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The 3 Bodies: How to Take a Holistic Perspective on Health

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The complete integration of all aspects of ourselves is what true health is all about — i.e. a “holistic” approach. What most of us don’t understand is there are three very distinct versions of ourselves that need nurturing. The vast majority of us are familiar with the concept of mind/body/spirit, but it is safe to say our understanding of the function of each is probably lacking. This is where I come in — this idea is the basis for all of my work.

I have had the incredible honor of studying energetic Chinese medicine with one of the greatest healers this world has ever known, Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson. Dr. Johnson is my Sifu, and was the vehicle for my entire education in Chinese medicine, Daoist mystical philosophy, and martial arts. One of the major tenants I learned is that we are not simply our physical bodies. There are three versions of us that enter a room, drive a car, and interact with the ones we love. Those three versions, which realistically cannot be separated, need nurturing in very specific ways.

This is a view that has existed in pockets of China for millennia, and whenever I work with a patient, I must treat the three bodies individually to affect any whole body change. The idea of the “three bodies” governs every aspect of our existence and with a little understanding, it can provide you with clarity of what might be going on in your life.

The Physical Body — Jing

This is aspect we are most familiar with and can agree upon needs continual care. Our physical bodies are the vehicle for our life. All of the organs, tissues, and fluids of the body make up who we are on this physical plane.

In respects to “care,” we all should be fairly familiar with what needs to be done. Solid nutrition, exercise, lots of water, fresh air, and sleep. Taking care of our bodies is an all day, everyday affair that must be catered to. I think it’s safe to say that if you are reading this and are an active member of the Whole Life Challenge community, you have this awareness and are working on these areas.

Chinese Medicine - 3 Bodies

The Emotional Body — Qi

Many of you conceptualize this one as the “mind” in “mind-body.” The body cannot function properly without a sharp, balanced mental state. In the Qigong world, we view this part of us as the “emotional body.” As emotions are experienced, we go through ups and downs, and more importantly, the buildup and release of Qi throughout the body.

Qi is considered to be the essential energy of the universe, and it is governed by specific organs and organ pairings. When we have a person who tends to be emotional, or has slid into more clinically recognizable diagnosis of mental illness, a very clear and identifiable disharmony in Qi can be seen.

When we talk about health maintenance in this area, we include everything you need to do to make sure you are calm, collected, and functioning in a mentally healthy way. Stress, emotional pain, and anything that derails your headspace are the things that need managing and care on this level, or in this body.

The Spirit Body — Shen

This is the spiritual aspect of ourselves. That connection you have to divinity, the universe, or God. I’m not talking about religion, but I could be. And I’m not telling you that you must have a relationship with God, but your spirit body does require a connection to something bigger for it to be healthy. That connection never leaves us, and as with any relationship, it needs nurturing.

The Shen thrives in times of prayer, in times of communion, in times of connection. Now, you can have a relationship with nature in the sense that hiking is your church. You can have a spiritual connection with surfing where you are the most connected to the universe on a surfboard. Or you can go standard-issue spiritual and find yourself in deep connection during a devotional, prayer, or a church service. I don’t want to force a specific set of religious dogma on you, but I am going to tell you that a relationship of any kind with your idea of the creator is necessary.

Chinese Medicine - 3 Bodies

1 + 1 + 1 = 1

From a clinical perspective, I have to look at all three bodies when diagnosing and treating illness using Medical Qigong. Much of what we all know about medicine in the Western world is dramatically different than what Eastern trained doctors look at. Yes, patients still come in and have a specific ailment that we are challenged with reversing, but the uniqueness of traditional Chinese medicine is that it is frankly not interested in the “diagnosis” itself. We are more concerned with how you got there, not just the final destination.

