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Chi Kung

To address not just the symptoms but the causes of physical problems, we need to work at the energy level rather than the physical level.

According to Eastern thought, breathing is the primary way we bring energy into the body. We extract energy from the breath and store it in the lower abdomen, and the more we can extract and store, the better our physical condition. But mostly, due to ignorance and poor habits, we do everything possible to defeat both the flow of energy into the lower abdomen and our ability to store it there.

As a result of physical trauma, stress, and sedentary living, we develop blockages — areas of tension, often unconscious and long-standing, primarily in the abdominal area. Energy can’t flow through tension and thus is prevented from reaching the reservoir in the lower abdomen. Ultimately, these blockages in the energy pathways lead to organ dysfunction. Illness and decrepitude, wrongly considered an inevitable result of aging, are often the result of blocked energy intake, dissipation of our reserves, or accumulated toxicity. Conserving our internal energy, developing it, and bringing it under voluntary control allows healing to take place.

The two techniques below are among a group of practices known as chi kung (chi gong, qigong; "energy practice"). Technique 1 uses the breath to expand and develop internal energy and eliminate blockages in its path to the lower abdomen. Technique 2 uses the mind to build on the achievements of Technique 1 in concentrating and directing energy. The two techniques overlap, and eventually they merge.

There are many types of chi kung — particular sets of movements and associated mental practices ("forms") to generate, consolidate, augment, and control energy. The two given below are basic forms, but this does not limit their potential.

  1. Lie down on your back and relax.

  2. Inhale slowly through your nose.

  3. When you exhale, imagine pushing the energy from your lungs into the lower abdomen or tan tien (dan tien, tanden), about four fingers below the navel.

If you’re in good condition, you may feel something right away. If not, with practice you soon will. You may feel a tingling sensation in your abdomen or lower back, or heat, or a pleasantly springy feeling in the abdomen, as though pushing on a shock absorber, and also that you could continue inhaling indefinitely.

You may also feel the spine relaxing and small movements taking place in the bones and muscles. The physical body is releasing tension and bringing itself into conformity with the energy pattern on which it was created, including optimal weight, health, and position of body structures relative to each other. This is a gradual process, but each time you’ll be able to do more with less effort.

You may notice a tendency at first to bulge out your stomach upon inhaling, since most of us are accustomed to breathing into the stomach area — if that far — rather than into the tan tien. Try to avoid this, although not to the extent of rigidly tensing the abdominal muscles, since tension blocks the flow of energy.

In the beginning, you can hold in the abdominal muscles somewhat if necessary, until they become coordinated with the breathing process. Inhale slowly enough to avoid having to tense them excessively, and continually direct the energy down through the middle of the body to the lower abdomen with the mind, as though both compressing it into a cylinder perhaps 3 inches in diameter running the length of the trunk and simultaneously pushing it down the cylinder.

It may also help at first to put your hands over the abdomen and press in lightly while breathing. The important thing is to keep pushing the energy down with the breath and the mind — into the lower abdomen and eventually into the pelvis, legs, and feet — since its tendency is to rise and disperse.

When you’re doing the technique correctly it feels very pleasant, and you won’t want to stop. Eventually, however, you’ll know you’ve had enough — you'll be unable to continue, because the muscles controlling the process will be tired and you’ll feel you've absorbed as much energy as you can. Attempting to continue may result in a headache.

The path of the energy at first will be unpredictable. If you have a current health problem in the abdominal area, or an old injury or scar, you may feel heat, tingling, or a slight ache or pressure around it as the energy flow is reestablished. Energy goes where it’s most needed — to your weakest point. As that improves, it still goes to your weakest point, which may be somewhere else. Therefore, it may not always go where you expect it.

With practice, you’ll perceive that the energy resolves itself into two paths — one down the spine into the coccyx and one down the centerline of the abdomen into the groin. You can develop both of these, trying to take each one down as far as it will go at each session. You’ll know you’re done when you feel a sudden sense of release — usually accompanied by a sudden muscular release as well — and, again, the perception that you’ve had enough, the inability to direct any more energy into that particular area.

Depending on your condition, you may feel very tired after these sessions, which indicates that your energy is being diverted into healing, leaving little for anything else. If you’re very weak or sick, this fatigue may last for several days; its duration will decrease as your condition improves. You won’t feel like practicing during such times and should not force yourself.

While practicing, you may at times feel energy flowing upward into the chest, arms, neck, and head, particularly if you have a health problem there. Energy can flow into the head but shouldn’t be pushed in vigorously, or a headache may result.

One of the first things likely to occur as a result of chi kung practice is a temporary change in bowel habits. You may experience diarrhea for several days — the system cleaning itself out as a result of unprecedented amounts of energy being brought into the lower abdomen — followed by constipation. Hunger or loss of appetite may also occur, as well as cravings for particular foods, and continued practice may produce other physical symptoms, such as weight loss or gain, unusual odors, or discharges. (For a comprehensive listing, see pp. 187–90 of Michio Kushi's Book of Macrobiotics (rev. ed., 1987.)) These symptoms indicate that your system is beginning to right itself; they should disappear within a short time, causing no concern.

This is an extension of Technique 1 and can be started within a few weeks of beginning the latter. It involves taking the energy you’ve begun to move with Technique 1 using chiefly physical means and moving it using only the mind. Eventually the two techniques merge, until the process becomes exclusively mental and intuitive. As with Technique 1, the procedure is extremely simple:

  1. Lie down. In cool weather, you may want to cover yourself with a blanket.

  2. Close your eyes and concentrate on a particular part of your body. If you have a localized illness or injury you’re trying to heal, you can concentrate there — wherever the pain is. If you have a generalized problem or no health problem, concentrate in the tan tien.

You’re directing energy to the area in which you’re concentrating, and it will go there, but at first, as with any new skill, some effort is required. You can visualize the area as being warm or hot — a blazing sun or a fire — or you can imagine words such as "energy," "strength," and "power" flowing into the area — whatever holds your attention.

After a while — perhaps as long as half or three-quarters of an hour at first — you’ll notice the area becoming slightly warm. You’ve used your mind to bring energy there, and each time you practice, it will happen faster and get warmer. You’ll know you’re done when you begin to feel tired. As with Technique 1, it will be an exertion at first, and you may want to sleep afterward.

You may be inclined to neglect Technique 2, because it requires more work at first, but resist this inclination and alternate the two techniques. Sometimes you’ll feel like the physical activity of Technique 1, and other times, when your body needs rest but your mind is active, you can do Technique 2. (Women should use caution in beginning these practices during pregnancy.)

After working with these energies for a while, you’ll find that merely placing the palms flat on the tan tien is sufficient to direct heat and energy there. Eventually there will be no need for Technique 1, or even for consciously practicing Technique 2 — energy will flow where you direct it.

Mantak Chia has written a number of books on various aspects of internal energy practice. Perhaps of most general interest is Awaken Healing Energy of the Tao or the revised, expanded, and somewhat more ponderous version, Awaken Healing Light through the Tao. Available from bookstores or by mail from (800) 497-1017. A catalog is also available.