Seventeen years ago, when I was graduating from the New England School of Acupuncture, I became aware of an emerging theory about the relationship between the physical tissues of the body and the primary conduits of subtle body energy (known as Qi in China and Prana in India). Some of the pioneering practitioners that spoke to this theory included James Oschman, Stephen Birch, Kiiko Matsumoto and Helene Langevin, among others. And in one way or another, they all posited variations of a central theme: The pathways of subtle body energy described in many Asian medical models are embedded within a little-understood tissue of the body called fascia or connective tissue.
Around the time that I graduated from acupuncture school, I was rapidly falling in love with Yin Yoga as the “missing piece” in my yoga and meditation practice. My Yin Yoga teachers – Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley – built upon this very plausible hypothesis that there was a relationship between the energetic channels of the subtle body and the connective tissues of the gross body. Sarah and Paul further postulated that by holding and releasing the gentle postures of Yin Yoga, the Qi and Blood flow of the practitioner would flow better, similar to the energetic/holistic enhancements that are experienced in various forms of bodywork or energy work (Qi Gong). In other words, Yin Yoga was presented as a tool that supported Qi harmonization – the relaxed, free-flow of subtle body energy. This is likely something that any fan or advocate of Yin Yoga will easily attest to because they know for themselves how content they feel after a satisfying Yin Yoga practice. That satisfaction is a dimension of optimized Qi flow.
The functional story that was told back then went something like this: by appropriately bringing the body to a mild edge of stress in a variety of different movement planes, the yoga practitioner could “beneficially stimulate” their connective tissues (the plausible energetic substratum) and optimize their Qi flow. Depending on the teacher, many students were taught to locate the anatomical trajectory of the energetic channel system, and they were educated about the relationship between the channel system and its corresponding energetic organ system. Based on this plausible beneficial relationship, many in the Yin Yoga community accurately describe the salutary benefits of Yin Yoga in language that speaks to how the practice supports the harmonization of one’s Qi flow.
And while this is all on sound theoretical footing – as well as empirically verifiable – one slight inaccuracy that I do hear from time to time is with regards to the direct relationship between a specific posture and a corresponding energetic organ. What seems to happen is that the teacher first draws the correlation between the connective tissue and the energetic channel within it, and then the teacher draws a direct correlation between the stressing of a specific plane of tissue and the benefit to the organ system related to the channel that resides within that plane of tissue. (I’m sorry; that last sentence is a beast.) It’s a bit like a transitive dynamic of influence: If A is connected to B, and B is connected to C, then influencing A will directly influence C. From this view, teachers say things like: “To benefit the Lungs (or insert your favorite organ), you have to stimulate the Lung Channel in a posture that stimulates the connective tissue that houses the Lung Channel.”
As an acupuncturist, I know that things are not this simple. With any organ pattern of disharmony, most treatment strategies will involve stimulating a variety of acupuncture points on a variety of different channels. But while the simple story – the one that suggests there is a positive correlation between the stretch of the body and the potential benefit to the organ system vis a vis a channel – is not necessarily correct from a clinical Chinese Medical perspective, I do think the story is functionally ok. The outcome of doing a regular Yin Yoga practice is often better harmonized Qi; I know this from my own practice, from the experience of my patients, and from the anecdotes of colleagues and students. This isn’t a scientific claim. It’s an empirical claim. And I am primarily interested in guiding people to take part in the benefits that the Yin Yoga practice has to confer. So if someone thinks that Quarter-Dog – a posture which ostensibly stimulates the Lung Channel – is the reason their breathing and energy feel better after Yin Yoga, great. That said, I do think the story about Yin Yoga and its holistic benefits can be expanded and updated from the story above.
This essay series will draw out some of the many hypothetical mechanisms of how the practice of Yin Yoga can be a powerful tool for harmonizing one’s Qi. My hope is that a more comprehensive theoretical map will both 1) empower teachers to speak more confidently about the relationship between Yin Yoga and its holistic benefits for the person vis a vis the lens of Chinese Medicine, and then 2) that this framework will allow students to tune into the power of their subtle energy so that they can better determine how to care for their physical, energetic, emotional, and spiritual health.
At best, this essay will be speculative. But the basis for these speculations will rest upon at least four things: 1) my training and ongoing study of Chinese Medicine and relevant science, 2) 17 years as a clinical acupuncturist coupled with, 3) 20 years of teaching Yin Yoga and listening to the experience of my students, and 4) my own 30 year practice of yoga and meditation. Obviously, my perspective is vulnerable to partiality, and so I welcome counterpoints and counterparts to the holistic story I’ll be trying to tell.
