Intro to Ch’an Yoga



“ Know the mind through internal wisdom;

Cultivate the body with external discipline,”…  Bodhidharma


In order to understand the meaning or the purpose of chi-kung, one must first understand the concept of chi.  Chi is a term, which has a very wide use and understanding.  It is used to describe many things in Chinese culture, especially in the arts of science and medicine.  The exact meaning of chi varies from individual to individual based upon the context it is used.  Translations may vary from gas, breath, air, blood, energy, etc. Invariably though, the term in reference to the art chi kung, refers to the “life-force” which is present in all animate and sentient beings.  To say chi is a concept used exclusively by the Chinese would be in error.  Many cultures in the past and present have similar views on this energy.  In Indian it is referred to as “Prana”, in Hebrew “Ruakh”, in Greek “ Pneuma”, in Polynesian  “ Mana”, in Japanese “ Ki’, and in western society it would be best viewed as “ Biomechanical Energy”.  All of these concepts are very close to the principle of chi.


Kung fu, simply meaning, hard work and time in togetherness as a martial endeavor is almost totally dedicated to the development and use of chi.  To understand why this is so, think of chi as the energy which travels through our neuro networks to stimulate the muscles.  In order for any action in the body to occur, the mind must first send an impulse of energy through the nervous system to the muscles.  In turn the muscles carry out the command of the brain as a physical function.  It is common knowledge in the present age that most humans use only a small portion of the capacity of their brain.  Understanding this, if we could develop more mental energy within our body and train our minds to use this energy, then we will enhance our ability to use our mind and the amount of energy directed by it to supply our body.  It has been known for an extensive period of time, in chi kung circles that breathing, the development of chi and the training of the mind are directly interrelated.  It is essential then to train the breathing pattern of the body to be regulated and controlled by the mind, as well as training the individuals mental discipline and awareness at the same time.  Thus the very essence of chi kung (energy work) is to harness, direct, and control this energy (chi) from the patience and discipline of training the mind through breathing exercises.


“Breathing for peace, strength and kindness;

Meditation for the mastery of the mind, for wisdom and

for the understanding which encompasses the circle of life.” O.E.Simon







Chi kung is based on the understanding and application of three ancient Chinese philosophical theories.  These 3 theories are the yin and yang theory, the 5-element theory and the 8-trigram theory. These theories lay the foundation for safe, structured and successful practice.  The yin and yang theory is based on the concept of balance, the interrelation of these bi-polar opposites. The 5-element theory is based on the concept of mutual productivity and destructively, the interrelation of the primal opposing forces of creation.  This is generally represented by the relationships of the five natural elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth).  The 8-trigram theory is based on the concept of continual change, the interrelation of the primal opposing forces of creation and the bi-polar opposites of yin and yang. The 8-trigrams represent the range from extreme yang to extreme yin and are compared to different aspects of nature (heaven, lake, fire, thunder, wind, water, mountain and earth).






The five animal theory more or less encompasses all three of these theories but is primarily derived from the 5-element theory.  The five animals relate to five different aspects of the human being. The practice of all five of these aspects as one will eventually develop a healthy, balanced and skillful individual on the whole, rather than focusing solely on individual aspects that fit into only particular situations in life.  The five animals are the dragon, snake, tiger, leopard and crane. The dragon, snake and tiger represent in chi kung circles the three treasures.  The three treasures being the dragon (shen) spirit or consciousness, the snake (chi) mind or internal energy and the tiger (ching) body or original essence.  It is said that “ a person whose ching is full is physically fit and healthy, one whose chi is plentiful is emotionally stable and full of vitality and one whose shen is abundant is mentally fresh and spiritually mature.” The leopard and the crane represent more physical aspects of motion and form, the leopard dexterity and fluidity and the crane elegance and tranquility.








Chi kung is divided into two categories external and internal which can also be referred too as hard and soft chi kung.  External chi kung aims at maintaining health through exercises applied in both a static and kinetic fashion. These tensing and relaxing exercises focus on training the chi in the limbs and torso through the muscles and tendons.    The main purpose being to increase the chi and energize the body to a greater efficiency.  Internal chi kung aims at longevity by keeping the chi running smoothly through the body.  In keeping the chi flow smooth the organs will function more effectively and the chi can be efficiently directed to the marrow in the bones or to the hair on the skin. Chi kung benefits the individual by strengthening the body, strengthening the mind and focusing the spirit.  All of which prepares the practitioner for the training of wushin, which will be discussed later in this article.




