From the viewpoint of oriental Medicine, the body has an energetic structure which is as real as the anatomical structure. The meridians, flowing through the body’s soft tissues, integrate body and consciousness the same way that physical anatomy integrates the body’s fluid and solid natures. The word for meridian in Chinese is ‘Jingluo’ which translates roughly as ‘threads that connect, like a net’.
The first meridians are formed in the earliest stages of cell division in a developing embryo. The very first cell division, when the first cell becomes two, gives rise to the deepest of all meridians, the Chong Mai or ‘Penetrating Vessel’. Later cell divisions give rise to meridians that result in the separation of left and right, front and back, above and below. In the earliest moments of our post-conception life, a deep matrix of energetic pathways is formed which creates a core, around which the complex network of linking energy channels is created.
This deep group of meridians is known as the ‘Eight Extraordinary Vessels’. They link us to an undifferentiated experience of self, when we know our connection to the cosmos, our inseparableness from the whole. The awakening of these vessels through bodywork, Qi Gong or acupuncture can put us in touch with a profound experience of this ‘original nature’. It may also be that within these vessels lie the inherited patterns of our ‘karmic’ health.
Around this core energetic structure is the system of energy channels that protect us and distribute nourishment throughout the body. These meridians are not fully formed at birth and take time to develop. They are generally known as the twelve regular meridians (Jing) and their connecting vessels (Luo). The sinew meridians, which are broad superficial pathways largely following the course of their associated meridian, weave together the physical anatomy and are responsible for the strength and suppleness of the physical body. According to some practitioners they also carry the Wei Qi generated by the Lung, the defensive energy that we may call the immune system.
The sinew meridians are closely related to the Liver which regulates them. It is largely within this surface meridian network that patterns of muscle tension can be observed and worked with. The sinew meridians distribute Qi through all the locomotive muscles and irrigate the joints with energy. When Qi is not flowing smoothly, which is normally due to emotional tensions, there will be a direct effect on the physical body.
Most of us are aware of passing tensions in response to life’s stresses. If these tensions are chronic and not resolvable, we eventually develop small holdings within the soft tissue that impede flow and create restriction, leading in turn to postural distortions. These constrictions can be felt by the hands and are known as kori to Japanese bodyworkers. They form what has been called the ’emotional anatomy’.
The network of twelve regular meridians travels deeply into the body, linking the inner anatomy to the surface. Each meridian enters the Organ after which it is named and often several others on its journey. These meridians carry nourishment and Qi throughout the body. Their function is partly nutritive and partly communicative.
Although the meridians do not have a strictly physical form, they may be detected by modern machinery. A path does not need to be a structure. The pathways of Qi which we call meridians have been shown to have electromagnetic properties. When, for example, an electrical stimulus is applied to a point on a meridian, the electric current follows the meridian pathway rather than any other route. This tells us that a meridian has lower electrical resistance than its surrounding tissue. A meridian is a carrier and receiver of electromagnetic information.
In one of the oldest texts of Chinese medicine, known as the Ling Shu, the meridians are described as receiving subtle information from the environment: from stars and planets, from the energy fields of the land and its trees and plants, and from the Qi of other living beings. Each point is seen as a gateway through which the universe pours information into our being and out of which we send information to be received by other beings. Our responses to changes in the weather and to subtler changes in the movements of stars and planets is picked up in the meridian system and relayed around the body. If we work to clear our perception through such practices as Qi Gong we will become more sensitive to the subtle emanations of place, perhaps even able to perceive the subtle movements of Qi which Feng Shui seeks to harmonise.
Many acupoints appear to be directly connected to mast cells , cells with a special function within the immune system. This points to a convergence of western and eastern understanding: one of the functions of the meridians in Chinese medicine is the circulation of defensive energy. The pains we often experience at the onset of a cold or flu are, according to oriental medicine, caused by the increased activity within the meridians at the body surface as they fight off the invading forces.
The meridian network has four functions: communicative, defensive, nutritive, integrative. The meridians facilitate communication between the inner and outer realms of the body and among all its parts; they carry the Wei Qi, which circulates beneath the skin and defends the body against attack; they circulate food essences around the body, bringing nourishment to all the cells; and they weave the bodymind together into one integrated unit.
Meridians are named after Organs but do not exclusively belong to that Organ. The meridian of the Spleen, for example, may be stimulated to affect the actions of the Spleen but its pathway also branches into the Stomach and Heart. Organ dysfunction will show at the surface as disturbance to the meridian pathway. Conversely obstruction of or injury to the meridian may eventually lead to some Organ dysfunction.
Individual meridians govern different physical movements according to their route through the musculature. The Bladder meridian, for example, which runs on either side of the spine and along the backs of the legs, governs forward movement and supports erectness. The Liver and Gall Bladder meridians govern sideways and twisting movements and so on. Problems with movement usually develop over time, often starting in early childhood, and these may be observed and treated through the meridian system.
The route of a meridian reflects some of the essential functions of its associated Organ. The Large Intestine meridian, for example, nourishes the muscles responsible for throwing (away) and the gesture of pointing which we use to emphasise the separation of something from ourselves, the naming of something as other. This parallels the Organ’s function of separation and purification.
It is somewhat deceptive to speak of each meridian separately, as in reality the meridians form one seamless network and the Qi flows in a biorhythmic pattern around the meridians in sequence. This subtle network, invisibly regulating our being, may be seen as the subtle system through which consciousness inhabits the body. Its invisible threads weave us into the subtle fabric of the universe.
Nourishing the Meridians
The meridians need to be free of congestion to perform their functions. It is easy for congestion to occur as a result of tension, postural distortion, injury or the invasion of Cold, Dampness or Wind from the environment. To maintain the meridians in a state of health it is important to stretch and move the body.
Although there are many specific exercises for the meridians, any exercise which develops suppleness and helps a person to inhabit the body, such as yoga, dance, swimming or Tai Chi, will be helpful. More focused exercises can be found within Qi Gong or amongst the self-development exercises used by Shiatsu practitioners. Of all the exercise forms, Qi Gong, through its special integration of movement, breath and attention, offers the most direct and effective way of clearing and invigorating the meridians.
Touch is also nourishing to the meridians, in particular the combination of perpendicular pressure and stretching applied by Shiatsu practitioners. Shiatsu helps to stimulate and balance the distribution of Qi through the meridians and is effective in keeping the channels clear. The massage techniques of Tuina are also used to correct meridian dysfunction and there are now a range of meridian-focused therapies available. It should be stressed that all massage will have some beneficial effect on the meridians even if the therapy is not specifically meridian-focused.
Although the meridians can only be manipulated through the surface anatomy, the effect of work on the acupoints or along the length of the meridian will be carried to the core of the body. Keeping the meridians healthy will directly benefit the Organs and deeper systems, enabling the circulation of nourishment and supporting the communication between the inner and outer realms.
Finally, it is worth considering that the electromagnetic nature of meridians makes them sensitive to electrical devices and the emanations from TV and computer screens. It would be sensible to reduce unnecessary exposure to these and to learn some Qi Gong exercises for clearing the energy field after exposure.