Taoist Yoga and Inner Alchemy
One of many ancient Taoist practices was alchemy, the search for an elixir that would make a person immortal. This search led many individuals to experiment with strange plants and compounds that were poisonous, causing death to the many seekers. This search did not end in vain; in fact, this movement led to many discoveries of therapeutic plants used in traditional Chinese medicine. The search for alchemical elixirs also resulted in the development of Inner Alchemy, or Taoist Yoga; a series of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines intended to prolong the life of the body and create an immortal spiritual body that would survive after death. This system of discipline has proven itself beneficial in Chinese culture and is still practiced today. It is the intention of this paper to outline the physical, mental, and spiritual stages that are undertaken by the practitioners of inner alchemy and to point out the correspondence between the various yogic techniques and the symbols used in Chinese alchemy.
Taoist yoga is often referred to as the ‘yellow and the white’; this term is a reference toward alchemy; implying a series of refinements and transmutations. This knowledge allows one to conclude that Taoist yoga practitioners follow many of the steps of outer alchemy in a symbolic manner within their own bodies and minds. (Blofeld p. 131)
This ‘refinement’ and ‘transmutation’ involves the manipulation of three cosmic energies that exist in the body and pervade the entire universe. These are the life giving forces that caused the creation of the cosmos from within the void, giving birth to life and death in all things. When these powers are cultivated and refined within the body they return to their pure cosmic form, thus becoming the sources of life and light, bringing about an awesome transformation. (Andersen p.22)
These three substances are also called the three treasures; they are the working ingredients of inner alchemy. Humans posses these three principles, yet they are in a coarser form than their cosmic counter parts; this is due to the many impurities in human life. Passion, desire, and un-balanced attachments are the impurities that must be removed in order to refine the three treasures and return them to their cosmic state in order to be transmuted and allow the practitioner to become immortal; that is the goal of yogic alchemy. (Blofeld p. 130)
The three treasures are ching (essence) ch’i (vitality) and shen (spirit), with each taking on three different forms. In the raw form ching is associated with the sexual fluids, in the subtle form it is that which makes matter and substance tangible, in the third form ching is that which gives tangible form to the void. The coarse form of ch’i is associated with the air, lungs kidneys, and pores; in its subtle form chi is distinguishable from Te, the cosmic counter part; ch’i in the cosmic form is the Te or the cosmic vitality, which gives virtue to the Tao. Shen in the gross form is spirit contaminated by the senses and gross thought; in the subtle form it is released from passion and sexual craving; in the cosmic form, shen is the cosmic spirit, void, pure, and beyond duality. (Blofeld p.132)
Many schools of Taoist Yoga use alchemical symbolism such as furnaces and cauldrons to represent the different stages, practices, and bodily processes that occur in practice. John Blofeld quotes an ancient work discussing this alchemical symbolism in his book, Taoism, the Road to Immortality:
Let Tai Hsu [the great void] be your cauldron; let Tai Chi [natures own dynamic principle] be your furnace. For your basic ingredient, take stillness. For your reagent take wu wei, no activity [that is not spontaneous and free from involvement]. For mercury, take your natural endowments [of ching, ch’i, and shen] For lead take your life force. For water take restraint. For fire, take meditation. (Blofeld p. 132)
Blofeld gives another example of the link between Taoist Yoga and alchemic symbolism by quoting the Green City Hermit saying:
What is known as partaking of the golden pill does not signify bedroom arts [dual cultivation], but drawing upon cosmic essence, vitality and spirit to add to one’s own store. It is by cosmic transformation that body transformation is wrought; it is cosmic life that prolongs one’s own. Cosmic vitality acts un-ceasingly; so will it be with our own. Cosmic transformation continues without end; so will it be with ours. Heaven and earth are un-ceasingly renewed; so will it be with us. Cosmic life endures to eternity; so will it be with ours. (Blofeld p. 133)
In order to successfully transmute the three treasures, it is necessary for the aspiring yogi to practice a discipline evolving over eight stages. In order to reap the reward of this ardor one must gain an adequate amount of control over the mind, body, and the senses. Success is contingent upon this type of control.
