While I was in Chiang Mai just over a month ago the most valuable experience hands down was studying and receiving Chi Nei Tsang.
Studying Chi Nei Tsang at Blue Garden. Here is our teacher, Remco, getting all up in this lucky student’s left kidney.
If you don’t know what Chi Nei Tsang is, I for sure suggest you read more about it. If you really care to, you can read about my fun times learning CNT HERE (it’s a pretty long, rambling post though so save it for when you have a coffee and 10 minutes to kill).
In a nutshell, Chi Nei Tsang is an abdominal massage based in Chinese Medicine. As the story goes, negative emotions are stored in our organs. Our gut is our “second brain”, the small intestine in particular. And much like the food we eat, when we are unable to digest and deal with our emotions they are stored in the second brain. Apparently even in our bones.
And likewise, when organs (or bones) are squished into awkward positions because of poor posture and movement mechanics, this can also cause negative emotions and stress to manifest, along with degeneration of the organs.
Chi Nei Tsang can be a pretty intense experience for some people. Especially if you’ve got a lot of pent up emotional shit or funky movement and postural patterns (dancers… Just sayin’!).
So anyway, learning this massage was a blast. Helped me with many things. And I miss having my belly rubbed everyday. Any takers? 😉
But now, over a month since my last belly-rub session, I’m learning how I can apply Chi Nei Tsang principles to movement related issues, particularly those rooted in poor breathing patterns.
And so, the topic of today’s post is on learning how to first breathe and then move from the tan tien.
What’s the tan tien?
The lower abdominal tan tien is an important place in the body in Chinese Medicine. This point is located roughly 2cm below the navel, deep in the abdomen, and correlates to your center of gravity.
In yoga, this point correlates roughly to the sacral chakra, and in Japan is referred to as hara.
Your tan tien is your energy center, where “life force is stored”.
Sorry, guys, if I’m not using science words. Just deal with it for now. Science isn’t always everything.
Tan tien is an important reference point in activities like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and many martial arts. In dance, I reckon that when teachers and choreographers want you to stay more “grounded” it would be helpful to be connected to your tan tien.
Unfortunately in dance, and other bendy-people-activities like gymnastics and yoga, we put so much emphasis on being able to bend backwards and doing crazy twists, it becomes easy to lose the connection to the center of our bodies. This can be a cause of lower back pain (much like they say about imbalance of the sacral chakra).
Many of us, and non-dancers too, lose connectivity to our tan tien. You can blame stress, poor spinal stabilization patterns, unresolved emotional issues, or poor organ function due to lifestyle. The result is the loss of ability to breathe into the lower abdomen favouring a paradoxical breathing pattern instead. We forget how to contract the tan tien, relax it, and move from it.
The image on the bottom represents a paradoxical breathing pattern, with the belly sucking in with inhalation, air going first into the chest, rather than both expanding together.
In Chi Nei Tsang, the practitioner will first “clear” the tan tien to allow chi (energy) to flow more freely to it, and open it, bringing more awareness to the area.
It is possible to achieve similar effects by yourself through moving and breathing mindfully.
Some people who know pretty well will remember that I used to refer to my lower abdominal and pelvic region as a “black hole”. Literally had no ability to connect my brain to the black hole (tan tien!).
After having received Chi Nei Tsang I was finally able make a connection to my lower abdominal area. After waking up tan tien, things starting feeling different. Much different.
- I was able to breathe into my lower abdomen, whereas before I was a paradoxical chest breather (still mostly am…Workin’ on it,guys, ).
- Because my breathing was coming more naturally, I felt my inner core activate more reflexively- I no longer had to brace so much to stabilize.
- I felt my hips were able to extend fully, whereas before I could not, or had to actively contract my glutes to get to that range of motion.
- I was finally able to maintain a neutral spine and pelvis without tucking under and reduced my normally uncontrollable pattern of resting in a heavy anterior pelvic tilt.
- All former pain symptoms disappeared (knee, hip, hamstring, lower back, shoulder).
- Amazing mental clarity and calm.
