An Introduction to the Microcosmic Orbit and Circling Energy in Your Body


If you told me several years ago that energy could be built in the body to a level that it could be felt I may have believed you. If you told me that it moved I still would have been listening but with a degree of doubt. If you then told me that I could build this energy to the point of feeling it and move it throughout my body, you would have lost me there. Let alone the fact that my health would improve by doing so. But that is what I am here to share. Using a meditation technique popularized by Mantak Chia we can build energy and circle it through our body’s microcosmic orbit.

The Microcosmic Orbit is the combination of two meridian channels that create a circle of energy in the torso. The governing channel rises up the spine and the conception channel travels down the front. It is used in a Taoist seated meditation technique dating back to prehistoric China that improves physical and mental health and purifies the body.

If you are new to meditation or are wanting to take your meditation to a deeper level then this is for you. I want to introduce you to the microcosmic orbit and hopefully provide some signposts to get you past some of the mistakes I made. Let me tell you about the microcosmic orbit meditation and then share the one book you need to make a reality for you. I will also share three other articles in case you want to go more in depth.

What is the Microcosmic Orbit?

The microcosmic orbit dates back thousands of years and is a meditative practice based on the teaching of the I Ching. It is a process of learning about the energy centers in the body, then connecting them through meditation and focus, with the goal of building this energy to improve our mental health, physical health, and spirituality. In a healthy, aware, connected state we can better live in accordance with Tao, serve others, and remain present, healthy and happy. Pretty grand idea don’t you think? And well worth the time it takes to learn it.

The entire goal of the practice is to connect the two energy pathways that run up the spine and down the front into one moving cycle. The microcosmic orbit is also translated as the “Self Winding Wheel” which I think is a much better name because it is exactly what the energy feels like once the back governing vessel and the front conception vessel are connected and moving.

What are the Governing and Conception Vessels?

The governing and conception vessels are energy pathways that run from the perineum 1) up the front of the body to the tongue and 2) up the back of the body over the top of the head to the roof of the mouth. When thought of together they create a circuit. An easy way to remember them is that the “Conception” Vessel is on the front where a pregnant woman carries her baby. The first two letters in FRont stand for Functional and Ren Mai.

Many of the goals that we all have for starting or continuing our practice are directly dependent on two super systems of energy that run through our body. I am going to touch on them here to explain the microcosmic orbit meditation but I wrote individual articles on the overall system (Extraordinary Vessels) and the specific microcosmic orbit points of the governing vessel and conception vessel for you to continue reading.

Governing and Conception Vessels

I want to pause to point out something quirky. Don’t you find it strange that we think in terms of lines, highways, and pathways when we describe acupuncture and Chinese medicine but the word chosen here as the best translation is “vessel” which means container/pot/bowl/jug? I want you to keep that in mind as your reading this essay. The things I am describing here store energy as well as transmit it.

The Governing Vessel + The Conception Vessel

If you want to heal, be youthful, be in balance, and have good energy, then my friend, your sequences of movements, breathing techniques, and glee-filled meditations are designed to impact two pathways that when connected, form the Microcosmic Orbit.

The Governing Vessel + The Conception Vessel = The Microcosmic Orbit

Why are the Governing and Conception Vessels special?

In Chinese Medicine there are 20 Meridians and 8 Extraordinary Vessels. These 8 are “extraordinary” because they act as energy reservoirs that can be tapped in times of poor health.
But!

These 2 Extraordinary Vessels are extra-extra-ordinary! Here’s why:

  • They have their own acupuncture points, where as the other extraordinary vessels are more connective systems.
  • They combine to make up the microcosmic orbit. This allows us to circle internal energy throughout our trunk and head.
  • They aid the feeling of balance and harmony so many of us are after. The Functional Vessel is the Primary Yin energy route in the body and nourishes and maintains all of the yin meridians and organs. Conversely the Governing Vessel is Yang in nature so when used together we achieve balance.
  • They can be used to address many common ailments that we all face:
    • The Front – breathing, cough, sore throat
    • The Back – back pain, headaches, dizziness, fevers
    • The back channel branches through the heart and head. A connection between the head and heart allows us to diffuse power negative emotion connected to thoughts and memories or enjoy powerful positive emotions connected to thoughts and memories.
How do you open the microcosmic orbit?