But first let me lay out the scope of the tale to be told: I hope to present an integral theory or holistic model for how a consistent Yin Yoga practice provides an energetic “tonic” to the subtle body’s energy. Yin Yoga, in my opinion, provides a powerful tool by which many people can experience what the Chinese Medical model calls “harmonized Qi.”
In contrast to a reductive model of health which analyzes health in terms of a narrow set of causal explanations, a holistic model of health considers all the interrelated aspects of the individual’s life and how those aspects relate to the person’s pattern of disharmony. In a holistic model, many elements including lifestyle, mental health, diet, exercise, relationship, work, and spirituality all factor into the individual’s unique pattern of harmony or disharmony.
So, an integrally-informed holistic model of health recognizes the seamless connections between all parts of the whole system. A basic premise within holistic health models is that positively influencing any part of a system has some systemically beneficial resonance upon the whole; and the same is true for how a negative influence on a part often confers some systemic disharmony upon the whole.
As a simple example, let’s say you undergo a few weeks of rather extreme and chronic stress at work, and during this stretch, your appetite vanishes, your energy plummets, and you feel chronically tense. I could go on, but here you see how the environmental stress at work negatively influences your Qi flow: your low appetite (Spleen Qi deficiency), your low energy (Spleen Qi deficiency) are likely stemming from your stressed out Liver which is unable to ensure the proper flow of Qi to support the Spleen’s functioning.
The main point here is that the human being — as the Chinese described millenia ago — is a “manifestation” of the world — situated as a synthesis of energy from the earth and air. This is often rendered by the image of the human existing “between Heaven and Earth.” Disturbances to the inner or outer environment reflect within the other. A frustrated and languishing psyche contributes those energies into society, just as a cultural climate of tribalism amplifies the tribalistic potential in the individual.
If we apply this model of holism to the practice of Yin Yoga, we will need to discuss the three primary holistically-related dimensions of the individual: the physical (gross), the energetic/psycho-emotional (subtle) and the level of awareness (causal). In Chinese Medicine this three-part model – physical, energetic, mental – intersects with the three primary functions of the organ networks of Chinese Medicine: supporting tissues, energies and mental capacities. But before exploring these three primary functions of the organ networks, it would be good to review a quick definition of what an “organ network” is from the perspective of Chinese Medicine, and how this differs from a Western conception of what an organ is.
In a certain sense, the primary difference between a Western organ and a Traditional Chinese Medical conception of what an organ is comes down to the scope of the analytic lens being used to define the organ. In Western medicine, the scope is somewhat narrow: the organ is understood in terms of its specific anatomical location and the various biochemical activities associated with that anatomical structure (the liver detoxifies the blood, stores/releases glycogen, and produces bile). The Traditional Chinese Medical sense of an organ is to see the organ as a holistic network of functions, and these functions are distributed through all dimensions of the person, including their physical, energetic, mental-emotional and interpersonal health (the Liver of Chinese Medicine nourishes the Sinews, ensures a relaxed free-flow of Qi, stores and releases the Blood, and governs the capacities of the Heart-Mind that relate to healthy boundaries and compassion).
My hypothesis is that by bringing positive influence to any level of a holistic system confers some net positive benefit to all dimensions of the system. And in Yin Yoga, depending on the intentions that we act upon, we can positively influence – directly or indirectly – many dimensions of an organ’s manifestation.
The upcoming essay series will be an attempt to fill in the details of that hypothesis. In the next essay, I’ll continue by offering a working definition of what Qi and Harmonized Qi entail and explore how the specific stimulation of the joints – the sort of stress that we create on the joints in Yin Yoga – benefits the Qi flow and its various functions. And then going forward, I’ll be looking at how Yin Yoga offers a plausible benefit to each of the organ networks of Chinese Medicine.
This Saturday (June 12), I’ll be offering the first workshop in a series that will run in parallel with this essay series: Circulating and Harmonizing the Qi with Yin Yoga: The Role of the Liver – Principles and Practice. If you’d like to experientially explore these themes and learn how they fit within a larger spiritual paradigm, I encourage you to join me this Saturday. All attendees receive lifetime access to the recording of this workshop in our online library.
For now, I wish you a smooth and harmonious day,