Sinking the Qi

“Qi is very important for good health and we would die without it and its flow.”

Anxiety is something which has plagued my life for quite some time. It comes in waves, some weeks better than others, one hour worse than the previous. There are many different sources, and proactive means of prevention, but from what I’ve found, really only one surefire reactionary method to cope.

One belief in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is that anxiety, anger, frustration, headaches, hypertension, and lung disorders are the result of Qi (energy) rising in the body rather than “sinking,” a process that improves the body’s vital functions like circulation and mental cognition, and promotes general health.  

Naturally, Qi wants to rise, but it is also caused by heat, in a variety of senses. This includes things like hot beverages, warm or spicy food, and external temperature, as well as from any emotional and physical stress experienced by the individual.

Stimulants like caffeine (especially hot coffee), nicotine (a vasoconstrictor, which decreases circulation) and amphetamine or cocaine also cause heat by elevating the heart rate and activating the sympathetic nervous system, aka, “the stress response”.

The “fight-or-flight phenomenon” is what occurs when the sympathetic nervous is engaged, and naturally causes the body to tense up, in particular the upper body, in response to the external stimulus or “threat”. This is actually an innate, genetically-predisposed condition.

It may (or may not) comfort you to find out that forward head posture is not just the modern-day result of starting at a smartphone screen, or hunching over a desk for a prolonged period. Curling into a ball or “the fetal position” is a biological imperative—a genetic reaction to stress or anxiety encoded in our DNA.

And while it was an evolutionary means of survival, the sheer volume of stressors in our modern, tech-saturated world put us constantly into fight-or-flight mode. This in turn causes the Qi to rise.

What’s more, is that it effects more than just the neck and shoulders. The hip flexors (anterior pelvic tilt), abdomen, and chest are all complicit.

Interestingly, it is a two-way street—in addition to your mental state being able to influence your breathing and heart rate, body states – like posture – can effect consciousness. Like how smiling can improve you mood, for example.

Breathing expert James Nestor claims that, “80% of impulses [41′] [messages] come from the body to the brain, not from the brain to the body.”

When the front line of your body is shifted forward, the lungs and diaphragm can’t fully expand, preventing you from being able to fully breath deep. Shallow breathing reduces oxygen to your brain, and contributes to brain fog, anxiety, and initiates the stress response (fight-or-flight phenomenon).

There are other factors that can contribute to the stress response and cause the Qi to rise, like not respecting the 24-hour body clock in TCM, which highlights each of the body’s 12 primary internal organs for a two hour period of the day, and offers guidelines for actions you should or should not partake in during those respective periods, in order to promote health.

These include cutting caffeine after 11am, exercising in the morning, meditating during the twilight hours, and getting to bed before 11pm, all with the aim of improving your ability to relax, make decisions, etc. Essentially, they are guidelines to help activate the parasympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system, or “rest and digest” mode.

Not paying mind to these suggestions can certainly cause anxiety, which I have experienced. However, I will save this for another article; I really want to focus solely on breathing here.

In a nutshell, the phenomenon of “sinking the qi” refers to using your breath to help relax and calm the mind and body. A big part of sinking is developing song (松), or relaxing and loosening; and jing (精), or mental quietness, in your practice. Sinking allows the skeleton to effortlessly hold the weight of the body, and lets the mind soak deeper and deeper into the body. Nothing should be forced.

Light, slow and deep is how we should be breathing. By opening the body, relaxing the shoulders and the neck in particular, and breathing deep into the diaphragm/stomach, we can depress the nervous system and activate parasympathetic mode.

Breathing is not just a biochemical act. It is also biomechanical in the sense that the diaphragm “softly massages” the organs as it goes down, and acts as a pump by mobilizing and draining lymph fluid.

I’ve already spoken fairly extensively about the biomechanical process of breathing and relaxation of muscles and its connection to the nervous system in other articles, so I won’t go too in depth here. But, I want to reiterate the synergy between seemingly unconnected muscle groups.

For example, from my experience with qigong meditation and breath practices I can say without a shadow of doubt that there is a correlation between the muscles of the ‘gravity center’ like the hip flexor group, and the muscles of the neck, like the levator scapulae and the trapezius. As I’ve begun to practice ‘sinking the Kua,’ I’ve come to realize how trigger points in the shoulders and neck seem to stem from tension in the ‘core’ or lower abdomen region.

For a long time, I had heard that term – “sinking the kua” – in various qigong meditation exercises and lectures I had seen or participated in. For a while – as most of the instructors I had heard verbalize it were of Chinese ethnicity (the first being master Mantak Chia) – I thought it to be the Chinese-anunciated version of “sinking the core.” But after doing my own due diligence, I realized I was mistaken, and it was, in fact, “kua”. The confusion was permissable, however, as the term kua is in reference to the hip folds – where a large number of lymph nodes are contained – and the groin region in general, so it is loosely correlated with the “core area” in the western sense. However, kua a fairly ambiguous term, because it also encapsulates the sacrum and the perineum.

