“You don’t find all this history and theory stuff painfully boring?” I asked.
The year was 2012, and I had just finished a lecture on Chinese Medicine theory in my brick-and-mortar studio. In order to make sense of the theory, I also had to teach some history.
“Not even a little bit,” she said.
This surprised me. For years, I had assumed that students weren’t interested in esoteric Eastern theories, and that they DEFINITELY weren’t interested in history.
I mean, I LOVE both the history and theory aspect of qigong, but I’m an outlier. Or am I?
In a previous article about the acupuncture meridians, I asked my readers if they wanted to learn more. The answer was loud and clear: YES!!
Apparently, I’m not an outlier. Thousands of you enjoy learning about history and theory, just like I do.
So my fellow nerds…shall we get this party started?
The Qigong Meridians?!?
In my previous article, I used the term Acupuncture Meridians, but not because it’s correct. I used it so people would have some clue what I’m talking about!
If I used the term “Qigong Meridians”, many people would be confused, especially people who are more familiar with acupuncture.
Actually, both terms — Qigong Meridians and Acupuncture Meridians — are equally INCORRECT.
As I’ve said, the Chinese term is jingluo (經 絡, pronounced jing-low), which translates to “channel”.
But here’s what you need to understand. For thousands of years, the meridian system has been shared by MANY Chinese arts, including:
- qigong (click here if you’re new to qigong)
- acupuncture (the use of sterile needles to stimulate the flow of qi via acu-points)
- acupressure (same as acupuncture, but uses fingers instead of needles)
- moxibustion (the burning of the mugwort herb on acupuncture points to promote healing)
- Chinese herbal medicine (the use of oral herbal decoctions and tonics)
- kung fu (Chinese martial arts, including tai chi)
- shiliao (Chinese food therapy)
- Taoist bedroom arts (Chinese sexual practices that promote longevity)
- tuina (Chinese massage therapy)
- die da (Chinese traumatology for bruises and breaks)
In other words, we could just as easily use the term Qigong Meridians, Acupressure Meridians, or Tai Chi Meridians. All of these terms are equally inaccurate.
Needling and Moxibustion
It gets worse! The term acupuncture meridian is actually a DOUBLE misnomer!
Not only is the term “meridian” a poor translation of jingluo, but the term “acupuncture” is just utter Western nonsense!
The Chinese term for acupuncture is: zhenjiu (針灸, pronounced jun-geo)
Zhen (針) means needle, and jiu (灸) means moxibustion (see above). So zhenjiu literally translates to “needling and moxibustion”.
I know what you’re thinking: Where the hell did the word “acupuncture” come from?
It’s a good question. The term “acu” comes from the latin for “needle”. So they got that part right.
But “puncture”? Where did that come from, and who thought that this was a good idea?
Talk about bad PR! I can’t think of a worse word to scare off confused Westerners.
Unfortunately, the word stuck (pun definitely intended). Not only that, but the term “acupuncture”has become an umbrella that refers to several branches of Chinese Medicine, not just acupuncture.
For example, most acupuncturists today also practice Chinese herbal medicine. Traditionally, these were two separate arts. But today, they often all under the same moniker of “acupuncture”.
The Influence of Chinese Medicine
Here’s a simple way to make sense of all this: It’s all Chinese Medicine!
Qigong, acupuncture, acupressure, herbal medicine, tuina — these are all branches of Chinese Medicine.
By Chinese Medicine, I’m referring to the 5000-year old system that originated in what we now call China.
The traditional term is zhongyi (中醫, pronounced jawng yee) which translates nicely to “Chinese Medicine”. This ancient medicine not only influenced all of the Chinese arts that I listed above, but also influence arts in much of Asia.
Here are some examples of non-Chinese arts that were heavily influenced by Chinese Medicine:
- The Bubishi, an ancient Japanese manual that is often called “The Bible of Karate”
- Korean Acupuncture, which focuses more on the hand (and traditionally uses copper needles, but now uses sterile, single-use needles)
- Japanese Acupuncture, which often uses extremely thin needles, and sometimes uses needles without even breaking the skin (see, no puncturing!)