Here’s where the holistic idea comes into play. The three bodies impact one another. When all three are thriving, the person thrives. Health is robust, vitality is high, and the machine is finely tuned. Where most of us go wrong, and I am as guilty as you, is that one of those bodies is sick. One of those bodies has either been neglected or abused (in a fatigued sense) to a point where overall health begins to diminish.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen patients come in with a physical disease that turns out to be caused by either the energetic body (Qi) or the spirit (Shen) being in some kind of crisis. In fact, particularly with chronic conditions, the physical ailment is nearly always the result of some other influence making the body sick.

Think of stress, for example. We can all agree on some level that stress is a mentally driven thing. We have an aspect of our lives that grinds our gears and we, as individuals, are not responding to it in a healthy way. As one of my heroes, Captain Jack Sparrow, said, “The problem is not the problem. Your attitude toward the problem is the problem. Do you understand?” Stress is one of the driving factors behind nearly all of our most feared illnesses. Yes, there are stressors we cannot avoid, but we all have sources of stress that we could either handle better or get rid of entirely.

When I was in school, my Sifu told stories of cancer patients being removed from their homes, families, and entire lives to go off and heal far away. Cut off from all the things that had been influencing them, these people would receive what most would consider to be miraculous healings. What was happening was they were severing the relationship with the things that drove their stress — and the body was then able to do the healing. It’s a quite elegant system when you stop and think about it.

Chinese Medicine - 3 Bodies

A Simple Way to Nurture to All 3 Bodies

The reason I am an expert at any level of this approach to health is because I am the poster child for making mistakes. No, my gift is not some magical education or affiliations with gurus, it’s the repeated face-planting I do in regards to my own health that reminds me of how critical nurturing all three bodies can be.

See, I’m the guy who is typically killing it one of the areas and completely forgetting about the others. My spiritual game may be dialed in, but then I eat garbage and take an extended vacation from physical activity. And admittedly, I’m a complete stress case most of the time. So this, my friends, is what sends a guy like me — a lifelong athlete, strength coach, and professional health practitioner — to the emergency room on my 41st birthday with a blood pressure of 170/110. Yes, true story, and I am learning my lesson the hard way. So don’t feel bad if you feel like you “should” know how to take care of yourself and yet for some reason you’re not. I’m right there with you.

Which is why I’m asking you to join me in listening to all three of your bodies and I’m going to share a simple list of things you can do to get started. You don’t have to be an ultra-marathon, vegan therapist who is a part-time Catholic priest to be healthy. I think that is where most of us get jammed up. I know I do. In truth, a little bit of all three goes a long way. It’s why we call it balance.

So, here’s how to start achieving that balance:

  1. Exercise three to five times a week (anything from a walk to a gnarly CrossFit workout).
  2. Meditate for ten to twenty minutes a day.
  3. A couple times a day look up to the heavens and give thanks and praise for having the opportunity to live this blessed life.
  4. Eat something that grew out of the ground.
  5. Drink a ton of really clean water.
  6. Laugh with someone you love and cry tears of happiness.

Stop and take inventory of yourself. Taking care of the three bodies isn’t a job — it’s a way of loving yourself.

Chris Holder
Chris Holder comes to The Whole Life Challenge with an incredibly diversified background. With over thirty years as an athlete and strength and conditioning coach, Chris is also a Daoist Priest and Medical Qigong Doctor.

Under the tutelage of legendary Kung Fu and Qigong Grand Master Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson, Chris has been at the forefront of Qigong research at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. Dr. Holder has created a working laboratory within his strength program blending both eastern medical and spiritual practices with western scientific strength training protocols. Having concluded the first-of-its-kind Qigong/strength training study in the winter of 2015, Dr. Holder and his staff are preparing research on Qigong and the induction of flow states along with research investigating Qigong's impact on inflammation in high-level CrossFit athletes.

Known in many circles as a pioneer of kettlebell training at the college level, Chris, a Senior RKC, opened the door in the early 2000s to break the mold and monotony of the traditional methods of training college student-athletes. Having been mentored by some of the most recognizable gurus in the strength training world, Chris is an accomplished Olympic lifting coach, a fully decorated Z-Health Trainer, and a go-to expert on fixing issues with CrossFit competitors.