Six Sounds Healing Qi Gong – In-depth Introduction, Sound by SoundApr 01, 2021
When I first arrived at Master Gu’s Wudang Taoist Wellness Academy and entered the courtyard, I saw the large mirror fixed to the wall. Of course, I thought to myself, this is where we will be practicing our Tai Chi!
It was not until later that I noticed the six words written in thin, modest lines just above this mirror.
Of course I then immediately asked Master Gu what these were about.
“六字訣气功,” Master Gu replied.
Not speaking a word of Mandarin, I looked at him quizzically.
“Liù zì jué qì gōng,” Master Gu clarified.
My face remained a big, pink question mark.
Master Gu laughed and said, “These are the sounds we use for Six Sounds Healing Qi Gong. I will teach you this Qi Gong.”
And so he did.
Now allow me to introduce this perhaps most meditative of the various Qi Gong forms to you. It exists in whispers; I do enjoy it so very much.
Qi Gong: Breath at Work, Literally
I say it is perhaps the most meditative Qi Gong form because it is an outwardly tranquil, relatively stationary form.
In all six movements, the feet remain solidly in place. They absorb the dì (Earth) qì, which combines with the tiān (Heaven) qì and our own natural rén (Human being) qì.
The main action takes place internally, for the benefit of the six main organs. It is with our literal, physical qì, breath, that we do work, gong, for our inner wellness.
For each organ, four aspects of our being work together:
- our arms and hands, which make a particular movement
- our speech tract (air from the lungs, cheeks, tongue, lips), which very quietly produces certain sounds
- our respiration, which guides and punctuates the movement as well as enables the six healing sounds
- our intention-attention, which concentrates on the organ in question
As such, Six Sounds Healing Qi Gong is another fine example of the Tai Chi/Qi Gong maxim:
以意领气 yǐ yì lǐng qì – the intention leads the qì
以气领形 yǐ qì lǐng xíng – the qì leads the body
For we concentrate on an organ, visualize and imagine it, inhale and exhale to send qì to it, while we gather this qì as mentioned before by breathing and moving our body. This is wholesome, purposeful self-care exemplified.
Six Sounds and Six Movements for Six Organs
These are the six sounds in order, with the corresponding organ behind them:
噓 xū – for the liver
呵 hē – for the heart
呼 hū – for the spleen
嘶 sī – for the lungs
吹 chuī – for the kidneys
嘻 xī – for the Triple Warmers
Each sound is uttered sotto voce, under your breath, like a whisper; the vocal cords do not vibrate. Barely to be heard.
Each sound, too, is sustained, as in the first tone of Chinese pronunciation. This is true for all except for the fifth, 吹 chuī, which can be sustained but usually is not; it resembles blowing out the single candle on a baby’s first birthday cake—rather than the forest fire of candles on that of a 50-year-old.
I will go into the production of the sound and the accompanying arm movements in the next section.
Six Sounds Healing Qi Gong: Step by Step
1. 预备yù bèi shì
This you will find in virtually every Qi Gong form: prepare for the form itself. How?
Step left, shoulder width, bend the knees slightly, sink down a little, ground yourself. The hands in front of the lower dāntián (just below the navel), your palms face your belly. Your body is relaxed and straight in a natural way; your breathing happens as it does, naturally again, your mind grows peaceful and your face relaxes, too.
Stand for a minute like this, while repeating in your mind the words 心平 气和xìn píng, qì hé: heart even, qì harmonious. This creates unity between you and what you are doing. As Master Gu says, concentration leads to more effect.
Now you are ready.
1. 噓xū– Liver
This first sound is perhaps the most challenging for English speakers. The Chinese initial x is pronounced as a very “thin” kind of sh-sound. First, raise the front of the tongue toward (but not touching) the hard palate and then let the air squeeze out.
The Chinese final ü sound does not exist in English. When pronouncing it, place your tongue as if you were pronouncing the pinyin i (“ee” as in “knee” or “peace”); then round your lips. It is the same ü as in German süß, French rue, or Dutch nu.
Don’t worry, it gets easier after this one.
The meaning of 噓xū is actually “to breathe out slowly” or “to utter a sigh”, “to hiss” even. But the meanings of the sounds are not of great importance in Six Sounds Healing Qi Gong. What matters is the shape of the lips, the cheeks, the throat, everything that works together to produce a sound, which shapes the breath.
The shape of the breath—the sound—benefits the relevant organ. In this case, the liver qì is stimulated. The xū sound allows the liver to “spread” out, to grow in a healthy way.
As for the hands, they are raised on the first inhalation to the level of the lower ribs. Elbows hang by your side, the arm forms a just-less-than-90° angle. The palms face up and as you exhale, the torso twists to the left, which naturally extends the right hand slightly beyond the left. Carry through this movement to extend the right arm further while continuing to exhale.
It is then that you whisper xū. Sustain the sound. The feet remain in place. Inhale as you return to face the front, then exhale as you repeat the movement to the right side.
