One of the most important components, and most puzzling component, of Chinese martial arts and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is Qigong (气功). The Chinese word Qi in Qigong is the same as the Chinese word air (气). In practicing Qigong, usually breathing is very important; that may be why this word was chosen. However, Qi in Qigong means much more than air. Qi is some sort of bioelectric energy, or life force, that gets circulated and stored in the body. There are channels for circulation of Qi; these channels are called meridians. There are reservoirs for storage of Qi; these reservoirs are called vessels. The health of a person is related to the ability of Qi to flow through these channels. Illness is usually associated with some blockage of Qi. The Chinese word Gong means skill or attaining skill through practice or work. Therefore, Qigong can be interpreted to mean the skill of regulating Qi through practice.
Qigong in some form or another has been practiced in China for several thousands of years. It has been practiced by many, many people in China as well as in other parts of Asia. Today, there are literally millions of people practicing Qigong. Because of the large span of time and space where Qigong has been practiced, there are many, many different types of Qigong. The number of varieties of Qigong is much more than the many different varieties of Taiji and Chinese martial arts.
Qigong is used in martial arts to increase the power of a strike or the ability to withstand a strike by directing one’s Qi to the part of the body that is striking or withstanding a strike. The mind of the martial artist is involved to direct the Qi to circulate to that part of the body. Qigong as practiced by a health practitioner is used to direct the practitioner’s Qi or used his Qi to help move the patient’s Qi to the area of the patient’s body where there is some illness. Similar to the martial artist case, the mind of the health practitioner is also involved to direct the Qi to circulate to a particular part of the body.
Learning Spontaneous Qigong
This article discusses perhaps the simplest type of Qigong. It is called Zifagong (自发功), or Spontaneous Qigong. I am not an expert in Qigong or Spontaneous Qigong, but I do want to describe Spontaneous Qigong based on what I know. It is actually very simple to learn Spontaneous Qigong. One should find a large, quiet place, preferably a large flat grass area, to practice. One then just stands with his feet about one shoulder width apart, with the knees slightly bent but with the upper body straight, and the hands by the sides of the body. One should keep the whole body relaxed, including shoulders, body, hands, and feet. One should also try to empty the mind, i.e., do not think about anything (although this may be very difficult to accomplish, but one should keep that in mind). The eyes should be softly closed, although they can be opened if the need arises.
The reason that Spontaneous Qigong may be the simplest type of Qigong is because unlike Qigong in martial arts or Qigong by a Qigong health practitioner, it is not necessary to use the mind to direct the Qi. As a matter of fact, as previously mentioned, a Spontaneous Qigong practitioner should empty his mind. Also, Spontaneous Qigong requires only natural breathing (i.e., breathing normally without even thinking about breathing), and not more sophisticated breathing techniques such as lower abdominal breathing.
Movements while Practicing Spontaneous Qigong
Then one just has to be patient to stand in that position in a relaxed way. For a beginner, one has to be patient and stand in that way for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or even longer. If one can keep the body relaxed and the mind empty, then after a while one may start getting into a Qigong state and feel the body moving slightly, perhaps leaning forward slightly and then leaning backward slightly. After experiencing this slight swaying motion, be patient and keep on standing in that position. Then after a little longer, one may get into a more definite Qigong state. Then one’s body may undergo one of many different kinds of motions, such as:
- Taking a couple of steps forward or backward
- Bending forward or bending backward, including bending backward more than what one can normally do
- Walking forward and more likely walking backward
- Walking around (forward or backward) in a circle
- Running in place
- Twisting one’s body into all kinds of positions, including positions one normally doesn’t get into
- Shaking the arms
- Moving or waving the arms, including moving the arms as in the “wave hands like clouds” movement in Taiji
- Sitting down on the floor
- Lying down on the floor, including lying down and rotating horizontally on the floor
I have observed every one of the above movements in just the last two-three months of practice with a group whose average group size was around a dozen people. It is important to point out that the person is conscious of all his movements. If he is walking backward at a very rapid pace or walking around rapidly in a small circle, he could tell himself to be calm and just let nature take its course, or take some mild corrective action if there is imminent risk.
The amount of time it takes an individual to get into a Qigong state varies with the individual. It may take more than one practice, and sometimes one may not reach a Qigong state at all. In the latter case, it may be that the person did not relax enough, or his mind was thinking of too many things, or he wasn’t patient enough to keep standing in that position, or for one reason or another, he is the type of person who doesn’t get into a Qigong state easily.
Usually after a few minutes or many minutes of being into a definite Qigong state, the person will get out of this definite Qigong state. Then several additional minutes of standing could get the person back into another definite Qigong state, and the movement may be the same or not the same as the movement during the previous definite Qigong state.
Interpretation of Spontaneous Qigong Movements
The main objective of practicing Spontaneous Qigong is to improve one’s health. We have heard testimonies from people we know and local to our area who report on the health benefits that they have obtained from practicing Spontaneous Qigong, including healing tennis elbows, back pains, and depression.
How do we interpret or explain the Spontaneous Qigong movements? With our current knowledge, we (or more appropriately to say “I”) don’t really have a full explanation. However, we can make certain observations. First of all, the movements occur not because the practitioners purposely want them to occur, because the Qigong movements have happened to many people, including people who were skeptical about Spontaneous Qigong. The Spontaneous Qigong movements may be unusual or difficult to perform normally. For example, a person may be able to bend over backward to a much larger extent than he is normally capable of (a friend of mine has observed one of his students bending over backward with his head touching the ground, a feat far from feasible for that person under normal circumstances). There may be some unexplained force involved in some of these movements. For example, the hands may move upward against gravity even though the person is not purposely trying to move his hands upward.
