who leapt so nimbly over the path and into the forest before I could even be aware of its presence. I felt very connected to nature. I felt like I was experiencing the space around me like our ancestors did, who had little of our modern technology. Just me, with my legs, my senses and body, feeling the earth under my feet, the sky over my head, moving in the space around me.
I realized then that we are so blessed in Switzerland. Though small, we still have many spaces of nature and so accessible on foot. Where I grew up, which is now a city of over a million people, nature spaces are a little more challenging to get to, partly due to urbanization, which has lengthened distances to natural spaces and also the lack of nature conservation. We are so lucky that we don't have to pay to be able to go into natural spaces. For instance, the Swiss National Park in Graubünden has no entry fee or just walk out your door and within a few minutes, there are trees, forests or even a lake or river, maybe even mountains. You don't have to do a fast like I did. But, value what you have as your own backyard. No excuses, take a walk outside, enjoy the fresh air, the environment that surrounds us and be open to what nature wants to share with you.
Photos by Elaine
The Summer Solstice came on the 21st of June and passed. The heat of summer has been sweltering. Our plants are thriving, blossoming, but some suffering from the extreme heat. We have been busy watering and nurturing them as much as we can. Our Sage was scorched early on in June, turning yellow and was looking like it wouldn't make it. I changed its position, slightly away from the direct sunlight and onto another balcony with some other plants. Since a few weeks, it is looking better, like it will make it though the summer. Amazing how so little can make a difference. Our team at ICM has had the benefit of fresh herbs, like Basil and Coriander, with their lunch. We have tried out fresh Mint tea and will soon share our harvest with our clients and visitors to ICM. So come by and share a cup of home-grown Mint tea to cool you down in the hot summer days.
Photos by Elaine
I first met Elder in the summer 1999, on my first visit to Europe. My husband and I were still studying in the USA and as we came together to Switzerland, he introduced Elder to me. Sambucus nigra in Latin or Holunder in German. This beautiful, sweet scented, small tree crowned in white glorious blossoms in June. I was immediately enthralled by her presence. He told me then that Elder is considered the friend of humans, a protector in old European culture. Hence, often grown next to houses. He introduced me to the syrup and told me how people in Switzerland often go out and gather the blossoms to make the drink. I obviously loved its flavor and vowed I would make it myself. Since we moved to Switzerland, I have done this almost every year with my children. One of the first plants that my kids could identify as young children was Elder.
Last year, I gained new perspectives on plants. Ever since I began studying herbal medicine, I have had a feeling that there is more to plants than just leaves, branches, fruits and roots. I went to study with Nathaniel Hughes in England, who teaches Intuitive Herbalism. He has opened a door to plants for me. The perspective that plants are living beings in themselves with a character, mind and spirit as we do. We got introduced to plants, everyday plants that you may pass as you walk to work or in your backyard. It amazed me how I didn't notice them or realize how they were even present. In the Intuitive Herbalism course, Nathaniel showed us how to slow down to "plant speed." We humans move at such high speeds that we are not aware of other beings that may move and live at a slower pace. Humans use speech as a way of communication and don't realize that maybe other beings on the planet actually are communicating to us and each other in other ways.
This brings me back to Elder. Have you ever noticed how this plant blossoms at this time of year and perfumes the air with a mild sweet cooling scent? I noticed too that she, I experience Elder as a female being, is often hidden at other times of the year and right at the cusp of summer, she pops her head out beside the tram tracks, on the side of a walking path or even in the corner where the compost sits in the garden, like white fire shining in the newly summer sunlight. I experience her as a being of transition, like on a path or at the transition of spring into summer. Interestingly, this is one of the effects of Elder flower on our human body. It helps to cool fevers, which is in one perspective, a space of being in between worlds. In his book "Intuitive Herbalism," Nathaniel writes,
"The Elder mother is a creature of ancient folklore with many healing gifts for us. Perhaps the greatest among them is the power to lift us into fever, take us into timeless delirium and see us through. She offers an entrance to our underworld where we may see the causes in spirit of our illness and purge them through our sweat."
Whenever anyone in my family has a fever, we often drink the Elder flower syrup throughout the process. Previously, I imagined it only to be hydrating and cooling but this new perspective, that Nathaniel Hughes has given me, sure awakens my interest to explore further. So next time you or someone in your family has a fever, try drinking lots of Elder flower syrup, sleep and let the healing process begin.
Of course, Elder also has berries that ripen in autumn, which are helpful in clearing phlegm conditions. I have a friend who makes them into syrup and jams, but I haven't yet experimented with the berries. If you haven't tried making your own Elder Flower Syrup, try it. It's easy. Here's a recipe I've used for a while.
Elder Flower Syrup
10 sprigs or more of Elder flower
1 L water
1 kg sugar
2 lemons, grate the rind for more citrus flavor
20 g citric acid (optional)
Soak the flowers in the water overnight with lemons. Heat fluid with sugar (and citric acid) until melted. Strain liquid of the blossoms, lemon or insects. Fill while hot into airtight glass bottles to keep vacuum for conservation. With citric acid, the syrup will last longer. Otherwise, refrigerate and it should last at least a month. It makes about 1.5 L syrup. Once opened, keep refrigerated.