To start the discussion of chi, we must first discuss the natural flow of chi in the body, the Dan Tian, and the aspects of the “Three Partners”.   There are 8 vessels and 12 meridians as well as millions of channels in which the chi flows based on breathing and the 24-hour cycle of the day.  The 8 vessels are where the major chi flow occurs.  Out of the 8 vessels 3 are used predominantly in this form of chi kung.  They are the conception vessel, the governing vessel and the thrusting vessel.   The conception vessel is located on the front of the body along its centerline and is linked with the governing vessel, which runs along the centerline on the back of the torso.  These 2 vessels form the largest vessel in the human body.  This vessel surrounds the centre line of the torso, creating a circuit, which allows the Chi to complete a full circulation.  This circulation is known as the Lesser Heavenly Circle.  The path of circulation in the Lesser Heavenly Circle is: up the Governing Vessel, beginning at the bottom of the torso, moving over the head, and down the Conception Vessel, returning to the bottom of the torso.  The thrusting vessel is located in the middle of the torso along the centre line and draws original chi from the lower Dan Tian through the marrow, up the spine to the upper Dan Tian in order to nourish the activities of the brain.   The 12 meridians connect the vessels.  Chi flow switches from one meridian to the next every 2 hours, again completing a full revolution in 24 hours.  The tiny channels direct the flow of chi from the meridians to the skin or to the marrow in the bones depending on the natural breathing cycle.  During inhalation chi is drawn into the marrow through the bones, during exhalation chi is drawn to the skin.





The human body has 3 energy centers where chi is stored.  They are referred to in Pinyin as “Dan Tian”, which translates as “calm point” or”elixir field”.  The 3 energy centers are the lower, middle and upper Dan Tian.  The lower Dan Tian is situated around 2-3 inches below the navel and is the home of original chi.  Original chi, also known as water chi is chi that has been converted from original essence.   The middle Dan Tian is located at the solar plexus and is the home of post-birth chi.  Post-birth chi, also referred to as fire chi, is chi, which has been derived from the conversion of the essence of food, water and air.   The upper Dan Tian is located on the  forehead and is home of the spirit and the chi that is necessary to supply energy to the brain. These three dan tians are three of the nine singularities that I will discuss later on in this work.




In chi kung chi is viewed as 3 separate aspects, which create a whole.  These aspects are completely interchangeable and have the capacity to become the state of each of the other two.  These 3 aspects are Ching, Chi, and Shen.  They are known as the 3 partners.


Ching is considered the densest aspect of chi and is situated in the lower Dan Tian.  Ching is the original essence, which is considered the base energy of all life and is the source, which the life force is created from.   Chi is the energy derived from the conversion of original essence and from the essence of external substances, such as food, air or water. This concept of chi is divided into two entities, fire and water chi. Fire chi is situated in the middle Dan Tian and water chi in the lower Dan Tian.   Shen is the spirit; it is situated in the upper Dan Tian and is responsible for governing the mind so it can regulate itself, the interaction of the 3 partners and the flow of chi in the body.  Shen is the most ethereal aspect of chi and is most commonly associated with the concept of consciousness.


The roll of shen in governing the mind is best understood when one understands the concept of the mind as viewed in the practice of chi kung. In chi kung the mind is broken into 2 aspects they are Yi and Hsin.  Yi refers to the wisdom mind, which is the state of consciousness produced from mental balance and clarity of thought. Hsin is the emotional mind, which is the state of consciousness produced when the emotions are allowed to govern the process of the mind. It is then important for the shen to govern the wisdom mind in order to control the emotional mind.  The best way to visualize this relation of these two minds with shen is to view the wisdom mind as the control center of the body.  It must control the emotional mind; as well as order the chi to circulate.  The shen is the control center of the wisdom mind and helps to raise the morale of the chi, keeping the circulation efficient.   Shen is also responsible for governing the interaction of the 3 partners and the flow of chi within the body.  This is best understood when we see the rolls of the 3 partners and how they effect life.  When the production of ching in an existing being ceases, the being ceases to exist. This is because there is then no base substance for original chi to be converted from and there is not enough essence in post-birth chi to supply the being independently.  It is also a problem when post-birth chi becomes deficient, since it is derived from the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.  If we are denied its substance there is again not enough essence to convert to chi to supply our existence, even if we have a healthy supply of ching. The shen is then responsible for being aware of the interaction of ching and chi in the body by maintaining mindfulness in the governing of the mind, the state of health of the body and the circulation of chi.