- Shiatsu, a form of Japanese bodywork that uses the principles of Chinese Medicine
- Reiki, a form of energy medicine that involves transmitting ki (or qi) for healing
In other words, Chinese Medicine is everywhere! Today, it’s not just in Asia, but all over the world.
Jingmai vs. Luomai
Enough history. Now that it’s clear that we’re really talking about Chinese Medicine rather than just qigong or acupuncture, let’s dive into some theory.
The meridians are divided into 2 main categories: the jingmai (經脈, pronounced jing-my) and the luomai (絡脈, pronounced low-my).
The jingmai consist of:
- The 12 Primary Meridians
- The 8 Extraordinary Vessels
- The 12 Divergent Meridians
The luomai consist of:
- The 15 Connecting Collaterals
- The Muscular Collaterals
- The Superficial Collaterals
In qigong, we’re mainly concerned with the 12 Primary Meridians and the 8 Extraordinary Meridians, which is why I put them in boldface.
The 12 Primary Meridians
According to ancient Chinese Medicine theory, you have 12 Primary Meridians (十二经脉), as follows:
- 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)
You’ll notice that each meridian is associated with an internal organ.
You don’t need to memorize the 12 meridians (unless you’re an acupuncturist, duh), but if you take away once concept from this article, it should be this one:
The meridian is NOT the organ.
It’s tempting to the Western mind to hear “Heart Meridian” and just think of the physical organ that we know of as the heart.
That’s a mistake, and if you think that way, you’ll never understand Chinese medicine.
Yin and Yang Organs
In Chinese Medicine, the organ-meridian association is called Zang-Fu (臟腑, pronounced zahng foo).
In Zang-Fu theory, the organs fall into 2 main categories: yin and yang.
The Yin organs are:
The Yang organs are:
- Small Intestine
- Large Intestine
- Urinary Bladder
(Note: the Sanjiao is an organ not yet recognized by Western Medicine. However, resent research, like this discovery of a “new organ”, is bringing Western Medicine closer and closer to the concept of the Sanjiao.)
If you think of the Zang-Fu simply as organs, like we do in the West, then you’ll get confused.
It’s better to think of each organ as a SYSTEM.
In Western Medicine, we have systems like the Circulatory System, the Endocrine System, the Nervous System, etc.
But in Chinese Medicine, the systems are different. For example, instead of the Circulatory System, we have the Heart Meridian. (This analogy only goes so far, so please don’t get carried away with it. They are not identical systems.)
The Circulatory System involves more than just the physical heart, and the same is true of the Heart Meridian.
Pale And Tan, Yin and Yang
Yin Meridians run down the more yin part of your arm.
That makes perfect sense. But what part of your arm is more yin? Here’s an easy way to figure this out:
- The tanner parts of your body are more yang
- The paler parts of your body are more yin
For example, the palm and the inner forearm are less than than the back of the hand and the back of the forearm.
The same is true of the legs. The inner thighs are paler than the outer thighs.
This will simplify things when trying to understand where the meridians are located (see below).
Where are the 12 Primary Meridians?
If you’re in acupuncture college, then you’ll need to memorize all of the meridians (not to mention the points along them.)
Luckily, this isn’t necessary for most people, and it’s definitely not necessary for qigong students.
Nevertheless, it’s good to have SOME idea about the meridians. Here’s a super simple explanation:
(Note: all of these meridians are bilateral, which means that they are located on both sides of your body.)
- The Lung Meridian runs from your chest, down the inside (yin and pale) part of the arm, and ends at the tip of your thumb.
- The Heart Meridian starts in your chest and runs down the inside (yin and pale) part of the arm to your pinky finger.
- The Pericardium Meridian runs from your chest, down the inside (yin and pale) part of the arm, and ends at the tip of your middle finger.
