The six conformations: an exploratory post

The six conformations (liu qi)

Established readers : this is one of many reposted articles you will see in the coming months.  It is part of the redesign process.  I hope you agree that all of these articles are worth another look!

The topic of the Six Conformations is huge.  So huge, it’s a bit intimidating to write about.  If you’re here without much knowledge of the Six Conformations I hope that this, and related posts, will help broaden your understanding. If you’re here with lots of knowledge of the Six Conformations, I hope you will share your wisdom with us in the comments.

The Six Conformation system is another on par with the Five Elemental Phases. It is a way to sort the macrocosm and microcosm into manageable chunks that have meaningful relationships with one another.  Remember, in Chinese medicine we see the macrocosm and microcosm as completely linked. What happens in one impacts the other, and vice versa.  Holism!

In heaven (macrocosm), the six conformations are weather patterns – or atmospheric Qi. In the human being (microcosm), the six conformations exist as associated parts of the body, mind and spirit.   This is important – and complicated.  When people hear about the six conformations, they often think only about the channel system.  So, when I say Taiyin, folks automatically think, “Spleen and Lung channels.” This is erroneous thinking, even though many influential books translate Liu Jing as “Six Channels.”

Just as the Five Elemental Phases don’t refer only to organs or layers of the body, but include those; the Six Conformations don’t refer only to channels or even their paired organs, but include those.

Let’s get the nitty gritty details out of the way. What are the Six Conformations?

  • Taiyang太陽 – Great Yang – associated with the Bladder and Small Intestine organ systems
  • Yangming 陽明 – Yang Brightness – associated with  Large Intestine and Stomach organ systems
  • Shaoyang少陽 – Lesser Yang – associated with the Gallbladder and Triple Burner organ systems
  • Taiyin太陰 – Great Yin – associated with the Lung and Spleen organ systems
  • Shaoyin 少陰 – Lesser Yin – associated with the Heart and Kidney organ systems
  • Jueyin厥陰 – Reverting Yin – associated with the Pericardium and Liver organ systems

There’s a lot of layers of information associated with each of these categories.  I couldn’t hope to look at all of it in one blog post.  Let’s look at the most basic layers.

Climactic factors (for better or for worse)

The Six Conformations are related to Six climactic factors/Qi (Liu Qi).  These should be in balance in nature, but when they are out of balance we know them as the Six Evils.

  • Taiyang – Cold :  associated with water, contracting quality
  • Yangming – Dryness : associated with metal, desiccating quality
  • Shaoyang – Fire : associated with fire, flaring/ministerial in quality
  • Taiyin – Damp : associated with earth, sticky and heavy in quality
  • Shaoyin – Heat : associated with fire,
  • Jueyin – Wind : associated with wood, wandering in quality

As I said above, people often think Six Conformations = Six Channels.  Me, I have the opposite problem — I have it so embedded in my head that the Six Conformations = Six Channels = Six Qi (atmospheric and evil) that sometimes I become a bit confused by it.  My understanding so far is simple — when we talk about the Six Conformations out of context (as we are now) the concept includes shades of all these meanings (Qi/climactic factors, Jing/channels, layers of the body, etc) and much more.  When we are looking at a Conformation more specifically as in a disease, we can tease out what piece of information is most relevant for us at the time.  I hope this is clear.

The order of the conformations and the layers of the body

The specific order I keep using as I list the conformations is not without reason.  While there is some discussion about the placement of Yangming, most of my teachers seem to agree on this order.

Taiyang is the most outward of the conformations.  It governs the most superficial layers of the body and is associated with the Weiqi or defensive force of the human being.  Think of the premiere formulas associated with Taiyang – Gui Zhi Tang and Ma Huang Tang.  Both strongly resolve the surface.  Yangming is the next layer deep – both in some sense physically and also in terms of how external pathogens must progress in their quest to do harm.  It is in the Yangming stage that we get great fevers, this is a storehouse of immense Qi and Blood force in the average person.  Think how well this resonates with the Stomach and Large Intestine organ systems, both deep dealers in the most basic, primal functions of life.  The last Yang conformation, and thus the last protector against a disease becoming deeply internalized, is Shaoyang.  Shaoyang is said to “pivot” (a long discussion) between internal and external, and thus has a kind of oscillating quality.

Now we enter the interior of the body, going ever deeper.  Taiyin is the first of the Yin conformations and in some way exemplifies a kind of “doing without doing” — the most active of the passive organ systems.  Going a layer deeper we find Shaoyin, the north and south poles of the body – Heart and Kidney, the basic axis of the functioning of the human body.  When external pathogens reach this deeply, serious disease is the result.  Finally, Jueyin – the deepest, but also the possibility of rebirth into the Taiyang conformations in the classic cyclic manner of Chinese philosophical systems.  Jueyin is deeply involved with blood, as can be seen clearly in its encompassing of both Liver and Pericardium.

Pairing of the organ systems : insight into pathology

The more I write about this, the more I find to write.  For now, I’ll just mention one quick thing.  The conformations can be paired in the following way:

  • Taiyang – Shaoyin : BL/SI with KD/HT
  • Yangming – Taiyin : ST/LI with SP/LU
  • Shaoyang – Jueyin : GB/TB with LR/PC

Anyone can see the wisdom of these pairings – reuniting the five elementally associated organ pairs.  We have been taught that these are pairings of mutual support.  Taiyang is supported by Shaoyin, and Shaoyin feeds Taiyang.  Thus, when you have a disease in one, the other is somehow involved.  There are particular ways that we have learned to understand this system of differentiation.  But a simple thing to consider is this — take one manifestation of Yangming disease, serious constipation.  What happens if one over purges in Yangming disease and why?  It’s easy enough to say that overpurging (using cold and bitter materials) will cause damage to the Spleen that can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including as diarrhea.  Why is that?

One way to explain it is to consider that Taiyin is the support of Yangming, so that when you overtax Yangming it will draw energy from Taiyin, ultimately depleting it.  Of course, there are people who would explain this in a much more nuanced way but when I’ve mentioned it to others they seem to understand.  Hopefully it will be helpful to you.


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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