Taoist Healing & Chi Nei Tsang

In 1990, after going through enormous stress caused by selling my public relations agency and working for two years under the direction of new owners, I found myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, with a constant pain just below the right side of my rib cage. Though I had had chronic abdominal discomfort for many years, this pain was different. I went to doctors, massage therapists, and Feldenkrais practitioners to find out what was causing it, but to no avail. Finally my Feldenkrais practitioner suggested that I see a Chi Nei Tsang (CNT) practitioner who was sharing his office space. He explained, in somewhat mysterious terms, that CNT was a kind of deep belly massage that could alter my internal structure as well as its underlying energies.

When CNT practitioner and teacher Gilles Marin first put his hands into my belly and began to massage my internal organs and tissues, I had no idea of the incredible journey of discovery that I was beginning. Though Gilles told me that CNT was part of a larger system of healing and spiritual practices called the Healing Tao, founded by Taoist master Mantak Chia, my immediate concern was simply to get rid of the pain. I had my own spiritual practices; what I needed was healing.

Healing . . . a word I had not pondered very deeply. But as Gilles worked on me, I began to understand why the expressions “to heal” and “to make whole” have the same roots. Though the pain disappeared after several weekly sessions and I began to feel more alive, a deeper pain began to emerge – the pain of recognizing that I had gone through so many years of my life without being open to the vast scale of my own physical and emotional energies. I had always prided myself on my self-awareness, but as Gilles continued working on me, I began to sense layers of tension, anger, fear, and grief resonating in my abdomen below the level of my so-called waking consciousness. And this deepening sensation in the very center of my physical being, painful as it was, brought with it an opening not only in my tissues but also in my attitude toward myself, a welcoming of hitherto unconscious fragments of myself into a new sense of discovery and wholeness.

I quickly realized that Chi Nei Tsang provided a direct pathway into myself, and as I learned more about it through its action on me I soon found myself taking classes from Gilles and even beginning to work on my friends. I also found myself taking healing Tao classes in meditation and chi gung. After more than a year of CNT classes and 120 hours of clinical practice, I was tested by Mantak Chia and certified by him to do CNT professionally. Since then I have worked both on my own clients and at a Chinese medicine clinic in San Francisco.

What is Chi Nei Tsang? It is an educational process using various hands-on techniques – such as massage, acupressure, and guided breathing – to help people clear negative or unhealthy energies, as well as various toxins, from their internal organs, tissues, and bones, and to transform and recycle these energies to promote physical, emotional, and spiritual health. CNT also uses meditation techniques involving internal awareness of colors and sounds to aid in the detoxification and transformation process. People using CNT have reported a wide variety of health benefits, including the reduction or elimination of chronic abdominal, back, hip, and shoulder pain; headaches; menstrual cramps; sciatica; fibroids; hiatal hernias; infertility; impotence; prostate problems; and much else. CNT has also been used effectively for stress management and health maintenance. I myself have used it to help counteract the AIDS wasting syndrome in a man who had not eaten for three months and was being fed intravenously. After several weeks of CNT, he started eating again and was able to discontinue intravenous feeding.

Mantak Chia, who has said that he learned Chi Nei Tsang from one of several Taoist masters he studied with in Thailand, and his wife Maneewan brought CNT to America in 1979 as part of their Healing Tao teachings. These teachings have been transmitted in numerous books, including Chi Nei Tsang and Awaken Healing Light of the Tao. Today there are more than 250 active Healing Tao instructors worldwide as well as some 50 certified CNT practitioners. There are also hundreds of body workers and healers who have integrated some CNT techniques into their own approaches.

Though it is possible to use these techniques without understanding their roots in Taoist cosmology, it is helpful to have some familiarity with this cosmology, especially the laws of yin and yang and the Five Elements, in order to make full use of CNT’s great power and flexibility. The Taoists believe that these laws regulate everything that happens – the movements of the stars and planets, the cycle of the seasons, the conception of new life, and the flow of energies in the human organism.

