The purpose of Dao Yin training is to clear blockages from the various energetic and physical pathways that link the deepest interior aspects of our being with our external environment. Dao Yin exercises achieve this in a very specific way by clearing the channel system of stagnation and optimising Qi movement throughout the body. In order to get these exercises to work efficiently we need to have a good understanding of the elements of the physical and energetic body involved.
The layers of the human body-mind
Our physical and energetic anatomy is organised into intercommunicating layers from the outermost shell which interfaces with the external environment to our innermost core which interfaces with the higher aspects of consciousness. In this article we will look at those layers that are immediately relevant to the practice of Dao Yin exercises. It should be borne in mind however that whilst Dao Yin practice may not work directly with the other layers it none the less has a marked effect upon them.
The channel system (Jing Luo)
Whilst the meaning of “channel” in Nei Gong is not quite the same as that in Chinese medicine we can use the image of discreet pathways from Chinese medicine to aid our understanding. Much like the nervous system the channel system consists of a central core - the congenital channels - which governs the more fundamental aspects of our being, and a peripheral network of pathways - the acquired channels - which mediate our everyday mental and physical functions. This entire energetic system is embedded in the various layers of the body’s connective tissue matrix.
The channel system forms a repository of somatic memories that collectively embody our personal history and orientation towards the world. Each channel can be thought of as representing a spectrum of embodiment, from consciousness to materiality, mirroring the process of manifestation depicted in the Daoist creation cycle.
The congenital channels form a kind of energetic cage within the deeper layers of the torso which interacts closely with the three Dan Tian (See Figure 3). Together these structures regulate the subtler components of our physiology and psychology and connect us to the higher realms of existence. The acquired channels run largely in the surface layers of the torso and through the length of the limbs (see Figure 4). Each acquired channel forms an integral part of a major organ network within the body. Changes in a channel's physical and energetic condition, therefore, directly impact the health of its associated organ system. This is of course the basis of how therapeutic modalities such as acupuncture and Tui Na work. When the channels are cleared of stagnation the flow of Qi in them increases and smoothes out. This helps regulate the associated organs and their functions leading to improvements in one's physical and emotional health.
Each channel can be thought of as spanning a continuum from Spirit through consciousness to materiality. This can be imagined as taking place as a progressive process of concretisation as we move along the channels length. It can also be imagined as taking place from the core of a channel out to its periphery (see Figure 5 and text under “The components of a channel” below). In addition we can map the same process for the channel system as a whole with the congenital channels representing the deepest levels of consciousness and the acquired channels representing the layers of our acquired nature as it crystallises into physical form (see Figure 2 below).
From the Daoist perspective most people's energetic system is operating way below optimum. This corresponds to a channel system that is full of blockages and therefore a mind-body system that is not fully integrated and so is unable to function at maximum efficiency. One of the fundamental aims of Nei Gong practice is therefore to “clear”, “open” and “fill” the channel system. Clearing and opening the channels has several important functions which span from improving the physical health of the body (the Jing level) through optimising energetic functioning (the Qi level) to transforming our psychological make up and facilitating our connection to Spirit (the Shen level). As the channels begin to open up and become freer of obstruction the quantity of Qi flowing through their length increases. The more open the channel the higher the Qi flow. Since Qi forms the interface between the mind and body this increased Qi flow results in strengthening of the mind-body connection, anchoring the mind more fully into the physical structure.
Different levels of Dao Yin exercises work with different levels and depths of the channel system, clearing the physical pathways of the channel to effect the quality and movement of Qi and Shen within it. As a general rule more foundational practice tends to work with the acquired channels and the more superficial layers of a channel, whilst more advanced practice works with the congenital system and the deeper layers of a channel.
The components of a channel
We can think of each channel as possessing three components or levels corresponding to the three treasures: Jing, Qi and Shen. That part of the channel system comprising the grosser material aspect of our body and associated with the exterior dimensions of life and our interactions with the environment represents the Jing level and consists of the channel sinews (Jing Jin). Sitting within the layers of these sinews and constituting the second level of the channel is a layer of fine connective tissue or fascia known in Chinese as Huang. It is through this tissue and its associated fluid matrix that Qi conducts along the length of the channel. Deeper still sits the Shen level, running through the very core of the channel and consisting of a much finer current of energy which corresponds to the movement of consciousness through the body (see Figure 5).
