Strengthening your Liver, the Organ of Spring

In our monthly Health Defense classes, Grandmaster Joe Manley is sharing with us his fusion of Daoist and Ayurvedic practices that enhance internal health.  In the Daoist tradition, the five major organs that support internal health and wellness are the Lung, Kidney, Liver, Heart, and Spleen.  Each of these corresponds to a season.  Each organ also has an associated color, a sound, and an element. We’ve been practicing various combinations of sounds, visualization, and movement for all five organs. Currently we’re in the middle of Spring, and according to the Daoist traditions, the Liver has the strongest energy during this time of year. 

Daoist associations with the Liver
The liver is on the right side of the body. Image by Samuel Zeller, via unsplash.com

Do you know where your liver is?  I’ve been surprised at the number of people who aren’t exactly sure.   Your liver is on the right side of your body, just underneath the diaphragm, which supports lung function.  It’s divided into two major lobes. It is responsible for filtering, detoxifying, nourishing, replenishing, and storing blood.  The liver also produces bile, which helps the body digest food.  Just under the liver is the gall bladder, which stores bile and works with the liver in helping the body break down and digest food.  (For a good description of the liver function, check out this article published by Johns Hopkins Medicine.)

We’ve been practicing three different mudras that support health of your liver:  Apana Mudra, Mushi Mudra, and Prithvi Mudra.   Holding this mudra for a number of minutes is said to be beneficial for that organ.  (Note that each of these mudras has broader benefits that we’ll discuss in a future post.)

Here’s one way to bring these pieces together (as shared by GM Manley):

To form Apana Mudra, bring the tips of the thumb, ring finger, and middle fingers together.
For Mushti Mudra, the hand forms a fist, with the thumb touching the middle segment of the ring finger

In a comfortable seated position, form one of the mudras in your hands (one hand or both).  Breathing in, imagine a beautiful green light entering your liver, nurturing it and cleansing it.  Internally smile to your liver, and bring your compassion and appreciation to this organ.  When you exhale, sub-vocally make the liver sound.  (I write it as “shiuu”, you can think of pronouncing it as “shoe”.)  As you exhale, visualize any impurities and illness leaving your liver with your exhale.

The thumb and ring fingers touch for Prithvi mudra.

I’ve also been exploring how to incorporate some of the daoist concepts into yoga.  The liver meridian starts at the inside of the big toe.  There’s a wonderful pose, Padangusthasana, which starts with a forward fold.  Once in the pose, you use your index and ring fingers to wrap around the big toe.  This is essentially stimulating the meridian and helping to bring balance to that aspect of your health.

In Yin Yoga, which builds on the meridian system, there are a number of poses that stimulate the liver meridan.  One of my favorite poses for the Liver meridian is the half-butterfly pose.  Half butterfly is performed while seated on the floor.  One leg is stretched out, while the other leg is bent – the sole of the foot touches the inner thigh of the extended leg, and the knee lays down on the ground (or as best as you can do).  Since the liver meridian moves up the inner leg, this pose stimulates the meridian.  You can also hold one of the mudras while resting into this pose.

Of course, maintaining a healthy weight and diet is also important in keeping your liver healthy.  Over-eating, high levels of alcohol consumption, high levels of sugar, and fried foods all stress your liver function. 

Emotions associated with the liver include anger and frustration.  In the daoist tradition, it’s said that when the liver energy is balanced, the emotions that anger and frustration depart to reveal kindness, benevolence, compassion, and generosity.  And within the Buddhist tradition, I’ve been taught that anger is a sign that the spirit is searching for clarity.  So if you are finding yourself in anger or frustration, perhaps look at both aspects.  Perhaps there’s a health basis for your loss of equanimity.  But maybe, with calm searching and compassion, you’ll also find a way to channel your anger into a thoughtful way that brings more harmony into the world.  You are the only ice to know which path is needed.  Be kind to your self, and strive to be kind to others.