"Heaven and Earth take actionless action, yet nothing remains undone"
The process of Nei Gong
What is Nei Gong?
We can translate Nei Gong as ‘inner skill’. When we use the term Gong, we are really talking about a skill that you have developed over a long period of time. Anything that demands our time and effort to be skilful at is a Gong. Once we have progressed past learning the technique or ‘Fa’ we no longer have to think about what we are doing, it is part of us. Look at the way an accomplished pianist plays when they have ‘Gong’: they no longer look at the keys, they just express themselves through the medium of the piano. So if Qi Gong is the skill of Qi then Nei Gong is the skill of internal work. Internal work is exactly what it says it is. It works on the inner body rather than the outer body. The closer a practice is to the influence of Qi the more internal it is and the Qi should affect the body in a physical way. Rather than work with the muscles, it’s the tissues and fascia we focus on which are still regarded as tangible aspects of body. The mind and body are absolute, and as we progress the fusion of the mind and body starts to take place. We are now in the realms of the ’intangible’ and the influence of Qi. If we try to work with the mind or the Qi too soon we can be open to delusion, so it’s important to build the physical foundation first, then when we work with Qi we experience a definite physical reaction – there’s no mistaking it.
However, Nei Gong is a process rather than a set of exercises.
A step by Step process
Preparation of the physical body
Dan Tian development
The start of the conversion of Jing to Qi
Awakening the energy body
The movement of Yang Qi
This is the basic process that we work through. I haven’t shown any further sub-divisions and the last two stages are quite advanced and there are even more stages that I haven’t shown. We spend a lot of time working on the physical body: preparing for future work is key. We then build the Dan Tian and start the conversion of Jing (our essence) into Qi (our energy). Awakening the energy body and the interesting process of Zi Fa Gong, or spontaneous Qi movement, which our lineage follows, is a fascinating process as our energy system tunes into the movement of Yang Qi.
The exercises and qualities we use to help us move through this process
Wuji (without projection foundation posture)
Tu Na (breath work)
Yi Gong (mind work)
Ji Ben Qi Gong (fundamental energy exercises)
Wu Xing Qi Gong (five elemental energy exercises)
Wu Dao Yin (five pushing and guiding exercises)
Long Dao Yin (dragon pushing and guiding exercises)
Song & Ting (release or letting go skill and absorption or listening skill)
Hun Yuan Qi Gong (primordial circle energy exercises)
We are regulating, nourishing and purging the body through these exercises using breath work and the quality of our mind. As we progress deeper, there are a number of emotional releases that take place including past trauma.
Wu Wei or ‘to go with the flow’ is a term most people may have heard before, especially in the Qi Gong world. But a better definition would be ‘non-doing’ or ‘non-governing. A way of understanding it is ‘cause and effect’. Everything we do in our practice has this at its core. We cannot move to a higher stage because we want to or we think we should be there, it’s all down to have we created enough of the cause to get the effect? Firstly we set up the right circumstances. This could be our alignments in a standing posture. This would be the ‘to do’ part, then we wait and do nothing until the quality we are seeking unfolds in us and we no longer have ‘to do’ we are at the stage of ‘non-doing’. Imagine a tap dripping, very slowly, into a glass. It will take a fair amount of time before it fills it. But it’s consistent and doesn’t stop, every day, drip, drip, drip: then one day it’s full and starts to overflow. Like in your practice, when it overflows it’s time to move on to the next stage. We don’t force it and turn on the tap full blast, we have patience and slowly the transformation occurs. So Wu Wei is to non-govern, just keep on going with no force or judgement till we arrive at our destination.
Working with the body at the foundation stages is a bit like taking a mechanical device apart. We look to understand how that part works: Maybe we spray it will WD40 then put it back together again. As we do this to all the parts, the sum total is a connected and efficient mechanism that now works as a whole. As with everything else we need a certain amount of core strength and flexibility, but only enough so we can relax within a stretch, we need to determine the difference between an external stretch and an internal one. In my experience, most people who come into these arts are either too tense and inflexible or too limp and inflexible. Both types need to condition their bodies for the internal arts. As we grow into adulthood the way the body holds itself up changes. Take standing for instance: we unconsciously ‘contract’ the muscles in order hold us up, then when we try to relax we ‘collapse’ the body, which in turn ‘compresses’ the weight of the skeleton into the joints. It’s taken for granted that as you age you’ll get smaller and your joints wear. I wonder why?
All authentic traditions whether it’s Taijiquan or Qi Gong have at their core standing postures. There should be a mix of different exercises, standing and sitting, to accomplish what we want at various stages, rather like a Swiss army knife: it’s a tool with many functions. If you have read about the other studies we practise such as Taijiquan and Qi Gong, you will see that there are many similarities, and building the foundations is one of them.
