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Arms Swinging (1/3)
The full story behind this hilariously effective exercise.
I dream of a world where everyone swings their arms together.
It's my favorite restorative exercise and one of the ten self-care practices in my Daily Wellness Empowerment Program. It's a very simple exercise which only takes ten minutes, yet it's deeply calming and revitalizing for the body and mind.
If you haven't tried it yet, I invite you to follow this video every night for a month, making sure you get all the details right, and see how it makes you feel.
(And yes, it should also work without Japanese cherry blossoms swirling around you.)
As of this writing, I have introduced about 2,000 people to arms swinging.
People's typical reaction goes through three stages:
Looking at the exercise: "This is ridiculous."
After trying it for 10 minutes: "This feels so good."
After doing it for a month: "Oh my God, I have to tell everyone about this."
This arms swinging exercise does look funny, even to me, after all these years. A side effect of doing it, especially as a group, is that passersby stare at us and smile. The most fervent arms swingers can then wittily proselytize: "Wanna swing by?" 😉
But in this series of articles, I will try very hard to focus on the serious side of this wonderful (though still ridiculous) exercise and answer all the questions my friends ask me about it.
My First Introduction to Arms Swinging
The first time I heard about an arms swinging qi gong was in 2008 in Plum Village, France. I had just arrived at the monastery to ordain, and the Vietnamese venerable (not Thich Nhat Hanh but another very elderly monk), who was in his seventies, repeatedly showed us an arms swinging exercise called “dịch cân kinh” and claimed that practicing it religiously for a few months had cured his kidney cancer. I found it strange that the venerable was so enthusiastic about this silly-looking exercise and even attributed his cancer recovery to it. I tried the exercise, but to be honest, I did not see any benefit.
In 2011, while I was living in our branch monastery in Thailand, another brother, also of Vietnamese origin, religiously practiced the same “dịch cân kinh” arms swinging exercise and formed a small group of brothers to practice together with him. I decided to try the exercise again and joined. This time I was more committed and practiced for about half an hour, every afternoon, for 1.5 months. But still, no tangible results.
It’s time to give some background on arms swinging exercises. There is no “one” arms swinging exercise but a variety of them. They are grouped under the umbrella term bai-bi-yun-dong (摆臂运动), “swinging arms exercises”, sometimes shuai-shou-qi-gong (甩手气功), “swinging arms qi gong”, and form an important family of qi gong (氣功), the energetic exercises developed by Taoists in China.
In Vietnam, a neighboring country dominated by China for 1,000 years, the most popular arms swinging qi gong is called “dịch cân kinh”. “Dịch cân kinh” is the Sino-Vietnamese (Chinese pronounced the Vietnamese way) for yi-jin-jing (易筋经). “Dịch” (易) means “change”, “cân” (筋) means “tendons”, and “kinh” (经) is a sacred text. The exercise takes its name from the “Tendons Changing Classic”, an important Taoist scripture written in the 17th century which contains a number of physical exercises.
According to the author of the yi-jin-jing, these exercises all trace back to Bodhidharma, the first Chinese Zen patriarch.
According to modern historians, this is bullsh*t.
But I won’t comment on this point, because I’m politically correct when it comes to the Shaolin monks’ favorite patriarch, for both ecumenical and personal safety reasons.
It’s worth noting that the way the Tendons Changing Classic is interpreted by the Chinese is different from the way it is interpreted by the Vietnamese, and that, as far as I’m aware, the arms swinging exercise that the Vietnamese call “dịch cân kinh” has no equivalent outside the Vietnamese community.
Despite its questionable origin, many Vietnamese people faithfully practice the dịch cân kinh arms swinging exercise and claim to have cured many diseases with it. I have watched a number of videos and read a few booklets about it and found the testimonials very impressive.
In the dịch cân kinh arms swinging exercise, the practitioner keeps their arms rigid and swings their arms rapidly while contracting their lower abdominal muscles and anal sphincter. The theory behind this last point (no pun intended) is to create a pressure in the lower dan-tien, the area including the navel and below, which Taoists consider to be the energetic center of the human body’s, in order to accumulate qi (energy). In practice, however, I found that swinging my arms rapidly and keeping my muscles contracted was not very relaxing and did not benefit my health.
The First Arms Swinging Exercise That Worked For Me
2012 was an important year in my life, so please allow me to digress here, as it will provide important context for the rest of our arms swinging odyssey. While still in Thailand, I had a serious health crisis. I had never been so sick in my life. I had spent a whole month in bed and was beginning to despair, as neither the modern Western hospital nor the acupuncturist could help me.
