“Can you maintain undivided concentration until your chi is as supple as a baby’s?” – Tao Te Ching
Of all the chi cultivation methods taught in the Healing Tao, the Iron Shirt packing technique is the one most often abused — with potentially dangerous side effects. At summer retreats, nothing pains me more than to watch students packing their breath in Embrace the Tree posture. Their faces turn beet red from holding their breath too long. Their mouths are clenched in a grimace, as their brains overheat from excess warm chi rising up from a pounding heart. The air finally burst from their stressed lungs in a huge sight of relief. A student, gasping to recover, feels a vague pride at having suffered through his daily dose of bitter medicine.
If this describes you, read on. You are not properly practicing chi kung (“energy mastering exercise”) – you are butchering a very gentle internal art designed to build power over time. Iron Shirt chi kung can and should be a pleasurable way to cultivate your chi without strain on your lungs or heart. The worst types are those who pack and squeeze as many extra breaths into their body as possible. I know this personality type well, as it once described me.
For the first two years after I learned Iron Shirt 1, I took great pride in swallowing an extra twenty breaths and forcing them from my lungs into my organs and fascia. My whole chest and face glowed red hot. The more intense it felt, the stronger I thought my chi was getting. More likely I was a case of my over inflated energy causing my ego to balloon as well. Then one day after practice, I noticed a mass of little red dots spread all over my chest. The blood vessels were beginning to pop. That shook me up. I stopped all packing immediately. But the red dots didn’t disappear, and six years later many of the blood spots remain, grim reminders of youthful excess.
1. Breath Packing Does Not have to Strain Your Body
It took me those two years of practicing the wrong way before I finally gave up and realized that the breath packing process should be done without any strain to your body. If you are straining your self, you are probably creating subtle injury to your lungs, diaphragm, heart, or blood vessels. If you have any heart weakness or irregularity, there is a danger of aggravating it with breath packing and you should do the postures with NO packing.
What is it about packing that makes it so powerful? There are three simultaneous processes that deliver a triple whammy:
a. Squeezing muscles compresses the fascia, draws blood to a local area.
b. Inhaling air injects oxygen, which is converted into available energy by the body. Holding the breath causes you to burn reserve chi stored in body cells.
c. Mental concentration directs the chi from the organs, blood, and oxygen to the local point being squeezed.
At what point does holding your breath strain your body? If you feel any dizziness, or your lungs are straining for oxygen, or your heart is pounding, your blood pressure is rising to your head, you are probably stressing yourself. If you find your self obsessed by the thought, “Can I breathe now?”, you should be breathing air.
2. Single Biggest Danger of Packing is Failure to “UNPACK”
Packing is an intense contraction of your physical and energy body. It needs a counterbalance of relaxation and expansion. Failure to relax the muscles squeezing the chi into the bones and fascia sends a negative message to your body. Most people are unaware they’ve left instructions for the body to remain “uptight”. Excess packing tension is also imprinting psychic stress on your energy body. This may show up later as a blockage in your meditation if it goes uncorrected.
Master Chia had warned me years ago that I was packing too hard, but I ignored his warning. The same warning is issued at workshops today, but with the number of students multiplied a hundred fold, it simply is not possible for many students to get the repeated feedback they need. Other students are so out of touch with their bodies that they actually don’t know when they are stressing it. The net effect is the same — Master Chia’s warning not to hold the packed breath if strain is felt goes unheeded.
3. Packing is Historically an Advanced Method
In China, the Iron Shirt methods were historically used by more advanced martial artists seeking to make their bodies invulnerable to blows. There was a lot of secrecy, so that your potential opponents wouldn’t get the benefit of this powerful internal technology. It probably originated in the Shaolin Temple schools, which make it a Buddhist chi kung practice, as they often used more force on the body than the Taoist methods, which stress effortlessness.
There are hundreds of schools and thousands of different chi kung forms in China, so many of the Buddhist and Taoist methods have been borrowed and mixed together in endless combinations over the centuries. Master Chia has taken this training method for fighters and adapted it for purposes of fighting off illness and accelerating development of the energy body.
According to one friend who studied in China, oriental martial artists do not try any powerful packing of the breath until they have undergone preliminary warm-up exercises and supervised body training for at least two years. This is to ensure their body will be able to handle the additional chi pressure that is created in all the organs without negative side effects – high blood pressure, heart stress, chi imbalances, etc. This body training also insures that they will be able to relax and “unpack” the effects of doing the Iron Shirt chi kung.
