The Small Heavenly Circuit is considered one of the oldest and most powerful techniques in Daoist Qigong, used for thousands of years for elevating spiritual awareness. In ancient times, it was considered an important esoteric meditation for all serious practitioners, and was taught in secret to members of the imperial family by enlightened sages. Legend says that Lao Tzu achieved immortality by practicing Small Heavenly Circuit.
Mediation with Breath Connects Two Meridians
The Small Heavenly Circuit is a meditation and breathing practice that involves linking two energy pathways that run along the midline of the body into a cycling loop. One pathway, Du Mai (Governing Vessel), extends up the back and the other, Ren Mai (Conception Vessel), down the front of the body. Along these pathways we find important acupoints that act as reservoirs of energy.
As energy is circulated around the cycle of points repeatedly, the current of Qi increases gradually from a trickle, to a full-flowing stream, and eventually an oceanic current of cosmic energy. At the higher levels, you experience yourself circuiting through the heavens as you circulate the energy in your body. As the more potent energy pass over the acupoints or gates, their esoteric powers are revealed and spiritual gifts are awakened.
Since all 20 meridians cross the path of the Small Heavenly Circuit, the energy cultivated through this practice flows into the rest of the body, nourishing and harmonizing the internal organs with potent Qi. It is said that practicing this circuit is like doing all the other meditation practices simultaneously, therefore the benefits of the practice are immeasurable and endless.
The practical health benefits of the Small Heavenly Circuit are deep and practical. Chinese Medicine holds that illness reflects an obstruction and imbalance of the meridian system. Since the Small Heavenly Circuit is the master meditation that regulates the entire physical body, as we circulate the energy, we heal the body too.
Note for Acupuncturists: Some Qigong acupoint locations and names are slightly different from their acupuncture counterparts, depending on your lineage and tradition.
The Energy Pathway
The Du Mai meridian extends from the perineum up the spine around the back of your head, it crosses over the top of your head and your forehead, and ends in your mouth. There is an acupoint on the hard palate that acts as a bridge between Du Mai and Ren Mai. The tongue acts as the switch that connect these two meridians. As you touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, softly, the Qi circulating in Du Mai flows through the tongue into Ren Mai begins in the area around your chin and extends down the midline, passes through the neck, chest, and abdomen, and continues all the way down to the perineum where it rejoins Du Mai. This is called the Magpie Bridge, or Da Qiao.
Along this circuit, a few anatomical landmarks help us situate the acupoints. We focus on these landmarks to help us increase awareness of acupoints. The Chinese sages say that Qi follows mind, and by concentrating of the acupoints, we empower them energetically. By moving our attention from one point to another point, we simultaneously increase Qi flow and awaken awareness of the Small Heavenly Circuit.
At first, the Small Heavenly Circuit may feel fuzzy and is not clearly defined, like a mountain path at twilight. As we practice, attention tends to drift, we become easily distracted, or even fall asleep. Gradually, the path comes into brighter view and our attention becomes more stable. At some point, SHC becomes tangible and is experienced as a current of powerful energy and heightened awareness. Beyond that stage of practice, mystical corridors open up and new worlds are revealed as we circuit the macrocosm that abides within.
Practice of the Small Heavenly Circuit
There are 12 points that we use to orient awareness as it courses up the back and down the front of the body. Three of these points lie on the Mai on the front of the body, one point inside the mouth acts as a relay between the two channels and the other seven points lie on Du Mai on the back.
Begin at Xia Dantien at the lower abdomen
- Xia Dantian (Lower Elixir Field) – About three finger-widths down from your navel, level with your center of gravity which lies between the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebrae.
- Hui Yin (Perineum) – On the pelvic floor between the anus and the genitals
- Wei Lu (Tailbone gate, DU 2) – In the space between the sacrum and the coccyx.
- Ming Men (Gate of Life, DU 4) – At the midline, between L2 and L3, at the of your inflection point of your lower back.
- Jia Ji (Mid back, DU 9) – At the spine, at the level of the inferior angle of the scapula when you are standing or siting.
- Da Zhui (Great Vertebra, DU 14) – Just interior to the spinous process of C7 at the base of the neck.
- Yu Zhen (Jade Pillow, DU 16) – On the midline, in the depression just below the occiput at the base of the skull.
- Bai Hui (One Hundred Convergences, DU 20) – The topmost point at the top of your head.
- Shang Dantien (Upper Elixir Field) – At the midpoint between the eyebrows.
- Da Qiao (Magpie Bridge, transition point) – On the hard palate, at the location where the tip of your tongue touches the roof of your mouth gently.
- Tiantu (Heavenly Rushing, Ren 22) – at the throat
- Zhongdantien (Middle Elixir Field, Ren 17) – Center of the sternum on the midline, on the 4th intercostal space.
- Lie down or sit on a chair or cross-legged comfortably. Or stand, shoulders relaxed, jaw tucked a little bit under so that the top of your head is pointing up towards the sky. Imagine an invisible hand reaching down and tugging your hair upwards. Allow this sensation gently opening the space between your vertebrae from the base of the skull to the coccyx while still maintaining the natural curvature of your spine.
- Widen the space between your eyebrows, take a deep breath, and relax.
- Become aware of your ears and listen to the sound of silence that lies both very close and very far away.
- Open the pores of your skin and soak in the Qi of the universe. Let this energy warm your internal organs and perceive the inside of your body glowing with a pleasant golden light.
