Home Practice Five Element Theory

Five Element Theory is a complex and detailed system of looking at the universe and the changing relationships of all within it.  This way of experiencing life recognizes the interaction and interdependence between any two given points or things within this cycle of change.  Five Element Theory can be applied to anything, from cycles through time tot the human body, its organs, and the person’s emotional and physical well-being.

One application of Five Element Theory is the relationship between the internal and the external human body.  Before looking at this relationship, it is first necessary to have some understanding of the nature of chi. With any movement of our bodies, the chi moves first, leading the body.  This is true in self defense and in the tai chi set.  Chi leads, but it also pushes.  When we practice the set, we do not want our moves to be broken into separate moves.  Instead we want them to have fluid connection by having an overlap between moves.  While one move is finishing, the next has already begun.  The end of the first move generates the momentum into the second move.  In this way, the chi is leading the body, and it is also pushing during the overlap.  Like a locomotive or like bicycle pedals, one side of the circle is being pushed down, and at the same time the other side of the circle is pulling upward.  The leading and the pushing are part of the same movement.

The more we practice the set with concentrated yi, the more chi our bodies will have.  By practicing with good strong yi and chi, we learn peng.  Also, as we continue to practice and generate more chi, we should allow our chi to sink to the dantien.  As we learn to sink our chi to the dantien, we also eventually learn stabilization.  Abundant chi in the dantien benefits the health of the body in two distinct ways: externally it helps the four limbs (arms and legs) to become strong, and internally it nourishes the ten organs and associated meridians.

Each element has an associated yin organ, and an associated yang organ.  The yin organ is considered “solid” and nourishing (although by Western standards it may not always be literally solid) and the yang organ is considered “empty” and active.  Also, each organ system has a feature on the face and substance of the body (such as tendons, bones, muscles and skin) that is associated with it.  The general health of each organ system is reflected in all of its associated parts.  Additionally there are different energies associated with each of the five element/organ systems.

1. Metal/Gold

The yin organ associated with Metal is the Lung.  The part of the face connected to the Lung is the nose, and the body substance is the hair and skin.  The skin is sometimes considered the third lung.  If a person has a runny nose, then his or her Lung has some kind of imbalance.  The yang organ associated with Metal is the Large Intestine.  The Metal element can be seen in the sharpness of fa jing. Shaking energy and the Diversion Punch in the original set are both moves that embody aspects of Metal.

We learn to use our breath to connect our upper and lower dantiens.  In this way the breath empowers fa jing.  The power begins in the Lungs.  One of the first things a beginner to Chen’s tai chi must learn is relaxation.  In this case, we must relax our whole bodies, including our Lungs.  If we breathe forcefully, we hold our chi in our Lungs.  We must not hold the chi in a single place but allow it to flow fluidly through the lungs.  This method of practice nourishes the Lung.

2. Wood

The yin organ associated with Wood is the Liver.  The part of the face is the eye, and the body substance is the tendon.  Liver problems may be seen often in a person’s eyes, such as jaundice or long term drug or alcohol use.  The relation yang organ is the gallbladder.  The Liver organ/Wood element influences the chi to move outward, expanding.  Similarly, Wood’s related energy is peng jing, expanding and contracting.  Every move in both the original set and in the Pow Choi must have peng jing.  Chi comes from the liver.  When the Liver is active, it creates its own fire.  The fire of the liver, like a steam engine, creates the steam pressure to begin moving the chi.  Peng uses the power of the joints between bones.  In Chen’s tai chi we cultivate spiraling movements, stretching like taffy.  This kind of movement stretches the tendons.  Some moves in Pow Choi and the move Blue Dragon Rises from Water (Ching Long Tsu Suay) emphasize peng jing.  These moves incorporate other energies also, not only peng.  We want to allow our livers to be calm and relaxed, soothing the fire of the liver.  Peng jing nourishes the liver.

