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Acupuncture Today
February, 2007, Vol. 08, Issue 02
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Understanding the Channels Through Experience

By Steven Alpern, LAc

Chinese exercises appeal to many beyond our profession. Their wide variety can attract people with many different interests. Young people appreciate the physical discipline of learning a martial art and the self-esteem one gains in strengthening and training the body.

These benefits certainly extend to adults and, as people mature, some are drawn to the more sublime pleasures and benefits of internal martial arts such as taijiquan and the wide variety of qigong exercises.

Qigong practice conveys health benefits by enhancing the flow of vital processes. Yet, valuable as all these exercises are for any embodied spirit, they have particular importance for acupuncturists. While we certainly can teach them to patients to help them support their own healing, qigong practice has significance far beyond directly improving the health of the person practicing it. Acupuncture is a particularly kinesthetic healing art, and channels are experiential phenomena. Regular qigong practice can:

  • cultivate the flow of qi, and thus enhance the effectiveness of a practitioner's treatments through direct resonance;
  • increase sensitivity in feeling, and thus, somatic understanding, of the flow of qi to assist practitioners in both diagnosis and treatment; and
  • develop a deeper understanding of the channels to enrich the theoretical frameworks one uses to develop treatment strategies.

Qigong literally means to "work the qi." There are many types of qigong, based upon the focus and purpose of that work or cultivation. Some qigong exercises emphasize strengthening the physical body and thus, the flow of qi. Others emphasize paying careful attention to slow, rhythmic movements to identify habitual holding patterns (attachments); and facilitating flow through releasing blockages. This differentiation sometimes is characterized as a distinction between "external" and "internal" exercises. Like many other aspects of yang and yin in life, these are not truly separate categories, but a standard of comparison between specific exercise traditions.

While this distinction between internal and external exercises is important, the two are not actually separate. The most externally oriented exercises rely upon and create internal transformations. Internal arts facilitate the flow of qi, thus strengthening the body even while engaging minimal physical exercise. Many qigong practices can facilitate a kinesthetic understanding of the flow of qi, thus enhancing both diagnosis and treatment.

Cultivating qi relies on careful attention and refining focus and intension. Qigong brings together the three treasures of life, enhancing the ongoing process of embodiment through better knowing one's being.

  1. Jing (essence) conveys physicality to the individual, including the capacity to generate physical humors. Those humors are vital to ongoing physiology and they suspend unresolved conflict, which accumulates to form insidious pathologies. It is the essential source of yin.
  2. Qi conveys vital process, which sustains the physical body. It provides clarity of direction to the animating force.
  3. An individuated shen (spirit) animates the physical body. It initiates the activation that leads to all movement. It's the essential source of yang.

Some of the spirit's movements are free and volitional, as the individual seeks experiences and interactions to make life meaningful. Others are vital and compelled by previous choices. Once experiences, or physical food and drink, have been internalized, they must be processed. The results of that process are expelled, integrated into the being, or suspended and stored for final disposition at a later time.

Partial blockages of qi distort vital functions and distract the being from effectively maintaining them. External exercises implement the Nanjing approach, which considers deficiencies of flow to be the foundation of pathology. That approach to therapy and qigong stimulates the embodied spirit to generate more qi to enhance flow through any blocks. It treats the deficiency of flow (qi) first, and only later any remaining excesses.

Internal arts focus on discerning and discriminating the locations of factors blocking the smooth flow of qi. That approach carefully observes an individual's habituated, and generally unconscious, attachments and projections. Each person brings these to every experience, and they form the foundation of all holding and struggle in life. Most internal practices follow Neijing in focusing on the local excesses that impede the free flow of qi, and the accumulations that form around them to manifest in overt imbalances of the zangfu. After these (partial) blocks have been cleared, the individual's intrinsic responsiveness is restored, and qi naturally flows to where it had been deficient. This approach first unblocks the local excesses and then tonifies any remaining deficiencies.

While the two great classics of Chinese medicine concentrate on different aspects of disrupted vital flow, they both recognize the accumulated residue of incomplete vital process as the foundation of many diseases. Many manifest imbalances of the zangfu result from the insidious accumulation of stagnating factors. While they are insufficient to cause acute disease, they accumulate over time. Eventually, the being's capacity to suspend them is consumed, and they express as overt disease.

Life relies on movement, which is characterized by rhythm. Flow without any blocking may generate a profound sense of ease and balance, but who among us has achieved such a sublime state? Balanced behavior does not imply an individual has realized this ideal. Individually embodied spirits have the capacity to suspend, and thus maintain in a dormant state, unresolved conflicts and struggles. This unfulfilled residue of experience accumulates until the being is no longer willing or able to devote physical humors to suspending it. At that point, blockages emerge into the primary channels.

Treating manifest imbalances can only allow the practitioner to manage the expression of distress. Cure results from resolving the underlying factors that are distracting, constricting or impeding the vital flow of qi. While both classics teach strategies for treating these accumulations, Neijing has a particularly rich theoretical framework for understanding, differentiating and treating them. These are the divergent channels, the (longitudinal) luo vessels and the Eight Extraordinary Vessels, especially the daimai (belt vessel).

Lingshu (chap. 10) notes that among the systems of channels and vessels, only the luo are visible. The divergent channels are much more challenging to identify and comprehend. Neonatal Daoyin is an internal practice particularly well-suited for increasing one's knowledge and understanding of the divergent channels and several of the extraordinary vessels, including the daimai.

Most of these simple exercises are done while a person is lying comfortably on a pad. This position reduces the impact of gravity and allows the embodied spirit to work more easily with habituated postures, both physical and metaphorical. Habituated patterns of holding and activation lie at the core of an individual's experience and are conveyed through the divergent channels. Learning and practicing neonatal Daoyin can help practitioners understand the fundamental role these "secondary" vessels serve in life.

Click here for previous articles by Steven Alpern, LAc.


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