“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 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.