Regardless, it is essentially the process of lowering your center of gravity, and directing it to the lower abdomen region, like the stomach (lower dantian, a gathering point for jing, or body essence) and hip flexor muscles. The phenomenon seeks to create a “hanging” effect, where the body’s soft tissue, like muscles and tendons (particularly of the upper body) are relaxed, and are stretched downward. If this sinking does not occur, the center of gravity will remain in the chest.

Damo Mitchell, director of the Lotus Nei Gong School of Daoist Arts, communicated the phenomenon very well in his lecture as a featured guest of the Qigong Global Summit that recently took place. He explained the process as directing the Qi to settle and anchor in the abdomen, turning on the “organizing field” of the lower dantian, building masculine yang Qi and increasing “density”.

The main benefit of sinking the Qi, beyond simple relaxation of the muscles and anxiety relief, is body, mind and spirit development; to turn weak or frail tissues, sinews and tendons into strong ones, through postures and stretches that influence the static and nervous structure of the body. This process is a key component of the Yijin Jing, a series of guiding principles aiming to transform the body to make it function more efficiently.

Yijin Jing (“tendon changing classic”) is a manual that contains dynamic (moving) breathing exercises which are believed to enhance physical, mental and spiritual health dramatically. In Chinese, yi means “change”, jin means “tendons and sinews”, while jing means “methods”. dynamic (moving) breathing exercises. The term could more accurately be translated as as “changing channels classic” rather than “tendon classic,” as the term “tendons” really refers to the lines of connective tissue throughout the body.

To open the channels, one must sink muscles and joints, but keep bone structure in place (opening the body, “floating the skeleton”). When everything that’s not skeleton sinks, you don’t lose your posture, and you achieve a stretch between the muscles and the bones, which starts to build the lines the power [fajin energy] moves through.

One important aspect emphasized by Damo, in addition to an upright, “weightless” spine/upper body, is the principle of “releasing” the chest, which implies rounding, or spaciousness. This is not to be confused with slumping over in a hunched posture, which, as I described earlier, will have the opposite effect from what we are trying to achieve; the building of stress and activation of flight-or-flight mode. Releasing the chest and hanging the muscles is achieved by focusing on and relaxing the suprasternal notch – the visible depression on the neck between the clavicles and directly above the sternum.

In TCM, this point is Conception Vessel or CV 22 (Tian Tu), and corresponds with the throat chakra in the Hindu tradition of tantra. It also acts as a control point for the chest in alchemy, and contains all of the tension built up there. If it helps, you can press this point with your finger to release any stress in the muscles there. Follow this by next moving your focus down to the sternum, and release any tension or stress being held by the muscles contained behind the bone. Eventually, the ribcage and diaphragm will release the tension there, and will reorient themselves. This is, in effect, the Qi sinking.

However, this area generally holds habitual tension for many people, and it can be very difficult to relax the region, especially for someone with little to no meditation/mindfulness experience.

One technique that has really helped me to relax the upper body (neck, shoulders and chest) in particular, and sink Qi in general, is the principle of relaxing the face, and “smiling with the eyes”. The later is a term that was also put on my radar by master Chia, and was expounded on by my YouTube sifu, Master Ziji, founder of the Wudang Academy in Vienna, Austria. I have found the concept to benefit me greatly, and is applicable in many different circumstances, while in practice or in other contexts.

The process simply implies relaxing the muscles of the face, and the eyes in particular. I don’t want to come off like I understand the physiological process behind, but when one can achieve this, the whole upper body is allowed to “hang,” – through “floating” the bones (stretching so joints can open) and relaxing the muscles – and the energy (Qi) can flow freely.

This is not to be confused with actual “stretching” in the traditional sense of lengthening and contracting the muscles. This would be considered as developing the tendons (muscle fibers) and has the inverse effect of allowing the joints to open. If they are contracting, they are creating blockages in the sinews. For an example, think of the analogy of a whip in which there is a knot. This will prevent the wave from traveling from one end to the other.

We instead are concerned with stretching (opening) the open spaces between the bones and muscles (known in Yi Jin Jing theory as huang), allowing everything to float.

And while we are only attempting a stretch between the bone and muscle, because it is the connective tissue between the two, the influence and benefit of that stretch can be felt throughout the body.

The benefits will likely take some time to be realized, as there is much habitual stress and tension stored in various areas throughout the body. The highest level of Yijin Jin benefits, bone-marrow washing and mental cleansing, is describes as taking up to five years to realize. But with consistent repetition, this technique will undoubtedly develop the body and improve its condition, and anxiety and stress release is the huge benefit that can be felt even in the early stages of practice.


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