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Drawing On the Dao: Less Strain, More Gain

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 101 - July 2004

Cultivating and Sustaining Energy

Whilst out shopping in my local high street I glanced through the window of the newly opened gym. The sight that greeted me put me in mind of what a torture chamber might possibly look like. Sweating rows of people working out, pumping iron, frantically cycling on static bikes going nowhere – all of them looked tense and stressed as they aimed to fulfil the axiom 'no pain no gain' by 'going for the burn'. In contrast, Daoists hold that it makes no sense at all to exercise in a way that results in fatigue and exhaustion; their view is 'less strain, more gain'.

Currently there is a great deal of concern about soaring levels of obesity and this has led many people to head for their nearest gym.

However, severe aerobic exercise aimed at cardiovascular conditioning and muscle building can produce tight muscles, stiff joints, blood and tissues that are overloaded with excess lactic acid. Not only can aerobic exercises cause strain and pain but they deplete the Chi – the vital life force that circulates through channels of the body-mind known as meridians. 'Going for the burn' means that Chi is being burned up and lost in perspiration.

By contrast, Daoist exercises such as those of Chi-Gung and Tai Chi involve slow gentle movements combined with deep breathing to balance energy in all internal organs, tone muscles, loosen joints, relax the nervous system and oxygenate the blood. Furthermore, by exercising in this relaxed way, the Chi is cultivated and sustained and, alongside a healthy diet and a brisk daily walk, good health can be established and maintained with no wear and tear to the body, mind or purse!

Here are some simple stretches that can be used as a warm up for more vigorous forms of Chi Gung or Tai Chi, but are in themselves gentle ways to activate the internal flow of energy through the channels. Daoist exercises also emphasize the importance of having a sense of focus, of intent. Whilst exercising, remember to harmonize movement with the breath whilst maintaining the intention that the Chi is circulating and flowing through your meridians. In this way body, breath and mind are balanced and harmonized.

Simple stretches

Chi flows in channels throughout the body; they have entry and exit points at the tips of fingers and toes and source points around the wrists and ankles. Stimulating these points with the following exercises ensures that the energy is moving and thus will not stagnate.

This is particularly useful for those who are limited in their mobility but the following stretches are a great way for everyone to start the day before even getting out of bed!


Imagine, as you inhale, the Chi energy entering and strengthening your feet. With legs stretched out and heels on the floor, breathe in and pull the feet towards the body, then breathe out and stretch the feet away from you. Repeat ten times. Now rotate each ankle in turn – clockwise five times, anticlockwise five times. Finally, massage your feet whilst pulling gently each of the toes in turn.


With legs stretched out in front of you, hold the right leg under the thigh and breathe in gently bending the knee towards you. Do the same with the left leg.


Stretch your arms out in front of you and breathe in. Imagine the Chi flowing through your hand as you pull them back towards you and then down and away whilst breathing out. This will stimulate points on the hands. Follow by rotating the hands five times clockwise and then anticlockwise. Now massage your hands whilst pulling gently each of the fingers in turn.


With arms out in front of you and palms uppermost, bring the hands to the shoulders so stretching and flexing the elbows. Repeat five times.


With hands hanging by your side, shrug your shoulders up to your ears and then let go, releasing all tension. Repeat five times.


Let hands lie, relaxed in your lap. Take a breath in and, exhaling, bring your chin down to your chest. Breathe in and move your head to the upright position. Breathe out and let your head fall backwards. Allow the movements to be slow and controlled. Breathe in moving head to upright position and then exhale allowing your head to fall slowly to one side. Breathe in as your head returns to the centre.

Repeat on the other side. Always move the head gently and in a relaxed manner so as not to pull the muscles. Breathe in, move the head to look over your right shoulder and exhale as you do so. Look around as far as is comfortable. Bring the head back to the centre. Do this movement again, this time with your head looking over your left shoulder. Never continue with movements that are painful – remember, less strain, more gain.

Spinal twists

To complete your mini-workout, try these spinal twists. They will give muscles and tendons a good stretch and open up the energy channels. Furthermore they will increase the flexibility of the spine, thereby helping the circulation of blood to spinal nerves and to the brain. All the internal organs have direct connections via the nervous system to the spine – as we work with the spine we therefore also affect our internal organs.

• Stand in the basic Chi Gung position – feet parallel and shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, the lower back straight and the tail bone tucked in with arms hanging loosely at sides;
• Start turning slowly from left to right using only your thighs for power. Let the waist, torso and arms follow naturally turning with the force produced by the legs. Keep the elbows loose so that the arms flail out freely with hands slapping against chest. Keep spine and head erect turning the head each time you turn;
• Gradually increase the extent of each twist until you have reached the limit of flex; keep the entire exercise slow, gentle and rhythmic. Practise for three to five minutes;
• Relax and enjoy the day.


Reid, Daniel. Chi Gung. Simon and Shuster.1998.
Hill, S. Reclaiming the Wisdom of the Body. Constable and Company. 1997.
Teeguarden, I. The Joy of Feeling. Japan Publications Inc. 1984.


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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