In Taoist cosmology, the source of all being is nonbeing, wu chi, the ultimate void. Out of this void, this silence and emptiness, arises the interaction of yin and yang, the two poles of the primordial energy. For the Taoist, yin and yang are not separate forces or entities, but rather inseparable tendencies of energy itself. The various expressions of yin and yang–negative and positive, deficiency and excess, relaxation and tension, emptiness and fullness, cold and hot, wet and dry–are simply complementary manifestations of one fundamental reality.

Taoists believe that the interactions between yin and yang follow five basic phases or patterns, which have been generally, but erroneously, translated as the “Five Elements.” For Mantak Chia and other Taoists, the physical elements found in nature – fire, water, wood, metal, and earth – symbolically express the five phases or movements of energy. Fire represents energy rising; water represents energy sinking; wood, energy expanding; metal, energy solidifying; and earth, energy that is stable or centered.

For the Taoist, the laws of yin and yang and the Five Elements connect the macrocosm of nature and the microcosm of man. At the macrocosmic level, the laws manifest at the elements and seasons, while at the microcosmic level they manifest as the organs and energies of the human body. Each element corresponds not only to a quality of energy, but also to a particular season, pair of organs (yin and yang), and color. Fire corresponds to summer, the heart and small intestine, and red; water to winter, the kidneys and bladder, and blue; wood to spring, the liver and gallbladder, and green; metal to fall, the lungs and colon, and white; and earth to Indian summer, the spleen and stomach, and yellow. What’s more, each pair of organs–especially their meridians, their energetic pathways–is associated with a particular set of virtues and negative emotions. For example, the heart/small intestine pair represents both love and hate/ the kidneys/bladder, gentleness and fear; the liver/gallbladder, kindness and anger; the lungs/colon, courage and grief; and the spleen/stomach, openness and worry. This emotional energy map indicates that for the Taoist there is nothing wrong with negative emotions as long as they are in balance with virtue–in short, as long as they are not excessive. In fact the Taoists point out that any excessive emotion, positive or negative, can upset the overall quantity and flow of energy in the organism and thus cause imbalance and illness.

Like acupuncture, herbology, and other modalities of Chinese medicine, Chi Nei Tsang is based on the ancient Taoists’ experiences of the inner and outer forces that create and maintain life. These forces, which come from three different levels (the earth, nature, and the stars), feed us and give us our physical, psychological, and spiritual potential. For Taoists, all life depends on the harmonious, unobstructed movement and transformation of these forces. In the human organism, they manifest as three energies, “The Three Treasures”: jing, sexual essence; chi, vitality; and shen, spirit. Through the work of self-awareness and inner alchemy, it is possible to increase the natural transformation of jing into chi, and chi into shen, for spiritual growth as well as for good health.

The Taoists make it clear, however, that excessive stress or negativity, improper breathing, poor diet, overwork, traumas, injuries, bad posture, environmental toxins, and so on can bring about energy blockages in the human organism. And they believe that these blockages, disrupting the transformative equilibrium of yin and yang and the movement through the five phases of energy, are at the root of many of our health problems. According to Mantak Chia, although these blockages can appear anywhere in the body, they are generally rooted in the abdomen and constrict not only the free flow of energy throughout the organism, but also the transformation of jing  to chi and chi to shen. These blockages cause certain organs and tissues to receive too little or too much energy. Because the organs cannot work properly without the appropriate energy, the body’s various systems, including the immune system, cease to function at optimum strength, and toxins begin to accumulate in our tissues, which further aggravates the problem. And because each organ is directly associated with our attitudes and emotions, our psychological life is also adversely affected.

