Saturday, June 6, 2015

Qi of Martial-Arts and Qi of TCM: Reconciliation

Over the years I’ve encountered the situation where there appear to be two different things that are being defined as “qi”.  The qi of martial-arts is often a more practical implication having to do with strength, forces, and things that contribute to forces; the qi of TCM seems to be something that is an energetic artifact.  I thought it might be a good discussion to have, so I wrote the following, hoping for both discussion and critique.  Let me note that this view and usage of the muscle-tendon channels (aka sinew channels), dantian, etc., as a roadmap of the strength flows and forces of the body is in current and common usage in the internal martial-arts among native Chinese.  Their view of qi is going to be somewhat as detailed below:

Origin of the Sinew Channels: Six Harmonies Movement

A Practical Development of Acupuncture from an Ancient Idealized Form of Movement?

As Peter Deadman et al noted in “A Manual of Acupuncture”, the discoveries within the Mawandui Tombs fairly much settle the discussion about which came first, the Sinew Channels or the Acupuncture Meridians: the Sinew Channels came first.  The early drawings show channels, not points.  So the question about the origin of the channels is the next logical question.  In “A Manual of Acupuncture” is the following speculation:

              “… propagated sensation during the course of massage and more especially the exploration of the internal landscape of the body through meditation and Qigong practice, led to the discovery of the channel pathways, with the knowledge of specific points coming later.”

Other speculations about the origin of the Sinew Channels are available, but there is a coincidence that is too palpable to miss:  the “Sinew Channels”, also known as the “Muscle-Tendon Channels” mark the exact pathways of propagated forces along the body, with the forces going in the same directions as the “qi flow” in the Sinew Channels, as was and is used in the very ancient type of movement that was called Six Harmonies (Liu He) movement.  In Six Harmonies movement, the main control-center of movement is the dantian area at the middle of the body; various of the Sinew Channels come into play, singularly or in combination, as needed.

Six Harmonies Movement and Theory

In the old days of China, many Chinese martial-arts were based around the Six Harmonies type of movement and many vestigial traditional arts still retain the phrase “Liu He” in their official name, even though the arts have often gradually devolved over time.

The Six Harmonies theory revolves around the Three External Harmonies (Wai San He) and the Three Internal Harmonies (Nei San He). 

The essential idea of the Three External Harmonies is that the body moves as one connected unit such that the ankle’s movement is tied to the wrist’s movement; the knee’s movement is connected to the elbow’s movement; the hip’s movement is connected to the shoulder’s movement (all of these through the torso, of course).

The essential idea of the Three Internal Harmonies is that strength anywhere in the body is a function of the mind willing the strength to that place.  The actual wording of the Three Internal Harmonies is sparse: Xin-Yi, Yi-Qi, Qi-Li.  What this means functionally is that the desire (the heart was considered to be the seat of desire) to do something triggers the mind; the mind sends the qi; the qi precedes that actual strength.  This is a functional occurrence that is fairly easy to demonstrate, but the point to bear in mind is that the Six Harmonies mode of movement includes not only the idea of body mechanics, but also several contributing factors to total body strength ability that exceed just the consideration of basic mechanics.  More on this later.

The Sinew Channels (Muscle-Tendon Channels)

The mechanical aspects of the Sinew Channels (muscle-tendon channels) are generally obvious as force and connection mechanisms to even a casual observer.  The odd-looking attachments/muscles coming down the Yang arm channels from the head may seem confusing, but if you’re using the whole-body to lift the arms, expand them, etc., you need attachment points if you’re going to use the whole-body’s connection as part of your strength’s resources.  So, if you look at a few of the Yang arm channels and lean your head back while stretching out the arm, you should find that these channels are mechanically obvious, as well.

The mode of movement in Six Harmonies and the pairing and coordination of muscles and tendon combinations is not fully compatible with the understanding of western kinesiology, so a person not versed in Six Harmonies type of movement would not recognize the mostly longitudinal channels as part of the broader system that they encompass.  A Chinese person involved in the use of Six Harmonies movement sees a representation of the channels or meridians of TCM as obvious and correct in terms of the movement style he considers optimal.

The Sinew Channels generally show that the forces of expansion, pushing, and lifting coming from the ground up the Yang muscle-tendon pathways of the back and along the lateral and posterior channels of the limbs.   There is a Yang channel on the front, also, but most of this Opening is done on the back. 

The forces of closing generally work on the front of the body and along the anterior and medial channels of the limbs.  If you think about a cheetah running at speed, its spine bends as the front of the body and frontal-spinal muscles contract, or Close (Yin); as the cheetah springs forward the muscles of the back and backside of the limbs engage to Open (Yang).  Were we to analyze the various muscle-tendon channels on a running cheetah, thinking of this contracting and opening, we’d arrive at a drawing very similar to the Sinew Channels illustrations that are used in acupuncture/TCM books.  I.e., there is a very practical logic to these analyses and the interesting thing is in wondering how long ago the analysis took place.

Forces push up the back and pull (from the dantian area) down the front.  This basic cycle of most movement is ultimately refined to a torso-head cycle of “qi”, the focus or essence of strength/forces that is called the microcosmic orbit.

The various channels are connected as need be by extraordinary channels, outside of the realm of this thumbnail sketch, but a knowledgeable TCM practitioner should be able to extrapolate the general theory.  Also, when needed, the dantian area is the locus of change to bring various channels into play. 

The Yang channels of the arms are anchored to the head in order to assist in lifting, expanding, etc.  The Yin channels of the arms (for pulling and closing, etc.) come into the thorax as an aid to the Closing movements (see below illustrations from Deadman et al “A Manual of Acupuncture”).

