Chi Nei Tsang

Digesting Emotions for Better Health

By Jill Ruttenberg

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2002.

It has long been a tenet of natural health practitioners that good health depends on a correctly functioning digestive system. Research also tells us good digestion has an emotional component and that many disorders of the internal organs are exacerbated by stress.

Why is it, then, that we pay more attention to massaging the back, neck and limbs than we do to the very core of where our emotions are processed — the belly? Massage schools teach few techniques that work directly on the abdomen, and the “center,” as it is called by the holistic healing procedure known as Chi Nei Tsang, is often entirely overlooked.

Our Gut Feeling

Gilles Marin, master teacher and practitioner of Chi Nei Tsang (pronounced CHEE-NEE-Sahng), points out that our bodies are constantly digesting emotional “charges” we feel at the visceral level. A charge is internal pressure that can manifest in many ways — pain, nervous tension or even high blood pressure. For example, if someone smiles at you on the street, you feel something pleasant that’s usually fairly easy to “digest.” If, on the other hand, someone comes at you on the street with anger or aggression, you may have a harder time digesting your response, and it will take longer for that emotion to move through your body.

Some charges, Marin says, never really get digested, because they are too shocking and the body wants to protect you from feeling them. Consequently, the body finds places to hide the charge, which results in ill health. It is the enteric nervous system of the digestive tract that is most often affected when emotions are not processed.

Marin believes we process emotions the same way we process food and that poor emotional digestion leads to ill health. By exploring the abdomen, a person allows herself to connect with whatever emotions are present there. And since the emotional body, Marin asserts, has no time or space, emotional charges of the past are still just as present in our bodies as they were when the trigger occurred.

“Remember,” says Marin, “the physical body is expressing over and over again whatever emotional issue is most important at that given time through its structure, its metabolism, its breathing, its movements, in any way it expresses itself. We can only process what we allow ourselves to feel.”

Chi Nei Tsang, loosely translated as “inner organ Chi transformation,” helps that process occur. Chi Nei Tsang addresses the whole person at the physical, emotional and spiritual level, and accesses healing through the client’s abdominal internal organs.

In order to find a conduit to those emotions buried in our core, presence of mind on both the part of the client and the practitioner is required. This is no lay-back-and-enjoy-it, feel-good session. Sessions are focused, with the client’s breath being directed to wherever the practitioner’s hands move. In the workshops Marin teaches for the Chi Nei Tsang Institute, based in Berkeley, Calif., as much time is spent on Chi Kung (qigong) exercises to enhance the therapist’s intuition and healing energy, as is spent on learning the actual hands-on techniques of Chi Nei Tsang. A great deal of attention is also paid to the energy needed by therapists to help the client feel safe with such intimate, visceral contact, and to allow them the time and space to work through these emotional issues at their own pace.

Such “allowing” for healing to take place is a quality of the Taoist principles on which Chi Nei Tsang is based. Chi Kung and the five-element theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine are also at its roots. Chi Nei Tsang was developed by Mantak Chia of Thailand who, at age six, was trained by Buddhist monks to sit and “still the mind.” He went on to study many forms of martial arts, kundalini and Taoist practices, as well as Western medical science. Master Chia fused many aspects of all these practices to create what he termed the Healing Tao system, of which Chi Nei Tsang is one element, the one that encompasses massage. He began teaching this work in 1983.

The Sea of Chi

The first step in a Chi Nei Tsang session is to examine and palpate the navel. The practitioner is trained to see in what direction a person’s unique patterns of tension go and where there are disharmonies in the flow of chi. The navel may pull toward the liver, or downward to the right toward the cecum. The five-element Shen cycle is superimposed as a circle around the navel to give added insight. Moving the skin around the umbilicus with flat hands until the belly button is centered and rounded gives a clue as to how to unwind these patterns of tension and allow the person to come into balance.

“Taking a round and centered navel as the ideal, move out from places it is pushed or pulled from the round shape to find out where blockages may be found,” writes Marin, in his book Healing from Within with Chi Nei Tsang. “Lightly push in on the abdomen moving out from the navel and see how the shape changes, becoming more or less round. Rest your thumbs and forefingers of both hands in a circle just outside the navel and lightly turn the skin clockwise and counterclockwise so as to see which direction makes the navel more round and better centered, and thus how the navel will change as recipients move toward greater health.”

After a Chi Nei Tsang practitioner observes the client’s umbilicus, he begins circling the rim of the navel with gentle pressure. The client is asked to breathe deeply into the area where the practitioner’s hands are working as the therapist stimulates detoxification by going a bit deeper into the edges of the navel. Eventually, the therapist will follow the intestines — up from the inside of the right hip to the hepatic flexure, across the bottom of the ribcage and moving in line with the spleenic flexure down the left. The depth of the treatment depends entirely upon the recipient. Chi Nei Tsang does not force healing to happen and does not “fix” anything. It is, instead, a vehicle to allow healing to happen, to allow people to connect with the core of their emotional selves.

