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Chinese Internal Martial Arts Theory and Applications in Acupuncture Needling

by Ioannis Solos and Yuan Liang

One of the deepest rooted concepts of Chinese culture is the concept of holism (zhěng tǐ guān nin). To understand this concept in Chinese Medicine we usually divide it into two parts, the first being the structural unity of the body and the second being the functional unity of the body).

Structural unity of the human body

When we talk about structural unity of the human body, we request that while studying the Chinese medical system, all the various components pertaining to the human body should be regarded as a collective and complete structural whole. This structural whole has two aspects, a communication network aspect, which includes all the various meridians and collaterals, and an internal organ, and tissues system which includes the five Zang and six Fu as well as all the various tissues and vital substances that make up the human body.

Functional unity of the human body

The functional unity of the human body pertains to the relationships that exist between all the various channels, tissues, internal organs and how (in health) they all work synergistically and harmoniously as an organic whole.

Those concepts, although they are quite simple and easy to understand, they are notoriously difficult to apply. Never the less, it is this functional and structural unity of the human body that the Martial artists seek in their training, and the purpose of this article is to introduce the ideas that are vital for a modern day competent acupuncturist in order to enhance his needling techniques.

Zhan Zhuang

Zhan Zhuang (or Standing Meditation) practice stems from the art of Yi Quan or mind boxing. In recent years it has been popularized in the West and it is now becoming well known amongst practitioners of the Healing Arts. Many of the principles discussed in this article derive from Yi Quan theories and my own personal experience whilst training in Zhan Zhuang.

The Art Principles

Chinese Gong Fu, from its earliest form has followed the examples of the Tao and the principles of Heaven, Earth and Man. It abides by the laws of Chinese medicine, strategy, and art and thus its roots are buried deep in Chinese culture.

Most things in the correct form of the martial arts, as well as in any Chinese art form cannot be told, and cannot be duplicated. This is mainly due to the diversity of the human psyche, and personal experience. Then again the basic principle in any art form is not the duplication and mere copy of something, but the originality, personal expression and function that the Artist brings into his created masterpiece.

Many original masters of art have given out principles that stand as beacons to guide students to the correct (working) original principles, but knowing their limitations in using the language as a tool to describe their desired outcome, they did not provide us with answers, but many questions. Thus due to this lack of information and coherent guidance, any art form presents with lots of potential for improvisation, personal analysis and interpretation, and therefore every artist can bring their own flavour into their own discipline.

The masters of old, in their wish for their knowledge to go forward, have left principles to guide us. A few of these are:

The use of animal visualizations (tiger, dragon, mantis, etc)
The use of natural forces (five elements as force guides for example)
The use of environment (visualizing the sea waves or the strength of the mountain and the trees)
The use of the laws of the human anatomy, physiology, body mechanics, physics and medicine.
Training the brain by visualising imaginary actions or conditions. (Looking straight, bathing, walking in the mud, reacting to imaginary actions)

Therefore, a competent acupuncturist and martial artist alike should be able to understand and reflect on these principles and interpret them by adding his own soul and spirit into it. This will lead him to discover how the human body works, and how it feels when it works in proper order, before embarking into providing hands-on treatment, be it acupuncture or tuina.

Understanding and interpreting

The use of understanding and personal interpretation is the outmost principle in the creation of art. Therefore, someone should try to understand the human soul and become a student of his personal philosophy. He should study his reactions, abilities, body, and knowledge first of all. Then he can actually establish a real and personal mind-body connection that is hard for others to duplicate, and thus create his own art.