- Finally could get full cervical spine (neck) flexion
- Felt my weight shift more posteriorally onto my heels, whereas before I had a tendency to shift onto my toes and make every movement super quad dominant.
- Felt grounded into the earth, lighter.
These improvements lasted for weeks, and now, about a month after returning to the cold north, not getting regular Chi Nei Tsang, and doing several dance classes (loading the dancer-dysfunction back into my system), I can feel these effects leaving me. Noooooo…
I just want to be able to move like her:
Oh my God that single leg landing in deep plie… One day.
There is, however, a technique I’ve been using to try to hold on, and this is to do tan tien focused breathing.
How to do tan tien breathing?
It’s super easy and effective. If you do it regularly.
I taught one of my dance clients how yesterday. After a few rounds her neck alignment improved (now getting full left cervical rotation! BAM). She noted similar things as I had: Felt more grounded, calm. Good things for a dancer to feel.
How to breathe into tan tien (a self Chi Nei Tsang technique):
1) Find your tan tien with your fingers and get comfy poking into it.
The easiest position to start in is lying on your back, knees bent or with pillows supporting under your knees.
Remember your tan tien is about 2cm below the navel and deep in the abdominal cavity. Place your fingers there and on an exhale, press into your belly until you can’t poke in any deeper. This may feel weird. Good. Go with it.
Take note of how it feels in there. Do you notice if it feels cold or warm? Can you feel a pulse? How far down can you get before you meet resistance?
2) Breathe into your tan tien!
Breathe into this special place that stores your life force. Put some awareness into your center of gravity.
With your fingers still poking into your belly, inhale and try to push your fingers out. As you exhale, allow your fingers to sink deeper into your abdomen. See how deep you can go. Hold your breath at the bottom for a few seconds. Repeat for a few minutes.
Aim for your exhalation to be 3 times as long as your inhale. Get out all your air, and then some more. I like to work with an in 4 out 12 count. You can start with a 1:1 ratio and move up to 2:1 until you can handle 3:1 exhale to inhale.
An Ayurvedic doctor once told me to work on a 30 second inhale, 30 second exhale pattern. I managed to do this once. I almost passed out. On the bus.
Be aware of where your breath goes first. You will likely feel that as you inhale, it is difficult at first to guide the breathe into your fingers, but it will become easier each time.
You can also try humming, or making a “shhh” or “chooo” sound as you exhale. This will ensure you are truly getting a full exhalation. Auditory cues don’t lie. Often there’s more air left than you think. These are also healing sounds used in Chi Nei Tsang and Qi Gong.
3) Repeat a few time a day. Experiment with different positions. Try it while walking.
Much like any skill (chin-ups, push-ups, speed reading), the more you “grease the tan tien groove”, the easier it becomes. You don’t need to spend 30 minutes working on breathing all at once, because that sucks. Just break it up into mini sessions throughout the day (especially before dance class, dancers!).
I like to attempt tan tien breathing in positions that I know are challenging for me. Like in a supine hip bridge. God it really sucks. Just try it.
Another fun challenge is to breathe into your tan tien while walking, without your fingers for feedback. I attempt this quite often and find I have to slow my walking wayyyy down to do it properly.
When you are able to bring awareness into your tan tien, it’s almost like you’re not even breathing, but like the breath is moving you.
By having this energy channel open, the breath will flow there naturally. You don’t need to use any effort. Rather than forcing through muscular effort, the breathe simply moves you into the correct place. It’s magical.
It’s Wu Wei– Action through non-action. Allowing what feels spontaneous and natural to occur. What if your dancing could feel like this? It was rare for me, and probably the cause of my many injuries, always relying on excess muscular effort.
Try tan tien breathing while doing inversions- Head-stand, hand-stand or shoulder-stand. That takes some mad skillz.
Try doing this focused breathing in dance positions like an attitude line, or to initiate a turn.
The more you try to play with breath and gravity and allow yourself to be moved in new ways into new positions, the more fun you can have with movement.
