“Should I lift the tip of my tongue to the roof of my mouth?” Gina asked.
“Why would you do that?” I asked.
“Because that’s what I learned from another qigong teacher,” she said.
“Yes, but WHY?” I asked. “Why did she tell you to do it, and why are you doing it now?”
Gina stared at me, blinking.
“I just thought that’s what you’re supposed to do in qigong,” she said.
I see this all the time with students. There’s a ton of confusion about the tongue in qigong. (Hey, that rhymes!)
In this article, I’ll explain why some qigong teachers tell you to lift the tongue.
I’ll also make a strong argument for why you might want to stop.
Asking Questions: A Modern Innovation
When I teach, I not only allow students to ask questions, but encourage them to do so.
Like most modern educators, I know that this is an essential part of good teaching.
But that’s not the traditional way of teaching qigong. Not even close.
Throughout most of the history of qigong and tai chi, students probably asked very few questions.
Let’s imagine that a student is learning qigong in China roughly 200 years ago.
And let’s imagine that the Sifu (or teacher) tells the student to lift the tip of the tongue to touch the roof of her mouth.
“Sifu, why do we lift the tongue like this?” the student asks.
The student would probably receive one of the following answers from her Sifu:
- “Because I said so!”
- Silence, followed by a lightning-fast whack from the Sifu’s walking stick.
To the modern teacher, this probably seems like terrible pedagogy. And it certainly would be today in the West.
But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge masters who taught like this.
Past masters in China wanted to encourage their students to answer their own questions through practice, rather than through intellectualization.
They were also teaching in a totally different setting — one where secrecy was the norm, and the goals of practice were significantly different.
As times changed, so did the way that questions were asked and answered.
A 20th Century Answer
As qigong and tai chi migrated to the West, traditional teachers quickly realized that they couldn’t teach the old way.
So they did what humans do best: they adapted.
For example, let’s imagine a student learning qigong in the US in the 1970s.
And let’s imagine that, just like the example above, the Sifu tells her to lift the tip of the tongue to touch the roof of her mouth.
“Sifu, why do we lift the tongue like this?” the student asks.
Since the Sifu can’t give the student a good whack for an answer, and since “because I said so,” probably wouldn’t cut it either, she opts for a curt answer instead:
“Because it connects the ren mai and du mai,” she responds. Then she walks away, preventing further questions.
A 21st Century Answer
Now let’s imagine a modern, 21st century student learning from a Western teacher.
And let’s imagine that, just like the 2 examples above, the Sifu tells her to lift the tip of the tongue to touch the roof of her mouth.
“Sifu, why do we lift the tongue like this?” the student asks.
This time, the Sifu responds as follows:
“Lifting the tongue to the roof of the mouth connects the Ren Mai (which runs from the chin down the centerline to the perineum) to the Du Mai (which runs from the perineum up the centerline of the back, around the head, and down to the upper lip), which is one of the steps toward opening an energy circuit called the Small Universe, sometimes called the Microcosmic Orbit, or Xiao Zhou Tian in Chinese.”
That’s a pretty thorough answer! But is it helpful?
Meh. Not really.
It’s interesting enough, and it will probably satisfy the Western mind.
But what we really need is a follow-up question.
“Sifu, why am I practicing the Small Universe?”
Now we’re getting somewhere!
Why Practice the Small Universe?
The Small Universe (小周天) is one of the oldest qigong techniques known.
A text dating back to 300 B.C. called The Circulating Qi Inscription (Xing Qi Ming, 行氣銘) describes the technique almost exactly the way it is practiced today.
But what is it, and why would anyone want to practice it?
It’s a powerful qigong method that transforms and “mixes” the energies of the human body in a way that is exceedingly useful for both martial artists and spiritualists.
For martial artists, the Small Universe will give you more power and more stamina.
For spiritualists, the Small Universe will help to refine your energy in a way that will make spiritual experiences more frequent and more intense.
Sounds good, right?
Not so fast.
The Small Universe isn’t just ancient; it’s also advanced.
In addition to asking WHY we should practice the Small Universe, we should also be asking WHEN.
