Updated: Dec 15, 2019
Meridian Stretching is an approach to self-healing developed by the late, revolutionary Shiatsu therapist, Shizuto Masunaga. It is a profound system that builds upon the fundamental exercises commonly shared among many ancient Japanese medical practices, as well as martial arts. Masunaga-Sensei observed a relationship between these stretches and each Meridian in the body, and explored and more movements according to his deep understanding of the flow of energy in the body. The result is a Yoga-like system, with a vast array of movements and stretches to be practiced with the intention of using them to restore balance and circulation in the body, as well as a way to experience the circulation of energy through the meridians first-hand.
In my opinion, people shouldn't believe anything they haven't personally experienced, and Meridian Stretching presents the opportunity to feel Ki energy and meridians, and demystify it for yourself.
This set of six fundamental stretches circulates energy through the twelve master meridians, and allow you to use your breathing and relaxation to release stagnation throughout the entire body. This is the routine I recommend people start to familiarize themselves with before learning more. Some of these positions will feel easy for you, others impossible. You can start with the beginner version of the stretches that are too strenuous for you, and progress to the full version.
Full Meridian Stretching Sequence - Beginner Variations
The meridian stretching basic sequence should be practiced in this order. As well as a breakdown of each stretch individually later in the article, here is a follow-along guide to go through the sequence on your own.
Full Meridian Stretching Sequence - Intermediate Variations
If you are a flexible person to begin with and some of these variations feel easy for you, go ahead and mix beginner variations for some stretches and intermediate variations for others. The key is that you're working with a variation that does not cause strain or discomfort.
Meridian Stretching Basic Exercises 1/6 Metal Element - Lung & Large Intestine Meridians
To stretch the Lung and Large Intestine Meridians, stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width and point your toes naturally outward.
Hold your hands behind you back with the palms facing backward by hooking your thumbs together. Fan out your fingers as wide as you can as if trying to make space between them.
Bend forward as much as comfortable as you exhale, keeping your knees straight with the weight on the outer edge (blade) of the feet. Gently stretch your arms over yourself as much as comfortable, keeping the elbows straight. Once you are stretched forward as far as you will go you can begin to gently and silently inhale deeply.
As you inhale you will feel tension develop along certain parts of the body, this is the sensation of Ki entering the meridian. As you exhale, allow yourself to naturally deepen the stretch as the air leaving your lungs frees up space inside your frame. Take about three deep breaths like this before moving on to the next stretch.
It is vital to learn to develop the feeling of a good stretch and to learn to savor that feeling. It is important to breathe calmly and quietly to encourage a relaxed stretch. Find a comfortable degree of each stretch and focus on relaxing into that comfort, rather that pushing through painful immobility. You should never try to force a stretch. Any benefit from forceful stretching is just a product of repetition, but Meridian Stretching releases stagnant Ki and tension in the joints and along the Meridians, but this is only possible through relaxation.
Stay tuned for the rest of the 6 part series so you can learn how to do the entire basic meridian stretching sequence.
Meridian Stretching Basic Exercises 2/6 - Earth Element - Spleen & Stomach Meridians
To stretch the Spleen and Stomach Meridians, start by sitting in Seiza. Seiza is the traditional Japanese sitting posture with the legs folded under the hips, sitting on the soles of the feet. If this position is too uncomfortable you can build up your flexibility by performing the regression*. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out, lean to one side and fold the other leg back. *The beginner clip shows the regression, and the full version shows the full stretch.* Move your feet apart so your heels are out from under your hips. It's okay if your knees come up off the floor, but try to keep your legs close together. Bringing your feet out from under you helps keep your knees together. If you are doing the regression you don't have to think about this part.
You can lean back on your hands and lift your hips, the progression to this is leaning back onto the elbows, then flat on your back, then when you can relax in that position, extending the arms overhead with the palms turned toward the head. Try to coordinate the leaning back with a long, quiet exhalation.
Once you are in the full extent of your comfortable level of stretch, meaning that you feel stretched but not straining anywhere and able to relax, then slowly and quietly begin to inhale.
As you inhale you will notice your back naturally lift away from the ground, and your knees spread apart. This is okay, but if you let your knees spread too far apart you will not fully stretch the Meridians. Keep them together without undue effort. Try to observe the lines of tension that form along the front of your body and along the spine, as well as on both sides of the arms. These lines of tension correspond to the Spleen and Stomach Meridians. Feeling these lines of tension means you are experiencing the filling of Ki in these meridians. As you exhale you feel your body relax more deeply in the stretch as energy is released from the channels being stretched.
Forcibly stretching may increase flexibility, but you can never feel the Ki flowing through the whole body or learn how to release Ki in the Meridians this way.
Meridian Stretching Basic Exercises 3/6 - Fire Element - Heart & Small Intestine Meridians
To stretch your Heart and Small Intestine Meridians sit on the floor and bend your knees put to the side. Place the soles of your feet together and draw your feet toward yourself to a comfortable distance by clasping your hands around your toes. Keep the thighs and knees as close to the ground as possible and exhale while bending forward.
Ideally your forehead should touch your toes and your knees and elbows should touch the floor, but only if this extend of the stretch is comfortable and possible for you to relax into. You should not put yourself into a position where you feel any strain. Straining to force a stretch defeats the purpose, and the full extent of the stretch is a goal to strive for in the long run, but only by recognizing and respecting your current level of progress will you reach that goal.
Once your body is stretched to its comfortable limit, you can naturally allow the forward bending and exhalation to come to an end. Pausing here, inhale to fill up your lungs. Your body will fill up with Ki and you will feel lines of tension begin to form from your center of gravity out through your limbs. The lines of tension that form are the Heart and Small Intestine Meridians. Take a few deep breaths like this, observing the sensation of Ki filling up and emptying the Meridians being stretched.
