In good health: Timely lessons from TCM

Two women touching their chins against each other with the sea in the background.

With our relationship to the world being re-evaluated by a post-pandemic reset, the medicinal practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) should no longer feel ‘other’, explains TCM practitioner and Soho House Hong Kong member Gigi Ngan

By Gavin Yeung   Monday 27 July, 2020

Even among the diverse and eclectic membership of Soho House Hong Kong, U27 member Gigi Ngan holds a particularly unique job title: TCM practitioner. 

A holistic practice with a long history, Traditional Chinese Medicine is thought to date back more than 2,500 years. Yet, to varying degrees, many forms of TCM have migrated from their Chinese origins into the mainstream – acupuncture, cupping therapy and herbalism are prominent examples. 

At the crux of this traditional Chinese practice though is an emphasis on qi – a vital energy said to flow along channels in the body called meridians to help maintain optimum health. As a result, great attention is placed on spiritual and emotional wellbeing in TCM, as well as a reverence for the natural world.

Originally, Ngan was intent on studying marketing, but when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, she found herself drawn to learning the ancient art of TCM instead. Now one of the few young faces in the industry, she belongs to a fresh wave of practitioners helping TCM to shed its mysticism and appeal to younger generations – much of which is being achieved through education, modern advertising campaigns, and contemporary packaging.

In light of the pandemic, the allure of TCM has grown exponentially thanks to its wholly holistic approach, which begins with the patient’s emotions and ends in a wellbeing that emphasises balance between body and mind.

TCM isn’t just about making decisions based on a lab report. It’s about “body intelligence” and restoring its own natural balance

Below image by Lawrence Fafard

A woman trying to block the light from her face with her fingers.
Here, Ngan explains why this ancient practice long overlooked by Western science is more relevant to our post-COVID world than ever.

‘TCM isn’t just about treating people who show symptoms, or making decisions based on a lab report. It’s about “body intelligence”, or aiding the body in regulating and restoring its own natural balance, as well as to self-stimulate the production of hormones.

‘In addition to treating your symptoms, TCM emphasises the importance of better emotional health. We believe each organ is related to an emotion. For example, over-happiness or shock affects the heart; anxiety affects the spleen; and anger causes stagnation in the qi of your liver. When you’re sad, your lungs are affected; if you feel fear, your kidneys [will suffer]. Emotional imbalance can affect qi in the whole system. That’s why we attach a great deal of importance to taking care of our patients’ emotions.

‘Emphasis is always placed on understanding [each individual]. My clinic specialises in fertility treatments: when my patients have just given birth, they tend to feel anxious, so we’ll focus more on communication and creating a genuine connection to soothe them. In Western medicine, doctors can read a lab report to prescribe a treatment without even seeing the patient but, in TCM, our process is much more involved. We start the diagnosis by visually examining the patient from the moment they walk into the room, as well as looking at [the colouration of] their tongue. Next, we check for any odour before asking about their symptoms, like in Western medicine. Lastly, we palpate their pulse at the wrist. This process requires the practitioner to use all their senses to form a diagnosis.

‘Above all, TCM emphasises prevention to [avert] a disease before it [forms]. With coronavirus, for example, if your natural immunity is stronger, outside viruses, bacteria and negative energy will find it harder to attack your body. TCM emphasises the maintenance of your health in daily life so that you can restore or boost your own immunity.

‘People feel stressed about COVID-19 now and that doesn’t do your organs any favours. In TCM, we believe all illness stems from your emotions, so we are very holistic in that way. We ask what you do for a living not because we’re nosy, but because we want to gauge your stress levels, which can throw your body out of balance.

‘Being a young doctor has its benefits because we have a better understanding of the lifestyle habits of our expat patients. Normally, older doctors won’t go out to eat or drink much and they tend to head home early, so they find it hard to [relate to] foreign workers or young people. Asking patients to stop drinking entirely would be a difficult [conversation for them]. But in my case, instead of telling patients to cut out alcohol completely, I can advise them to drink red wine instead of white, as red wine is served at room temperature and therefore less demanding on your digestive system. Or, following the same line of logic, to minimise drinking Champagne, which is normally served ice cold. If I can’t change a habit, I will give advice that is more suitable to different lifestyles.

‘TCM practitioners should also have a balanced mind to treat patients properly – I practise mindfulness and meditation exercises to calm my mind and relieve stress. It’s useful in therapies like acupuncture, where a calm and focused doctor is key to treating the patient painlessly. On the other hand, if the doctor’s emotions are imbalanced or they are not concentrating, the patient will find that every needle is painful. So I take the knowledge from these ancient teachings and apply them to my own treatments.’

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