You’ve learned it all, right?
Nope. You ain’t learned nothing yet, kiddo!!
In the Chinese classics, the Small Universe (小周天, or xiao zhou tian) is viewed as the ultimate qigong technique. In other words, all other forms of qigong pale in comparison.
But don’t worry. If you’ve been faithfully practicing the qigong exercises I mentioned above, you’re still on the right track.
In fact, if you haven’t spent a few years practicing those exercises, then you’re not only off track, but you might just hurt yourself with the Small Universe.
Are You Ready?
In some qigong schools, the Small Universe is taught to beginners.
I strongly disagree with this approach.
I think it’s totally irresponsible to teach this technique to someone who is not ready.
The risk of messing up their energy system is high, and the chance of success is low.
In other words, the most likely result is that the student will get hurt, and the least likely result is that the student will get benefit.
If you think that I’m exaggerating, if you think that qigong can’t do any harm — think again.
You’d be shocked at how many people hurt themselves by practicing the Small Universe before they are ready.
It’s more common than you might think. I’ve even seen students end up in the emergency room as a result of practicing it incorrectly!
Here an example of a recent email I received from a stranger:
“I need your help because I’ve made a mess. I am a beginner in qi gong and this morning, intrigued by the practice of the small universe, I tried it. I immediately felt a strong anxiety. I thought I was dying. The point is I feel restless, and I am very anxious, I do not feel well at all. I really need your help.”
I’ve received emails just like this for years. And it’s not just qigong.
I’ve seen the same with the yoga technique called Kundalini. In fact, many people have come to me to heal the damage done by Kundalini Yoga.
Here’s an example:
“I have been practicing kundalini yoga and I have experienced symptoms that were quite bad. I have chest pain and can’t sleep. Can you help?”
As an aside, I’m not a yoga master, but it’s obvious to me that Kundalini, which involves bringing energy from the chakra (energy center) near the anus up to the chakra in the head, is an advanced form of qigong. It’s definitely not for beginners.
Does all this scare you? Good! The Small Universe is powerful. Have some respect for it, just like you would for an 18-Wheeler.
Most students are not ready for the Small Universe simply because they haven’t spent enough time clearing blockages.
1. Mental Blockages
The Small Universe requires a well-trained Zen mind. If your mind is unfocused, if you are still distracted by random thoughts, if you can’t let go of the internal dialogue — then you’re not ready for the Small Universe.
2. Physical Blockages
If your structure is off, if one shoulder is higher than the other, if your pelvis is rotated, if your posture is bad — these things need to be corrected before attempting the Small Universe. And if you haven’t spent years doing qigong, then I can almost guarantee that your structure is off.
3. Emotional Blockages
If you suffer from emotional blockages, like anxiety or depression, then you’ll probably just make them worse by practicing the Small Universe.
Why? Because you’re adding pressure to clogged pipes. You need to clear these blockages before adding any pressure to the pipes.
If you have any kind of chronic pain whatsoever — that’s a blockage. Ideally, you should be 100% pain free before doing the Small Universe.
As a compromise, students can still have some lingering pain, assuming that they’ve already gotten rid of a lot of it already.
Too impatient to wait for that? Too bad. The truth doesn’t change according to your ability to stomach it.
The Small Universe is more than a technique; it’s an energetic breakthrough.
It actually marks a developmental shift in your energy system. Traditionally, it was also the mark of a real master. In fact, past masters would throw a celebration when the finally had the breakthrough.
When you achieve the Small Universe, the energy flow along the Ren and the Du meridians starts to flow freely.
The Ren meridian runs from your chin, down the center line of the torso, all the way to the perineum (between the genitals and the anus).
The Du meridian runs from the perineum, up the center line of the back, around the top of the head, down the nose, and to the upper lip.
When these two meridians connect, you form the Small Universe — down the Ren, and up the Du, in a continuous loop.
Real and False
What we are shooting for is called the “Real Breakthrough” of the Small Universe. Along the way, we may also experience what is known as the “False Breakthrough”.
