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Physics, Physicality, and Physiology: The Foundation of Daoist Self-Cultivation
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Physics, Physicality, and Physiology
The Foundation of Daoist Self-Cultivation

Daoist self-cultivation has a vast range of varied techniques. However, they can be broadly categorized into two taxonomic categories. The first is posture based approaches, including daoyin 导引 taolu 套路 qigong 气功 and the like. The second is seated approaches: zuowang 坐忘, neiguan 内观 neigong 内功, etc. Both of these taxonomies are intended to achieve some aspect of transformation, which can be physical, mental, or spiritual. In this sense physical transformation implies relaxation, flexibility, circulation, opening of channels of qi, or similar ends. Mental transformation can be calmness, patience, acceptance, or insight. Spiritual transformation indicates transcendence, cosmic consciousness, non-duality, or possible ascension.

All self-cultivation intends to unify with Dao, but the methods differ across the lineages and the specific purpose of a given technique. Complex terminology is often used to describe abstract changes. Terms such as Tendon Changing (yijin 易筋), Marrow Washing (xisui 洗髓), Clearing the Channels (qingjing 清經), Opening Du and Ren Channels (tongdu tongren 通督通任), Revert the Essence to Nourish the Brain (huanjing bunao 還精補腦), and Enter Emptiness, Unify with Dao (ruxu hedao 入虚合道) are bewildering to the modern aspirant. Separated by the gulf of history, as well as the challenges of cross cultural interpretation, the difficulty in understanding the ideas of a mystical yet physically grounded tradition seem insurmountable. But a deep understanding of the mechanics of the body can yield some interesting correlates that may unlock the door of some of the mysteries. [End Page 157]

Although the methods of cultivation are disparate, they share a similar goal that is metered by the medium of the physical body, committed to a Daoist approach, which accepts the interweave of physical to metaphysical in the substrate of the qi dynamic. In this regard, body grounded spiritual transformation must correlate biometrics with psychometrics. Therefore, an inspection and appreciation of anatomy and physiology can benefit the Daoist aspirant.

Anatomical Considerations

Posture is maintained by two key anatomical complexes – the iliopsoas complex and pectoralis minor complex. Each of these has a potential impact on cultivation. First, the iliopsoas complex controls the cantilever of the pelvis. It contracts to shorten the relationship between the trochanter and the lumbar spine, which allows it to raise the leg or stabilize the back when sitting.

If the iliopsoas complex is healthy, proper hip carriage is maintained and tension around the femoral artery and femoral vein remains at a homeostatic balance, and the sciatic nerve remains uncompromised. Further, circulation is maintained at normal ratios whether standing or sitting. However, if unhealthy, lax or spasmed, the hip carriage is uneven and the tension around the femoral artery and femoral vein will be inconsistent, and the sciatic nerve may be compressed. This morbidity will result in circulation being compromised to the lower body, and the sciatic nerve may become inflamed.


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Fig 1.

Iliopsoas Complex

[End Page 158]

Turning to Daoist cultivation exercises, posture based selfcultivation approaches include a battery of techniques which are intended to “open the gua,” the pelvic structure. These movements stretch and strengthen the iliopsoas complex.

Above that, the pectoralis minor complex controls both the cast of the shoulder assembly and the angulation of the thoracic to cervical spine. It contracts in antagonism to the rhomboids to move the shoulders in relation to the thorax or stabilize the shoulder. If healthy, proper shoulder cast and thoracic to cervical angulation is maintained and tension around the brachial artery, and brachial vein will remain homeostatic, the brachial nerve will have proper space in the thoracic outlet, the valgus nerve will be uncompressed, and the carotid artery and vein will have homeostatic tension patterns. Further, if the pectoralis minor complex is healthy, circulation to the upper body will be maintained at normal ratios whether sitting or standing.


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Fig 2.

Pectoralis Minor

If the complex is unhealthy, lax, or spasmed, the shoulder cast will be uneven, the thoracic to cervical curve will become severe, the tension around the brachial artery and vein will be inconsistent, the tension around the carotid artery and vein will become inconsistent, the brachial nerve and the valgus nerve may also be compressed. This will lead to...