Still recall the two small iron balls that you casually spun in your palm when as a kid or youth?
If you have forgotten the name of the balls, well, they are called the Baoding iron balls, an ancient tool of China that has made it into the international scene. In the Philippines, Baoding iron balls became a fad during the 80’s, then abruptly disappeared from sight.
In April 1984, When the United States President and Mrs. Reagan visited China, they were gifted with two pairs of iron balls by Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang. The presidential gifts were “health balls” commonly used by China’s elderly for therapeutic exercise.
Made of metal, the shiny round balls, somewhat smaller compared to eggs, and as big as golf balls, have soundboards and small balls inside that emit tinkling sounds. The trick is to spin the two balls repetitively in clockwise or counterclockwise manner in the palm using the five fingers, or even three.
Those more skilled can spin two pairs of Baoding balls simultaneously with both hands, or, they can spin these by not allowing one ball to touch the other.
Medical experts acknowledge that the Baoding balls, sometimes called “meditation balls,” if regularly used as physical therapy, improves joints, stimulates blood circulation, relaxes the muscles and joints and improves manual dexterity and strength.
The journal, American Courier, once carried an article accompanied by photos describing how Baoding balls had helped American convalescents.
In China, physicians often recommend Baoding balls to patients suffering from fatigue since the balls activate pressure points located in the palm of the hand.
Baoding balls are used to prevent and cure numbness and trembling of the hands, arthritis in the fingers and wrists and even hypertension, ills that often afflict the elderly.
To understand the benefits behind the meditation balls is to gain some understanding of the Chinese Yin and Yang philosophy, according to Dr. Frank Lieu, a national of Taiwan who recently came over to the Philippines as a tourist. Lieu explains in the Chinese doctrine, there are two forces that balance the internal energy of humans. These are the Yin and Yang.
Yin represents the unassertive, inky, unfriendly and cynical characters in the energy (called Qi or Chi) of humans while Yang constitutes the productive, summery, glowing and spirited characters of human energy.
When a person is healthy and balanced, Yin and Yang interact in agreement. In Chinese medicine, when one is unhealthy, his/her internal energy is unbalanced and requires specific treatment, Lieu explains.
Chinese medicine practitioners believe “chi” flows through pathways or twelve meridians in the body and is related to a particular organ. Hence, for thousands of years, Chinese medical practitioners inserted needles in a person’s meridian to correct the flow of internal energy. That science, today, is called acupuncture and accepted by the medical world.
By the same theory, using pressure or acupressure – utilizing health balls – also stimulates the meridians of the body through massage. In the human palm exists several meridians and acupressure points connected to the human organs, Dr. Lieu says.
“By using Baoding balls, these points are stimulated, affecting the energy flow of organs. To increase Yang energy, the balls should be rotated clockwise and counter-clockwise to increase Yin energy,” Dr. Lieu states, further adding regular use of the health balls stimulates circulation of the fingers.
Pleasant sounds emanating from the Baoding balls serve to adjust nerve centers, improve memory and induce relaxation. Additionally, the balls are a kind of simple and portable device for exercises.
During the 80’s, the health balls became popular particularly among Filipino youth and the elderly. Why it suddenly lost its popularity is an unanswered question. However, there are still remnants, although far and between, who hold on to their health balls when they head off for exercise.
Baoding balls have been exported to the US, Japan, Hong Kong and 14 other countries and regions, worldwide. Between 1981 and 1984, Alfred R. Pierce, then president of the US-China Trade Company, ordered 12,000 pairs of the health balls for sale in the US.
Pierce was an avid user of the balls, spending thirty minutes or so with these and said that medical effects aside, the balls are a cheap exercise appliance that you can just pocket these.
On the other hand, Cordillerans who have been using the health balls profess experiencing significant benefits for them as a certain form of physical therapy particularly on its calming effect.
Narciso Sumedya, a Benguet farmer and in his mid-50’s, relates whenever tired from hoeing on his farm lot and his arms trembling from tiredness and fatigue, he would sit down, get hold on to his Baoding balls, and alternately spin them in his palms. As a result, he gets a calming effect.
Another, Simon Gabijo, also from Benguet, tells that whenever he is tired lugging his vegetable produce from his planting fields to waiting cargo trucks, he would sit by the wayside and palm Baoding balls. His use of the health balls improved relaxation of his joints and muscles, enhanced his sleep, improved his memory and relieved him from stress and anxiety.
Still, another, Amira Halipan, a store owner at La Trinidad, reveals years ago she bought a pair of Baoding balls which her husband uses until today to strengthen his grip and relax him after work.
Both Sumedya and Gabijo say that whenever they use the health balls, their degree of concentration increases, an observation voiced, too, by other users of the Baoding balls.
Alternative medicine holds the view that health balls improve hand muscles, improve brain function and reduce stress and are even recommended by scientific medicine for treating traumatic stress in children, adolescents and the elderly.
In short, Baoding balls or “meditation balls, are in fact, considered anti-stress balls. A study published in the British Journal of Pharmaceutical Research titled, “An Evaluation on Use of Stress Ball Exercise On Stress Management Among Student Population – A Cross Section Study,” came up with a conclusion on positive use of health balls. The study was conducted in India.
The conclusion stated: “The study concluded an innovative finding that the majority of the student population were stressed due to academic reasons and respondents feel that stress ball users showed a satisfactory recovery from their stress.”
Another pilot study, conducted in the US and titled “Using Stress Balls to Focus the Attention of Sixth Grade Learners,” also came out with a conclusion stating, “Stress balls calmed them (the sixth graders) down and helped them concentrate better and pay attention.”
Manufacture of Baoding balls can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty (1386-1644) in Baoding City, Hebei Province, North China. When it first came out, the balls were solid and used to build up physical strength and limber up the joints, as well as tools for defense.
It was traced that during that time, Emperor Jia Jing ordered his court to study iron balls for their effects. A method was then developed to create hollow balls made from iron and easier to grasp.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a royal craftsman was able to produce hollow balls with acoustic functions and the gadget immediately became a recreational gadget of the royal family.
After retirement, the royal craftsman settled down in Baoding, started mass producing his product awash with acoustics and where the iron balls started to spread among the common people.
During the following reign of Emperor Qianlong (1796-1799), his doctors prescribed that he exercises his hands using the invented hollow iron balls. Use by Qianlong of the iron balls pushed this into cultural popularity.
Qianlong was China’s longest living emperor in its history – which further propelled the use of Baoding balls to attain good health. His longevity was linked, by many Chinese folks, to his hobby of using the health balls.
As early as the 1930s, Baoding balls were already being shipped to Japan and Southeast Asia. But in the following 50 years or more, their production declined.
To revive the traditional handicraft, three factories in Baoding have, in the last few years, started manufacturing the balls. Production has improved, with steel now being used instead of iron. Products are shinier and smooth, rust-proof and stand a lot of wear and tear.
In the Philippines, Baoding balls can be ordered online.
Right now, the three factories offer three types of balls – large, medium and small. In addition, they offer balls with various designs like the dragon and phoenix (for good luck), red-crowned crane and peach (for longevity) and multi-colored balls. But the original shiny balls are still preferred by exercisers.