What’s the difference?
The False Breakthrough happens spontaneously to students who’ve been practicing basic techniques and clearing blockages for a few years. In the False Breakthrough, the two meridians are not continuously filled. Small “bubbles” of energy travel around the loop, giving the sensation of the Small Universe.
In the Real Breakthrough, the energy is continuous, with only minor gaps along the entire loop.
Instead of bubbles traveling around, you have a continuous stream.
A high-level master will have a wide, powerful stream. A younger master (like myself) will have a thinner stream. But the key factor is that both of our streams are continuous.
Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who learned The Small Universe from other teachers (or from books). After just one look at them, you can tell that they haven’t had the Real Breakthrough.
Heck, you can tell they haven’t even had the False Breakthrough.
How can you tell?
It’s obvious when someone has had the Real Breakthrough. The person looks vibrantly healthy, their skin is radiant, their eyes are clear, and there is a palpable sense of both energy and calm coming off of them.
Meanwhile, the people I described above looked pale, weak, and their eyes were dull. When I asked them about their health, they admitted that they were still in pain.
And they’ll remain that way until they stop practicing the Small Universe and switch to more basic techniques.
Benefits of the Breakthrough
If there are so many risks, and if other types of qigong bring so many benefits, then why would anyone want to practice the Small Universe?
It’s a fair question. Here are some reasons:
Eliminating 100 Diseases
It is said that when you complete the Small Universe, you’ll eliminate hundreds of diseases.
Actually, what it means is that you’ll keep “100” (the ancient Chinese way of saying many) diseases at bay. To have the Real Breakthrough, you need to be relatively healthy already. But when you have the breakthrough, you step into a new realm of health. In other words, illnesses just “bounce off” of the Small Universe.
If you practice qigong in general, your energy levels should jump. But with the Small Universe, there’s something new.
In my experience, it seems like the Small Universe produces its own energy, almost like a generator. This happens continuously throughout the day, even when you’re not doing qigong.
Obviously, I can’t verify this one from personal experience (yet!), but I can make some reasonable predictions.
I feel better at 40 than I did at 30. I’ve steadily gotten rid of aches, pains, and illness, and my body is functioning better than ever. I think it’s fair to assume that it will last a long, long time.
How long? Modern scientists say that humans have the capacity to live at least 120 years.
Of course, there are legends of ancient Chinese masters living to be much, much older than that. Is it true? If they had the Small Universe, who knows?
The Small Universe serves as the foundation for several Martial Qigong methods, like Cosmos Palm and Iron Shirt.
Although you can do arts like these without the Small Universe (I did for years), it’s a totally different experience after the breakthrough. It’s incredible to feel the Small Universe flowing while you practice these other methods. It has to be experienced to be understood.
It’s true. Having the Small Universe allows you to get away with more, shall we say, transgressions.
Of course, this shouldn’t be your main motivation, but I’ll admit that it’s a nice perk being able to stay up too late on occasion, or drink a few beers with friends, or eat stuff I shouldn’t eat.
The Small Universe also opens up new realms of spiritual cultivation. All great spiritual masters had the Small Universe, even if they never knew what it was called or specifically practiced the techniques. From years of meditation, the Small Universe opened naturally in them. And once it does, it allows for deeper states of meditation.
In part 2 of this series, I’ll talk about the actual techniques of the Small Universe. With a better understanding of the risks vs. rewards, I going to assume that you won’t start practicing this advanced form of qigong from a web page. And if you do, despite all the warnings — well, I can’t think of a better example of karma in action.
The good news is that if you do mess yourself up, the problem is fixable. You’ll need a good acupuncturist, a good herbalist, or a good qigong master, but the damage is not permanent.
In closing, let me make it clear that if you have a) a good teacher, and b) a good qigong foundation, then practicing the Small Universe is safe, and you shouldn’t be afraid at all.
But if you have neither a good teacher nor a good foundation, do yourself a favor and get those 2 things before messing with the Small Universe. Best regards, 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.