So what is the lesson for those Americans, who are in lousy shape physically, if they want to learn Iron Shirt chi kung? You might start by attending a Healing Tao summer retreat, where you could receive more intensive instruction. Unfortunately, due to the nature of weekend teachings and lack of follow-up correction by a qualified instructor, many students do not properly learn Iron Shirt chi kung.
Master Chia has often said you cannot hope to learn the Iron Shirt chi kung in a weekend workshop. The basic principles of chi kung are taught there, but its difficult to absorb them on a body level. Individual feedback is essential from a qualified instructor after you have practice a bit. The summer retreats offer a better chance to practice daily, get your structure and rooting tested, and take the time to learn to pack your breath gently, without strain.
4. Gentle “Pulsation Packing” is Easier
Today I often do Embrace the Tree, but I rarely use any physical packing of the breath. I stand in the posture, and I go deep within the energy channels of my body and the earth, and pack the chi using my mind only. This is the true goal of Iron Shirt chi kung — to increase your ability to breathe internally. I’m completely relaxed, and enjoy it immensely. Not only is there no feeling of strain or forcing my body, but I use the process of pulsing the breath to gently release stress from my body into the earth.
I call this pulsing of the breath “pulsation packing”. It is the same as regular Iron Shirt packing, only more gentle. You frequently release the breath before any strain can build up. I inhale, gently squeeze a point for 2 to 5 seconds, exhale and completely relax. This is repeated at the same point 5 to 15 times. After pulsation packing at the perineum, I would then move to the sacrum, kidneys, chi ball, and chi belt, repeating the same process at each point.
This warms and opens each point without straining the body. I never pack above the waist, for the simple reason that so much chi is generated by the pulsation packing in the lower tan tien that the chi naturally overflows and fills the upper body. The idea is to pulse your breaths and squeeze the muscles as delicately as you would do a tai chi movement. Or pretend you are a young baby doing Iron Shirt — can you squeeze your muscles with the same soft delicacy, letting only your chi be firm and strong inside?
5. Gentle Packing of Lower Body: A Simplified Sequence
I advise most of my students to develop the lower half of their body first — feet, legs, perineum, kidneys, naval — before even trying to build up chi into the upper body. I personally never physically pack breath into my upper body — if the spring below is gushing forth, it will naturally pulse above into a full fountain.
The only packing I do in my upper body is with my mind. It is too easy for stress to accumulate in the chest and shoulders without further squeezing and packing them physically. If you are already carrying a lot of stiffness and tension in your upper body, you should especially avoid tightening those muscles. If you lead an extremely active physical life and your upper body is very loose, your body may tell you its o.k. If you listen carefully inside to what your body says, it usually includes the message: “Be Gentle, Don’t Hurt Me!”
This lower body approach helps keep your mind calm and brain cool, but warms up your lower tan tien, which is the key to good rooting. I tell students to follow this sequence for the first six months, with heavy emphasis on bone breathing, long, slow breaths, keeping the brain cool, and extremely gentle squeezes in the lower body followed by total release of all muscle tension:
a. Set your structure for standing. Begin with arms hanging relaxed at the side in standing position. Focus on standing with proper structural alignment: weight on the center of the foot, sacrum sinking, jade pillow rising, spine, bones and joints clearly aligned.
b. Begin bone breathing, earth to navel. Put your hands over your navel. Slowly inhale as with your mind you draw chi from the earth through your bones and meridians up to your lower tan tien. Slowly exhale from your navel back down to the feet into the earth. After a few minutes, your mind will get very cool and calm, and the navel will start to tingle.
c. Visualize all the channels and points you wish to strengthen. As you bone breathe, see the key energy points of Iron Shirt and just mentally spiral energy at those points. Emphasize the lower half of the body. When the lower half of your body fills up, the chi will naturally flow up the spine and down the front of the chest.
d. Gently begin to pack. Hold breath for 5 seconds max. Hands may remain over navel or raised into Embrace the Tree position. Ever so gently as you inhale from the earth to the navel, pause at one point per breath. Delicately squeeze on the inhale and then release the muscles completely on the exhale back down to the feet. With a slow, cool, breathing rhythm, repeat 10 or 15 times squeezing only one point per inhalation: perineum, or kidney / ming men, or chi ball, or chi belt.
e. Repeat above, but spiral and squeeze at each point. Combine the pulsation of gentle squeezing-packing at each point as you inhale with mental spiraling. This will help train your mind to open the points later without any inhaling or squeezing the point. As your mind gets more steady, you will be able to do a double spiral at each point, one clockwise and one counter-clockwise spiral, without any strain on your lungs. If you start to feel any strain, do a quicker spiral – and release the breath sooner. Then inhale to the next point, and repeat.
f. Stand quietly, and breathe internally. (See following description of internal breathing.)
