Qi Gong practice, ‘forever producing more’, has many benefits for the mind-body system, but in this article we are focussed on the way the body’s organs can be rejuvenated by relaxed, but disciplined, rhythmic exercise. This discussion is intended to extend the basic Taoist ideas introduced in Lao Tzu’s verse to a deeper and more practical level, in order to show something more about the theory and experience of Qi Gong.
The idea that the universe exists as an energetic interplay of polar opposites (yin and yang) is the core idea of Taoism, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and Qi Gong. These three fields are profoundly related in history and practice. Qi Gong is basically a practical expression of Taoist philosophy which also draws upon the theory of TCM. In all three systems human beings are considered to be the meeting place of Heaven energy (yang) and Earth energy (yin). Within the human body, which is both yin and yang, this interplay takes the form of ‘three treasures’: jing, or essence, qi, or vital energy, and shen, spirit. Good health depends on the strength and harmony of these three planes of existence (or different forms of energy).
These ideas are at least 2400 years old. The Tao Te Ching is thought to date somewhere between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE but it is still valid today. The truly remarkable thing about Lao Tzu’s verse, which incorporates the ideas of yin, yang, jing, qi and shen and their interaction in the Dan Tian, or power centre of the body, is that it is still part of contemporary theory and describes a reality that can be developed and made manifest through the consistent practice of Qi Gong (and Taiji).
Qi Gong as an Internal Exercise System
The modern exercise system of Qi Gong has arisen out of the realisation that physical activity is essential for good health. In Qi Gong history the health of Chinese monks was improved when gentle exercise was added to their passive meditation practices - it was understood that gentle exercise can be much more therapeutic, and sustainable into old age, unlike highly vigorous exercise. In contrast to most modern athletic sports, Qi Gong provides a uniquely ‘yin’ style of exercise that is not only good for the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and bones, but also improves the health of the organs by gently and rhythmically stretching the visceral tissues surrounding them and, by virtue of the form of the exercises, encourages the flow of Qi through them. Qi Gong provides a gentle internal massage that relaxes and energises the whole body.
Gentle rhythmic stretching of the muscles and skin helps clear stagnation in the meridians and builds up Qi in the limbs, allowing this energy to then flow into the organs. The smooth, continuous motion of the limbs moves the muscles around the organs; tensions are loosened from these fine layers of muscle surrounding the organs, allowing increased Qi to circulate there. This helps to remove any Qi stagnation that may be near the organs, allowing them to relax and receive their proper Qi nourishment.
Qi Gong has a uniquely stimulating effect on the interior of the body. By gently exercising the organs, Qi Gong can provide assistance for conditions such as asthma, poor circulation and digestive problems. But practised regularly Qi Gong is able to assist in the maintenance of good health, which is the best way to deal with disease and degeneration. This preventative focus is also the way Qi Gong is mostly practised in the West, where diagnosis and treatment of organ pathology is generally in the domain of conventional western medicine.
Even though strong muscular contractions and large movements are conspicuously absent from Qi Gong, its effects on the body-mind are sometimes very strong. After a class participants often report on what a ‘good workout’ they have had. Internally focused work can indeed be vigorous and exhilarating!
As well as inducing a flow of energy through the organs, the repetitive, smooth and rhythmic movements of Qi Gong encourage relaxation and allow a deeper than normal form of ‘inner sensing’ to occur. From this deeper state it is much easier to direct energy through the body. But Qi Gong exercise sets are also designed to direct the flow of energy through the organs in a sequential order - whatever the state of individual awareness. This fact enables the practitioner to relax in the knowledge that the system will work - even if the conscious mind is not always focused on, in this case, particular organs, or a flow of energy through the organs.
Breath work is integral in the practice of Qi Gong. Deepening and regulating the breath until it is long, soft, calm, smooth, and peaceful, relaxes the mind and body. Breathing deeply into the lungs brings fresh energy and an abundant supply of oxygen to every cell of the body, including those of the organs.
Qi Gong and Traditional Chinese Medicine
In general, the modern theorisation of Qi Gong (and particularly ‘Medical Qi Gong’) draws much from TCM. Therefore, the circulation of Qi through meridians and organs needs to be understood in that light.
As the contemporary Qi Gong authority Dr Yang Jwing Ming puts it, ‘Chinese doctors discovered long ago that the human body has twelve major channels and eight vessels through which Qi circulates.’ However, he goes on to emphasise that ‘the “internal organs” of Chinese medicine do not necessarily correspond to the physical organs as understood in the West, but rather to a set of clinical functions similar to each other and related to the organ system … The eight vessels… function like reservoirs and regulate the distribution and circulation of Qi in your body (The Essence of Taiji Qi Gong, YMAA Publication Centre, Boston, Mass. USA, 1997, p.19). These vessels function in collaboration with the twelve channels whose functions are directly related to the organs.
