Holistic Self-Defense

  Reprinted from The RSI Network - Issues 39, 40 and 41
June-September 1999

Mark Lipsman
Littleton, Massachusetts
(978) 486-3821


Open any publication by or for writers, and chances are you’ll find an article on repetitive strain injury (RSI). Conventional treatment is generally limited to rest, avoidance of motions that aggravate the problem, and ergonomic improvements. These are fine, but they’re passive—they don’t cause the body to heal any faster and may not prevent the symptoms from recurring. In this series of three articles, I offer some thoughts on proactive treatment for RSI. These are based primarily on Chinese medicine and its fundamental concept of internal energy, or chi, which flows through the body in channels, or meridians. This article describes the theory and a technique for applying the theory. The next article will discuss some bodywork approaches. The last article will give additional suggestions for energy-based holistic treatment of RSI and other health problems.

I should mention that I’m not a medical or holistic practitioner, but I’ve used a variety of holistic techniques over the past two decades, including chi kung ("energy practice") since 1989. Much of what I say here represents my own conclusions and has not, to my knowledge, been promulgated elsewhere. However, the principles of Chinese medicine are not complicated, and readers can form their own opinions by trying some of the techniques I mention. I taught these techniques at the Boston Computer Society before it closed a couple of years ago, in a class titled "Holistic Self-Defense Against Computer Afflictions," and the feedback I received was uniformly positive. Nevertheless, I should point out that neither I nor the publisher can be responsible for the use or misuse of these techniques.

In Chinese medicine, the energy reservoir of the body is seen as being at the navel center (and extending into the lower abdomen) and is called the tan tien. Any motion originates in the tan tien and causes energy to circulate through the body in the meridians. Sitting still for long periods while moving only the small muscles of the fingers tends to restrict the flow of energy from the tan tien.

Chinese medicine sees energy as being brought into the body primarily on the breath (as well as from food and directly from the cosmos). Shallow breathing, therefore, as occurs when one sits for long periods at a computer, diminishes the intake of energy. Also, most people carry their tensions in the abdominal area, and energy can’t flow through tension, either to reach the tan tien on the in-breath or to flow from it through the meridians. A back problem or poor posture can prevent the energy from flowing up the spine (the main channel for energy flow in the body) and through the "wing point," on the spine opposite the heart, where the energy up the spine divides into the two arms. Poor muscle tone resulting from sedentary living or an improper diet can also contribute to these blockages (accumulations of fat can block energy flow), as can holding the wrists rigid. All the way down the line, from the tan tien to the wrist, energy flow may be restricted.

Under normal circumstances, the energy flow functions as a sheath, or shield, to protect the tissues from the trauma of repetitive motion. When energy flow is restricted, the tissues have no protection. So although RSI symptoms may occur in the arm or wrist, the cause is often elsewhere. Acquiring some control over one’s internal energy flow can accelerate the pace of healing and strengthen resistance to further problems.

Energy Technique

This technique uses the breath to expand and develop internal energy and eliminate blockages in the energy’s path to the lower abdomen.

1. Lie down on your back and relax.

2. Inhale slowly through your nose.

3. When you exhale, imagine pushing the energy from your lungs into the tan tien and lower abdomen—as though both compressing it into a cylinder (about 3 inches in diameter) running down the center of the torso and simultaneously pushing it down the cylinder.

How soon you start to feel something depends on your physical condition and responsiveness, and the sensations can vary. You might feel a tingling sensation in the abdomen or lower back, or heat, or a pleasantly springy feeling in the abdomen, as though pushing on a shock absorber, and also that you could continue inhaling indefinitely. You may also feel the spine relaxing and small movements taking place in the bones and muscles. The physical body is releasing tension and bringing itself into conformity with the energy pattern on which it was created.

Inhale slowly enough to avoid having to tense the stomach muscles excessively, and continually direct the energy down through the middle of the body to the lower abdomen with the mind. It may help at first to put your hands over the abdomen and press in lightly while breathing, to help coordinate the muscular activity. The important thing is to keep pushing the energy down, with the breath and the mind—into the lower abdomen and eventually into the groin, legs, and feet—since its tendency is to rise and disperse.

