Living The Yin Life Unleashing the Energy of QI
QI IS QUITE OFTEN DESCRIBED as something invisible and nebulous. It implies energy of Qi is only observable to an altered state of perception which can only be seen by someone who has spent thousands of hours in quiet meditation. Unfortunately, this is what’s called a Chinese whisper. Examining the traditional character for Qi (氣), which of course is a pictographic script, we see that it is representing a cooking pot of rice with vapor rising from it. Today if we would ask a Mandarin speaker what the simplified character of Qi (气) means, they would say air or vapor.
So where do we get the idea that Qi means energy? This can be traced back to Georges Soulie De Morant who introduced Chinese medicine to the West, which is also where we inherited the French word ‘meridian’ from. In hindsight, De Morant did admit in his later life that he translated energy of Qi as energy but “for lack of a better word”. But is this translation actually wrong? Does Qi mean energy? The western term ‘energy’ means “capacity to do work”. Just like when Einstein’s equation converts mass into energy, are there known examples in our physiology when the matter is converted into energy?
The foundational text in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the 2500-year-old text called the Huang Di Neijing. In this text, we are taught that the Qi of the Lungs is known as Da Qi (大气) which is translated as “Great Qi” or breath. We then learn that this is then combined with the Gu Qi (谷气) from the Stomach and the Spleen and this is translated as the “essence of food and grain energy of Qi”. After a series of transformations, we learn that it becomes the Zhen Qi (真气) or the “True Qi” or “Qi of the channels/ vessels”. This is the Qi flowing around the body which amongst other components contains the air we breathe and the food we eat, which ultimately fuels the whole body.
In Ted Kaptchuk‘s book “The Web That Has No Weaver”, he writes, Qi is not some… immutable material, nor is it vital energy… We might think of it as somewhere in between, a kind of matter on the verge of becoming energy, or energy at the point of materializing. We all get to experience energy of Qi the moment our body begins the wondrous process of transforming food and air into the fuel that powers our body.
At the center of this process is the Earth element which is the stomach and pancreas (but confusingly in TCM we refer to it as the Spleen). The Earth has an energetic representation of the time of harvest. Traditionally it is the moment summer reaches its zenith, so it is known as Late Summer. Traditional Chinese Medicine theory was developed by observing our bodies and then drawing similarities to what they noticed in the world around them, seeing the microcosm in the macrocosm. Just like the time of harvest, it is the moment the cycles pause to reap the benefits of all the other energetic efforts of the body.
“If we were to think of the Earth element as a person, it would have the quality of the mother.”
The Stomach and Spleen provide energetic support for all the organs to carry out their function. They assimilate the food into the building blocks that make up our flesh and the vital substances that fuel our whole system. Just as the fertile earth provides the basis for all things to exist, the Stomach and Spleen, when harmonious, have a nourishing quality that allows every organ system to flourish.
If we were to think of the Earth element as a person, it would have the quality of the mother. She creates a place to come home to, just as each day we come home to rest and refuel. The pause between our energetic cycles will create a moment to ground and stabilize. Our mothers are the central energetic point that gives us so much life and nourishment to provide stability and ‘groundedness’ in our lives.
In this way, we see that the Earth (ST/SP) forms such a fundamental role that goes beyond limiting it to just the last part of one season. This is quite often misunderstood but elaborated in the Huang De Neijing; the Earth element can also be thought of like the last 18 days of each and every season. As one energetic expression comes to an end, we return back to the earth before expressing ourselves in a new energetic way. Each day we experience this. As our day draws to an end, we head to our mothering nourishing environment to experience stabilizing rest. This provides the basis of the energetic expression we embark upon the next day in whatever way we choose.
When we experience the energy of autumn (Metal, Lung and Large Intestine), we are contracting and discarding what we do not need. In wintertime (Water, Kidney, and Bladder), we are in our seed-like potential which is given movement and expression by spring (Wood, Liver, and Gallbladder) as we expand. At the height of expansion, we reach our fully expanded state of summer (Fire, Heart and Small Intestine) from which we return back to the autumn energy. This cycle is all fuelled by the harvest (Earth, Spleen, and Stomach) which provide the fuel for each and every energetic expression. Abraham Lincoln summarised this perfectly when he said, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
The most common dysfunction that arises in the Earth is dampness. Just like when we cultivate crops, they require a balanced amount of fluid or dampness to flourish. Foods alter the fluid levels in the body and impact upon digestive dampness through unbalanced amounts of sugar, salt, or foods that are drying (e.g. fried foods). Dampness can also be caused by any foods that disrupt the flow of the digestive fluids like spicy, cold or excessive amounts of raw foods and especially anything that is toxic.
