During this season of restoration and reflection, especially since I also happen to be in the postpartum period, the dai mai keeps coming up on runs and climbs. Alex Sollek, bodyworker extraordinaire at Nectar Massage + Bodywork, has prepared a primer on Traditional Chinese Medicine with a specific focus on the channel that makes us move.
I hope you enjoy this beautiful guest post - and be sure to schedule a massage with Alex if you live in the Seattle area.
Just as our own trajectory reﬂects the seasons’ cycles, so do our organs and meridians reﬂect certain qualities and play speciﬁc roles in our lives both emotionally and physically. Today I’m focusing on the Liver and Gallbladder and their lesser known partner, the Dai Mai, and their roles in our bodies’ movement. All the meridians contribute to motion in some way or another. There are twelve regular meridians, which span either from feet to chest or head or span from chest or head to hands. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), anatomical position is portrayed as a person standing facing forward with their hands raised straight up above their heads with their palms facing inward. This means that all the regular meridians are running directly up and down in a vertical fashion. In this way we are considered, in Chinese medical theory, to connect the heavens and earth. We become the point of contact. You might think of us like trees, feet rooted into the earth with our limbs ever reaching up toward the sun and sky.
The Liver and Gallbladder meridians are a linked pair, one yin and one yang. Functionally I think they are important to all kinds of movement. Running, dancing, yoga, rollerskating as well as just day to day activities, driving, gardening, sitting at the computer, etc. The Liver meridian runs bilaterally from the big toe, up the inside of the leg, and into the torso up to the top of the head. The Gallbladder meridian starts at the outer canthus of each eye and zig zags along the sides of the head, to the base of the skull, down across the top of the shoulder, again zig zagging along the lateral sides of the body, into the gluteal muscles and down the outside of the legs to end at the pinky toe.
Though they are not the only meridians to span the length of the body, their zigzagging paths and internal/external nature make them key in our ability to move in diagonal and spiral like patterns. In their channels you can see a dancer stretching out her leg in front of her while she leans her head to the side, arms reaching out like tree limbs. You can see a child playing tag, ready to spring this way or that at a moment’s notice. You can see a runner bounding over a trail like a deer, attentive to roots, branches, and rocks, able to alter her steps to suit her terrain.
It’s hard to think of the Liver meridian without considering the organ it is connected with. In TCM the Liver and all the other yin organs are thought of as their functional processes as well as the physical organ itself. The paired yang organs have their own functions but the corresponding meridians are more often noted and discussed in terms of physical symptoms and/or pain. And so we often look at the Liver organ and the Gallbladder meridian and how they work together to move our bodies through space.
The Liver stores blood, ensures the smooth ﬂow of qi, controls the tendons, and opens into the eyes. Looked at more closely:
• The Liver stores the blood when we are not being physically active and releases blood when we are. The blood nourishes our tendons and muscles while we use them, assisting them in ﬂuid motion and functional ﬂexibility.
• The Liver ensures the smooth ﬂow of qi. This is a wide ranging function that underscores everything from the pumping of blood through our veins to assisting the breath to maintaining appropriate levels of hormones and regulating menstruation. I think this must also effect us on a level other than just anatomy and physiology. In training, as we are striving to learn a new skill or better our technique, the Liver helps us to know when something feels right or if it feels off in some way.
• The Liver controls the tendons. There are different views on this. Some think that controlling the tendons actually translates to controlling all the sinews; tendons, muscles and connective tissue. In this case the Liver has a great deal to do with movement on a very basic level.
• All of the organs open into an oriﬁce, in this case the Liver opens into the eyes. This does not necessarily relate to movement but it does play an interesting role. While the Liver opens into the eyes and can be used to treat vision or eye related symptoms this also means that the Liver is an organ of ﬁgurative vision. Our ability to envision a goal, dream up a plan, allow insight these are functions of the Liver as well.
As I mentioned before, all of our regular meridians are on a vertical plane, similar to a tree reaching up to the sky. But like the concentric rings within tree trunks, we need something to hold us together so that we are not just vertically inclined beings but have the ability to move out laterally in space as well. This is where the Dai Mai, or Girdling Vessel, comes in. Of all the meridians, regular and extraordinary (extraordinary vessels are for another post!), the Dai Mai is the only one wrapping the body horizontally. In a sense, it is part of what allows our meridians to move us directionally from point A to point B by gathering up all of the different meridians and giving them containment and structure.
The Dai Mai wraps around our waist along the top of our hip bones and dips down along the inguinal line. It shares acupuncture points with the points on the Gallbladder meridian. It is also aptly called the Belt Vessel. As in all things we ﬁnd we need balance with this containment.
Here, if the Girdling Vessel is too tight we may feel as though our upper body and lower body do not connect. We might feel like we’re sitting in cold water or that our legs feel clumsy and cloddish. If the vessel is too loose, it cannot hold the other meridians ﬁrmly and help to guide the qi up the meridians, we might ﬁnd Liver Qi not able to move as well giving rise to Liver Qi Stagnation. We might feel achy and sore in our upper back and shoulders or irritability with stomach issues. Our muscles might feel tight and dehydrated. Other circumstances might arise as well. Menstrual issues in women and pulled muscles (often the psoas, groin, or hip ﬂexor muscles) in both men and women. When we’re in balance, the meridians work together and allow for a certain ease of movement.
We can help ourselves by taking care of our Liver ﬁrst and foremost and remembering to breathe, exercise, and relax our sinews to tend to our meridians. Ways to do this include having a cup of hot water with lemon juice in the mornings, working with the breath by breathing deep into the diaphragm and abdomen and feeling our ribs expand, by making sure we get adequate exercise AND adequate rest. You might also use visualization prior to training sessions, integrate long stretches or spiral stretches or yoga positions like Pigeon Pose or twists, or eat foods that support liver health.
With this last one it can be good to check in with an acupuncturist, ND, or nutritionist for some ideas. If you like to do things on your own, Healing With Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford is a fantastic reference.
So when you head out for your next run, walk, adventure, dance class, or when you stay in for a luxurious sleep in visualize these meridians in your mind and what sorts of movements they give you freedom to explore.