Photo by Elaine
All our plants are in their pots and growing. Since the cooling down rains and then the heating up these last few days, our plants are bursting into growth. We have Peppermint, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, Calendula, Coriander, Rosemary, Thyme, Basil, Oregano, Majoram, Hyssop, Perilla, Tarragon, Goji, Lupines, Lovage and Swiss Chard. Most are thriving, except for a Rosemary plant. Not sure why. Once a gardener told me that plants are like humans, if they don't like the environment they are moved into, they don't thrive. I thanked him for his words of wisdom and remember that plants are living beings like us humans.
Photos by Elaine
What has often fascinated me are stories of transformation. Even as a young child, I loved reading fairy tales like The Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid or The Ugly Duckling. It’s only since I began my studies in Chinese Medicine that I realized why. As with the seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter), all living beings on earth are guided by the cycles of birth, growth, transformation, death and possibly rebirth. Composting is that “real” tale for me. I gather my kitchen waste, put it in a compost pile in the garden, the transformation from dead food scraps to fertile earth, which allows me to grow plants that will become food again. The cycle of life, death and rebirth happening in my garden, without me doing much except to occasionally turn the pile. This is the ultimate story of transformation happening right in my own backyard.
My family and I have had a compost bin ever since we have had a garden. Our current compost bin is 6 years old. We all know that traditional composting is based on the decomposing process, an aerobic process which takes time. My kids know, as we do, that we can’t put meat, dairy or cooked grains in compost, as these will attract vermin, or citrus, due to it not decomposing well and worms don’t like them. One of my boys had the chore of taking out the kitchen scraps, at least once a week or in summer up to 3 times, and putting it in the big bin in the garden. There, he would be assaulted by flying insects, slimy slugs and the putrid scent of decomposition, which he totally detested. Now, that has all changed.
We began a Bokashi compost this past February. I had seen it many years ago in a catalog for natural products but didn’t look further into it. Some vegan friends of ours mentioned that they were using it and then last year a good friend of mine from Malaysia mentioned that she had one. When I told her of our compost not having meat, grains or citrus, we began to discuss the benefits of Bokashi and how one can basically put every organic matter in it to ferment, creating super healthy compost without the vermin.
Bokashi is a Japanese word meaning “alteration” or “fading away.” The Bokashi composting method, developed by Dr. Teruo Higa, is a fermentation process not a decomposition. It works with bacteria like Lactobacilli, yeast and purple non-sulfur bacteria, which come in the form of Bokashi bran. This bran is added to the kitchen waste every time you put it in the airtight Bokashi bin. It’s an anaerobic process, which ferments and doesn’t decompose the organic matter. Hence, it doesn’t smell like decay but more like a pickling (slightly vinegar/acid) odor, which vermin do not like. We purchased our kit which comes with 2 airtight buckets and a whole bag of Bokashi bran. My internet research has shown me that you can make it all yourself, if you want to. Once the bucket is full, you set it aside for 2 weeks and then bury the organic matter in the earth for another 2 weeks before you plant on top of the enriched soil. I put mine in my compost bucket. After 2 weeks, there’s almost no more matter that resembles food, just sweet-smelling compost full of worms. What’s also great is that there is a Bokashi tea, which needs to be emptied every 2-3 days and this can be used to help fertilize plants (diluted down with water) or poured down the drain to help clean your pipes. Now how brilliant is that? Food waste transformed into earth and the liquid used to clean and fertilize, all happening in my kitchen and backyard. That’s what I call transformation!
*Note: Author has not received any financial renummeration for recommendations
Photo (Metamorphosis) by Pixabay user Annca
Photos Bokashi & Compost by Elaine
I woke up this morning to the unexpected flakes of snow falling as I opened the window. It's April, early spring. Snow in April is not surprising, unexpected due to the last month of sunshine but not surprising. Humans have known that snow is possible even in spring. Our classical Chinese Medical text, Yellow Emperor Classic of Internal Medicine (Huang Di Nei Jing), written 3000 years ago, speaks of it. Spring is a time of changes, of warmth and cold, of winds. Hence, we must be careful not to open too soon. Not t-shirt weather just yet, keep the jacket on.
Paying heed to this. Our garden project has already begun since the middle of last month. We have out vessels for planting ready on the balcony, earth awaits to be filled into these vessels. Seeds have been planted but inside, in a little "greenhouse," to keep the warmth and moisture ever present. The seedlings are thriving. We have basil, hyssop, coriander, gou qi zi, echinacea, to name a few. We wait till the middle of April to set the seedlings into their vessels outside, observing the weather to ensure that they have the best temperature and environment for growth. A garden, as we humans, needs to be nurtured. Sometimes, that means waiting for the right moment to move forward.
