Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: health
Tuesday, 08 January 2013 17:30

Suffering at work: a new pandemic

There is a growing realization among psychologists and within the corporate world that the nature and organization of work have a lasting impact on employees' mental health. Boredom, tiredness and anxiety are the three overwhelming symptoms of mental stress that affect workers.

Wednesday, 05 December 2012 18:11

Pharmaceutical Highs and Lows in the Eyes of the Law


Ecstasy Tablets (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 Julia: Hello, can you give us a brief description of your background? 

 Dr. Guo: I'm a resident doctor in the (confidential) hospital. I'm in the third year of my training. My specialty is psychiatry.

Julia: Today we're going to talk about the illegal drug MDMA from a psychiatric point of view. Some people call this pill MDMA; others call it ecstasy. Can you tell us the difference between these two names?

Dr. Guo: MDMA is the abbreviation of the chemical name, 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine. Ecstasy is its street name. The earliest psychiatrists who used MDMA in psychotherapy nicknamed it "Adam" because it gives the user the feeling of returning to Eden... The name "ecstasy" took on later because it sounded more exciting. "X" and "E" became its abbreviation. In Taiwan it's called "Yi" (衣) (pronunciation similar to "clothes" in Chinese.)

Julia: According to my knowledge, this substance temporary transports you to an altered state of consciousness. Can you describe this condition?

Dr. Guo: In a normal situation, you usually perceive sound, light or touch as separate sensory elements. However, after taking E, one is transported into a state of "totality." Your senses are enhanced: auditory, visual, tactile; but the result of enhancement is a state of wholeness. Under that condition, you only sense things in their entirety; you are not able to separate one sensory element from another.

This is built on the premise that you are taking this substance alone, but if you are with another person, the effect is totally different. When you are with somebody, you might find that the boundaries and distance between you and that person begin to soften. But that's only an impression. If you actually take action and participate in conversation, you'd find your interaction to be surprisingly smooth. Communications often turn into brainstorms. Under that situation you can communicate your ideas more freely, and other's responses or questions will in turn inspire new ideas.

But although you might feel that such experiences enable you to let down your guard and soften your boundaries, after the effect declines, the boundaries will still be there, even if you are willing to tear them down.

Julia: But at least you are aware of such a possibility in human relationships.

Dr. Guo: Perhaps its potency is that it makes you become aware of the rigid boundaries you set for yourself, yet I believe to actually dissolve these boundaries, it requires some extra effort.

Julia: Okay, so from a medical perspective, why does MDMA let people attain such a status?

Dr. Guo: That's because MDMA causes the brain to release large amounts of serotonin. When the secretion of serotonin reaches a certain level, it causes serotonin syndrome, which is also a common side effect of anti-depressants. It causes physical tremors and hyperactivity. MDMA stimulates your motor nerves, which coincidentally makes it a great match with the rhythmic beats of electronic dance music. You may feel that your physical movements are in sync with the rhythm. That's why it's so popular in the dance music scene. It's related to the resonance that the sound creates in your body. Metaphorically speaking, you are vibrating on the same frequency with others, which leads us back to the de-territorialization we mentioned before: your body and soul become one with others.

Julia: Is that also why some people experience e-blues or "coming down" – the emotional state of depression that follows the decline of the effect – is that also caused by serotonin?

Dr. Guo: Yes, it's because of the exhaustion of serotonin.

Julia: I see. So it seems like MDMA is in many ways similar to standard psychiatric medicine. So why do you think MDMA is illegal?

Dr Guo: Politics.

Julia: You mean it's entirely due to politics? There's nothing to do with the substance itself?

Dr. Guo: Actually many researches currently reveal how like marijuana, the harmful effects of MDMA on the body are actually less than legal cigarettes and alcohol. So how come cigarettes and alcohol are legal while others are not? This points to other influences...

But when you speak of substances like heroin, sure it can lead to dependence, and can create a lot of damage too – some illegal substances do have that kind of potential. But on the other hand, if you speak of legal medicine such as Stilnox (a kind of sleeping pill) and Xanax (an anti-anxiety medicine), sure they are legal, but they can also easily lead to dependency and can cause damage to the human body. So I think the boundary tends to become a little bit hazy.

To determine whether a drug should be legal or not, whether it is harmful or not, is actually not that simple. It really depends. In my opinion, we should observe how this substance is used and how it affects the user's behavior and attitude.

