We always hear stories about Kung Fu (功夫) or Taijiquan (太極拳) masters who have developed incredible skills. One of the reasons why they became so good is because they practiced Martial Grand Circulation. Some martial arts practitioners believe that through Martial Grand Circulation, one can energize the muscles to a higher state of efficiency. This will give the practitioner the ability to lead the energy to the areas that require it. Hence, the training can be much more efficient and the practitioner can progress at a faster pace. In addition, it increases the sensitivity of the practitioner so that once he touches his opponent, he can sense his every movement. This is especially useful in Taijiquan Pushing Hands and the Southern White Crane style. In the field of Qigong (氣功) there are many grand circulations that one can refer to. However, this article will focus on Martial Grand Circulation.
The Theory Behind It
To understand the practice of Martial Grand Circulation, one has to first understand the theory. Without the theory, the practitioner will have a much harder time recognizing and correcting his errors. It is like being in a foreign city. Without a map one will easily get lost.
Basic Energy System
The human body has two polarities, one resides in the brain, the other is in the abdomen region. The latter one is called the real lower Dantian (丹田), while the former is known as the upper Dantian. Aside from those, we have another Dantian positioned at the solar plexus area, but we shall not discuss that one here. The lower Dantian is the battery for the whole body. It resides in the abdomen region (see figure below).
The structure of the abdomen allows energy, or Qi (氣), to be stored at a high level, and from there it can supply the whole body. Some years ago, scientists discovered that humans have a second brain which resides in the abdomen. These concepts of the second brain and lower Dantian may be related. The upper Dantian is in the limbic system, located between the ears, in the center of the brain. Some Qigong practitioners believe that this is the residence of the spirit and your true self.
The lower and upper Dantian communicate through the spinal cord (see diagram above). The communication occurs here because the spinal cord is composed of material highly conductive to Qi. This enables the two brains to act as one. Physically, they are two, in action, they are one. If you want to know how you can find those centers, please refer to my article Why Meditation is important in Martial Arts or to the book, Qigong Meditation-Embryonic Breathing, by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.
According to Qigong theory, the human being has eight vessels. Vessels store energy and release it to the meridians as needed. For Martial Grand Circulation, two vessels are very important. The Conceptional vessel down the front of the body and the Governing vessel up the back. Together, they form one unit as Yin (陰) and Yang (陽), respectfully. Throughout the day, 24 hours per cycle, energy circulates through those two vessels. According to Dr. Yang, we have seven matching gates in our body (see diagram below).
They are called matching gates because we have one gate or cavity in the front and a corresponding one in the back. A very important matching gate has one cavity on the lower back, Mingmen (命門), which resides between L2 and L3 of the spine. The other cavity is on the front, Yinjiao (陰交), which resides about one and a half inch below the navel. Due to the positioning of the vertebrae, the Mingmen is usually closed when we stand upright. That is why it is called the closed door. By moving the spine in a specific way, we are able to open the door and draw energy into the Governing vessel. The Yinjiao is where we will start the Grand Circulation, leading the energy down the Conceptional vessel. The Dazhui (大椎) and Shenzhu (身柱) are the points where one will lead the energy out to the arms. The path of the Grand Circulation will be described below.
In Chinese Qigong theory, human beings have two kinds of minds. The first is the emotional mind, called Xin (心). The second is the wisdom mind, called Yi (意). The Xin is very unsteady and behaves like a monkey. The Yi can be calm and steady, like a horse or a tree. In order to lead the Qi efficiently, one has to be able to control the emotional mind with the wisdom mind. The mind is like a shepherd of the Qi. Where he goes, the sheep will follow. If the Xin is the shepherd, the path traveled will not be direct because the emotional mind is easily distracted. We experience this when our minds wandering off from concentration. Logically, the Qi will follow the Xin off the path, or spread on its own from where it was abandoned. As you can see, a focused mind is highly important in Martial Grand Circulation. A more focused mind will allow the Qi to follow more quickly and efficiently. Hence, more muscle can be energized and the manifestation of power will be greater.
How to Practice Grand Circulation
Breathing, is naturally related to our energy system. When we sleep or relax deeply, our exhale takes longer than the inhale. At that time, the body's energy condenses into the center line, the spine and the two main energy centers. During the day, normally our energy manifests outwards into the limbs for our daily activities. Hence, one has to learn to breathe correctly before being able to practice Grand Circulation. Without deep relaxed exhalations, the leading of the Qi will be shallow. Once the practitioner is used to the right breathing technique, which occurs when he no longer has to pay attention to it, he is ready to focus the whole mind on the leading of the Qi, and the sense of enemy. Of course, one need not wait that long before beginning Grand Circulation training. Once the breathing is comfortable, shift your focus to Grand Circulation. As time goes by, the breathing will become natural and no attention will be necessary to control it.