6. What Kind of Chi are You Storing in Your Body?
One goal of Iron Shirt chi kung packing is to increase your capacity to store chi in your body. It will then be available whenever you need it – to live creatively, or to survive any crisis. But if you want to become an internal alchemist, the higher process leading to complete realization of the Tao, you need to understand some fine distinctions about the type of chi you intend to store in your body.
The major distinction is between “wei chi” — the external or post-natal chi, and the “nei chi” — the internal, or prenatal chi. Food, sunlight, water, and air energies are all post-natal, or acquired after birth. They strengthen the body, but only temporarily.
Ching, or vital essence, and the original chi bubbling forth from your tan tien are examples of pre-natal chi. It would also include your DNA and inherited physical and mental abilities, which are innate to you. These prenatal energies are much more concentrated and potent. Both wei chi and nei chi are necessary to life, and humans must constantly regulate and balance these inner and outer energy sources.
I draw these distinctions in reference to Iron Shirt packing, because many students forget that packing a lot of air into their fascia is giving only a temporary boost of energy. That packed air is post-natal chi that is destined to be shortly consumed or spent. However, the purpose of all chi kung is long term. In the case of Iron Shirt packing, the short term purpose is to open up the energy channels in our vital organs and fascia with the external chi so that the body is proteced from illness or blows.
The long term goal of Iron Shirt packing is to create more room in our energy body for internal chi to circulate during meditation. This is why I urge students not to get overly focused on the external aspect of the packing, and cultivate the internal chi as they stand in postures. In this high sense, Iron Shirt chi kung becomes a standing meditation that increases our capacity for internal breathing.
7. Internal Breathing Requires Deep Relaxation
After you do this systematic contract-release breath for a few minutes, your whole body begins to rhythmically pulsate. If you surrender your mind to this pulsing process, your body begins to breathe and pulsate itself automatically. But your mind must be very calm and 100% focused internally. This pulsing is the first stirring of internal breathing.
I focus my breath in my lower tan tien with very light packing, and then exhale and release it into the earth. I begin pulsing between the earth and my navel. Then I just stand quietly, and spiral the Fusion belt routes to clear my body’s energy field and connect it with Heaven and Earth. If I am calm and my mind is clear, the Tao fills me with fresh chi that pours in through my feet, my bones, and my three tan tiens – navel, heart, and crown. This is quite blissful, and the chi circulates spontaneously through the channels I have opened through more formulaic meditation.
One of the goals of all Taoist chi cultivation practice is to increase your ability to breath internally. Taoist adepts and yogis from other traditions have long claimed this marvelous state is attainable with proper training. Some students misinterpret this and think that by forcibly holding their breath, they can stop physical breathing and begin internal breathing.
You cannot force your breath into stopping, and thereby gain instant enlightenment. This confused belief leads to abuse of training methods like Iron Shirt packing. You have to “charm” your autonomic nervous system and vital organs into a deep state of relaxation. If you convince your vital organs that your body has a surplus of internal chi, then they don’t need to bother working so hard to gather extra post-natal chi from the air, sunlight, sex, etc. Instead you begin breathing at the lower tan tien, which connects you to your primordial, or original breath (also called pre-natal chi).
8. Internal Breathing is Spontaneous Pulsation
The few times I have experience true internal breathing have occurred spontaneously and unexpectedly – not because I willed it. But I had created the right conditions: my mind was very calm and focused inward, my physical breathing so deeply relaxed as to be negligible. The air was moving imperceptibly between my two nostrils. Suddenly, my physical breathing stopped completely. My breath was literally snatched away by the explosion of inner energy and light.
When this kind of total internal breathing occurs, you have activated your internal atomic power, sometimes called the kundalini. You realize that your soul is always breathing the “Original Chi”, the primordial breath of God, which arises from within. That is why the Taoists often refer to it as “embryonic breathing” — you feel like you are back in the primal womb, breathing through an umbilical cord connected directly to the purest source, the wu chi, the un-nameable & unknowable Tao.
But what would internal breathing be like in a more ordinary, less mystical state of consciousness, i.e. when you’re standing in posture? This primordial breath is experienced in your subtle body as an extreme fin yin/yang pulsation. On the physical level, it stimulates inhalation – exhalation. But this is not just a mechanical sucking in and out of air.
It is your soul body – your higher mind – drawing the chi from the oxygen and feeding it to the vital organs, glands, blood, etc. With this chi, your body can function and your soul can operate your five senses to enjoy life on this plane. So while standing in Embrace the Tree, simply be aware that it is your soul body/spirit that is breathing in the oxygen that sustains your physical pulsation. This will sharpen your awareness of the internal breathing that is happening unconsciously in you every moment.