Paramount in the Six Harmonies mode of movement is the consideration of various nexuses, or “dantians” of movement along the central axis of the body.  Since we are evolved from cylindrical worms, early on, our main nexus of movement is near the center of the body.  This main nexus has a frontal aspect at the Qihai point and a posterior aspect at the Mingmen point.   Think of the Qihai and the Mingmen as simply being the front and back of the main nexus of movement in the body.  A person with a strongly developed (muscularly) dantian and sinew channels is admired in Chinese martial-arts.

Since the flow of strength/forces branches out from the various dantians, the dantians are considered to be storage junctions of qi.

There is a nexus, or dantian, for the juncture of the legs and leg-forces, which is just inside the perineum area of the pelvic floor at the HuiYin point.  In many Chinese martial-arts, a practitioner is considered to be on his way when he begins to feel this “Lower Dantian” develop physically.  Incidentally, it should be noted that the nomenclature for these various dantians can vary slightly within some arts.  For instance, “Lower Dantian” is used by some arts to mean the main dantian, not the pelvic-floor dantian.  The lower/pelvic dantian is slaved to the main dantian.

On the chest at the sternum between the pectoral muscles at about nipple height, is the chest dantian; there is a corresponding point on the back along the Gv meridian.   The chest dantian is the control nexus that feeds out to the arms; it is also slaved to the main dantian (i.e., its motions are initiated by motion at the main dantian).

There is a dantian at the throat, obviously, and there is one at the Yintang point between the eyebrows.  The topmost end of the vertical axis is the Baihui.


“Open”/Yang/Expansion Channels Extreme and Close Channels Extreme

(Pictures from Mantak Chia’s book: “Iron Shirt Chi Kung I”)

Mantak Chia, an anatomical illustrator and also a practitioner of traditional Chinese Qigongs, drew the above illustrations showing how various muscle-tendon/Sinew channels combine/coordinate in the extremes of Open (little fingers connect to little toes) and Close (thumbs connect to big toes).  Going from one extreme to another is the essence of movement in Six Harmonies and it is the initiating concept of Yin-Yang, which the Taiji diagram illustrates.  Taiji” is about going from one extreme to the other: that’s what the black and white commas in the Yin-Yang diagram are illustrating.

Intent, Jin, Breath, Qi of Earth, Qi of Heaven

Other Contributors to the Whole-Body Mechanics

The Six Harmonies mode of movement employs several tangential, but intrinsic considerations that add to or affect the forces that the body employs.  First of all, the qi of the human body is supplemented or augmented by the qi from the Earth and the qi from “Heaven”.   The qi from the earth is essentially gravity:  gravity supplies the solidity of the ground for pushing/opening forces through the body; gravity also supplies the downward force/pull which allows the body to contract and pull downward.  This qi from gravity is said to enter the body at the Bubbling Well (yongquan) point on the bottom of the feet … and so the qi of the human body during a push, for a simple example, is a combination of the mobilized qi of the body (including the elastic potential of the “back-bow” of the spine) and the qi from the Earth. 

The qi from “heaven” is mainly the force-assistant complements from the air:  oxygen and deliberate cultivation of air-pressure in the body.  Breathing techniques and conditioning of the human body allow for (in Six Harmonies arts) air pressure in the area of the kidneys and dantien to be converted to a type of force which is partially hydraulic in nature.  Regardless of any analysis of what the exact force is, the idea is that force generation starts at the “kidneys” … probably a more accurate description would be “in the area of the kidneys” … with a combination of forces from the air-pressure hydraulic forces and the mechanical potential of the back-bow and dantian musculature.

Another type of force additive is “Jin”, which is a trained force skill in which the mind (the “intent” or “yi”) manipulates the innate force-directing (micro-movements) abilities of the body so that forces from the ground (or the downward gravity force) are aimed as needed, preferably into or with the forces generated by an opponent.  Most of the almost magical-appearing displays of force mechanics in Asian martial-arts are demonstrations of the force-direction manipulation that is Jin.


Another intrinsic part of the Six Harmonies body analysis is the action of breathing in coordination with body movement.  There are two types of breathing: natural breathing and reverse breathing.  Think of natural breathing as the way everyone breathes naturally.  Reverse-breathing is intrinsic to the Six Harmonies mode of movement because it is used to create pressure in the dantian and kidney areas.  Perhaps the main source of power in the Six Harmonies mode of movement is the pressure that is stored in the kidney area.  Of course this pressure would not exist if it were not for the lungs, so the lungs would be the major operator in developing and manipulating the qi and the dantian would be second in importance.

Ultimately, the pressure from the kidney area is driven to the ground as a force and the force pushes up the Yang muscle-tendon channels for use in expanding, pushing, and lifting.  This is a primary focus of the Six Harmonies mode of movement.

Another of the main functions of reverse-breathing is to pull the fascia inward to develop the intrinsic elastic power of the connective tissue and tendons.  Pulling the fascia in with the breath (breathing in the qi) can be felt first and most easily at the fingers/hands, but gradually develops along various pathways and the major axes of the body.   The muscle-tendon channels conform admirably and naturally with this utilization of the elastic potentials and strengths in the human body.

The Qi of Magnetic Feelings and so on

The Troublemaker

It would be simpler if we could maintain a discussion purely about mechanics, but there is a troublesome contributor to the overall idea of what qi is.  Much of what controls and connects the body is the fascia.  Much of various Qigongs is aimed at conditioning the fascia and, in order to focus on the fascia, muscular tension is avoided (if you tense, you’re just working on the muscles, not the fascia).  A slight stretching of the fascia is seen in most conditioning postures, but muscular tension is abjured. 

