Taoist Energy Therapies


The massage profession is in the midst of a growing interest in energy therapy as evidenced by numerous articles on energy healing in the trade publications in recent years. The subject can be defined here most basically as the hands on methods which seek to manipulate and balance the life forces that govern the physical body. Despite this interest I have observed a lack of substantial information both in theory and in practice. The reasons for this are not complicated: Few people know any traditional methods in which the energy arts are found, and even fewer are teaching them. Consequently we in the West are having to re-discover and re-invent the wheel, and we are still in the early stages of this immense undertaking.
I have spent several years in the study and practice of Qi Gong and the related hands on energy work of Qi Gong Tui Na. This material was researched and developed extensively by the Chinese Taoists over a period of many centuries and could be called a Classical body of knowledge under the larger heading of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I would like to see this great field opened up to my colleagues. Here I present the beginning essentials of this profound work which I hope will greatly enhance your appreciation of the human makeup and your healing capabilities.
From the Taoist perspective most injury and disease involve both physical and energetic components, and a faster, more complete healing generally requires both approaches. We can define the energetic very basically as that which makes the physical body alive rather than dead. While the energetic can be divided into multiple sub fields (emotional, mental, psychic, karmic, spiritual, etc.) it is simpler to deal with the field that governs the physical, known as the Etheric or Chi Body. This is the easiest to access, the field in which basic acupuncture, tai chi, and chi gung works.

There are two basic skills in all therapy professions (indeed all repair professions): finding out exactly what is the problem and getting it fixed. In medical terms this is Diagnosis and Treatment. The questions are something like, “How do you know what the problems are, what to do, and how do you know if it’s actually working? In Chi Gung Tui Na the diagnosis/assessment/reading/listening skill is both prerequisite and ongoing to know if you are doing the right thing.

I. Listening, Reading, Feeling, “Diagnosing”
You can think of this as an extension of palpation skills, reaching beyond gross physical contact. The simplest way to learn this is to sit quietly and lightly hold someone’s hand and try to feel beneath the skin for constrictions, tension, temperature differences, strength, weakness, whatever doesn’t feel right, etc. Allow your mind to travel up your partner’s arm without repositioning your hand, feeling in 3 dimensions for whatever you can including basic anatomical features.
When you feel something unusual, ask for confirmation, or check it with physical contact. As a variation you can move the body in subtle, minute ways, changing angles and pressures, and see what else you find. I sometimes compare this to fishing with a pole and line—with experience you can feel exactly what’s going on at the unseen end. Beyond the physical you can learn to feel the energetic as well.
Listening really needs to be done continuously throughout the therapeutic process. Continuous refinement of your perception skills is perhaps your most important asset for determining when to play with what techniques and how to “tweak” them for better results. Generally we are looking for softening of the physical body which will permit the free flow of fluids and energy so that the whole system will find its natural balances.

II. Therapeutic Techniques
Theoretically and practically, the effects of stress, strain, ageing, and injury (i.e. the secondary injury after the initial assault) are constriction, tension, hardening, and inflexibility, accompanied by a compromised flow of body fluids and energy itself. To restore the natural, balanced energy flow, the body needs to become soft, open, pliable, and relaxed. The reverse is also true: balancing the energy flow will open the body. It should also be noted that addressing initial injuries such as tears, lacerations, bruises, and inflammations, requires closures and constrictions. These methods are even less well known, and the reader is advised to stick to the accepted Western methods of rest, ice, elevation, and maybe compression, rather than risk worsening a condition. (I speak from experience)

   A. Energetic Techniques i.e. those involving little or no physical contact or manipulation.

     1 .Clearing by Dissolving.Again holding someone’s hand, locate a constriction and try to clear it out by using your intention to dissolve, melt, dissipate, evaporate, soften, bring to neutrality, etc. Dissolving is the heart of the Taoist Water methods, and really must be learned on oneself first, with or without manual contact. It is the essential core practice of traditional Chi Gung. Although the mind must be focused and strong, this is not a burning through, a Fire method, which carries its own risks. Water or Yin methods are almost risk free; in fact they are essentially your safety valves. Dissolving can and really should be incorporated into all techniques, in part because any tension or relaxation in your hands will be communicated to your client.

