Category Archives: Yoga

Generating Heat

There are two general ways to get warm: either you bring in heat from an outside source or you generate it from inside. (Extra clothing just keeps the inside heat from escaping.)  So you could stand next to a stove or do some exercise. Pretty straight forward and not very interesting.

columbia-wim-hofBut now how do those yogi types manage to sit in the snow and melt a circle around themselves?  No movement, no stove. That sounds totally cool.  What is their secret? Some of you esoterica seekers may know of the Tummo method and I’m not sure how Wim Hoff the Iceman does it. 


Well, while I can’t actually melt ice I have learned to generate some heat and can tell you a few ways it’s done.  Whatever the methods, they can all be described rather simply, but their implementation is quite another matter.

Again there are two main ways, internal and external and I’ll start with the inside one which is easier.

Internal. The process is essentially a Yang one where you make the blood go to the surface of your body and heat up your outer layers.  The maxim goes, “The mind moves the energy, the energy moves the blood.”   So you use your mind to expand the blood flow, inflating the body as it were.  But it’s not enough to say it’s only your mind; there are always some critical physical components.

The main one is called “ding” or “press”.  Start by placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth and pressing lightly, just a few ounces, toward the top of your head.  Put your hand on the top of your head and see if you can detect a pressure change in your scalp caused by your tongue.  Turn it on, turn it off until it’s obvious to you, or better yet, to someone else.  It sounds physically impossible and maybe it is.  The change is not directly physical but energetic which then creates physical movement.

Once you can make that happen the next step is to make another part of your head expand a little and then your whole head (not too much now.)  From there you direct the energy into your body, down your arms, torso and legs.  Choose where you want the energy to go and consciously send it there.

I find it also helps to do the yoga trick of relaxing the soft palate and letting it drift upward toward the top of your head.

3 tantiens radiatingIf you’re one who needs to know why the soft palate and “ding” works my best guess is that you are contacting the main energy center in the brain, the upper tantien, the third eye, which disperses energy in any direction quite naturally (as do the middle and lower ones.)

As a regular winter practice I use this method almost exclusively and it works well enough at least in my climate which doesn’t freeze much.  I do it in the context of San Ti, the main Yang standing posture, which amplifies it considerably.  You can read about that here.  San Ti in turn is the energy work, the nei gung, of Xing I, the most Yang of the internal martial arts.

Coincidentally or not, I’m finding that all that Yang energy keeps the winter microbe invaders at bay.  The colds can’t get in because they’re kept out by all that heat radiation, is my theory.

The lower tantien also has the capacity to radiate pressure and heat and it’s in more convenient proximity to inflating the pelvis and legs.  The only sensible physical component here that I know of is compressing your belly when you inhale and letting it expand as you exhale.  But that discussion’s gonna get real complicated real soon and deserves more screen space.

External. You can also bring in heat in from the outside.  These exercises are more Yin.

1. Situate yourself near a source of heat such as the sun or a fire.  Feel it radiating on your skin.  Then very consciously do what you can to absorb and pull it deeply into your body.  This alone will get you warmer than just being in the presence of the heat. Next try to pull it into your lower tantien, the energy center in your belly, and store it there.

2. Now move away from the heat to where you can no longer feel it but still see it. Again do what you can to pull it in from a distance.  Of course this skill is more difficult to develop.  And again try to pull it in with your lower tantien.  When you feel it stored in your belly allow it to radiate out into the rest of your body.  If some place is colder, such as your feet, send it there.

3. Let’s say you have some success there and want a more challenging task, something on the order of psychic abilities.  The center of the earth as far as we know is molten iron which is very hot.  That can also be tapped into.  Let your mind sink deep down until you feel the heavy density, the stronger pull, and the slightly higher temperature.  Then pull it into your energy center just as you did with the visible source of heat and let it disperse throughout your body.  Obviously the degree of difficulty here is greater but so is the reward; my own teacher says had to learn this in order to survive a winter in the Himalayas.

All these tricks are both as simple and as complex as they sound.  As always Practice is the key but I can offer a few more tips.