The trouble with trying to teach movement and posture to people, I think, is that it isn’t easily possible to describe how to do it in terms of muscular execution. The person has to feel it for themselves by directing their breath into the right place, helping them to naturally move into the appropriate position.
This can’t truly be taught, but only offered to them through a learning experience. It is up to the student to be open to it and allow it to happen.
This can be frustrating.
I often want to resort to more obvious ways of cueing, like, “shoulders back”, or “squeeze your butt”.
What I try to do more often is direct the client on where to breathe. If they direct the breath into the right area, at the right time, the movement and the posture becomes natural. The breath dictates it so.
So I suggest you try building a tan tien awareness practice. Make it a regular part of your day. Just for fun. Poke your fingers into your belly and breathe. It just might change your life.
Have a listen to master Mantak Chia talk about tan tien and the second brain. Cool stuff!
Hello from Chaing Mai! Yeah I’m still here… It’s been about 6 weeks, and my original plan was only to stay about 4. These things happen, I suppose…
I want to talk today about my Thai massage studies, because that’s what I’m doing with my life these days. It’s my blog and I can write what I want. Deal with it.
Studying therapeutic Thai massage at Sunshine Massage School, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The following post is to describe a particularly fascinating form of massage I’ve been learning: Chi Nei Tsang. And I apologize in advance that this post is kind of monstrously long… Make sure you have a good 5 minutes at least, and maybe a cup of coffee.
So anyway, here I am learning the ways of traditional Thai medicine, thinking in terms of energy lines and flow of chi, rather than motor control and fascial chains. Same same, but different.
It almost makes me nervous to be neglecting the application of a scientific approach to working on bodies. “Guilt” isn’t the best word here, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.
Does feel good, though, to abandon the classical, technical side of bodywork, and focus instead on the art of holistic healing. The romantic, side, based on tradition rather than evidence.
And what’s more romantic than organ massage? Yes, today I want to tell you about my experience learning, and receiving Chi Nei Tsang, an abdominal massage for organ detoxification.
Chi Nei Tsang is a trip of a course. Trippy both as a giver and a receiver.
These days, out of the blue I’ll find myself saying things like, “My organs feel weird” or, “I touched someones colon today”, or, “Today was intestine day. I had a really good poo.” Yes, my regularity has been taken to a new level.
And all funnies and TMI aside, I do feel a profound difference, in my body and mind, after a week of practicing, giving and receiving, this beautiful healing art.
Allow me now to go into a little more depth about why Chi Nei Tsang is something you need to try. Whether or not you “believe” in Chinese medicine, have unresolved, mysterious issues for which you want an alternative healing method, or are just curious about it, you should find someone who practices. Make an appointment for tomorrow.
So here we go.
WHAT IS CHI NEI TSANG?
The organ zones used in Chi Nei Tsang
Note that I am not a Chi Nei Tsang master practitioner. Not even close.
I can only really offer a way simplified version of what I understand to be it’s underlying principles. I probably would be better able to explain Chi Nei Tsang if I had a background in Chinese medicine. So yeah basically I don’t really know that much, and please take this information with a grain of salt and understand that I am simply sharing my experience learning this fascinating massage.
That said, to use my woefully insufficient layman’s terms, Chi Nei Tsang is a form of abdominal massage that focuses on the organs to improve their function and so too your overall health. An organ detoxification massage.
FUN FACT: Though Chi Nei Tsang is a traditional Chinese healing art, it is particularly difficult to find a practitioner in China. Don’t ask me why, but that’s what I’ve been told.
What is this “chi” stuff?
Chi is the invisible life force that flows within us. It is carried through the body by “wind” (technical term…). Chi is constantly being recycled, created and used in our bodies. According to Chi Nei Tsang, the body is in a continuous process of matter dissolving into energy, and energy becoming matter. Inevitable, emotional and/or physical stress can cause the chi to become blocked, stagnant at certain areas. When this energy is not flowing freely it causes trouble for the vital organs, among other things.
Because the flow of chi can become blocked by emotional or physical stress, Chi Nei Tsang can often be as much of an emotional release as a physical, muscular release of tension. I love this non-dual approach to massage, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is likely missing from many western schools of massage. There is (in my opinion) no separation of mind and body- It’s all one thing. And Chi Nei Tsang works on that whole thing.
