Zen yoga poses are part of an Oriental system that combines the practice of asanas with Traditional Chinese and Japanese Medicine. Postures are categorized according to the primary meridian they affect. A meridian can be understood as similar to a blood vessel, in that it has an energetic structure that corresponds with the human body, but which is instead a channel for energy to circulate (instead of blood).
The alignment of these exercises with specific meridians is what makes zen yoga such a powerful healing modality. In fact, teachers of this Oriental system emphasize its' capacity to help treat the basic causes of illness.. This article will explore what is meant by that, and provide some illustration on how zen yoga poses can be adapted to an individual's problems.
Meridian exercises work by facilitating the natural flow of energy in areas where we experience blockages and stagnation. We may feel those areas of blockages as stiffness, aching, tension, pain, or simply a feeling of being uncomfortable. Zen poses open up their primary meridians, and as a result, they dispel 'ill' energy, and allow healthy energy to flow instead.
A little background on meridians may be helpful. There are 12 meridians, and they are named after different organs of the body. So, we have the Lung meridian, large intestine meridian, Heart constrictor, triple heater, liver, gall bladder, spleen, stomach, heart, small intestine, kidney, and bladder.
It's important to note that although these meridians each have an energetic relationship with the organ after which they are named, they are not just referring to the organ when we speak about them. Their primary meaning is an energetic reference, to a type of energy that runs along a specific channel, which just happens to be associated with a physical organ as well. So, when Oriental practitioners and yoga teachers talk about a particular meridian being out of whack in some way, this definitely does not mean that our organs are! I emphasize this because a lot of people tend to get alarmed by some of the terminology, and it just stems from a misunderstanding of the context in which it is being used.
By understanding how important the energetic aspect is in Oriental philosophy, it is easier to understand how they look at the symptoms of disease, illness, or any problems we feel in our bodies. Instead of focusing on the symptom itself, Oriental diagnosis looks at what is going on in the meridians, and a healing approach is based on this, instead of a rigidly defined solution for a set of symptoms. What this means in practical terms, is that one person's ideal solution to a bad back, or a stiff neck, may be very different to another's.
The good news is that you don't have to know a lot of theory to do zen yoga successful. And neither do you need to understand the intricacies of Oriental diagnosis to apply zen yoga exercises for your own specific problems. Masunaga offers this useful guide: "first find the exercise which is hardest to do... and then look for another one which is the easiest... If doing the easiest exercise causes an improvement in the performance of the most difficult one, or relieves a ... symptom, it is effectively reinforcing the Ki [energy] in the Kyo [deficient] meridian".
Masunaga was a leading shiatsu teacher in Japan who organized meridian exercises into a system that people could use themselves. He actually wrote that the best way to learn about zen yoga poses, was to practice them! Zen yoga seems more difficult in theory than it is in practice. It's actually a very fun, playful and gentle style of yoga that can readily be adapted to any level of fitness and health. Like tai chi, it has great health benefits, which can be explored in more detail through classes or publications.