A Twisted Universe

Throughout the ages, qigong has mostly been a guy thing.

Its practices were developed by men for men; only a few women, most of them long ago, were able to slip through the cracks of cultural control to become adepts. But now many women are seeking and finding training; at the qigong seminars I attend, there are generally more women than men.

Since our physical bodies are different than men’s, our energetic bodies are doubtless different as well. So should our training and practices be different?

In taiji, the only point of difference I encountered was which hand should be placed against the body first when bringing both hands to dantian if you did a gathering breath following the form. And even then, teachers didn’t agree: Some said left first for women, and some said right first. My long-time Yang-style teacher Martin Mellish said that his teacher, the revered Madame Gao Fu, said she didn’t think it mattered, that you should do whichever felt right to you.

When I began studying Yi Ren Qigong, I learned that there were male and female versions for some of the exercises—although again, it was mostly a matter of hand positions. I always bristled slightly when Dr. Sun (Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun, the man who developed Yi Ren Qigong) would have men and women do things differently. I would be thinking, hey, wait a minute, I don’t want to do the women’s version, I want to do the best version, the most powerful version—and I’ll bet that’s the men’s version. (It probably pays more, too.)

But I would dutifully use the female hand positions; who was I to know if it mattered?

However, recently Dr Sun created a significantly different female version of one of the key exercises of Yi Ren Qigong, a small universe exercise which brings energy up the back and over the top of the head in the Du meridian, and then down the front of the body in the Ren meridian.

This concept of up-the-back-down-the-front circulation of energy, known variously as the small universe or the micro-cosmic orbit or the small circulation, is found throughout qigong, although it’s a concept not without issues.

For one thing, Traditional Chinese Medicine’s understanding of qi circulation, which is also the understanding of acupuncturists practicing in the TCM tradition, is that energy travels up in both meridians. So much for a tidy circular pathway….

In his book “Heavenly Streams: Meridian Theory in Nei Gong,” Damo Mitchell notes the controversy but says that in his personal experience, the primary flow of energy in the Ren meridian is, indeed, down. But at a recent training which I attended in Berkeley, CA—and about which I’ll be writing more later—he said that during the waning period of the moon, as the visible moon shrinks from full moon to new moon, the qi in a woman’s Ren meridian reverses directions to move energy from uterus to chest.

But back to Dr. Sun’s female version of the small universe exercise, which he calls the Parasympathetic Nervous System Empowering Exercise.

The original version brings energy up the front and down the back one time to refresh the pathways, then up the back and down the front three times, two of those three times led by one hand and the third time by both hands.

The female version is the same as the original/male version for the first and last rounds, but the two middle rounds, while looking fairly similar from the outside, bring energy up the front and down the back, for a total of three times up the front and down the back and only one time of up the back and down the front. The emphasis is on bringing energy to the heart and breast area, which Dr. Sun and others say is particularly important for a woman’s energy system.

Dr. Sun offers this female version a bit apologetically, noting that he is not a woman. When a female student in one class said she hated the new version and that her body wouldn’t let her do it, he said that was fine, that we should all do whichever version feels right to us, and that, indeed, men might also benefit from doing the female version.

I am grateful to Dr. Sun for trying to support his female students—but I haven’t been able to bond with the new female version either. I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it—and I do like the original version. I can get the down-the-back part in the new version, but the up-the-front part feels somewhat blank—which of course is odd, since the first “refreshing” round of the four-round exercise has always been up the front, and I was fine with feeling that.

A few months ago, not too long after Dr. Sun introduced his female small universe variation, I read Thomas Cleary’s “Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women,” which said that women should focus more on the chest, on the area between the breasts, and less on the dantian (below the navel) than men.

I was practicing the new version of the small universe exercise and thinking about the book and, frankly, feeling just a bit pissed that nothing was ever simple and that now, as a woman, I had this new wrinkle to deal with.

As I stood there, I thought, well, OK, I do feel my lower dantian turning downward and under, and sometimes that feels connected to the part of the small universe that comes down the front of the abdomen and starts up the lower back. What if I just stick with this awareness and see where the energy wants to go next? A few moments later, I felt quite a large upwelling of something moving through my body into the front of my chest.

Oh, my.

After that it seemed that what I was feeling was from my chest to the back of my head, up over the top, down past the Third Eye, back to what Yi Ren Qigong calls the Shoulder Center (the knobby area beneath the neck), then down my back, forward through the center of my body, and then down the front of the lower abdomen again.

I didn’t really know what it all meant. Had I made it up in response to suggestions planted by reading “Immortal Sisters”? Was it energetically real? Was it a uniquely female or uniquely me version of the small universe circulation of energy? Would I somehow hurt myself doing this twisted version of the exercise, with all its extra loops?

When I asked Dr. Sun, he seemed to think that what I was doing was fine, perhaps even good—and that there might be even more loops that I hadn’t discovered yet.

So I have continued to do my version of the small universe exercise as an add-on. I do the original up-the-back, down-the-front version first, and then I do my twisted version. It may be that I am sending energy from my kidneys to my chest/heart; I don’t know. But that rush of energy to my chest feels very strong and very good, particularly during the round where my left hand is leading.

I’ll just have to trust that my body knows what it needs.

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