In Chi Nei Tsang, the practitioner learns to “sense” and  “feel” these blockages in the body, along with their associated energy patterns. As one puts one’s hands onto a person’s abdomen, for example, one can sense not only tension of relaxation but also heat or cold, dry or wet, excess or deficiency. One can also learn to scan the body without touching it and sense energy falling or rising, expanding or contracting. Such possibilities may sound farfetched to anyone who has not experienced them; they certainly did to me when I first started Chi Nei Tsang. But as I learned over time to allow my hands to relax, with no intention other than to be attuned to the energy manifestations of the person I was working on, my hands became very sensitive receiving apparatuses, linked to an inner, intuitive intelligence of which I was normally unaware. When my mind became very quiet, almost empty, my hands often moved, seemingly on their own, to the origin of the problem.

Though great sensitivity is needed in Chi Nei Tsang, practical knowledge of the human organism is also necessary. To practice CNT effectively, one needs to know the locations and functions of all the organs and glands of the human body, as well as the energy pathways associated with them. One needs to know the location of the psoas muscles (which connect the lower spinal vertebrae to the pelvis and thighbones) and the diaphragm and how they are related to our physical and emotional structures. One also needs to know the dynamics of the circulatory and lymphatic systems, as well as of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. And all of this knowledge must, as far as possible, be related to the law of yin and yang and the Five Elements.

The practitioner also needs to become proficient in CNT’s many hand and elbow techniques. These include spiraling, scooping, patting, pressing, rubbing, penetrating, and many more. One of the big hurdles for most people is learning how to work with “soft hands.” Because CNT involves touching deep organs and tissues in the body, sometimes going all the way down to the spine and even into the sacral cavity, the practitioner must learn how to move through the tissues and organs of the abdomen without creating unnecessary discomfort. In our classes, most of us, even massage therapists, had great difficulty in learning this art. It took me many months to give up the tension and grasping that I brought to this work, and to begin to discover not only the delicate interplay between yin and yang, yielding and advancing, that is necessary, but also how to open myself to the energies needed for healing. These discoveries were greatly helped by the meditations and chi kung exercises we learned.

In a typical CNT session, one generally starts by working around the navel, then expanding outward to all the other organs and tissues. At the very center of the body – the very place where as fetuses we took in nutrition and eliminated toxins – the navel, through its look and feel, usually reflects any imbalances in the organism. By pressing around the navel we can bypass fat and muscle to reach not only the small intestine but also the lymphatic and circulatory systems, where toxins tend to accumulate. Some of the basic techniques we use here are known as “skin detoxification” and “opening the wind gates.” In skin detoxification, we draw any toxins up toward the surface of the skin where they can be released. In opening the wind gates, we open, in a precise order, the specific energy gates around the navel through which energy reaches the various surrounding organs. Other, more advanced, techniques involving the navel area include centering and balancing the aortic pulse, and directing blood from the aorta into specific organs.

Another good example of the CNT approach is work on the small intestine. According to Taoist theory, the small intestine, the “abdominal brain, is in charge of digesting not only of food but emotions. The buildup of toxicity in the small intestine can create internal pressure that can have  a powerful influence on the nerves in the lumbar and sacral plexuses, which in turn can cause problems in the lower back and other parts of the body. One often finds deep blockages here in the form of “knots” and “tangles,” so called because that is exactly how they feel. These are frequently the result of undigested emotions: negative emotions too charged or painful to allow into our awareness. When Gilles began working on me, it was difficult for him to go very deep in this area, especially near my liver, without causing extreme pain. As he continued over several weeks, however – while simultaneously working to relax my chest and bring my breath down into my lower abdomen – my entire belly began to soften and certain deep emotions and attitudes began to surface. Even more important, my emotional perceptions started to become more sensitive, and I could understand and communicate with others more easily.

