How to Activate + Develop
Your Soft Tissues, Fluids + Qi Energy
Although internal energy arts practice and the process of embodying ever-deeper layers of nei gong is a lifetime pursuit for the most dedicated practitioners, at each increment of advancement, the associated health benefits increase significantly. Many students will sacrifice content for form, but it is the internals that supercharge qi gong, tai chi and bagua forms—that which makes all the power-generating and health benefits possible.
Nei gong energy arts training starts with physical movements that stretch the body’s soft tissues (muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments) through various systematic and progressive techniques. Stage two training is all about learning how to manipulate the body’s fluids, which, with sustained practice, can eventually allow practitioners access to the energy that powers the body. In the third stage, if you have done your homework in the first two stages, your mind’s intent can be applied to move qi energy at will, where some would say the fun really begins.
Making the Body Conscious
Exercising the body on three distinct levels—nerves/flesh, fluids and qi energy—allows you to release both generalised stress and long-term, bound tension at each layer. The ability to manipulate all three at will and on demand is the equivalent to turning a key to unlock the body’s mechanisms that enable deep relaxation because:
- Energy moves fluids (i.e. blood, lymph, interstitial, synovial and cerebrospinal fluids);
- Energy moves strongest through the nerves and fluids;
- The nerves and fluids operate the body.
Together, the three levels create a positive feedback loop and synergy that can give a person access to ever-deeper levels of their being since fundamental nei gong techniques relax and open the body, thereby enabling you to let go that which has become bound in your system—in body, mind, qi or any combination thereof.
Each stage of development can take years or even decades to sufficiently develop. You cannot skip or only understand one layer on a superficial basis yet advance to the next, more complete level with any degree of success. The skill you achieve with each and every component will set the stage for and be contained within the next. So you either multiply or completely unravel the results you can attain at the deeper, more advanced layer.
Practitioners on a well-balanced diet of content and form will accomplish four important goals:
- Learn choreography or formwork, from simple to complex.
- Develop specific threads of essential nei gong.
- Blend nei gong and formwork at ever-greater depths and in more intricate patterns.
- Increase the potential of experiencing power-generating and health benefits—
right from the start.
In the early stages of nei gong energy arts practice, there are two primary streams that are best developed separately and together to gain conscious control over bodily functions, which are:
- Contacting and manipulating the soft tissues;
- Contacting and developing the pulse (open and close).
Qi Gong Exercises for the Soft Tissues of the Body
There are five distinct layers to consider when working with the soft tissues, where each is a progression from and expands upon the depth achieved in the previous layer.
The five levels for working with the soft tissues are:
- Bending and stretching from the outside in and the inside out;
- Lengthening along the yin and yang surfaces of the body, and wrapping the
soft tissues of the torso;
- Turning or rotating the arms, legs and torso;
- Twisting the soft tissues;
- Spiraling the soft tissues.
Hierarchy for Developing Your Soft Tissues
As with the entirety of nei gong, a training hierarchy dictates the process of learning to manipulate the soft tissues for health and power generation. Within it there are two groups of components or areas of development for moving the soft tissues.
The two groups, with their specific sequence of learning, are:
- Bending and Stretching (Basic); Lengthening/Wrapping (Intermediate)
- Turning/Rotating (Basic); Twisting (Intermediate); Spiraling (Advanced)
You must start with bending-stretching and rotating because these methods:
- Form the foundation for the more advanced work.
- Allow you to gain some control over your soft tissues, which in turn allows you to advance to the next stage.
- Begin the process of making your body conscious.
Gaining conscious control over the soft tissues with your mind’s intent is an introductory method that can evolve into the ability to manipulate and cultivate qi energy. Bending and stretching exercises are among the first steps you must take to literally put your mind inside your body to contact and bring alive your body’s soft tissues. Embodiment of these essential nei gong is part of your foundation—regardless of which internal art(s) you practice.
Simple, Repetitive Qi gong Exercises
First and foremost, you must practise simple repetitive qi gong exercises rather than complex tai chi or bagua forms to have any chance of embodying nei gong. That is, unless you are a genius in mind-body-qi, which is very, very rare. Circle Walking is also good because it adheres to the simple-and-repetitive-movement requirement.
Over the years, I’ve seen how many practitioners like to learn new forms to add to their collection. In actuality it is the neigong threads embedded within more complex qi gong systems, tai chi styles and bagua palm changes that drives and ultimately manifests qi energy development. When I began training with my teacher Bruce, I spent nine years—every possible free waking moment—developing my practice at the fundamental level. For example, I practised Energy Gates Qi Gong daily for three years before attempting the Third Swing, until I stabilised my standing qi gong and Outer Dissolving practice, First and Second Swings. This is what allowed me to advanced my practice and, perhaps more importantly, heal my body from a motorcycle accident that left me with serious injuries.
