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.