For example, some people are more prone to anxiety and they need Xanax to relax, so they habitually take Xanax whenever they're anxious. But when they use MDMA, they may avoid using it on workdays and only use it on holidays in order to function properly. They can control these things, but they must take Xanax whenever they have anxiety, so in this sense they are even more addicted to Xanax.

Julia: Because ecstasy can often makes one exhausted after its effects cease. Xanax has less side effects, so one can choose to take Xanax daily but not Ecstasy.

Dr. Guo: True, but if you take Xanax everyday, it's still going to damage your memory. So in a sense Xanax is doing more harm to this person than Ecstasy, since Ecstasy is taken only every once in a while, while Xanax is taken everyday. In this sense, a legal drug like Xanax can do much more harm than an illegal drug like Ecstasy. So I really think it's a matter of degrees, there's no clear-cut distinction to this. Nothing's all good and nothing's all bad. A substance can lead to positive results on one person while causing harm on another. Nothing is absolute.

Julia: But don't you think a part of the legal determination is the degree of the high – the higher a drug gets you the more easily it gets banned?

Dr. Guo: But a lot of people get high on alcohol.

Julia: So you don't believe in such a distinction?

Dr. Guo: Perhaps we can look back to the context under which MDMA was banned. Around the beginning of the eighties, American psychotherapy societies were secretive about their use of MDMA in medical practice, but around 1984, MDMA began to circulate widely in America's recreational drug market. The press started honing in and Reagan's conservative Republican government took rigid actions, banning every type of drug that was used for medical purposes. Even though not much was known about the safety and medical benefits of the drug, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) still decided to list MDMA as a Schedule I drug in 1985. Schedule I means that this substance is highly addictive, has no accepted medical use in treatment and is not safe to use even under medical supervision. That is to say, this drug does only harm and no good.

Of course, after a drug is placed in Schedule I, research on it becomes extremely difficult. According to knowledge accumulated through years of experience, the psychotherapy societies who practiced therapy with MDMA believed that it had high medical potential while causing less harm to the human body than most people think. They felt that it shouldn't be placed in Schedule I and called for a hearing, hoping that their reports upon the benefits could lower the level of control upon MDMA. After the hearing, the judge and juries all advised the DEA to lower MDMA to Schedule III in order to leave more space for the assessment of MDMA's medical properties. However, the DEA did not accept their advice and kept MDMA in Schedule I.

It wasn't until after years of research that the relative harmlessness of MDMA was proven and that clinical trials upon its medical benefits became possible. If MDMA was not placed under Schedule I in the first place, perhaps we could've assessed its safety and medical benefits much sooner. So I think this issue is actually highly related to politics and ideology.

Julia: But it must take a very long time to prove such a substance harmless or otherwise. Take the newly synthesized "legal high" drug bath salt for example; it was already circulating in the market before any assessment could be made, and it soon made its appearance in headlines as a dangerous drug that turns people into face-eaters. Perhaps it would be more cautious to set it as illegal before any more damage is done?

Dr. Guo: Well I guess this is a question of ideology; it depends on the attitude you take towards the situation. You can argue to ban this substance before any assessment is made, that's one point of view. The other stance would be to make sure that a substance is truly harmful before any legal actions are made. Of course there are also others who believe that whether one uses or abuses a substance or not is strictly a personal matter and the option of banning shouldn't even be considered.

A lot of this is a matter of balance. When you're using the law to inhibit something, that influence is enormous. Everyone must act according to this rule. So it is actually a pretty big deal that affects everyone, no matter whether they think of using it or not. The influence is full-scale.

Julia: So how does science decide whether a drug is harmful to a person or not?

Dr. Guo: They do experiments on animals. Usually before a drug is legally approved to be marketable, they must first determine whether this substance is harmful – that it is not harmful within a certain range. Only after the drug passes this step can scientists begin research upon its medical properties. It must be done this way. If it is proven to be harmful, there won't be any next step to test its practicality. For these tests of harmfulness we usually use experimental animals. There are already some animal modules for scientific research, that is if I want to test a specific drug, I first use it on rats and see what dosage causes what percent of rats to die, and from this dosage they get to calculate the equivalent dosage that may cause damage to the human body. Any drug that wants to apply for legal marketing must go through this process.

Julia: Did the research on MDMA go through such a process?

