What Is Qigong?

Qigong (氣功) has a long history of several thousand years and is practiced by many people throughout the years.  It is practiced today by millions of people in China as well as in many other parts of the world.  With such a long history involving so many people and numerous teachers/masters, there are many types of Qigong.  However, the theory of Qigong is really based on concepts behind Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which includes examining external appearances, examining internal conditions (e.g., via listening to one’s pulse), analyzing patient’s descriptions of his/her ailments, prescribing herbal medicines, utilizing techniques such as Tui Na (), acupressure, and acupuncture.  This article provides an introduction to Qigong.

The Basis of QigongThe fundamental concept behind Traditional Chinese Medicine is that there is a life force called Qi (), some sort of bio-electric energy that is vital to the health of an individual, that circulates throughout the body.  Illnesses are due to insufficient or excess Qi or blockages of Qi, and illnesses can be cured by helping the body to generate more Qi when there is a deficiency, or to get rid of some Qi when there is an excess, or to remove the blockages so that Qi can flow freely and thus getting rid of the problem of excessive or insufficient amount of Qi.

Although it is not clear what is this life force Qi and what is the scientific basis of Qi, modern scientific and medical research during the last 20-30 years [1, 2, 3] provide many indications that there are many health benefits to practicing Qigong and Taiji [4], although many more such studies are still needed, involving larger sample sizes and duplication of results by other groups.

There is not yet a detailed scientific definition of Qi that is generally accepted by scientists, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Qi doesn’t exist.  To the many people in this world who have practiced Qigong for an extended period and on a regular basis, Qi is as real to them as their breath, their heartbeat, their conscious mind.  They can feel Qi in their body.  They can guide 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.  As a matter of fact, in my opinion, one of the most important areas of scientific/medical research during the next 50-100 years is to perform a more comprehensive, systematic, and in-depth investigation of the scientific basis and health benefits of Taiji and Qigong. [5]  Then we should have a much better understanding of the relationship between Western medicine and TCM, and can integrate the best of each to establish a new and more holistic medicine.

The word “gong” in Chinese means work via steady practice to achieve an accomplishment.  So Qigong means the practice that regulates the Qi and its circulation within the body.

Qigong then is a set of stretching, breathing, and meditation health exercises that is based on TCM, and can be thought of as strengthening exercises as well as self-healing exercises that can prevent or treat illnesses.  It can supplement or sometimes even replace the treatment of doctors (TCM doctors or Western doctors), or taking medicine (Chinese herbal medicine or Western medicine).  Through appropriate practice, one can remove blockages, and improve the circulation of Qi within one’s body, so that no part of the body has an excessive amount or a deficiency of Qi.  In modern physiological terminology, balancing the Qi is equivalent to attaining homeostasis (the property of a system in which variables are regulated so that internal conditions remain stable and relatively constant).

Fundamental Principles and Structure of Qigong ExercisesAll Qigong exercises follow certain fundamental principles.  The most important is that all parts of the body should be relaxed.  For example, the shoulders should be slanted downward.  In many stances, the knees should be slightly bent.  The tailbone should be tucked in slightly.  The upper body should be straight.  Eyes can be opened, partially closed, or closed.  Breathe in and out through the nose while taking slow deep breaths, but do not hold your breath for any extended period of time.  In addition, the mind is also relaxed, but the mind is not void.  As a matter of fact, the mind is very much involved in Qigong.   In many Qigong exercises, the mind’s intent is used to think about the Qi and to guide the Qi.  Although initially you may not feel anything associated with the mind’s intent, you should still practice the exercises following the prescription for the mind’s intent for that particular exercise.   The tongue should be touching lightly the upper palate, just behind the upper front teeth, so that the meridian (or Qi channel) that flows upward along the back of your body and the meridian that flows downward along the front of your body can be connected together at the point of contact of the tongue touching the upper palate behind the upper front teeth.

Because there are so many people practicing Qigong and so many teachers and masters, there are many different Qigong exercises.  However, there is a structure consisting of four components in which Qigong exercises can be classified.  The four components are:

  • Lower Abdominal Breathing (also called Dan Tian Breathing [6])
  • Collecting Qi, Dispelling Qi, or Focusing Qi
  • Circulating Qi (Standing or Moving Meditation)
  • Self-Healing Exercises and Other Integrated Qigong Sets

We now discuss each of the these four components of Qigong exercises.

