The Small Universe.
The Microcosmic Orbit.
The Small Circulation.
Believe it or not, all three of these terms are translations of the same Chinese qigong technique, called Xiao Zhou Tian (小周天).
If you want to hear a native speaker, who may or may not also be a robot, pronounce the words in Mandarin, click here to go to Google Translate and then click the speaker icon next to the Chinese characters.
Otherwise, you can listen to me do a B+ job of pronouncing the Chinese words:
Today, we’re going to take a brief look at the history of this technique. I’ll use the translation Small Universe simply because that’s what I’ve used for years. The other translations are also acceptable. Use the one you like best.
I’ve written several blog posts on qigong history, and this will be another in that series. You don’t need to read the previous articles in order to understand this one. In fact, this article might be better to start with. Nevertheless, here are the other articles:
- History of Qigong: The 18 Luohan Hands
- History of Qigong: Sinew Metamorphosis
- History of Qigong: Bone Marrow Cleansing
- History of Qigong: The 5 Categories of Qi Cultivation
- The History of Qigong and Tai Chi: Facts And Myths
I’ve also written 2 articles specifically about the Small Universe:
Now let’s dive in.
What is the Small Universe
According to Wikipedia, the Small Universe involves “breathing exercises in conjunction with meditation and concentration techniques which develop the flow of qi along certain pathways of energy in the human body which may be familiar to those who are studying traditional Chinese medicine, Qigong, tai chi, Neidan and Chinese alchemy. The exercise can be performed usually at first in a sitting position, but it can also be practiced standing as in Zhan zhuang or with movements included as with T’ai chi ch’uan.”
(Note: Neidan translates roughly to Taoist internal alchemy; zhan zhuang is a type of qigong standing meditation; and T’ai chi ch’uan is an old spelling of tai chi.)
Honestly, Wikipedia did a pretty good job there. It’s a bit wordy, but I was pleasantly surprised because Wikipedia can be hit or miss when it comes to qigong. So this is a good start.
Here’s my own quick description of the Small Universe, to complement what’s written above:
- It can be done seated or standing. Both versions have pros and cons.
- It has very little visible movement. An observer would probably think you’re doing breath work or sitting meditation and might not even associate it with qigong.
- It uses focused intention to direct the qi along the Ren and Du meridians, thereby creating an orbit or a circuit. The orbit is as follows:
- 1) from the lower lip, down the centerline of the torso, down to the perineum, and then
- 2) from the perineum, up the centerline of the back, around the top of the head, and down to the upper lip.
- It carries more risks than other types of qigong, but it is still very safe if you practice it within the 5-Phase Routine (which you can learn in my programs and my book), and with a few other simple safety valves that I teach in my methodolgy.
- It is a natural process that is already happening in your body; however, until you practice the technique, the flow of the circuit is not smooth, continuous, or voluminous.
- It’s a very enjoyable form of quiescent qigong that I find to be more accessible than sitting meditation. (If you also have ADHD, then you might have a similar experience.)
In the qigong world, the Small Universe is often viewed as the ultimate qigong technique. In some schools, including mine, it is the most advanced technique taught. In other schools, however, it is taught to beginners. I’m not a fan of this approach, as I wrote about in this article here. I think students should have a solid foundation with the 5-Phase Routine before practicing the Small Universe.
The Small Universe was practiced by both Taoist and Shaolin monks for longevity, spirituality, and also for martial arts. It is one of the oldest qigong techniques still practiced today and its roots trace back thousands of years. These Chinese monks sought to understand the flow of energy within the human body and they believed that by harnessing and directing this energy, they could achieve enlightenment, better health, and extreme longevity.
The name hints at an astronomical orbit, like the orbit of the earth around the sun, but within the human body. The practice involves two main energy channels: the Ren (任脈) and Du (督脈) meridians. These channels form a continuous loop, with 2 small gaps. One gap is between the upper and lower lips, and the other is at the perineum.
Here’s a simple drawing that I did to illustrate the path. And yes, I understand that a 6-year-old could definitely do a better job. I can write good but I’m badly at drawing:
To connect the orbit of the Small Universe, we need to not only direct the energy along the path, but also help it to “jump” across the two gaps. We do this both physically (by lifting the tongue and lifting the pubococcygeus muscle) and also energetically (by internally directing the energy across the gaps).
According to Dr. Yang Jwing Ming, a well-respected scholar and also (briefly) one of my teachers, the Small Universe probably developed around 500AD. Although classical texts from before 500 AD mention techniques similar to the Small Universe, the full technique wasn’t discussed until later. Furthermore, Chinese medical theory was not mature enough to give a theoretical background to the Small Universe.
Over the millennia, this practice has been passed down through various lineages, each adding their unique flavor and techniques. But the core principles have remained consistent. To my knowledge, all variations still involve the basic premise of connecting the Ren and Du meridians in an orbit, and all lineages use the same direction for the flow. Some lineages, however, also reverse the flow in the opposite direction.
After 500 AD, the Small Universe was repeatedly revised and probably peaked during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Many of the martial stories that we have about the Small Universe probably came from this period. You’ll even find talk of the technique in some of the Wuxia novels, which are sort of like short works of fantasy kung fu fiction.
The Small Universe is deeply rooted in ancient Chinese Taoist texts and practices. Here are some notable texts that discuss or allude to the Small Universe and related energy circulation practices:
- c. 300 BC – The Circulating Qi Inscription (Xing Qi Ming, 行氣銘) provides a detailed description of the circulation of qi. The Xing Qi Ming might not describe this exact method in the way contemporary practitioners understand it, but it does emphasize the importance of circulating qi for health and spiritual benefits.
