traditional Chinese medicine

What Chinese Medicine says about the organ-meridian system and changes we can make to benefit ourselves

At a time when stress and anxiety seem to be ever-increasing, it’s helpful to look at what traditional Chinese medicine has to say about the Stomach and Spleen organ-meridian system and how we absorb both food and the world around us.

Aside from their poeticism, part of the wonder and beauty of Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is the emphasis on the interplay between our physical form, mind and spirit. At a time when stress and anxiety seem to be ever-increasing, it’s helpful to look at what traditional Chinese medicine has to say about the Stomach and Spleen organ-meridian system and how we absorb both food and the world around us.

The TCM perspective

We’re all familiar with the function of the stomach as per Western medical understanding. The role of the spleen, which mostly involves filtering and storing blood and organising blood cells so our immune system can operate smoothly, might be a little more mysterious.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), though — where the names of organs are usually capitalised to differentiate them from their Western medicine counterparts — the Spleen is thought of as the main instrument of digestion and hugely important to our overall wellbeing.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, its partner, the Stomach, has the role of “receiving” and “ripening” whatever foods and fluids are ingested by the body. From here, the Stomach determines which parts of the material are “pure” (and should be sent to the Spleen), and which parts are “turbid” (and should be sent to the Small Intestine). For this reason, the ancient Neijing Suwen refers to the Stomach as the “sea of nutrients”.

The Spleen and Stomach work in tandem as a yin-yang earth element pair that also includes the pancreas. The Spleen’s job is to take the nutrients sent to it by the Stomach, transform them into Blood and Qi, and deliver this nourishing “pure essence” to the body’s yang organs, muscles and flesh. While the Stomach is seen as important, the Spleen, as the yin component of the duo, is paid special attention.

“The function of the Spleen is to transform and transport the essence of food and fluids of the Stomach,” reads the Neijing Suwen. “The symbology of the earth is to nourish all things in nature. It is all-encompassing. It is responsible for nourishing every single part of the body.”

If this process is impaired, we might see imbalance manifest as nausea, distention, belching, water retention, poor appetite, overeating, lethargy, body aches, brain fog, heaviness and general digestive issues.

The Stomach and Spleen are also said to “open out” into the mouth and lips.

“If the Spleen is harmonious, the mouth will be able to distinguish the five tastes, and the lips will be red and moist,” writes Ted J Kaptchuk in The Web That Has No Weaver.

The spirit of Yi

Traditional Chinese medicine attributes not just physiological roles to the body’s organs, but metaphysical qualities as well. The emotion that relates to the Stomach and Spleen organ-meridian system is pensiveness, and its “spirit” is Yi, or intellect. The Neijing Suwen tells us that “The ability to think clearly emanates from the Spleen.” When our Spleen Qi is healthy and balanced, we’re able to think clearly, make decisions, set intentions and use our brain power. You could say that centuries before modern medicine, the Taoists established the gut-brain connection.

The Chinese philosophy is that when specific organs are out of balance, the corresponding emotion becomes deficient or excessive. In the case of the Spleen-Stomach, this might show up as overthinking and worrying. The reverse can also be true: too much pensiveness can lead to an imbalance in the Spleen and Stomach. In a time when many of us are plagued by overthinking or besieged by anxiety, our Spleens need some extra nurturing and care.

The Spleen-Stomach is especially affected by emotions due to its close relationship with the sensitive earth element. When this organ pair is happy and balanced, we experience emotional equanimity. Likewise, cultivating equanimity — the capacity to remain calm and unruffled in the face of both joy and sorrow — is said to help nourish the Spleen.

The earth element

Each organ meridian-system has an association with one of the five elements in Taoism’s “Five Phase Theory”, which includes fire, earth, metal, water and wood. For the Spleen and Stomach, the element is earth. The connection between the earth element and the digestive system becomes clearer when bringing to mind the body’s microbiome and its “macro” equivalent, soil.\

The earth element corresponds with the season of “late summer” — meaning we should pay special attention to the Spleen and Stomach at this time of year to avoid imbalance — although it’s also associated with the tail end of all seasons.

Some modern TCM practitioners also point out the connection between the Stomach-Spleen and the manipura (or solar plexus) chakra, or the Japanese concept of hara — in other words, our power centre and the spiritual “home” of our body. Yin yoga pioneer Sarah Powers says that healthy Spleen Qi manifests as a feeling of being comfortable within ourselves.

Some modern TCM practitioners also point out the connection between the Stomach-Spleen and the manipura (or solar plexus) chakra, or the Japanese concept of hara — in other words, our power centre and the spiritual “home” of our body. Yin yoga pioneer Sarah Powers says that healthy Spleen Qi manifests as a feeling of being comfortable within ourselves.

Sarah also writes, “When Spleen chi is balanced, our cycles are in harmony. This allows all aspects of our life to be absorbed for psychosomatic nourishment. We feel earthy, sensual, full.”

The earth element is associated with feeling and intuition, which makes it especially susceptible to being disrupted by strong emotions. As mentioned above, this is a reciprocal relationship: you might be eating all the right foods, but your health efforts will be undermined if you’re ruminating or worrying excessively. The earth element, in particular, requires that we nurture and calm ourselves.

