If you’ve tried acupuncture, you probably know that there are networks, channels or meridians throughout our body that an acupuncturist works on.
You may have heard of the ‘lung meridian’ or the ‘stomach channel’. So what are the channels exactly? Whether you are new to Chinese Medicine, or a practitioner of the medicine, here’s an interesting discussion about them from a modern day pioneer of Classical Channel Theory, Dr Wang Ju Yi*:
What are the channels / meridians – fundamental concepts
1. The channels are an interwoven network:
The channel system connects the internal organs to one another, to the surface of the body, and to the environment at large. The channel network unifies the other systems of the body – digestive, lymphatic, nervous, reproductive, and others – into a coherent and responsive ‘whole.’
It is through this network that living organisms adapt to changes in the external environment. Through the prism of channel theory, the human body is viewed as being essentially inseparable from its environment and woven into the larger network of the biosphere. The channels are ‘alive’ in the same way that one might consider the heart or lung to be alive.
2. The channels are pathways:
The channel network is a system of pathways through which the vital energy and nutrition of the body move. The channels can be thought of as conduits within which one might find nerves, blood vessels and lymphatic circulation. They act as pathways not only for the flow of substances like interstitial fluids around anatomical structures, but also for the flow within the structures.
Not only do the channels conduct the elements of a healthy physiology, they also serve as conduits for disease. (Being more externally located than the internal organs). They are affected by the presence of either externally or internally generated disease, which may cause palpable changes on the body surface along the course of the channels.
3. The channels are a communication system:
[The meridians are] …conveyors of information about the external environment to the internal organs. They also convey information among the internal organs themselves. This system function of the channels is similar to, but not the same as, the nervous system…[whereby the] channel network implies a kind of ‘body intelligence’ in which information about the condition of the organs moves through the connective tissues.
How do the channels affect our health?
Practically speaking, the meridians and channels are so important to clinical Classical Chinese Medicine because they are the living networks in our bodies upon which our health and functioning is based. Dr Wang Ju-Yi describes their importance to disease and health as follows:
“In general, if the channel system is unable to properly respond to or integrate changes in the internal and external environments – which may include changes in air pressure, temperature, organ metabolism or even social conditions – disease or discomfort will ensue.”
“When the organs are not functioning properly, it is the channel system that helps to restore normal metabolism. In a healthy body, the organ dysfunction may resolve fairly quickly because of the functions of the channels. This is an important concept that is sometimes ignored altogether in modern Chinese medical education.”
“Each of the six environmental qi [wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness, summer heat] interacts with the internal landscape through the physiology of one of the six channels. In fact, the goal of therapy in Chinese medicine is to maintain or reestablish the health of this system of integration. Integration is occurring both within the body and between the body and its external environment.
Take home points about channels / meridians
The channels are functionally inseparable from the various organs of our body. The heart is an organ but the heart as a system is much larger – it includes the heart channels of the body the way a tree includes its roots and even the hairs and fibres on those roots. The importance of the channels cannot be underestimated, and thanks to Dr Wang Ju-Yi’s prompting, it is now part of my practice to include channel palpation. The channels from below the knee and below the elbow are felt for abnormalities to form a more complete diagnosis for any particular ailment.
Dr Wang sums up the applicability of ancient Classical Chinese channel theory in our modern acupuncture clinics:
“While our home and office environments have become relatively more stable, the health of the human organisms that inhabit these environments has become increasingly chaotic. This is largely due to the irregularity of eating and drinking and the emotional complexity of life in the 21st century. Yet despite this radically changed picture, classical channel theory still offers a clear method for addressing complaints and preventing disease. This is because the human body and the principles that underlie its metabolism are still essentially the same, despite the new environment”.
* The book “Applied Channel Theory in Chinese Medicine”is published by Eastland Press. It draws on Classical Chinese channel theory from thousand year old classics, combined with modern clinical and scientific understanding. The way it elucidates Chinese Medicine really excites me and invigorates my practice! Highly recommended for all practitioners.