Lymphatics & T'ai Chi

by Jim Mann

First and concurrently published on, website for the publishing branch of the Santa Cruz Academy of Martial Arts.

We have often heard that T'ai Chi Chuan treats the body as a "hydraulic" system. I have also often wondered what, exactly, did that mean. Certainly there is a feeling when practicing of being a fluid-filled balloon with internal valves and pathways to direct force. We are aware that our bodies are principally made of water. We also know that chi follows the blood.

When I took a one-week course in lymph drainage, a technique I am finding to be extremely beneficial to health, I learned more about this "hydraulic system." Lymph, by volume, is the most liquid part of our anatomies. Ubiquitous, it exists everywhere but in bone marrow and cartilage. It is most concentrated in two areas - just below the skin and deep in our core.

At its most basic, lymph is one and the same with all the fluids that exist outside the cells themselves. In the circulatory system it is known as blood plasma; in the ventricles and the spine, it is cerebrospinal fluid, and between the cells it is interstitial fluid. Deep in our chests and our abdomens and just under the skin all over our bodies, there is a system that collects all this fluid and takes it back to the heart for recycling. This is the lymph system. Here, the same fluid that was once everywhere is now called lymph, and here it passes through a series of filters called lymph nodes that remove toxins and kill pathogens, preparing it for reuse. (To learn more about lymph, see What is Lymph and Why Would I Want it Drained?)

During the course, I found myself thinking extensively about T'ai Chi and such issues as "sticky hands," whole body movement, and jing. When I began learning T'ai Chi, Sifu Mancusso tried to discourage my tendency to grab partners by showing me that a soft, open hand could create enough friction on exposed skin to be far superior to any action of fingers and thumb. When he illustrated on my arm, I felt as if I had been snagged by flypaper on a fast conveyor belt.

My own attempts did not meet with the same success, to say the least. Once I had begun to develop the required softness, I gradually discovered that it worked better in some areas than in others. These are: on the sides of the chest below the armpits, anywhere on the sides and front of the neck, inside the elbows, and inside the wrists. As I learned in the class, the gua would also be a perfect target if exposed, because that area, like those listed, has a large concentration of lymph nodes. It has been my observation that there is a direct ratio here: the more lymph nodes, the stickier the skin. Also, these areas are stickiest when force is applied against the flow of lymph; i.e., down the arms or wrists towards the hands, and up the neck towards the jaw.

Now, what about "whole body movement"? Here T'ai Chi came to my rescue. In the class on lymph drainage, much emphasis was placed on using "total body movement." Lymph vessels are notoriously thin and fragile. Most of them are no more than hair-thin tubes of one cell in thickness. Effective lymphatic drainage requires the practitioner to stimulate those vessels without collapsing them. The total body movement they were talking about in class is the same as the wave-like motion of T'ai Chi. Using it not only helps keep the therapist in tune with the client's lymphatic pulse, but more importantly aids tremendously the softness of the hands so that they evenly spread the force, just as it aids the T'ai Chi player in adhering to his or her partner.

I also thought a great deal about jing. While there are numerous types of jing, they all have one thing in common; the player controls the depth to which it penetrates through the application of An, or suppressing energy. With very light An, you have surface jing. It is effective precisely because the surface is where most of our lymph fluid collects - the player is in contact with the partner's outer, most voluminous fluid body. However, little damage is done with a surface jing. It is mostly used to stun or distract as preparation for the deep jing. In the chest, this depth is achieved entirely through An. In the abdomen, a fluttering movement of the hand is also used, like a quarter sinking in water, the same motion we used in lymphatic drainage to make contact with a second, deeper fluid layer, the visceral lymph system.. In T'ai Chi, if the jing is applied slowly, the feeling is like pressing on a water-filled ball of resilient material that then rebounds away from you, often for a considerable distance. If this same force instead is applied with alacrity, the fluid does not have time to distort and rebound; rather it seems that the force sets up a hydrostatic shock wave that expends all the energy that would have gone into flying on hammering the internal organs instead. The result is very painful and can be injurious as well. At an extreme, it can rupture major blood vessels or organs.

But as in all things T'ai Chi, that which can injure can also heal. Lymphatic massage anyone?

Tai Chi lymph

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