In the 6th Century AD, Bodidharma taught 3 different sets of qigong exercises to the monks at the Shaolin Temple:
Bone Marrow Cleansing
This article will discuss the history, philosophy, and practice of the Classic of Bone Marrow Cleansing. Click on the links above for information about the other two sets.
In romanized Chinese, the Classic of Bone Marrow Cleansing is written Xi Sui Jing (洗髓经), which is pronounced as follows:
- Xi (like the word “she”)
- Sui (like the word “sway” )
- Jing (rhymes with “ring”)
Unlike the other two qigong sets that Bodhidharma taught, there are no written records of the techniques for Bone Marrow Cleansing. Some people think this means that the art has been lost.
What if the reason there are no drawings or descriptions of Bone Marrow Cleansing in the classics is because the art is formless?
We’ve seen this phenomenon before. Many classics mention Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow, but it is never described or pictured. For those who know it, the reason is clear — there’s nothing to draw. And the description is already imbedded in the name!
If we apply the same theory to Bone Marrow Cleansing, then it all makes sense! The art that Bodhidharma taught was more of a skill than a technique. But what was that skill?
The Five Levels
Qigong masters have long known that Qi flows at five different levels:
1. The Skin
When you perform Lifting the Sky, you may feel like there are tiny insects crawling on your skin. This is the qi flowing at the skin level.
2. The Flesh
As the qi goes deeper, it flows along the flesh and the muscles. The Shaolin art called Golden Bridge has this effect, making your arms solid and powerful like iron. Although you may or may not feel the energy in your muscles, your sparring partner certainly will. Years ago, my classmates nicknamed me “Iron Arms” because I practiced a lot of Golden Bridge. They said that my arms felt like iron when we sparred. My qi was probably at the muscle level.
3. The Meridians
Then the qi flows through the 12 Primary and 8 Extraordinary Meridians. These meridians, which are invisible, form a complex energy network through the body. The Small Universe Circulation and Big Universe Circulation bring qi to this level.
4. The Organs
From the meridians, the qi flows into the internal organs. Certain exercises from the 18 Luohan Hands, like Separating Water and Nourishing Kidneys, bring qi to the organs.
5. The Bones and the Marrow
And finally, the qi flows to the deepest level — the bones and marrow (which also includes the nerves, according to Chinese medical theory). The exercise Turning Head has this effect when practiced at an advanced level.
Records show that Bodhidharma also talked about 5 levels of attainment. He told some of his disciples that they had attained the “skin” of his teaching, and others that they had attained the “flesh”. Only to Hei Ke, his best disciple, did Bodhidharma say, “you have attained the marrow.”
Is it a coincidence that Bodhidharma’s five levels of attainment correspond exactly to the five levels of Qi flow? Bodhidharma was a powerful qigong master as well as a Zen master. It makes perfect sense that he was able to perceive the Qi flowing at the five levels levels.
Skills vs. Techniques
To understand Bone Marrow Cleansing, you have to understand the difference between skills and techniques. Lifting the Sky is a technique. But using this technique to send Qi to the skin is a skill. The same technique can be used to generate a spontaneous flow of Qi through the body. Different skills; same technique.
This explains why Bone Marrow Cleansing was thought to be lost — because most people can’t differentiate between skills and techniques. If I tell the average person that I can use Carrying the Moon to induce a spontaneous energy flow, or cleanse my organs, or create an internal shower of cosmic energy, they won’t understand. How can the same technique do 3 different things?
It’s not the technique. In fact, I can do the same things using Lifting the Sky instead. But I prefer to use Carrying the Moon because it facilitates the skill. In other words, certain techniques make the skill more accessible.
Maybe an analogy will help. Kicking a soccer ball in a certain way is a technique. But scoring a goal requires skill. Maybe you have a favorite technique for scoring a goal, but if you are skillful, you can use also use other kicks. You can use also use your favorite kick to pass the ball to a teammate, or even to play another game, like Rugby.
Bone Marrow Cleansing
To direct chi to the different levels, we use selections from the 18 Luohan Hands. Why not use Sinew Metamorphosis? If you are skillful, then you can. In fact, if you are very skillful, you need not use any techniques; you can just go straight to the skill.