Main concepts of standing meditation as applied to acupuncture

Zheng Ti

Zheng Ti is one of the most fundamental concepts of Chinese Medicine, and also central to the Yi Quan theory. It is usually translated as using the whole bodys power. In reality though, it means achieving the ability to put the entire coordinated muscle power of the body, against the point of contact with the patient (in tuina) or the needle (in acupuncture). In exercises like standing or Shi Li (seeking the forces), the whole body concept can be used when the imagination of the practitioner focuses towards an existing direction according to his visualisation. Imagination will build the basis for the development of this ability. Coordination, softness and relaxation, the six harmonies and the usage of Intention will all assist the acupuncturist to maintain his frame in order for his own Qi and Blood to move smoothly and unobstructed inside the meridians and vessels, thus nourishing his muscles and tendons, getting rid of stagnation, for his Qi to successfully assist him in treating the patient.

Using the mind

Using the mind to understand the exercises is really important as almost all ancient sources state (some of them are translated in this paper, see appendix). The natural diversity of the human thought and psyche means that everybodys training method will be different. Therefore, this art is asking people to use their imagination and understand the reality behind what are essentially dead exercises. Imagination is what puts life into the art. Each exercise can be transformed to another when the mental concepts change. For this reason everybody should seek to exploit every possibility in one exercise. The concept of coordination, Zheng Ti, softness and springiness should always define the exercises, in order to avoid mistakes in training. Therefore using the mind should lead everyone to understand the way the art thinks, rather than duplicating someone elses exact thoughts. Achieving that level is the requirement and the purpose of Zhan Zhuang. Understanding the reason is better than understanding the method. Also keeping the thoughts simple and to the point ensures better clarity and understanding, as well as unlimited applicability.

Ability to avoid stiff force

The force we use in acupuncture and tuina is the same as the one developed through internal martial arts. This force is often referred to as snappy force, soft force and force through softness, and it is not the same force that people develop in the gym or by lifting weights. It is a force developed when the body is in complete relaxation, and the muscles are soft, the qi and blood moves inside the vessels unobstructed and properly nourishes tendon, muscle and bone.

Training with the mind as a guide may assist the acupuncturist to develop a daily training regime, avoiding any kind of stiff muscles at any point, trying to achieve a deeper relaxation at any time (even while walking or sitting), evading tension by adjusting posture, moving, and changing mental images with every movement. When opposite forces feeling comes up he should use them as a pivot to move (and often when this is done correctly, such practice produces a whole body feeling similar to snapping the fingers).

Maodun (contradictory forces)

Maodun is the concept that asks the practitioner to discover all the contradicting (opposite) forces within his body, according to Newtonian physics and the action and reaction principles. What we try to achieve by experiencing the contradictory forces, is developing a round whole-body force. This can be perceived better if we imagine the forces within a balloon, where opposite forces of the air balance each-other out at the rubber walls, thus creating a perfect sphere.

Developing contradictory forces in our training methods is a way to develop co-ordination, the six harmonies and balance in every movement, which can be of vital importance when it comes to administer Tuina or needling.

Qi Gong exercises

Yiquan books are becoming increasingly popular in the West, so this article will just focus on a couple of Qi Gong exercises that are important to demonstrate the importance of the whole body in needling:

Active Standing

Holding the balloon:

The main idea of this standing is to produce a feeling of connectivity and springiness within the practitioners frame. These feelings are very important and need to be exploited, as they can improve the overall frame of the practitioner, and provide him/her with the basic ideas that are to be utilised further in their training, most importantly the Maodun forces.
The main instructions given are:

Exercise 1:

Assume the health stance. The chin is down in order to straighten the spine, and the eyes gaze into the distance.
Imagine holding a balloon or a ball with the arms around the chest. At the same times, there are balloons underneath the armpits and between the legs.
A main visualisation given is that you are in the sea, with the water up to the chest, and trying to push the balloon into the water, but it bounces up. A different one is that balloon expands and you try to regulate that expansion by pushing it back. In any case, the practitioner should feel the balloon and experiment with the feeling towards every direction.
Concentration is very important so the balloon does not break or fall. When the practitioner cannot feel the balloon any more, it means it has fallen or broken.
The breath and Qi from the cosmos sink into the Dantian, producing a feeling of relaxation for the arms, and the shoulders, as well as assisting with the correct breathing.
In any case, this is a movement of the nerves, and the mind. There should be no obvious muscle movement.

