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Meridians Explained

Following on from my previous post about five element theory in which meridians got a mention, I thought it would be helpful to explain a little more about them. According to traditional Chinese medicine, there are energy channels in the body. Unlike blood vessels and nerves, energy channels (known as meridians or vessels) cannot be seen and they exist only when there is energy flowing through them, rather like rivers through the land or currents in the sea. To avoid confusion, I will stick to the term meridian here. The meridians can be influenced by pressure (known as acupressure, as in shiatsu), needling (as in acupuncture) or applying heat (moxibustion) at potent points along them. We can also stimulate the meridians with specific qigong practices to help harmonise the flow of energy in the body. There are two types of meridian: organ and extraordinary.


Organ Meridians

The organ meridians are like rivers and streams, with clearly defined pathways. They flow near the surface of the body in a set direction of flow, carrying smaller amounts of energy. There are twelve of them: kidney, bladder, liver, gallbladder, heart, small intestine, pericardium, triple heater, spleen, stomach, lung and large intestine. These are all linked to the five element theory explained in my previous post, so you can read more about them there.



Extraordinary Meridians

The extraordinary meridians are more like ocean currents in that they are larger and flow deeper in the body with less well defined boundaries than the river-like organ meridians. The direction of flow can change and, apart from the central and governing meridians, they have only potent points that are shared with the organ meridians. The eight extraordinary meridians are the: central, governing, sash, yin linking, yang linking, yin heel, yang heel and penetrating.


The central and governing meridians act together and are known as the microcosmic orbit, which circles the torso and head, going down the front of the body along the central meridian and up the back along the governing meridian, or up the front and down the back (remember that the flow of energy in the extraordinary meridians can change direction).


The flow of energy in the sash meridian is around the waist, as the name suggests, and again can go one way or the other. You could also think of it as a hoola hoop.


The flow of energy through the yin linking, yang linking, yin heel and yang heel meridians is known as the macrocosmic orbit. If you stand with your hands in the air, palms facing up, you can imagine it flowing down the front of your body all the way down the inside of your arms, the front of your torso and the front of your legs to your feet and then up the back of the body from feet to hands. It can also run in the opposite direction, so up the front of the body and down the back. It is similar to the microcosmic orbit, but includes the limbs too.


The penetrating meridian is like a skewer through the body from top to toe. When we work with this in qigong, we visualise a vortex through the centre of the limbs and body rather like a whirlpool.



Just as a restriction in a river or the failure of an ocean current can be damaging to an ecosystem, a change in flow in a meridian can cause poor health in the human body. The free flow of energy in the body is as important to human health as is the free flow of water to an ecosystem, and we can use therapeutic practices such as acupuncture and qigong to help optimise our health. We provide both at Formula Health in Pangbourne, so do get in touch if you would like to find out more or book a session.


Five Element Theory: the Energy of the Emotions

The yin/yang theory that I covered in my last post is ancient, spanning back thousands of years of Chinese culture, and it is linked to another more recent concept that dates back to around 300BC: five element theory, also known as the five phases or virtues. Many of the practices that we work with in qigong relate to the five elements in some shape or form, so I thought it would be helpful to elaborate on it here.


In traditional Chinese medicine the primary emotions are: fear, anger, joy, anxiety and sorrow. According to the five element theory, each emotion is associated with a pair of organs in the body and is linked to one of five elements: water, wood, fire, earth or metal. Excess of an emotion can cause disease in the associated organ. The elements are interconnected, so that an imbalance in one will cause disharmony in another.


Water

The kidneys and bladder are linked with the water element, which represents energy at rest or floating. It is therefore associated with winter and to dormancy, or rather the potential for growth (as water is essential to so many of life’s processes). This is called the ‘essence’ in traditional Chinese medicine and is effectively the life force that we are born with, which becomes depleted over our lifetime. People born with less essence need to work harder at looking after themselves to compensate.


