Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
At one point or another, you’ve probably encountered someone who has “great energy” or is “really grounded.” In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), these phrases refer to a person whose Qi is both sufficient and flowing. In other words, they have an ample supply of healthy, intelligent energy, and that energy is circulating well. This makes the person relaxed, straightforward, centered, and vibrant. On the flip-side, there’s the condition of feeling off. Like fruit past its prime, a person with an energetic disturbance may be overly fatigued, irritable, have poor digestion, or feel pain.
As a yogi, you likely possess a deep conviction in the power of yoga practice to help smooth our energetic kinks. As an acupuncturist, I want to show you how a bit of TCM knowledge can help further refine your energetic state, especially as it relates to Yin Yoga. First, let me clarify a few TCM concepts: Qi, Meridians, acupuncture points, and Yin and Yang theory.
What, exactly, is Qi?
Ancient TCM masters determined that a person’s health is directly tied to the quality and flow of Qi throughout the body. Pronounced “chee,” Qi is often defined as a life force extracted from the raw materials of ingested food and fluids and from the air you breathe. You can think of Qi as good metabolic intelligence. When it’s flowing, all the physiological processes of the body work in harmony. When it’s deficient or stuck, it leads to disease and disharmony.
Where do Meridians fit into this?
Every good communication system needs a means of sending signals. Electricity needs wires and cables. Your email needs the internet. And in TCM your Qi needs the Meridian system in order to flow and circulate well.
How do acupuncture points relate to Qi and Meridians?
Acupuncture points, located on the Meridians, are very effective at influencing the quality and flow of Qi. Many of the most important acupuncture points are located at joints where the body, energy, and Meridians are all in transition—which is key when it comes to Yin Yoga. Think of the joints as junctures of change, communication centers where signals are ideally transmitted smoothly. But those signals could get crossed or overloaded, like a traffic jam during rush hour. When this happens, there may be pain, swelling, or inflammation in the joint—a local block in communication that affects other parts of your body. Your organs depend on the smooth flow of Qi in order to function optimally. If stagnation at your joints persists, your organs won’t get nourished and your whole system can get thrown out of whack.
What is Yin and Yang theory?
Yin and Yang theory describes oppositional but complementary relationships within and between everything. Yin qualities tend to be dark, slow, still, and hidden. Yang qualities tend to be bright, fast, moving, and visible. The TCM approach to health is promoting a harmonious balance between Yin and Yang energies.
Yoga is a great way to keep your Yin and Yang energies balanced and your Qi flowing and healthy. But different yoga styles influence the Qi in different ways. Yin and restorative practices are great if you’re suffering from Qi deficiency: low energy, poor appetite or digestion, a weak voice, or chronic illness. Stagnant Qi—which manifests as pain, tension, stress, or irritability—settles in your joints. Yin Yoga gently stresses the joints to loosen that stagnation and restore the relaxed flow of Qi. After that, an active, or Yang, yoga practice will pump fresh Qi through these areas, and you’ll feel renewed. Yin and Yang Yoga go together beautifully—like, well, Yin and Yang!
In Yin Yoga 101 we’ll explore sequences that enhance your body’s ability to generate and build strong, healthy Qi and enhance its circulation. For now, try these three poses.
3 Poses That Build Strong, Healthy Qi
Sit on the floor or a cushion, and bring the soles of your feet together, forming a diamond shape between your heels, knees, and hips. If your knees feel any stress, place blocks beneath them. Fold forward, letting your head hang or rest on a prop. Find a position that generates mild stress in the inner legs, outer hips, or along the back of the spine. Some people feel sensations in all these areas, while others feel the primary sensation in just one. Stay 3-5 minutes.
Meridians Influenced: Kidney, Liver, and Spleen—the three Yin Meridians of the leg—are stimulated, deeply nourishing the Yin energy of the body, which has a cooling and calming effect on the body and mind. Folding forward stimulates the Bladder Meridian along the spine. The Bladder Meridian influences Yin energy through its relationship to the TCM element of Water, creating a calming, cooling, and soothing effect; it is particularly helpful if Qi is stagnant.
Sit on your heels or on a block between your heels. Place your knees a comfortable distance from each other. Lean back, extending the spine and resting on your hands or elbows. Alternatively you can rest your back on a prop (as shown) or release all the way to the floor. Find a position that creates a mild sensation across the front thighs and/or lower back. Stay 3-5 minutes
Meridians Influenced: The Spleen and Stomach Meridians, which travel through the front thighs and front torso, get stimulated and work with their paired organs to generate Qi through their role in digestion. This has an energizing and enlivening effect on body and mind. As you move into the backbend more, you’ll likely start to feel mild compression in your lower back, which is where the Kidney Meridian travels. The Kidneys are the root of our energy, and they support the Spleen and Stomach to effectively extract pure Qi from our food. Saddle has a nourishing effect on our Qi and is helpful if your Qi is deficient.
Side Supine Deer
Sit with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Allow your legs to fall to the right, as you drape your right-side torso over a bolster. Bring your head either to the floor or a cushion and extend your arms overhead. Find a position where you feel gentle sensation in the outer part of the top hip or along the side top waist or rib cage. Stay 3-5 minutes, then repeat on opposite side.
Meridians Influenced: Side Supine Deer influences the Gall Bladder Meridian along the side body, working with the Liver to relax Qi flow through the entire body, promoting harmony and balance. Additionally, the subtle twist at the pelvis influences all the meridians that travel through the hips, further contributing to the systemwide harmonizing and homeostatic stimulation of this pose. Everyone benefits from harmonized Qi.
Want to learn more about Yin Yoga?
Want to learn a style of yoga that’s focused on bringing balance—physically, energetically, and mentally? Join Josh Summers, founder of the Summers School of Yin Yoga, for our new online course Yin Yoga 101—a six-week journey through the foundations and principles of Yin Yoga, along with asana practice and meditation. Sign up today!