—Don’t try to learn this when you’re freezing cold shivering.  The tension in your body will make it much more difficult for your blood vessels to open up.  Start when your temperature is relatively comfortable.  Also, read #4 of this yoga post.

—You will need to experiment with the active/passive, yin/yang balance. How much effort v. how much relaxation you only learn through trial and error.  Too much pull or push will reduce your effectiveness.  Yin or Yang, you should not strain yourself in any way.

—About going deep inside the earth, the advice I got here was to approach it like a living being and ask politely of Gaia’s abundance.  Don’t act like your Mother Earth owes you something or you may get nothing at all.

So, as simply as possible,  you develop two skills:
First you learn to radiate heat from your energy centers to your whole body. That’s Yang.
Then you learn to bring it in from outside, even from a very faint source. That’s Yin.
Okay three, Then you mix it up. That’s Yin Yang.

Heart on FireFinally, we’ve mentioned the gathering/dispersing capabilities of the upper and lower tantiens, so what about the middle, the heart center?   It certainly makes perfect sense because your heart pumps your blood.  Indeed it is associated with Fire in Chinese medicine (and the West) and there are practices focusing on just that.  My experience here is limited to other heart practices, (there are only so many hours in a lifetime)  but I welcome any observations any of you may have.

Tao Yoga 2

One could write a dissertation on this subject but here in Part 2 we’ll limit our concerns to just a few more basic parameters that will serve to set the tone for the more extensive exploration you will of course do in your own private practice.

3. Breathing.  I’m not sure exactly why but sooner or later everyone wants to ask about breathing.  To a Taoist breath is one of several vehicles to move energy in your body.  I think they would rather you learn the other more challenging vehicles first and then come to the easier one.  Still, they’ve explored it in as much detail as anyone has, and we can sketch the outlines easily.

In keeping with the primary principle of Relaxing/Dissolving you want your breath to be very soft and quiet.  You want it to help open and expand your body without any force or strain.  In your torso the expansion is obvious and you could spend a lot of time relaxing your abdominal muscles, rib cage and spine.  You’ll be more successful if you continuously scan for tight areas and direct the air pressure there.  

You can take this deeper by directing your breath into your organs and the connective structures that hold them in place.   Your internal parts are like your externals in that they can all develop constrictions that are in need of unraveling.  Clearly this calls for a higher level of awareness and skill but the payoff is higher because your overall health is more a function your organ metabolism than your muscle tone.  The principle is still the same, viz.  pliability and openness make everything vibrant while tension and constriction make everything sluggish. 

Opening up your head, arms and legs is less obvious than your torso because there it’s not the air pressure that does it but the liquid pressures of your blood and synovial fluid.  We’ll get to that later.

The other main Taoist breathing thing is inhaling and exhaling not just air but energy itself.  The idea is to create a feedback loop where you flood your system with energy which then opens up your body which then makes it easier for energy to flow.

There are a few ways to approach this.  One is to just imagine that fresh air and fresh energy are identical and that it all enters your nose and lungs and penetrates your body as you inhale.  On the exhale the path reverses and you expel the stale unusable stuff.  

Next, as you breath air with your lungs imagine breathing energy with your skin. This is a way to discern their different natures by using separate paths.  You can’t willingly pass air through your skin but you can do so with energy.  How are they different on a felt, kinesthetic level?  This is subtle stuff, yes, but with practice humans are capable of perceiving surprisingly fine distinctions. 

Once you have some idea of the feel of energy itself you can bring it in and out your skin independently of your breathing, using only your mind.  Remember the main idea is to make you open and relaxed, so make sure you’re doing that consciously.   If one part of you is especially constricted, say a shoulder, make that your focus.  Ultimately you want to be able to move energy anywhere in your body at will. 

4.  Using Energy to Move Fluid.   Now we’re into it about as deeply as we can get.                        A.  There is a Taoist truism, “The Mind moves the Chi, the Chi moves the Blood.”  There are two general methods for how you pull that off, Yin and Yang.  We’ve already discussed the Yin which is essentially relaxing to the point of opening so that the blood flows naturally.   Besides that very general instruction there is one little trick.   