What’s more, I was learning how to heal myself. I found myself able, for example, to bring my attention deep inside my belly and sense any blockages of energy beginning there. Because I was learning how to release these energies and aid in their movement and transformation, I was also able in many cases to work directly on myself, sometimes using my hands on my small or large intestine, sometimes using only my attention. In some cases of abdominal discomfort, all it took was bringing my breath into my belly and sensing a kind of spaciousness there. Other times it was a matter of bringing what is known as “smiling” energy into the area or subvocally using the appropriate healing sound and visualizing the appropriate color in a particular organ. (The Inner Smile and Six Healing Sounds are two of the basic meditations of the Healing Tao, and CNT practitioners often teach them to the people they work on.) The many hours of CNT theory and practice, along with Taoist meditation, chi gung, and tai chi, gave me not only the knowledge of what to do, but also the awareness and energy to do it. Chi Nei Tsang’s power to heal is as much a matter of knowledge as it is of sensitivity and technique.

Earlier I talked about the importance of the Law of Five Elements. This law, which plays an important role in acupuncture, manifests itself in two ways: as the Law of Creation and the Law of Control. The Law of Creation is readily apparent in the movement of the seasons: summer (fire, heart) leads to Indian summer (earth, spleen), which leads to autumn (metal, lungs), which leads to winter (water, kidneys), which leads to spring (wood, liver), which gives way to summer again. From the standpoint of Chinese medicine, a particular organ and its energy can be influenced by working not only on the organ itself but also on the organ that comes either before or after it in the creation cycle. It all depends on the origin of the problem. For example, if someone has a problem with liver (wood) energy, which often manifests itself as excessive anger, the problem may not be with the liver itself, but with the kidneys (water ), since wood needs water to expand. If, for whatever reasons, a person has been living with a great deal of fear, the water energy of the kidneys may be depleted and may be unable to properly energize the wood energy of the liver. Or the problem may lie with the fire of the heart, which may be consuming too much wood (say through intense hatred, cruelty, or impatience) in order to keep the fire burning. Depending on the actual situation, the practitioner would work to detoxify and then energize either the kidneys/bladder or the heart/small intestine.

Within this outer movement of creation also lies an inner movement of control. The control cycle provides another way to influence the overall flow of energy. In this cycle, water puts out fire, fire melts metal, metal cuts wood, wood confines earth, and earth channels water. Thus, assuming again some kind of symptom associated with anger and the liver (wood), it may be possible by working with the lungs (metal), especially with breathing, to help alleviate the problem. For it is the lungs that control emotional sensitivity and the ability to “let go.”

The Law of Five Elements thus demonstrates that there are many ways to approach a health problem, depending on its roots. In diagnosing the roots of someone’s problems, the Chi Nei Tsang practitioner, like the acupuncturist, can use a variety of approaches, including pulse reading and tongue analysis. Though the main diagnostic tool is the use of one’s hands to feel the tensions, imbalances, and energies in the person’s abdomen, the practitioner can also gain a great deal of insight through looking and listening. CNT is based on the Taoist principle that the human organism always functions as a whole, with the various organs, tissues, and energies nourishing and supporting one another to maintain equilibrium. As a result, any tension or imbalance in one part of ourselves will bring about various adjustments and compensations throughout our entire being – in our behavior, our attitudes and emotions, our breathing, and the structure of our bones, muscles, and tendons. CNT practitioners may thus be able to learn as much from a tense shoulder as from an offhand remark about weather or food. From the standpoint of the Law of Five Elements, one’s likes and dislikes can be as revealing as one’s posture or tensions.

Whatever  blockages and imbalances are revealed, the techniques used to alleviate them can bring optimum results only when they are animated by the practitioner’s full attention, compassion, and care. Also crucial to the success of the treatment is the active participation of the person being worked on. Both people must awaken to their innermost wish for a more intimate, honest relationship with themselves–and must learn how to observe and eventually free themselves from the attitudes and actions that cut them off from this relationship. In short, both people must undertake the journey of discovery that is necessary for real health and healing. This journey, which begins with the expansion of our inner awareness into the living organs, tissues, and energies of our being, is not only one of healing but also of wholeness, of spiritual growth.

Copyright 1997-2015 by Dennis Lewis. The beginning of this article (until “What is Chi Nei Tsang?” appears in my book The Tao of Natural Breathing
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