Alchemical or internal work lay at the heart of all the practices which have been born from the Daoist tradition. An understanding of the nature of our inner universe is integral to understanding arts such as Gong Fu and Qi Gong as well as those that may not at first seem so closely related such as Feng Shui and the Yi Jing (I Ching). The continuous shifts and changes which make up the state of the human energetic body were long studied by the ancient Daoist’s and their predecessors the Wu. From insights drawn from these studies the philosophy which underpins Chinese internal arts was born.
Chinese medicine is no less connected to this internal work than any of the other arts born from or strongly influenced by Daoism. Whilst many who practice Qi emission would find this connection obvious it may not seem so clear for those who practice mainly acupuncture, herbal remedies or massage. Whilst it is possible to intellectually learn these methods entirely divorced from the practice of an art such as Qi Gong deeper insight is more likely to be gained by those fulling engaging with the inner methods which the founders of Chinese medicine engaged in.
The study of the connection between Chinese medicine and internal energy work is a large one and it is understandable that many would find the ‘life-work’ nature of this study a little daunting but for those willing to fully dive into the world of energetics it can be very rewarding. I thought I would try and introduce in this article a few of the connections between Daoist energy work and one area of Chinese medicine, namely acupuncture. Whilst the information here is brief it should be enough to get a feel for the connection between controlling your own Qi flow and controlling the function of the needle in acupuncture.
The first thing to understand is that if you are ever going to learn a method of any sort you must first understand the belief system of the person or group who developed the practice. Any concept or practice which is developed will have a foundation ethos or philosophy behind it. These foundation philosophies will have dictated its development. If you are going to study anything you must either: A – Share the same beliefs or B – acknowledge the beliefs and understand why something was developed. An example of this would be the practice of Chinese medicine itself. It was developed with the belief that there was an energy that permeates the cosmos and the human body called Qi. It flowed through meridians and governed all of the functions of human existence and development so that life could thrive and develop. If we do not understand this idea then Chinese medicine will make no sense whatsoever. Any attempt to study a therapy such as acupuncture must at least acknowledge that this was the belief of the founders of the practice even if it is not a shared world view. Once the underlying ethos behind a study has been understood then it is fairly easy to learn; if we do not acknowledge this ethos then we are often studying something so at odds with our own understanding that we never really learn it very well.
For the practices outlined here it is important to understand that I believe Qi to be an actuality rather than a concept. I believe it takes the form of a vibrational wave which travels along certain lines in the body known as meridians. The flow of Qi along these lines controls every activity of the human body. Through the practice of a therapy such as acupuncture it is possible to access and influence this vibrational wave thus changing the way that the human body functions at its deepest level. I also believe that since Qi is only one step away from Shen which reflects the power of the human mind it is possible to utilise our intention to change the flow of Qi once we have successfully gained direct access to it through an implement such as a needle. These are the philosophies which underpin the practices outlined here.
The Quality of a Therapists Qi
It is very important that a Chinese medicine practitioner govern the quality of their own Qi if they are going to move beyond the mechanical mechanisms of a modality such as acupuncture. Any attempt to connect their own intention or energy system to that of their patient will cause a level of information exchange to take place. The Qi of the therapist will directly influence the Qi of the patient. If we are to do our patients the service they are seeking then we have a duty to have a positive influential affect upon the state of their Qi. If we allow our own energy system to be stagnant, sluggish or restricted then we will have either a weak affect upon our patients or, at worst, cause them to experience the same symptoms as we have. A therapist needs to be physically fit, emotionally strong and energetically as healthy as can be. Whilst perfection is of course not required, we have no right to work with others health if we completely ignore our own.
In the case of transferring energy for specific diseases it is also the case that the Qi of our patient will look to our own to understand how it is supposed to be. This means that if we have a weakness ourself then any work we do on a patient with a similar weakness will be less effective. For example; an acupuncturist who suffers with asthmatic symptoms due to weak Lung Qi will not be able to treat an asthmatic patient very effectively. A therapist living with depression will have a weak effect upon a patient who is coming for treatment for depression. Whilst we may be able to intellectually empathise more effectively we are less able to use our own Qi to help our patient. A sincere therapist will advise the patient to see another therapist who does not have this affliction or else accept that their treatment will only take place on a mechanical level; their will be no assistance from any form of internal energy.