A Thai friend told me about a doctor named Jaiphet Klajon (nicknamed Doctor Green) who teaches self-care for free in popular seminars. I made the trip, not expecting much. But after the first day of practicing his techniques, I felt better. By the end of the second day, I was back to normal. And on the third day, I joined his community’s work in the rice field.
As you can imagine, this series of events made a deep impression on me. Two things in particular shocked me:
how much pain physical illness can cause, and
that there were simple, free, and effective ways to take care of my health that no one had ever told me about.
When I returned to the monastery, I vowed to learn everything I could about physical self-care, first to take better care of myself, and then to share with others.
⚡ - - aspie brain: on. - - bodhisattva heart: lit. - - mad scientist mode: activated. - - ⚡
In addition to continuing to learn and experiment with Dr Klajon’s nine self-care practices, which are,
Whole food plant-based diet,
Green juices and urine therapy,
Clay and charcoal,
Hands and feet herbal baths,
Energy management, and
Dhamma / meditation,
I also learned about ,
Our world’s traditional medicines: Chinese, Ayurvedic, Greek, African,
Health and self-care in the original community of the Buddha,
The 19th-21st century naturopathic movement in the West,
Lifestyle medicine and modern approaches to self-care,
Research on the Blue Zones, the longest living populations,
Exercise: mostly yoga and qi gong,
Diets: macrobiotics, raw,…
Fasting: water, dry, juice, short and long, and various cleanses,
Breathwork: alternate nostrils, Wim Hof,…
Inner energetic work: âm dương khí công, kundalini,
Auto massage: acupressure, rubbing, paida,
Cold and heat exposure,
and other things I’m too embarrassed to mention here.
At the beginning of my search for natural self-care practices, I stumbled upon the first arms swinging exercise that worked for me in a beautiful book called Cẩm Nang Dưỡng Sinh Thông Kinh Lạc, a “Manual on Nourishing Life and Clearing the Meridians”.
“Nourishing life” here refers to the self-care practices of Taoism, and the “meridians” are our body’s energetic pathways that, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, when clogged produce disease and when cleared provide health. The author, a Chinese doctor, tells the following story: One day he was at home and looked out the window and saw a man standing in his backyard staring at his roof. He came out of his house and asked the man, “Can I help you?” The man replied, “I’m looking at your security system, because I need to buy one for my house. But yours doesn’t look very good. I could easily climb onto your roof.“ The doctor was surprised, because although the man was of a certain age, “his back was straight, his eyes were bright, and he had a strong life force”. The doctor, ever curious, asked the man how he cared for his health.
The man replied, "In my youth I wasted my health by partying and sleeping at irregular hours. I became frail and looked for solutions. I heard there was a Taoist hermit on a mountain who could help, so I went to see him. He gave me only one exercise: standing, I swing my arms in a relaxed manner, keeping them quite straight but not stiff, and parallel to each other. Every time my hands come up to chest height, I stand on my toes, and every time they come down, I bring my heels back to the ground. I have been swinging my arms in this way religiously, and my health has been strong ever since.”
I tried this exercise and it worked for me. The exercise was extremely simple, yet it promoted the flow of energy throughout my entire body in a way that felt good, natural, and deeply grounding.
But still... it wasn't quite there. The main problem was that after about ten minutes, my calves started to burn, which meant that I could not practice this arms swinging exercise comfortably for too long.
Ping Shuai Gong: an Arms Swinging Breakthrough
In 2013, when I was back at my root monastery in France, I saw two brothers doing a different kind of arms swinging: they were swinging their arms naturally and squatting on every fifth count. I asked them about it and they kindly lent me their arms swinging DVD (seriously, a whole DVD on arms swinging). I was very impressed by the self-healing testimonials, the simplicity of the exercise, and the kindness of the instructors. Ping shuai gong seemed great. But as Dr. Greger likes to say, "You don't know... until you... put it to the test."
So I put it to the test.
And yes. It was great.
It reduced tension and pain, regulated my nervous system, promoted energy flow throughout my body, and made my whole body buzz with peace and energy.
