In the August 2007 release of this website, I wrote the first part of a two-part series on “The Essence of Taijiquan.” That Part 1 article described the “Perspective from Taiji Push Hands.” Part 2 in this release describes the “Perspective from Taiji Qigong.” This article will briefly address the following three questions:
- What is Qi and what is Qigong?
- How is Qigong related to Taiji?
- What are some general principles and steps in Taiji Qigong exercises?
This discussion is based on material from several books:
- The Essence of Taiji Qigong: The Internal Foundation of Taijiquan, by Dr. Jwing-Ming Yang, 1997
- The Healing Promise of Qi: Creating Extraordianary Wellness Through Qigong and Tai Chi, by Roger Jahnke, O.M.D., 2002
- Qigong Empowerment: A Guide to Medical, Taoist, Buddhist, Wushu Energy Cultivation, by Shou-Yu Liang and Wen-Ching Wu, 1997
- The Roots of Chinese Qigong: Secrets for Health, Longevity, & Enlightenment, by Dr. Jwing-Ming Yang, 1997
What is Qi? I don’t think that there is yet a definitive scientific answer to this question. However, just because we may not yet have a detailed scientific definition of Qi that is universally accepted by scientists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Qi doesn’t exist. As a matter of fact, to the many people in this world who practice Qigong on a regular basis, Qi is as real to them as their breath, their heartbeat, their conscious mind. They can feel the Qi in their body. They can guide the Qi to circulate to different parts of their body. They can feel sensations in their body, e.g., tingling sensations in their fingers, when they are practicing Qigong.
Qi is often defined as an energy, some sort of bioelectrical energy, that exists inside the human body, although many qigong experts may consider that kind of definition to be too simplistic. Furthermore, the effects of Qi is not limited to just inside the body; it can be felt outside of the human body. For example, the strength of the electromagnetic field around the hands of an expert Qigong practitioner could be substantially larger than that of an average person. To some extent, all people have Qi in their body, but the amount may be small, not noticeable, and stagnant. Through appropriate practice, one can increase the amount of Qi in their body and increase the circulation of Qi within their body. It is important to increase the Qi in the body, because Qi is considered to be the essence or vital force of life. However, Qi must also be balanced in the body. There should not be an excessive amount of Qi in one part of the body, while at the same time there is a deficiency of Qi in another part of the body. That is why the ability to circulate Qi is so important; it is the mechanism that can keep a proper Yin-Yang balance of Qi. In modern physiological terminology, balancing the Qi is equivalent to attaining homeostasis. Liang and Wu in the third reference refers the term “gong” to the power to produce an effect, an attainment of, or an accomplishment that is achieved with steady practice. The term “Qigong” then can be defined as the practice that increases the Qi and its circulation within the body.
Before discussing the relationship of Qigong and Taiji, I first digress to discuss some basic concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), because Qi and especially the imbalance of Qi is so intrinsic to TCM. TCM believes that the development of illness is due to the upsetting of the natural balance (or Yin and Yang) of Qi inside the human body from pathogenic influences, such as germs. To treat any illness, one needs to eliminate the pathogenic influences. Both increasing the Qi in the body and balancing the Qi in the body will help to fight against the pathogenic influences. The Qi imbalance may be occurring in non-adjacent parts of the body. TCM stresses that to heal, one should look for the cause of the illness, and one should not treat only the head if the head hurts, or treat only the foot if the foot hurts.
A natural question one may ask is “doesn’t continuously increasing Qi in the body lead to any harmful effects to the body?” The answer is no, as long as the Qi is increased in a balanced way. The body can react to the increase in Qi and build itself up so that it can accept the new increase in Qi. An analogy may help to understand this issue. Through exercising with weights, a person can build up his muscles. If the exercises are done properly, the person’s strength in various parts of his body is also increased, thus allowing him to accommodate the increase in weight due to the new muscle mass. As long as he is not increasing his body mass in a major way in only one part of his body, the exercising not only has no harmful effects, but actually makes him healthier. Similarly, increasing the body’s Qi in a balanced way through Qigong exercises results in a healthier body without any harmful effects.
What is the relationship between Qigong and Taiji? Many of the concepts that are important for Qigong are also important for Taiji. For example, many Qigong exercises are done very slowly while undergoing slow and deep breathing, which is also the case for doing Taiji. The slow movement also allows the body to be in a relaxed state, again also the case for Taiji. In Qigong exercises, the mind is supposed to be freed of scattered thoughts, and the mind should focus on the activities at hand, e.g., the body movements and the breathing. As a matter of fact, the mind is supposed to lead (or regulate) both the body movements and breathing, again exactly the case for Taiji. It is important to point out that in both Qigong and Taiji, in an advanced stage, the regulation of the body movements and breathing should become automatic, and the mind is no longer required to do the regulation. Because of the many similarities between Qigong and Taiji, many of the exercises for Qigong and Taiji are similar. As a matter of fact, Taiji Qigong is one of the most popular types of Qigong, although there are many other types of Qigong.