You may feel areas with RSI or other physical problems becoming warm and aching slightly as energy flows into them. Energy goes where it’s most needed—to your weakest point. As that improves, it still goes to your weakest point, which may be somewhere else. Therefore it may not always go where you expect it, but each time you’ll be able to do more with less effort. You may at times feel energy flowing upward into the chest, arms, neck, and head, particularly if you have a health problem there. Energy may be allowed to flow into the head but shouldn’t be pushed in vigorously, or a headache may result.

When you’re doing the technique correctly, it feels very pleasant and you won't want to stop. Eventually, you’ll know you’ve had enough. You’ll be unable to continue because the muscles controlling the process will be tired, and you’ll feel that you’ve absorbed as much energy as you can. Attempting to continue may result in a headache. Depending on your condition, you may feel tired after these sessions, which indicates that your energy is being diverted into healing.

An extension of this technique is to take the energy you’ve begun to move using the breath and move it using only the mind. Eventually the two techniques merge.

As above, lie down. Then concentrate about 1-1/2 inches behind the navel. It may help to visualize the area as being warm or hot (a blazing sun or a fire) or to imagine words like "energy," "strength," and "power" flowing into the area—whatever holds your attention. After a period of time (anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes, depending on your concentration and physical responsiveness), you should notice the navel area becoming slightly warm. You’re using your mind to bring energy to the area. The energy will circulate and heal. Each time you practice, it’ll happen faster and get warmer. You’ll know you’re done when you begin to feel tired. (Women should avoid beginning these practices during pregnancy.)

One of the first things likely to occur as a result of chi kung practice is a temporary change in bowel habits. The unprecedented amounts of energy being brought into the lower abdomen allow the system to begin cleaning itself out and may result in diarrhea or constipation for a few days. Hunger or loss of appetite may also occur, as well as cravings for particular foods, and continued practice may produce other physical symptoms, like weight loss or gain, unusual odors, or discharges. (For a comprehensive listing, see pp. 188–90 of Michio Kushi’s Book of Macrobiotics, rev. ed.) These symptoms indicate that the system is beginning to right itself. They should disappear within a short time, occasioning no concern.



In this series of articles, I offer some thoughts on proactive treatment for RSI. These are based primarily on Chinese medicine and its fundamental concept of internal energy, or chi, which flows through the body in channels, or meridians. The previous article described the theory and a technique for applying the theory. This article discusses some bodywork approaches. The final article will give additional suggestions for energy-based holistic treatment of RSI and other health problems. I should point out that I am not a medical or holistic practitioner, and neither I nor the publisher can be responsible for the use or misuse of these techniques.


Yoga. General physical conditioning is important. Hatha yoga is good for this, because it provides physical conditioning, stimulates the meridians and endocrine glands, and improves posture and endurance. Anything that straightens the back and keeps the shoulders relaxed will improve energy flow.

Massage. Massage is also helpful. If you press on the RSI-affected area, you may find that it’s quite tight. If you continue pressing, it will release, and the pain will decrease. You’ll probably need to do this several times, depending on the severity of the problem. It may be particularly helpful first thing in the morning.

Another technique is to lie on your back and press at points around the navel. If you encounter tension or soreness, keep pressing until it releases. Go all the way around the navel, then start an inch or two further out and do it again, until you’ve covered the entire lower abdominal area. Sometimes this is more effective if done while lying on your stomach. (You can do this around the hip sockets as well.) You may have to do this over an extended period, depending on how out of kilter you are, but you should see continual improvement. The muscles will regain lost tone and begin working with each other and the back muscles.

Fingers. The finger motion that causes RSI arises from pushing—the keys and the mouse. Therefore, the reverse may help—pulling. Curl your fingers over the edge of a desk and squeeze, to get a pulling action. You also can do this lying on a bed, grasping the edge of the mattress. You should feel the pull and gradual loosening into the shoulders, back, and groin. Another technique is to splay your fingers. Stretch them out and back, the thumb and little finger away from each other and the other fingers, without using the other hand to help.