Lower Abdominal Breathing (or Dan Tian Breathing):  When we were babies, we use lower abdominal breathing, i.e., when we inhale and exhale, our lower abdomen expands and contracts.  But when we are no longer babies, we change our breathing from lower abdomen to chest breathing, expanding and contracting our chest.  For Qigong exercises, we turn back the clock and return to the way we breathed when we were babies.

When we use Lower Abdominal Breathing (also called Dan Tian Breathing), when we inhale, we lower the diaphragm and expand the lower abdomen (at the same time, also expand the back behind the lower abdomen), and when we exhale, we push up the diaphragm and contract the lower abdomen (at the same time, also contract the back behind the lower abdomen).  This has two advantages over our normal way of breathing of expanding and contracting our chest (also called Natural Breathing).  By lowering our diaphragm (and expanding our lower abdomen) and raising our diaphragm (and contracting our lower abdomen) when we inhale and exhale respectively, we are helping to expand and contract the lungs more and therefor can inhale and exhale more air.  Also, by expanding and contracting our lower abdomen, we are massaging or exercising the internal organs in our lower abdomen.  When we exercise our muscles in other parts of our body, we can strengthen those parts of the body.  Similarly, when we exercise the internal organs in our lower abdomen, we can strengthen those internal organs.

Using Lower Abdominal Breathing is an integral part of essentially all Qigong exercises.  There are many Qigong exercises that help us to practice Lower Abdominal Breathing.  To keep the article from being excessively long, we will not discuss these specific exercises.

Collecting Qi, Dispelling Qi, or Focusing Qi:   The next component of Qigong exercises is to collect Qi from nature, dispel Qi from body (especially Qi that has circulated in the body and has become stagnant and stale), and focus Qi on a particular part of body.  In these exercises, the mind’s intent is most important so that your mind should think of collecting the Qi from nature and following its path to be deposited into the Dan Tian, the Qi reservoir.  As stated earlier, even though initially you don’t feel the Qi, still practice the exercise using the mind’s intent to guide the Qi.

The collecting Qi from nature Qigong exercises are especially helpful when doing them outside in good weather with lots of trees and other green plants nearby.  We also need to dispel the stagnant and stale Qi that has been circulating in our body so that they can be replaced with new and fresh Qi.  The stagnant and stale Qi is dispelled from the body through the bottom near the center of the sole of our feet.

There are many Qigong exercises when you focus your Qi on a particular spot, often it may be a spot where you are experiencing discomfort or health problems.  Focus your Qi on that spot with the objective to remove any Qi blockages in that area.  For example, one such exercise is to stand with your right foot forward and your hand raised and extended forward about neck height, and your intent should focus on the center of your right palm.  As you practice this exercise more and more, you may feel tinkling sensation on the center of your right palm, and occasionally you may even feel like a heart beat at the center of your right palm.

Standing or Moving Meditation (Circulating Qi):  These are exercises that do not direct Qi to a specific part of the body, but just let the Qi to take its own path circulating through the body.  In other words, you don’t even engage your mind’s intent.  As the Qi circulates through the body, if it encounters blockages, it will try to remove or flow around the blockages.

An example of Standing Meditation is to stand upright with feet about one shoulder-width apart, hands near the sides of your body.  Then just relax body and mind.  After practicing this standing meditation exercise long enough, your body may start moving in various kinds of motion, e.g., hands moving around in circles, walking randomly, walking around in a circle, twisting your body in various manners, or even lying down and rotating your body on the floor.  The motion could vary with individuals and could vary from time to time, depending on the condition of your body at that particular time.

An example of Moving Meditation is keeping your body in the same posture as in the previous exercise, except that instead of standing still, you are actually walking by taking small slow steps, moving one foot at a time.  Inhale as you move one foot to near the other foot, and then exhale as you step forward and step down with your foot, stepping down on your heel first and then stepping down on the toes (known as “Cat Step”).  You can also step backward, but stepping down with the toes first and then stepping down with the heel.

