The "Rise" of Liver Qi.
At last! Spring is on its way. The changing of the seasons requires careful observation of our bodies and minds so that we can support our health and internal development as best we can. The importance of balancing the five elements within ourselves is the foundation to achieving personal awareness and harmonizing with our environment.
Within The Five Element Theory of Chinese Medicine, the transition of seasons belongs to the spirit Yi and the earth element which corresponds to the spleen, the color yellow and the movement quality of division. However, the spring season itself is tied to the wood element, the color green and the spirit Hun which resides in the liver and possesses a thrusting movement quality. I find that the overwhelming majority of students have some level of elemental wood imbalance and liver qi issues which can be particularly limiting in Qi Gong practice, not to mention every day life. But before we get into more specifics on liver qi and how to address imbalance in our Qi Gong practice, let's first cover some of basics of the Daoist theory of creation, The Five Element Theory and Zang Fu.
Five Elements, Five Spirits
Within the Daoist tradition it's understood that conscious life originated from Dao. From the realm of Dao came Wuji; a realm sometimes referred to as "The Great Void", a place of pure potential and serves as a threshold between Dao and the realm of consciousness. From this realm human consciousness originates in five lights and these lights undergo further refraction to result in the construction of human individuation. These five spiritual lights are combinations of Yin and Yang that have individual characteristics. As these lights make their way down through the realms of Shen or individual consciousness, they decrease in vibration frequency entering the energetic realm or the realm of Qi. The qi frequency decreases further into five directions of movement or pulses that continually interact with each other. Qi vibraiton eventually becomes even more raw and transitions into Jing, which sits closest to the physical realm. It's believed that lastly the Jing vibration becomes dense enough to form the organs of the physical body. Each light corresponds to an element, a color, a pulse or quality of movement, and a spirit.
Chinese medicine distinguishes between two different types of organs, which are referred to as the zang and fu organs. There are six fu or "hollow" organs that function as reception and passage with regards to the process of digestion. Chinese medicine generally recognizes five zang organs: heart, lungs, spleen, liver and kidneys. (In Daoist theory the pericardium is also viewed as a zang organ.) Zang organs produce, transform, regulate and store the fundamental materials of the human body. Because they are located deeper inside the body, the zang organs are considered to be yin in relation to the fu which are more external and therefore yang. The yin or zang organs are generally more important in medical theory and practice.
Liver Qi Balance and Qi Gong
In the beginning stages of training it's important that we first strive towards an optimal foundation of health. As a student advances in their training the emphasis on building a body that is ideal for the internal arts becomes much greater. The reason is that the energy system of a physical body that has achieved a strong degree of health, can be awakened much more easily. However this can only be done by keeping in mind the physical root that we are working from. Because they are a direct product of five spiritual pulses, the vital organs are a key aspect of this physical root and illustrate the close relation between physicality and consciousness. Proper body alignment, fascia tone, strength and flexibility are important factors in a students development, which depends on the practitioners ability to balance and support their liver qi.
Main Functions of The Liver:
- Storing and Regulating the Blood.
- Regulating and Smoothing the flow of Qi.
- Ruling the Tendons.
- Rooting and providing the physical and energetic basis for the Hun or Ethereal Soul.
- Governing Anger and Compassion.
- Manifesting in the nails.
- Opening in the eyes.
Blood, Muscles and Tendons - Oh My!
When considering the liver in Chinese medicine the main theme that recurs throughout is elemental wood movement; most notably the forward, rising and thrusting variety, (which abounds in the spring season). Its functions are mainly concerned with governing the smooth flow of qi and blood; in this function, its has governance of the tendons and the movement of the body as a whole! In Chinese medicine the liver, not the spleen, stores blood when resting. When needed (such as during physical exercise) the liver controls the flow of blood into the muscles, tendons and skin. This is also indirectly controlling the tendons by moistening and strengthening them. Of course, the liver blood is closely tied to the menstrual blood in women, and therefore the liver has a strong affect on the menstrual cycle.