Developing the Qi/Yi Needle
It is possible, if we train diligently, to extend our awareness down to the end of an acupuncture needle. The controlled use of the awareness will then cause our own Qi to be led to the end of the needle thus turning this simple implement into a strong method of connecting our own Qi to our patient leading to more effective results during treatments. If we can gain a strong control of our own Qi flow along the length of the needle and then insert the needle to the correct depth (not beyond the meridian which often happens) then our own mind will have gained direct access to the energetic functioning of our patients body.
I begun studying acupuncture alongside Taijiquan in my teens and in those days my first lessons involved learning how to hold the needle and integrate it into my own energy system. Acupuncture was a form of Qi Gong for me and for two or three years I never learnt any points or did any direct work on a patient; I simply held onto the needle and carried out some simple Qi Gong movements aiming to extend my Yi to the tip of the needle. Though I only did this for around ten minutes a day (martial arts were much more fun) it only took a couple of years before I felt my mind hit the needle tip. When this happens you are able to feel physical contact with the needle as if it is an extension of your own finger. When the needle is touched you feel it, not in your own body, but rather in the needle itself as if your nervous system extended out of your hand into the needle. These sensations can range from feelings of hot and cold, through to tickling and even pain if you bend the needle in half. This happens because your own Qi is now reaching the end of the needle meaning that the energetic feedback between your own mind and the needle is as strong as the feedback between your mind and your body.
The first time I inserted a needle into a patients body (it was the HeGu point) I was able to feel the needle sliding gradually through the layers of the patients flesh as if I was inserting my own finger into their body. At the point when my needle hit the meridian I could feel the vibration of the flow of Qi passing over the end of the needle. If I went too deep then the tip went beyond this point and the vibrating feeling stopped; instead I was back to pushing through flesh instead. To this day I have never really understood exactly how practitioners of acupuncture accurately find the correct depth of the body to find the meridian pathway without this level of sensitivity. I believe that they are often inserting the needle too deeply or too shallowly meaning that they will affect the muscles and tissues instead of the meridian. Whilst it is still possible to treat these lines of tissue (Jing Jin) the effects are greatly reduced.
The De Qi sensation which is so prized in acupuncture really depends upon the correct depth of insertion as, in my experience, most meridians are roughly 1-3mm in thickness. If the patient feels feelings of warmth, cold or bruising then the muscles and tissues have been needled. If the feeling of De Qi extends through the body along the length of the meridian pathway or affects the patient on an emotional level then the needle has successfully punctured the meridian.
Interestingly the extension of the Yi along the length of the needle is the same as along the length of the Jian (straight sword) in Taijiquan. It took me two years to reach the end of the needle in acupuncture training but nearly ten years of Jian training and Jian Qi Gong to get my mind to reach the end of the sword. It is no wonder that many images of doctors in Chinese paintings also show them carrying swords as the practices are the same.
In order to develop this skill simply hold an acupuncture needle between your index finger and thumb. Begin any simple Qi Gong practice which would normally use a ‘sword-fingers’ position such as the last of the Ji Ben Qi Gong and instead replace this Mudra with the needle. Work on extending your Yi into the distance and breathe to the end of the needle. Over time you will experience the same in the needle but do not be surprised if it takes a little time. Obviously the more internal work you have already carried out, the faster this process will be. Particularly useful is waking up the lower Dan Tien and the development of internal forces as you would commonly use in practices such as Taijiquan pushing hands.
Once you have practised and gained the skill described above it is time to begin integrating correct Qi Gong posture into your treatments. The standing work you are practicing in your regular Qi Gong will show you how to set up the correct situation for Qi flow from the environment into your body and then in turn out of the needle into the patient. Work on allowing, not drawing, Qi from the planet into your legs and out through the tip of the needle. With time and practice you will gain a strong feeling of Qi flow through the body. You will become a conduit for the work which the Earth wishes to carry out on your patient.
Changing the State of the Meridian Point
Along the length of each meridian (flow of information) are various points which have been studied for centuries. each of these points is a key location on the meridian which enables the quality of Qi to be changed. Essentially each of these points either expands, contracts, speeds up or slows down the information which flows through this particular area of the meridian. Making a treatment work involves successfully choosing the correct points to change the flow of Qi in a meridian in one of these ways. Different combinations of points will either strengthen this process or cancel each other out. For example, if you select two points which speed up Qi flow and two which slow it down then nothing will happen. It is worth remembering that Qi is easily confused and can only take one or two instructions at a time so multiple points with multiple different functions are not useful. In my own practice I use very few points and really focus on controlling the Qi flow in these points rather than going for many points which are more likely to confuse the energy body and cancel each other out. I was quite horrified during a short period of delving into contemporary Chinese medicine institutional study to see just how many points were selected for each patient and just how ineffective these treatments consistently were. Much of the skill of correct needle depth and effective meridian point understanding was either not present or simply not valued.