The skin and cutaneous regions (Pi Fu system)
The Pi Fu system forms the most exterior physical part of the body-mind system and is in direct contact with the external environment. Its main functions are protection, containment and energetic exchange. The Pi Fu system contains the pores of the skin or Gui Men which facilitate the movements of the Wei Qi field that mediates the body’s immune functions and its interaction with environmental energies. The Wei Qi field is anchored into the body through the Gui Men. Translating as “ghost gates”, the Gui Men also form important entry points by which external pathogenic information infiltrates the body.
The Pi Fu system is anchored to the underlying layers of connective tissue and is closely associated with the channel sinews (Jing Jin) through their role in governing the circulation of the Wei Qi. Accordingly the Pi Fu system is divided into cutaneous regions mirroring the areas demarcated by the associated channel sinews.
Dao Yin exercises differentiate the skin system, separating the skin layers and unbinding them from the connective tissues beneath. This greatly improves the health and lustre of the skin as it enables increased fluid saturation and removes toxins, phlegm and stagnant fluid accumulations from the superficial fascia and improves cutaneous blood and lymph flow. This differentiation and unbinding of the skin layers simultaneously integrates the various cutaneous regions. With continued practice the skin begins to feel like an integrated elastic unit which slides smoothly across the underlying tissues.
The skin forms a major avenue through which information (Qi), including toxins and pathogens, enter and leave the body. As well as being led out of the body through the palms and fingertips stagnant Qi stored in the channels is discharged through the skin via the Gui Men during Dao Yin practice. As this occurs it may manifest as imbalances in the form and function of the skin whilst the pathogenic information is leaving the body. It is not uncommon for practitioners of Dao Yin to experience rashes and skin conditions as part of the purging process initiated by these exercises. These are nothing to worry about and are in fact a good sign as they indicate that the exercises are working to clear the body of pathogens. They will pass in time as you continue to practice.
The channel sinews (Jing Jin)
Usually translated as sinew channels, these form the outermost physical components of the channel system. I have used the term channel sinews rather than sinew channels (see Rob Aspell, the practice of Tui Na) as it is both more accurate and also more helpful in forming a holistic and integrated picture of how the various aspects of the channel system relate to each other.
The channel sinews are the most important components of the body for Dao Yin training.
Composed of dense connective tissue, muscle, tendons and fascia, they run beneath the layers of the skin and cutaneous fat and form conductive lines that bind the body together into a functional unit. They are essentially the same as the “myofascial meridians” described by Thomas Myers although differing in their exact demarcations. Responsible for the structural integrity of the body they provide the basis for postural support and locomotion.
In Daoism and Chinese medicine the channel sinews are described as the riverbeds of the meridians through which the river of the body’s Qi flows. Through working with the channel sinews we are able to effect changes in both the physical structure and the energetic functions of the body. When properly aligned and connected the channel sinews form elastic cables and sheets which act as tensional elements that hold the compressional struts of the bones apart so the joints can remain open and free and the body buoyant and light. In this way they are essential elements in building tensegrity into the body and connecting it up into a single functional unit capable of truly integrated movement. Injury, scar tissue, lack of movement, inappropriate diet, unbalanced physical training, poor posture, external pathogenic information and internally generated pathogenic Qi, lead to the accumulation of stagnation in the channels and adhesions between the layers of connective tissue. This results in the fibres of the tissues becoming misaligned and literally stuck together, greatly reducing the conductivity of the channels, disconnecting them along their length and compromising their role in the structural integrity of the body.
Dao Yin exercises pull apart the tissue layers and realign their fibres, differentiating the elements of the channel, creating more space within it and connecting it up along its length, thus increasing its conductivity and restoring or improving its postural functions. Dao Yin training is therefore used to establish, strengthen and refine the efficiency and form of these lines within the body’s connective tissue matrix. This is the first stage in turning the body into an empty energetic conduit capable of freely exchanging Qi with it environment.
Energy gates (Qi Men)
Located within the body’s joints are key energetic centres known in Daoism as Qi Men or energy gates. These energy gates sit along the meridian pathways which facilitate the flow and distribution of Qi around the body. They can be thought of as analogous to junction boxes along the length of electrical cables. Movement of the joints compresses and expands these centres creating a kind of pulsing that helps drive Qi circulation and facilitate movement of Qi between the interior of the body and the extremities, just as movement of the physical joints and their associated muscles assists the movement and distribution of blood, lymph and extracellular fluids. Likewise, in the same way that the physical joints play a pivotal role in integrating our structure and establishing bodily tensegrity, the Qi Men link the meridian system into an integrated whole. Along with the channel sinews they form the principal regions of the body that we work with in Dao Yin training.