There is an electromagnetic field in the human body and the fascia is involved in the strength of the magnetic field.  The stronger and better-conditioned the fascia is, the stronger the magnetic field can be.  James L. Oschman wrote a fairly focused book on this odd relationship of fascia and the body’s electromagnetic field:  “Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis”.  The book is not clinically rigorous, but it’s informative and well-sourced.   There are some relationships between acupuncture needling and the body’s electromagnetic field, but that’s a topic that is tangential to this discussion about the origins of the channels.  The main point is that the fascia-tendon contributions to the Sinew Channels and the body whole are somewhat involved with the electromagnetic field of the body.

Conclusion and Discussion

Many more details could be examined, but the main point has been illuminated:  The Muscle-Tendon Channels or “Sinew Channels” almost certainly had their genesis as an analysis of how the strength-flows work within a movement system called Six Harmonies.  This idealized system of movement was considered the most desired and productive way of cultivating the body across all of China and undoubtedly India, also (the correlations between the Qi-paradigm and the Prana-paradigm are too many to ignore).

Another major point to note is that while this view of the probable origin of the muscle-tendon diagrams may be novel in the West, there are many traditional Qigong and martial-arts practitioners who take this relationship as a matter of course, even today, after thousands of years.

The inference is that Qi is related to strength, not “life essence”.   If anything, qi seems to have been a postulated “essence of strength/forces”, with the idea being that anything that contributed to the strength/forces of the human body must contain some of the essence, qi.  So therefore, food, blood, air, gravity, muscle, bone, connective-tissue, genetic predispositions, sun, and so on, all must have qi, too.  At least that must have been the theory.  As time progressed, the applications of the theory increased to cover all contingencies, but the growth of explication is the essence of meta-theories; prediction and reproducibility are the requirements of the Scientific Method, though, so there are some conflicts.

What does this examination of the origin and meaning of the qi paradigm mean for the needling of acupuncture?  Nothing, really.  If needling points A and B results in a given effect, it doesn’t matter what the definition of qi is or how the concept originated.

Ultimately, however, understanding that qi represents a flow of strength of forces within the body should assist in the overall understanding of a lot of older texts.  For instance, qi flows are shown going up the channels on the insides of the legs and going downward on the outsides/backs of the legs.  That simply means that the insides of the legs are involved in bending and pulling inward; the outsides of the legs are involved in straightening and pushing, etc.  If there is supposed to be qi going from one organ to another in the body cavity, it means that there should be some tensile (connective tissue) connection between the two organs that can be demonstrated by pulling one organ to move the other one.  And so on.

Hopefully these thoughts and observations will be productive in initiating further thoughts and discussions.

Mike Sigman

Durango, Colorado


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Further Thoughts on Qigongs


By way of caveats, let me state up front that the intersection of martial-arts training to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), in its functional, physical sense, is fairly recent (in terms of years) and surprising to me.  I have no expertise in TCM and I would opine, on the other hand, that most westerners (even most Asians, I’d venture) involved in TCM don’t think in the functional terms that I’m using as a perspective in these essays.  The general thrust of my thinking is that the corpus of TCM was derived from a physical, practical basis and because of the aspect of an “etheric” (if you will) aspect of TCM and qi, there’s been some sort of misunderstanding, in many cases, about qi discussions.  It seems highly likely that the theories about strength and qi were the result of a focused interest long, long ago in how the human body worked.
I’ll try to deal, as best I can, with some ideas about the origin of the etheric aspects of “qi” in a future essay, but for now, in this essay, I’ll give my opinions about some further aspects of qigongs that might help a beginner get his foot in the door.  Incidentally, this essay isn’t meant to discount the sensations, etc., associated with various “qi flows”, and so on… it’s just that the topic is tangential to the physical aspects that are the focus in this discussion.

In the immediately previous essay (Breathing Exercises, Yoga, Balloon-Men, etc.), the idea of conditioning of the body fascia, connective-tissues, and so on was prominent.  In the early essays done on Silk-Reeling and Six Harmonies movement (on this blog) there were a lot of opinions about connecting the dantian to the muscle-tendon channels (from which the acupuncture meridians are derived) in order to control the body.  The same principles apply to qigongs as do silk-reeling movement:  control lines from the dantian to the extremities are developed through the muscle-tendon channels and through the “mind-intent” control of forces from gravity and the solidity of the ground.

Qigongs like the Yi Jin Jing are considered the original mechanism from which most other qigongs and martial-systems using the jing-luo theory derive.  Breath, pressure, stretch, and movement connected to the dantian are used to strengthen the body connections delineated by the twelve “channels” or connected tension-lines in the body. 

Qigongs like the Ba Duan Jin, also called the “Eight Pieces of Brocade”, rely on the development and conditioning of the eight extraordinary meridians/channels.  The “Eight Pieces of Brocade” aka “Eight Pieces of Silk” is a metaphor for eight areas/layers/pieces of fascia.

Chinese martial-arts as Qigongs

In a relation to qigongs, almost all Chinese martial-arts make reference to the interplay of their intrinsic postures and the meridians/channels of the body.  So, as an example in Xingyi, one of the primary elemental strikes, p’i chuan, is related to the Lung Meridian and the practice of that strike is supposed to develop areas of the body affected by the Lung Meridian (perhaps by just rubbing one arm on top of the Lung channel in the other arm).  If you think about it, the idea of developing meridians/channels in Xingyi or other Chinese martial-arts is the same basic idea in the movements of almost all qigongs: the various postures and movements relate to the development of specific channels/meridians of the body.    

Yoga’s postures were almost certainly aspects of this same general principles, originally, because there are too many parallels to pass off as coincidence.


Developing a few examples in qigong usage

Knowing what meridians or channels are associated with the various postures or movements in a qigong (or martial-art movement) can help you clarify a qigong-related movement.  So instead of just going through a nice series of “flowing motions” that look particularly fetching and exotic when done in a white silk suit, you can examine how you take a particular meridian/channel and condition it with relaxed stretch, pressure, jin, dantian-movement, and so on.  Developing and working a meridian/channel in this manner is an additive method to needling or tuina/shiatsu manipulation of the channels/meridians.