Master Li Feng Shan (李风山) is a well-known wu shu, qi gong, and tai chi master and head of the Meimen Qigong Culture Center in Taipei, Taiwan. He realized that most people don’t have the time and motivation for a complex qi gong routine, so he set out to find a simple, universal exercise to help the health of the world, and created ping shuai gong (平甩功), based on the yi-jin-jing (17th century) that we’ve talked about earlier, and Master Chang San-Feng’s tai-ji-gong (around the 12th century). Master Chang San-Feng is the legendary founder of tai chi chuan. According to his biography (I’m not making this up), “Chang San-Feng was born sometime between 600 and 1600 AD, perhaps sometime during the Sung Dynasty, or maybe the Yuan Dynasty, but exactly at midnight on the fourth of April, 1247, and he lived precisely between the years 960 and 1126.” Also, “He was very tall, his beard reached his navel, his hair touched the ground.” Oh, I see... That’s why he took long tai chi steps. To avoid stepping on his hair.
Sorry, I got distracted.
“Ping” (平) means “even, regular”, “shuai” (甩) means “swinging”, and “gong” (功) means “exercise”. Ping shuai gong is an exercise in which one swings [their arms] evenly.
According to the Meimen Qigong Culture Center, over 100,000 people have started practicing ping shuai gong and benefitted greatly, both physically and mentally.
Here are some inspiring quotes from their booklet:
Ping shuai appears to be an ordinary exercise, but if you learn it well and do it every day, its effects can be extraordinary.
Most people are afraid of illnesses because they do not have a correct health routine to follow. When we have such a routine, its [benefits] will take root inside of us.
A person who practices qigong everyday has a huge store of life-sustaining energy and stays confident and composed in the face of crises. The first rule of learning qigong is to follow a good exercise and practice everyday. Stick to one exercise until you have a complete understanding of the what, how, and why of this exercise. Faith and confidence will grow out of persistence, and so will an inexhaustible life force.
I love that this exercise is so simple and effective, and that they promote it for free all over the world. If I ever visit Taiwan, I will definitely try to meet ping shuai gong instructors.
However, as amazing as I found the ping shuai gong arms swinging exercise, I felt that it could be improved. Although they tell you to bend your knees only as far as feels loose and comfortable, most instructors demonstrate squatting quite low, which may make the exercise more strengthening but less restorative, which is the actual purpose of the exercise.
Please allow me to unpack this because it is important.
I think of physical exercises as more or less strengthening or restorative:
A strengthening exercise is one that puts pressure on the heart, lungs, and muscles. Think of running, push-ups, and weightlifting.
A restorative exercise is one that makes you more flexible, loose, and increases circulation throughout your body, but, and this is key, without making you tired. Think yin yoga, auto massage, and gentle forms of qigong.
Of course, it's a continuum, and most exercises fall somewhere in the middle of that continuum, as in the case of sun salutations in yoga, which are a mix of stretching, gentle cardio, and light muscle mobilization. And while we do need strengthening exercises, there is great value in having a strictly restorative exercise in our lives.
A purely restorative exercise is an exercise we can return to again and again, even when we're tired, sick, or aging, without risk of injury. It releases tension, reduces pain, regulates our nervous system, and activates the self-healing mechanisms of our body and mind. A purely restorative exercise can be the foundation of our exercise routine because it ensures that our body stays free of tension and recovers well from more strenuous movements.
Cracking the Arms Swinging Code
It felt like a mission of the utmost importance: to take arms swinging to the next level... to create the ultimate arms swinging exercise... to finally crack the arms swinging code.
It took me about 1.5 years to:
analyze the most popular health qi gong exercises (not just arms swinging),
extract their common movements and principles,
observe the natural movements of the body, particularly walking and grabbing,
generate dozens of different arms swinging exercises,
experiment with them repeatedly,
take notes, make drawings, reflect,
compare all of these arms swinging exercises, and, finally,…
pick out the most effective of them all.
The mission was complete. I could (almost) die in peace.
The “ultimate arms swinging”, in my not-so-humble-but-empirical view, is a combination of ping shuai gong but with a minimal knee bend once every four counts instead of five, and the toe rising, each spaced by a normal swing.
You finally know the full story behind the Daily Wellness Empowerment Program’s wonderful, amazing, dare I say, awe-inspiring, (but still ridiculous) Arms Swinging exercise.
In the next article, I’ll write about the therapeutic effects of Arms Swinging and suggest potential mechanisms of actions.
Until then, happy arms swinging.
This newsletter is free and will remain free. It is 100% written by me. I only use AI to help me with the spelling, grammar, and word use. I welcome concrete and specific suggestions for improvement.
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