There are thousands of energy gates within the spaces between all the bones in our body, from the joints of the fingers and toes to the cranial sutures between the skull bones. Initially Dao Yin practice opens and clears the major gates but advanced practice systematically opens up all the minor gates too, creating increased space in the body through which vital fluids, Qi and awareness can fully saturate our physical structure.
The joints are particularly susceptible to compression and misalignment, compromising tensegrity and leading to the pooling of stagnant Qi which gums up and closes the energy gates creating blockages in Qi flow and causing the joints to become stiff and dried up. This then leads to a vicious circle of further stagnation and decreased mobility as well as directly impacting the meridian system and leading to increased disease susceptibility. The joints and their energy gates are therefore vital to our overall health and wellbeing. As well as being key areas where pathogenic information gathers and lodges in the body they are also significant entry points for external pathogenic factors from the environment. Figure 6 shows the major energy gates of the body we are aiming to work with in Dao Yin exercises.
Exit points: the palms and fingertips (Lao Gong and the Shixuan points)
The palms and fingertips form the key exit points in the body through which pathogenic Qi is expelled during Dao Yin practice.
The Lao Gong point (PC 8) in Nei Gong refers to the entire connective tissue “diaphragm” which encases the boney structures of the hand. The opening and control of these “diaphragms” is crucial to effecting the Qi inside the body in Qigong practice. They likewise play a key role in Dao Yin exercises but here we are strongly connecting them into the extended sinews of the arms and fully stretching them open so they can act as “exhaust” points for discharging the pathogenic Qi we are seeking to guide out of the body with the breath and intention.
The Shixuan points are located at the tips of the fingers and form additional “exhaust” points through which we seek to discharge pathogenic Qi. In particular we use the tips of the middle fingers (Zhongchong - PC9) which, being the final points on the pericardium channel, are closely related to Lao Gong.
The extracellular tissue fluid matrix
Surrounding all the cells of the body and saturating the connective tissue networks is a fluid of varying viscosity ranging from a watery sol to a thick gel. This fluid forms the direct environment within which all cellular activities take place, constituting the essential fluid medium of life. As such the state and composition of this liquid medium is critical to the maintenance of homeostasis and therefore all aspects of our health. In addition to bathing all the cells of the body this fluid lubricates the surfaces of the organs and is in communication with the blood through the capillaries, the lymphatic system, the cytoplasm inside the cells, the synovial fluid in the joint cavities, and the cerebrospinal fluid bathing the central nervous system. In addition to its role in regulating metabolic activity this fluid also provides structural support through hydrostatic pressure that fills out the fascial tissues, much as the phloem and water in plant tissue gives it its turgidity. This fluid is full of sugars, amines, peptides, signalling molecules, proteins and electrolytes, making it an electrically conductive, nutritive medium through which the various parts of the body communicate. The fluid and the connective tissue networks it permeates form a functional unity that behaves like a dynamic liquid crystal lattice, constantly transforming its shape, consistency and composition in response to external and internal conditions. This dynamic framework is therefore responsible for the integration and maintenance of the body’s form and function.
The liquid crystal lattice of connective tissue houses the body’s primary energy channels and forms the conductive framework through which Qi circulates around the body. The movement and behaviour of this fluid matrix closely parallels that of the body’s Qi. When Qi stagnates in the channels, joints and organs this fluid matrix also stagnates.
The nature of the Qi moving through the channels changes the nature of the liquid crystal lattice. If the Qi is sticky and dense or does not flow or flows erratically then the fluid stagnates and becomes sticky and dense also, and glues the tissues together. These adhesions then interrupt the continuity of communication between the various fluid compartments of the body and therefore disconnect the body, causing the ordered structure of the crystal framework to be lost and the free flow of Qi further impeded. Toxins and pathogens then build up in the tissues and the function of the channels and cells is compromised. This corresponds to how the emotions are said to stimulate exudates from the various organs which lodge in the tissues and give rise to stagnation and changes in body posture and structure, forming the basis of internally generated disease. We see this at work in the double vicious circle of body posture and mental stress developed by Dr Shen Hongxun (see Figure 7 below). Dao Yin exercises break this double vicious circle, purge this “glue” from the body and restore the integrity of the fluid connective tissue framework.