As has been emphasized before, you have to have a physical connection from the dantian/hara to the hands or feet to control the extremities with the dantian.  However, first some feel for the ‘suit’, through the breathing and stretching and other exercises mentioned in the previous essay, needs to be developed.  It takes a while to develop this kind of connection, so therefore it’s important to always keep a light stretch-connection from the dantian or mingmen to the hands and feet while learning to move with the dantian and practicing your qigong. 

You have to have a physical connection from your dantian/hara to an opponent’s center, in martial-applications, so you have to learn to maintain that connection, also. Think how many times you’ve heard an instructor say “push harder” or “grab tighter”… that’s to help him get a connection through bone (yang qi) or connective-tissue (yin-qi) to your center.

It really only takes a couple of months to begin feeling the connectivity of the ‘suit’, but some parts of the ‘suit’ develop more slowly than others.  The hands and fingers and arms tend to be the first places where ‘suit’ (really, a part of the qi) develops and you can feel the tensile/elastic connection.  The legs tend to be the last places to develop where you can feel the connections, and so on.

As you breathe in, particularly while using reverse-breathing, you can feel a pulling inward from the extremities of the “suit”.  Different channel/meridians (but not all of them) begin or end at the tips of the fingers or toes. Often, you will be “breathing in the qi” from a specific point, but generally, in my opinion, you’ll get satisfactory development of the ‘suit’ and channels by just doing general reverse-breath inhale (keep it light!) while staying slightly stretched out.  Gradually, the defined feeling of the channels will appear.

Specific areas of the body can be conditioned by physically stretching the area prior to the inhale.  For instance, if you’re trying to develop the front of the ‘suit’, arch slightly backward and move the arms backward as you’re breathing in to physically heighten the amount of stretch.  As you exhale, visualize letting the slight stretch from breath and position relaxing toward the dantian (“relaxing” in the sense that a rubber band “relaxes” when you let one end of it go).

If you’re attempting to strengthen the sinus and lungs, to use and example that was mentioned in the previous essay, look upward and elongate the neck slightly during the inhale.  Think of “breathing qi in through the Yintang point”, pulling or stretching the elastic connection from the Yintang point (between the eyebrows) toward the lungs.  Then, on the exhale, let the elongation relax toward and into the dantian.  The visualization and “breathing inward” will quickly develop into a slight tension or pulling feeling.

Another example might be where you exercise the connective tissue within the abdominal cavity by stretching it upward upon inhale, in a health-oriented qigong.  Try to somewhat vertically separate the internal body components of the upper thorax from the abdominal cavity and notice the stretch that you induce in the connective tissues in the abdominal area.

Along the “suit” of the human figure the general rule is that during the inhale the tissues contract/pull in toward the dantian on the inside and lower areas/channels of the limbs as you “breathe the qi in”; then the “qi flow” returns back along the outer/upper/back areas of the limbs as you “exhale the qi”.  There is always an overall feeling of tensile-elasticity relaxing toward the dantian, the central controlling point of the body, upon exhale. 

“Qi flow” and tensile-elastic changes during movement and breathing are strongly related.  The positions and movements that most efficiently coordinate with the overall map of tensile connections and contractions have much to do with the basic logic of the “channel” system that accords with TCM theory.  Discussions about “spiraling” and “winding” also have to do with tracking the “qi flow” as the points of maximum tension move along the spirals caused by the interplay of front- and back-suit on a body with limbs that developed originally from a cylindrical origin.


Static Holding Example

As a last example from which to illustrate a general point about static use and training of channels, let’s use the odd-looking paths of channels/meridians seen on the head.  After you have done a couple of months (or more) of persistent ‘suit’ development with breath and stretch (don’t overdo it; get your physician’s approval; keep it light and quit at the first signs of a headache), you should be able to do a standing posture of the “tree hugging” variety and relax, allowing the tensile connection of the shoulders and arms to be held by the endpoints of the channels on the head.

Slightly elongating the head upward will actually allow the tensile channels on the tops of the arms and shoulders to be held by the tensile channels at the sides of the head.  Two of the channels most frequently coming into play would be Large Intestine and Sanjiao.  The suit along the back and fronts of the body are also aided by lightly keeping the head up (remember that the dantian cannot move the extremities without a connection of some sort).  And of course, the breathing during a statically-held posture is used to constantly tension and release the ‘suit’, while pressure increases and decreases within the “balloon man”.




Two of the holding channels involved in 'tree hugging' posture.
As mentioned in previous essays, the classical perspective of the body’s strength is that it develops largely by converting and using the solidity of the ground and the downward pull of weight.  Extraneous usage of muscle for strength is to be avoided where possible, in the classical view.  The bones propagate the solidity of the ground upward through the configurations of the body’s frame; the muscle-tendon channels control the opening and closing of the frame.  Generally speaking, the tensions of the “closing” (gravity-related) channels is somewhat more than the tensions in the “opening” channels, often at about a 70-30 or a 60-40 ratio. 

As you turn and twist you can feel the various tension lines of the suit come into play as they hold the body against gravity or convey some other necessary tension in order to maintain structural integrity.  Bear in mind that various muscle-tendon meridians work together as needed in order to do something, so often you can feel the tension-play of two or more muscle-tendon channels come into play as you move.  The dantian is the mediator of which channels are used and it is the overall manipulator of the body via the channels and skin of the ‘suit’ (metaphorically like the skin of a Balloon Man).