San Francisco Chi Nei Tsang practitioner Allison Post explains, “We can tell a lot about what’s going on in the organs — like where there are excesses or deficiencies — by the shape of the navel, so we always begin there.” Post was drawn to learning the techniques back in the mid-1980s when, as a shiatsu massage therapist, she was diagnosed with pelvic inflammatory disease.

“Western medicine told me I would have to have parts taken out in order to be healed,” Post says. “When I stumbled upon the work that involved the breath and took me to my center, what the Taoists call the Sea of Chi, I began to feel grounded and strong, and to heal very quickly.” Allison is confident she will never need surgery. She spends about a half hour every morning working on her own belly, and the better part of an hour doing Chi Kung.

The Six Conditions for Healing

Healing happens, according to Marin, when the body is given permission to transform the stifled energy (which it has been using to protect a person from feeling) into a surge of energy that heals them. It is up to the practitioner “to provide the opening for the client to reach that place (of being able to stay with an emotional issue and allow the healing process to take place) and remain in it until the emotional charge is dissipated.”

This is accomplished, Marin believes, when the following conditions are met:
1. Clients feel safe physically, mentally and emotionally, and are properly supported, validated and respected for their feelings.
2. Clients relax deeply, feel nurtured and remain present where the healing is happening, no matter how uncomfortable they feel.
3. Clients’ minds become quiet. In other words, they stop thinking, as thinking takes people out of the present, and the present is where healing happens.
4. Clients get permission to recognize and validate their feelings. Increased awareness can be scary and sometimes very painful. They must know someone understands so they are able to stay with the process.
5. Clients feel the importance and sacredness of the moment; that everything they feel is important. This is where the energy that has been used to hold the charge gets freed and turned into healing energy.
6. Clients are open to the surge of increased chi and surrender to the power within. The page has been turned. This is the place of acceptance where healing has occurred.

Detoxing and the Growing Edge

While conscious breathing and connecting with the emotions that churn in the belly are the main keys to healing with Chi Nei Tsang, detoxing and lymph stimulation are also important parts of the work. The client, or “student,” lays on her back with pillows propping up the knees. She is clothed, with only the area between the ribs and lower abdomen exposed. One recipient, a woman with chronic constipation and low back pain, described the work as “different than any other kind of massage I’ve had ... It forced me to really feel and connect with a deeper level of my being. I could feel releases, and when I got up from the table, my back felt free and loose.” This same woman learned to do the work on herself, which is the goal of Chi Nei Tsang, and now boasts of regular and healthy bowel movements. She still visits her practitioner once a month for “tune-ups.”

While it is true that Chi Nei Tsang aids such conditions as constipation, indigestion, ulcers, menstrual cramps and irritable bowel syndrome, Marin emphasizes that Chi Nei Tsang is a holistic therapy that doesn’t work with particular labels or symptoms, but rather with the reason why people have symptoms.

“We work at the level of information, of emotional content, to digest emotional charges,” Marin says. “By bringing to the surface more awareness, true healing — which is synonymous with growing — can begin and a person can outgrow the reason for having to manifest symptoms.” Usually, Marin asserts, you will find that a symptom is a healthy reaction to an unhealthy situation. The body says, “That’s enough. I can’t hold this tension any longer. Something must change.”

Benefits and Possibilities for Research

When blockages are removed and key muscles such as the diaphragm and psoas are toned and relaxed, regardless of the particular symptoms, the client experiences a softer abdomen and greater ease in movement. Blood and lymph circulation improves and so does digestion. Nutrients that are stored in the skin are more efficiently utilized, as well.

“What this leads to is better bile flow to cleanse the liver, a stronger immune system, better processing of body fat and an overall increase in kidney and liver function. It raises awareness and vital energy, or chi,” says Marin. He adds that Chi Nei Tsang often alleviates back pain, commonly the result of accumulated abdominal pressure on the nerves coming out of the spine, since the massage relieves abdominal pressure. These benefits have made this Taoist form of bodywork the most requested kind at Miraval, a leading health resort in Tucson, Ariz.

Many massage therapists are taking courses offered by the Chi Nei Tsang Institute in Berkeley and other areas of the country. Those who have taken the workshops say the techniques are simple and can easily be incorporated into practitioners’ existing practices. Many find the Chi Kung exercises to be a bonus in that they raise the therapist’s healing energy too. Some people learn Chi Nei Tsang simply to use the breathing techniques and meditation for their own well-being.

Whatever one’s motivation, this esoteric form of abdominal massage is growing in popularity and having a profound effect on people’s health. Could Chi Nei Tsang someday be recommended as standard treatment for chronic digestive complaints such as irritable bowel syndrome?

Steve Goldschmid, M.D., chief of gastroenterology at the University of Arizona Medical Center, thinks it could. “Irritable bowl syndrome is a very difficult condition to treat with conventional medicine. I think people with this disorder would respond very well to a therapy which involves intimate touch.” Dr. Goldschmid hopes to direct research, calling the technique “potentially promising” and in need of further study.

To reach the Chi Nei Tsang Institute, visit or call 510/848-9558.