The Internal Renewal Practices of Chinese Medicine

by Sean Fannin
First published in the August 2001 issue of Tai Chi Magazine

Many teachers emphasize the importance of applying the philosophy of Tai Ji and Chinese medicine within daily life through developing an internal equilibrium during our work, recreations, relationships and so on. However, this can be difficult to do when we are confronted by the inevitable conflicts and pressures that rise up around us. One of the most fundamental ways to develop and maintain our physical and spiritual health within daily life is by cultivating an internal support system. This is seen as one of the primary functions of the traditional internal practices of Chinese medicine. These internal practices help us to embody the theories and knowledge of the Classics, develop the "Three Treasures" of essence, energy and spirit, and cultivate our nature.

All of nature alternates in a rhythm of movement and stillness. The activity of the day quiets at night, and the exuberance of summer is internalized and nurtured during the stillness of winter. From the Classical Chinese viewpoint it is through stillness that we can return to the Source, renewing our body and spirit. It is through movement that we can express that renewal, following the movement of qi and the movement of life within us.

Internal practices can be primarily divided into the two general categories of moving practices and quiet (still) practices. This gives us a way to embody the movement and stillness of the universe, which refines our qi, nourishes our essence (jing) and expresses the luminous radiance of the spirit (shen). We can think of movement as a reflection of the Heavens and quiet or stillness as a reflection of the Earth. Just as in nature, both stillness and movement are necessary within our internal practice.

The internal practices of Chinese medicine are further defined by the "Three Regulations": regulation of the body, regulation of the breath, and regulation of the mind. In a general sense we can recognize correspondences between the Three Regulations (body, breath and mind), the Three Treasures (essence, energy and spirit) and the Three Powers (Heaven, Humanity and Earth). Regulation of the mind can correspond to the spirit and the Heavens, regulation of the breath to energy and Humanity, or the movement of life in general, and regulation of the body to essence and the Earth. In the more specific sense however, essence, energy and spirit are involved and influenced by each one of the Three Regulations, just as Heaven, Earth and the movement of life are reflected in everything around us.

With moving practices we regulate the movement of the qi, harmonizing the movement of life. This is usually a process that begins with the qi of the channels, the outer-most expression of the internal organs. By regulating the channel qi we influence the organs and substances deep within the body, just as establishing clear waterways and rivers ensures that water will flow smoothly to the ocean. Regulating the qi in this fashion is a matter, relatively speaking, of moving from the external to the internal. The qi is first regulated and strengthened, thus restoring the essence and brightening the spirit. The gentle, rhythmical motions of moving practices are an expression of the internal movement of qi.

Quiet practices involve the full internalization of movement. This means that there is little outward movement, yet there is a tremendous amount of potential movement generated and contained. This is like seeds that lie hidden underground during the winter, gathering their potential for the thrust of life in the springtime. Quiet practices strengthen, nourish and restore the qi, refine the essence and calm the spirit. Meditation and quiet practices are sometimes considered to be the same. However, as they involve different internal processes, intentions and results, it is more accurate to categorize meditation as separate from quiet practices.

Within quiet practices the body is regulated through specific positions and postures that ensure that the body is aligned and relaxed. Alignment in this manner supports the circulation of qi and blood and begins the process of concentrating the qi in specific points or areas. The regulation of the breath continues the process, strengthening and regulating the qi. The breath is made smooth, deep and slow, like silky waves ebbing and flowing around the body. The whole torso is involved with each breath, rhythmically expanding and relaxing. The exhalation is emphasized, without force or strain. This causes the qi to descend in the body, flowing freely through the channels. It simultaneously has the effect of clearing the Heart and mind.

Using the intention, yi in Chinese, regulates the mind. Yi is the intention or purpose that evolves into our more developed mental functions. In the Classical Chinese view of the body and mind the intention is said to be the initial mental form that becomes fixed by the will and presented to the Heart/Mind. If the Heart accepts this it will be expressed as a thought or action and carried out as an expression of our internal life.

The intention guides the Qi. Within the context of internal practices the intention leads the Qi to certain areas or points in the body such as the lower Dan Tien or the Bubbling Spring (Yong Quan) points. Placing the intention allows us to feel and activate the point that we are focusing on. This happens naturally, without thinking about the points too much, or visualizing them. Simply feeling the points and using the intention activates them naturally. Sounds are sometimes also used to regulate the internal activity of the qi within this type of practice.

Within moving practices the regulation of the body is more complex than in quiet practices. The whole body must move together in a way that connects, guides and expresses the internal movement of qi. The feet are particularly important in this. Each moving practice has a foot pattern that involves the feet gently grasping, pressing and rotating on the ground, in order to connect the points of the body, develop whole-body movement and regulate the qi circulation.