Stretching, pressure, tensions, contradictory jins, dantian-control, etc., are practiced in qigongs, but the general rule is to relax and not to overly-maintain artificial tensions or contradictions.  In some ‘hard’ versions of occasional arts, you’ll see constantly maintained tensions, but generally these are not following the classical admonitions if they are done with overt tension (“hard qi” development).  There is a difference between muscular tension and jin tensions.  Relax, but stay connected.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Breathing Exercises, Yoga, Balloon-Men, etc.

Basic Information related to qigongs, stretching, packing, etc.


The connective tissue or collagen-based tissues of the body run through everything in the body tissues, except for the teeth (the bones have a lot of collagen in them).  Even muscles have a lot of connective tissue around and within them: think of the idea that if you removed the meat cells from the muscles, you’d have an empty, fine-filament net made out of connective tissue. 

Generally speaking, the main idea in strengthening the connective tissues and tendons is to stretch, stress, and hold them.  In other words, by manipulating (including twisting) various fasciae in the body, you can strengthen them.  Holding a stretched tissue in position helps to strengthen it; this is the core idea of a lot of various standing postures.  You can also strengthen the fascia tissues in and around organs by stretching, stressing with internal pressures, twisting, holding, and so on.

The various Asian breathing and postural methods have a lot to do with the idea of strengthening the connective tissues, for the most part, although there is more to than that, of course.  There are some more sophisticated aspects of breath and posture training, but this essay is simply meant to provide some baseline information on breath-related training and not go into much more than a general overview.  Like other exercises, breath training can be overdone and thus be potentially injurious, so it’s better to have a knowledgeable trainer and regular medical monitoring.


Many Qigongs, but only a few principles

In Asia there are a number of variations on the breathing and conditioning approaches and there are a number of different preferences for the postures that are used.  The general idea in a qigong (including Yoga styles), though, is to condition the body via an approach focused on the fascia (including the fascia contained in muscle) and to use a set of sequential postures that most adequately addresses all of the body areas, internally and externally.  Relaxing physically and mentally is usually a part of these exercises, but not always…. we’ll simply assume the relaxing part of the discussion and limit this essay to an understanding of the basic physical aspects.  An additional aspect of good and complete qigongs is the use of “intent” or jin forces (see previous essays).

Many people think that a qigong (and any good Asian martial-art which is based on qigong principles) is a series of movements which somehow imbue benefits just from the sequence of postures.  In much the same way, many people think that the ‘magic’ of a Taiji form is in the sequence and choreography, as well.  In actuality, the benefits come from how the body is managed during the sequence.  In other words, a qigong, a Taiji form, etc., is a type of workout regimen in which the body is moved and conditioned in specific ways. 

The fact that the actual workout part is difficult to see has led many people to focus on the choreography and to miss what is really going on in qigong-related exercises and martial-arts.  To be fair, the “how-to-do” of the body mechanics, qi, jin, dantian, etc., is often not shared with everyone by the real experts, so focusing on the choreography is an easy mistake to make.

Naturally, every proficient practitioner has a concept of the ideal qigong workout/regimen in terms of conditioning components, efficacy, how things should be done, which areas of the body are conditioned in what order, and so forth… so there are a great number of opinions about the best qigong, yoga set, or similar breath-related exercises.  Some qigongs contain training components that are variations and/or improvements on the components in other qigongs, but an understanding of the basics will help to pick and choose the appropriate one for personal use.  The point to remember is that even though there are many seemingly different breath-related exercises, they all actually revolve around only a few simple principles.  For instance, the Ba Duan Jin, the Yi Jin Jing, and old Yoga exercises are all related, in principle.

You don’t need to learn a lot of forms… one form done correctly can contain all the training methods that are needed.

Two ancient Japanese statues portraying the gods of Inhale and Exhale

Concentrating the Breath and Developing the Suit

The two basic aspects of breath-related exercises to bear in mind are:

 (1.) The stretch/stress training of the tendons and fascia, including holding positions.

(2.) Building up your pressure ability in the dantian.  Gradually both of these conditionings are spread to encompass all of the body, but let’s just leave the discussion at how to get started and the ideas behind the practices.

Many qigongs and neigongs (a neigong is a more focused version of a qigong) first start off by bringing inhaled pressure to various parts of the body and manipulating the body and the pressure.  Quite possibly, though, time can be saved by jumping to first how breath can be used to pull in the areas of the “suit” (see the essay on Silk Reeling and Six Harmonies Movement for a discussion of the ‘suit’ model).  Let’s try to work our way through an example in order feel how the breath pulls in the ‘suit’ and then we’ll discuss pressure.

There are basically two major categories of breathing: Natural Breathing, in which a deep abdominal inhale is allowed to push out the belly/abdomen and kidney area;  Reverse Breathing, in which an inhale is somewhat contained by holding in the abdomen and perineum areas.  Although both types of breathing have conditioning benefits and both are used, reverse-breathing is the classical hallmark of much of the martial breathing exercises.


Preliminary Exercise to feel “Suit”

Stand upright (head pushed lightly upward) with the arms stretched out to the sides, palms to front and slightly up, fingers straight and perhaps even bent slightly backward.  Inhale through the nose while pulling the belly slightly in and try to pressurize the abdominal area, even down to the perineum.  If you pay attention to your finger/hand area, you should feel a slight pull or contraction in that area.  That’s the feeling you’re looking for: a contraction/pull that is related to an inhale.  It is a slight pulling, almost subcutaneous, and ultimately you’d like to lightly do variations of this type of conditioning until you can feel a slight pull all over the body and a slight increase in pressure inside the body with every breath that you take.  Your breath “pulls the qi in” and the type of breathing that uses this slight pull-in of the abdomen is, as mentioned before, “reverse breathing”.