From a TCM perspective, the Spontaneous Qigong practitioner may have some Qi blockage in some part of his body. When he is practicing Spontaneous Qigong and gets into a Qigong state, his body will automatically send his Qi to the location of the blockage. The various bodily movements reflect the body trying to break the blockage or get the Qi around the blockage. When one blockage has been cleared, then new bodily movements may reflect another blockage, in the same or different neighborhood of the other blockage.
For an otherwise healthy person with no serious problem, he may still undergo movements while practicing Spontaneous Qigong, although the movements may be gentler, e.g., his hands moving slowly in a circular motion as in the Taiji movement “wave hands like clouds.” The movements may help him with better circulation of Qi and give him even better health.
With our present knowledge, we (again perhaps more appropriately to say “I”) don’t really know how do we get into a Qigong state, what causes the Qi to circulate, what causes the movements, where do the various forces come from (e.g., causing the movements to go against gravity).
Some Precautions in Practicing Spontaneous Qigong
As we discussed earlier, a practitioner may undergo various kinds of movements, a movement that may lead the practitioner to bump into objects or may cause him to fall down. That is why it is recommended that Spontaneous Qigong should be practiced in a large, flat, grass area, which can decrease the probability of bumping into something and the probability of getting hurt when falling down. It is also recommended that a practitioner practices with a group under the guidance of an experienced Spontaneous Qigong practitioner. The latter can keep an eye on anyone who is about to run into a tree or another person, who may be moving too fast, who may walk away from the practice area. The experienced observer can talk to the person and suggest that he moves in another direction, or slows down, or moves back into the practice area. Even though the practitioner is fully aware of his movements and on his own can take corrective action as necessary, it is still good to have someone else observing and providing some advice when it is appropriate. Only when one has experience practicing Spontaneous Qigong and has a pretty good idea of and control of his movements, then it might be ok for the person to practice indoor and on his own.
There are certain types of people for whom Spontaneous Qigong is not recommended. These include:
- People who cannot risk falling down, e.g., people with thin or fragile bones such as osteoporosis
- People who can bleed easily and have trouble stopping bleeding
- People who have serious mental illness or are likely to inherit mental illness
- People whose overall health is very weak
Another important precaution is that at the end of each Spontaneous Qigong practice, one must cool down or wrap up (收功) properly. This is not the usual warm/cool down after a strenuous exercise. The purpose of properly cooling down is to ensure that the practitioner has terminated the Qigong state. With proper cool down, terminating the Qigong state can always be successfully done. However, inexperienced practitioners may not cool down properly, perhaps trying to save time and take a short cut, or perhaps not having been properly instructed on the importance and techniques of cool down. If not cooling down properly, it may be possible that afterward, the person may go into a Qigong state and undergo some Qigong movements. Those who don’t understand Spontaneous Qigong may attribute such happenings to something intrinsic to Spontaneous Qigong, instead of attributing it to not properly performing Spontaneous Qigong, in particular, not properly cooling down. It is such misunderstandings that sometimes people have negative impressions (including the concern of 走火入魔 in Chinese) of or shy away from Spontaneous Qigong.
Spontaneous Qigong is one type, perhaps the simplest type, of Qigong. It is very easy to practice and to experience a Qigong state. One needs to relax the body and empty the mind, and have patience in standing still for many minutes. The reason for practicing Spontaneous Qigong is because it can have all kinds of health benefits. However, if one is experiencing illness or have some physical problem, one should also consult a doctor to seek medical advice and treatments.
Before practicing Spontaneous Qigong, one should be properly instructed on the theory, techniques, expectations, and precautions associated with Spontaneous Qigong. In particular, the instructions should include the importance of relaxing the body, emptying the mind, the bodily movements that might result, and the techniques of cooling down properly at the end of every Spontaneous Qigong practice. Until one is experienced and knows one’s response when in a Qigong state, one should always practice under the guidance of an experienced Spontaneous Qigong practitioner.
Qigong, including Spontaneous Qigong, is an ancient Chinese art. It has many benefits, in martial arts and in health. However, sometimes it may be used by people with other ulterior motives to become a cult or to push certain political agenda. One should not lump all Qigong together, but differentiate the good from the bad.
Spontaneous Qigong has existed for a long time. During the last 15 years, it has been popularized, especially by Dr. S. Z. Lin, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the National Central University in Taiwan. He has written several books on Spontaneous Qigong. Unfortunately, all his books at this point are in Chinese.
 For simplicity, we will use the term his to mean his/her, and the term he to mean he/she.
 I want to thank Mr. Y.-L. Yen, who introduced me to Spontaneous Qigong, for his review and comments on an earlier version of this article.
 As discussed later, if when one is in a Qigong state and one is walking quickly forward or backward (especially backward), then one should at least partially open his eyes to avoid hitting some object/person, or falling down. Note: If one is rotating quickly in circular motion, then it is better to keep the eyes closed, otherwise, one may become dizzy.
 For a discussion of the different types of breathing, see “Breathing and Taijiquan”: http://dontow.com/wordpress/2007/02/breathing-and-taijiquan/.
 For experienced Spontaneous Qigong practitioners, one could get into a Qigong state after 5-10 minutes, or perhaps even as quickly as after two-to-three minutes.
 This does not necessarily mean that the person is no longer in a Qigong state. It may only mean that the person is in a milder Qigong state, or in a transitional period between one definite Qigong state and another definite Qigong state.
 It is possible that while practicing Spontaneous Qigong, the body will automatically undergo a cool down process. Then it is not necessary to do additional cool down. However, doing additional cool down does no harm. Therefore, I recommend that new Spontaneous Qigong practitioners always perform a cool down process at the end of each practice.