Qi Gong and the Organs
In TCM the organs are considered to be an integral part of good health and are connected to nature in a variety of ways. For example there is a relationship between the seasons and the functioning of the organs. During Autumn the lungs and sinuses are more active than usual as they deal with the cooler and drier air of this season. Throughout Winter the Kidneys work harder at which time keeping them warm and conserving their energy is recommended.
Vital energy is also considered to flow over a 24 hour period along the 12 meridians to all parts of the body. This energy is a combination of yin and yang energies and circulates deeply within the body and beyond its external surface. During a 24 hour period energy ebbs and flows from one organ to another in a repetitive cycle. For example, the heart is most active at midday and the gall bladder at midnight. The stomach is most active between 7 am and 9 am, and so on. Qi Gong practice works at any time of the day or night, but in theory, particular organs can be targeted by timing practice to the energetic cycle of the organs. Our experience is that for the pursuit of good health common sense (and some experience) is a good guide. For example, because Qi Gong is stimulating, it is not sensible to practise too late at night. And because Qi Gong requires a certain mindfulness, it is best not to train when one is exhausted. These are the most obvious extremes to bear in mind.
Disease results from either an imbalance or a blockage to the energy flow. Blockages and stagnation in meridians causes congestion somewhere along the meridian, and depletion somewhere else. An organ that receives insufficient energy may not be able to function normally, and possibly degenerate. Conversely an organ that receives too much energy may become ‘overheated’ and also malfunction, or degenerate. Blockages and stagnation can be caused by poor posture, poor diet, physical and emotional tension, stress, or injury.
Posture is often neglected in modern cultures which have become increasingly dominated by sitting and unbalanced movement. This is compounded by basic human anatomy - the upright stance of humans may be an evolutionary step from life with a dominantly horizontal spine, as is the case for most animals, but this is not unproblematic. An upright spine causes organs to sit one on top of the other, and poor posture, often exacerbated by weak abdominal muscles and ageing, can lead to the congestion and compression of organs.
Fortunately, Qi Gong is particularly effective in dealing with poor posture. The ability to move in a relaxed and balanced (or ‘centred) fashion is one of the major goals of Qi Gong practice. The elongated and relaxed rhythmic movements of Qi Gong encourage an upright posture. Good posture, correct alignment and a comfortable stance, in conjunction with slow deep breathing, facilitates the relaxation of muscles and tendons, the opening of Qi channels and the ability to accumulate Qi in the Dan Tian. This requires a good connection to the earth and the ability of the body-mind to both ‘sink’ and ‘rise’ as energy is circulated throughout the body. In this process the mind can clear and deepen, and also direct energy to different parts of the body.
The care of the organs through the internal exercise provided by Qi Gong has many beneficial effects. Healthy organs contribute to the body’s ability to circulate body fluids, absorb oxygen, process and eliminate wastes, enable digestion and produce antibodies. These functions, and more, are of course associated with the heart, lungs, stomach, gall bladder, large and small intestines, liver, kidneys, spleen and pancreas. Alongside these biochemical and physical processes, TCM sees the organs as generating and regulating the emotions. If the organs are out of balance, the emotions will be out of balance, and this will lead to ill health. Strong emotions clearly effect us physically and are also considered to effect the ‘spirit’ (shen ). According to TCM the common basic emotions of anger, joy, grief, fear and worry are an expression of the energies of the liver, heart, lungs, kidneys and spleen, respectively. Regular Qi Gong practice positively effects the balance of the emotions (and organs), and improves general wellbeing.
There are two other organs that complete this system - the pericardium and the triple burner (or triple heater): ‘the function of the Pericardium is to dissipate excess Qi from the Heart and direct it to the Laogong Cavity, located in the centre of the palm … the Triple Burners were considered three regions of the body that were used to group the organs. The Upper Burner includes the chest, neck, and head as well as the functions of the Heart and Lungs. The Middle Burner is the region between the chest and the navel, and includes the functions of the Stomach, Liver, and Spleen. The Lower Burner spans the lower abdomen, and the functions of the Kidneys and Urinary Bladder. Therefore, the Upper Burner has been compared to a mist which spreads the blood and Qi, the Middle Burner is like a foam which churns up food in the process of digestion, and the Lower Burner resembles a swamp where all the impure substances are excreted.’ (Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, op. cit., pp. 218-220)
In Qi Gong practice the internal space defined by the organs is actually more than the sum total of
the functions we have so briefly described. The organs are only part of a bigger energetic system that situates the individual organism both in nature on Earth and in the larger universe.'
Source: Shirsha Marie and Tom Jagtenberg
Contributed by: Shirsha Marie and Tom Jagtenberg