- c. 100 CE – Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经): Translated as the “Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon”, this is the fundamental text of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It speaks about breathing qi and keeping the mind tranquil and promote longevity. It also talks about Qi Circulation Theory, the Theory of 5 Elements, and the Theory of Yin and Yang.
- c. 400 CE – Daozang (道藏): Often referred to as the “Taoist Canon”, the Daozang is a vast collection of Taoist texts. Within its many volumes, there are discussions on meditation, alchemy, and energy practices, including techniques related to the Small Universe.
- c. 1688 CE – Secret of the Golden Flower (太乙金华宗旨): This is a Taoist meditation treatise, and while it doesn’t explicitly detail the Small Universe, it touches on similar concepts of energy circulation and inner alchemy.
- 1971 CE – Taoist Yoga: Alchemy & Immortality: This is a translation of a more recent text, but it provides detailed instructions on Taoist energy practices, including the Small Universe. Many of the modern versions of the Small Universe were probably influenced by this book.
The Martial Tradition
For hundreds of years, the Small Universe was prized by martial artists seeking to increase their punching and kicking power. Unfortunately, because of the secrecy of the Chinese martial tradition, we don’t have many historical sources outside of the oral traditions.
Many martial arts traditions used what is called the Forceful Small Universe. As the name implies, this is a more forceful version of the technique. However, some traditions, including the tai chi tradition, used the Gentle Small Universe.
I’ve learned both versions, but I prefer the Gentle Small Universe. It fits in better with my methodology, it’s safer, and it’s more enjoyable.
There are stories of masters throwing a party when then achieved the breakthrough of the Small Universe. This is because the Small Universe not only increase the cultivation of internal power, but it also protects against deviations caused by improper training.
This idea that the Small Universe is protective runs counter to a lot of the advice that you hear today. To be fair, some of my own past writings may have caused confusion on this matter. Here’s what really matters:
When the Small Universe is done well, it is a qi-circulation technique that is protective in a similar way as Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow. It protects precisely because it circulates.
The tricky part is that doing the Small Universe well does NOT mean doing it perfectly. In fact, perfectionism might just be the #1 enemy when it comes to practicing qigong. In order to get the protective benefits of this technique, we need to be skillful at following the 3 Golden Rules.
The Small Universe Today
Today, the Small Universe is mainly found in qigong schools. A similar version can also be found in some yoga schools, particularly Kundalini Yoga. However, the fundamental difference is that the Small Universe works on an orbit of energy, as opposed to just a rising of energy up the spine like in Kundalini Yoga.
Kundalini Syndrome is a modern phrase used to describe people who experience problems after practicing this type of yoga. A similar but awful-sounding phrase is found in Chinese: Escape Fire Enter Demon (走火入魔, zou huo ru mo). Both of these phrases refer to what is known in the qigong world as a deviation.
I’ve written about qigong deviations before here: Qigong Deviation vs. Qigong Cleansing: What Students Need to Know
My personal feeling is that the Small Universe has gotten a bad rap over the last 50 years. A lot of students are scared to practice it. If we demystify the technique and simply view it for what it is – i.e. an advanced practice – then it should not be scary at all.
Getting in your car carries more inherent risks than practicing qigong, which is very safe when done correctly.
So there you have it—the Small Universe, a technique as ancient as it is powerful. Whether you’re a martial artist looking to amplify your internal force, or someone simply seeking a deeper connection with your own energy, this practice has something for everyone. But remember, it’s not a quick fix or a magic bullet. Like all things worth doing, mastering the Small Universe takes time, dedication, and proper guidance.
In my next article, we’ll dive into the real-world benefits of this incredible technique, demystifying it further. Until then, keep your qi flowing and your heart smiling.
And if you’ve been doing the 5-Phase Routine for a while and feel like you’re ready to learn the Small Universe, then click here to receive updates about my upcoming 12-week course.
- The Root of Chinese Qigong: Secrets of Health, Longevity & Enlightenment by Yang Jwing-Ming. This book provides a comprehensive overview of qigong, its history, and its foundational practices. While it covers a broad range of topics, it delves briefly into breathing techniques as well, many of which are related to the Small Universe.
- Awaken Healing Energy Through The Tao: The Taoist Secret of Circulating Internal Power by Mantak Chia. Mantak Chia is a well-known figure in the world of Taoist practices, and this book specifically discusses the Microcosmic Orbit (Small Universe) technique. Unfortunately, this book has done harm to unsuspecting students. The method taught in this book is not suitable for beginners. Read my article about the risks for more on this topic.
- Taoist Yoga: Alchemy & Immortality by Charles Luk: This book translates and interprets a classic Chinese text on Taoist esoteric yoga, and it provides instructions on various energy practices, potentially including the Small Universe.
- Qigong Meditation: Small Circulation by Yang Jwing-Ming. This book delves deep into the Small Circulation (or Small Universe) meditation technique, discussing its history, significance, and practice. As much as I respect Dr. Yang, I am not sure that this book is helpful to new practitioners because it overcomplicates the theory of the technique. It might be nice to have on your shelf for reference, but I think there are better ways to teach the Small Universe.
- Chinese Medical Qigong by Tianjun Liu.
- My former teacher’s books.