Nourishing the Spleen and Stomach

Practices that help us relax and feel safe, grounded and equanimous will help bring us into relationship with the earth element and balance our Spleen and Stomach Qi — think: walking, yoga and meditation. Anything that increases our tendency towards worry and anxiety will have the opposite effect and deplete Spleen Qi, so it’s important to create healthy boundaries around things like work and stressful experiences. Since this organ-meridian system helps us to “digest”, we need to be conscious of everything we’re consuming and its effect on us (from food and drink to information and experiences) — and allow time to process what we need to process.

In terms of foods, the taste that goes with the Stomach and Spleen is sweet: the flavour of ripened fruits at the end of summer. This organ pair favours naturally sweet foods — especially those that grow in or on the ground, such as sweet potato, carrot and pumpkin. As summer begins to fade into autumn, your Stomach and Spleen will thank you for gracing them with foods that are gently warming and easy to digest without being too heavy, such as soups, casseroles, curries, stews, porridge and rice pudding. From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, cold foods and drinks can dampen the Spleen and inhibit its ability to carry out its important function in the body.

To nourish and nurture our Spleen is to set ourselves up for vibrant energy and general equilibrium.

“If the transformative and transporting functions of the Spleen are harmonious, the Qi and Blood can be abundant and the digestive powers strong,” writes Ted J. Kaptchuk.

Yin yoga sequence

Yoga poses that target the Stomach and Spleen are generally those that open up the front side of the body and inner seams of the legs. The Stomach meridian begins next to the nose and travels down the front of the body through the diaphragm, stomach and spleen, and then down the front of the leg to finish at the second toe. The Spleen meridian, meanwhile, begins on the outside of the big toe, travels up the inside of the leg, enters the torso through the groin and zigzags up the front of the body, travelling through the stomach, spleen, diaphragm, chest and heart before finishing at the root of the tongue.

Supported bridge
Place a bolster, block or cushion beside your mat, and then lie down flat on your back. Bend your knees so your feet are flat on the mat, and then press into your feet, lift your hips and slide your prop underneath the back of the hips, or sacrum.

If possible, straighten both legs (or one at a time) to open up the Stomach channel. Stay for three to five minutes.

Supported Bridge

Find a seated position — possibly on the edge of a blanket or thin cushion so that your hips are slightly tilted. Bring the soles of your feet together in a loose diamond shape and recruit any props you need for extra support: you might rest your head on a block, bolster, pillow or combination of various props arranged at whatever height you need! Allow the spine to round as much as it feels appropriate to do so. Stay for three to five minutes.

Supported bridge

Lower yourself onto your belly and rest here for about a minute as a rebound pose. When ready, come up onto your forearms with your elbows directly beneath your shoulders. There should be some compression in your lower back, but if it’s too much, slide your elbows further forward and/or take your feet a little wider. If it feels appropriate, you can straighten the arms out in front of you for Seal pose. Stay for three minutes, then rest on the belly for another minute.


Place a folded blanket across your mat so that it’s a little wider than your mat, then take your knees wide and bring your big toes to touch. Reach your arms out in front of you, or let them rest beside you. Stay for two minutes.


Evolve from Tadpole to Frog by lifting your hips and taking your knees wider apart. You might keep your toes together or take your feet wide so that your ankles are roughly in line with your knees and your feet point outwards. Keep the hips in line with the knees, and use a cushion or bolster as support underneath your elbows if need be. The target area is the inner seams of the legs and groin. Stay for two to three minutes.


Broken Wing
Rest on your belly again and allow your hips to neutralise for a minute (or as long as you need). Then, extend your left arm out beside you so it is perpendicular to your torso and the hand is in line with your shoulder. Come onto the fingertips of your right hand, so that the right hand is in line with the right shoulder. Bend the right knee and roll onto your left shoulder, cheek and hip so that you step your right foot behind the left leg. Have your right foot flat if possible — otherwise rest on the outer edge of the big toe. You might like to gently take your right arm around your lower back with your palm facing outwards. Stay two to three minutes and then practise on the other side with a rebound pose (resting on your belly or Tadpole) in between.

Broken Wing

Dragon/Winged Dragon
Come to all fours and step your left foot between your hands so the knee is above the ankle. Frame the front foot with the hands and wriggle the back knee a little further back so that you’re resting on the fleshy bit above the knee, rather than the kneecap itself (use extra padding under this back knee if you need). Place blocks under the hands if this feels too intense. Remain here for two minutes before spending the final minute in a Winged Dragon by dropping the front knee out to the side and coming onto the outer edge of your front foot. Rebound briefly in Half Monkey (keep the back leg as is but walk the hands back, straighten the front leg and gently fold forward) before practising on the other side.

Dragon/Winged Dragon

Come onto your sitting bones and bring your legs out in front. You might like to place blocks, cushions or a bolster under your knees and/or on top of your legs to support you as you round your spine. Let your feet drop out to the sides. Stay three minutes.

Supine Twist/Cat Pulling its Tail

Supine Twist/Cat Pulling its Tail
Lie down flat on your back. With your right leg long, draw your left knee into your chest so there is a subtle compression of the thigh against the left side of your belly. After 30 seconds, bring the knee above the left hip and then use the right hand to guide it across the body for a twist. Stay here, or bend the bottom leg and take hold of the right foot with the left hand for Cat Pulling its Tail. Stay for three minutes before practising on the other side. Finally, come into savasana (and stay as long as you like!).

Photography ~ Bri Horne

Article featured in WellBeing Yoga 8 

Jane Hone

Jane Hone

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