- The Sanjiao Meridian starts at the tip of your ring finger and runs up the outside (yang and tan) part of the arm, around the shoulder, and ends above the ear.
- The Small Intestine Meridian starts at the the tip of your pinky, runs up the outside (yang and tan) part of the arm, and ends near the entrance to the ear canal.
- The Large Intestine Meridian starts in the tip of the index finger, runs up the outside (yang and tan) part of the arm, and ends next to your nostril.
- The Spleen Meridian starts at your big toe, runs up inside (yin and pale) part of your leg, up the torso, and ends near the front of your shoulder.
- The Kidney Meridian starts at the bottom of the foot, runs up inside (yin and pale) part of your leg, up the belly, and ends near the clavicle.
- The Liver Meridian starts at the tip of your 2nd toe, runs up inside (yin and pale) part of your leg, and ends on the front of the torso.
- The Gallbladder Meridian runs from the outer corner of your eye, down the side of your head, down your body, down the outside (yang and tan) part of your leg, and ends in the 4th toe.
- The Bladder Meridian starts at the inner corner of your eye, runs up the head, all the way down the back, down the outside (yang and tan) part of the leg, and ends in the pinky toe.
- The Stomach Meridian runs from just below your eye, down your torso, down the outer front (yang and tan) part of your leg, and ends in the 2nd toe.
And here’s a helpful image if you want to geek out on the meridians. Click the image to enlarge it.
Whew! And that’s just an overview. Now, do you see why acupuncture college requires 4 years and thousands of hours of training?
The 8 Extraordinary Meridians
You also have what are known as the 8 Extraordinary Vessels (奇經八脈):
- 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 Ren Mai and Du Mai are the two that we’re most interested in.
The Ren Main runs from your chin down to your perineum, and the Du Mai runs from your perineum, up your spine, over the top of your head, to your upper lip.
If you’ve ever wondered why many teachers tell you to lift the tongue to the upper palate while practicing qigong, it’s to connect these 2 meridians. (Here’s an entire article about whether or not you should lift the tongue in qigong.)
When you connect these two meridians and direct lots of qi into them, you get what is sometimes known as the Small Universe, also called the Small Heavenly Circuit or Microcosmic Orbit.
I like the idea of a circuit because that’s what it is. It’s a powerful energetic connection.
This connection is HUGELY important for martial artists. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the reason most people in the 21st century have little internal power (neijin, read more here) compared to past masters is simply because they don’t have the Small Universe.
Let me be clear that many people PRACTICE the Small Universe, often for years or even decades, but they don’t HAVE it.
And the main reason they don’t have it is because they haven’t spent enough time with more fundamental techniques.
I’ve written several articles about the Small Universe, which you can read here:
What are Acupuncture Points?
We can’t talk about meridian theory without also talking about the “points”.
Some people believe that there are over 2000 different points. Modern students of acupuncture typically learn 300-400 points.
In 1992, The World Health Organization (WHO) developed A Proposed Standard International Acupuncture Nomenclature Report, which identifies 361 acupuncture points.
But what are acupuncture points?
As I’m sure you will have guessed by now, the term “acupuncture points” is no bueno. Not only are they used outside of acupuncture, but they aren’t even points!
For example, my qigong students often feel a tennis-ball-sized vortex of energy at laogong (勞宮), which is located in the center of the palm.
In other words, they feel not a tiny point of energy, but a vortex. And this happens in qigong, not acupuncture.
Actually, vortex is a good word because it gives us a better idea of what acupuncture points really are.
In Chinese, the two most common terms are:
- xuewei (穴位)
- shuxue (腧穴)
Those words give us the idea of a cavity or depression where “movement” takes place.
What kind of movement takes place in these depressions?? The movement of qi, of course!
Whew! We covered a ton of ground in just one post! Anyone ready for recess?
Remember, you do NOT need to memorize this information in order to have a healthy, thriving qigong practice.