“ A person whose ching is full is physically fit and healthy, one whose chi is plentiful is emotionally stable and full of vitality, and one whose shen is abundant is mentally fresh and spiritually mature.” Wong Kiew Kit


Thus the strategy of chi kung is to balance the water and fire chi in the body so it does not become excessive or deficient which will allow a healthy and efficient flow of chi through the vessels, meridians and channels. This is accomplished by first developing an abundant chi through the cultivation of ching and then converting this essence into original chi. Followed by the combination of fire and water chi in order to maintain chi balance. All the while both phases are regulated by training the shen to govern the mind and to raise the moral of the chi in order to permit a strong flow of chi within the body creating an efficient circulation, which will nourish the body, reducing the process of natural degeneration. So it is important to make sure the ching, chi and shen are abundant by maintaining a proper exercise program, a healthy diet and a regular practice of chi kung. There are four stages followed to accomplish this goal: 1) yi (mind or thought) combines with shen; 2) yi/shen combine chi and jing; 3) yi/shen combine with chi/jing; 4) yi/shen/chi/jing combine with li (muscular strength).  The fourth combination not only refers to energizing the musculature system for increased physical strength but also the skeletal structure, the viscera and all other soft tissue inherent within the body for increased vitality and longevity.





When the chi is drawn to the marrow it causes the body to become yin.  Which has the characteristics of calm, cool, slow, light or condensed.  When the chi is drawn to the skin it causes the body to become yang.  Which has the characteristics of excited, hot, fast, heavy or expanded.  The yin and yang of the body are the results of the flow of chi in the body and are manifested through these characteristics.  Thus the one of the main goals of chi kung is to maintain the harmonious balance between these two forces in the body, mind and spirit of the individual. How yin and yang effect the body is directly related to what the body does when these manifestations are noticed in the mind of the individual.  When the mind is yin it is calm and relaxed, this is referred to as the wisdom mind.  When the mind is yang it is exited and restless, this is referred to as the emotional mind.  The best way to visualize connections between body, mind, spirit, and chi, is to view the wisdom mind as the control center of the body.  It must control the emotional mind; as well as order the chi to circulate.  The spirit is the control center of the wisdom mind and helps to raise the morale of the chi, keeping the circulation efficient.


Now we must understand the causes, which result in the yin or yang of the body.  These causes are referred to as fire and water.  They are the methods of strategy the wisdom mind uses for the withdrawing or expanding of chi.  Water is related to the chi in the kidneys (also referred to as original chi or water chi), it is pure and clean chi and is associated with the inhaling of the breath.  Fire is related to the chi from the heart (which is referred to as fire chi), it is gained from external influences (such as eating, breathing, or environment) and is associated with the exhaling of breath.


To summarize then, in chi kung the wisdom mind controls the entire body and uses the strategies of fire and water to balance the chi in the body so it does not become excessive or deficient.  Which results in the body becoming yin or yang.  This is usually done through breathing where fire is associated with the exhaling cycle and water is associated with the inhaling cycle.  Then if the spirit is raised and combines with the chi, the chi will circulate through the vessels, meridians and channels more efficiently.




To successfully train in chi kung we must first learn to regulate our breathing.  This is done by practicing specific breathing patterns.  As soon as the regulation of breath is achieved we must learn to regulate the body, mind, spirit, and chi.


Regulating the breath uses a specific breathing pattern to massage the internal organs, invigorate the abdominal muscles, increase the efficiency of chi flow from the kidneys to the lower tan tien and increase water chi.


Regulating the body means to learn how to relax.  Relaxation in this case refers to relaxing the body from the outward appearance of posture, to the internal relaxation of the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, organs etc.). This relaxed state allows the blood, oxygen and chi to flow smoothly through the body which enhances vitality.