What Does the Microcosmic Orbit Do and What the Benefits of Learning it?

The microcosmic orbit allows energy to flow freely through the body and allows the body to take extra energy and send it to an area of need. We all experience this when we get sick. We are exhausted and probably not hungry because the body has diverted energy away from clear thinking, movements and digestion to heal a body part or create white blood cells as an example.

By learning to meditate on the microcosmic orbit, we are raising our energy to a level that we always have something in reserve and ensuring that there is no blockage and the energy can get to where it needs to go. To accept this, it needs to be looked at through an Eastern lens where the belief is that the body is smarter than us! When given the proper nutrients and time, IT will decide what to use our energy for and treat the cause rather than the symptom.

The benefits of learning the microcosmic orbit meditation include, better health and longevity, you get sick less or are at least aware that something is not right and you can rest or take corrective action so that you don’t get as sick. Spiritually and mentally, it creates a time period where you are connected to your body and inner energy and are therefore not thinking or worrying about day to day problems. This break in our natural thought patterns gives us the space to come up with solutions.

Is the Microcosmic Orbit Dangerous?

There is no danger to this style of meditation but there are some special considerations if you have not connected the front and back channel yet. Basically, it takes time to build up enough energy to rise up your spine and over your head. It takes even more to pass through the palate of the mouth and then come down the front of the body and back to the abdomen.

What happens sometimes is that this energy pools in your head and can feel like erratic thinking or may cause sleeplessness. Until you have connected the entire orbit you may need to reverse the flow back down the back channel and concentrate on your lower back (mingmen) to dispel the energy. This is actually a meditation of its own that people use when they can’t sleep or are stressed.

The second thing that is talked about when people worry about the danger of certain meditation styles is that some believe you should never focus on one point in the body for too long. There is some truth to this but in the microcosmic orbit instructions in Mantak Chia’s book you will see that you are only doing it temporarily to sense the points and connect them. Eventually you never stop but keep moving through them.

The real danger is that you will quit trying to open the microcosmic orbit which is exactly what happened to me. I was making progress feeling energy and moving it up my back. I got stuck at the point where it rounds the head (jade pillow) and quit. I began thinking about it again, started over, and completed the back channel but the quit because of the restlessness and quit frankly I was a little spooked by the energy. Then a meditation coach explained about moving the energy back down and out the lower back until I completed the full loop and that worked. With quitting twice for several months, the whole process took me 9-12 months to learn.

What is the Process of Learning this Meditation?

If the idea of opening the microcosmic orbit is new to you, here is a rough summary of what the process looks like. This takes 3-6 months if you have experience. Initially it took me a few minutes a day for about a year (with some months off).

  • You learn microcosmic orbit breathing which is basically deep belly breathing to center yourself
  • You work to increase energy in your abdomen which feels like warmth or fullness
  • You hop up the spine thinking about specific points. This is real foreign and there are some traditions that tape a spiky nut or fruit pit to the place to help out.
  • You move energy from point to point up the spine
  • You will probably get stuck at the base of the skull for many sessions
  • The energy comes over the top of the head pretty easily and feels great
  • Getting past the palate is difficult. There is no meridian line or connective tissue here so we have to bridge the gap with our tongue. Do not over-think this. Do not apply pressure. Just smile. A genuine smile gets your tongue in position, then just push up a bit with the front portion of the tongue. Your teeth are touching. Secondly, when it begins to work you will possibly salivate. This “elixir” is liquid gold. Imagine it to be golden and swallow it. Imagine it going down your through and throughout your digestive organs making them healthy.
  • Coming down the front is difficult at first because it is VERY different then the back. The energy is cool-to-cold and loose. I thought I was feeling nothing and quit (again!) until I realized that it was just different. Very calming by the way.
  • Then you arrive back at the stomach.
  • When it is connected you can loop through the microcosmic orbit in under a minute. It’s that fast.
  • Then it is on to connect the arms and legs in the macrocosmic orbit!