Here are the things that I hope you take away from this post:
- Chinese medicine has many branches, including acupuncture and qigong
- The 12 Primary Meridians are important (but not worth memorizing)
- Two of the 8 Extraordinary Meridians are important (especially for advanced qigong students)
- The Meridian is a system, not just an organ.
- Acupuncture points are not tiny points, and aren’t just for acupuncture
I hope this post helped you to better understand the meridians and how they relate to your qigong practice, even if it’s just food for thought.
Many of my students enjoy having a better working knowledge of Chinese Medicine theory, and our Facebook group has become a great place to discuss these topics. Why not join us over there! It’s free!
You can also post your questions and comments below.
And as always, if you think that this post will help someone, then please click the share buttons below. Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong (pronounced "chee gung") to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. Today, I'm the director of Flowing Zen, an international organization with students in 48 counties. I've been teaching qigong since 2005, I've served on the board for the National Qigong Association, and I’ve helped thousands of people to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. If you're ready to get started with qigong, there's no better way than my best selling book, which comes with free videos and meditations. The sooner you read my book, the sooner you can start healing! Click here to see my book on Amazon.
Colin Malsingh says
Great post Sifu Anthony
Thank you for the richness of the information – no matter what I think I know about these matters, there’s always more
Hannes Z says
To understand meridians from a western perspective, Anatomy Trains (Myers) is the way to go.
He shows latest fascia tissue research and shows, that fascia tension lines are almost perfectly congruent to meridian lines. Also acupuncture needles were shown to stimulate fascia tissue, giving a clear healing mechanism and an explanation how the stimulation affects distant tissue/organs. Some bits are not explained by fascia tissue, here the lymphatic system comes into play. accupressure points typically relate to either fascia lines or lymph nodes. There is still some more in TCM that is not explained by those systems, but the vast majority of interactions can be explained by fascia and lymphs.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Very interesting. Thanks Hannes. This is the kind of thing I’ve been talking about for years, but I’m always interested to learn more. Is this the book that you recommend? https://amzn.to/2Jii6sp
Hi Sifu. I keep forgetting to thank you for the article on the Small Universe. I had recently had a breakthrough using the Turning Head technique. I felt great, but after a few weeks I had, I suppose, gotten used to this better feeling. After reading about the Small Universe and how you shouldn’t, ahem, EFF with it unless you really are ready and know what you’re doing, I started to feel like maybe I have more awesome breakthroughs ahead! You’re the best, I’m grateful for you and for qigong every day!
peter levine (Ishan das) says
When I was a kid I went university and studied physiology, biochemistry, physiological psychology and biophysics, in a attempt to understand the body-mind-heart complex with the hope of implementing an overall system tune-up. After some 5 years of delving into these areas of research one of my more honest professors simply said to me: “We don’t really know anything……we just sort of make this stuff up.” That’s when I quit. I wasn’t looking for a job. I wanted understanding……how to become a healthy, happy human being.
In other words, yes, I am vitally interested in the history and theoretical presentation of the science behind ancient Chinese medicine, otherwise known as qigong, for the purpose of practical application based on a conceptual framework.
Perhaps you’ll be covering some of this material in your book. I sincerely hope so. My thought is that, if you do, you can include the sale of your book along with course registration, and assign specific reading as the classes unfold, perhaps in conjunction with related class teachings to bring the book knowledge into focus.
Looking at those diagram charts for the first time is somewhat overwhelming; but the point is that this stuff really works, as opposed to so much speculative analytical theory and dangerous drugs pushed by big pharma. In other words, becoming conversant with these concepts in a good investment of our energy. Maybe you can be the jinglow for the flow of information.