Guo: No. Because there wasn't enough data for such a process to even happen. They just went and banned it. The people who were against classifying MDMA as Schedule I possessed some research data; there wasn't much research upon the medical beneficiary of the drug, but there were some assessments upon the drug's harmfulness. That's also probably why the aforementioned judge felt that MDMA shouldn't be placed in Schedule I. Maybe he took a look at the data and didn't find any strong evidence that pointed towards definite harmfulness. So the judge advised the DEA to place it in Schedule III so that it could be researched for its medical use.

When they placed it as Schedule I, the report showed that their animal experiments involved direct injection of large quantities of MDMA into
rats' brains to prove that MDMA is harmful to the nerves of their brains. Yet some researchers object to this by pointing out that normally one does not inject MDMA; it is orally consumed and passes through through the liver. So the quantity actually consumed is definitely way less than the amount they injected in the rats' brains. That's way too much and it will definitely harm you. But these scientists just turned in this report and say "see? It's proven to be harmful," but actually it's really a matter of degree.

In other words, the legal process in which they classified this drug as Schedule I cannot be described as solid and exact. It hasn't been thoroughly scrutinized and analyzed. They just "wham" and banned it just like that, because it was the era of the War on Drugs. Speaking of which, it was Reagan's wife who chaired the "Just Say No" drug awareness campaign. So it was actually a heavily ideologicallyinfluenced decision.

Julia : So do you think medical psychiatry's attitude towards drugs is still influenced by the law? Are they willing to use illegal substancefor medical use now?

Dr. Guo: Well to talk about it, you must refer to the current research on MDMA. Actually in the mid seventies, doctors were using this substance for medical purposes. It's related to the feature of this drug – MDMA can create a strong sense of empathy – that's one feature. The other is that it lowers the defense mechanism of the user. The empathy effect is often applied in marriage counseling, in couples' therapy.

Julia: But doesn't that make you blurt out all the things that should be kept under the carpet? Perhaps after the effect recedes, one would hold grudge against another...

Dr. Guo: But that's the way to really solve problems, relationship is a mutual issue. Perhaps in the past you've done some wrong things, but you couldn't admit the damage you've done to other people. By taking this drug, you become more willing to listen to the other person and understand the consequences of your actions. That sort of empathy creates a chance to reflect upon one self. That's what improves your relationship.

So that's how MDMA's empathy-enhancing feature can be used in therapy. Its ability to lower self-defense, on the other hand, is practical in treating patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The psychical defense mechanism of those who suffer from PTSD are activate in order to separate the consciousness from traumatic experiences or emotions, so that the subject will not have to face the painful emotions brought on by this trauma. However, the dissociative disorder that accompanies such a repression can destabilize the mental faculties, so that the PTSD patient still continues to suffer from his/her trauma, only in another way.

While one finds it difficult or impossible to articulate his/her own trauma in his/her current mental state, perhaps under the effect of MDMA and the guidance of another person, one could turn this trauma into words. It is only after your defense is lowered that talking about such things becomes possible, which enables you to face the impact of this trauma.

It is under these circumstances that they found out about the features of this drug and how it could be used in therapy. It has been proven to be helpful in the process of working-through, so basically a lot of people were using it. However, they knew that a lot of clubs were using it too, and under the social atmosphere at that time, it could easily be banned under political influences. So they were pretty secretive about this stuff. Due to the secretiveness, they couldn't clinically prove the medical benefits of this drug, so when it was going to get banned, they couldn't prove that it was actually beneficial.

So after the execution of this law, there was even less chance of studying this drug, but gradually they were able to prove that MDMA is less harmful than anyone imagined. So with these evidences they kept on designing rigorous research methods and applying for clinical trial and finally they've attained permission. So far research upon the benefits of MDMA in treating PTSD patients has been done in the United States and Switzerland. They recruited a couple of PTSD patients whose symptoms did not improve after taking anti-depressants such as Zoloft, and gave them small dosages of MDMA while going through psychotherapy.

They divided these people into two groups, one who has taken MDMA and one who hasn't. By the way, the experiment was double-blind, meaning that neither the researcher nor the researched subject knows who has taken MDMA or placebo. This is the most meticulous research method; that way there can be no placebo-effect to mess up the results. The results showed that patients who took MDMA during psychotherapy had an obvious improvement in terms of their symptoms compared to those who didn't. The American research has been completed and is already published in journals. The Swiss research, also completed and published, supports this conclusion to a certain degree. These conclusions are proven through the strictest standardized clinical trials.