     2. Clearing the Meridian lines from the Etheric Field

 Hold your hand about 4 inches above the skin and trace any of the acupuncture lines their full
length. This 4 inch distance is the approximate outer border of the Etheric Field or Chi Body which directly governs the physical body. If you can locate it by feel, so much the better: try placing your hand on the skin and slowly moving away until you notice a different quality. From here point your fingers at the line, creating some kind of connection with the skin, and move toward the end of the physical body (fingers, toes, or head) pulling out constrictions as you go. Continue beyond the body at least another 4 inches. 20 repetitions is standard.

     3. Fascia Pull

The layer of fascia just beneath the skin is the inner border of the Chi Body. Place your hand anywhere on the skin, say on the trapezius, with pressure that will reach just below it. With a few ounces of pressure pull the fascia in 4 directions, up, down. forward, and back.
Wherever it moves most readily is where you will choose to go, keeping your hands relaxed, the pressure light and constant, not slipping, until some release is felt or until any movement finishes. This normally takes a few minutes and is excellent for opening the first layer of the body for
deeper manipulation. Often this release alone gives significant relief.
Worth mentioning here, while not energetic per se, are the techniques known to the West as Esalen, which are also superb for opening the initial layers because they calm and soothe the nerves. Brushing, tapping, fluttering, etc., with only the pressure comfortable on eyelids, can be done on
any given area for up to 20 minutes, with 5 – 10 being about optimal. I generally give it 5 minutes to begin softening before deciding whether to continue or switch gears.

    4. Hand “Pump”

This technique is perhaps the easiest to learn and the most versatile. The hand is a natural energy pump: As you close or cup the hand energy is drawn into it; as you open and straighten energy is projected out. The flow may come and go through the fingers or palm or both.
Take care not to squeeze or straighten excessively since muscle tension inhibits the energy flow. Instead use your mind, focused and relaxed, to amplify the flow.

    4.a. Pulling:

This can be incorporated into the meridian line action. Keep the hand closing as you run the length of the line and once you pull to the end of the Chi body release or project out. Also try placing your hand anywhere you would like to remove constriction and pull until you feel like you have a handful, then move your hand away and release/project out away from the body. You can also release out the back of the hand, eliminating the need to move it off and on the body. This method can be used with petrissage and the like, e.g. try it while squeezing the back of your neck much like you would pick up a kitten.

    4.b. Projecting

This is very much like Polarity. Place your hands using say 2 fingers each at both ends of a line segment e.g. the top and bottom of the spine, and project back and forth to clear it out, much like clearing out a ditch with a stream of water. Projecting can be directed to various depths of the body including the organs and bone marrow, (and the same can be said for Pulling). A standard solo practice method involves your two hands, projecting and pulling to and from the fingertips and palms.

      5. Clearing the Auric Fields

The various energy fields can have excesses and deficiencies, the same as the body. You can learn to detect and smooth out these imbalances, but the required skill level is much greater at these higher frequencies. The Emotional body generally exists between about 4 and 12 inches out, and the Mental body begins next. All these fields have the capacity to expand out into the cosmos, and they are
duplicated inside the body as well.

B. Energetic/Physical Techniques

Here the energy work is part and parcel of physical contact and manipulation. I will describe, all too briefly, two physical techniques that are the stock in trade of classic Tui Na.

    1. Twisting/Spiraling

In general, this is the turning of the soft tissues around the bone in order to unravel physical tension. There are as many as 200 ways to do it, but I will limit it to just 3, amenable to energetics.

     First take hold of a shoulder or a thigh between your hands using light pressure, about fascia/skin deep. Using a few ounces of pressure turn the musculature in either direction until you reach a natural wall or endpoint and wait there or back off slightly until you feel a relaxation. This is the chi letting go. With a slight linear stretch, a twist becomes a spiral. This works quite well on the shoulder and the hip. Or, hold onto the forearm with one hand near the elbow and the other near the wrist and twist in opposite directions, and wait for the release. You can reach deeper layers by changing the pressure and/or your intention.

     Second, you can take hold of and turn the tissues until they naturally reach a point of wanting to return, then reverse direction until you reach the other natural return point. Turn continuously and smoothly back and forth reversing direction every few seconds in sync with what the body wants to do. After a few minutes of light, easy, non-stop motion you will feel everything begin to let go and relax.
     Third, the fascia pull (above) can be done in 3 D. Take hold of a shoulder, etc., between your hands again pressing only as deep as the fascia layer. Test for ease of movement in each of the 4 directions, this time with the hands moving in opposing ways (one up, the other down, etc.). Also test for ease of rotation, i.e. one hand clockwise, the other counter clockwise. This will affect the fascia all the way through the limb (or even the torso). Thus you can pull in 1, 2, or 3 ways at once: up/down, forward/back, clockwise/counter clockwise. Follow the easiest direction in each case. Once you are set, lightly hold the position as long as a few minutes, until a release occurs and finishes. Feel for when minor readjustments or redirections are called for.

