Exploring How Yogis Can Benefit from the Inner Art of Nei Dan Chi Circulation.
Tai Chi is often referred to as a moving meditation. The roots of Tai Chi Chuan stretch back thousands of years into the Chinese religion of Taoism and one of its core practices Nei Dan (pronounced Nay-Dahn), the ancient art of inner alchemy.
It is in the principles of Nei Dan that we discover the internal aspects of modern Tai Chi.
Acupuncture is structured on these same Taoist concepts of chi movement; there are over 700 acupoints; some acupuncturists number them at over 800, others to as many as a 1000, located along the 12 primary meridians and the eight extraordinary vessels.
The 12 meridians represent processes of the major organs and their related yin and yang properties; it is those 12 meridians that occupy most of the attention of acupuncturists.
The additional eight extraordinary vessels are less frequently employed in acupuncture, but comprise the vehicles for Nei Dan meditation and its techniques of chi circulation. These eight extraordinary vessels, or channels, are sometimes referred to as the eight psychic channels.
Of the eight extraordinary vessels the two principle vessels are the Conception Vessel (Ren Mai) and the Governing Vessel (Du Mai).
These two vessels are the key to Microcosmic, also called Small Orbit, chi circulation. Microcosmic Orbit clears energy blockages out of the Conception and Governing channels, and in doing so extends its benefits to chi circulation in all eight extraordinary channels and all twelve primary meridians.
The Conception Channel travels down the front of the body, from the lower lip to the perineum located at the very bottom point of the torso. The Governing Channel begins at the perineum and runs through the tailbone and up the spine, across the top of the head, and back down to the front of the gums beneath the upper lip.
The Conception Channel is ventral, mostly yin; the Governing Channel spinal, mostly yang.
There are a number of acupoints along both of these channels. They are located in some of the same positions occupied by the seven chakras, and there are many parallel properties.
However, while the chakras girdle the body, the acu-points are highly localized. The heart chakra crosses the Conception Vessel at the acupoint known as CV-17 on the front of the body. It also transverses the Governing Vessel acupoint GV-10 on the spine, an acupoint referred to as the Life’s Door by martial artists because it can cause a heart attack when struck with the proper force, or jing, and at the right angle.
You can most readily perform small circulation while sitting. There are also standing postures that are employed in both Microcosmic Circulation and the more advanced techniques of Macrocosmic Circulation.
Furthermore, the more advanced techniques of Macrocosmic Circulation utilizes all eight psychic channels; many standing postures are based on variations of Zhan Zhuang, Standing Post Meditation.
Proper breathing is essential while performing this meditative practice. The Taoist method of breathing, reverse breathing, is where you contract the abdomen during the inhale, compressing the chi and then expanding the compressed chi and the abdomen on the exhale.
The Buddhist method, natural breathing, expands the abdomen on the inhale. This is the usual practice in most abdominal breathing. Reverse breathing is often employed to generate power in martial arts; natural breathing is generally preferred when practicing for health.
Whichever method of breathing you employ it should be from the lower abdomen, referred to in Nei Dan practice as embryonic breathing. Always keep the tongue lightly pressed against the roof of the mouth during this meditation, this forms a bridge between the Governing Vessel and the Conception Vessel. Breathing should be through both nostrils.
When first attempting microcosmic circulation it is best to perform it in two full breaths.
1. On the first inhale bring the breath to the lower Dan Tian or Qihai, a chi repository located about one and one half inches below the navel. As you bring the breath to the dan tian, consciously sink the chi, the inner energy, to this area.
2. After the first inhale, when the dan tian is about three quarters full, begin the exhale guiding the chi from the dan tian to the tailbone at the base of the spine. This acupoint is the Weilu.
3. On the second inhale, guide the chi up the spine to the top of the shoulders, the acupoint known as the Shangbei.
4. Then, on the final exhale, the chi is guided over the head and back down to the nostrils.
Be aware of the San Guan, or Three Gates, which can pose obstacles to chi flow during your initial efforts. These are:
1. The Tailbone Gate, which creates a very narrow passage for the chi. This is located at the back of the root chakra.
2. The Dorsal Gate, located on the spine just behind the heart, along the heart chakra.
3. The Jade Pillow Gate, located at the base of the skull, to the rear of the throat chakra.
If you do notice a block don’t try to push it open, just gently bring the chi through it and move on.
These circulation techniques should never be forceful; keep it gentle and flowing, any tension can restrict chi movement. Eventually, possibly even by the time you next try the exercise, the chi blockage will have dissipated.
When you are ready to attempt Microcosmic Circulation in one complete breath, the Taoist method dictates you begin the cycle during the initial exhale.
1. While exhaling guide the chi past the Dan Tian and directly to the perineum, navigating the entire length of the Conception Vessel on the front of the body to the base of the Governing Vessel. The perineum is an intersection of the Conception Vessel, the Governing Vessel, and also the kidney and gall bladder meridians.
2. Then on the inhale bring the chi up the spine, over your head, and back down to the nostrils, the entire length of the Governing Vessel.
In Buddhist chi circulation, as opposed to Taoist chi circulation, you reverse the breathing, inhaling as you bring the chi down the Conception Vessel to the perineum, and exhaling as you bring it up the spine and over the head. It is also common in the Buddhist method to reverse the direction of the chi, first bringing it over the head and down the spine, then up the front of the body back to the nose.
Don’t worry too much about the direction of the breath or which channel the chi flow first follows. Don’t over-think it. This is mainly a matter of feel. The entire body is to be kept relaxed, and the chi circulation smooth, almost effortless. It will require some practice.
Inhale should blend into exhale, exhale into inhale, each effortlessly becoming the other: Yang transforming into yin, yin into yang, substantial into unsubstantial, empty into full, and so on.
Microcosmic Circulation is an essential practice in acquiring the full benefit of the internal aspects of Tai Chi.
There are a number of ways chi can be circulated during Tai Chi practice; Microcosmic Circulation is the best place to start. If you do nothing else but this, you are still accomplishing much.
Unfortunately many Tai Chi teachers never transmit this step, never bring their students to this level; instead they offer instruction only in the external aspects of the Tai Chi form, reducing it to little more than a cultural dance.
You move on the inside as much as you do on the outside. Even when there is no apparent outer movement the chi remains in motion. In the Tai Chi Classics, an anthology of verses collected over the centuries, there is a passage:
“Be still as a mountain, move like a great river.”
The classics also say, “T’ai Chi Ch’uan is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”
Practice small circulation during your sitting meditations. During your walks. During Tai Chi practice each time you inhale and exhale. During all forms of exercise. While standing in line. While waiting for a bus.
Lao Tzu’s famous work, the Tao Teh Ching, teaches us “The highest form of goodness is like water.”
Become the river.
Neil Alexander is a professional magician, a Tai Chi enthusiast and occasional Tai Chi instructor, and the owner of the Online Ginseng Store. A former nightclub comic who spent years on the road, he currently resides in his hometown of NYC, and has lived on both coasts and several points in between. An unabashed practitioner of the art of alliteration and its resultant mix of prose and poetry, he is on an endless quest to uncover the perfect word—the philosopher’s stone of writers. In the meantime, he is willing to accept all reasonable substitutions.
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Assistant Ed: Christa Angelo/Ed: Bryonie Wise
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