Doing a Taiji form set for any style, e.g., the 24 Form or 42 Form, is an example of Moving Meditation.  In this Moving Meditation, you are not repeating the same form over and over, but you are doing the different forms for that specific form set.

Self-Healing Exercises and Other Integrated Qigong Sets:  The ultimate objective of Qigong is to provide exercises that can improve one’s health, including exercises that can result in self-prevention or self-healing of illnesses.  Such exercises serve a dual purpose:  They can prevent diseases, and they can also cure diseases.

Throughout the last 1,000 years or so, many such exercises have been constructed.  Here are a few examples:

  • Paida Therapy (拍打自愈法):  Ancient Chinese exercises which have recently received a revival [7]
  • Lajing Therapy (拉筋自愈法):  Also ancient Chinese exercises which have recently received a revival [7]
  • Tuina Massage Exercises (推拿):  Often done as part of warm-up exercises for practicing Taiji
  • Eight Silk Brocade (八段錦):  One of the most popular, if not the most popular, Integrated Qigong Sets that has been around for about 1,000 years.  It is also another popular warm-up exercise for practicing Taiji
  • One of many Taiji form sets:  In the previous section, we said that Taiji can be thought of as an example of Moving Meditation, it can also be thought of as an example of an Integrated Qigong Set, because it is a set of Qigong exercises formulated to strengthen or cure certain health deficiencies.

Cool-Down or Wrap-Up Exercises (收功)After practicing Qigong, it is important to do a cool-down or wrap-up exercise so that your Qi does not continue to wander and cause some unexpected bodily movements (e.g., causing your feet to move automatically when you are driving).  To keep this article from being excessively long, we will not elaborate.

Final RemarksQigong is very ambitious, because it is an exercise that attempts  not only to prevent diseases, but also to cure diseases.  It attempts to activate the self-healing capabilities that people have within their own bodies.  It is an ambitious goal, but what is interesting and remarkable is that there are indications that it may be able to achieve its objective. [1, 2]

Finally it is important to point out that certain Qigong practitioners associate a spiritual aspect to Qigong, just like some Yoga practitioners associate a spiritual aspect to Yoga.  However, most Qigong practitioners, including me, do not associate any spiritual aspect to Qigong.  In other words, Qigong can be practiced as purely health or martial arts exercises.

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[1] Chinese Medical Qigong, Editor in Chief:  Tianjun Liu, O.M.D., and Associate Editor in Chief:  Kevin W. Chen, Ph.D., published by Singing Dragon, United Kingdom, 2010, 653 pages.  This book is the first English translation of the only official textbook of medical Qigong, now in its third edition, used in colleges and universities of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in China.  This book is the result of more than 30 faculty members in a dozen colleges and universities of  TCM in China.

[2] See, e.g., “A Comprehensive Review of the Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi,” R. Jahnke, L. Larkey, C. Rogers, J. Etnier, and F. Lin, American Journal of Health Promotion, 2010 July/August;  24(6), e1-e25.  A copy of this paper can also be found at:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3085832/.  More information about the work of R. Jahnke and his collaborators can be found in the following links: http://IIQTC.org, http://FeeltheQi.com, http://TaiChiEasy.org.

[3] See also the article “A Comprehensive Review of the Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi”:  http://www.dontow.com/2010/12/a-comprehensive-review-of-health-benefits-of-qigong-and-tai-chi/.  Note:  “Tai Chi” is just another spelling for Taiji.

[4] As discussed later in this article, Taiji is really a subset of Qigong exercises.

[5]  See, e.g., D. M. Tow, “A Call for More Comprehensive, Systematic, and In-Depth Investigation of the Health Benefits of Taiji and Qigong,” The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 4, Issue 2, 2012.

[6] Dan Tian is the small area about a couple of inches below the navel and a couple of inches inside the body, and in TCM is the main reservoir of Qi.

[7] For more information, see, e.g., “Lajing or Paida Therapy – Reviving Ancient Chinese Self-Healing Exercises”:  http://www.dontow.com/2013/09/lajing-and-paida-therapy-reviving-ancient-chinese-self-healing-exercises/.

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