So when I have my hands all up in your liver, I’m not just massaging your liver, I’m massaging your anger. I’m not just massaging your small intestine, but your anxieties and worries. Our teacher was telling us stories of how some (but for sure not all) people have cried, laughed, and even yelled during a Chi Nei Tsang session.
It’s pretty crazy cool like that.
WHY SHOULD YOU TRY CHI NEI TSANG?
Mostly because, like I mentioned above, it feels CRAZY. It’s weird, and good, and bad, and after it’s like your organs are suspended in a tub of jello that is your abdominal cavity.
But also I believe it’s good for your mental and physical health for the reasons mentioned above (chi blockages, blah blah blah). If anyone cares to elaborate on their understanding of the science behind Chi Nei Tsang, that would be cool, because these days my head isn’t in science-mode, and I don’t care to put it back there until I’m back in the Americas.
There is also this thing called the “gut-brain axis” by which we can correlate intestinal health to cognitive health. I know from n=1 experience there is absolutely truth to this: Healthy organs equals superior brain function.
And then I believe that it’s good for us to get our bellies rubbed. Dogs like it, maybe you’ll like it too.
I used to be very uncomfortable with having my stomach touched, and I think this is true for many people. It’s such a vulnerable place. It’s allowing someone to touch your guts, where your ribacage isn’t there to protect your visceral self. It’s allowing someone to press on the place where we feel emotions. Where we get butterflies. We have “gut feelings”.
And some of us feel self-conscious about how our bellies look and want to hide them. It’s a sensitive place to that demands you put a lot of trust in the person you’re allowing to touch you there. It can even take overcoming some fears to get yourself in the massage room.
Forsooth, one of the reasons I signed up for this course was to face my own fear of belly-touching. I wanted to see if my reaction would be as emotional as it was physical. And our teacher even told us that curiosity is the main reason people come to see him for Chi Nei Tsang treatments.
WHO SHOULD GET CHI NEI TSANG?
I think people who struggle with feelings of fear, worry, anxiety, anger, or general stress will benefit a lot from Chi Nei Tsang. You will feel different afterwards, I reckon.
Who else? Those who suffer from constipation, chronic pain, and problems due to misalignment, for sure. Also good for anyone who wants to improve their organ function, maybe as mentioned by your friendly neighbourhood Chinese medicine doctor (but you need to have faith that through manual stimulation the organs can be detoxed).
WHAT DOES THE MASSAGE FEEL LIKE?
During, it feels kind of exactly like how you’d expect it to feel- Like someone’s smooshing your organs around. But every part of the abdomen feels so different to be smooshed upon.
The massage works on all the major organs: Skin, diaphragm, small and large intestines, liver, gall bladder, stomach, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, heart, lungs, bladder, and sexual organs, and some other stuff straight out of the Chinese medicine book that can’t really be considered organs.
For those who are really interested in what I went through in each major phase of the massage, here’s a breakdown that I hope won’t be TMI. Enjoy.
Chi Nei Tsang Play by Play: A week in the life of Monika’s organs
1. Opening windgates and tan tien.
The windgates and tan tien zones.
Windgates are zones on the abdomen next to the bellybutton that are stimulated in order to coax “wind” (which carries the Chi, remember) to leave your body. The tan tien is the central energy point, and is located 4 fingers-ish below the belly button.
This part of the massage was so powerful. Felt like I had the crap kicked out of me for the rest of the day, but in a really good, detoxified, kind of way. If that makes sense.
Having these zones pressed upon I felt all kinds of sensations radiating through my body, like through my legs and hips, and at the end felt pretty light headed. Getting up from the floor took a few tries. For the rest of the day I felt light and peaceful, but so very strange in a way I can’t describe just yet.
That same evening I did a yoga class and felt that my “outer core’ muscles were able to activate reflexively rather than me fighting to activate and brace them through my own will. Probably because I wasn’t so limbic. Reduction in sympathetic tone or something. It was so good.