When Should We Learn the Small Universe?
Some schools of qigong teach the Small Universe early, even to relative beginners.
This baffles me. For the life of me, I can’t find a good reason to do this.
Meanwhile, I can find many reasons NOT to do it.
As I said, the Small Universe is an advanced technique.
It requires a combination of many different advanced qigong skills, like directing the qi, consolidating the qi, and purifying the qi. (Click here to read more about the 12 main qigong skills.)
If you practice the techniques of the Small Universe too early in your qigong development, you won’t have the skill to get the benefits from this powerful method.
What’s worse, you might even hurt yourself.
Years ago, I wrote about about the dangers of practicing the Small Universe without proper training.
To this day, I still receive emails from students who attempted the Small Universe, and hurt themselves doing so.
Luckily, the damage is reversible with remedial qigong techniques. But why take such a risk in the first place?
[Edit: simply lifting the tongue doesn’t count as practicing the Small Universe, so it doesn’t carry the same risk. But there are other problems with lifting the tongue, as I explain below.]
Is the Small Universe Necessary?
You can’t master the art of qigong without practicing the Small Universe.
But many students mistakenly think that the Small Universe is necessary for healing.
This is totally untrue.
As I said, the Small Universe is great for martial artists and spiritualists.
But when it comes to healing pain and illness, there are options that are both safer and more efficient than the Small Universe.
In fact, there is an entire category of qigong dedicated to healing pain and illness.
It’s called — big surprise — Medical Qigong!
Choose the Right Type of Qigong
Remember Gina from the beginning of this post?
She assumed that qigong was just qigong, and that you always lift the tongue.
But Qigong is actually a modern, umbrella term for many different types of qi cultivation.
All styles of qigong trace back to China, and all share a the concept of qi, but HOW they go about cultivating that qi is different.
And their goals are different too.
There are 5 different types, or categories, of qigong:
- Medical Qigong
- Vitality (or Longevity) Qigong
- Scholarly (or Intellectual) Qigong
- Martial Qigong
- Spiritual Qigong
Each category also tells you its main goal:
- Medical Qigong aims to heal pain and illness.
- Vitality Qigong aims to keep you healthy and full of vitality for a long time.
- Scholarly Qigong aims to improve memory, concentration, and creativity.
- Martial Qigong aims to improve power and performance in martial arts.
- Spiritual Qigong aims to cultivate the mind and the spirit.
Here’s something that many people don’t understand:
Most of the qigong taught within the tai chi tradition is Martial Qigong!
This isn’t surprising because tai chi is a martial art. (If you didn’t know this, then click here to watch a quick video and learn more.)
Now we can see why so many students are taught to lift the tongue — because they learned within the context of tai chi.
In other words, they learned Martial Qigong.
And the Small Universe is a major part of most types of Martial Qigong.
The 12 Primary Channels
Medical Qigong is a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), making it a cousin of acupuncture.
According to TCM theory, you have 12 Primary Channels:
- Taiyin Lung Channel of the Hand (手太阴肺经)
- Shaoyin Heart Channel of the Hand (手少阴心经)
- Jueyin Pericardium Channel of the Hand (手厥阴心包经)
- Shaoyang Sanjiao Channel of the Hand (手少阳三焦经)
- Taiyang Small Intestine Channel of the Hand (手太阳小肠经)
- Yangming Large Intestine Channel of the Hand (手阳明大肠经)
- Taiyin Spleen Channel of the Foot (足太阴脾经)
- Shaoyin Kidney Channel of the Foot (足少阴肾经)
- Jueyin Liver Channel of the Foot (足厥阴肝经)
- Shaoyang Gallbladder Channel of the Foot (足少阳胆经)
- Taiyang Bladder Channel of the Foot (足太阳膀胱经)
- Yangming Stomach Channel of the Foot (足阳明胃经)
Some of those may be confusing, but I’m sure you noticed that there are some pretty important organs listed in there.