The wise student takes a slow approach, building their foundation in and understanding of nei gong content not forms per se, integrating each technique before adding the next, more complete piece. Once you’ve developed any given technique to the point where it is literally (not figuratively) in your flesh, then and only then do you apply it to more complex forms, such as some qi gong movements, tai chi and bagua.
Bending + Stretching Exercises
The initiation of soft tissue work starts with bending and stretching through the five bows of the body: arms, legs and torso. A primary emphasis in bend and stretch is learning to adhere to the golden mean and neither bending nor stretching more than two-thirds of your capacity. Otherwise, blood and qi flow will be restricted or even temporarily shut down.
For example, the ideal would be to bend the arms to two-thirds and leave a one-third reserve, or stretch to two-thirds and leave a one-third bend in the arms. This comfortable range of motion also keeps the body connected and relaxed, whereas either bending or stretching too far will break the connection between the limbs and body (spine and torso), and spike your nervous system. The concept is simple, but honing your technique can be challenging in the beginning, especially since, for example, the legs may move more than the arms or vice versa.
Within the proper parameters (unique to each individual), bending and stretching allows you to delve inside your body, release stuck tissues and connect your limbs to your spine, making integrated, whole-body motion possible. In time and with practice, you can loosen and release residual tension inside your body along with the pain and suffering that often accompanies it. Bending and stretching provides an exit pathway to release and let go of that which binds and restricts the body—an absolute prerequisite for practising deeper and more powerful twisting methods (otherwise you could cause yourself serious harm).
Circling Hands Qi Gong and tai chi’s beginning form (first move) are excellent for embodying the principle of bend and stretch. They are also great exercises for beginners to learn since they will help wake up the soft tissues and prepare the body for more advanced lengthening techniques, which require far more control only gained by a much greater degree of communication between the mind and body.
Lengthening + Wrapping Exercises
Lengthening and wrapping are all about gaining control over the fascia. This level of the work requires fine-motor control over the soft tissue and a very relaxed operation. This is because the more effort you put into the act of lengthening the fascia, the more your nerves will bite and prevent the act from occurring.
In the beginning, you rely on bend-and-stretch techniques to wake up, engage and stretch the fascia. Then, with correct, consistent and ongoing training, the mind can tune into and start to grab the fascia directly. From there you’re away!
Basically, lengthening and wrapping are twigs of the same branch, but have distinct differences in localisation and the planes of motion on which they work.
- Lengthening takes place in the limbs along the length of the limb (in both directions) and torso where it moves the fascia on the vertical plane; whereas
- Wrapping takes place only in the torso and moves the fascia on the horizontal plane.
Both lengthening and wrapping link to create whole-body motion as a single connected sheet or network of soft tissues. Eventually, as the body wakes up and your technique is refined over years of practice, you cannot only activate the fascia under the skin where the wei chi exists, but also deeper through the muscles groups to the bone (although never into the bone).
Turning + Twisting Exercises
Turning and twisting are closely related, so much so that they are essentially two levels of the same game. In turning, the rotation of a limb is initiated through activation of the outer muscles. Whereas, in twisting, the rotation is initiated through activating deeper layers of muscle. In turning the muscles and bones move equally, whereas in twisting the muscles move further than the bones.
Turning must be practised for a reasonable period of time in preparation for twisting because it is gentler on the body and a great method for releasing the nerves. If you twist too early—before the nerves are sufficiently released—you can actually trap tension in your body.
It is quite normal for experienced internal artists to begin their practice with an emphasis on bend and stretch with turning. As the body warms up, becomes better connected and the nerves release, they move on to incorporating lengthening and twisting techniques.
Twisting engages the vascular system more fully and deeper than bending and stretching and turning, but relies upon the bend-stretch and turning preliminaries. So the more you prepare your body with bend-stretch and turning, the more potential benefit you will gain when you upgrade to twisting.
Copious practice of twisting will give you excellent control over your soft tissues, loosening everything off the bones and creating a soft, supple, relaxed and strong body. Twisting alone can help you fine tune your form(s), and engage and amplify the circulation of fluids while deeply massaging your internal organs. Finally, as the soft tissues are twisted progressively more deeply (over months and years), it is possible to release and eliminate ever-deeper layers of blockages and toxins, perhaps lodged in the body for many years or even decades.
Developing real skill in twisting contributes to a strong and healthy body. So get your practice up to this intermediate level and be content to stay there for a long time—until you are well prepared for the advanced material. Complete and even twisting throughout the body that is deeply connected is a preliminary for spiraling the soft tissues, which, again, gets a lot trickier.