How is the Microcosmic Orbit Different From Other Meditation?

Governing and Conception Vessels

Meditators of many disciplines move up the front channel. They bring energy from their belly up through the “chakras” and end at the mouth or go on to the head. This can be effective for clearing away sickness in the throat, opening meridian/chakra points, and building energy up to your head to experience enlightened or “celestial thinking.”

This is not what we are after here. The microcosmic orbit is a theoretically different animal. The idea is that we are trying to connect and fuel an orbit, a circle. At the point that it is overflowing with energy, the body’s innate intelligence will force the energy into an injury, a weak organ, a bruise, wherever it needs to go. In this theory, the system is designed to be smarter than us. Directed meditation is very valuable and Daoist meditations use it extensively. This is just not what we are after here (yet).

At an early level of development we don’t linger here. We don’t “spiral open our throat and heart chakras.” Later maybe. I am not passing judgement on any system. However, you need to have the highways open and flowing before you focus on any points or the organs will not have a place to dispel the energy you are building. My argument is more of an argument of order of events, not importance. I truly care about your development and want more people on the planet who have access to their internal alchemy.

And on to direction then, why are we going down the Conception Vessel and not up? Eventually you will be able to spin energy though your microcosmic orbit forwards and backwards. The best writing I have seen suggests that the heart energy is so strong and absorbing that it is hard to get past and keep going around the full orbit at first. Have you ever though about why your heart is a muscle AND an organ? Pretty special thing. When you get there, the energy feels really cozy and there is little desire to really go on. Again, super cool to hang out at the heart and play with once the orbit is complete.

microcosmic orbit and qigong

Microcosmic Orbit Qigong and Tai Chi Relationships

When we are circling our arms or hands or driving energy around inside of our torso we are cleansing and tonifying both the system and the energy that is flowing in this system.

When I began studying qigong and tai chi I knew none of this. I was more-or-less operating on faith that these foreign body movements were doing something good for me and hopefully one day I would feel it. They were, but I know a lot of practitioners who have quit because they didn’t see the full picture.

Then I did feel energy and hit another plateau spending a good amount of time just sensing my energy. Not bad and a good first step. But it wasn’t until I understood how things were connected so I knew how and where to move the energy (channels).

And I didn’t start dramatically affecting my health and well-being until I learned that the energy in these channels could be increased so much that there was excess that needed to be stored (vessels).

I guess you could say that my progress was akin to having a puddle, then a pond, then a river, and finally a river that overflows its banks to fill reservoirs along the way that drain back into the river when it gets low again. So at a higher level, tai chi and qigong are directly influencing and tonifying the microcosmic orbit and at a higher level you begin to sense this in your movements, just like you do when you are sitting and meditating.

Finding the Best Microcosmic Orbit Meditation Instructions

tai chi increases happiness

This is the easiest part of this article to digest. There was a single book written in 1983 that has all the answers and instructions you need to complete the microcosmic orbit. I wish I could give you a fancy high-tech option but Mantak Chia not only introduced the microcosmic orbit to millions through the book Awaken Healing Energy Through The Tao: The Taoist Secret of Circulating Internal Power, but also got people (me included) successfully completing the orbit and moving on to complete the macrocosmic orbit too. Honestly. I haven’t come across anything better. One warning, you need to be patient, follow the instructions, and reread it while you wait. The body isn’t going to give you that much energy at once. You have to build it over time.

I shared my experiences and my notes as I made progress in three additional essays:

The Extraordinary Vessels

The Governing Vessel

The Conception Vessel

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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