If you select to work with a point which causes expansion (warming) then the needle needs to enter this point very carefully and be inserted directly into the middle of the meridian pathway. You must hit the meridian accurately. From here gradually extend your Yi down the needle until the patient experiences the De Qi sensation. It is most common for warming points to heat up a little as the expansion begins to take place and then this warmth to travel along the length of the meridian pathway, usually until it either hits the extremities or the core of the body around the Dan Tien area. Once the De Qi has settled begin to breathe into the point through the needle for a few minutes. Now use any needle manipulation technique you have selected and, using your intention, encourage Qi to move outwards from the tip of the needle. You should find that, with time, the expansion increases until not only does the needle feel warm to you (it is an extension of your hand remember) but also the warmth extends off of the patients body for several inches. Holding your hand near to the area being needled will feel like holding your hand near to a hot cup of water.
If you are using a point which causes contraction (cooling) then insert the needle as before. Place the needle as deep within the meridian as you can go without going beyond it into the body. This often means you need to be able to distinguish between depths of between 1-3mm accurately. If your Yi is down to the end of the needle then this is actually quite easy. Give a couple of plucking movements drawing the needle slightly upwards with your finger and thumb as you inhale and draw Qi in the area towards the rising needle. This will encourage strong contraction of Qi in the area cooling the point and encouraging excess Heat to move out of the end of the needle which will begin to act like a kind of energetic exhaust pipe. You will feel heat coming off of the end of the needle and exiting the body whilst the patient will generally feel their body temperature going down around the area of the needle insertion as well as a feeling of movement along the length of the meridian. This technique can also be used in a similar way for pathogens which you are helping to purge from the length of a meridian. Either see my book Heavenly Streams for more information on this or my forthcoming titleThe Four Dragons. Both contain a great deal of info on the nature of pathogens in the meridian pathways.
To encourage the speed of a meridian to increase (tonifying points) insert the needle to the correct depth in the usual direction to encourage Qi flow. You should certainly get the De Qi sensation extending along the length of the meridian in this case as your Yi moves into the needle tip. Now breathe out and extend your mind not just out of the needle but along the meridian right out to its conclusion. Keep with it until your Yi drags Qi in this direction and the meridian begins to move quickly. It is during these treatments that many of my patients begin to either realise pent up emotions, shudder, move spontaneously or shake as the movement of Qi initiates the motility mechanism associated with the connection between this meridian pathway and the associated musculo-tendinal region. If you are going to practice these techniques do not be surprised if some of these movements are quite violent.
To slow a meridian using a slowing point (reducing) then do the same but go against the direction of the meridian pathway.
A consideration to keep in mind when practicing these techniques is that Qi has two strong characteristics relevant to acupuncture. Firstly it contains information from the person who the Qi belongs to and secondly it flows. If you are a therapist and you are going to extend your Qi in this method then you will pass information from your body into the patients. This is the reason for the importance of developing and maintaining strong health and a good level of emotional centring. You have responsibility to be not just a good example but also an energetic model for the Qi of your patient. If you are considering going for acupuncture therapy and you are reading this I advise you to look at your potential therapist. Are they very unhealthy and obviously emotionally unbalanced? If they are then look elsewhere for a therapist, you will not get a fully effective treatment from them.
There are many further techniques and ways of using the needle and your own Qi/Yi whilst treating with acupuncture needles including interesting techniques like tracking the meridian pathway off of the body or reprogramming mental associations to trauma patterns but to write about these is beyond the scope of a short article. In order for any of these to be learnt it is wise to learn the techniques above first. Take control of your own health if it is currently poor. Practice Qi Gong techniques to connect with the needle, change it from a ‘tool’ into a direct method to access the meridian pathways. Develop the skill of working the expansion, contraction, speeding up and slowing down. If you can master these foundation skills then you should find the nature of acupuncture treatments changing for you.
The key thing I like to keep in mind is that acupuncture is not simply a therapeutic technique, it is a form of cultivation for the practitioner as well as the patient. The key to understanding this is understanding your own energy body and how it can be involved in your treatments. Acupuncture IS Qi Gong, but only if one wishes to engage with it on that level.