Yeah the diaphragm is totally inside your rib cage, so to get at it, you kind of have to stick your hands under there…. Euughh
This was much less intense than the windgate/tan tien opening but still quite powerful. And highly relaxing to boot.
I liked that the diaphragm is considered an important structure in Chi Nei Tsang, because if you have been following my blog for a while then you already know how important it is for the function of pretty much everything else in your body. When you have diaphragm dysfunction, you can, and probably will, develop dysfunction anywhere.
Word of warning: Diaphragm massage can be kind of unpleasant-feeling if it’s your first time receiving it. I have had manual therapy done on my diaphragm before, so it wasn’t a complete shock having someone poke their fingers under my ribcage. Call me strange, but I actually quite enjoy it.
We learned 6 or 7 techniques to work on the diaphragm as well as some guided breathing techniques. These will come in handy when working with my dance clients, about 99% of whom have diaphragm facilitation issues.
Afterwards I felt like I could breathe super easily and was 500% more relaxed. Again, I needed about 5 minutes to stand up and come back to reality after we finished the diaphragm work.
3. Small intestine
Accordingly to Chi Nei Tsang, many of our negative emotions are stored in our small intestine. If we are unable to digest all the experiences and feelings we take in, especially if they are stressful and negative, they stick around in the digestive tract a bit longer, fester, and form icky blockages of emotional pain (that might be causing physical pain, too). Much the same like with the food we eat. Too much festering chyme ain’t no good.
This portion of the massage you can expect to feel “stuff”, aka undigested matter and energy, moving around in there. Which I really liked. I am strange, ok.
Also interesting to learn how different emotions are supposedly stored in different locations in the digestive tract, and to feel which portions are more tender or painful to the touch. Not much more to say about the small intestines other than it’s kind of weird to have someone poke around at them. Weird, yet highly satisfying.
Oh the demons that could be living in your intestines.
4. Large intestine
Oh my God, the large intestine. This was a pretty crazy part as the receiver, and as the giver, probably the most complicated and technical.
As the giver it was really cool because you can feel the large intestine quite easily- Feel gas pockets, places that are more icky (especially if constipated), and it’s pretty weird for sure to indirectly touch someone’s poop and flatulence.
As a receiver, this part of the massage made me feel the most self-conscious. The large intestine is not a notoriously sexy organ. It’s not exceptionally flattering to have someone poke around at the tube that holds all the undigested bits of food you’ve eaten, feel your gassy pockets, and provoke the uncontrollable gurgling sound characteristic of stuff moving into your bowel. Yummy.
FYI It’s best not to eat or drink a lot before the massage because that will feel awful (nothing to eat or drink 2 hours before, and our teacher, Remco, even said the hardcore will fast 24-48 hours prior to the massage).
After this portion was through, I didn’t run to the washroom right away like I expected, but I did feel very “hollowed out” inside. My insides felt invigorated. I think. My mental and physical energy felt chilled-out but stable. A kind of calm mental clarity that I usually can’t achieve. Weird, warm, tingly feelings in my groin area. Probably because of the number of times we practiced this one maneuver in which you press down on the rectum. From the front. Non-invasively. Geez.
Later that evening, had a great poop. Two of ’em, actually. How are your poops? (<—– click the link to learn more about what your poops say about your health).
The holy grail of poops is number 4. If only all mine were so holy…
5. Liver, gallbladder, stomach, spleen, pancreas.
These organs I clump together into one group here because many of the techniques we learned were similar, and this portion wasn’t as quite so lengthy. The pancreas, for example, we worked on using only 2 techniques, compared to the large intestine for which we learned SO MANY .
Anyway, the part focusing on the liver and gallbladder was by far the most intense for me. For about 20 minutes after I felt this weird tingly sensation in the right side of my head, kind of behind my eye. Felt, again, very lightheaded, but especially on the right side (side the liver’s on). Later, a friend of mine who studies Chinese medicine told me that, indeed, it is quite normal to feel weird stuff around the right side of my head when stuff is happening with your liver. Cool.