"The systematic release of habitual tension stored in the body"
The qualities of Song and Ting.
Like Taijiquan and other internal arts, the study of developing the qualities of Song and Ting are important attainments. There is a term we use, ‘hang the muscles off the bone’, to suggest we act in such a way as to create a kind of tensegrity or elastic force within the balance of our bodies. Song is not just relax, it’s release, and not just physical either. Think of it as ‘the systematic release of habitual tension stored in the body.’ We hold on to tension mostly by our reaction to stress and the way the mind cycles through the emotions without being able to ‘let go’. This tension is buried deep into the body, but also bad posture can affect the mind. If you have a ‘slumped’ posture all the time, eventually you’ll start to feel depressed, and vice-versa. If you lift your head up and straighten up you feel happier. So the mind can affect the body and the body can affect the mind.
Ting is listening or the absorption of the mind into the body so it stabilises and doesn’t jump around. The more we Song the more we can Ting. This repeats as we go deeper and become more Song. Arts like Taijiquan specialise in deep levels of both these qualities. The more we can release, the more efficient the body becomes, and the more Qi we have that’s not being used up on tension.
The Dan Tian
There are three Dan Tian which we concern ourselves with as our practice unfolds. The awakening of the energy body through the lower Dan Tian is a major stage in our internal awakening. It sits below the navel. This is our main entry point to awaken the energy system, and acts like a water wheel turning and moving the energy through the meridians. It is where the mechanics of the process take place. This is shown in the Yin/Yang symbol on the school logo, a Dan Tian turning. We work extensively in the foundation stages (normally over a couple of years) to build this area. When we are born our Dan Tian is more active, but as we grow this connection starts to disperse. This is normal and part of life but we are aiming to reverse the flow. The lower Dan Tian can be translated as ‘Elixir Field’. We aim to consolidate it so it starts to return energetically to how it was when we were children. In our school we don’t store the Qi in the lower Dan Tian, we follow a lineage that harnesses the earth force or the Yin field of the planet through standing postures which awaken the Dan Tian and circulate the Qi much more efficiently. This is a good stage to reach, and even if you go no further your health will be greatly improved. When I first experienced this, it felt like an engine purring away inside me. As time went by my body normalised it, so I don’t notice it so much today.
The middle Dan Tian sits in the centre of the chest and converts Qi into Shen or the energy of the consciousness body. It has a strong connection with the heart and our emotions. The upper Dan Tian sits on the forehead between the eyes – Yin Tang (the Third Eye), and here Shen is converted into the vibration of emptiness. This has a strong connection to the Shen.
Humility and Humour
Two important teachings within Daoism are Humility and Humour.
The term ‘empty your cup’ is well known and means that you have created a space within that will now allow the information from the Dao and the lineage to pour into you, this is real Humility – you can’t fake it! If you are not free of the acquired mind or ego this is impossible. Laozi and his writings are associated with humility.
Humour creates movement, and expansion. It opens the heart and dissolves stagnation and helps to stop emotions attaching to the Heart/Mind. Zhuang Zi and his writings are associated with humour. That’s why in our classes we train seriously but with a ‘light-hearted’ approach. There’s aways laughter going on. This not only makes you feel better, but the expansion of the heart through smiling is good for our progress. Since I have known Damo, I have never met anyone who trains so hard and yet can have so much fun at the same time. If you are always scowling as you train that is the quality you are building inside. Remember the quality of your Qi is dictated by the quality of your Heart/Mind. I see it in martial arts too: if you constantly train with an intent to harm others that is what you manifest inside and you become brittle and small-minded as you age. We can still train hard and seriously, but with an open heart, it’s better for your health.
The Micro Cosmic Orbit
You may have already heard of the Micro Cosmic Orbit. It’s very popular term used in Qi Gong. However, too often it’s presented in books as something fairly easy to do, but it’s far from being that easy. Following a practice that is not based in correct preparation is asking for trouble and you could be setting yourself up for something called ‘Dragon Sickness’ where the Qi rises to the head. (For a much more detailed explanation of the Orbit, check out Damo’s book, ‘A comprehensive guide to Daoist Nei Gong’.) So what is it for? It’s an alchemical based system to enable the body to become more efficient so we can circulate and convert substances like Jing to a higher state of Shen, enabling us to feed the aspect of our spirit towards what’s called the ‘Golden Embryo’, a very high level of attainment indeed (way beyond me).
The character for Dao shows a person walking along a path. Entering into the top of the person's head are the forces of Yin and Yang, or the dualistic nature of life. It’s the force that sits in the background of existence. To raise ourselves above dualistic we progressively study, as if walking along a path. The term is often translated as ‘the way’.