Water is the source of life-force and will, so harmony in the water element results in strong willpower and endurance, whereas disharmony manifests as fear, which may inhibit growth (for example fear of making a decision or taking action on an issue). We can draw on wisdom and the confidence of inner knowing to overcome our fears.



Wood

The liver and gall bladder are linked with the wood element, in which energy is rising, like sap in the spring. In harmony, the liver is linked to motivation and the gall bladder to decisiveness and action, but disharmony leads to anger and frustration. Kindness to ourselves and to others is the best antidote to anger.



Fire

Four ‘organs’ are linked to the fire element: the heart, small intestines, pericardium (or heart protector) and the triple heater. The triple heater is not related to an actual organ, but represents the processing of food and waste in the upper, middle and lower regions of the body. The fire element represents energy expanding, the peak of activity and the season summer. It is associated with consciousness, and harmony in this element is expressed as sensitivity, love and joy, disharmony as being ‘on edge’, with insomnia and in more extreme cases as manic behaviour. Peace and orderliness help calm excitable heart energy.


Earth

The spleen and stomach are the earth organs and represent energy descending, as in late summer. The spleen is associated with thought and transforming ideas into action, also with empathy. Harmony in the earth element results in good concentration and analytical skills as well as compassion. In disharmony it results in overthinking, anxiety and becoming stuck. As Kenneth Cohen explains in his book Qigong: the art and science of Chinese energy healing “We are pensive when we are preoccupied with ourselves; we are overly empathic when we are preoccupied with others.” Trust and acceptance can help counter anxiety and over-empathising to bring balance in the earth elements.



Metal

The lungs and large intestines fall within the metal element and represent energy meeting (a balance between activity and rest). The related season is autumn. Metal is associated with the corporeal soul and our ability to take in and to let go. Harmony in this element leads to optimism and a childlike ability to live in the moment, disharmony to sorrow. Lung energy can be rebalanced by integrity and dignity.



I love how the five element theory links emotions to nature, and although I don't hold rigidly to it, I use it as a framework for exploring how I feel and what is going on around me. I hope that you have found this explanation interesting and that you get as much pleasure from this theory as I do.

Yin and Yang

The concept of yin and yang is based on the Taoist understanding of the forces and cycles of nature. Tao means ‘way’ and to Taoists it means ‘the way of the universe’. It is a philosophy that we are waking up to in the West: that we are all connected. Yin and yang are an expression of that philosophy: that you cannot have one without the other.


In the taiji symbol (the representation of yin and yang above), black represents yin and white yang. Yin and yang can be seen as complementary opposites. Some examples of what is yin compared with its more yang counterpart are:

  • dark/light

  • night/day

  • moon/sun

  • descending/rising

  • West/East

  • cold/hot

  • North/South

  • solid/vapour

  • earth/sky

  • contraction/expansion

  • condensation/evaporation

  • water/fire

  • feminine/masculine.


Although yin and yang can be seen as opposites, nothing is purely yin or yang because there is always a balance between the two. For example, ice is more yin than water because ice is solid (you could even build with it) whereas water is fluid (it has movement, action), but water is yin compared with steam.


As you can see in the taiji symbol, yin (the white shape) contains yang (the black circle) and yang (the black shape) contains yin (the white circle). This aspect of yin and yang is best illustrated in a quote from qigong practitioner Chris Jarmey "In the case of the human sexes, it is interesting to note that although women are outwardly more yin, they contain within a more masculine unconscious which Carl Jung called the Animus. In turn, men possess a more feminine unconscious called the Anima. This is an example of the profound interdependence inherent in Yin/Yang."


As the taiji symbol demonstrates, yin and yang transform into each other: where yin ends, yang begins and vice versa. The natural cycles of day and night and the seasons are the best examples of this, so where night ends, day begins and where winter ends, spring begins: one grows out of the other.