Repeat four or five times on each side. After the last rotation and arm extension, return to the center once more. Keep the arms where they are, fingertips pointing forward. Then gently roll the wrists inward, thus turning the palms down. Invariably, whenever I do this, I feel this tremendous restfulness coming over me. Slowly lower the hands. Finish.
2. 呵hē– Heart
Hē: the Chinese initial h is pronounced in a similar position as the English “h”, but it adds a little friction of air passing between the tongue and the roof of the mouth. Raise the back of your tongue and place it close to the soft palate and exhale. Think of the “ch” in the word “loch” (Loch Ness): like that but much softer.
As for the final e, this is very similar to the “er” sound in British English “her”: the doubting sound, “Errrr, I don’t know…”
These together form the soft, hushed 呵 hē. Appropriately, 呵 means “to breathe out with the mouth open”, “to expel breath”. When you do so, imagine your heart being relieved of all burdens.
The precise burden I am referring to is that of heat. The natural time for the heart is between 11 am and 1 pm: a very hot time of day, in the warm season certainly. Not for nothing does the Chinese Five Element Theory associate this particular element, fire, with the organ we are focusing on now: the heart.
Just as Eight Brocade Qi Gong has a specific exercise for putting out the heart-fire, so does Six Sounds Healing Qi Gong. Hēēēēēē…
Not at all coincidentally, the Chinese word for “to drink” is 喝 and it sounds exactly the same: hē. You can use your imagination to visualize drinking in water to extinguish the heart-fire. Then let out the steam with the same sound…
The arms join in to support this heart-relief, as they first go down and then out and upward as in an encompassing motion. They then come together at about chin height. The backs of the hands meet, the fingers point down to the ground and in that direction do your hands then continue. Do you see it? Exactly, you are making the shape of a…heart!
Inhale on the way up, start exhaling from when the backs of your hands touch, and travel down again. On the exhalation, whisper the sound: hē… Feel free to close your eyes for a more meditative experience. As before, the feet are slightly wider than shoulder-width and stay put. It may help if you sink a little on the downward trajectory and raise up ever so slightly again as your arms travel upward. Most importantly, relax and focus your thoughts on your heart. You are helping it to cool down.
3. 呼hū– Spleen
Dearest creature in creation, you are learning Chinese pronunciation! You are now familiar with the initial h sound. Just do it as you did for hē. The only difference for this third sound is the final: a nice, long, drawn-out u. This sounds just like the English vowel sound in “who” and a cow’s call, “moo”. Put them together and you’ve got hū. Whisper it so that a passer-by would not even know you were saying anything at all.
Whether we are in times of pandemic or not, our immune system needs the spleen. It wards off infections and regulates our blood cells, in addition to filtering the blood. An incredible organ, it deserves our full attention during this third part of the Qi Gong.
The hands move upward in front of the body, from about belly-button height to just above the solar plexus area. In this motion, the palms turn up and the fingertips come to face each other, without touching. It is a calm, scooping-up sort of movement; imagine bringing up qì from the lower elixir field (丹田 dāntián). Then the hands push out, palms still facing the chest. On this, exhale and whisper, “Hū…”
In Qi Gong we never really fully extend limbs, so keep a slight bend in your elbows as you bring them forward. Keep your hands close together as if they are holding a small bowl on either side.
Next, the hands travel down and towards your body again. Inhale, up; exhale with the sound, out, down. And repeat.
Another visualization you can use here is that of a cleansing ritual. You are taking something spent out of your body, putting it at arm’s length, and then letting it go. Hūūū…
4. 嘶sī– Lungs
The s is that of a snake. Sssss. The final ī resembles a nasal “errr” sound, but slightly closer to an English “i” as in the word “sister”. Play around with it. But keep it simple; if it comes out like the British English “sir”, worry not. In fact, if you take “sir” as a starting point and then bring your jaws closer together, you’ll end up with sī. Well done!
The character for this sound, 嘶 sī, means “to hiss” but also “to whistle as flying bullets do”. Unimportant, as mentioned, but evocative nonetheless. All six sounds are produced with air; this one, in particular, involves the slow, controlled release of breath from the organs on which it focuses: the lungs.
First the arms part and move beyond the torso, similar to the movement for Heart. They travel up—all of this on the inhalation—and where for Heart the hands would meet in the middle and go down again, for Lungs, instead the wrists are rotated to turn the palms of the hands to face the front and on the exhalation, they push out. Inhale, down, out and up; exhale, sīīīī, push out.
Keep the shoulders in place, natural and relaxed, without pushing the arms forward so much that the shoulders hunch forward. On the next inhalation, the wrists rotate again in an elegant movement to turn the thumbs out, palms facing the sky and then the arms spread wide. This happens on the same plane where they were, roughly just below shoulder height. The hands move away from each other in a large opening-up sort of movement, as if to say, “Welcome to the world!”