A lot of this involves sensing what would relieve your problem—what the body wants—and trying it. Doing it regularly causes the muscles to become stronger and the problem to decrease.

For those interested in consulting a practitioner, the International Association of Healthcare Practitioners, based in Florida, publishes a directory of 20,000 practitioners nationwide who use new alternative bodywork techniques. The IAHP can be reached at 1-800-311-9204. Keep in mind, however, that a practitioner can’t always do a better job than you can, because you’re working from the inside out, and he or she is working from the outside in. And if you don’t incorporate the changes necessary to fix the problem, it may recur.

Additional suggestions. Keep the keyboard in your lap, with your arms held loosely to the sides or on the chair arms rather than firmly against the body. (Keeping the keyboard on your lap is a good idea anyway, because it allows you to maintain a minimum 30-inch distance from the monitor, to avoid radiation.) And keep warm—don’t wear short sleeves in an air-conditioned room, for example. The chill tends to restrict chi flow and causes the muscles to contract, aggravating the problem.

For pain, arnica montana, a homeopathic remedy, may provide some relief. Arnica is used for any kind of bruising or muscle soreness. It comes in different potencies—30C is the one likely to be most helpful—and is available in health-food stores and some pharmacies. It has no side effects and is nonaddictive, but it isn’t, obviously, a permanent solution. Arnica is also available as a cream; this or other liniments may be helpful for temporary relief of pain.

The Inner Smile

Mantak Chia is a Taoist master who has written a number of books on chi kung. In several of his books he gives a relaxation technique called the "Inner Smile," which those to whom I’ve taught it found helpful in dealing with RSI. What sets it apart from other relaxation techniques is that it’s a process of relaxing the organs rather than just the muscular structure, and in three groups—the front line, middle line, and back line. The sequence varies slightly from book to book, but the basic outline is as follows. The most effective way to do it, especially in the beginning, is lying down, but it can also be done sitting or standing.

Begin by closing your eyes and envisioning a smile. Bring it into your face and neck, relaxing them, then down to the heart, lungs, liver (on the right, at the bottom of the rib cage), taking as long as necessary to relax them, then across to the left, relaxing the pancreas and spleen, then into the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and genitals. This is the front line.

Second, swallow saliva and smile down the middle line—the mouth, tongue, throat, and esophagus, continuing into the stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and rectum.

Finally, smile down the back line into the spine, vertebra by vertebra, relaxing each one all the way down to the coccyx.

This thumbnail description hardly does justice to the technique. For someone who hasn’t done it before, it might take 15 or 20 minutes. When one has acquired proficiency, the whole sequence can be done rapidly, producing a sense of release in and around the various organs and the body as a whole.



This series of articles has offered some thoughts on proactive treatment for RSI. These are based primarily on Chinese medicine and its fundamental concept of internal energy, or chi, which flows through the body in channels, or meridians. Previous articles described the theory, a technique for applying the theory, and some bodywork approaches. This article gives additional suggestions for energy-based holistic treatment of RSI and other health problems. I should point out that I am not a medical or holistic practitioner, and neither I nor the publisher can be responsible for the use or misuse of these techniques.

Although the following discussion of diet and meditation is not directly related to RSI, these subjects can have a significant indirect effect by promoting internal energy flow, better overall health, and physical fitness (as well as creativity—an additional benefit for writers). For this reason, I included them in the class I taught on holistic self-defense and mention them here.


Food is the second most important way in which energy is taken into the body and is the source of many of our physical problems. The energy in food is what sustains us, and the effect of food energy on the body is the basis for the dietary practice known as macrobiotics.

