By Paul T Richard
I used to lead a simplified version of the microcosmic orbit meditation for circulating and filling qi. Also called the small heavenly circulation (小周天, xiao zhou tian), it seemed to help beginners cultivate a calmer physical and more-focused mental state.
The practice entailed guiding the breath and attention up the back (Du Mai-Governing vessel), then down the front side (Ren Mai-Conception vessel). Touching the tongue to the top palate behind the teeth connected the two paths. This direction up the back and down the front is called the “Fire Path.”
We would focus attention on moving from one to the next of eight vessels, or reservoirs, located along the Du and Ren, and fill each with breath and intention before moving to the next. The reservoirs are: dantian (navel area), perineum, sacrum/tailbone, between shoulder blades, back of neck, crown of head, between the eyebrows, solar plexus.
This in-class practice was rather simplified I suppose, but it seemed easier for beginners essentially seeking relief from daily strains. More-detailed discussions can be found in Yang, Jwing-Ming’s in-depth The Root of Chinese Qigong and Ken Cohen’s Way of Qigong, which is less intricate.
My aim in class was to reveal beneficial ways of thinking about how to perform the practice and the resulting feeling.
To this end, for good results, we wanted the sequence for moving up and down the channels to be fluid and free, without care for external concerns. This entails letting go or releasing attained by focusing on the task at hand, listening more closely to your natural self, and letting the activity have its results.
I say this because we might unconsciously hinder circulation of breath and blood, maybe even stop the energy from flowing. Sensations of crumpling, collapsing, or binding up point to resistance, or reluctance, to let go.
These physical results may stem from a mental position, or habitual frame of mind of which we are not cognizant. Often, qi itself may reveal that you’re holding on, or perhaps closing too much; both mentally and physically. An exercise like the microcosmic circuit helps to identify these tendencies, and allow us to replace the weak or immobile qi, and (re)connect body and mind in a reciprocal and balanced relation.
In application, since energetic force (qi) can flow linearly, you can adjust body position to affect its action. For example, as you sit and perform the microcosmic circuit, shift the hips slightly from whatever position you find them in, maybe tilt the pelvis down and forward, maybe up and back, then allow the resulting energetic pulse to rise up the spine as the vertebrae open and flex.
Qi can also fill expansively. For example, when the breath enters the sacrum you can direct that energy to fill, similarly to how the lungs fill with air, causing the sacrum to expand energetically. You may even feel aliveness in the smallest confines of the membrane.
These are subtle, unforced changes initiated in the mind’s eye that have physical results. Any subtle shift in position (postural alignment) could elicit qi to freely go through and you would feel it.
You can arrive at some clarity about the tendency to hold or clench out of unrecognized habit by trying these techniques. I know a few students became increasingly successful with their results by working consistently over time. Practice culminated in a clearer concentration that even spilled over into other activities of life.
I know that some in class came to recognize resistance in their selves from practicing the microcosmic circulation. Fighting against one’s own self is tiring physically and mentally. Sooner or later, you can’t ignore it anymore. But, consciously focusing on breathing in an exercise like the microcosmic circulation not only can reveal resistance, but also reveal the answer to it. Practice can improve the ability to intend useful shifts.
Sometimes our attention oscillates in and out of focus during the meditation. This reminds me of absentmindedly thinking about something or someone while performing some mundane task, such as pulling weeds, taking a walk, reading, or talking to another person.
Then, like waking from a dream, you suddenly realize you had been lost in reverie while your physical body was involved in some activity you barely noticed you were doing. “I don’t seem to realize I’m doing it and yet there I am doing it.”
This kind of waxing and waning of attention initially happens in meditative exercises such as the microcosmic orbit. It is like losing continuity in the flow. Attention breaks, like cutting a taut string, and wavers in and out of levels of awareness. This relates to the concepts of being connected and whole body moves as single unit.
You might discover in your efforts that qi and breath are blocked at the diaphragm. Instructors tell us to breathe “abdominally” during the microcosmic circuit, but the breathe abdominally instruction may be a little misleading.
From my observations, people think that it means to move only the abdomen/stomach. While it is a beginning, the motion should fill all of the lungs (without lifting the shoulders). The diaphragm can harden from constraining the breath to the abdomen, thus blocking air/qi from passing fully into the lungs.
I have just as often heard from high-level teachers to breathe naturally, which for me means to at least breathe freely and fluidly. This is more aligned with diaphragmatic breathing, in contrast to abdominally. The combination of breath with diaphragmatic movement (and abdomen) and breathing can soften the whole structure. Over time with correct practice you incorporate the eight reservoirs in whole-body movement with all the benefits of letting go.
“Single Basic Moves”
We also practiced “single basic moves”—rhythmic, repetitive motions that help to loosen tight spots and strengthen coordination and balance. We found them useful in class to support relaxation and which complemented the microcosmic circulation.
The microcosmic circulation is essentially an action of opening the areas from the inside out. In contrast, single basics affect the stuck areas from the outside in by moving the whole body; not as directly as with breathing and filling the eight reservoirs.
The microcosmic meditation and single basics combine to form an effective, complementary micro-practice through which you can wake up and feel the energy. This then feeds further practice and growth. Plus, these practices carry over into relief from mental and physical positions that are not essential to our well-being.
So, as least for a little while, the intentional act of letting something go (a thought or a physical feeling) is emancipating. The body responds accordingly conscious movement, and becomes more contented and rested. The mind becomes sharper and more satisfied in its ability to function more clearly.
Dear reader, I give thanks for your continued interest and for those who left us so much knowledge and skill, inspiring me to write this blog. If this information is useful for you, please share your thoughts. For further reading about other basic exercises, see Practicing Tai Chi: Way to Enrich Learning for Beginning and Intermediate Practitioners, 2018, that I wrote for Durango Tai Chi students.