Spiralling puts an enormous pressure into the origination and insertion points of the muscles, so strain or tearing is likely. That is unless you have trained properly and adequately, while under the guidance of a very experienced instructor. Advanced spiraling material is rarely taught because too few people have sufficiently developed their bodies with twisting methods to necessitate the teachings…
Pulsing is a naturally occurring phenomenon replicated time and again throughout the universe as an essential aspect of every living organism, including human beings. Pulsing (also known as “opening and closing”) is little more than a synchronised, alternating rhythm of expanding and condensing energy.
In terms of qi gong, tai chi and bagua, the concept of pulsing is simple: You want your entire body and its energy to pulse as one coherent whole throughout your form (set, style or palm change). The theory is relatively easy to understand, but in practice there are many layers to pulsing that require patience and dedication to achieve. Fundamentally, pulsing can become a means by which you work through all the body’s primary systems and subsystems to restore balance and connection in the totality of your being.
If you look at a healthy baby, there are two very obvious currents that run through its soft, supple and vibrant body: spirals and pulsations. Spirals can be directed by soft tissue work while pulsations are initially directed by the opening and closing of the body’s cavities and joints.
However, it does not stop there. Eventually, you can pulse everything in your body, including your internal organs, glands, soft tissues and subtle qi energy anatomy for a multitude of multiplying health benefits, which include melting tension tangled in the mind, body and nervous system.
Pulsing to Contact Your Qi Energy
The joints are typically the easiest place to start for most students since it only entails one focal point—trying to increase and decrease the space between the bones of the joint in an alternating rhythm.
At this level, a tangible sense of the pulse in the joints has many generalised health benefits, including:
- Releases the nerves.
- Fosters a sense of relaxation by expelling surface-level and deeply bound tension.
- Stretches open the ligaments and thereby engages synovial fluid (lubricating fluid between the joints).
- Becomes a means by which you can contact the energy gates at the centre of the joints that govern the energy of your physical body.
- Serves as a gateway for initiating the pulse with your mind’s intent and taking the pulse yet deeper into your body.
As with all nei gong, initially you seek to manipulate the physical body and with regular, dedicated practice, you can eventually gain access to the energy that powers it.
Pulsing is a highly effective, intermediate nei gong technique for going through the physical body to contact your energy via your fluids. Activation of the fluids is the critical link that helps you make the jump to accessing and directing qi energy in your qi gong, tai chi or bagua practice.
In Water method practices, the process of “ice to water, water to gas” is a means for dissolving blocked energy. However, ice to water, water to gas can also serve as a metaphor to access ever-more subtle layers of your being from:
- Solid—your physical bones and flesh; to
- Liquid—bodily fluids (which in the case of pulsing the joints, would be synovial fluid); to
- Gas—whereby you gain access to the chi that powers you as a living organism.
How to Learn to Pulse (Open-Close)
There is really only one way to learn how to pulse: Have a well-trained practitioner put their hands on your body and manipulate it to create a pulse at such a gross level that you can easily recognise it. Then, over time, you seek to replicate that experience in your own body. You could do all sorts of mental gymnastics and visualising, but it will get you no closer to actualising the pulse than thinking about food can provide nourishment and feed your hunger.
Over the last 17 years, I’ve taught the subject of pulsing and, often times, find that even students who have some knowledge and experience with the pulse are stumped for words when I activate a gentle yet clear pulse throughout their body (or in some localised region). The reason is that a mental construct or anything you could imagine at all is no substitute for the real experience. As with all chi practices, pulsing techniques are done at a subtle level with a powerful result.
However, the important point is not the experience itself, but rather that once you have it you have breadcrumbs to follow to tangibly tune into and feel your body’s natural openings and closings, and amplify them yourself. With diligent practice and live training, almost anyone has the ability to gain some faculty in pulsing, where health benefits can once again be magnified.
Pulsing the Joints: The Middle Ground
In the beginning, pulsing the joints is usually easiest in the wrists, hands and fingers. Developing your capacity to pulse these joints provides a contact point from which to grow your understanding and skill level.
Next, progress to the ankles, feet, elbows, knees, shoulders, hips, and eventually all the joints of the body, including: the pelvis, ribcage, spine and plates of the skull. At this level, practitioners can get the entire skeleton to pulse, which creates a fantastic synergy that is quite impossible to perceive or imagine without direct experience.
Whether only opening and closing the joints in the limbs (arms and legs) or the entire skeletal frame, you want to bring the pulse up to its maximum operating range, balance the system and then work on deepening it.
Increasing range of motion in the joints releases tension in the ligaments and begins the process of activating the synovial fluid. With practice, this is the layer at which a very springy, spongy body can be created—one that can more easily absorb and withstand shock.