Julia: To treat a patient with anti-depressant is to let him take the medication and wait for its effects, but I assume that the treatment with MDMA works differently?

Dr. Guo: Yes. MDMA is used during psychotherapy sessions. It isn't like treatment with anti-depressant, where you just prescribe the pills and wait for its effect. It is used as an adjuvant, as an assistant drug during psychotherapy. So you can say that psychotherapy plays the main role whereas MDMA is its assistant. It catalyzes the interaction and the process of working-through during therapy.

Julia: So is there any study on the relapse condition?

Dr. Guo: Well, nothing has been published yet. The American research has done a follow up study, which has already been accepted by journals, but is still waiting for publication. What they claim is that the follow up results upon these cases (usually a follow up research lasts for three years) shows that after three years, their improvement still continued to sustain. So this research has a statistical significance. It doesn't just last during the sessions.

Julia: I see. So aside from this, are there any other examples that use illegal substances for medical research?

Dr. Guo: In the 80's, an organization called MAPS (multidisciplinary association for psychedelic studies) was established. It is a non-profit organization – their research-funding comes entirely from donations. Aside from research on the combination of MDMA and psychotherapy for treatment on PTSD patients, they've also done research with marijuana and LSD. They use rigorous scientific methods to do experiments with illegal substances.

Let me see, there is currently research on using LSD to lessen the pain of patients with terminal cancer. They try to be as scientific as possible in hopes to prove that substances that are deemed as illegal can actually help mankind. They don't deny that these substances may cause damage, but they want to observe under structural, normalized conditions of treatment whether these substances are really as bad as they seem.

Julia: I see. Do you have anything else you want to communicate with the readers?

Dr. Guo: The discussion on MDMA in Taiwan is often centered upon its negative features, whether from the

Dr. Guo Jia-ying (郭家穎)

light of social commentary, law enforcement or ethical debate. We don't need to talk about that here, the media is always reporting on it. But sources that support MDMA are scarce. In literature we've only go the Chinese edition of Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House and Waiting for the Man: The Story of Drugs and Popular Music; as to pro-drug discourse, I know that Pots Weekly had some pro-drug columns that discussed the problem from the view of politics, sociology and substance abuse. There are also some academic papers on this issue, but there are extremely few discussions of this problem on a medical point of view.

According to my knowledge, there was a forum upon this issue following the publication of the Chinese edition of Altered States, probably in 2003. I believe Lung Ying-Tai (龍應台) was also there? She was still head of the Department of Cultural Affairs then. Wang Hao-wei (王浩威) was also there, he's a psychiatrist who is currently promoting psychotherapy and has published several psychotherapy books. There also another forum that invited a psychiatrist, but his opinions upon this issue were also general and reductive. These are the only two events on the internet that involved psychiatric professionals. So in Taiwan's medical field, there really hasn't been much public discussions upon this issue. I hope perhaps this time I can provide some new progress upon the medical knowledge of MDMA in the psychiatric field.

Monday, 21 November 2011 17:38

A Global Lens on Indigenous Health

Centre for Aboriginal Health Research (CAHR), University of Victoria, Victoria City, Vancouver Island

The University of Victoria (UVic) is a research intensive university considered a leader in Indigenous and cultural studies, with strong ties between Indigenous communities and researchers from a diverse range of disciplines. Established in 2008 the Centre for Aboriginal Health Research is dedicated to promoting and engaging in health research, in partnership with Aboriginal peoples (locally and globally), to improve their health. It is now a leading authority worldwide on Aboriginal health that is searching for a 'global lens on Aboriginal health', which made this visit all the more worthwhile. It was an excellent opportunity to find out more about Canada's Aboriginal health issues, and by comparing their problems, research and problem-solving methods with Taiwan's, to see how the issues were interlinked for Indigenous peoples all over the world. and what policies could be initiated to combat these problems.

When we arrived at CAHR we were greeted by researchers and several doctoral candidates. The director, first introduced the overarching missions of the centre, before the researchers introduced their personal research and discoveries in areas such as: suicide rates in different Indigenous communities, bringing together traditional Indigenous healing methods, western healthcare and the links between a healthy cultural heritage and healthy people in different tribes.