As the liver also directly controls the tendons, you may have already guessed that imbalances within the liver can manifest as the classic physical presentation of short and tight tendons. Where there is no flow, there's pain. Liver imbalances of any kind will negatively affect the flow of Qi which can result in stagnation, painful stretching and mobilizing which will then lead to poor body mechanics and over time will result in injury. The easiest way to observe the relationship between the pulse of the wood element and the connective tissues is to note the body of someone experiencing sudden or intense anger; their body will tend to tense and tighten, and the chest will push forwards and up (this is in response to the increase in wood energy as opposed to the tendons directly).
A Liver - The Hun
Due to the connection between qi, blood, Shen and emotions the smooth flow of qi as governed by the liver is vital for a balanced and settled mind. qi moves within the blood, propelling it through the vessels. Shen is also carried within the blood, refracting down within its structure, controlling the mind and therefore the emotions. On a purely emotional level, expression of anger is regarded as a venting of rising liver qi which discharges the emotion before it can damage the organ itself. The Hun is the spirit that is associated with the liver and is an ethereal aspect that wanders throughout the body and further during dreaming sleep. It is classically considered that the Hun resides in the liver at night. During the day the Hun rises to the eyes and is responsible for the taking in of information. This strengthens the livers connection to the eyes and eyesight. During the night the Hun descends and is stored in the liver. However the Hun also wanders in and out during the night creating dreams. The amount of wandering is tied to the health of the liver blood and excessive dreaming can be indicative of a weakened liver which is unable to appropriately root the Hun. This leaves very little time actually in the liver, however it is the only organ which stores the Hun and so this is generally accepted.
Yang Shen Fa
Yang shen fa is the conscious practice of living, eating, moving and regulating emotions that arise throughout the day to promote internal change, balance and spiritual growth. One of the key aims of yang shen fa is to ensure that the vital organs remain healthy and balanced throughout life. Balancing out the organs is the primary goal of Qi Gong practitioners. Daoism describes our energy or vitality through two different types of qi: congenital and acquired. Congenital qi can be thought of as the qi we were born with, which is as unique as individual genetics. Acquired qi is exactly as it sounds, this qi is something we take on via two principal sources: the air we breathe and the food we eat. The quality of these two things are paramount if we're to advance in our practice; air being the first priority. This is why Qi Gong is used as a foundation to higher practices within the Daoist arts. It can help us optimize our intake of acquired qi. Food is another source of renewable qi. The quality of the food we eat determines whether we strengthen or deplete ourselves.
Some General Signs of Liver Imbalance
- vision issues
- overactive dreaming
- irritability, anger
- brittle nails
- menstrual issues
- abdominal pain and joint pain
Some Supportive Foods
- red meat
- green veggies
- sweet food (increase flexibility)
- sour foods (decrease flexibility)
- liver stagnation tonics/ herbs
Some Supportive Practices
- Wu Xing/ Elemental Qi Gong - Metal, Fire
- Adopt more restorative eating behavior - don't eat on the run
- Protect sinew channels from wind - cover back of neck
- Release sinew channels - Jing well-points in fingertips
- Sung Breathing practice
For example, if you are someone who feels pressured by their job or lifestyle; suffers from chronic pain in the joints etc. and has a history of taking frustrations out on others, then you would clearly have a tendency towards an elemental wood imbalance. By practicing yang shen fa, you can subdue the related liver rising, expansion or stagnation issues. As Qi Gong practitioners you may choose to practice the entire Elemental Qi Gong or Wu Xing set daily with particular emphasis on the metal exercise (which controls elemental wood). (See the Five Element Cycle image below.)
Through our Qi Gong practice we aim at linking the physical and energy bodies together by working (gong) our breath (qi) with our intent (yi). Breathing is the mode of exchange in information between the physical and energy bodies. When practicing Qi Gong, this connection can be facilitated through a method known as Sung, which can be described as the systematic transference of habitual tension from the physical and consciousness bodies into the energy realm. Sung breathing is different from mere relaxation. Although deep relaxation is a notable benefit of the technique, the aim of Sung breathing is to transfer tension into the energy realm so that it can be released. Through the foundation of Qi Gong we aim at balancing the three bodies of man, and later on, emptying the three bodies via release in Sung to return to the original emptiness of the universe. Rad!