The main practice:
- Xia Dantian embodies the center of the Small Heavenly Circuit. The practice begins and ends here. Concentrate the warmth and light inside your body into a pearl of golden light about the size of a big marble at Xia Dantian. Feel the pearl pulsating warmth and light, illuminating and softening the belly.
- Feel the weight of the pearl increase and let it sink to the lower abdomen. As the pearl descends into the nether region of your body, feel it growing heavier and carving a path of light in front and trailing a comet tail behind.
- Watch it soften and brighten the pubic bone as it move around the base of your trunk towards Hui Yin at the base of your torso. Allow the pearl to simmer at Hui Yin and warm the space between your anus and your genitals. Here the pearl is heavy and glows like a ball of fiery iron. Feel the perineum grow warm and your sexual organs stir. Draw sexual vitality into the pearl of light and observe its quality transform, becoming lighter and energized. Allow the charged and reinvigorated pearl glide towards the next point, Wei Lu, at the opening between the coccyx and the sacrum.
- Observe the narrow opening. Melt the tightness with the warmth and light of the pearl. Feel the space expand until it is wide enough for the pearl to pass through this portal. (At each cycle of the Small Heavenly Circuit, this pinhole will become wider until eventually, Wei Lu becomes as wide as the mouth of a colossal cave blazing with the fire of the pearl.)
- You are now inside the spine. Use your mind’s eye to look upwards and perceive the spine that you are about to ascend. Let the pearl rise like a bubble of of light through the waters of your lower torso towards the next point, Ming Men, located between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae, across from the navel.
- Bring awareness to the Gate of Life. This acupoint is a mysterious energy portal. Behind it shines the Great Fire of Life that glimmers for as long as we live. Bring awareness to this point. Shine the light of the pearl on Ming Men and warm the flame of existence.
- Feel the pearl shed density and rise through the spine to the next point, Jia Ji, which is located between your shoulder blades and behind your heart. Here lies another narrow pass. Pause and concentrate on this point. Let the warmth of the pearl thaw any tension and anxiety hiding in this space observe it’s light brighten the back of your heart.
- Feel the pearl become lighter until it becomes as light as a helium balloon and watch it rise to Da Zhui, the great bony prominence that lies at base of your neck. Shine the light and warmth of the pearl on the Big Bone until it shines as brightly as a bleached desert bone catching the reflection of the noontime sun. Bring warmth and brightness to this acupoint, and using your mind’s eye, look up towards the next point, Jade Pillow.
- Continue to float upwards, rising past the seven cervical vertebrae. Enter the great vault of your cranium and continue to rise to towards Jade Pillow at the base of your skull. Just above this area lies the visual cortex, the part of the brain that controls the sense of sight. Shine the light of the pearl into this mysterious space that emanates the light that illuminates dreams and visions. Merge the light of the pearl with the source of vision and inner light and feel the pearl transform into a radiance of pure light.
- Guide this brilliant point up and around the back of your head and towards Bai Hui at the top of your head. It is here that the highest part of your body touches the lowest part of heaven. Abide in this space for a moment and merge your brilliance to the brilliance of the cosmos.
- Then, let the empowered pearl glide towards the front of your body. Feel it become slightly denser and let it encounters gravity. Feel the pearl gain a sliver of mass and the lightest of weight. Light as a feather, let it descend your forehead until it becomes a palpable presence resting between your eyebrows at Yin Tang. Pause there and shine the dazzling light of the pearl on the clear screen of the imagination. Then, after a moment, feel the pearl grow denser and heavier, and sink down through your sinuses and land on to the roof of your mouth. Feel the pearl brighten and warm the inside of your mouth.
- Become aware of the tip of your tongue touching this point, Que Qiao, the bridge that links Du Mai and Ren Mai. Feel the pearl trasnform into a drop of golden nectar and guide this sweet presence through to the base of your tongue. Swallow the pearl and trace its bright and warm path down the throat, down the base of the neck, and down the sternum until it reaches Shan Zhong, the acupoint on the midline at the heart center.
- Feel the pearl become denser as it fills with love. Hold the pearl in the palm of your heart and feel it grow heavier. Observe your chest fill with warmth and light. Then, unhand the pearl and let the sphere of glowing light sink like a gleaming marble to Xia Dantien. The pearl has returned home to the center. Let the pearl fill your belly with the happiness of homecoming. Observe how this space is more expansive and radiant than it was the last time you visited.
- Relish the tenderness of the moment, and then, feel the pearl grow heavier with the energy of satisfaction and sink downwards and start another cycle of the Small Heavenly Circuit. Only now, you seeded the path with awareness and inner light, and so the next cycle will be smoother and require less effort.
- Continue to circle the Small Heavenly Circuit, and at each turn, spiral deeper inwards and higher still. Witness the pearl of light become more tangible until it becomes an ever present energy in effortless orbit around the universe of your body, bringing you light and delight as it turns unendingly like the days and the seasons.
When you are ready to close your practice, bring the pearl to Xia Dantian. Relax and nourish your Qi. Allow your body to become porous like a sponge floating in an ocean of radiant Qi. Allow the endless radiant waters of the universe fill your body. Absorb the nourishing energy through your skin, fascia, muscles, tendons and bones, into your meridians and internal organs. Feel your energy and the energy of the ocean become one water. Floating inside this ocean, repeat to yourself: I’m in Qi, Qi is in me. Ren Zai Qi Zhong, Qi Zai Ren Zhong.