All qigong schools share three fundamental concepts: yin-yang; U-sin, and the system of energetic channels and bioactive points.
Fundamentals of the Qigong system
1. 1. According to the ancient Chinese philosophy, everything in the human body, in nature, and in the Universe consists of two opposing, yet complementary, elements: yin and yang. They can be compared to the positive and negative poles of a magnet. If a magnet is divided into many particles, even the tiniest ones will have two poles. Similarly, every part of the Universe, no matter how infinitesimal, contains both yin and yang. They are inseparable and interdependent, as yin always contains yang and vice versa. Picture 2 shows a familiar cross-section of the yin-yang sphere. At any moment, the sphere undergoes dynamic transformations: yin increases, yang decreases, and vice versa. If we looked at a cross-section of the sphere at random moments, we would most likely see a different image each time.
Picture 2. Yin-Yang
Yin’s characteristics:||soft, cool, dark, negative, inert, passive, tranquil, female, nocturnal; associated with winter and the moon|
|Yang’s characteristics:||hard, hot, light, positive, active, wemobile, male, diurnal; associated with summer and the sun|
In the diagram, the cross-section captures that rare moment when yin and yang are in balance, forming the so-called yin-yang shape. In reality, yin and yang are rarely balanced because they are in constant motion – evolving, swapping places, and transforming into each other. For example, if we look at a 24-hour period, we can observe a full cycle of yin-yang transformation: a sunny mid-day is deficient in yin and abundant of yang. As the evening approaches, yin emerges from yang to eventually become the predominant element during the night. In the morning, the process is reversed and the transformation cycle starts again (picture 3). If we take the 24-hour period as a whole, however, yin and yang are balanced (in places where the sun rises and sets regularly, of course). These fluctuations are analogous to the ones that take place during the planet’s yearly seasonal cycle. Summer is the time of maximum yang, and winter is the time of maximum yin; spring and autumn are transitional periods, when the one aspect transforms itself into its counterpart.
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|Bottom cross-section.|| Autumn|
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Yin and yang are always present. They permeate all natural phenomena and social activities. When we truly understand this, we gain much more creativity and effectiveness in our development. Computer technology offers a good illustration. In computer programming, yin and yang take the form of a binary code: 0 and 1. Computers employ 8 registers consisting of 1 and 0, and then they go to 16, 32, 64, etc. These numbers are fundamental in computer technology. We can observe similar dualities everywhere around us, since yin and yang govern every process and comprise every particle. Applying this theory to our research work, for example, may allow us to discover things that are fundamentally different. If our work involves mental effort and concentration, we may achieve much more if we balance the working style by relaxing our mind as well (the two processes are analogous to yang and yin). Expansion and contraction, heating and cooling, entry and exit – all of these form yin-yang pairs.
Each human being is part of the Universe, which contains yin and yang. Within the human body, each organ also contains both aspects in various ratios. Usually, the “dense” organs (liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys) relate to yin, and the “hollow” organs (gall bladder, urinary bladder, and the “three heaters” (small and large intestine, stomach) relate to yang. This does not mean that the above organs have yin or yang only; they simply contain more of one kind of qi and less of the other. In addition, the inner surface of the body (or what a fetus sees inside the body) belongs to yin, and the exterior belongs to yang (picture 4). Imagine a vertical line separating the body in two halves – women’s right side relates to yang and the left one relates to yin; in men, the sides are reversed (picture 5).
Yin and yang must be balanced in nature, in society, and in the human body. Otherwise, we experience natural cataclysms, social upheavals, and human diseases. On a global scale, places with too much yang experience drought and fires, and ones with too much yin get floods. On the level of society, yang controls the material aspects of our lives, and yin governs spirituality. If material progress takes precedence over spiritual growth, the society becomes unstable, aggressive, and warmongering. Currently, humankind overproduces material commodities, but people’s appetites keep growing. Accomplishment is measured in terms of living accommodations, assets, cars, and so on. Such a society cannot be happy, and its people are doomed to suffering. They live to work, and they work to satisfy their ever-growing desires. The natural response to yang’s current profusion is the emergence of various spiritual movements and practices around the world. Thus, our planet has witnessed some recent increase in yin. On the individual level, when yin overpowers yang, the person prefers heat to cold, feels constantly tired, and tends to suffer from insomnia and depressions. When yang overshadows yin, the person is drawn to cold versus heat, and s/he tends to be irritable, touchy, restless, and aggressive. One of qigong’s goals is to regulate yin and yang and bring them into balance.
2. Every cycle of yin-yang transformation has the following phases:
1) Birth and growth (spring, morning)
2) Maximum activity (summer, midday)
3) Decline and reduction (autumn, evening)
4) Minimum activity (winter, midnight)
In ancient times, scholars organized the world into five basic elements, based on the phases of movement. In China, this classification is known as U-sin, which is translated as “five movements” or “five phases.”
1) Wood symbolizes birth, growth, and the transformation of passive yin into active yang.
2) Fire symbolizes dynamism, vibrant life force, and abundant yang.
3) Metal symbolizes the beginning of decline and the transformation of yang into yin.
4) Water symbolizes stillness, inactivity, and abundant yin.
5) Earth symbolizes the center, the axis around which these cyclical transformations take place.
The five basic elements are interdependent, but they do possess distinct qualities, such as the color of their qi. Thus, we can use the elements to systematize and understand natural processes, human organs, foods, emotions, sounds, smells, etc.
