Nurturing the Gate of Life

by Sean Fannin

First published in the April 1999 issue of Tai Chi Magazine

In Traditional Chinese Energetics (Qigong), there is a primary focus on cultivating the energy of the Dan Tian, a fundamental practice necessary for internal development. However, to reach further levels of development it is necessary to look beyond the Dan Tian. The Ming Men (located on the middle of the lower back), is an essential part of traditional Chinese physiology. Called the "Gate of Life," it holds the Genuine Yin and Yang of the body from which all substances and functions develop from and depend on. Because of this it is important to traditional medicine and energy cultivation practices.

The concept of the Ming Men can be traced back to the Nan Jing or Classic of Difficulties, one of the most well known classics of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Since then there has been much discussion about the nature and location of the Ming Men. However, before entering that discussion it is first necessary to explore the theoretical framework in which it is rooted.

Along with the Yin-Yang theory, one of the most fundamental principles in Chinese medicine is that of the "Three Treasures." The Three Treasures consist of jing (essence/potential energy), qi (energy/function), and shen (spirit or spirits). In terms of understanding the Ming Men the concepts of jing and qi are primary.

jing is the most fundamental substance of the body. It is stored in the kidneys, governing growth, development, and reproduction, as well as functioning as the deepest level of reserve energy. When it is mobilized for use it can be divided functionally into kidney yin and kidney yang. kidney yin and yang nourish the yin and yang of all the other organs of the body.

Jing generates qi. Most Taji and Qigong practitioners have a good understanding of qi. Practically and clinically, qi can best be understood through its manifestations and functions. The five functions of qi are to warm, move, defend, contain, and transform. Analysis of these functions provides insight into the level and quality of qi, and allows a practitioner to assess patterns of imbalance. Although different types of qi can be categorized, they are all fundamentally dependent on yuan qi (Source Qi) which is rooted in the kidneys. Zhang Jing Yue of the Ming dynasty, in discussing the functions of the Ming Men, wrote: "The Gate of Life is the mansion of Water and Fire, the house of Yin and Yang, the sea of Essence and Qi, and the nest of life and death. If the Gate of Life is depleted and damaged, the five solid organs and six hollow organs will lose their attachment, resulting in the imbalance of Yin and Yang and causing diseases."

Another traditional definition of the Ming Men states: The Gate of Life is the sum of the two kidneys. In this context "the two kidneys" refers to the kidney yin and kidney yang. As stated earlier, this encompasses the yin (cooling, regulating, nourishing functions) and yang (warming, activating, circulating, drying functions) of the whole body.

Although present throughout the body, the yang functions of the Ming Men can be easily seen in the digestive process. In traditional Chinese physiology the strength of the digestion is dependent on "Digestive Fire." If the Digestive Fire is strong, eaten food is efficiently transformed into qi and blood. If the Fire (yang energy) of the Ming Men is weak it cannot provide the necessary warmth to the Digestive Fire and food is not properly transformed. This manifests as loose stools or diarrhea, bloating, and other signs of digestive weakness.

Traditionally the yang aspects of the Ming Men have been emphasized. However, the Genuine Yin is also rooted in the Ming Men. This is especially significant as yin Deficiency is a common pattern among North Americans. It involves a depletion of the cooling and restraining functions, with a concurrent flaring up of heat due to a lack of balance between the yin and yang. This manifests as feeling tired and restless at the same time, insomnia or fitful sleep, and heat that rises in the afternoon and evening. To balance out this pattern it is necessary to tonify the yin essence, secure the energy in the lower body, and clear the deficiency heat that has risen. In terms of the Ming Men this can be viewed as strengthening the Genuine Yin of the Gate of Life while securing the Genuine Yang.

Internal and External Elixirs

While there are many methods of strengthening the Ming Men, two of the most effective are Energetics (Qigong) and herbalism. The Taoist tradition of medicine classifies these as “elixirs.” Herbal formulas are described as external elixirs, while Energetics are seen as internal elixirs. The ideal approach to self-cultivation involves a combination of internal and external elixirs, leading to physical, mental and spiritual health.

When the energy of the Ming Men is strong both Qigong and Taiji practice are dynamic and harmonious. Many Qi Gong exercises build the energy of the Ming Men, although this is usually done indirectly. Two of the main methods for tonifying the Gate of Life involve guiding the qi to the Dan Tian (“Field of Elixir) in the lower abdomen, and to the Yong Quan (“Bubbling Spring”) points on the soles of the feet.