The first stage of Taoist Yoga involves the conservation of ching through the retention of semen. Both lust and all forms of worldly desire must be refined away. Semen being the earthly manifestation of ching, along with desire is the fundamental fuel of life. If ching were exhausted through semen, death would be an inevitable result. Therefore sexual intercourse must be minimized in order to reduce seminal emission. This is expressed in the Secret Instruction for Compounding the Golden Elixer:
…when people are tranquil and limit their desires, the ching and ch’i rise from the three receptacles [in the region of the brain, heart, and kidneys] and run through the lustrous psychic channels; the sexual act, however, draws them down from them so that they pass the ‘gate-way of life’[between the kidneys] and are emitted. Even though the arising of sexual desire be involuntary, the fire at the gateway of life stirs, the ching and ch’i overflow; unless they are channeled back whence they came, the loss is the same as if emission had occurred. (Blofeld p.140)
The passage indicates that ching is related to semen without being identical with it. It is this nature of ching that allows it to escape during intercourse even if no emission of semen occurs. Since Taoists dislike extremes, strict celibacy is not recommended. The student is only encouraged to conserve the ching. The philosopher Sun Szu-mo writes: “For people in their twenties, one emission in four days; in their thirties, one in eight days; in their forties, one in sixteen days; in their fifties, one in twenty one days. From age sixty upwards, emission should be avoided all together…” (Blofeld p. 141)
Chastity is recommended as the most efficient path toward success; however, progress can still be made quickly by following Sun-Szu-mo’s advice. Female adepts are not mentioned in his writings, yet many scholars agree that ching is related to the female sexual desires as well.
The second stage in Taoist Yoga involves the restoration and reparation of the ching. The yogic practitioner repairs previous loss of ching in a way that is called ‘collecting the ching’. This process is carried out by continued abstinence, eating healthy food, and performing bodily exercise without strain. This has the effect of curbing the desires and maintains a state of tranquility in the individual. Balance is to be maintained by the avoidance of alcohol, hot foods, and over stimulation of the mind and senses. Breathing exercises and Tai’chi make excellent non-strenuous exercise in the process of replenishing the ching. (Blofeld p. 142)
The third stage is the transmutation of the ching. This stage is the end goal of the two preliminary stages. The transmuted ching is made into a source for ch’i. The transmutation of ching requires the clarifying of the mind, and cultivating stillness; this purifies the shen. The adept aims toward stilling his or her thoughts and emptying the mind in order to gather the ch’i and produce ching. This process transmutes the accumulated gross form of ching into subtle ching, which is much closer to the cosmic ching. This can only be brought about by perfect stillness and emptiness of mind. This procedure involves the bringing out of the shen by contemplating the light shining through the ‘precious square inch’ existing behind the eyes. Hence, the yogi should have no thought, just stillness allowing shen to accumulate. (Blofeld 143)
The fourth stage is the nourishing of the ch’i. This means that one must accumulate a full store of subtle ch’i. The yogi must alternate between stillness of mind and subtle breathing. During this process the yogi avoids any extremities of mind, such as depression or excitement; thus the yogi maintains mental calm and equanimity. All emotions must be controlled due to their harmful effect upon the accumulation of ch’i. During the period of mental calm, one’s breathing must also be kept even at all times. It is very important that even the coarse chi’s is protected from the different chi’s of temperament, rage, fear, and etc. (Blofeld p. 146)
There are two popular breathing techniques aimed toward the nourishing and accumulation of ch’i. The first is called natural breathing. The goal of natural breathing is to relax the breathing process to the point where inhalation and exhalation become un-distinguishable from each other as if they were one continuous breath. This procedure involves the full expansion and contraction of the lungs making the breaths slow and deep. The average person normally breaths with the upper part of the lung, while the yogi inhales by pulling the diaphragm into the stomach area; this allows the lungs to inhale the maximum amount of chi. By expanding the stomach, the upper chest is relaxed, allowing the ribs to expand, therefore increasing one’s oxygen intake. During the exhalation, the stomach contracts, the diaphragm is pushed upward, expelling old stale air. This technique is very useful in nourishing the ch’i and for refreshing the blood and body fluids. (Khon 137)
The second popular technique is called regulated breathing or ‘reversed breathing’. It is very deep and soft, reaching as far as the stomach, yet without the upward and downward movement of the diaphragm that occurs in natural breathing. During exhalation the stomach remains free and full; during the inhalation the stomach is contracted, causing the upper part of the chest to expand. (Kohn 138)
Both techniques would be performed while sitting in an erect cross-legged posture. The breathing usually begins short, gradually increasing toward deeper and longer breaths, yet maintaining a slow and quiet pace. All breathing should be done through the nose in order to protect the body from impure ch’i. (Kohn 138)
The Longevity Classic gives the following recommendation for the cultivation of the ch’i:
Sit quietly for some time, letting the mind grow limpid as though preparing for Chan style meditation, eyes resting on the tip of the nose ligned with the navel. Exhalation and inhalations should be calm, slow, and equal in length and not at all like panting. While exhaling, the ch’i rises from below; while inhaling, it descends. There must be no intervals, no holding of the breath. One should give only slight attention to the breathing, amounting to no more than a calm awareness of air pass ing into and out of the nostrils; yet even so the hearing must not be permitted to dwell on any other object. (Blofeld p.147)
This passage shows that breath control is very important for the nourishing of ch’i. The methodology mentioned above not only involves the active accumulation of ch’i through breathing exercise; it also includes the simultaneous conservation of ch’i through the cultivation of mental and bodily stillness.