Qigong plays a key role in Taiji’s two main objectives: To improve health and for self defense as a martial art. We have already explained that the ability to increase Qi and to circulate Qi is key to good health. How does Qigong help Taiji to achieve its second objective as a good martial art? Basically, Qigong can increase the martial artist’s striking power and to train the martial artist’s body to better resist punches and kicks. The theory behind increasing striking power is actually very simple. Dr. Yang in the first reference wrote “the average person generally uses his muscles at under 40% maximum efficiency.” The martial artist can use the mind to lead the Qi to the muscles to energize them to a higher level, thus increasing the martial artist’s fighting effectiveness. Similarly, leading Qi to the skin and muscles can enable them to better resist a blow without injury. This is clearly demonstrated in those martial arts exhibitions when a martial artist can resist a pointed spear pointed to a spot below his throat (the esophagus area). As a matter of fact, the martial artist not only can avoid the puncture of that area of the body, but can actually bend the spear.
Associated with acupuncture, we know that the body has many vital acupuncture cavities. An acupuncturist uses needles inserted into these acupuncture cavities to remove Qi blockages or regulate the flow of Qi. Conversely, a martial artist can exert pointed pressure on these acupuncture cavities to disturb the enemy’s Qi flow and create Qi imbalances that can cause injury or even death. However, this requires very sophisticated techniques involving understanding the route and timing of the Qi circulation in the human body and the ability to strike the cavities accurately and to the correct depth.
At an advanced level, almost all Chinese martial arts involve Qigong training. Chinese martial arts are loosely classified into two different general categories: External martial arts such as Shaolinquan, and internal martial arts such as Taijiquan. Sometimes people think that only internal martial arts involve Qigong training, which is not true. Both types involve Qigong training, although there is a difference in emphasis. External martial arts focus on building Qi directly in the limbs and then move the Qi from the limbs to the body. Internal martial arts focus on building Qi in the body (where the vital organs are) and then lead the Qi from the body to the limbs. In TCM, the human body has 12 major Qi channels (like rivers) through which the Qi circulates, and has eight vessels (like reservoirs) which store the Qi and also regulate the distribution and circulation of Qi in the body. External martial arts focus on the Qi channels, and internal martial arts focus on the Qi vessels.
I now briefly discuss some general principles and steps in doing Taiji Qigong exercises. This article does not discuss specific Qigong exercises. If interested in that topic, the reader can consult any of the four references. The first step is to regulate your body. Your body should be completely relaxed. If you feel certain tension in a particular part of your body, then focus on and relax that body part. Your body should be centered and well supported. You should not be leaning forward or backward, or to one side or another, so that the weight of your body is firmly supported by your legs. Keeping the upper body straight also allows the Qi to flow more easily between the upper part and lower part of the body. That is why in Taiji, we always emphasize that your upper body should be straight, as though there is a string attached to the top of your head and tied straight up to the ceiling. Since the power of any strike originates from the feet (although may be controlled by the waist and manifested in the hands), a body centered also means that the feet (either both or at least one) are firmly rooted on the ground, thus allowing you to generate more power.
The next step is to regulate your breathing, using abdominal breathing instead of the usual breathing method of using your chest muscles to expand and contract your lungs. Abdominal breathing uses your abdomen and diaphragm muscles to help expand and contract your lungs, and is crucial to Qi circulation. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, you may use Normal Abdominal Breathing or Reverse Abdominal Breathing. For more description of the different types of breathing in Taiji, see my article “Breathing and Taijiquan”.
The next step is to regulate your mind, i.e., use your mind to lead your body movements and your breathing. You need to be consciously knowing what and why you are doing. As previously mentioned, when you get to an advanced level, the regulation of your body and breathing becomes automatic, and you no longer need to use your mind to do that regulation.
The next step is to regulate your Qi, again with the mind leading the regulation. You want to circulate the Qi to different parts of your body, including to the skin, to the bone marrow (where blood cells are formed), and especially to your brain. If you have certain discomforts in a particular part of your body, then you especially want to circulate the Qi to that part of your body.
There are other more advanced steps to Qigong, but that kind of discussion is beyond the scope of this introductory article.
I like to end this article with a personal observation. I find it very difficult to understand large portions of every book that I have read on Qigong. This is of course due partially to my lack of expertise in Qigong. But I think it is deeper than that. It seems to me that in trying to explain Qigong, modern writers still often have a tendency to use terminologies and descriptions exactly as they were written or explained hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years ago. I understand that there are a lot of wisdom and truths from the old sages. They were the ones who invented and developed these skills, and we have a great deal to learn from what they wrote or said. However, I often feel that I am in a situation as though someone is trying to explain chemistry to me using pre-Periodic Table terminologies and descriptions, or explain astrophysics to me using pre-Copernicus/Newton terminologies and descriptions. If anyone knows of any Qigong books that do not have this problem, I would appreciate knowing about it.