Winter – Scented Seasonal Support – by Jennifer Peace Rhind

Photo: Singing Dragon author Jennifer Peace Rhind

Author photo: Robert Taylor

For many of us winter, can be a season of contrasts – dark, cold and wet weather that dampens the spirits, or dazzling blue skies with crisp clear air, sparkling frost and snow, which energises and invigorates us. Here, we will take a look at some wonderful scents that we can enjoy throughout the winter, and harness the benefits of aromas which can balance these seasonal contrasts.

During the overcast, cold and damp days when it can feel that it never really becomes light, we can turn to warming aromas of the pungent spices – black pepper, ginger, and turmeric. Traditionally, these are remedies for dyspepsia, nausea, colic and diarrhoea, bronchial congestion, poor peripheral circulation and for joint and muscle pain and inflammation. In contemporary aromatherapy, their essential oils are indicated for the same reasons, and are externally applied and inhaled. For some aromatic seasonal support, these spices can be added to soups, stews and casseroles to add flavour, warmth and character – and don’t forget to enjoy their aromas as you grind, crush and chop, and cook with them, as the preparation processes and cooking heat release the fragrant volatile oils! Additionally, you might like to sniff their essential oils and explore their effects on your senses.

Black pepper oil has a fresh, dry, spicy and woody aroma, (‘dry’ means ‘not sweet’). If you are feeling overwhelmed or fatigued, its scent can warm and invigorate your senses, and impart a feeling of resilience. Ginger essential oil has a pungent, rich, warm and spicy aroma; you will also notice a lemony impression and then woody and green nuances. Ginger has a role in both traditional medicinal and spiritual healing practices, and its fragrance can stimulate the senses, warm the emotions, and clear the mind –ideal for days when you might be feeling the effects of cold and dismal weather! Turmeric is also a member of the ginger family, it has a pungent flavour and yellow colour and its essential oil has a fresh, spicy and slightly woody aroma. Traditionally it is used to purify and protect and you might find that its warm aromatic scent will uplift the spirits and ease you into a mellower frame of mind.


Jennifer Peace Rhind’s card set of meditations upon scent.

So, how can we reinforce the positive feelings related to the bright, crisp winter weather – which provides such a contrast to these dark and wet days? When the weather is clear and frosty, we can perhaps take a walk in a coniferous wood. We might not, at first, notice the beautiful scents of the trees, partly because our sense of smell can be affected by the cold conditions! A walk in the woods is, in itself, one of the best antidotes to the seasonal blues; however we can also explore the aromas of the coniferous essential oils. There is a vast array of oils to choose, obtained from the needles and twigs, and sometimes cones, of species of pine, fir, spruce and several others. Typically, a coniferous odour is aromatic and woody, but you will find subtle variations. For example, longleaf pine has a harsh, disinfectant-like note, while dwarf pine is sweet, woody and with a balsamic nature (…but it should not be applied to the skin as it can cause irritation). In contrast, Siberian fir is pine-like, sweet, coniferous and fresh, with lemony nuances; balsam fir has a pronounced, sweet coniferous forest scent and grand fir has an orange-like note. However, what these coniferous oils have in common is their effect on the senses. They are excellent for bringing a feeling of freshness into the environment, and for dispelling anxiety and fatigue.

Sniffing and inhaling the aromas of the coniferous oils can also offer some relief from respiratory congestion – they are useful decongestants for the sinuses and bronchial tubes – so here we have another aspect to aromatic winter support. Many essential oils can be very comforting and alleviate some of the symptoms of colds and flu. These are the oils with ‘medicated’ odours, and they often have antimicrobial properties. For example, the well-known eucalyptus oil is rich in a constituent called 1,8-cineole which can help improve blood flow to the brain, and indeed inhalation of its vapours can often relieve headaches. Eucalyptus is best known as an expectorant, and so it helps with respiratory congestion; however, there are some other essential oils that can also be effective. You might like to try cajeput (from Melaleuca cajuputi), niaouli (from M. quinquenervia) or ravintsara (from the Madagascan Cinnamomum camphora leaf).  Cajeput, with its pleasant but strong, camphoraceous, sweet odour is regarded as a panacea in its native Malaysia. Niaouli is native to Indonesia, and has a strong, sweet and camphoraceous/eucalyptus odour; in France it is more popular than eucalyptus, and is used in aromatic medicine. Ravintsara essential oil has a fresh, clean, eucalyptus-like scent, and it is not only noted as an expectorant but also as a bronchodilator. Additionally, it is helpful for insomnia, it is an antiviral with tonic and uplifting qualities – and so ravintsara is an excellent choice for helping us through these typical seasonal maladies.