The regulation of the breath is similar to that of quiet practices, being smooth and deep with the exhalation emphasized. The breath must also guide the rate and rhythm of movement, helping the body to rise, open, sink and close. The mind is again regulated through the intention, which activates specific points and encourages the natural, easy circulation of qi.

The points that are most often cultivated in internal practices include the Ming Men (Gate of Life), Dan Tien, Yong Quan (Bubbling Spring), and Tan Zhong (Central Altar, the middle Dan Tien).

Ming Men - Gate of Life

The Ming Men is located in the lower back, in between the second and third lumbar vertebra. Ming Men can be translated as the Gate of Destiny or the Gate of Life. It is called the Gate of Destiny because it holds all of our potential for life. The Ming Men contains the initial spark of life that expands out to give power to the organs, channels and substances of the body.

"The Ming Men 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 Ming Men is depleted or damaged the five solid organs and six hollow organs will lose their attachment, resulting in the imbalance of Ying and Yang and causing disease."

-Zhang Jing Yue

The Ming Men is often discussed in terms of its activity, which is described as the Fire of the lower body. It is also equally involved and rooted in the purest essences, which are described as the Water of the body. In this sense it is the "mansion of Water and Fire... Sea of Essence and Qi..." It is the root of our physical destiny, as well as the foundation of our mental and emotional lives. Within the Ming Men the whole balance of the body is contained, reflecting the balance and harmony of Nature.

The Ming Men has a strong connection to the Eight Extraordinary channels, particularly the Du Channel and the Dai Channel, although its influence is within all of the organs, channels, functions and substances of the body.

Dan Tien - Field of Elixir

There are actually three Dan Tiens in the body, but generally speaking, Dan Tien refers to the lower Dan Tien. The lower Dan Tien is an area in the lower abdomen, roughly opposite of the Ming Men. The characters for Dan Tien have the image of an alchemical crucible, refining a very precious substance to its essence along with a cultivated field. We can thus think of the Dan Tien as a cultivated field of transformation and refinement.

Another name for the Dan Tien is Qi Hai, the Sea of Qi. It is literally the center of the body, an "ocean" containing the most refined qi as well as the most pure.

If our Dan Tien is strong our energy and essence are strong and our spirit is rooted and secure. This strength and security of the Dan Tien is connected to the vitality of the Ming Men deep within the body. Together the Dan Tien and Ming Men are the root of our existence, replenishing the organs, vitalizing the channels and establishing the sovereignty of the Heart and spirit.

The Dan Tien is connected to the Ren Channel, one of the Eight Extraordinary Channels. The Ren Channel carries the fundamental power of the blood and fluids of the body. This Yin area and function is necessary to root the energy and force of the Dan Tien, which is active and light.

Yong Quan - Bubbling Spring

Located on the soles of the feet, the Bubbling Spring points are the first point on the Kidney channel. When looking at their influence and effects within the context of traditional practices, the primary function of the Bubbling Spring points is to draw down and secure energy and heat that has risen to the upper body. They also have a strong influence on all of the meridians by way of their connection to the Chong Channel, one of the Eight Extraordinary Channels.

Because of the Bubbling Spring points connection to the Chong Channel deep inside the body and the earth outside of the body (through the soles of the feet) they are also called Di Chong, or Earth Chong. This describes the power of the earth meeting with the power of the body. This power can activate our potential, helping us to transform adversity into clarity and strength.

Tan Zhong - Central Altar

Tan Zhong is the Middle Dan Tien, located in the center of the chest. The name Tan Zhong means Central Altar, which describes both the shape of the sternum where the point is located and the qualities that are present at that location, which is traditionally seen as a sacred space close to the Heart. Tan Zhong has a strong influence on the qi of the whole body through the Zong Qi, the quality of the qi that gathers in this area. Zong Qi is ancestral qi, which helps to guide the rhythm of the body through the Heart and the Lungs. Like the lower Dan Tien, Tan Zhong is considered a "Sea of Qi."

In describing the internal practices of Chinese Medicine, we can see that any specific practice is made up of a combination of the Three Regulations. The regulation of the body, breath and mind activates specific points, connects and regulates the qi of the whole body and nourishes the essence, energy and spirit. Internal practices can be further distinguished by categorizing them as moving or quiet practices. Ultimately, this combination of movement and stillness gives us a way to embody the movement and stillness of the Universe, helping us to approach the conflicts and stresses of daily life with clarity, energy and our full potential.

This discussion of internal practices has been from the perspective of the medical tradition. There are many other valid perspectives that may differ from this.

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