You can garner similar sensations and effects of the ‘suit’ pulling inward by trying these variations:

1.  Standing in the same outstretched position as above, begin your reverse-breathing inhale while slightly pulling in the belly area, but stop actually inhaling air at about 2/3 of a breath and attempt to pull the rest of the air in through the pores in your skin.  You should feel a contraction of the skin from this visualization.  This is elementary “skin breathing” and it causes a contraction that can be felt.

2.  Again, stand in the same outstretched position and use a reverse-breath to inhale about 2/3 of the way, but then try to pull the rest of the breath in through the tips of the fingers, toes, elbows, knees, shoulders, etc.  Again, you should have a similar pulling sensation, but this visualization is just another variation.  A similar variation has you imagining that the inhaled pressure is squeezing your bones.  All of these visualization methods induce a pulling and pressure-like feeling and conditioning of the ‘suit’.

Note that by first stretching the body or an area of the body which you want to condition, it is much easier to effect the pulling sensation.  Therefore, it’s always best to maintain a slightly stretched posture while doing qigongs/yoga/etc., or to bend in such a way as to pre-stretch the area you want to condition with your inhale.

At first only worry about progressing with the goal to spread the ability to pull various areas of the ‘suit’ at will.  Keep the muscles very relaxed in order to work on the suit and not involve any muscle tension.  Later, with some qualified advice, you might add contraction of the suit as a step, or even some judicious muscular tension if your art is more of a Shaolin variety.  Be careful, though, because it’s easy to do things wrong or to go off on a training tangent where you waste a lot of time and you have a difficult time returning to the path.

The pulling sensation (and pressure components), incidentally, is part of the conditioning that results in a skin that is difficult to cut or puncture.  Hence, some of the old qi tricks about spear points on throats, beds of nails, hooks in skin (seen all throughout Asia) as parts of religious and training rites, and so on.  Since the skin actually contracts minutely on the inhale, some people use a well-trained suit in the hand to lift smooth, dry objects like a small mirror, a polished knife blade, etc.  They put their hand on the object and quietly inhale to initiate the adherence.  It’s a form of “sticking” power.  The traveling Beijing Acrobats used to have a guy that demonstrated this trick on a water-cooler bottle laid on its side.

Another example would be the previously-mentioned idea of inhaling while pushing the face upward in order to tension and strengthen the connective tissues between the lungs and the sinuses.  Over a period of time, some sinus conditions can be favorably assisted by this type of “qi” exercise for the sinuses because it effects an actual conditioning of the tissues.

Still another example is the near-titillating qigong/neigong which is famously pictured with some male practitioner hanging a large rock from his genitalia.  The basic idea is the same as the sinus example and many others: a pulling sensation is established via breath-training and then the hold and stretch is practiced until the tissues are conditioned.  To hold a contraction/tension while returning to normal breathing is a skill that comes with time.


Basic Pressure and Tensioning

As you inhale with a reverse breath, pressure builds up in the abdominal area, or in other areas you may choose to focus on after you have some practice and experience behind you.  Gradually, you should also begin inflating the kidney area as part of the inhale.  One of the old, commonly-heard sayings about qigongs was “first, concentrate the qi behind the navel”, or something along those lines.  This is a reference to the abdominal pressure and condition developed from breathing exercises.

The ‘suit’ also contracts slightly with each breath, after it has been trained for a while.  So within the body there are stresses caused by the increase in pressure and by the pulling inward of the suit during inhales.  These stresses condition the connective tissue and also massage the organs and other body tissues.  Because each inhale pulls inward on the body (and the body slightly pressurizes), the bones are also lightly pulled and compressed inward with an inhale. Over time, as has been noted for centuries in Chinese martial lore, the bones tend to become denser because the stressing causes some bone growth.  As your ability to bring the slight tension associated with an inhale (and the resultant slight pressure within the body) increases, you’ll notice that the idea of a “Balloon Man” is fairly good descriptor.



In concert with the “Balloon Man” idea, the slight pressurization and pulling in of the ‘suit’ strengthens and assists the body’s connections.  Naturally a weak spot in a balloon would weaken the overall integrity of the balloon and analogously in the Balloon Man, weak areas in the structure can cause a loss of integrity.   In the human-shaped “balloon”, the two major weak areas are the mouth and the anus.  For this reason, the mouth is normally kept closed (tongue touching palate behind upper front teeth) and the anus/perineum region is normally slightly pulled up in order to counter any bulging and loss of integrity in that area.  So we have three pressure related actions that are done in many/most breathing excercises: pull in/up the perineum/anus area of the pelvic floor in order to keep that area from expanding under pressure, pull in the abdominal area during inhale in order to assist in developing a light pressure, and if you’re doing a pressure-hold in more advanced breathing exercises, tuck the chin as an aid to prevent pressure from building up in the head.  These three movements are the same in Chinese qigongs and Yogic locks (bhandas).  While there are much more exotic-sounding “energy” reasons often attached to descriptions of Yogic bhandas, it seems probable that their origin was based upon the manipulation of pressures while conditioning the body.  A lot of modern yoga seems to be missing an understanding of internal conditioning of the fascia via the pressure methodology.

I know of some groups of people who use fairly high breath-induced pressures to develop an “Iron Shirt”, the ability to withstand blows, and so on.  Some of these people have gone so far into pressure artifacts that they have induced health-related problems.  The point being that there are training cautions; a person should rely on expert advice and common sense in all of the types of training that we do.

Movement as part of Qigongs

Several previous essays have dealt with movement, muscle-tendon channels, dantian usage, etc., and the movement of Open and Close.  A traditional qigong is going to include movements that are based around Open and Close, using the power of Gravity, the use of mind-intent jin, and the use of the dantian to control the body through its ‘suit’ connection.