Any exercise that builds the energy of the Dan Tian also strengthens the Ming Men. When abundant energy is generated and guided to the Dan Tian it naturally flows back to the Ming Men. There it is either activated for immediate use or stored as jing in the kidneys. Qigong exercises in this category usually involve static positions, deep comfortable breathing, and a relaxed focus on the Dan Tian.

One of the other primary methods for cultivating the Ming Men involves guiding the qi to the Yong Quan points. It then bubbles up to the Gate of Life and is stored or activated. Moving exercises that utilize this method usually have gentle, repetitive movements coordinated with deep, comfortable breathing and a relaxed focus on the Yong Quan points. Cultivating the Yong Quan points is essential for any moving Qigong practice, including Taijiquan. Taiji players can benefit by keeping a light focus on the Yong Quan points throughout the form. Whole body movement depends on the internal connections that originate at the Yong Quan points.

The Ming Men can also be stimulated after any internal practice by briskly rubbing the hands together, then massaging the lower back for a minute or so. This warms and activates the Ming Men and can be done several times throughout the day.

It is important to emphasize that the Ming Men will be strengthened naturally by guiding the qi to the Dan Tien or Yong Quan points. This process should not be focused on, but simply allowed to happen. Too much attention can inhibit the flow of qi and slow progress. It is also important that instructions on specific exercises be followed carefully. No exercise that is currently being practiced should be modified without consulting your teacher.

Herbal Medicine
The external complement to internal practice is traditional herbal medicine. Called external elixirs, herbs complement and support the internal elixir of Energetics. Traditionally, both are important for optimal development and higher cultivation. Together the two elixirs act synergistically, producing an effect that is greater than the separate use of either individual method.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine the categories of formulas that strengthen the Ming Men are yin and yang tonics. When people first begin exploring the use of herbs there is a tendency to want to use the warming and stimulating Yang tonics exclusively. However, the majority of people in Western cultures need yin tonics that nourish, calm and restore. This is consistent with the philosophy of Zhu Dan Xi, one of the most famous physicians of the Yuan Dynasty. A main proponent of the "Yin-Enriching School," he believed that almost every case of imbalance involved a deficiency of yin. This in turn would lead to a rising up of the yang energy causing "deficiency heat." Deficiency heat can manifest as tired and restless feelings, insomnia, emotional vulnerability, night heat, and aversion to warmth, among other signs. Yang tonics, or even too many qi tonics, can aggravate this pattern increasing the heat that is rising up. With this in mind it is easy to see that even if the yang functions of the Ming Men are deficient it is usually necessary to use a combination of yin and yang tonics. This allows the deficiency to be strengthened in a balanced way. Yin tonics are, of course, also used to directly treat yin deficiency.

The most commonly used formulas for strengthening the yin are Liu Wei Di Huang Wan or Rehmannia Six Flavor Pills, Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan or Anemarrhena, Phellodendron and Rehmannia Pills, and Zuo Gui Wan or Restore the Left Kidney Pills. The herb that is best known for strengthening the yang qi is Ginseng, used in combination with other herbs. Other commonly used formulas are Ba Wei Di Huang Wan or Rehmannia Eight Flavor Pill, and You Gui Wan or Restore the Right Kidney Pill. It is important to consult an herbalist to determine which herbal formula would be the most beneficial for your individual pattern and constitution. As part of that they can also develop an herbal plan to optimize your internal practices.

Herbs that are used should generally be taken before your practice in order to heighten the interactions and effects of the internal and external elixirs. It is also important to give thanks when taking the herbs. To get the greatest benefit from the herbs visualizations can be used. A simple and effective visualization involve imagining the herbs as a white or golden light flowing down to the Dan Tian area. When the light reaches the Dan Tian visualize it expanding to fill the Dan Tian, Ming Men, and finally the whole body.


Abundant energy in the Ming Men is essential for vitality, health, and longevity, as well as a strong internal practice. By using a combination of herbs and internal Energetics the Ming Men can be strengthened and cultivated in a balanced and harmonious way. These two methods combine to form a whole system of internal cultivation that is unsurpassed in its natural efficiency and profound results