Figure 1. Cheng Bao stance.

The small movement that is being exercised in the standing is very important for various reasons:

1. Improving the listening abilities (it is of vital importance to be able to listen to the patients muscle reaction and adjust the treatment)
2. Making the whole body concept apply in every movement and every position.
3. Connects the whole body through small movements.
4. Assists the springiness and strengthen of the various muscles and ligaments of the acupuncturists body.
5. Thinking and action become one, which is very important when it comes to tuina and acupuncture practice.

Exercise 2:

Assume the San Ti stance as shown in figure 1.
The nose, fingers and toes are aligned in one straight perpendicular line.
The tip of the tongue touches the palate, thus connecting again the Du and Ren Meridians that were separated during childbirth
The left hand is holding the paper pack, and the needling hand a needle.
By utilizing the power from the Dantian and with a circular motion insert the needle to the pack of napkins as shown in figure 2.

Acupuncture lore states that in the ancient years, on the first day of training the acupuncturist would learn to needle one piece of paper, and each day would add one more piece. In 100 days with diligent training would be able to needle 100 pieces of paper with one motion

Figure 2. Inserting an acupuncture needle into a pack of napkins.

Visualizations include that the needle contains many hooks towards every direction, and when needling the acupuncturist should train his perception of depth, force and at the same time practice all kinds of manipulations, draining and re-enforcing.

In time the acupuncturist can achieve a very good level of applying many manipulations while training the correct spirit for needling.

Note: Many acupuncture schools teaching the above exercise insist that the students sits while needling the napkin pack. In all my years been involved with acupuncture I have never seen any acupuncturist administering needling while sitting comfortably in a chair. This exercise, which obviously stems from Qi Gong training should be trained as Qi Gong, and while the acupuncturist is meditating in a standing position. My exercise should be taken as an example but not as a rule, and the practitioners should explore all possibilities in needling, in order to achieve subtlety and personal understanding.


Ioannis Solos is a Chinese Medicine Lecturer, Qi Gong and Acupuncture practitioner, Beijing China. Yuan Liang works at the Institute of Basic Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing 100700, China


Appendix A - Ancient quotations pertaining to whole body, needling and esoteric practices

《hungd nijīng ling shūJiǔ zhēn sh r yun》
Yellow Emperors Classic, Spiritual Pivot, Jiu Zhen Shi Er Yuan
cū shǒu xng, shng shǒu shn。shn hū shn, k zi mn。
The crude (the mediocre acupuncturist) guards the frame; the superior (acupuncturist) guards the Spirit.
The Spirit (Qi)! (i.e. the true Qi), The Spirit (Qi and) the Evil Qi (both) are at the gate (i.e. use the same passages to enter and exit)

《hungd nijīng ling shūJiǔ zhēn sh r yun》
Yellow emperors classic, Spiritual pivot, Jiu Zhen Shi Er Yuan
ch zhēn zhī do, jiān zhě wi bǎo
The way to grasp the needle, (you should hold it) firmly like its treasure
zhng zhǐ zh c, w zhēn zuǒ yu
The finger straight towards the tip (of the needle), you should not move the needle left and right.
shn zi qiū ho, shǔ y bng zhě
Spirit (should) focus on the (needle), the intention (Yi) should focus on the disease.

《hungd nijīng ling shū běnshn》
Yellow emperors classic, Spiritual Pivot, Ben Shen
fn c zhī fǎ, xiān b běn y shn
(For) each kind of needling, first must (control) the Spirit
Xuě mi yng q jīng shn
Blood, vessels, constructive, Qi, Essence-Spirit
cǐ wǔ zng zhī suǒ cng yě。
These five Zang must be stored.