So, this winter, why not harness the therapeutic effects of these scents? Savour the fragrance and flavour of warming spices in your food and drink, walk in the woods and breathe in the clear, invigorating scent, or bring the forest into your home with the branches and twigs of the beautiful conifers. Even this small selection of essential oils can offer so much seasonal support – simply through our sense of smell they act as mood elevators and enhancers – but should you succumb to winter ailments they can also bring comfort and relief.

Michael Davies on the benefits of the gentle exercise known as Jiangan – The Chinese Health Wand

Michael Davies is a senior instructor with the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain. He has been practising Chinese internal arts for over 30 years and teaching Tai Chi Chuan for 13 years. He runs a Tai Chi club with regular classes, workshops and seminars in Tai Chi, Qigong and Jiangan. He lives in Hertfordshire, UK.

Here, Michael answers some questions about his new book, Jiangan – The Chinese Health Wand.

Video: Click to see Jiangan in action!

When did you first come across the Chinese health wand?

I saw it performed by an elderly Chinese man while on holiday in Malaysia in 1982, then later read a copy of the book by Bruce L. Johnson, the man who discovered the system in Shanghai in 1945. I had only just begun learning Tai Chi, which I took up mainly for the martial and meditation aspects. So although I was intrigued by the ‘Chinese Wand’ I was not sufficiently motivated to study it at that time. It was thirty years later, after working in an office and experiencing a sedentary lifestyle for much of that time, that I become more interested in the health aspects of Asian arts. I had become a Tai Chi instructor but felt that there were areas of conditioning and fitness that even this Chinese treasure was lacking. I decided to revisit Johnson’s book and experiment with the exercises, and was so impressed that I wrote this book.

What does Jiangan mean?

In Chinese (pin-yin) ‘Jian’ means health and ‘Gan’ means pole or wand. Jiangan can therefore be translated as ‘Health Wand’. Although there is no direct mention of Jiangan in Chinese written records, such exercises have been traditionally passed down from teacher to student orally for many generations. Dr Cheng, the Chinese Grandmaster who taught Bruce Johnson, claimed that the art was as old as Yoga and Qigong. But unlike other Asian mind-body systems that developed health aspects as by-products of spiritual advancement (Yoga), martial skill (Tai Chi) or healing specific illnesses (Qigong), Jiangan was specifically devised as a daily health and fitness maintenance routine for the gentry and imperial family who had unique health problems caused by their sedentary lifestyle. So for this purpose only the exercises evolved, the less effective and less safe exercises being replaced by more potent and safer exercises through countless generations. This makes it a scientific and comprehensive daily work-out.

Did you find Jiangan easy to learn, and have you found that the practice has expanded over the years?

It is very easy to learn but deceptively so. It possesses hidden subtleties and can be as simple or as challenging as you like. People tend to start practising physically but when the body adjusts there is less need for physical exertion. Eventually you realise that it is very much an internal exercise and you focus more on the deep diagrammatic breathing and develop a meditative frame of mind which greatly enhances your practice. The book takes the reader through the exercises in great detail and suggests traditional mental imagery based on the Chinese element system which helps to link the physical movement to spiritual concepts.

What are the health benefits, and how long each day do you need to practice?

The benefits include a sense of well-being, a clear tranquil mind, deep restorative sleep, increased energy, sexual vitality and fertility, increased circulation, clear skin, more efficient metabolism and improved digestion. But in addition Jiangan stretches and strengthens the physical body and is capable of delivering body-shaping results associated with vigorous gym workouts. It is therefore a holistic internal-external exercise. Many people separate health and fitness but Jiangan regards both as the same. Although there is stretching and strengthening similar to Western exercises these are performed in the style and spirit of a Tai Chi or Qigong routine. We approach stretches in gradual stages, always returning to the beginning posture with each breath and not holding a stretch for longer than a breath. Every movement is cyclic, gradual and gentle. So physical goals can be achieved at the same time as ‘internal cultivation’ because they are both part of the holistic joining of mind and body. Perhaps the systems’ most crucial contribution to health is its capacity to improve posture and help with a whole range of back, shoulder, and neck problems.