9. Safe & Pleasurable Packing Power: Five-Point Plan
I believe a safe practice for Americans seeking the powerful benefits of Iron Shirt chi kung would include the following:
a. Always do 10-15 minutes of warm-up to increase your chi circulation before doing any packing practice. These are taught at the summer retreats, and are as important as the practice itself. This is not a muscle warm-up like joggers do. This is a chi warm-up. Stretches must be done slowly, with full awareness of chi flowing in your blood and meridians. Develop a warm-up routine that is a gentle movement chi kung, and do it every day.
b. Exhale frequently to prevent tension buildup. Follow a long term program that begins with very gentle breathing exercises. Give your self a spacious time frame of months or even years. Inhale to the energy point you are working on, i.e. perineum or kidneys, and then exhale. Inhale to the next point, and then exhale. After a few weeks or months, you may be able to comfortably hold your breath for two or three points before exhaling. In this way you will gradually build up the capacity of your body without straining it.
c. Holding the breath is not important — opening the energy channels is what counts. In Embrace the Tree and other postures, keep the emphasis on training your mind to open up energy channels. These channels can be opened in many different ways — with movement, with meditation, with sounds, with dozens of different types of breathing techniques. The Iron Shirt breath packing techniques can be used to quickly stimulate the energy channels, but you don’t want to develop a dependency on them, or it will slow your progress later. They are crutches meant to be thrown away as soon as you can walk (breath internally).
d. Listen to your own body, and do what it tells you is safest. If an instructor is leading you in the Iron Shirt practice, and he/she is holding the breath longer than you can comfortably do it, don’t be afraid to exhale and resume normal breathing. Just follow along by spiraling the chi at each point instead of packing it. It’s o.k. to pack the chi mentally, without squeezing your muscles and holding your breath. And don’t copy nearby students who are straining their bodies.
e. Keep your chi kung practice simple and fun. If you start with gentle breathing methods and keep your mental focus simple and calm while in each posture, you will love the fresh vitality you’ll feel daily and get addicted to your practice!
But if you feel stress from doing the packing, this will create mental resistance and you will eventually stop practicing. Remember, packing is only a small part of iron shirt chi kung — your structure, rooting, keeping a calm mind and internal circulation of chi are all equally important.
10. Rooting and Packing: Two Different Processes
There is a tendency among the beginners to try to root themselves by packing their breath and squeezing their abdominal and neck muscles tightly. This actually makes it easier for someone testing your structure to uproot you, because the body is being held rigid as one piece by muscular effort. Genuine rooting develops only after you relax both your mind and your body. When these are both as soft as a baby’s, your internal chi easily mixes and absorbs the earth’s chi.
So what does genuine rooting feel like? In Embrace the Tree posture your body is rooted when it literally feels solid as a mountain. Your feet and legs connect with the Earth chi below and they merge into one piece. You feel “packed” — but it’s not a feeling of high internal pressure. It’s cooler, more still. Yet you still feel movement inside your body/earth. There are underground rivers and lakes hidden inside the body/mountain — your chi meridians and tan tiens which serve as the transportation and storage system of your energy body.
There are two points worth noting about the effect of packing on rooting:
a. Breath packing can help to partially open energy channels, but if your mind cannot control the chi, it will probably rise up to your head and actually uproot you rather than sink down and root you to the earth. There is no benefit in indiscriminately opening up energy channels or creating strong internal chi pressure — it is the balance and harmonious flow and high quality of your chi that is important.
b. Breath packing is a method of taking the chi from oxygen in the air and converting it into body energy. Rooting occurs when your body’s chi is mixed with the earth chi. Do not confuse the chi absorbed from air and the chi absorbed form earth, as they serve different functions.
The air is the fire element, which has a tendency to rise up. The earth holds the water element, which is heavy and flows deeper into the earth. Thus water is far superior as guide for rooting into the earth’s gravitational field. It is also much cooler for packing and condensing chi in the body.
In my own case, my tendency to over-pack had over-stimulated by heart and lung fire, so my mind was jumping about wildly and it was impossible to really root. After I stopped excessive packing of breath, my rooting improved dramatically. This was because I was able to relax, and let my mind sink down into the cool earth and contact it’s chi. We are all naturally rooted — it is only our own mental resistance that uproots us. If we put on our Iron Shirt gently, and pack it slowly and safely for a few minutes each day, our bodies will begin to glow with good health.