This extract from the Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, describes the interactions of yin and yang beautifully: 
"Being and non-being create each other;
Difficult and easy support each other;
Long and short define each other;
High and low depend on each other;
Before and after follow each other."

According to traditional Chinese medicine, an imbalance between yin and yang results in disease. Re-establishing harmony restores health. For example, the coldness of yin can temper the heat of yang, so a cooling treatment is used for a hot condition and vice versa.


Qigong is a beautiful expression of yin and yang: where there is up, there is down; where there is backwards, there is forwards; where there is left, there is right. We even trace the taiji diagram in one practice! I love how qigong brings balance and I have noticed the dexterity of my weaker left side improve with practice to the point where I can catch and throw a ball with my left hand without thinking about it - and I wasn’t even trying to achieve that! If you would like to experience qigong for yourself, you are welcome to join one of my classes.

Somatics: what is it and how could it benefit you?

Soma means ‘living body’ and relates to how we experience our own body rather than how someone else might observe it. Only you can know how a movement feels to you, no-one can observe that sensation. So ‘body’ describes what an observer sees and ‘soma’ describes how that body feels to the person inside it. It is observing or being aware of the body from the inside. Yoga, qigong and tai chi are ancient somatic practices because they involve both body and mind; they require focus on how the body and movements feel.


Somatic movement appeared in the West in the twentieth century via philosophy and dance, but has moved into the field of complementary therapies in disciplines such as Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method and Rolfing, which you may have heard of.


In his book Somatics, Thomas Hanna explains that “During the course of our lives, our sensory-motor systems continually respond to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes. These reflexes, repeatedly triggered, create habitual muscular contractions, which we cannot – voluntarily – relax. These muscular contractions have become so deeply voluntary and unconscious that, eventually, we no longer remember how to move about freely. The result is stiffness, soreness, and a restricted range of movement.”


This loss of awareness of what the body is doing is known as sensory motor amnesia (SMA). Basically, the brain can no longer sense certain muscles and so loses control of them without us even realizing it. SMA can happen at any age, even in the young, as a response to psychological or physical stress or trauma, but it usually starts to be noticeable in people in early middle age. The good news is that SMA can be prevented and reversed.


The age old adage ‘use it or lose it’ does seem to ring true. Much of the deterioration seen in older age is due to a gradual reduction in activities that stimulate body and mind. To retain mental and physical function, we need to take part in varied activities. In fact, activity becomes more important as we age, not less. Learning about somatics and discussing it with colleagues has made me realise just how many of the things that I loved to do as a child I stopped doing in adulthood: somersaults, roly polys, handstands and skipping. They undoubtedly served me well during my development, but why stop there? How much function have I lost from no longer practicing them? I have decided to re-introduce at least some of them to my adult life, just in case…


Endocrinologist Hans Selye described two different forms of stressors: distress and eustress. Distress, as the name suggests is negative or harmful stress, such as the death of a loved one, separation, injury, etc. Eustress is positive or good stress, such as preparing for a holiday, marriage or starting a new job. Distress causes us to feel threatened and defensive, eustress motivates us, it encourages us to action. Our bodies respond to those two distinct psychological stresses in different ways.


Distress tends to cause us to withdraw physically as well as emotionally, as if someone has hit us in the stomach, so the jaw clenches, the eyes and forehead contract, the shoulders raise, the head goes forward, the abdominal muscles tighten and the legs and feet turn inward. We clench the muscles at the front of the body and assume the foetal position. Over time this can become a learned behaviour leading to facial wrinkles, neck and shoulder pain, breathing difficulties and even constipation and haemorrhoids.


Eustress triggers muscles at the back of the body to contract, as in the Landau reaction in infants when they become able to lift their head and arch their back at around six months. It is a reflex reaction of activity, allowing a baby to start to move about and allowing adults to meet challenges. If this becomes habitual, it can lead to back pain in adult life.


These reactions to stress happen top down because the impulse comes from the most primitive part of the brain, so it reaches the face first and travels down the body. It also means that it is an unconscious reaction, and a rapid one at that, so we don’t even realise when it happens.