Filmed by Cerise Phiv, edited by Nick Coulson, subtitled by Adrienne Chu

For readers in Mainland China:

"At the UVic Centre for Aboriginal Health Studies, I asked one of the professors who attended the conference if the suicide rate of Canadian Indigenous people was higher than non-Indigenous Canadians. He said it was. He conjectured that the reasons for this were that the majority of these suicides were among those Indigenous people who had gone to big cities to seek their livelihoods, and as a result were put under great pressure; He said in the cases he had looked into, the more identification Aboriginal people had with their own tribe, the less likely they were to have suicidal thoughts. I really believe that identity has a massive effect on people."
Gyusi Meihua (Department of Indigenous Languages and Communications, National Dong Hwa University, Atayal Nation)



"During the discussion at the Centre for Aboriginal Health Research, I realized that the issues are very similar in Canada and Taiwan, yet the way of dealing with the issues, are very different. For example, their solution to a lack of medical personnel was a project for increasing personnel. Yet, when they discovered that it was not successful in increasing the number of personnel returning to the tribes, they rapidly abandoned the plan. However, Canada, like Taiwan, had not yet produced a solution to the national health insurance problem. While everyone pays the same amount, people in the cities have far better access to medical healthcare than the Indigenous communities in remote areas. This becomes a question of fairness."
Wilang Watah (School of Medicine, National Yang-Ming University, Atayal Nation)



"Because it relates to my major I was more concerned with the issues raised at the Centre for Aboriginal Health Research. The Canadian government has already built a national research centre for Indigenous healthcare. But here in Taiwan, we’re still in lack of proper research facilities or plans that may actually improve Indigenous peoples health status. This visit helped me to see what more we can do in the future."
Rimuy Watan (School of Nursing, National Yang-Ming University, Atayal Nation)


Photo by C. Phiv

Thursday, 30 June 2011 00:00

CEFC Files: One World, One Health

Over the next few months we will be releasing videos of all the impassioned researchers based at the Taipei branch of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) to introduce their new research directions in Sinology and Taiwan Studies. Vincent Rollet is a researcher at The French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, Taipei branch based in Academica Sinica. His research is based around Identity, Security and Societal Dimensions of the Taiwan’s Foreign Policy against Infectious Diseases (2000-2008). Here, Vincent came to the Ricci Institute to introduce his research and reveals to us the role of public health and afflictuous diseases in international diplomacy, before looking at ways that Taiwan can have greater representation in international public health while it remains outside of the WHO.


While the last decades have been characterized by the acceleration of the emergence or re-emergence of infectious diseases, many governments have placed the fight against these diseases on their foreign policy agenda. Two main questions can be raised: what has been the nature of their foreign policy and which dynamics prompted or conditioned them?

To answer these questions and to contribute to the general debate on the link between « Foreign Policy » and « Health », my Phd research focused on the Taiwan case. It shows that despite the particular situation of Taiwan on the international scene, since 2000, its government has conducted a specific foreign policy to fight against infectious diseases which has taken several forms.

Calling upon the conceptual tools proposed by the Constructivist, Realist and Liberal streams of International Relations commonly used to analyse Foreign Policy, this thesis provides an original interpretation of this foreign policy. It also shows that corporative, role-type and collective identities, as well as exigencies of security and societal demands, represent the explicative factors of this foreign policy.

This research concludes that the Foreign Policy conducted by Taiwan between 2000 and 2008 in the fight against infectious diseases held identity, security and societal dimensions, which then displays the multidimensional aspect of a Foreign Policy in the field of Health.


Thursday, 21 October 2010 17:19

Running Backwards, Moving Forwards

Barefoot he bounces energetically down the hot riverside concrete path under a blazing midsummer sun, ball to heel, ball to heel. Sweat drips from thin, taught lines of sinewy muscle which cling to his slight frame, which just passes the five foot mark. Even at the age of 60, a full head of buzz cut jet black hair, “soft like a baby,” as he puts it, sits defiantly atop his head. His name is Tony Hsueh, and today in Xindian, Taipei County, he's showing me his technique for running marathons ...backwards.

Just days before our meeting in July, Hsueh ran in the annual Gold Coast Airport Marathon in Australia. Proudly carrying the flag of his native Taiwan along with a camera to document the experience, and running backwards the whole way, he finished the race in five hours and 26 minutes, by his razor sharp recollection. This was far from the first time he had accomplished such a feat. He's been running marathons backwards and turning heads, both his own and those in the crowd, several times a year for two decades. By his own estimation, he has to turn his head from looking over his right shoulder to glancing over the left 10,000 times during the course of a single backwards marathon.

