A TOOTH FROM THE TIGER'S MOUTH
By Tom Bisio
Healing and the Martial Arts
A Book Review by Kent Fung
To many old-school Chinese martial artists, an important part of training was (and is) acquiring an understanding of how the human body works – how to destroy it, and conversely, how to fix it and make it stronger. This tradition is philosophically rooted in Taoist duality – if you know how to maim, you should also know how to heal. On a practical level, the golden age of martial arts was purely based on developing real-world fighting skills, and thus extremely hard core. Students were injured all the time, and in an age before health insurance, hospitals, and doctors in white lab coats, a master had to know how to treat injuries and sickness if he wanted any of his students to survive long enough to complete their training.
Indeed, martial arts masters were often master healers who were called upon more often for their medical skills than their fighting abilities. Sun Lu Tang and Wong Fei Hung are two legendary fighters cast in this mold. Indeed, though Wong’s martial exploits make more entertaining movies, his status among Chinese legends has more to do with the fact that he famously had a policy of treating anyone at his clinic, whether or not they could afford to pay.
Martial arts masters/healers treated blade wounds, traumas, sprains, bruises, concussions, and broken bones, and along the way, developed methods of keeping the body healthy and free of illnesses. In many ways, the methods they developed still surpass anything modern Western medicine has to offer. Don’t believe me? Observe an elderly old-school Chinese martial artist. He’s spry, flexible, alert, and balanced. He can hike for miles without getting winded, and when you spar with him, he still hits like a mule. Now observe an aging athlete from the Western tradition, amateur or pro. He has problems getting out of bed every morning – heck, he probably grunts and groans every time he sits down or gets up. He regularly takes pain relievers for his back, knees, and/or shoulders, uses a brace, and though he hides it well, there are some simple things he simply cannot do anymore. Things like lifting his hand above his head. He’s long since given up practicing the sport(s) he loves at even an amateur level, and can look forward to a steady path of declining physical ability, accompanied by a procession of treatments and surgeries that don’t really help.
Knowledge about Chinese healing methods has remained largely inaccessible to the West, even though other aspects of Chinese culture – including the martial arts, have become rather popular. There are a number of factors for this. Learning about Chinese medicine requires, first of all, a knowledge of the Chinese language that surpasses basic conversational skills (which is difficult enough for the non-native speaker to acquire.) As well, many materials used in Chinese medicine are not exactly available at your local drugstore. And, Western medicine has had a propaganda-like lock on the public’s perceptions of healing for so long that most people believe that the American Medical Association, in association with Harvard Medical School and the pharmaceutical industry, are the sole source of legitimate medical knowledge.
Yet consider this: only in the past 20 years have Western doctors really begun to advocate what Chinese doctors have always known – that the best, most effective form of medicine is preventative and doesn’t involve pills or injections or treatments of any kind.
Now there is an easily accessible source for the Chinese medical tradition. Not a complete source, to be sure – that would be beyond the scope of any one book, but an excellent primer, intended for martial artists and athletes, but useful for just about anyone. In "A Tooth From The Tiger’s Mouth," Tom Bisio gives an overview of all major Chinese approaches to medicine, particularly in the realm of sports injuries.
Tom covers diagnosis techniques; preventative daily exercises designed to heal, improve, and strengthen; dietary advice; body treatments like acupuncture, acupressure, and massage; specialized techniques such as cupping, moxibustion, and coining; and traditional herbal remedies – liniments, poultices, salves, plasters, and broths.
Perhaps more importantly for the last category, Tom provides herbal recipes that can be understood not just by English-only readers, but by proprietors of Chinese herb shops. No more wondering what some exotic herb looks like in a musty, pungent Chinatown store – simply present the owner with the recipe and let him fill it for you.
The book is written in such a way that a reader can use it as a reference manual, to be opened only to look up a specific treatment to a specific ailment; or, as a primer for Chinese medical theory so that he or she understands why certain approaches are used.
A slim volume, there is clearly an emphasis on the kinds of ailments an active athlete would incur during physical activity – bruises, sprains, tears, cuts, joint problems, and broken bones, along with chronic pain. Ailments such as indigestion and insomnia and serious illnesses are given little, if any coverage in this book.
But Bisio's book lives up to its billing and more, and can be of use to anyone.