Meridian Stretching Basic Sequence 4/6 - Water Element - Kidney & Bladder Meridians
To stretch the Kidney and Bladder Meridians, sit with your legs stretched out in front of you. Keep your heels together, knees straight, and the back of your legs as much in contact with the ground as possible. Breathe out and fold your upper body over, while reaching toward your feet, trying to touch your chest to your knees.
If you are not particularly flexible, you may feel tension behind your knees that restricts your forward fold. It is important to remember that flexibility doesn't mean that the energy is flowing well along the Meridians. Very flexible people often have very deep rooted tension. When you force stiff muscles or joints to stretch, those parts become the focus of attention. Even though it is possible to increase flexibility in this way, it encourages the person to overlook the obstruction of Ki; the underlying dynamics which caused muscle tension and stiffness of joints in the first place.
Making modifications to the stretch to relieve the "highlighted" tension and equalize the sensation of the stretch throughout the entire line of tension is a much more efficient way to release tension and increase flexibility.
If the full version of this stretch with the legs flat on the ground is too intense, try bending your knees just enough to relieve the strain and fold to try and bring your chest toward your thighs. If you can almost connect your chest to your knees, and you no longer feel a strain in a particular part of your body, you have found an ideal position.
Reach out with your arms, and let your head drop over your knees as you exhale. Once in your comfortable stretch, draw a long, deep breath. You will feel strong lines of tension form along your hands, arms, down your neck and back, and along the back of your legs. This of course is the Kidney and Bladder Meridian. With your inhalation, you will feel the increased tension pulling you away from your stretch. It is important not to force the stretch during the inhalation, and allow it to be naturally relieved by your exhalation.
Try repeating this one once or twice to feel the change in flexibility.
Meridian Stretching Basic Sequence 5/6 - Fire Element - Pericardium & Triple Heater
The ideal position for stretching the Pericardium and Triple Heater is strenuous for many people. You can start from a regular cross-legged seating position like in the top clip, a half lotus, or ideally a full lotus as seen in the bottom clip. If you try the full or half lotus and it feels uncomfortable or strenuous, you will lose the feeling of stretching and relaxing the whole Meridian and you will not be able to release stagnant Ki. So be gentle with yourself and choose the variation that you can relax into, only progressing when the next progression feels comfortable.
With your legs crossed, in whichever variation you can chosen, try to get your knees closer to the ground. If you can't touch your knees to the ground that's okay, just make sure you aren't holding them up unnecessarily.
Next, cross your arms over one another and grab hold of your opposite knees. The arm on the same side as the leg that's on top should go over the other arm. If you are right handed, it will most likely be easier to start with the left arm over the right.
Using your arms to pull yourself down, exhale as you bend your torso as far forward as you can, as if trying to touch your forehead to the ground. Don't hold your head up, let it fall forward. Find a point where the fold isn't strenuous, but you feel like you are at the end of your natural flexibility.
Gently holding that position and take a deep, quiet inhalation. The lines of tension that form along your back and down the outside of your arms and legs as you inhale is the path of the Triple Heater Meridian. The opposite lines of tension that form on the inside is the course of the Pericardium Meridian. As you exhale, you should feel these lines relax. (Note: Both the pairs of the Pericardium and Triple Heater Meridians as well as the Heart and Small Intestine Meridians are associated with the fire element. Heart and Small Intestine can be thought of as the "sovereign fire" and the Pericardium and Triple Heater can be thought of as the "minister of fire" in their functional relationship in the body.)
Meridian Stretching Basic Sequence 6/6 - Wood Element - Liver & Gall Bladder Meridians
To stretch the Liver and Gall Bladder Meridians, sit on the the ground with your legs straight and extended out to either side. Try to spread them as far apart as you can comfortably relax into. Some people can spread their legs into a full split and others just are much less flexible. It doesn't matter how wide you can get you legs, what is important is to try to keep your knees straight and the back of your legs on the ground.
Next clasp your fingers and extend your arms up over your head turning your palms upward. Keep facing forward as you side-bend over reaching toward one foot, do not turn toward your foot, keep your body facing as much forward as is comfortable. Co-ordinate bending into this position with your exhalation, then, upon reaching the full extent of your comfortable range, take a deep, quiet breath in. Feel the lines of tension form on the inside of one leg and the outside of the other, up the side of the torso and across the top arm. This is the Liver and Gall Bladder Meridians.
If this position is too challenging to bend into, try starting with the regression shown in the top clip. Simply keep one leg bent and the other straight out and bend over the outstretched leg, repeat on the other side.
Take three deep breaths in this position focusing on maintaining a comfortable position without straining into the stretch. Focusing on the sensation of the lines of tension that grows with inhalation is one way to actually experience the Meridians for yourself, and exhalation should elicit a deep feeling of relaxation.
Everyone Has Five Minutes a Day
Performing this sequence of stretches in order follows the flows of Ki through the meridians, clearing out obstructions. Each of these positions highlight a different line of tension. The Meridians act as these lines of tension and when our movement is not efficient or we take on too much stress the tension "bottlenecks" somewhere along the way. Think of doing the Meridian Stretches as irrigating your energy system to get rid of built up tension throughout the entire body.
Ideally you practice these stretches at least once daily in the order presented in this article, reflecting the circadian rhythm of our energy network. Don't rush through the sequence, but don't linger too much or try to force yourself into an uncomfortable position. Just focus on your breathing, relax, and savour the feeling of a good stretch.