For Hsueh, going backwards is a way of life that is not just limited to running. He cycles backwards, sitting atop the handlebars with his back to the front tire, and roller blades backwards too. He's traversed the circumference of Taiwan using a combination of all three seemingly bizarre ways of transporting himself, and has cycled backwards around the island nation off China's east coast 29 times. In 2009, he ran three ultra marathons, races of up to 100 kilometers, all facing what most people would refer to as the wrong way, completing each in just over 13 hours.

It's all part of a wide ranging philosophy of organic living that the self-proclaimed “reversexercisophist” began to cultivate as a man in his early twenties. Thanks to this way of living and exercising, he claims his weight has remained steadfast at 53.5 kilograms for 35 years.

“You have to build your body like an organic machine,” he says to me in English, one of nine languages that he speaks to varying degrees. “Everything bad goes out when you exercise. Organic is not food, it’s your life. Organic is wisdom. It’s not a bottle, it’s not a can. Once you put it in a can it’s not fresh anymore, in my opinion. So I train my body organically.”

“You have to change your life into something organic,” he continues passionately, expanding on his all-encompassing view of how life should be lived, jumping rapid-fire from one thought to the next. “Sleeping without air conditioning. Running in the fitness center is not organic. The air is not fresh. Running should be like this,” he says as he gestures to the greenery of the riverside park.

After graduating from a vocational high school and completing his compulsory military service in Taipei, the native of the small town of Miaoli, about 100 kilometers south of the capital, took a job as a bus boy at the Taipei Hilton in 1973. He would eventually work his way up to the position of hotel manager, punching the clock for many of the major hotel chains in the city along the way. He also worked part time as an aerobics instructor at a fitness center, with “up, two, three, four, back, two, three, four,” becoming his daily mantra.

For some indefinable reason, doing the “back, two, three, four,” motions during these aerobics classes made Hsueh, who also goes by the nickname “Backman Tony,” feel good, and he decided to take it several steps further. He started out on a treadmill, and after two months he could run backwards, today known as retro running, for five kilometers. After that, he took his training outdoors into the sweltering Taiwan heat and humidity. He trained at various school tracks around Taipei, drawing curious stares every time, and occasionally tripping over runners who stopped to tie their shoes. By about 1980, he could retro run 10 kilometers uninterrupted. At that point he decided to take part in a race between two Taipei landmarks, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, but only ran backwards when no one else was around. As soon as he caught sight of another runner, or a spectator, he turned around and ran like everyone else.

For his second race, Hsueh convinced himself to forget about what other people thought and run the race his way, but this time it wasn't self consciousness but race officials who denied him. They said running the race backwards was simply too dangerous, and so Hsueh was once again forced to switch back and forth when he caught the gaze of a track official. From then on, whenever he planned on joining a race, he would write to the organizers, promising that if he were to be injured as a result of his running style, he would not take legal action against them. Sometimes the organizers agreed, and other times his letters went unanswered.

It wasn't until 1995 that Hsueh's retro running ways came to be fully accepted in his homeland, and it only happened because of a trip abroad. In November of that year he ran the New York City Marathon, and his story was picked up by the New York press. The Taiwanese media, ever hungry for foreign coverage of Taiwanese nationals, also keyed on the story, and suddenly those who had written him off as crazy, a show off, or even a glory monger, considered him a national treasure. From then on, he didn't have to write any more letters. That same year he also quit the hotel business for good after over two decades, and began to focus on retro running full time, putting an end to years of damaging his body through overwork and lack of sleep.

“I was the kind of person who didn’t want to sleep. Work until two or three [a.m.], that’s why I had a problem with my liver and almost died in 1978. I was like a candle burning at both ends. My idea was if you sleep one hour less each night, you have 365 hours each year for reading, writing; that’s wrong. So after I quit my job, I went back to Miaoli, and somebody helped me, a consultant for the empress of Japan. After that I knew how to eat, how to sleep, how to do meditation.”

Today, in addition to his retro training, bicycling, and roller blading, he spends one hour per day meditating in the lotus position, focusing on his breathing, channeling his energy, or qi, as they refer to the life force in Chinese culture.

“It’s very refreshing for your memory. It makes your whole memory clean and clear,” he says between deep, relaxing breaths as he takes a moment to show me how it's done.