The polarities in nature, such as day and night, winter and summer, male and female, positive and negative, expansion and contraction, are seen as characteristic of two forms of energy: yang, among whose attributes are heat, light, and expansion, and yin, characterized by cold, darkness, and contraction. All physical phenomena exist on the energy continuum between the two extremes. Foods exist on this continuum and may be characterized as predominantly yin or yang, according to the effect they have on the body.

Yin foods—primarily sweeteners, oils, liquids, and most dairy products—have a cooling and lethargizing effect. (This occurs regardless of their temperature. The effect is compounded when they are chilled.) Overconsumption of such foods disperses our internal energy and is a primary cause of the weakness and degenerative diseases now prevalent. Caffeine, alcohol, and many drugs are also in this category. Although some of the latter substances (and many sweeteners) produce an initial burst of energy, their effect quickly abates and is followed by a letdown. Because their overall effect is lethargizing and cooling, they are classified as yin.

Yang foods—primarily meat, salt, eggs, and hard cheeses—have a heating and animating effect on the body; overconsumption results in tension and rigidity. In addition to its effect on our internal energy, meat is too rich for us to consume on a regular basis; the products of decomposition clog and poison our systems, and this is not even to mention the effects of the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics found in or added to animal feed. (According to Stuart Levy, M.D., of the Tufts University School of Medicine, quoted in Orville Schell’s Modern Meat, approximately half of all antibiotics produced in this country are used in animal feed. Most people consume far more antibiotics in their food than they ever do by prescription. Dr. Levy has elaborated on the disastrous consequences of this practice in his book The Antibiotic Paradox.)

Regular consumption of either category—now considered normal in the West—leads to imbalances in the body’s energy that ultimately become manifest as physical problems. There are yin diseases and yang diseases, characterized by an excess of one or the other, and diseases resulting from both. It is therefore advisable to tend more toward the center of the food-energy spectrum.

A diet based on this principle—the principle of balance—is grain-centered rather than meat-centered and is therefore largely vegetarian. Canned, frozen, highly processed, or chemically treated foods are avoided, because their chi has been stripped or decreased. (Toxins and chemical residues in the food are, of course, harmful in themselves.) Methods of preparation affect the energy in foods and are also important—ingredients and preparation are suited to the season and locale, variety is emphasized, and gas is preferred to electricity in cooking. The five elements, manifested in our diet by the five tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and pungent) are also taken into consideration, allowing us to augment energy deficiencies in particular organs and curb excesses in others.

Michio Kushi is probably the best-known exponent of macrobiotics; any one of his books is a good place to start.


The following is from “Visions of the New Millennium,” a talk given by Sant Rajinder Singh, an internationally known spiritual teacher, at the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations. More detailed instructions can be found in his book Inner and Outer Peace through Meditation. (It should probably be pointed out that most people will not have the experiences he describes, or not for quite a long time.)

Sit in a pose that is most comfortable to you. Close your eyes. Focus your attention in the field of darkness lying in front of you. Do not put any strain or tension on the forehead or eyes. You are not looking in front of you with your outer eyes. Instead, it is your inner eye that sees the darkness. Continue looking into the middle of whatever is in front of you with closed eyes. To keep your mind from distracting your gaze by sending thoughts, repeat any name of the Creator with which you feel comfortable (or any other name you find meaningful, or a word such as “love,” “peace,” etc.). Repeat that Name slowly and mentally and not out loud. Continue concentrating on whatever comes in front of you. By concentrating in front of you, Light will sprout forth. You may see Light of any color—white, gold, blue, red, yellow, orange, purple, etc. You may see an inner vista of sky, stars, moon, and sun, or other inner experience. Keep looking into the middle of whatever you see in front of you. That Light will give you peace.

About the Author
Mark Lipsman is a writer and editor with many years of experience in holistic practices, including hatha yoga, macrobiotics, chi kung, and meditation. He lives in the Boston area. Mark would be interested in hearing from anyone who tries these techniques—a brief log of experiences would also be helpful. Readers can contact him at 38 Harvard Road, Littleton, MA 01460, 978-486-3821, mlipsman@ultranet.com.

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Last Updated: 11/03/00