3. Water

The yin organ associated with Water is the Kidney.  The yang organ is the Urinary Bladder.  The part of the face is the ear and the body substance is the bone.  Water always searches out the hole or the crevice.  For example, a stream finds crevices in the earth, the water in a bucket with a hole moves instantly through the hole.  The is the nature of Water.  Water/Kidney energy is soft, but also has hardness.  Like the ocean, if you walk in slowly, the water seems to be completely soft, giving way to our feet.  However, if you drop down from high above, hitting the surface of the water, then water is hard and powerful.  Relaxed it can be a gentle spray.  Focused it can have the hard intensity of a fire hose, moving anything that comes in its sharp stream of water.

As water always instantly finds the hole, our snaking-in movements find the hole of our opponent.  Snaking-in chi comes from the kidney.  When we move our Kidneys, turning at the waist, then we are fast like the wind.  Our opponent cannot possibly find our center, nor can he know our intentions when we move our kidneys.  This type of movement tonifies and nourishes the Kidneys.

4. Fire

The yin organ associated with Fire is the Heart.  The yang organ is the Small Intestine.  The part of the face is the tongue, and the body substance is the pulse of the blood.  The blood itself is also connected to the Heart.  In the blood there is power.  The Heart’s energy is lei jing.  Explosion power, and much of Pow Choi use the Heart’s energy.  Explosion chi comes from the Heart.  When the Heart is active, we feel courage. Practicing Pow Choi nourishes the Heart and the blood.

5. Earth

The yin organ associated with Earth is the Spleen.  The yang organ is the Stomach.  The part of the face associated with Earth and the Spleen is the mouth and lips and the body substance is muscle.  The element of Earth, and the Spleen organ and meridian are associated with stability and center of gravity.  The following is from a book on the Five Elements from the Chinese Medical perspective.

The Spleen occupies the position of the fulcrum, the balance point through which transition occurs.  By means of a fulcrum, a lever transfers energy and mass from one site to another.  The Spleen transports Nutritive Essence – the basis of Qi and Blood – throughout the organism, forming and re-forming self and tissue, imparting to us a sense of substantiality and terrain.  Just as a heavy keel assures the stability of a sailboat, the Spleen provides a ballast.  Body weight, size, and shape remain virtually the same from day to day.  To accommodate fluctuating conditions, the Spleen shifts fluid and mass from place to place, retaining the body’s center of gravity.  By promoting continuity of mental orientation and relationship to place, people, and values.  Such constancy supports adaptability, the capacity to endure stress without harm.

(Beinfield & Korngold, Between Heaven and Earth, pg 115)

The Spleen’s energy is coiled and round and is like a steam-roller.  When the Spleen is active, we have more strength and foundation.  A weak spleen may be seen through a lack of muscle, such as a flabby arm.  The climate associated with the Spleen is Dampness, and a Spleen imbalance may be seen through edema (water retention).  In severe cases of dampness, there may be severe water retention, such as when a person’s leg is like an elephant’s leg.  As all five elements are connected and interdependent, so are the five organs.  To treat severe dampness, one might have to look at the health of the other organs involved, such as the Kidney (Water).  The steam-roller like coiled energy nourishes the Spleen.

The Five Elements match the Five organs, the energies and the five sticknesses, When we practice, the five organs are engaged, matching the energies and sticknesses.  As humans, the Heart is our principal organ.  We may live for a little while if any other organ is damaged.  Even with a collapsed Lung we may live for at least a few minutes.  But if the Heart does not work, then we die almost instantly.  The heart rules the blood.  The basis of human life is the dantien with its stored chi.  In the blood there is chi.  Blood and chi mix.  While the chi may move anywhere in the body outside or the blood, all blood must have chi.  Live blood with chi is red.  Dead blood without chi turns dark, as in a scab.  When we die, chi escapes from the muscles.  After the chi has escaped, the muscles become hard and stiff.

Chi is the source of human life.  The dantien is the root.  When the dantien is full of chi, then the Kidney is full of Water, the Heart is full of chi and the Shen (Spirit) is clam and full.  Then the brain has power and clarity, and the nerves are able to have more sensitivity.  When the Lungs are full of chi, then the Liver may be powerful and strong.  With all of this, the body is strong and healthy.  By cultivating and nourishing the five organs, ten externally the tendons, blood pulse, muscles, bone, and skin and hair is all healthy.  Also, the eyes, tongue, moths and lips nose and ears all function well.  Then we have mental clarity and good memory.  With all of this knowledge is unlimited.