Reverse Abdominal Breathing
Reverse abdominal breathing occurs naturally quite often, such as when laughing or crying. Reverse abdominal breathing also helps to energize muscles to a higher level, so it is also applied without thought when power or strength is needed. One example is pushing heavy objects. As the name indicates, it is the reversal of normal abdominal breathing. As you inhale, draw the Huiyin (會陰) and abdomen in. As you exhale, push the Huiyin and abdomen out.
Four Gates Breathing
More closely related to Martial Grand Circulation is the practicing of the Four Gates Breathing. It is the practice of leading of Qi with each breath and it is a traditional martial arts technique. In Four Gates Breathing, first inhale deeply, then exhale while imagining that you are pushing a heavy object with your hands and pressing your heels through the floor. It is important to stay physically relaxed. This causes Qi to flow through your arms and legs, but it won't consume the energy the way tensed muscles do. Continued practice will build up your nerves' sensitivity, and eventually this technique should create an electric, tingling sensation through your limbs. It is possible to accomplish this without breathing, but using breathing to lead Qi makes this process much easier.
Basic Spine Exercises to Practice Martial Arts Grand Circulation
In order to practice Martial Grand Circulation, you have to know how to move the spine. Without proper spine movement, you will not be able to open up the Mingmen, which is one of the crucial keys to succeed in this training. To locate the Mingmen, make a fist and place it on your back with the pinky on the pelvis bone. The Mingmen is where the thumb touches the spine. If you are familiar with human anatomy, you will find the Mingmen between L2 and L3. Leave the hand there, stay upright, and place both legs shoulder width apart. Move your lower back backwards so that the S form of the spine starts to disappear. The movement is the same as one sighs. This will open up the Mingmen and allow you to lead the Qi out. Continue the movement in a wave like form. Please refer to the DVDs from Dr. Yang: Simple Qigong Exercises for Back Pain Relief, Shaolin White Crane, Hard and Soft Qigong, The Essence of Taiji Qigong. These DVDs will give you the opportunity to see the spine wave. This basic movement is very important and is seen in any internal style which is practicing Martial Grand Circulation.
A Map for the Practitioner
It is clear now, that the mind is very important in leading the Qi. It is also clear that the Qi used for circulation will come from the lower Dantian, as this is the battery of the whole body. But what is the path you lead the energy through? It is the same as driving the car. Without knowing the destination, you will circle around and waste gasoline. In Martial Grand Circulation, the destination is where you need the energy to manifest power. For example, when you are striking, you need to bring the Qi to your arms and hands. But how do we get there from the lower Dantian? Place your mind into your center, and lead the Qi out of the real Dantian, past the Yinjiao cavity, down to the Huyin cavity, then up to the Mingmen. At the same time, open up the Mingmen and lead more Qi out from the real Dantian. Both energy streams will combine and you lead them up to the Shenzhu and Dazhui. From there, you lead it out to the palms and 6 inches further, beyond the physical body. This ensures that the Qi will be lead through the whole arm and it will give your strike more penetrating power. This is the path for the upper half of the body. For the lower half lead the Qi out of the real lower Dantian and push it downwards through the Yongquan (湧泉) cavity into the ground. If the Qi is not needed to energize the leg muscles for strikes, it will give the practitioner a stronger root which is essential to get more power. To coordinate this with the breathing, take a look at the diagram.
You might encounter warmth or chills during practice. However, you should ignore those feelings and look for the tingling feeling. The more sensitive you are to feeling the Qi, the more efficiently you can lead it.
To get a deeper feeling of the Qi, it is recommended to first practice Grand Circulation while seated, with your palms placed on the false Dantian. The hands are on top of each other so that the top palm is covering the other hand. In this position, focus only on opening the Mingmen and leading it up to the Dazhui on the inahle. Lead it out to the palms, on the exhale and take it in to the Dantian as you start a new inhale. In the same inhale lead it out of the Mingmen again. Because the energy is not wasted through extending the energy beyond the body, the Qi will accumulated and give you a stronger feeling for it.
Martial Grand Circulation Other Applications
Martial Grand Circulation can be applied in many areas. One area is the manifestation of a lot of power. The difficulty in training is that you should stay as relaxed as possible. The more you tense up your body, the more Qi will be consumed before it arrives at its destination. One can apply Martial Grand Circulation in wrist conditioning (i.e. swinging staffs and tossing bricks for grip strength.) Another important area where Martial Grand Circulation is very useful is massage. By leading the Qi out of the palm, the practitioner can use the Qi to open up Qi blockages in the patient. It further allows the practitioner to penetrate deeper during the massage, hence it is very useful. The theory behind Martial Grand Circulation is easy, however it is extremely difficult to achieve a profound level in this practice. Without daily exercise it is very hard to achieve.