Can you feel your heart beating?  Good.  Can you feel it beating elsewhere in your body?  Even better.  (If not, try a position that will accentuate it like a forward bend.) This will give you a clear indicator of how well you’re able to open up and let the blood flow.  Try to relax further with every surge.  You could spend all your time in a stretch monitoring only that. 

From here it’s a very short step to Yang. You slightly amplify every surge with a little nudge. You just give the arterial blood flow a small push.  What is doing the push?  It can’t be muscle (unless you can control your heart.)  It’s your mind, your intention that moves the chi that moves the blood.  

Gradually, without strain (that’s important) you can amp it up a fair amount, to the point that your skin gets red and warm.  Your flesh may feel full, wet, saturated.  We sometimes call this Flooding.  It’s the Yang expression of the Water element.  

Pumping large volumes of blood into your tissues is considered excellent for your health, so long as it comes back, of course.  So what you push out you can pull back in.  Just how you activate the return is something like how you drink through a straw.  The vacuum motor does not have an exact location but a common starting point is the energy center in your belly, the lower dantien.  It might make even more sense to start from your heart center, the middle dantien.  And again, it’s your intention that initiates the action, whether it’s inward or outward.

B.  If your head hasn’t exploded yet, there is another fluid whose flow you can influence and that is the thick synovial fluid in your joints.  Your joints expand and contract all the time but it’s such a short distance that most of us are unaware of it, so we’re not talking any significant change in physical stretch.  Rather it’s an energetic opening which can then transfer to other stretchable tissue.  Taoist theory says that the first place your energy gets locked up is the joints so that’s the first place to unlock it.  

You’re using your mind here to feel inside a joint, detect its natural rhythm and amplify its range.  Its rhythm is 4-5 seconds per phase, about the same time as 4-5 heartbeats.  We call this Joint Pulsing.  It was my first Qigong/Chi Gung lesson ever and I’ve spent many a worthwhile hour exploring the permutations of this simple but complex exercise.  Here is another description of Pulsing  

If you put in the time you will eventually discover many mysterious things about Pulsing, for example that your stretches can increase just as much from contraction as from expansion.   

Finally, you can experiment with various ways to combine these four or five techniques, in two and threes, with the goal of eventually doing them all well at the same time.  At this high level of the game it hardly matters if you call it Qigong or Yoga.

Tao Yoga 1

Yoga, which is from India was introduced in the West at least a century ago and has enjoyed a sustained popularity for the past couple decades.  The Chinese developed a similar form of exercise which has gotten the informal name Taoist Yoga but is relatively unknown.  Indian yoga evolved with its contact with the British empire and in the US it has continued to change, taking many forms from a gentle inward Yin for therapeutic purposes to a vigorous external Yang that resembles the aerobics of the 1970s.

Taoist Yoga is more closely associated with the softer Yin but turns its focus even more inward.  It is not a formal designation per se but is a part of Tai Chi and Qigong/Chi Gung.  Essentially it is a certain way of stretching the connective tissues of the body using Qigong principles.  What are these principles?

If you follow the Chinese and Indian traditions back far enough you will find that they both have in common the goal of increasing the movement of energy in the human body.  In my limited experience Qigong introduces this right away while in Yoga it may take several years.

1.  Relaxing, Dissolving.   So what does it mean to stretch energetically?  First and foremost it means that you only stretch as far as you can relax into it.  Then you keep on relaxing at ever deeper levels. This means that your mind is taking the primary role.  If you can’t consciously let go of a constricted or painful area you do not force it in any way.   Usually forcing actually increases the energetic tension and often causes a micro-tearing of the muscle, or worse, a tendon or ligament.  Then you have another problem.

We could deduce then that Taoist yoga always avoids pain.   Pain sets your nerves on edge making it even more difficult to relax. It is considered a sign of imminent danger, however small, and you should back off to where it disappears.  This means that the stretches can take much longer, several minutes or more, as you gradually let go without pain.