The regulation of the mind entails regulation of the emotional mind so that the wisdom mind can govern the processes of the body.  If the emotional mind is allowed to take control our thoughts will become excited, erratic and uncontrollable.  This makes our ability to rationalize, think clearly and concentrate very hard because our body becomes to yang.


Regulating the spirit means to combine the spirit with the wisdom mind so they can govern the emotional mind and assist the chi through its regulation allowing the mental and emotional processes to be balanced.

Regulating the chi is the ability to smoothly circulate the chi within the body to nourish the body from the marrow in the bones to the hair on the skin.





“Life and death, day and night;

Water flows and flowers fall.

Only today I know that my nose points downwards.” Hanshan Dequing


The final stage of chi kung is mind training, or stated more accurately training the mind of “no-mind”.  This training focuses on attaining the state of “wu’, which is the pure state of silence and clarity, referred to as enlightenment.  The exertion of effort to achieve this goal is referred to as practice.  Originally there is nothing in the mind, but as the years in ones life accumulate ego develops. Ego as understood in this method of thought refers to a collection of mental events, which create ones perception of existence, and hence the path their life will take.   Ego if left to grow unchecked creates within the mind illusionary perceptions of reality based on passions, deluded thinking; emotional conceptualizations and deep rooted habitual tendencies.  Reality then becomes relative to the individual and these perceptions they harbor will deny them insight to understand the universal laws of truth.  The practice then simply returns the mind to its original pure and devoid state.  This is achieved by balancing whatever state of mind one is in, so as to purify and relinquish deluded thought, self-clinging and traces of habitual tendencies.  Once deluded thinking ceases awareness of the “true mind” and realization of the “true self” ensues.


“Last night I saw two iron oxen fighting with each other next to the river bank.

They both fell in the river.

Since then, I have not heard anything about them.”  Hanshan Dequing


The practice itself consists of two methods meditation and koan training.  Meditation consists of six levels: relaxation, regulation, visualization, circulation, contemplation and tranquility. These levels are then divided into three phases.  The first phase is referred to as “ chi-breathing” it consists of the levels of relaxation and regulation. It concerns itself with the development or the breathing method, which allows the practitioner to develop abundant chi and to relax the body so the chi will flow smoothly.  The second phase is called “ mind following” it includes the levels of visualization and circulation. It concerns itself with the circulation of the chi cultivated in the first phase by directing it through exercises of visualization. The third and final phase of meditation is “ wushin “ training; it consists of the levels of contemplation and tranquility.  It concerns itself with training quiescence of mind; this silence brings clarity of thought and balance.


“No need at all of hills and streams for quiet meditation;

When the mind has been extinguished even, fire is refreshing.” Unknown


The koan is directly translated as a “public record”.  It can range in size from single syllable to multi-syllable stanzas.  It is an account of an awakening experience, which is a profound revelation of truth acquired through practice.  An awakening is an instant insight into reality and is brought about when the “no-mind” state manifests itself through self-experience.  It is thought that the insight revealed through this manifestation is brought about by maintaining a moderate but disciplined regimen of meditation practice and by forbearing the desire to over-intellectualize.  Koan training is then, the composition and contemplation of parable like poems, which guide the practitioner on the path to enlightenment.


“If you want to write such a poem, you must first be capable of such a mind;

If you want to paint such a picture, you must first be capable of grasping such a form.” Unknown


In the training of the mind, whether only one of the methods are practiced or both.  The focus of the mind is always on now.  The past is behind us, the future will be based on how we think, feel and act in the present moment.  To enjoy life and to be at peace, each individual moment of our lives must be experienced as if it were our last.  Then we can learn from our experiences and use this knowledge to help us lead a better life.


“Breathing in I relax my body, breathing out I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment, knowing it is a wonderful moment.” Thich Nhat Hanh




If one truly wishes to train and understand the science of chi kung. .  One can develop quiescence of mind, the illuminating silence that brings forth understanding.  From this understanding comes clarity of thought and mindfulness, which help to maintain equilibrium in ones physical, mental and spiritual beings.  One can also develop a soft strength, but a full strength.  Developed from the training of the mind and breathing, it is of the relaxed and flowing.  Having hollowness yet fullness it has the feeling of the tide, soft and steady but with immense innate force


“Experience is everything, to learn only by reading is equivalent to listening while having ones ears covered.”  Fu Yen

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