Before there is any overstretching, they turn in towards the shoulders again and push out once more. Exhale. Sīīī… Feel the air being pressed out from the lungs. Imagine the lungs inflate and deflate as you breathe in and out. Feel the effect of the opening and closing of the arms, of the pushing forward and drawing back in again.
5. 吹chuī– Kidneys
We start with a ch as in “chimney” or “cheek” but aspirated, so with a little explosion of air behind it. The final ui is pronounced like “oo-ee”: “oo” as the vowel sound in the English “youth”, which then glides into “ee” as in “knee”. In effect, the “oo” turns into a very ‘thin’, brief “w”: chweeeee. Or choo-eeeeee.
吹 chuī as a character means “to blow”, “to puff” and this is appropriate to the way we form this sound. As mentioned before, it may be sustained on the “eeeee” sound, but it can also be kept short, as a little puff: chuī…chuī…chuī… One chuī per movement, though.
Like blowing wind to help a fire blaze, giving rise to an increase in energy, we do the same in this inner-alchemy practice. We create more energy in our kidneys, which plays a crucial role in the cultivation of qì. It is namely in the kidneys that 精jīng, essence, is stored, the substance that is transformed into qì in the internal alchemical processes of Qi Gong. Clearly, an organ to tend to with gratitude and care. That is why in this movement, we caress our kidneys.
The hands come up close to the front of the body. They part at about stomach height, palms keep facing the body, as the hands follow the contours of the torso to the sides, all the way to the back. At this point, the thumbs point forward and touch your sides. All of this happens on the inhalation.
Then, as you begin to exhale, the hands start to stroke or even rub-down the back: specifically the heels of the hands. As they gently massage the kidney area of the back, you push out the last bit of breath and whisper, “Chuī…” Back around to the front, the hands come together, inhale, travel up, and repeat.
I don’t know why, but this fifth sound-movement combination always, without fail, gives me goosebumps.
6. 嘻xī– Triple Warmers
The same x sound as in the first sound (xū): a ‘thin’ sort of “sh” is followed by ī, “eeeee” as in “knee”. This last sound by now will come easily. Whisper it, as you remember it is all about the shape of the mouth, the cheeks, the throat and so on. The vocal cords may remain at rest.
The Triple Warmers are the three areas in the body that in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are connected to the generation of heat as well as the digestion of food. They are considered the sixth vital organ. Master Gu explains that even in Chinese medical circles, there are various interpretations of what the Triple Warmers, the 三焦 sān jiāo are.
There are three of them, 三sān: an upper, middle, and lower Warmer or Burner. Imagine three rooms that together contain all our internal organs. Like we clean the rooms we live in for sanitary purposes, we also clean these internal “rooms”.
Conveniently, the word 嘻 xī, which of itself means “an exclamation of admiration, wonder, etc.”, is reminiscent of the character 洗 xǐ, which means “to wash”. The final “sh” sound of “wash” is again similar to the Chinese x “sh”, so this one may be the easiest to remember with this mnemonic: Wash the Three Rooms, washhh. xīīī, xīīī…
The arms go briefly down, then separate to go out and somewhat to the front and all the way up to mouth level. As they travel up, palms facing the ground, fingertips pointing diagonally to the front (the hands a natural extension of the lower arm and wrist), you inhale. The briefest of pauses at the zenith of the movement, before exhaling and softly pushing down. The fingertips may touch at this juncture. Push down, wash, xīīī…
All the way down, then repeat. Inhale on the up, exhale on the down. Easy does it. Clean those rooms from top to bottom so that all your organs have nice, tidy spaces.
7. 收式 shōu shì
Each Qi Gong form has a kind of closing form. Six Sounds Healing Qi Gong does the following.
With your left hand covering your right, both hands together resting on your belly, trace six circles around your navel. First clockwise, then six times counter-clockwise. This is the area of the lower dāntián, the elixir field. It is also a part of the body that is symbolical of the origin: the navel, where we were once attached to our mother and received our very first nutrition. Taoism teaches us that life is about returning to the source and this closing movement may well be construed as symbolizing this return.
Do it calmly, enjoy the moment of self-care again. You are straightening out the elixir field, making everything soft and relaxed.
Step in with the left foot to the right, slightly sunk. At the same time, the hands make a circle from down to up to down again. When the feet meet, rise up (unsink) and let the hands rest together on the lower dāntián. Breathe. Finish. Return to the world of which you are an inseparable part.
Six Sounds Meditation
Precisely because the body does not move much on the outside in this Qi Gong, I tend to use my practice of Six Sounds Healing Qi Gong as a meditation. The whispered sounds, the slow, gentle movements of the arms, the ability to close one’s eyes during the practice… It just invites an entirely pleasant, soothing moment of inner and outer quietude. I have done it at airports and before a difficult Zoom call, or after a lot of busy-ness around the house.
To let everything settle again. To reconnect from within.
That, to me, is just another bonus of this Qi Gong form.
May you enjoy it as much!
Eli van Dantzig, Taoist name: 丹宁资和
16th-generation Sanfeng Pai disciple and Taoist Wellness Instructor