Pain avoidance is sort of a gross criterion and you really need a more refined approach to get the most out of it.  Somewhere between no pain and taking out the slack is an area where some finesse is called for.  If we were to use numbers where 100% stretch is just at the point of significant  injury, 80% stretch is where pain arises and 70% is where the slack is taken out, 70-80% is this gray area.  This 10% window may represent less than a pound of pressure variation.  You will need to experiment with just ounces to find the most efficient way to open up your connective tissues.

This mind business can prove a bit tricky because first you must train it to feel inside, to locate, a constricted place in your body, especially one that is hidden from your awareness.  That’s not too hard especially if you can temporarily create pain there.  But then you must actively focus on an inactivity, i.e. letting go.  The concentration is Yang but the effort is Yin.  One of the classic paradoxical phrases is “Strive for non action.”   It’s one of those contradictions that always has another layer.  But each layer has another reward.

2.  Twisting, Unraveling.  Nature rarely follows a straight line but rather courses through curves and spirals. For example, the genetic code at the core of every life form we know takes the shape of a double helix, a sort of twisted ladder.  Your bones are comprised of twists and curves and the soft tissues attached to them are similar.  The same is true for the energy pathways.  The Taoists developed ways to accentuate the natural curvatures to produce both greater strength for martial arts purposes and for our purposes here, greater pliability.  The basic goal is to unravel, unwind, untwist the constrictions.

What you do is very gently twist your muscles around your bones so that they relax and open up in three dimensions.  The quickest way to learn twisting is to pattern it into your nerves manually.  You can start with a leg by sitting  on the edge of a chair and holding one thigh between both hands.  With your hands, gently twist all the soft stuff inward and outward repeatedly.   After about 10 minutes slowly begin to engage your thigh muscles in the twisting and gradually have them do it all.

Next see what the other leg can do; it may have gotten the message.  If not it will probably take less time than the first one. The amount of twist you can get your muscles to do will be far less than what your hands can do but no matter.  It doesn’t take a lot of movement and you should avoid any temptation to overwork the exercise and create more tension.  With time and practice it will smooth out and get easier.

You can go quite deep with this process.  Between skin and bone are several layers that can be unraveled.  We could say the deepest physical one is the ligaments that hold your bones together.  The hip joints are the clearest example. Sit in any lotus type posture (that’s crosslegged for you commoners) and you will feel the hip joints most easily.  Try turning the femur bones in and out, just a degree or so.  (Here I should warn you that this should not be tried with the knee joints locked straight because it’s very easy to damage the ligaments!)

Since almost no one is symmetrical you will no doubt find find differences between in and out and/or left and right.   Just how do you unwind the tight ligaments and restore balance?  Ah, would that it were simple!  There are two general approaches: you could go in the tight direction, which we call Direct, or the loose direction, which we call Indirect.

Indirect is counterintuitive but we osteopathic types do it all the time and with great success.  (You can read more about that here.)  What you do is gently turn in the easy direction up to the first natural barrier (just a few ounces or pounds of pressure) and keep it there. Wait patiently until a release occurs, taking you further in that direction.  Then you turn around and test the tight direction.  With any luck it will have let go a little.  You can repeat this several times and add some variations:

A. Turn the easy way and when you hit the natural stopping place back off slightly and then wait patiently for a release.   B. Turn to the natural endpoint and rather than waiting just let go and return to neutral.  C.  Turn continuously, spending c. 75% of your effort in the easy direction and c. 25% in the tight direction.  You don’t know what will work until you experiment.

The Direct approach which seems natural is often problematic because you’re using tension on tension which makes it difficult for the nerves to release.  But occasionally it’s exactly the right thing to do;  sometimes the bigger wrench does the job.  Here again, you want to play with creative variations.   There are some 200 variations of twisting in classical Tui Na so just by experimenting you will reproduce many of them.

In sum we have just a few basic principles: Relax and Unwind and do it with consciousness, depth and patience.  Is that it all there is to Taoist Yoga?  Perfecting that much would take most of us half a lifetime but no, there is quite a bit more and we’ll get to it in a month or so.

Or, you can also read about the differences between the Chinese and Indian traditions here.