In addition to the 12 main acupuncture meridians that flow along the surface of the body, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine also treat deeper channels of energy in the body called the Extraordinary Vessels. If you think of the primary acupuncture meridian as rivers of energy and blood within the body, then the Extraordinary Vessels are deep lakes. They act to regulate the flow of Qi and blood within the 12 main channels – if there is not enough energy in a particular channel, the Extraordinary Vessels can help to fill it. Likewise, if energy is overflowing or erratic in a particular acupuncture meridian, the Extraordinary Vessels can help to redirect the excess energy to other areas of the body.
There are eight Extraordinary Vessels in the body, and only two have acupuncture points along their pathway. One of these is the Governing Vessel, or Du Mai. It originates between the kidneys, flows down to the perineum and then runs up the length of the spine, through the brain, over the top of the head and down the midline of the face.
The Du Mai is also called the “Sea of Yang,” and stores, nourishes and moves the yang energy within the body, and influences all of the yang meridians. It particularly strengthens the yang of the kidneys, which is the root of all yang within the body. Yang is the hot, fiery, expansive, active parts of our physiology. Without yang, there is no life. The main point to nourish kidney yang is located on the Du Mai itself, on the low back.
Due to its pathway inside the spine, the Du Mai is used clinically for strengthening the spine and the back. Acupuncture needles can be inserted into points directly along the Du Mai meridian, or the vessel can be accessed by needling certain opening points on the wrists and ankles, which directly influence the Du Mai. It can be a great distal treatment for back pain, because the Du Mai can be treated with patients lying on their back or seated in a chair, if lying face down is too uncomfortable. It is an important treatment for many back issues such as bulging discs, arthritis or spinal stenosis.
The Du Mai can also be used to nourish the brain for symptoms such as dizziness or poor memory. Because a small branch of the Du Mai passes close to the heart, it can also be used to strengthen the mind and spirit. Lastly, some traditions of acupuncture use the Du Mai to expel wind from the body – it can be used to expel exterior wind-causing symptoms like runny nose, headache, fever and stiff neck. It can also be used to expel internally generated wind, for symptoms like tremors, tics, convulsions or vertigo.
The Du Mai can be stimulated with acupuncture needles during acupuncture treatment, or can be accessed internally through the use of qi gong breathing and movement techniques. Certain herbs stimulate the Du Mai and can be used in herbal formulas to carry the actions of other herbs to this Extraordinary Vessel, as well.