When we purge pathogenic Qi from the channels, organs and joints of the body during Dao Yin exercises we are also flushing stagnant fluid from these structures and their associated connective tissues, driving it to the surface and out to the extremities so any toxic debris and metabolic wastes it contains can leave the body across the skin or via the lymphatic system. This is the “squeezing toothpaste down the half empty tube” we talk about in Dao Yin practice, and it literally creates more space in the joints, around the organs and between the connective tissue layers of the channels as well as reorganising the microstructure of the connective tissue framework into more coherent patterns. Fresh vital fluids can then enter, renew and fill out the joints, organs and channels of the body to restore optimum function and heal and repair damaged tissue. Furthermore since the fascial tissues are one of the main sites of Qi production in the body the increased space and and reordering and lubrication of these tissues also increases the efficiency of the body’s Qi production, resulting in increased vitality.
The diaphragm, intercostal muscles and breath
When we breathe, the contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles rhythmically alters the pressure inside the thoracic and abdominal cavities. This helps drive the Qi, blood and fluids though the channel system and massages the internal organs, ensuring the tissues and fluid compartments within which they sit are kept well lubricated, mobile and free of stagnation. During inhalation the diaphragm contracts and moves downwards, increasing the intra-abdominal pressure and squeezing the internal organs and their associated tissue matrices, flushing out toxins and pathogenic Qi. As we exhale the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards releasing the pressure in the abdominal cavity. This negative abdominal pressure results in the influx of fresh Qi, blood and fluids into the organs and the movement of the toxins and pathogenic Qi out towards the extremities where it can be eliminated via the pores of the skin, soles of the feet and palms of the hands. Shallow breathing, poor posture and the presence of stagnation in the diaphragm and intercostal muscles impedes this process resulting in the accumulation of pathogenic Qi in the channel system and internal organs. The diaphragm and intercostal fascia are particularly susceptible to the accumulation of stagnation due to their close relationship to the liver and spleen networks, both organs that tend to be easily unbalanced by the emotional disturbances common in everyday life.
The movements of the diaphragm and rib cage during respiration play a key role in aiding the circulation of blood and fluids around the body. They are also critical to the proper circulation of healthy Qi and the expulsion of pathogenic Qi. During Dao Yin practice we make use of the connection between the breath, Qi and fluid movements to enhance the purging functions of the exercises.
At the beginning levels of Dao Yin training we use a Yang version of “positive” abdominal breathing in which we add a slight active intention to increase the size and force of the breath and so increase the pressure fluctuations in the cavities of the torso. Breathing in and out through the nose we intentionally inhale into the Qihai point (Ren 6) below the navel and on the exhale we add a little intentional contraction of the abdominal muscles. This directs the exhalation from the lower Dan Tian and helps drive the Qi through the channels with a little extra force and assists in “guiding” it out to the extremities. We aim to make the power of the exhalation even and smooth throughout its length and combine it with our focus (Yi) to aid us in moving pathogenic Qi and stagnant fluids along the stretched pathway of the sinews we are clearing through. At more advanced levels we use reverse or “negative” abdominal breathing where we draw in the insides of the abdominal cavity as we inhale and release it as we exhale. This further increases the intra abdominal pressure on inhalation as well as increasing the activation of the lower Dan Tian and so amplifies the purging process by more strongly driving the Qi and fluids out to the extremities on the exhalation.
During deep sleep the length of exhalation exceeds that of inhalation by up to three times. This is accompanied by a greater elimination of pathogenic Qi during the night than during the day. This is one of the reasons that regular uninterrupted deep sleep is so important to the health of both our body and mind. During intense periods of Dao Yin training you may find that your sleep becomes somewhat disturbed as the nocturnal process of eliminating pathogenic Qi from the body is temporarily put into overdrive. Don’t worry, this will settle down as your system becomes cleared of pathogenic information.
In this article I have surveyed the major physical and energetic structures which play a key role in Dao Yin training and the purging process of Nei Gong. There are other aspects of the body effected by Dao Yin exercises which I have not looked at here such as the Zang Fu organs. This is a whole topic in its own right and will have to wait for a future article. In the meantime the information covered here should prove sufficient to give you a solid understanding of the anatomy of Dao Yin training. It is my hope that it will form a useful theoretical foundation for understanding what is happening during Dao Yin exercises and assist you in developing proficiency in this important and often less well understood aspect of internal arts practice.
I have relied heavily on the work of my teacher Damo Mitchell in the writing of this article. The understanding of the energy body and the nature of Dao Yin training comes principally from him, any mistakes or misunderstandings that may be present however are entirely my own.
The Four Dragons: Clearing the Meridians and Awakening the Spine in Nei Gong
A Comprehensive Guide to Daoist Nei Gong
The Practice of Tui Na
Dr Shen Hongxun:
The Theory of Binqi: A Basic Principle of the Buqi Healing System
Jobs body: A Handbook for Bodyworkers
Holistic Medicine and the Extracellular Matrix