The word “qi” in Chinese means “energy.” According to traditional Chinese philosophy, qi is a form of fundamental life energy that is found throughout the universe and is responsible for health and vitality. “Gong,” meanwhile, means “skill.” Qigong (the skill of attracting energy) is an ancient system of healing that combines postures, exercises (also known as “movements”), breathing techniques and meditation to improve and enhance the body’s supply of qi, and to increase one’s sense of well-being.
History of Qigong
No one knows exactly who invented qigong, or when it originated. Some scholars estimate the practice of qigong to be upwards of 5,000 years old, and believe that it was first implemented by monks and other teachers.
Although qigong has been practiced for thousands of years, it remained relatively unknown in the United States until the 1970s, when acupuncture was first publicized. As the public began to understand and appreciate the benefits acupuncture had to offer, the use of other forms of traditional Chinese medicine, such as qigong, increased. Today, hundreds of thousands of Americans practice qigong every day, an interest shared by more than 60 million Chinese.
Qigong has been influenced by many parts of Chinese philosophy, most importantly the Taoist philosophy, which holds to the belief that the universe operates within certain laws of balance and harmony, and that people must live within natural rhythms. These beliefs are rampant throughout qigong.
Traditional Chinese medicine shares many of the concepts of qigong, including the idea of energy patterns in the body. Qi is believed to flow through the body along certain channels, or meridians, with a meridian corresponding to each of 12 principal organs. With acupuncture, points on each meridian are stimulated to increase or decrease the flow of qi and promote healing. Similarly, qigong techniques are used to improve the balance and flow of qi throughout the meridians, and to increase the overall quantity and volume of qi. Qigong practitioners use the same points that practitioners of acupuncture and acupressure seek to stimulate.
Another important concept in qigong is the relationship between mind and body. In qigong philosophy, mind and body are not separated; rather, the mind is present in all parts of the body, and can be used to move qi throughout the body.
A third concept practiced in qigong is the relationship between yin and yang. Yin and yang are opposites, yet they interact with each other and influence the others actions. One of qigong’s goals, in addition to improving the balance and flow of qi, is to balance yin and yang. Therefore, when qigong is practiced, complementary techniques are used to balance things out. For instance, a technique using the left hand may be followed by a technique involving the right hand; a strong technique may be balanced by a lighter technique, and so on.
There are literally thousands of qigong exercises and exercise combinations. Specific techniques are used depending on the teacher giving the instruction; the school where one learns qigong; and the objective one is trying to attain.
As mentioned previously, there are four major components of qigong. Postures may involve standing, sitting, lying down, or a combination of all three. Movements include long stretches, slow-motion exercises, thrusts, jumping, and bending. These postures and movements often occur together, and are used to strengthen and tone the body.
Breathing techniques and meditation comprise the other components of qigong. Sometimes, patients may hold their breath; other times, they may take deep breaths from the chest or abdomen, or relaxed breathing. Meditations are used to stimulate the mind and move qi throughout the body. Many meditations are visualization-type exercises in which the subject visualizes moving energy from one part of the body to another (or from one organ to another).
There are also two forms of qigong — internal and external. Internal qigong is performed by people who wish to increase their own energy and well-being. External qigong is usually performed by trained qigong masters, who pass extra qi from themselves to patients to facilitate healing. While this may sound far-fetched in the West, external qigong is widely utilized in China. Entire medical qigong hospitals exist, in which practitioners combine external qigong, acupuncture, herbs and other forms of care to help subjects get well.
How (and Where) to Practice
Like any form of exercise, qigong takes discipline and dedication. Exercises should be performed every morning and evening, for a minimum of 15 minutes per session (advanced qigong sessions may last an hour or more). Qigong should be performed in a clean, pleasant environment, preferably outdoors, which provides fresh air and allows people to move freely. Jewelry should be removed, and loose, comfortable clothing should be worn.
Those interested in practicing qigong are advised to practice once or twice a week, and ease into more sessions gradually. In addition, beginners should learn from an experienced qigong practitioner so as not to perform the exercises or techniques incorrectly. Qigong should not be performed on a full (or empty) stomach, nor should it be performed in extremely hot or cold weather.
Are There Any Side-Effects?
While side-effects are rare, they do occur occasionally in people who are just learning qigong, or practice it incorrectly. Subjects may feel dizzy, fatigued, or suffer from headaches or shortness of breath. Other side-effects include insomnia, emotional instability, anxiety, or a loss in concentration. These side-effects usually clear up with rest and proper instruction from a qualified qigong practitioner.
Regulation of Qigong
While qigong has been subject to much government in regulation in China, it is not regulated in the U.S. at this time. Different qigong schools may provide training for instructors, but as of yet, there are no generally accepted training standards. Qigong teachings themselves may also vary. To ensure quality training and instruction, contact a local or national qigong organization, such as the National Qigong Association or the Qigong Association of America, for a qigong practitioner in your area.