What is Qigong?

Qigong or Qi Gong is an ancient Chinese practice that combines breathing techniques, visualization, body posture, and self-massage to bring the mind and body to a higher state of well-being.  Within the Daoist community, we refer to many of our practices as Dao Yin (導引– guiding and leading energy).  In the Daoist community QiGong practices are done in a spiritual context, and while they are very good for the body, the major goal is not healing, but self-cultivation and a stronger relationship with the Dao.

What is “Qi ” ?

The term “Qi” (as in Qigong) is usually translated as “vital energy”. The original Chinese character 氣 (Qi) was a pictograph, showing steam rising from a bowl of rice, symbolizing a non-material state of energy.  In Chinese, the term Qi is used to refer to weather, the atmosphere in a room, and even a person’s temper. It is the energy of life that gives force to all of the nature including the human body.

An understanding of Qi can be applied to any field.  When understanding the nature of Qi and you look at architecture,  it becomes feng shui.  When you look to the future, it becomes divination.  When you look at the body it becomes Chinese medicine.  Chinese medicine sees Qi as the force that gives movement to the organs and function of the body.  It describes the proper functioning of the organs, including the processing of food and the immune system.  Where does Qi energy come from?  In Daoism we say there are two sources of energy, pre-natal and post-natal.  Prenatal Qi is the life force and genes we inherit from our parents before we are born.  Postnatal Qi is the energy we take in after we are born, from the air we breathe, the food we eat, and our interactions with other people.  Because of the influence of Postnatal Qi, our lifestyle choices, impact our body energetically.  Factors such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, sexual excess, stress, over-work, harm the flow of Qi in the body, causing illness.   However, the body’s energy can also be strengthened by making lifestyle changes, as well as practicing Qi Gong.  A proper lifestyle and Qi Gong practice create a state of health where the Qi in the body flows smoothly.  Beyond the absence of illness, it is this state of full and balanced Qi that defines ideal health.

History of Qi gong

Wawangdui Scroll Qigong
Wawangdui Scroll, Qigong

In the 1970’s a tomb called Mawangdui (馬王堆Lord Ma’s Tomb) was excavated in Hunan Province.  The tomb, which dates from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE) included a scroll that shows a group of people, young and old, noble and common, all practicing Qi Gong.  One of the things about the scroll that is the most striking is the resemblance the ancient postures show to the Qi Gong that is being practiced today, showing the consistency and continuity of Qi Gong techniques.

The earliest Daoist reference to Qi Gong practice can be found in chapter fifteen of the Book of Master Zhuang (莊子 – zhuan zi) was written in the 4th century BCE during the Warring States Period.  The book descries Qi Gong practice saying “To practice blowing, breathing, inhaling and exhaling, to expel the old and bring in the new, and to engage in bear-motions (xiongjing 熊經) and bird-stretchings (niaoshen 鳥申), with longevity as one’s only concern -these are the practices of Daoyin adepts, people who nourish their bodies and hope to live as long as Pengzu”.

During the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) the Communist Party declared Qi Gong a feudalistic practice and banned a public practice.  In the 1980s the practice became acceptable again and China underwent a Qi Gong boom, and the practice was spread to the outside world, and a growing group of dedicated students and teachers are protecting these practices and living healthier and longer lives.

Styles of Qigong

Qi Gong can be done standing, sitting, or lying down.  In a realized state, the practitioner breathes deeply and performs a series of movements.  These movements often correspond to ideas in Chinese cosmology, for example, the 5 elements, 8 trigrams, etc.)  These practices built strong Qi flow in the body, and help the student develop the ability to feel and move their own Qi energy.

Qigong and Medicine

Qi Gong is an inseparable part of Chinese medicine.  The best Chinese medicine practitioners today still practice using not just herbs and needles, but will also prescribe healing Qi Gong exercises, sounds and movements, and breathing techniques, which their patients can use to better their health.  This is very different from Western medicine, as it empowers the patient, giving them the tools to heal themselves.

Western medicine has been used to examine the significant physiological changes that occur during Qi Gong practice by examining electromagnetic changes, low-frequency muscle vibration, skin conductivity, and brain wave response.

Benefits of Qigong practice that have been observed in scientific study including the following:

  • Lower heart rate
  • Relaxation causes blood vessels to dilate, improving circulation
  • Increasing a flow of blood to limbs and brain.
  • Abdominal breathing massages the digestive organs
  • Mental well-being
  • Lower metabolic rate

Advice for Qigong Practice

While Qi theory is interesting, it cannot stand-alone.  Qi can be understood by the mind, but it also must be directly felt through the body.  In many ways understanding Qi is like understanding snow.  While you can read, and theorize about snow all day, nothing can replace the direct experience of a snowfall.  The most useful understanding of Qi is found through observing what you feel in your own Qi Gong practice.

It is important to be alive in your practice.  No matter what style of Qigong you study, you need to work with the exercises and through trial and error, discover how to make them work for you.  If the practice is not working for you, you need to examine you body posture, breathing, and thought patterns, and make changes.  If you have a good practice, ask yourself why it was good.  After each exercise, turn your mind inward, and see what type of changes you feel happening. 

You have learned to listen to what is happening in your body.  Qi Gong is a practice not to be done carelessly.  It can cause significant physiological and psychological changes.  These changes can be beneficial for the body, but when Qi Gong exercises are performed incorrectly, they can also cause serious harm.  In order to ensure your safety, and get the most benefit from Qi Gong it is best to practice under the supervision of a qualified teacher.

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