       2) Pulsing

Pulsing is a huge subject since every living thing pulsates in multiple ways all the time. I will focus mainly on the joints, the easiest access point. A familiarity with Cranio Sacral therapy will be very helpful here, although the pressure used will be measured in as much as ounces rather than grams.
Take hold of someone’s wrist joint with one hand holding the hand and the other just above the wrist .  Try tuning into the natural contraction and expansion (lengthwise) that occurs in 5 – 10 second cycles. Then begin accentuating this pulsation with your hands using less than a few ounces of pressure. Look for differences in the in and out phases, and in the various areas of the joint itself. Try to bring them to a state of balance, fullness, and more fluidity.

It is the synovial fluid that is pulsating from the energy within it. There is no (or minimal) muscle tissue inside a joint. It is worthwhile to check the extremes of possible movement in and out, but then confine your pulsing to the middle 40% or so. It will take a lot of practice to know when you doing enough and when you are attempting too much.
Next, without repositioning your hands, try to feel and balance the elbow joint, and then the shoulder. From here you could go many directions, including into the organs, each of which have their own rhythm. Note that the joint rhythms are independent of others, such as the cranio-sacral and individual organs, but you can synchronise with them and manipulate them from the joints.
This becomes an energy technique when you begin to sense the energetic pulse in the center of the joint, which will directly connect to the center of the next joint, and so on. There are main junctions and multiple branchings, forming an immense grid of thousands of lines including the acupuncture lines You can target these pathways by minutely adjusting your physical movements and your intention.
Theoretically, any point can be accessed from any other, but practicality is the key: what really works for what you’re trying to do? I compare this to an advanced game of “Pick Up Sticks” : How do you manipulate one stick on one side of the pile to produce a specific change on the other side? This means both physically and energetically.

III. Practice Issues

 These descriptions provide only a rough framework for the endless permutations and subtleties to be discovered. Even if you are lucky enough to have a natural talent there is no substitute for learning through many hours of practice. A partner can give you feedback and objectivity, and a third person can be doubly objective: can what you’re doing be felt and confirmed in your partner be
someone else? Also, any solo Chi Gung practices that involve dissolving, pulsing, spiraling, clearing meridians, etc., will improve your therapeutic abilities; in fact they are generally considered a prerequisite.

IV. Safety

When dealing with energy there is always the chance that you will pick up something you don’t want. Your best and easiest course of action is to dissolve it away from your body and/or down into the earth (your safety valve). This is done by feeling rather than visualizing.
Think ice to water and water to vapour. There is no end to the learning of dissolving, as it can and should be done on multiple levels. And for the safety of others, if you dissolve what you can of your own “stuff’ ahead of time you will lessen the chances of passing it on to the client.
Your chances of harming someone by energetic means are much smaller than they are by physical means.
Also, when dealing with subtler energies there can be the tendency to get lost somewhere in the cosmos, particularly as you progress toward the higher frequencies. To prevent this, get grounded in the earth by literally sinking your awareness below your feet and into the stability of terra firma. If you have difficulty doing this, almost any physical exercise, especially involving the lower body, will help.

V. Science

Taoists are rigorously scientific, but in a different way than the West.
It is my assessment that Western science verifies its data almost exclusively through the visual sense either directly or through reading instruments. Even instruments that measure sound, pressure, electricity, etc., are read with the eyes. Seeing is believing. There is some, but minimal, verification by palpation. In contrast, Taoism places a great deal of emphasis on verification through the feeling, or kinesthetic sense. If a significant number of people can feel phenomena, especially through their hands, verification is established. The most skilled can discern precisely what’s happening by feel, say in your liver, without the need for an MRI.

More than one machine has been invented that measures the amount of energy emanating from the acupuncture meridians and points, calibrated in microvolts. There are numerous organizations and a few journals devoted to the study of subtle energies. The West is on its way to discovering what has been known in the East, and eventually there will be a convergence of the sciences.

Credits. Most of what I have described here I learned from Bruce K. Frantzis (www.energyarts.com), who’s been persuaded to teach this material every other year or so, generally outside the USA. Neither he nor I have heard of any one else who teaches it in the West and I welcome any leads from readers.