Also, for me the stomach and spleen were quite tender. Probably some emotional stuff related to years of being told to suck my stomach in and my weird emotional relationship with food during my years as a dancer.
6. Heart and lungs.
You can’t directly work on the lungs because of the rib cage, but in Chi Nei Tsang you work on points and zones that correlate to the heart and lungs, which are on the ribcage, abdomen, chest, and clavicle. Not so much to say about this part. You do a lot of guided breathing and it feels pretty relaxing, unless you have a sensitive or ticklish ribcage, in which case you might not enjoy when the practitioner digs their fingers into your intercostals (I loved it…).
Eughhhh this was by far the weirdest part of the massage.
Imagine someone’s pressing deep into your belly and poking at your kidneys. It feels exactly like that.
At Blue Garden. Here is our teacher, Remco, getting all up in this lucky student’s right kidney.
I had no idea the kidneys were palpable through the abdomen. Did you? They are! And it feels intense to receive. Kind of like a sharp, pain-like feeling that isn’t quite pain, but definitely isn’t pleasant. After, it felt as if all my organs were suspended, floating. Some abdominal tangles got undid I suppose.
For me, the right kidney was more intense than the left. Not sure exactly what this means yet…
Yes, even though it is a muscle we go after the psoas in Chi Nei Tsang because it is deep in the abdomen, attaching the the spine and diaphragm, which we worked on earlier. Emotional tension, stress, and poor organ function can thus affect the tension and function of the psoas, and visa versa.
Entry to get at the psoas was similar to getting to the kidneys, but with a slightly different angle.
I also really enjoyed that our teacher explained to us that the iliacus and psoas are not the same muscle, which some teachers do. There is no iliopsoas. They are two different muscles with different functions and different insertion points.
Too, I still feel strongly that we should not be attempting to release the psoas unless we have a very good reason to do so, ie, it is actually a facilitated muscle that is compensating for other synergists, antagonists, etc. The psoas can often be inhibited, and causing other muscles to compensate, so if you release it more, making it loose and relaxed and more lazy, that’s not going to fix anything, but can actually cause it to tighten up reflexively and feel worse. So I may or may not use these release techniques on everyone…
But still it was good to learn some psoas release techniques in case I really do need them, and to receive it felt very unpleasant and intense. Is this because my psoas(es) are actually tight, or are they inhibited? In either case a muscle can feel sore to the touch, so for sure there’s some dysfunction there, but whichever is my case, I’m sure I’ll be ok. When I get home to Toronto I’ll get one of my NKT friends to sort that out.
8. Bladder/sexual organ area
I’m getting tired of writing this monster piece so I’ll keep this short. It was also a short portion of the massage so I don’t have much to say about it. Didn’t feel distinctive except for the bladder, which of course, when pressed on makes you feel like you’re going to pee your pants (I didn’t).
Also, by this point of the massage, you’re so used to getting poked in the guts that nothing really surprises you anymore. And if you’re really lucky, you’re so relaxed you can just zone out.
If you’ve made it to this sentence, congratulations. This was a huge, monstery post that I entitles anyone who actually read the whole thing mad respect from yours truly.
I have no real conclusion other than to say that Chi Nei Tsang is a wonderful way to get to know yourself better. For a dancer, this is an invaluable thing. To know oneself is to become a better artist, to be healthier, to make better decisions.
I have for sure noticed some physiological adaptations post-Chi Nei Tsang: Better, more reflexive core activation, feeling more parasympathetic, improved breathing, and even full ROM neck flexion, (which I then lost the next day…). But I would say the real benefit is in the experience– Allowing yourself to become vulnerable, and to release emotionally, and getting in touch with your gut-health.
As for dancers, is dance not about embodying a feeling through movement? Portraying an emotion? And if your ability to emote is impaired because all your feelings are bunged up in your guts, preventing you from performing your best, then maybe you’ll consider an alternative form of healing, like Chi Nei Tsang. Or something. At the very least, you’ll let go of some tension and stress, breathe more easily, take a good poop or two, and have a great day.
I know you’re curious.