by Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.
In Chinese Medicine, one of the fundamental ways to optimize the health of the body begins through restoring and normalizing the movement of energy within the body.
This article will outline key zones of the body where energy flow can become bound up and why releasing these restricted areas is essential to normalizing body function in order to optimize health.
The Yin & Yang of Movement
As the basis of Chinese Medicine, the concepts of Yin and Yang are depicted as the dark and light divisions of a Tai Ji circle.
Yin and Yang are two parts of the whole. Yin is the solid part relating to form and Yang is the non-solid part relating to function. Together, Yin and Yang create the material world of form and function.
Philosophically, there is no separation of Yin and Yang in the living world as there is always Yang within Yin and Yin within Yang as can be seen in the tiniest atomic particle (Yin) which contains a tremendous amount of energy and power (Yang).
In this view, our body’s structure (the form) is seen as Yin, while the body’s function is Yang.
Qi, often translated as energy, is an aspect of Yang, and relates to function and movement. When there is proper Qi flow in the body, there is a normalization of movement within the body including the normal flow of Yin circulation which includes all the fluid substances.
Internal fluid circulations include such things as the vascular system and the movement of blood throughout the body, the secretion of glandular and organ fluids to support the many aspects of organ function and metabolism, and the distribution of lymphatic fluids to support healthy immune function and proper detoxification.
These Yin fluid circulations occur because of the movement of the organ energies in relation to the Five elements.
Understanding Movement through the Five Element Energetic Vectors
In Chinese philosophy, the universe is a macrocosmic system made of elemental energies described as the Five Elements. Each of the Five Elements relate to a pair of organ systems and the movement of each of these elemental energies support its respective organs' ability to function.
When in balance these elemental energies all move within the body in a concerted manner to create harmonious function between the organ systems. Ensuring that these energies move according to their nature is fundamental to keeping the body and mind healthy.
The following Five Elemental energies support Qi flow throughout the body:
The Wood Element is related to the Liver and the Gallbladder organs. The Wood element energetically supports the ascension of energy, like a tree shooting up into the sky. In this way, the Liver organ supports sending blood into the head for nourishment and healthy function of the brain. The Gallbladder system is important to release the pressure and stagnation out of the brain, in other words, to detoxify the brain.
The Fire Element is related to the Heart. Fire energy spreads upward and outward, similar to how a fire spreads in nature. This Fire energy supports the spreading of circulation throughout the body, especially into the four limbs to bring warmth. If a person has cold hands and feet, this indicates that the Fire energy needs more support. On the other hand, when the Fire energy is too hot, the Heart and Mind will be overstimulated leading to a state of being anxious and mentally "scattered".
The Earth Element governs gathering and consolidating energy into the center of the body. In this way, Earth energy supports the Spleen and Stomach for proper digestion and elimination. Through the consolidation of energy into the center, energy then spirals upward and downward to support the transformation process attributed to these two organs. Specifically, the Spleen ascends energy extrapolated from food into the heart for the final production of blood (according to Chinese Medicine) and ascends fluids into the lungs and into the head so there is proper moisture for all the sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose and mouth) to function optimally. The Stomach on the other hand, descends the energy so the digested food can transport smoothly through the intestines on its way to being eliminated.
The Metal Element governs the Lungs and Large Intestine to descend energy through the body.
Essentially, the downward movement of Lung Qi (energy) supports peristalsis of the Large Intestine for bowel movements, and descends energy through the Bladder for urination. The Lungs also descend energy to support the release of blood during menstruation. The downward movement of energy, in general, is facilitated through deep respiration, hence the benefit of belly breathing for "getting out of our head" and reducing the over-ascension of energy in times of stress.
The Water Element relates to the Kidneys which is about the state of inertia, or stillness. Through the process of being still, we can recuperate our energy so we can then move outwardly into the world. When the Kidney energy is weak, the lumbar region often tightens up and restricts our ability to move. This is an innate response by the body in its effort to consolidate energy back into its core. Lumbar pain and stiffness, if not due to injury, is therefore seen as a symptom of weakness in the Water energy of the body. An injury to the lumbar region will create weakness in the Kidney Water energy as well, especially when it is a chronic condition.
The Four Rings
There are four circumferential regions in the body where excessive muscular tension and pressure develops thus inhibiting movement and the circulation of the Five Element vectors of Qi described above.
All of the organ and glandular systems reside within four cavities of the body divided by these four regions: the head, the thoracic, the abdominal and the pelvic cavities.
An important part of evaluating a person’s physical functionality is through assessing the tightness around the four rings of tension that separate these regions anatomically.
Each of these muscular rings of tension have the following anatomical associations:
- The occipital, temporal-mandibular joint and hyoid bone
- The clavicular region made up of the scalene muscles, sternocleidomastoid muscles and the trapezius muscles
- The diaphragmatic region created by the diaphragm muscle
- The pelvic region created by the muscular tension around the waist associated with the psoas, para-vertebral, quadratus lumborum and abdominal muscles.
When these regions hold abnormal tension, the increased pressure will impede movement in the related external structures as well as the organs that lie within these areas as well. This is how normal body function begins to decline both externally and internally.
It's essential to have freedom of movement in all four rings as chronic tension patterns can stay trapped in the body indefinitely until they are released.
A number of physical therapies as well as Yoga and Qi Gong exercises are especially effective to release these four rings. One of the primary therapies is Acupuncture.
The purpose of Acupuncture is to normalize Qi flow throughout the body both internally and externally. In this process of normalizing Qi flow, function and movement are restored.
As a result, Acupuncture also reduces and can resolve pain patterns, but this effect is often overlooked by the medical establishment.
In fact, a common misunderstanding by Western medical science is that Acupuncture only temporarily numbs pain by blocking pain signals to the brain. In reality, Acupuncture restores function to allow the body to move more freely without pain.
In the process of restoring functionality, the overall health of the body is restored as well.
Abnormal or lack of movement within the body not only decreases function but it also impedes the normal detoxification processes imperative for health and vitality.
Freedom of movement is therefore necessary to restore healthy function throughout the body.
Healthy movement is induced and supported by manual therapies such as Acupuncture, physical therapy and bodywork, and can also be restored through gentle exercises such as Yoga and Qi Gong practices.