But certain exercises from the 18 Luohan Hands are better, especially for students. We’ll use the following techniques:
- The Skin Level – Lifting the Sky
- The Muscle Level – Lifting the Sky
- The Meridian Level – Pushing Mountains
- The Organ Level – Carrying the Moon
- The Bone Marrow Level – Turning Head
Actually, we can use other techniques too. For example, depending on which organ we want to direct the Qi to, we might choose Separating Water, Nourishing Kidneys, or Plucking Stars. Or we can use Carrying the Moon. It depends on our skill level.
How do you direct the qi? Easy. Learn from a great teacher. When you learn from a great teacher, these skills are not just demonstrated, they are transmitted. Even if I described the steps in detail, it wouldn’t do you any good unless you already have the skill. And if you already have the skill, then you don’t need my description.
Also, it’s unwise to start sending qi around the body unless you’ve spend a lot of time with Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow. Actually, one reason my students are able to grasp Bone Marrow Cleansing so easily is because they’ve spent years letting their Qi flow freely. By doing this, they clear a ton of energy blockages. They also learn to go deeper into the Zen mind, which is critical for success with arts like Bone Marrow Cleansing.
Bai hui (百会) is an important energy point located at the top of the head. In Chinese, the word bai (sounds like “bye”) means “hundred”, and hui (rhymes with “way”) means “meetings”. In Chinese classics, they often use the number 100 to signify “many”. So this point is the meeting place of many meridians — specifically the 6 yang meridians. Interestingly, it’s also a convergence of the cranial faults.
Before doing Bone Marrow Cleansing, remember to open bai bui using your Zen mind. It is located at the intersection of a line drawn up from the nose, and a line drawn from ear to ear. Don’t worry about getting the exact spot. If you’ve been practicing regularly for some time, you should be able to feel this point pulsing with energy.
This is another reason students shouldn’t rush to practice Bone Marrow Cleansing. If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I say, “open Bai Hui with your mind,” then you aren’t ready for this art. Go back to basics, like Lifting the Sky and Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow.
Benefits of Bone Marrow Cleansing
Why practice Bone Marrow Cleansing? It’s a good question. Since students get such good results with the basics, why would they need more advanced techniques like this.
Using Bone Marrow Cleansing is a thematic approach to Qigong, as opposed to Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow, which is holistic. In other words, Bone Marrow Cleansing moves the Qi according to certain areas, whereas Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow moves the Qi wherever it needs to go.
Of the two, the holistic approach is much, much more important. This is ironic because most Qigong schools focus on the thematic approach. If you understand Chinese medical theory, then you know that it’s insufficient to simply direct Qi to an area that hurts. The root of the problem may be in a totally different area.
For my students, the thematic approach is a useful compliment to the holistic approach. It helps to “force” the Qi to areas where it is not yet flowing freely. If you’re going to use only one approach, then definitely use the holistic one. But if you have the opportunity to use both, then they compliment each other nicely.
For example, let’s say that you’ve been practicing the 18 Luohan Hands and Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow for 2 years. You’ve gotten great results in many areas, but you still have some lingering health problems. After seeing a master diagnostician like my wife, you find out that the root of the problem is in the Liver Meridian.
In this case, it makes sense to use the 4th Level of Bone Marrow Cleansing to direct Qi to the Liver. But how often? This is a good question.
Practicing Bone Marrow Cleansing
Don’t practice these techniques too often. They are more powerful than you think. You should treat them as if they are an acupuncture session — something that you get 1-3 times per week.
The rest of the time, you should be doing other exercises, like the 18 Luohan Hands, Sinew Metamorphosis, and of course Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow or the Five Animal Play. In other words, keep your practice varied, but also balanced.
Whether or not the art is exactly what Bodhidharma taught doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is useful. And it is. Students practicing this art are able to improve upon already amazing results, making Flowing Zen even more powerful medicine than it already was. It’s another tool in our already well-stocked tool box.
Drop me a comment below if you have something to say. (Really, it’s that easy.) Or if you haven’t already gotten your free ebooks and free lesson, then make sure to grab them 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.