You also have what are known as the 8 Extraordinary Vessels:
- Conception Vessel (Ren Mai, 任脈)
- Governing Vessel (Du Mai, 督脈)
- Penetrating Vessel (Chong Mai, 衝脈)
- Girdle Vessel (Dai Mai, 帶脈)
- Yin Linking vessel (Yin Wei Mai, 陰維脈)
- Yang Linking vessel (Yang Wei Mai,陽維脈)
- Yin Heel Vessel (Yin Qiao Mai, 陰蹻脈)
- Yang Heel Vessel (Yang Qiao Mai, 陽蹻脈)
The Small Universe deals with the first two of these vessels — the Ren Mai and Du Mai.
In other words, it ignores all of the 12 Primary Channels, and ignores 6 out of the 8 Extraordinary Vessels.
If you want to heal from pain and illness, then you should choose the right tool for the job.
Medical Qigong, which focuses on the 12 Primary Channels, is a better choice than the Small Universe, which focuses on the Ren and Du Vessels.
What Happens if You Rush to the Small Universe
If you jump to the techniques of the Small Universe too early, you may end up diverting energy away from the 12 Primary Channels in order to feed the Ren and Du Vessels.
This can happen especially if you haven’t gathered enough qi into your system — something that takes time — or if you haven’t cleared enough of the energy blockages in your system.
Even though the vessels and channels are connected, it’s a bad idea to divert energy away from your 12 Primary Channels.
For example, the Heart Channel is considered the Emperor of the entire system.
Starving the Heart Channel of qi by diverting it to the Ren and Du Vessels could potentially wreak havoc on your energy system.
Why take the risk?
Most people come to qigong because they have chronic pain or illness. They want to be healthier, have more energy, and be happier.
We can accomplish all of that without the Small Universe.
Later, once you’re healthier, once you’ve spent time circulating and gathering your qi, then you can start to learn advanced techniques like the Small Universe.
So What Should I Do With My Tongue?!?
Okay, we’ve established that you probably shouldn’t be practicing the Small Universe if you’re a beginner who is working on chronic pain and illness.
But what if you lift the tongue when you’re NOT doing the Small Universe?
If you have tension in your tongue or your jaw — both of which are common for beginners — then lifting the tongue can actually block the flow of qi, not only through the Small Universe, but through all 12 channels.
Does that sound like a good idea? Nope. It’s not.
While it’s not the worst mistake in the world, you’re probably better off keeping the tongue and the jaw relaxed.
Of course, once you start learning and practicing the Small Universe, you’ll need to start lift your tongue. But by then, you’ll be better at releasing tension.
If you’re already learning from a Sifu who asks you to lift the tongue and you feel that you can ask a question without being rude, then go ahead and ask why! Be polite, and give your Sifu the benefit of the doubt, especially if they are from an Eastern culture.
And if you already have the habit of raising the tongue, then make sure there’s no extra tension in the tongue (usually caused by pressing upward too hard), or in the jaw (usually caused by clenching the teeth or holding the jaw rigidly).
In my qigong style, we typically breathe in gently through the nose, and out gently through the mouth. So the exhalation naturally causes you to disconnect the tongue anyway.
If you’re using this breathing method, then gently lifting the tongue during the inhalation is not a problem at all.
What it Feels Like
Let me be clear that I love practicing the Small Universe, and I do it often.
My hope for you is that you’ll one day experience the true power of this technique. To do that, you need the proper training, skill, and sensitivity.
When you’re ready, when you begin to practice the Small Universe — amazing things start to happen.
I wish I could describe the feeling when you lift the tongue to the right spot and connect the circuits of the Ren and Du Mai.
But words fall short. I’m sorry. I can’t describe it.
I hope you’ll keep practicing so that you can experience it for yourself one day. It’s worth the wait.
Lifting the tongue to the roof of the mouth is only necessary when practicing an advanced qigong method called The Small Universe.
If you’re a beginner, then it’s better to work on relaxing the tongue and the jaw in order to relax the entire nervous system.
If you’ve got chronic pain or illness, it’s best to focus on Medical Qigong exercises, like the 18 Luohan Hands.
If you want to learn a wonderful Medical Qigong exercise for free, click here. Mindfully yours, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.