Though in the west, Kentucky fitness instructor “Retro” Ron Austin and Dr. Robert K. Stevenson, the author of a book on retro running that came out in 1981, often get the credit for pioneering the sport, Hsueh is actually just continuing a Chinese tradition that goes back thousands of years. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the release of Dr. Stevenson's book, simply entitled Backwards Running, that retro running began to enter the mainstream consciousness in the early eighties. In Europe, France and Italy are widely considered the flash points for the beginning of the retro movement at roughly the same time. But in the U.S., two researchers in particular have dedicated a large part of their careers to investigating the health benefits of retro walking and running.

Barry Bates and Janet Dufek, who also happen to be husband and wife, have been conducting tests and trials since the early days of the retro movement in America. Dufek has studied the effects of backward walking on the elderly, and has seen her subjects show improvements in both static and dynamic balance, findings she presented at the International Society of Biomechanics in Sport in July. She has also looked at a small group of athletes with lower back pain and put them on a three-week backward walking program. All saw decreases in pain, according to her, and their walking patterns mimicked those of the healthy, though of course back pain can subsist with time, she is quick to point out. Currently, she is looking at backward walking and its effects on children with cerebral palsy, but this particular study is in too early a phase to talk about yet.

BV_carton_running_henley2Bates, who is now officially retired but is still doing research, began investigating retro running in the early 1980s in what was then considered the running capital of America, Eugene Oregon. For him, it all started with a runner, the name of which now escapes him, who had a hip injury. This runner saw a lot of doctors, and tried everything to relieve the symptoms of his injury to no avail. One day he decided to run backwards, and was pain free. He wrote an article about it, and Bates decided it was worth looking into.

“We found out, anecdotally initially, that some orthopedists were using retro as a way of rehabbing post-surgical knees. We wanted to see if there appeared to be any scientific basis for that,” he recalls.

Bates, who today trains in retro running three times a week, also became aware of baseball pitchers who were rehabilitating hamstring injuries by walking backwards, and of another runner, Rod Dixon of New Zealand, who swore by incorporating retro running into his training, and was one of the few distance runners who was able to remain, for the most part, injury free. Over time, Bates was able to prove that the mechanics of retro running can actually be better for your knees than going forward.

“In running forward, there's always an eccentric loading of the knee—the knee initially flexes when you strike the ground,” he explains. “That's not good because eccentric loading is more severe than concentric loading. And when you walk or jog backward, what happens is for the most part you eliminate that eccentric phase. The knee maintains itself in an isometric mode from the very early phase of contact, and then goes right into concentric extension. It takes some of that stress off and still allows for dynamic activity.”

The pair has also noticed a correlation between retro running and an increase in hamstring flexibility, which can go a long way to preventing injuries to this oft-injured leg muscle. In this study, which involved young, college-aged women, Dufek says that each of the participants were able to improve their hamstring flexibility after a four-week regiment of retro training.

But the benefits of retro running and walking aren't just limited to the physical, according to yet another study conducted by Dr. Severine Koch and her Dutch team of researchers. In the May 2009 edition of Psychological Science, Dr. Koch, working out of the social and cultural psychology department at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, found that reaction times for people performing simple cognitive tests were actually faster when her test subjects were walking backwards than when they were walking forwards. And speaking purely from a layman's point of view, Hsueh swears that his uncommon linguistic ability stems from his retro training, and has allowed him to pick up languages more quickly than he could before he began running backwards. But for him, despite all the research on his chosen mode of exercise that has become his way of life, and the increasing focus on its benefits, his reason for training in this way comes down to three simple words:

“Health, wisdom, happiness.”

(Illustrations by Bendu)


Thursday, 01 May 2008 00:24

Traditionalist health and healing in a Western and Christian world

"Health is the spiritual, emotional, physical health of people connected very much to their sense of belonging to a place, and belonging to people, and belonging to specific groups of people."

The Aboriginal people of the Kimberley desert region of Western Australia, the Puntu, are aware that there are many sources and causes of physical pain, sickness and even death. They also believe they can choose various avenues to achieve personal healing and wellbeing. There is the maparn (the traditionalist healer), the clinic nurse and the church. They all, in their own distinctive ways, can provide some form of healing to a sick person.

In this paper I will take a very particular approach to Shamanism through the work of these desert medicine men or maparn and their practice around healing. I will explain how desert Puntu understand the work of maparn while revealing key cultural aspects of being alive (kana), well (palya) and sick (nyurnu). This will lead to a discussion on the relationship between traditionalist and Christian practice, and how the desert social body can become a contested site for health and well being.
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