These two reflex reactions to stress are normal and necessary to our survival: one to protect us and one to drive us. Over time we can become stuck in one response or the other, or a combination of the two, unaware and unable to consciously release the muscular tension to allow the body to return to its normal posture. We lose touch with our own body and so lose control over it, which can result in:

  • Stiffness and limited movement from tight muscles

  • Chronic pain from the build-up of waste products around continually contracting muscles

  • Chronic fatigue from the energy used up to contract muscles

  • Shallow breathing from a constricted chest

  • High blood pressure from restricted breathing

  • Low mood from pain, reduced mobility and poor posture.


Traumatic stress can also cause muscles to spasm, in this case to protect the injured part of the body, whether from an accident or surgery, and can lead to the same problems listed above if the contraction becomes habituated and persists after the injury has healed.


Thomas Hanna’s book Somatics is a fascinating read and includes exercises (based on the work of Moshe Feldenkrais) that you can practise to prevent or reverse musculoskeletal problems caused by habituated responses to stress. Or you could try the more traditional somatic practices of yoga, qigong or tai chi, especially if you prefer to exercise in a class. If nothing else, I hope to have encouraged you to tune in to how your body feels, to notice and be aware.

The Value of Touch

Even before lockdown, we were experiencing less human touch than ever before in history, partly because so many of us live apart from family and friends and partly through fear of inappropriate touch. Social distancing has meant that we now hold back from so many forms of physical interaction that we took for granted previously: hand shaking, hugging, placing a reassuring hand on an arm or shoulder. It is sobering to think that many of us now touch our screens more than we do other humans.


Touch is a biological necessity for our physical and emotional wellbeing. For example, a lack of touch in infancy leads to cognitive deficit, and touch at any age can improve resilience to stress. We also need to be able to respond rapidly to potentially life-threatening stimuli, such as fire or sharp objects. To that end, we have two types of touch receptors: fast and slow.



Fast Touch Receptors

The fast receptors have myelinated sheaths, which allow nerve impulses to be transmitted rapidly to the brain for an immediate response to whatever they detect in the outside world, whether that is to pull your hand away from a hot object or to hold more tightly onto a wet glass that is slipping out of your hand. These fast receptors are what enable you to detect, among other things, temperature, texture, pressure and stretch. They are found all over the body, but are most dense on the glabrous (hairless) skin on the digits and lips, and also on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.



Slow Touch Receptors

The slow touch receptors (known as C-tactile afferents or CTs) lack the myelinated nerve sheath and so it takes longer for an impulse to reach the brain (about 1m/second). They are only found on hairy skin and are sensitive to pleasant touch, such as a hug or stroking. Research has shown that the optimal stroking speed to stimulate CTs is 3-5cm/s, which is the speed that most of us would use instinctively to soothe a loved one, to show affection or for sensual touch. CTs are linked to our emotional response to touch and are present in the skin of all social mammals, i.e. those that respond to bonding (affiliative) contact between one individual and another.



Health Benefits

Some of the benefits of affiliative human touch are lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels, greater resilience to stress and improved immunity, which is why massage and reflexology can also promote the same effects.



To Conclude

Hopefully an awareness of this often overlooked sense will give you a greater appreciation of it and encourage you to use it more, where it is safe and appropriate to do so. And if human touch is not available to you or is limited for whatever reason, you can still stimulate the slow touch receptors in your skin with pleasant sensations such as a warm bath, the warmth of the sun on your skin or the wind on your face. Exercise too, especially if done outdoors, can help compensate for a lack of touch.


If you would like to learn more about this sense, I can recommend reading the chapter on touch in Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book The Stress Solution and listening to his podcast interview with Professor Frances McGlone, a leading researcher in human touch. Coincidentally, psychologist Claudia Hammond explores the ‘Anatomy of Touch’ in her new series on Radio 4.