《hungd nijīng s wn bǎo mng qun xng ln》
Yellow Emperors classic, Simple Questions, Bao Ming Quan Xing Lun
d yuē: rn shēng yǒu xng, b l yīn yng
The emperor said: The living person has a form, which does not depart (from the laws of) Yin and Yang.

《hungd nijīng s wn bǎo mng qun xng ln》
Yellow Emperors classic, Simple Questions, Bao Ming Quan Xing Lun
qb yuē
Qi Bo said:
g zhēn yǒu xun b tiān xi zhě wǔ
Under the heaven, five acupuncture principles are propagated
qin shǒu gng y sh, m zhī zhī yě
The common people only want nourishment, and they don't know them
yī yuē zh shn, r yuē zhī yǎng shēn
The first is said to be control the Spirit, the second is said to be health preservation
sān yuē zhī d yo wi zhēn
The third is knowing the truth of the Medicinal substances
s yuē zh biān sh d xiǎo
The fourth is the ability to know the size of the stone needle (bian stone)
wǔ yuē fǔ zng xu q zhī zhěn
The fifth is to recognize the manifestations of the Zang Fu, the Blood and Qi

《s wn》 hung d yuē:
y wn shng gǔ yǒu zhēn rn zhě
t qi tiān d, bǎ w yīn yng
hū xī jīng q, d l shǒu shn, jī ru ru yī
g nng shu b tiān d, w yǒu zhōng sh, cǐ q do shēng.

《Simple Questions》
The Yellow Emperor said: I hear that in the elder days, there were sages, (able to) grasp the Heaven and the Earth, understand the laws of the Yin and Yang, breathing the Essential Qi, standing alone, guarding the Spirit (Shen), (With all the) muscles as one. Hence they can live so long as to outworn the Heaven and the earth, and their life never ends. This is the Tao of life.

The seventy-eighth difficult question

bǔ xi zhī fǎ, fēi b hū xī chū n zhēn yě。zhī wi zhēn zhě, xn q zuǒ;
Supplementing and draining methods, do not request the use of inhaling or exhaling while removing or inserting the needle. Those who understand pay attention to the left, those who don't, pay attention to the right.

7.From the (the Right path of Yi Quan)

li h
li h yǒu ni wi zhī fēn,
yuē:xīn yǔ y h, y yǔ q h, q yǔ l h, wi ni sān h;
shǒu yǔ z h, zhǒu yǔ xī h, jiān yǔ ku h, wi wi sān h;
yu yuē :jīn yǔ gǔ sh, cǐ yǔ ru h, fi yǔ shn h, wi ni sān h
tu yǔ shǒu h, shǒu yǔ shēn h, shēn yǔ z h, wi wi sān h 。
zǒng zhī, shn h 、jn h 、guāng xin h, qun shēn zhī fǎ xiāng h wi zhī h 。
fēi xng sh xiāng du wi zhī h。
shn yǐ zāi, li h zhī w rn yě, xu zhě shn zhī shn zhī 。

Six Harmonies:

The six harmonies are divided into Internal and External. It is said that: Heart should be in harmony with the Mind (Yi), The Mind should be in harmony with the Qi, the Qi should be in harmony with the Force (Li). These are the three Internal Harmonies.
The Hand should be in harmony with the Foot, the elbows should be in harmony with the knees, and the shoulders should be in harmony with the Waist. These are the three external harmonies.

Elsewhere, it has also been said: Concerning the tendons and bones, these should be in harmony with the muscles. The Lung should be in harmony with the Kidney. These are the three Internal Harmonies.

The Head should be in harmony with the Hand, the Hand should be in harmony with the Body, and the Body should be in harmony with the Foot. These are the three external Harmonies.

In general if the Mind is in Harmony, the Strength is in Harmony and the Body Axis is in harmony, the methods of the whole body are mutually combined in harmony.

This is not about how various body parts are combined in harmony. Alas, the six harmonies mislead many people. People who study this should be very cautious.

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