Pulsing for Beginners: Circling Hands Qi Gong
Once the pulse is open and clear, the next step is to balance it throughout the physical body. This is normally done through Circling Hands, an easy, repetitive motion that allows the mind to focus on content rather than form movements.
Through practice of Circling Hands, the process is simple: compare the pulse in the joint on the left side to the corresponding joint on the right side of your body, and make them equal. This is done by reducing the joint with the larger range to that of the joint with the smaller range (i.e., adhering to the Rule of Thirds and not overstraining the weakest link).
Go through all pairs, e.g. hands, feet, elbows and knees. Next, compare each pair to all other pairs, e.g. hands to feet, elbows to knees, shoulders to hips, and equalise any imbalances.
By reducing your range of motion to the joint with the smaller range, you can:
- Dramatically soften the pulse;
- Release the nervous system;
- Deepen the pulse in the joints;
- Link the pulsing of the joints into one unified lattice, thereby amplifying the positive effects of the pulse.
Once the outer frame is activated as one whole, balanced and integrated, you are on the road to creating a real synergy throughout your entire system. At the level of pulsing the joints, the results can be quite profound, but from the perspective of nei gong your vehicle is only in first gear.
Pulsing is an evolving technique that morphs and changes in application as your body and the ability to directly influence your energy develop. The more dramatic, broad-ranging and long-lasting results reveal themselves after the tuning in period, when you can go deeper than only pulsing the joints and gain some faculty in opening and closing your body’s cavities.
Pulsing the Cavities: The Game Changer
If your approach is methodical and you take the time necessary to achieve a well-balanced pulse in all your body’s joints, you will naturally begin to activate the cavities. This is where the game shifts.
From the perspective of pulsing, the skeletal frame is considered the shell or container. If you want to go internal, however, you must penetrate the shell. That is you must go deeper inside your body to activate and engage the cavities to powerfully increase circulation of fluids and chi throughout the body.
Most of the cavities are located in the torso, which govern and feed the joints. A cavity is basically made up of soft tissue that is engorged with interstitial fluid. There are no bones in a cavity (unlike a joint), so the pulse can go spherical rather than only linear (as is the case with a joint).
In addition to the cavities that are deep within the torso, there are also cavities at the roots of each limb: the armpits for the arms, the kwa for the legs and the throat notch for the neck and head.
Activating the Spherical Pulse
So here we have two interesting coincidences:
- The cavities, being made of only flesh and fluid, act like a strong pump that drives interstitial fluid around the body. As the largest reservoir of fluid in the body, interstitial fluid not only lubricates all the soft tissues, but also facilitates the transfer of all nutrient and waste byproducts between the blood and cells.
- Since there is a major cavity at the root of each limb, when activated it both circulates interstitial fluid and chi down the limb and back, as well as supercharges the pulse in the joints of that limb.
So the cavities pulse, boosting circulation of bodily fluids and qi energy, and thereby further engage the joints—kicking the pulse up a gear. The quality of motion in the body takes on a life of its own, creating an incredibly relaxed, deep and viscous alternating rhythm. At this level of the game, your body begins to mimic the action of a jelly fish or a squid, a spherical pulsing, boneless motion that has no obvious beginning or end. Welcome to internal energy arts practice!
Incorporating Nei Gong in Your Internal Energy Arts Practice
The depth and complexity of the nei gong system is precisely what attracts students to and fascinates them about energy exercises. Each of the 16 nei gong represents cosmic potential for developing the body, mind and qi energy—all capable of producing seemingly mysterious and enigmatic results.
However wacky and incomprehensible some of this material can seem to the casual observer, the nei gong system is firmly rooted in concrete, tangible and progressive training techniques that start with developing the physical body. This is what makes the Water method of Taoism and our system truly extraordinary and safe!
Even introductory nei gong are not learned from a casual understanding though. You must be dedicated, persistent and patient. Over the years, I’ve also found that most students hyper focus on forms and are generally not clear about the best strategies for building their foundation in nei gong. My courses in London, where I’m based, are designed to address this issue by helping students delve into the exercises that will yield the most benefit for their practice time.
The distinct layers that come into play when working your way through the foundational nei gong are so important because you could be downgrading potential power-generating and health benefits that could be yours for the same effort. The ideal learning progression and the benefits associated with each layer will not only save you loads of training hours, but more importantly, allow you access to your core, qi energy—where the releasing and letting go can lead to amazing transformations in body, mind and qi.
Interview on Qigong Radio
Dan invited me to join him to discuss the fundamental levels of early qi energy (nei gong) training, and how it specifically provides the foundation for and links with long-term development in body, mind and chi.
You can listen to or download the interview by visiting Dan’s website–click here!