What we physically consume will cause a stagnation in the digestion but also what we think will affect it too. TCM understands the intimate connection between our thoughts, feelings and our physical being, or what western medicine calls the psycho-somatic interaction.
The Earth element is the only organ system that is impacted by thoughts whereas the nature of the other organs is emotional. The way to think about this is; our emotions will give color to our thoughts as the seasons bring color to the earth. We can think (Earth, harvest) about anger (Wood, spring), joy/fright (Fire, summer), fear (Water, winter) and grief (Metal, autumn).
Just as the Earth keeps us physically grounded so too does it create the anchor that keeps our spirit (Shen, 神) attached to our body? Earth than is the harmonizing or balancing nature between the body and mind. The spirit is seen as our heavenly aspect which is brought into an embodied form by the anchoring nature of thinking. The moment we stop thinking we return to our heavenly state and attain an out of body experience.
TCM says, when we have an emotional experience, it will color our thoughts and those thoughts will then change the course of the body’s physical Qi creating disharmony and, ultimately, disease. This imbalance of the Earth element is created by worry, ruminating or overthinking. This will cause the energy of Qi to knot and bind. This is similar to the feeling of butterfly’s indigestion although that will also contain an emotional “coloring”. This excessive thinking causes the flow of the body’s Qi to deviate from its natural course, causing the flow of the digestion to become disharmonious. This is mirrored in the mind as disruption in the flow of thoughts causes the emotions to go undigested, creating a state of rumination around whatever you are currently unable to process emotionally.
Treating the Earth will require a holistic approach which of course will contain an Earth element Yin yoga sequence. Our diet needs to have minimal foods that create an imbalance in the fluid levels of the digestion. Aim to eat foods that nourish the Earth element like root vegetables and avoid foods that are literally cold and figuratively cold-like raw foods, which taxes the warm environment of the digestion.
Creating a routine in our life helps us to not only avoid fluctuation in the body’s natural rhythms but also to avoid overeating, giving the digestion time to rest between meals. This routine also helps us move on to the next thing mentally as well. When I was younger I spent time in a Thai monastery and whenever I was stuck in thought my teacher would tell me to get up and sweep the floor. Simply by bringing some physical movement to the moment, it could be enough to allow the thoughts to flow again, allowing the flow of our digestion and so Qi to be free to find its natural state of balance. Living with a harmonious Earth element liberates us from overthinking, instead, we get to live in a state of abundant Qi, freshly harvested by the Stomach and Spleen (pancreas). We can experience a real-life expression of Einstein’s theory that mass and energy can equal each under the right conditions. Perhaps our body is not as efficient as a nuclear chain reaction but, like an alchemist, the Earth element morphs something worthless into something undoubtedly precious. We get to experience this as we dance, laugh, play and cry and witness it each time we look into the eyes of another and bask in the golden light of life shining back at us.
You may want to consider adding acupressure points to your practice to heighten the beneficial effects of your Yin yoga practice. These work in a similar way to acupuncture points except instead of needles you apply a deep pressure for 30-60 seconds to the appropriate point.
SANYINJIAO – INTERSECTION OF THE THREE YIN (SP6)
LOCATION: On the inside (medial and posterior side) of the shin (tibia) bone. It is one of your hand widths above the inner ankle (malleolus) bone. Feel for a hollow on or around a slightly more tender spot.
INDICATIONS: Many digestive issues but in particular any issue that will involve the absorbing of nutrients. Nourishes Yin and Blood, gynecological & menstrual issues, male sexual issues, insomnia, palpitations, dizziness, hypertension, and anxiety.
CONTRAINDICATIONS: This point is used to induce labor. The meridian is still safe to work within yin yoga, just avoid applying acupressure to this point.
ZUSANLI – THREE MILE LEG (ST36)
LOCATION: On the front (anterior) border of the shin bone (tibialis anterior) muscle. One hand-width down (distal) from the lower border of the knee cap (patella). Feel for a hollow on or around a slightly more tender spot.
INDICATIONS: Any type of digestive complaint, nourishes energy of Qi and Blood, harmonies the Spleen and Stomach.
1.SEIZA (TOES UNTUCKED)
SETUP: Come onto all fours with the toes untucked. Slowly sit back onto your heels.
As you sit up, feel your spine and diaphragm relaxed. Place your hands on your thighs facing up or down. To make it stronger, place a cushion/blanket/bolster under your knees to increase the plantar flexion of the ankle.
HOLD: 3-5 minutes.