The previous nourishing of the ch’i is a necessary step in order to continue with the fifth stage of Taoist Yoga. The fifth stage involves the transmutation of the accumulated ch’i through the arousal of internal heat. This cultivation of inner heat is necessary for the transmutation of both ch’i and shen. Such a process requires mental visualization and specific muscle movements. The ch’i fans the inner heat of the solar plexus area causing the ching to rise, resulting in its retention beneath the crown of the head. The presence of the ching attracts the cosmic yang energy, which assists the transformation of the ch’i. (Blofeld p.149) Once this stage has been mastered the aspirant is ready to begin developing the shen.
The sixth stage of Taoist Yoga is one of the most important stages; during this stage the yogi must nourish the shen. The shen is often described as ‘the lord of the body’, or ‘the mother of the golden elixer’. This third treasure is considered a radiant spark, which links one to the Tao itself. The goal is to build up enough shen so that it can be transmuted into pure spirit. The only way that shen can be nourished is by shutting off of the senses and keeping the mind in a still concentrated state. This involves meditation during the night hours and the cultivation of an attitude that transcends the limitations and longings of transitory desires. His wang Mu is credited for his description of this process:
The way to fix [the shen] and hold [it] is to know what is happiness, being satisfied with what is enough, being beyond the power of cold and hunger to dismay, being free from the bondage of idle thoughts…Just fold your hands together, relax your limbs, banish idle thought, let your own body be the sole object of awareness. Then will the shen be fixed, the ch’i righted and your spirit impervious to aging and death. (Blofeld p. 150)
The seventh yogic stage is the transmutation of the acquired shen. The coarse shen that is related to the knowing mind is to be transmuted into pure spirit. Once someone has reached this stage there should be no more mental wandering, cares, or worries; the mind should be perfectly still. T’ien Hsuan-tzu says, ‘when shen of knowing ceases, great wisdom then takes birth.’ The knowing mind must not be allowed to take control or else the aspirant will become lost in pointless discrimination; hence, the knowing mind, or the thinking faculty, must be transmuted into pure undifferentiated awareness. This process requires no special practice; it will occur as a cumulative effect of the previous stages. (Blofeld 151)
The final stage is the transmutation of the voided shen into the void itself, to transcend individual existence. At this stage ‘voided shen’ refers to a mind or spirit that is able to transcend individual existence. The mind has been freed from the bondage of the senses and all sense of duality. The ‘void’ is referred to as ‘pure yang’, that is unconditional fullness and formlessness as opposed to emptiness. (Blofeld p. 152)
After examining the stages of Taoist Yoga one can deduce that the last stages require an intense prolonged calm concentration, which is developed through the latter preliminary stages. This type of concentration requires great endurance, introspection, self-discipline, and mental equanimity. The sage Jean-zi describes the importance of concentration in the book, The Method of Holding the Three Ones:
The precepts of holding the Ones [three treasures] warns against lack of concentration. If you have concentration, but without endurance, or if it endures but is not essential, then the Three Ones will depart. Your body will be an empty house without a master. In this disastrous condition, how could you endure for long? (Andersen p. 43)
It appears that the last four stages of this inner alchemy reveal the intrinsic psychological nature hidden in alchemical metaphors of shen, ch’i, and ching. All three of these principles must be purified, thus relating toward the distillation process in alchemy, they must be converted into their pure cosmic form and then transmuted, thus implying another alchemical process. Once the ching is refined to its pure state, it is converted into ch’i, which is further refined and converted into shen, which is then refined and converted into the eternal void, the supreme immortal elixir. This process is very metaphorical in its reference to alchemical procedures in its approach. It would be safe to conclude that this system of inner alchemy is really a symbolic system bringing about a self-induced transformation of an individuals physiology and psychology. This transformation in effect is intended toward the cultivation of an enduring physical body, and a spirit body, an identity that is unconditioned by space or time, having no attributes; thus an immortal body.
Blofeld John, “The Yellow and the White: The Secret Yogic Alchemy”. Taoism the Road to Immortality. Shamballa publications, Inc. Boulder Colorado: 1978 p. 130-156.
Kohn Livia, “Physical Exercises”. The Taoist Experience an Anthology. State University of New York Press. New York: 1993 p. 110-138.
Andersen Paul, “The Meditational Tradition”. Method of Holding the Three Ones. Cuzon Press Ltd. London: 1980 p. 30-45.