Photo by Elaine
Since a few weeks it's officially Spring! Beautiful rays of sunlight, spring rains, blossoming trees and plants, sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes...If you experience Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis or Hay Fever, then you know what I am talking about. It can be frustrating to see the beautiful spring unfold and know that all this blossoming is going to make you sneeze. From the Western medical point of view, it is an inflammation of inner nose to an allergen. In Chinese Medicine, it is often viewed as a deficiency in the Lung and Kidney's Defensive Qi/Wei Qi, which then leads to the body's overreaction. In acute situations, this may produce a cold or heat condition with some invasion of what we call wind in the nose, leading to sneezing, or in the eyes, which leads to itching, reddening and irritation. If severe, it may move deeper into the body affecting breathing, causing asthma.
So, what is Wei Qi? In Chinese Medicine, there is the idea of Qi, sometimes translated as vital energy, that exists in all living things and there are different kinds of Qi in the human body. One of them is Wei Qi. Translated as Defensive or Protective Qi, as it circulates and protects the exterior of the body, such as on/in the skin, the muscles and sinews. It deals with the outer world and helps us adapt to external changes. So Wei Qi is responsible for protecting our bodies from colds, flus, pollen, climatic changes and even psycho-emotional stressors. Returning to the theme of Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis, it is then very important to tone and strengthen the Wei Qi. Often, the strategy is Wei Qi Strengthening in pre-allergy season, such as in autumn or in winter or early spring depending on when the acute symptoms begin. We do this with acupuncture, herbs and even self-massage techniques. Also, what you eat and getting enough sleep affects the Wei Qi.
I personally am affected by Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis, which I have begun to call "Seasonal Irritation," and I have developed a personal strategy to cope with the issue over the years. I believe that words have power. If we attach ourselves to a particular "dis-ease," we will manifest the disease like a textbook. I have found that it's much easier to manage the symptoms and this phase of the year, which for me is about a month, since I began calling it Seasonal Irritation. I take my Chinese herbs pre-season and during the acute phase, do my acupuncture and limit exposure to the pollen. I do my Qi Gong exercises to stimulate the Wei Qi and my Yoga breathing techniques, which all help me cope. I have learned to adapt to the season, just as winter makes me put on a warm coat, spring urges me to take care of my Wei Qi.
We live in a time of extreme change, which maybe was always so since the beginning of time. What we do in the here and now, determines the future. I end this post with a quote from the book 'Ravens of Avalon' by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana L. Paxson, "What you cannot do is to keep things as they have been. All things transforming into another until the world itself is changed. Bend or break - it's up to you."
Photo by Pixabay Peter Dargatz
As I sit basking in the sunlight of the arriving spring, I can feel the inspiration to do and to create. Things bubble in my being, just as the shoots of the plants start to tickle the earth with its impatient need to find the warm sunshine. The red shoots in the picture are of Peony, which is a Chinese medicinal plant. Spring is a time of ideas, sometimes they rush at us at crazy speeds but some may take time to manifest, sometimes years.
Sometime last spring, I walked down the street to ICM, along Falknerstrasse. It's where the tram passes through. I realized how un-green it was. I looked up to our practice on the 4th floor and realized that we have 2 beautiful little balconies, that we almost never come out on. I watched all year through how the sunlight from the eastern sky shines onto them and how the angle of light changes through the year. It inspired me to begin something new already then. This Spring, we will initiate our ICM Garden Project. It will be the "greening of Falknerstrasse" starting from the top, hopefully downward.
What has happened since this seed was planted last year in my mind/being, is a sort of quiet observation process. Every time I came to ICM in the morning as I prepared the treatment space, I was observing the sunlight and the sensing the Qi of the space. I've also been researching what containers and seeds to sow, as well as when. This process has begun to change my view of things on so many levels. It's crazy, exciting, depressing sometimes yet wonderful! How something so small can have an impact on my life and change how I live life.
It's like this. First, I really wanted to recycle as well as I could, to stop or at least limit consuming/buying. So I tried to find out more about plastic containers, such as PET bottles and other plastics containers, to be used as planting containers. Here I opened a "can of worms" that I cannot turn away from. What I found out made me realise that we take too many things for granted and that we need to be more vigilant, so I've decided to get good old terracotta pots for our garden project, which we will use for a long time instead of recycling any unsafe plastic. We, at ICM, my family and myself are limiting our use of plastics as much as we can, especially those dealing with food and drink, as well as planting food in. I don't want to get too deeply into this topic here, so I will reference a blog I have been reading about plastics, www.myplasticfreelife.com.
I am reading more about Permaculture, which is pretty cool and I hope to garden/live more in this manner, as I find many similarities to Chinese medicine. I will write more about it in future posts. At home we have started a bokashi compost, in addition to our garden compost we have had for 5 years. These will be feeding our little project at ICM along with fertile soil for growth, as well as many other ideas and actions.
We will begin this month of March with growing seeds, mostly herbal plants like basil, coriander, calendula and even the ever popular Chinese herb, Gou Qi Zi. Let spring live through you, be the hand that plants the seed, that grows the tree and let the ideas blossom. It is what the world needs right now.
Photo by Elaine
I am a Chinese Medicine practitioner at ICM, mother of 2 boys, living on my third continent. I love to share my perspectives on healing, TCM, gardening, social change and life.