3. The idea of energy channels emerged in ancient China and laid the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine. According to that perspective, the human body has three “highways” – the blood vessels system, the water system, and the energy channels system. The energy channels connect the body’s surface with the internal organs. Each channel passes through numerous bioactive points. These points serve as entrances and exits though which the individual’s qi interacts with the qi of the local environment as well as the Universe. The first levels of acquiring and mastering qi focus on activating the five most powerful bioactive points: Laogun (on the palms), Yongquan (on the feet), and Baihui (on the crown of the head) (picture 6).
The energy channel system is invisible to the naked eye, and cannot be observed by dissecting a human or an animal. For this reason, the West questioned its existence for a long time. However, the successful treatment of many diseases through acupuncture triggered more systematic research in this area. As a result, we have discovered methods that allow us to pinpoint the channels and exact location of bioactive points. In some countries, specialists measure the electric resistance between points. If two points belong to the same channel, the resistance between them is smaller that that between points of different channels. Chinese scientists also noticed that points along the same channel resonate the same, which makes it easier to identify the channels and their points by sound. Coming across higher electrical resistance or changes in the sound’s timbre implies blocked points and/or channel sections with lower energy conductivity. Thus, recent research has finally “unveiled” a system of channels that was recognized in China since antiquity (two millennia by some accounts, and five millennia by others). How were the ancient Chinese able to discover this invisible system, since the necessary technical instruments became available only in the twentieth century? The simple answer is that we are such instruments ourselves. The human body is the most intricate and advanced tool we know, and proper training can make its abilities limitless.
There are twelve ordinary channels – Ren, and eight extraordinary channels – Mai (Appendix A). The twelve ordinary channels relate to the twelve main organs. It is very important to note that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) regards these organs as functional systems, not anatomically defined organs. The channels branch out in a network that connects all parts of the body within a system. The ordinary channels can be compared to rivers, and the extraordinary ones are like dams. The latter connect to the ordinary channels, but they have their own routes. Their function is to manage the ordinary channels and distribute qi along them. If qi starts overflowing in an ordinary channel, it gets collected into the extraordinary channels; if qi is deficient in the ordinary channels, the extraordinary channels supply some from their reserves. The Mai channels’ domain includes the front-middle Ren-Mai (the channel of movement and conception) and the back-middle Du-Mai (channel of direction) (Appendix 1, pictures 12 and 14). Ren-Mai governs yin’s ordinary channels, and Du-Mai governs yang’s ordinary channels.
If qi flows freely along the channels, the person is healthy and all systems function normally. Interruptions or blockages along the channels obstruct the circulation of qi and trigger diseases. In some cases the illness may remain localized, but in others the blockage may damage the functionality of nearby areas and/or organs along that channel. Chinese medicine considers such blockages to be the primary cause of disease. Indeed, every time we observe functional failure, we can trace it to a partial or complete blockage of the channels, leading to ineffective energy circulation.
The body’s energy system also incorporates the Dantian area. The Dantian, a concept originating in Taoism is an integral part of qigong. Dan means concentrated, dense, and very potent energy. Tian means a field, a zone, or an area. Thus, Dantian translates as an “energy reservoir”. There are two qi states: when concentrated, qi is visible and touchable; when diluted, it is like a gas. We can use the states of water as an analogy: ice compares to qi that is increased and concentrated in the Dantian; steam compares to qi’s most common state in the Universe. With training, we can learn to govern the state of our qi. When we begin to practice, we need to work with the regions that are most sensitive to energy. The Dantian is the place where we can increase the qi energy absorbed from the environment and transform and improve its quality (what some people call “refining qi”).
ZY qigong recognizes three energy reservoirs (picture 7). We will discuss them in detail in the first levels of practice because they are the places where it is easiest to concentrate and feel qi. These regions contain different levels of energy. If you continue to practice, you can eventually concentrate energy in any part of the body, in any bioactive point. If you were to concentrate enough energy at any given point, it would become a Dantian (picture XIXb).
Working with the lower Dantian improves health, brings order to the physical body, replenishes energy that has been lost over the years, and improves the quality of the qi. Developing the middle Dantian increases strength. This is not physical strength, but the readiness to take on certain responsibilities, and the self-confidence that one has the capacity to overcome approaching challenges. There are many people who do not engage in activities because they are unsure of themselves. They are scared of the amount of work or of potential complications. They are not certain what these complications are precisely, but they worry in advance that they will not be able to manage. Training of the middle Dantian gives such people more confidence in their own abilities. The development of the upper Dantian increases intellectual and spiritual capacities, opens the sensory channels, and facilitates psychological stability, especially in stressful situations.
It must be noted that practicing any kind of qigong will increase the amount of qi present in the body, but only some methods allow practitioners to elevate their own capacities. Part of the explanation is that the aim of certain qigong styles may only be to improve health or to develop martial skill – very few styles are comprehensive in aim and holistic in approach. While all systems seek to harness the power of qi and increase energetic sensitivity, the ways in which qi is used, circulated, stored or transformed within the body may vary greatly.
Students should consider their own goals and aims in terms of qigong practice when choosing a style and when deciding what exercises to emphasize within any particular style. For example, if one seeks only better health, then it would be sufficient to study the parts of ZY qigong or any other qigong school that are more relevant to physical health such as lower dantian practice. However, it is important to note that the goals of one’s practice are likely to change as their practice deepens and understanding of the system is increased. Having improved general health or overcome a chronic condition through qigong practice, a practitioner may wish to better understand themselves and their emotions. Having improved their mental/emotional health, a student may proceed to apply their practice to understanding the Universe as a whole and their place in it. One of the reasons ZY qigong is unique is that the practice addresses the student’s needs at each stage of their development. Rather than being a practice which one may outgrow, it is a system which seems to morph as the understanding of the practitioner deepens as though it was in a state of flux.