I always thought of the acupuncture points as locations on the meridian/channel that are best suited for receiving an injection or boost of energy into the channel that “services” or energizes specific organs. Sort of analogous to the battery post in the car. The battery services the car as a whole in various ways; but the post is the point at which a “jump start” can be applied. In the same way, I have always thought that a real acupuncturist not only stimulated specific points physically, but did so by contributing a jump start of their own energy when inserting the needle. In other words, I have been thinking that to be a real acupuncturist, means more than theoretical understanding, but to be a master of one’s own energy/qi and to be skilled in the ability to channel that qi to another being, weather through martial arts or through healing techniques. Am I getting close?
The specific question that arises when reading this kind of material is: “How can I begin to bridge the gap between this knowledge and my present practice of qigong so that I can enhance and expedite my “skill” of directing chi flow within my hardware/software complex. In other words, how can we bring our theoretical understanding to the point of practical application? Or are we too much in the neophyte category to be considering these issues?
mavis Urwib says
amazing post Anthony, full of great info but easily understood and especially the diagrams. thankyou so much for sharing. vitally interested in hearing more.
Terry H says
Dear Sifu, thanks for a very informative article and one that includes the right way to pronounce Chinese words. I find this really helpful and few qigong teachers do this.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
I’m glad you found it helpful Terry!
Does the qi flow through all these meridians in one giant, connected, sequential circuit? If so, what is that full path, from one meridian to the next?
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Qi is always flowing, just like blood. But there is a sequence where each meridian is dominant for a period of 2 hours. That sequence is:
Large Intestine (5AM-7AM)
Small Intestine (1PM-3PM)
Pang Kok Leng says
Any particular qigong or any qigong?
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Sorry, I’m not sure I understand your question.
Dorrie Emmel says
This article and the comments are great, thanks everyone. I am going to step out here on a limb and say that my TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine] teacher — we study herbs, tuina, nutrition, & ++ , but only reference to qigong, tai chi, etc — says that tuina was likely developed before acupuncture. This seems reasonable to me because humans had fingers & hands before they created needles. I’m wondering if when you use the acupuncture needles you feel people’s energy and use this and your intuition as a diagnostic tool, which you may when doing tuina. ………………….My second comment is that apparently [this from my same teacher] chiropractic comes from tuina. It normally only ‘moves’ bones but does not soften first, which is a key to the body being able to respond better to the bone placements / changes. Apparently the man who began chiropractic in the USA. Her understanding is that Mr Palmer actually went to China [or else learned from Chinese people in the western world] and left out those major portions, narrowing his practice to just moving the bones [this is my nomenclature, i don’t know how to refer to it. Some people call it ‘cracking’ but that sounds a bit harsh – which chiropractic can be].
————– I want to add something else concerning the yin & yang portions of the body. The concept of pale & tan may work for lighter-skinned people, but I have another way of understanding this. My perspective changed when I saw a Chinese diagram of the body. If you visualize a person standing with their arms raised above their head with palms to the front, everything in the front is yin, and what’s in the back is yang.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Hi Dorrie. I think you’re probably right that tuina is older than acupuncture, but I would need more research. However, I do know that qigong is older than acupuncture.
Yes, you can feel the patient’s energy through acupuncture needles, but it’s not a major diagnostic tool. The 4 Pillars of Diagnosis are: Asking, Listening, Looking, and Touching. Examples are Tongue Diagnosis (Looking), Pulse Diagnosis (Touching), and Face Reading (Looking).
I didn’t know that Dr. Palmer went to China, but I think your understanding of chiropractic is a bit dated. Modern methods don’t do a lot of bone cracking. It’s a holistic method that has a lot of similarities to Chinese medicine.
Regarding your idea of the palms up posture for yin and yang — it’s not correct. If you stand with your hands up and your palms forward, the front is not all yin. For example, the Stomach Meridian runs from your eye, down your chest, down the front of your leg, to the toe. That’s a yang meridian.
My example of the pale and tan is better. The areas of the body that get less sun are more yin. The areas that get more sun are more yang. It’s not as simple as front and back.
That was such a helpful post! I learned a lot about meridians. I knew some of the information, but it was so nice to have a comprehensive view!