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Small Circulation - The Microcosmic Orbit

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

Small Circulation, also known as Xiao Zhou Tian, is a significant concept in traditional Chinese medicine and Tai Chi practice. It refers to the process of cultivating and circulating Qi, or life energy, through the body's energy channels or meridians. This practice is rooted in ancient Chinese philosophies and is integral to martial arts, healing, and spiritual growth.

Historical and Cultural Background

Small Circulation - The Microcosmic Orbit

Originating from Taoist practices, Small Circulation is closely linked with the broader concept of Qi Gong, which involves the cultivation of Qi. Historically, it was used by martial artists to enhance their strength and by healers to improve their healing abilities. Philosophically, it connects with the Taoist pursuit of harmony and balance, both within oneself and with the natural world.

Taoist Origins

  • Taoism: Small Circulation is rooted in Taoist practices dating back thousands of years. Taoism emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, or the fundamental nature of the universe. The cultivation and circulation of Qi (vital energy) is central to achieving this harmony.

  • Qi Gong and Neidan: Small Circulation is a component of Qi Gong (energy work) and Neidan (internal alchemy). Neidan, in particular, involves practices aimed at spiritual enlightenment and immortality, with Small Circulation being a key technique.

Connection with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

  • TCM Principles: Traditional Chinese Medicine, with its focus on the balance of Yin and Yang and the flow of Qi through meridian pathways, provides the medical framework for understanding Small Circulation.

  • Acupuncture and Meridians: The meridians, or energy channels, are crucial in acupuncture and are also central to the practice of Small Circulation, particularly the Microcosmic Orbit involving the Du and Ren meridians.

Integration into Martial Arts

  • Tai Chi and Martial Applications: In martial arts, particularly Tai Chi, Small Circulation is used to develop internal strength, enhance endurance, and refine martial skills. The practice is believed to improve not just physical prowess but also mental focus and spiritual development.

  • Warrior Monks and Shaolin Temple: The Shaolin Temple and its warrior monks have historically incorporated Qi Gong and Small Circulation techniques into their martial training, demonstrating the integration of spiritual and physical disciplines.

Philosophical and Spiritual Dimensions

  • Daoist Alchemy and Immortality: Small Circulation is linked with Daoist alchemy, where the transformation and circulation of Qi are seen as steps toward spiritual immortality and enlightenment.

  • Meditative Practices: The practice is often accompanied by meditative and contemplative exercises, reflecting the deep spiritual aspirations of Taoist philosophy.

Cultural Impact and Spread

  • Influence on Chinese Culture: Small Circulation and related practices have influenced various aspects of Chinese culture, including medicine, art, literature, and even daily life, reflecting the holistic view of health and well-being.

  • Global Spread: In recent decades, there has been a growing interest in Small Circulation and related practices outside China, largely due to their health benefits and spiritual aspects.

Modern Perspectives

  • Scientific Research: Modern scientific research has begun exploring the health benefits of practices like Tai Chi and Qi Gong, including aspects of Small Circulation.

  • Cultural Exchange: The practice has become a point of cultural exchange, bridging Eastern and Western perspectives on health and wellness.

The Concept of Qi (Chi)

Qi (Chi) is a central element in Chinese metaphysical thought. It is considered the vital force that flows through all living things, governing health and vitality. In Tai Chi and Qi Gong, the mastery of Qi circulation is seen as essential for physical and spiritual wellbeing.

The Practice of Small Circulation

Small Circulation

Small Circulation involves specific breathing techniques, meditative focus, and physical movements. The primary goal is to guide Qi through the "Microcosmic Orbit", a pathway that runs from the base of the spine to the top of the head and then down the front of the body. This orbit connects two main meridians: the Du (Governing) and the Ren (Conception).

The practice of Small Circulation, or Xiao Zhou Tian, is an advanced aspect of Qi Gong and Tai Chi, focusing on the cultivation and circulation of Qi (life energy) within the body. It's a sophisticated practice that requires patience, discipline, and often years of dedicated practice. Here's a more detailed look at the practice:

Understanding Qi

Before delving into Small Circulation, it's crucial to understand Qi, the life force in traditional Chinese philosophy. Qi is believed to flow through pathways in the body known as meridians, and the proper flow of Qi is considered essential for health and vitality.

The Microcosmic Orbit

Small Circulation revolves around the concept of the Microcosmic Orbit. This is an energy pathway that runs up the spine (the Du meridian), over the head, and down the front of the body (the Ren meridian). The practice involves guiding Qi through this orbit.

Techniques Involved

  1. Breathing: Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is fundamental. The practitioner learns to coordinate breath with movement and intention.

  2. Meditation and Visualization: Concentration and visualization are used to 'lead' the Qi through the Microcosmic Orbit. Practitioners might visualize a ball of light or warmth moving along the path.

  3. Physical Movements: While Small Circulation can be practiced in stillness, in Tai Chi, it often involves coordinating slow, deliberate movements with breath and visualization.

  4. Energy Gates: Attention is often focused on specific 'gates' or points along the Microcosmic Orbit, such as the lower dantian (below the navel), the heart center, and the third eye.

Stages of Practice

  1. Preparation: Involves relaxation and basic breathing exercises to cultivate Qi.

  2. Opening the Orbit: The practitioner learns to open and clear the Microcosmic Orbit pathway.

  3. Circulating Qi: Once the pathway is clear, the focus shifts to circulating Qi smoothly and evenly throughout the orbit.

  4. Refinement and Control: With experience, practitioners gain greater control over the movement of Qi, leading to deeper levels of practice.

Health and Spiritual Benefits

  • Physical Health: Improved energy levels, enhanced organ function, and better overall physical health.

  • Mental Well-being: Reduction in stress and anxiety, increased mental clarity, and improved emotional balance.

  • Spiritual Growth: Many practitioners report a deepened sense of spiritual connection and inner peace.

Learning and Caution

Small Circulation is typically learned under the guidance of an experienced teacher. It's a powerful practice, and improper technique can lead to imbalances or health issues. Beginners are usually advised to start with basic Qi Gong and Tai Chi before attempting Small Circulation.

In Tai Chi, Small Circulation is often integrated into the movements, enhancing the flow of Qi as one performs the various forms. It adds a deeper internal dimension to what might otherwise be seen as mere physical exercise.

Learning and Mastery

Learning Small Circulation typically requires guidance from a knowledgeable instructor. It involves not only physical movements but also an understanding of one's own Qi flow. Mastery is a long-term process, often taking years of dedicated practice.


Small Circulation represents a fascinating blend of physical exercise, meditative practice, and ancient wisdom. As an integral part of Tai Chi, it offers a path to improved health, heightened spiritual awareness, and a deeper connection with the natural rhythms of life. Its continued practice and popularity are testament to its enduring value and effectiveness.

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