Twenty minutes a day is adequate to avail oneself of the many health benefits.

VIDEO: Michael Davies demonstrates some Jiangan exercises.


Is this a purely ‘health’ practice or does it, like other Chinese energetic movement forms, carry within it a deeper spiritual practice?

The unique esoteric aspects of the art are based on Chinese traditional medicine and more obscure ancient practices, particularly involving the Gan itself. I discovered that the length that Johnson and Grandmaster Cheng specified for the Gan is approximately a ‘Golden Ratio’ longer than the length of an average person’s arm, which is probably the basis of the intriguing esoteric principles surrounding the Gan (‘Wand’ is an apt, rather magical term). Holding the Gan at each end – one hand considered ‘Yin’ and the other ‘Yang’ respectively – may relate back to the Healing Rods of ancient Egypt. Continuing with the Egyptian theme, this wide grip creates a symbolic pyramid shape with the body. As we continually circulate Qi around this ‘pyramid’ its vertex or tip repeatedly focusses on and stimulates the body’s two ‘polarity points’; the Yang (Baihui) on the crown of the head and the Yin (Huiyin) at base of the spine. This process relates to the important Chakra centres of Yoga and can also be seen as a simplified way to perform the ‘Microcosmic Orbit Meditation’ of Taoist alchemy. The ‘Yin-Yang’ concept is also an important influence on body mechanics. In most exercises the Gan acts as a fulcrum or lever. In many of the exercises, one part of the body is motionless (Yin) while another part is in motion (Yang). This creates a resistance that causes beneficial stretches and also massages internal organs. It is a methodology in stark contrast to Tai Chi where all the body moves as one unit.

Why do you think it is not very well known?

Bruce Johnson said that Dr Cheng was the last Chinese Grandmaster. When he introduced it to the West in the 1950’s there was little enthusiasm for Asian arts. By the time Tai Chi and Qigong became popular Johnson had given up teaching for religious reasons. The art was left behind. Though a few people kept it alive using Johnson’s out-of-print book as a reference point. But the internal, philosophical side of the art was not being taught. In recent years it seems to have been relegated to the role of a ‘quirky physical exercise with a stick’.

Using my experience in Chinese internal arts I wanted to rediscover the internal philosophy and present the art as originally intended so that a new generation can reap the health benefits. In fact, it was the way Jiangan effects the physical body that was the catalyst for writing the book. Even though I had been practising Tai Chi for over thirty years, like many men my age I had developed a middle-aged spread. There seems to be a consensus amongst Tai Chi and Qigong practitioners that it is possible to have a middle-age spread and still be healthy and to regard exercises that focus on physical improvement as somehow inferior and cosmetic. But an expanding waistband is often a sign that visceral fat – the fat that sits around the major organs and linked to diabetes and heart disease – is accumulating in the body. After practising Jiangan for several weeks my middle-ages spread was gone and I felt fitter, leaner and stronger, more supple than I had for years. I hope that my book will be particularly useful to people attracted to internal Chinese health but who also need to reduce weight and keep fit.

How does this practice fit within the Chinese martial arts tradition, and how might you integrate it with martial arts practice?

Jiangan is not a martial art and there is no evidence that it evolved from martial techniques. However, the dimensions of the Gan itself is approximately the same as the Chinese short staff (sometimes called the ‘Gun’ or ‘whip staff”) used for some martial forms.

It is a complete and integrated warm-up, a stretching, strengthening and Qigong-energy type practice that can be utilised to support any martial art training. It enriches training sessions and makes them more effective.

Now that the book is published, what is your next challenge?

I would like the art to become better known and more widely practised – particularly in the areas where it’s unique qualities can make a significant contribution, such as tackling obesity and weight-loss – especially in seniors and helping sedentary people overcome problems associated with their lifestyles. As it is simple to learn there is great opportunity for a wide range of people to teach themselves without long-term commitment to lessons or classes. Johnson wanted his own book to be in every nursing home, every hospital, every physical therapy room, every doctor’s office. I would like to see Jiangan practised by workers in offices and factories to increase productivity and the health of the workforce. I would also like to see it practised in schools and colleges, where it could not only help maintain student’s physical fitness but also be an accessible introduction to Chinese internal arts.

Copyright © Singing Dragon 2011.