This morning, a student asked me to read an article that recommended against letting the tongue rest on the upper palate during QiGong practice except during MicroCosmic Orbit–which he warned against doing at all until you are “advanced.”
With respect to the sifu, who gave a very detailed and excellent explanation of the meridians, types of QiGong and a thoughtful comparison of ancient and modern approaches to teaching, I disagree with many of the reasons he gave, based on my own training, yes, but also on my exploration of the tongue position from a research standpoint. Yes, I’m geeky like that.
One reason he advised against it was very practical: Placing the tongue on the upper palate is difficult for many beginning students and tends to tighten their jaws and throat. Thus, his reasoning went, they should wait until they are better able to relax before trying this. I absolutely agree that when I began practice, I did find that the tongue position was difficult. However, like many skills, this discomfort lessened over time and my tongue began to naturally find its way to the palate spot, no strain needed. When I was returning to piano as an adult, a piano teacher emphasized the idea of “begin correctly or you will always play incorrectly.” She said that if you just keep playing a piece after hitting a wrong note–or in my case, many wrong notes–you will train the brain to go to the wrong key every time. So she would stop me and make me start over until I could get through the place that was hanging me up.
This makes a great deal of sense to me. In my “day job,” as a personal trainer, I don’t let someone do a movement with incorrect form just because they have to try harder to do it correctly. If I let them squat without hinging back at the hips first, they would continue to do that and not ever be able to just intuitively drop into a squat properly. Many of us have back problems because we have never integrated proper technique in lifting, as another example. So placing the tongue early and often, as they say say about voting, will train the intuitive mind.
The other purely scientific reason to place the tongue on the top palate is that it helps to produce saliva. When one has the mouth mostly closed, letting the lips part “only enough for a grain of rice to fit through,” as one teacher taught, the production of saliva can be scant unless the tongue is resting on the top palate as a stimulator. So doing so at all times will just make you more comfortable in longer practices.
And as far as the specific practice of QiGong goes? The sifu indicated that the tongue position is only associated with Martial QiGong and is done then to build martial power. I, for one, have never heard this and more to the point, I don’t do Martial QiGong (Tai Chi) so I could not have learned this as part of that training. I admit, in fact, that I occasionally feel a bit guilty about doing “only” QiGong and knowing only the concepts of Tai Chi without practicing it myself but there it is: I’m a practitioner and teacher of only the health and mind/body elements of QiGong. And that leads to my most strenuous objection to this position.
He claims that connecting the Du Mai (the back, yang, channel) and the Ren Mai (the front, yin, channel) all the time will “block” the energy from circulating anywhere but these two channels. I, quite frankly, don’t see how he comes to this conclusion. Does doing a Heart flow negate the Lungs? No, you might be concentrating more energy into the heart but you are not starving the lungs, liver, kidneys or spleen. When we press the palms together to stimulate the Lao Gong points to generate energy, this energy flows outward to all the body as well: letting these points touch does not block it from all other channels. If it did, we would find it difficult to do Buddha Palm and get any benefit from it.
You can even try an experiment:
When you have hit a point of practice where you feel the energy in the palms of the hands, the finger tips or wherever you feel it in your own practice, remove the tongue from the palate and see how you feel. Then replace it and continue. If you are like me–I have done this experiment several times–you will either still feel that same energy or it will actually diminish, coming back to you only as you replace the tongue. And this happens in any practice, not just MicroCosmic Orbit.
And my final quibble with the sifu is the claim that the Orbit is too advanced and is dangerous. Any practice done to the exclusion of others or to excess can be dangerous and, indeed, reversing the direction of flow during it has been said to be possibly harmful to novices (just as walking backward on a treadmill would be to someone who isn’t used to treadmills). But my morning practice includes, and has done so from the start, Turning the Wheel which is part of MicroCosmic Orbit. Did I get strong energy from it when I started? No, of course not. But my head didn’t explode either. MicroCosmic Orbit is sometimes referred to as an ancient, mystical practice that was only done by “insiders.” Those cult-like associations do QiGong no favor and, as this gentleman so rightly concludes, as 21st century practitioners we should not cling to ancient ways if they are not helpful to our practice–just as we would no longer rap our students with sticks if they asked a question.