MYOFASCIAL TARGET: Tibialis Anterior Muscle, Extensor Digitorum & Hallucis Longus & Brevis Tendons
PROPPING: For ankle discomfort, place a rolled-up towel/blanket/mat under the front of where the foot meets the lower leg. For knee discomfort, place a block/bolster under the bum to reduce the amount of knee flexion.
SQUAT SETUP: From a standing position, separate the feet and turn them out to a comfortable position. Sit down into your squat. Keep the knees separated by placing your elbows on the inside of the knee and hands together in a comfortable position. Try and maintain a natural curve (lordosis) in the lumbar spine. Keep placing props under your bum until your lumbar spine finds a lordosis.
HOLD: 3-5 minutes.
MYOFASCIAL TARGET: Adductors, Quadriceps MERIDIAN: Spleen & Stomach
PROPPING: If your heels lift off the ground place a rolled-up mat/ towels underneath them. If your lumbar spine is rounded (kyphosis) then place props underneath you until your lumbar spine is in a natural curve (lordosis). If you have knee discomfort place rolled-up towels behind the knee (popliteal crease).
3.DRAGON LUNGE WITH TAIL
SETUP (RIGHT SIDE ONLY: Place a cushion/ towel/blanket next to a wall. Stand facing away from the wall and extend your right leg back, placing the top of the foot against the wall with your knee landing on the cushion/towel/blanket. Hands will most likely be on the ground, use this newfound stability to work your knee back closer to the wall. The left foot is in front of you for stability and begin to sit upright into a lunge with your right knee closest to the wall. To deepen take your bum back to the wall/heel.
HOLD: 2-5 minutes.
MYOFASCIAL TARGET: Quadriceps, Tibialis Anterior Muscle, Extensor Digitorum & Hallucis Longus & Brevis Tendons
PROPPING: For knee discomfort, place more cushioning under the knee or don’t press your bum back as much. If you are having trouble finding your balance, use a few blocks to place the hands upon on them for comfort. (lordosis). If you have knee discomfort place rolled-up towels behind the knee (popliteal crease).
SETUP: Come into a seated kneeling position with the toes untucked (insert). Separate your knees as wide as you comfortably can. Be sure to do this otherwise it becomes a child’s pose. Place a bolster and maybe a few blocks under your chest until your spine is parallel to the ground. Hands can rest in any comfortable position.
HOLD: 3-5 minutes.
MYOFASCIAL TARGET: Adductors, Quadriceps MERIDIAN: Spleen, Stomach & Liver
PROPPING: For ankle discomfort, place a rolled-up towel/blanket/mat under the front of the ankle where the foot meets the lower leg. For knee discomfort, place more blocks/bolsters/blankets under the torso to reduce the amount of knee flexion. Alternatively, for knee discomfort place rolled-up towels behind the knee (popliteal crease)
5. HALF SADDLE
SETUP (FOR RIGHT SIDE): Come onto all fours and step your left foot forward come into a lunge. Sit back on to your right heel, placing a block/blanket/bolster under the right buttocks if the hips are uneven. Keep your left knee bent until you find your final pose and do so with comfort. Walk your hands back behind you to possibly come into a reclining position. This step should be done only if you can maintain a position that is free of discomfort in the lower back. Arms can be raised above the head, rested directly out to the side or beside your body.
HOLD: 3-5 minutes.
MYOFASCIAL TARGET: Quadriceps, Tibialis Anterior Muscle, Extensor Digitorum & Hallucis Longus & Brevis Tendons, Hipflexors & Rectus Abdominis (in a reclined position)
MERIDIAN: Stomach, Spleen & Kidney
PROPPING: For ankle discomfort, place a rolled-up towel/ blanket/mat under the front of the ankle, where the foot meets
the lower leg. For knee discomfort, place extra blocks/bolsters/ blankets under the buttocks to reduce the amount of knee
flexion. Alternatively, for knee discomfort place a rolled-up
towel behind the knee (popliteal crease).
SETUP: Sit upright with legs extended. Place a bolster perpendicular to your spine. Lay back over bolster and position in such a way that the heart feels like its opening. Legs can be extended or place the soles of the feet together and drop the knees out to the side, bringing them into a butterfly position. Arms, ideally, are extended up and over the head to increase the release in the fascial tissue across the chest or an easier option is placing them out laterally to side making a letter T. Ensure the head is on something; the ground, a bolster, a blanket or a block.
HOLD: 3-5 minutes.
MYOFASCIAL TARGET: Rectus abdominals, adductors MERIDIAN: Stomach and Spleen
PROPPING: For discomfort in the outer hip when the legs are in butterfly place blocks/blankets/ 30 cushions under the knees.