Usually movement within a qigong begins with the body expanding and opening with the inhale assisting the opening movement.  An exhale accompanies and assists the closing and contraction of the body.  As a person progresses in development, the role of breathing changes somewhat and the focus is more toward pressurizing and tensioning the suit on the inhale and the exhale assists in the closing and contraction associated with the exertion of power.  Exhale when exerting power, although there are some slight modifications to this idea as a person becomes further advanced.  Sometimes the inhale while tensioning the ‘suit’ and exhaling on the exertion of strength goes beyond the usage in the sense of a “qigong” and becomes a more muscular “dynamic tensioning” exercise; the two things should not be confused.

There are traditionally only the two main forces which derive from gravity: upward forces based upon the solidity of the ground being propagated by the body’s structure and downward forces which derive from gravity.  Horizontal forces in the body are actually composed of the Up and Down forces working at angles through the body frame.  Traditionally, then, there are six primary directions: Up, Down, Frontward and Backward from the body, and out and in to the sides of the body.  A good qigong will usually address body movement in those six directions.  Other postures are usually for development and conditioning of tissues within the body and externally, as well.

Here is a good example of a basic qigong; qigongs similar to this are done in many styles:

I'll do a more focused essay soon on specific aspects of breathing-in qi.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dantians, Centers, Haras: Centers of Power

In the essay on silk-reeling and Six Harmonies movement, there was an odd implication and question that came to light about the muscle-tendon channels.   The muscle-tendon channels are connected lines/channels/groupings of muscles connected by tendons and fascia as functional conveyors of strength and power along which the “Qi of Earth” and “Qi of Heaven” act. 

Strength and qi are always related, so it’s not incorrect to say that strength flows along the muscle-tendon channels and it’s not incorrect to say that “qi” flows along the muscle-tendon channels.  Viewing the muscle-tendon channels from that perspective puts a different light on the acupuncture meridians… which apparently derive from the muscle-tendon channels (Deadman et al, A Manual of Acupuncture).  The point is what has hitherto mostly been viewed as metaphysical “channels” or “meridians”, actually seems to have had a functional origin. 

Along those same lines, many of us on the old Neijia List were somewhat surprised to see Chen-style Taijiquan experts having muscularly-developed “dantians”, when for the most part, we had all viewed the “dantian” as some metaphorical reference to an “area of change” (field of cinnabar).  It was puzzling to find out that the dantian, in expert practitioners, was actually muscular and articulate.  It could be moved/rotated like a separate organ.

One of the first questions in my mind was “which came first… the rhetorical dantian or the functional, muscular dantian?”.  The odds of someone positing a rhetorical dantian first and then by some miracle a muscular dantian was developed later seemed to be absurd, so it seemed unavoidable that the functional, muscular dantian arrived first.  And actually, since there is plenty of literature talking about movement starting at the dantian, it all makes sense.

The dantian, as discussed in the Silk-Reeling essay, controls the muscle-tendon channels; it is the main nexus of power through the human body.  There’s actually a back-side to the dantian at the Mingmen point at L3 of the lumbar vertebrae, so the front muscle-tendon channels are mostly affected by the abdominal dantian and the rear muscle-tendon channels are affected to varying degrees by the Mingmen and by willed control of the “suit” (fascia aspects of the qi).  Generally speaking,  a person who has trained his “qi” uses the dantian to control the body.  The dantian gets its power from the solidity of the ground or the weight from gravity, mostly.  There are two major exceptions to the general power statement, but for purposes of simplicity, we’ll leave those discussions for another time.

Our human bodies are no longer the ancient cylindrical creatures we evolved from, although generally speaking our muscles and connective tissues and bone still reflect the ancient cylindrical origin.   Over time we developed arms and legs (and a tail, but alas we have lost that over time), so the muscles, fascia, and bones adjusted the basically cylindrical shell to accommodate moving the limbs and head.  So it’s logical that there are secondary nexuses of power for the legs and the arms.   The nexus for the legs is the “lower dantian” just inside the perineum area of the pelvic cage.  The nexus for the arms is the chest dantian, on the sternum in front, matched by a corresponding area on the back. 

Naturally, there is also a nexus of power/movement at the hollow of the throat.  The endpoint of the elastic connections through the vertical axis of the body seems to be the sinuses at the uppermost end.  The sinuses are connected to the lungs, in TCM theory, and sure enough you can feel that elastic connection if you inhale deeply and tilt your head upward.

I’ve heard it said that a person’s “kung fu” (accomplishment of skill) hasn’t crossed into excellence until the lower dantian is developed to the point that you’re aware of its functioning as you move.

The main idea of this discussion was to offer once again the idea that the main dantian that controls movement in the “internal strength” sense is a functional thing, but there are other functional dantians in the body which are slaved to the main dantian.  These ideas seems fairly obvious when you think about them, but again there is a nagging question about the relationship between “qi” and strength.  Since qi and strength always go together, in the old qi-paradigm, has there been a slight skewing of perspective when we’ve talked about dantians and chakras as “centers of power”?  What part of that “power” was functional strength and what part was the elusively-defined “qi”?



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Addendum to Earlier Posts: Dantian as Origin of Forces

During a two-handed push against your partner’s chest there should be a jin path, of course, but a western engineer will see that push differently than a traditional Asian martial-artist that uses a dantian-centric art.   From a western perspective, there is one line from the ground to the hands (in a coherent body), but from a traditional Eastern dantian-centric viewpoint, forces originate from the dantian and go out simultaneously to the legs and hands.

While this perspective doesn’t make a lot of sense, at first, it actually does a lot to help understand the discussion about the muscle-tendon channels, forces, connections, the dantian’s control of the body and so on that are described in the earlier essays on this blog.   Because of a few side questions about this aspect, I decided to add this to the baseline level of knowledge that is helpful for people to understand.



Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Qi, Structure, Connection, Gravity

"Qi" is a sort of generic term that can cover a number of things. A Chinese friend of mine who speaks excellent English said that when he grew up he always thought of qi as meaning contextually something like "the energy in things around us". So air can have qi from oxygen and pressure, as an example. The earth can have qi in gravity (the ground support and the pull downward). Food has energy within it.  A light bulb can use the qi of electricity. And so on.

The human body can use the Qi of the Earth (see the essay on Reeling Silk and Six Harmonies) in the sense that the solidity of the ground can provide a supporting force that can be applied to objects (your computer is being held up by the ground in just that way right now). Downward forces can be effected by harnessing the body's weight through overall connection.  In other words, the notable qi aspect of the earth is gravity and in the classical sense as much use should be made of the ground’s support and gravity’s weight in doing everything.  A simple example might be for a native porter to carry a load on the head by letting the structure of the body convey the ground’s solidity to the load.  Structures and channels along which the qi of the earth and the qi of heaven work are representative aspects of the Qi of Man.  More on that topic later.

If your partner is in a good stance, he can be difficult to tip over and he can probably hit hard from that stance. Assuming your partner is not using a muscular stance, but is instead letting the "qi of the earth" go through his frame, he can be relaxed but solid. On the other hand, if you are facing your partner and twist him into some awkward stance, it is easy to push him over because he “has no qi”. “No qi” in this case doesn't mean that there isn't some mysterious energy flowing through the person’s meridians; it means that the "qi of earth", the solidity of the ground, can't be propagated through an awkward or unconnected body frame.  You “have qi” depending on the way you have developed your body and the way that you use the qi from the earth and the qi from the heavens/air.

The first thing to note in this discussion about qi and body mechanics (there are other issues about qi than just this one) is that without the two primary powers of the solidity of the ground going upward and power of weight/gravity pulling downward there is no power except muscular power.  What if you push sideways off from a wall, by the way?  That wall has no stability if it is not supported by the earth somewhere. So the wall’s strength also derives from the powers of gravity.  Sideways forces from the body can be generated from angled versions of the two primary powers of gravity.  The classical preference is to let the solidity of the ground or the down-weight of gravity do as much work as possible by manipulating the body and the dantian.

The Three Internal Harmonies

Generally speaking, the body’s qi from a structural viewpoint is twofold: the bones/skeleton propagate the support of the ground upward and outward for the “Yang qi”; the connective tissues, tendons, etc., allow for pulling forces, the “Yin qi” in a downward and inward direction. 

The body has a natural ability to adjust alignment directions from weight, weight-shifts, incoming forces, and so on.  For instance, if you are carrying a heavy back-pack, your body will automatically make force compensations for the different and off-center stresses the back-pack’s off-center weight/mass causes.  You can actually learn to voluntarily manipulate the body’s normally involuntary force-compensation mechanisms in order to the direction and origin of the forces of gravity through the body’s frame.  Willfully manipulating the direction and origin of forces is generally referred to as using the “Yi” or “mind intent”. 

But what is being manipulated? The qi involves micro-adjustments, functionally, and those adjustments will involve the muscles, connective tissue, and bones, but on a very small level of movement.  You can get a feel for this aspect of qi by standing in a good, centered stance with one foot in front and one behind.  Weight is in the middle.  Imagine a very strong wind coming into your front and you stand against it by letting the back foot handle the push (don’t tense the body; let the foot hold the wind push).  Then imagine the wind suddenly comes from behind and pushes you so that the front foot is holding the force.  If your body was centered, you shouldn’t have to make any shifts or adjustments.  Now, alternate imagining a front-wind push for a couple of seconds, then a back-wind push, then a front-wind push.  Try not to make any muscle tensions in your body, but just feel as it adapts to the slowly changing wind directions, front then back then front, and so on.  You should feel a slight tingle in the body with each body adjustment to the changing wind.  That tingle is the qi as it prepares for each force change.

The tingle of “qi” preceding a force being readied was noticed by the ancient Chinese and was encapsulated in the old saying about the Internal Three Harmonies: “The heart (“Xin”, the root of “desire”, in the old view) triggers the mind (the “Yi”), the mind triggers the qi to where it is needed, and the qi precedes the strength (the “Li”).  So the saying was “Xin – Yi, Yi – Qi, Qi – Li”.

Using the mental manipulation of qi, we can engage an incoming force in any of a number of directions, blending with it so that the resulting force of the encounter becomes what we wanted for an outcome.  See the first essay in this blog on “Jin” for a slightly more-detailed discussion of the simple interaction of forces using the mind-directed qi. 

Another thing that we can do is mentally manipulate the qi to set up contradictory forces within the body; these forces can create balance (as in the Six Directions) or they can be used to augment force generation.  However, the qi precedes any forces; forces do not generate qi.

The Strange Directions of a Push or Hit
Although it might seem a little bit off-topic, it’s worth noting a further point about the traditional nomenclature and view of the dantian’s relationship to a directed-qi push.

When you push or hit someone with the ground’s solidity that is propagated through the body, it’s easy to think of the force from the ground to the hand (shortest practicable path, please!) as being extended by the joints expanding.  For instance, I could arrange with my “intent” to have a ground-solidity-connection from my foot to my hand and I could simply expand that connection by straightening my knee, my bowed back, my elbow, and so on.  That’s usually the best way to learn, but there is a more sophisticated perspective someone who has developed the dantian’s control of the connected body (see again the discussion on Silk Reeling and Six Harmonies).

In the traditional view, forces originate from the dantian and to push someone, qi is sent simultaneously from the dantian to the ground and to the hand while the dantian rotates.  So, in a way, a push or hit to someone is really a push to the ground using the solidity-of-the-ground, or jin, path.  If you’ll think about this perspective, it means using the strength of the lower body to push with the upper body.  Even to raise your arms, you actually send the qi to the ground first.  You “sink the qi”.