What is Qi Gong?
Qi Gong (pronounced chee goong) is a Chinese system of physical training, philosophy, and preventive and therapeutic health care.
- Qi (or chi) means air, breath of life or vital essence.
- Gong means work, self-discipline, achievement or mastery.
This art combines aerobic conditioning, isometrics, isotonics, meditation, and relaxation. Qigong is a discipline whose practice allows us to gain control over the life force that courses throughout our bodies.
Different types of Qi Gong
There are more than 3,000 varieties of qigong, and five major qigong traditions:
The Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, martial arts, and medical.
Qi Gong is thus a soft form of a related set of disciplines that includes Taiji (Tai Chi Quan) and the hard form of Kung Fu. Here I treat only the medical tradition.
Like the other forms, medical qigong is “the cultivation and deliberate control of a higher form of vital energy” (Dong & Esser 1990:xi).
It is also, as Yan Xin (1991: i) defines it, “an ancient philosophical system of harmonious integration of the human body with the universe.”
As a radical denial of the human species’ separation from nature, qigong challenges the foundations of modern Western biomedical thought.
Medical Qi Gong
Medical qigong involves breathing exercises combined with meditation. The breathing exercises induce help induce the state of meditation, and vice versa. One is aware of what is going on, but not too aware, fully relaxed but not in a trance. In a qigong state, cares and troubles wash away. Replacing them are positive images, increased confidence, and enhanced spirit. Eventually, there will be no distractions, depressing thoughts or worries. Through meditation one gains feelings of happiness. This in turn stimulates circulation of blood and qi, or life force.
If one is ill, over time the body’s functions are thus able to return to normal. If one is not ill, the existing sense of wellness and well-being increases.
People of all ages can learn to practice qigong, and so develop and maintain internal vigour and good health.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1965-76) the Communist Party and Red Guards suppressed qigong. In about 1978 it began to make a comeback. In China in the 1980s there was an upsurge of interest in qigong. Today, more than 70 million Chinese practice qigong every day (McGee w/Chow 1994:xiii). Some do this to treat and cure an existing illness. Others are trying to prevent the onset of disease. Still others want to feel and perform better, experience higher levels of energy and stamina, and slow down the ageing process.
How does Qigong benefit health?
Qigong is least effective against acute illness or medical emergencies. It is better at preventing disease, and treating chronic conditions or disabilities. Inspired by tales of the qigong masters’ miracle cures (see Eisenberg w/Wright 1985), many Westerners are travelling to China for treatment.
The Chinese have found qigong an effective way to treat substance abuse and obesity. This gentle art improves delivery of oxygen to the body’s cells, reduces stress and improves bowel functioning.
What can Qigong help?
Chinese doctors have applied qigong in hospitals and clinics to treat individuals suffering from a variety of ailments.
These include allergies, arthritis, asthma, bowel problems, constipation, diabetes, gastritis, gout, headaches, heart disease and hypertension.
The list goes on: chronic kidney disease, liver disease, lower back pain, Meniere’s disease, myopia, obesity, neurasthenia, paralysis induced by external injury, retinopathy (deterioration of the back of the eye), rheumatism, sciatic neuralgia, sleeplessness, stress, torticollis, ulcers, and peripheral vascular disease.
Qigong can successfully treats cancer and reduce or eliminate side effects from radiation and chemotherapy. It is helpful in treating aphasia (loss or impairment of ability to speak), cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and post-stroke syndrome.
It is especially useful in treating any kind of chronic pain, and chronic disorders of the digestive, respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Qigong can help one fight virtually any disease. Through qigong, patients can cure many of the 50% of all diseases that Western doctors dismiss as untreatably ‘psychosomatic.’
If you try qigong to treat an existing illness, do so if possible under the guidance of a licensed Chinese medical doctor. Don’t try it completely on your own. Beginners need professional supervision. Here the doctor or qigong practitioner acts as an advisor and teacher, rather than a Western-style repair technician. The patient must be an active partner in the health care process.
In addition to providing cures, qigong helps people prevent the onset of diseases.
This can save money and prevent suffering. Qigong increases strength, improves resistance to infectious diseases and premature senility, and helps assure a long life. Practising qigong can greatly reduce the danger of stroke. It can improve blood sugar levels for diabetics. Because it normalizes the level of sex hormones, it can correct sexual impotence and frigidity. Its stress relieving effects improves one’s sex life — both quantity and quality. Practice of qigong can speed recovery from surgery, and from sports and other injuries by up to 50% (McGee w/Chow 1994:17-9).
Qigong offers individuals a way to achieve a relaxed, harmonious state of dynamic equilibrium. It typically improves their overall health status, allowing them to maintain a life free from pain, and full of vigour and grace. Qigong is a proper therapeutic practice with which to address virtually any chronic health problem. The various forms of Chinese medical massage (tuina) derive directly from qigong. These practices compliment and supplement orthodox medical interventions.
Many millions of people have learned and practised qigong in its many thousand year history. We do not know how old qigong is, but the further we go back in Chinese history the larger qigong looms as a cultural force. Some turtle-shell artifacts conclusively show the art was important at least 7,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests the practice may go back a million years. About 2,000 years ago The *Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine* first systematically described qigong practice. Now qigong has finally reached North America — through the increasing popularity of kung fu movies, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. Qigong was a natural discovery of the New Age movement. Its underlying philosophy and practice both serve that movement’s goals: qigong does ‘raise consciousness’ in significant respects.
How does Qigong Work?
How does qigong serve this consciousness raising function?
Its practice makes people sensitive to the internal operations of their bodies, and it helps to reveal the body’s place within nature’s oneness. This permits us to build up resistance to imbalances and blockages affecting our qi. This sensitivity aids the integration of our opposite yin and yang internal factors within the universal order — of which we are a part. The qigong student learns how false is the separation of body and mind. That distinction Descartes first postulated in the 1600s. Today most Westerners still accept it.
We may instead understand qi as the force that integrates the relationship between body (matter, structure) and mind (process, function). Chinese medicine strongly emphasizes relationships between people and nature. As Dong and Esser (1994:66) clearly show, qigong as an integral part of Chinese medicine:
Chinese herbology, acupuncture, and chi gong are three parts of a single entity, as closely related as water, steam, and ice. They can be and often are used separately, and may be used together. With dietetics and massage they are considered to be the indispensable components of traditional Chinese health care…. While acupuncture and herbal medicine typically focus on curing sickness, chi gong usually focuses on maintaining good health (as do massage and balanced — for yin and yang — nutrition).
In the philosophy of qigong, a primary aim is to maintain or restore balance and harmony of mind-body. Through qigong, one can build up qi and move it to where a disturbance or blockage occurs. Practitioners gain more than improved health. They learn another way of looking at and experiencing the dynamic unity of life, one far removed from the disenchanted and alienated thoughtways common in Western civilization. Students of qigong learn to fulfil their potential to self-actualize as highly successful members of our species.
What does Qigong Do?
Practising qigong lowers blood pressure, pulse rates, metabolic rates, lactate production, and oxygen demand. It raises the endocrine system’s capabilities. It also has a regulating effect on the substances cyclic adenosine monophosphate and cyclic guanosine monophosphate. These substances play basic roles in respiration and the provision of oxygen to the body’s cells. The sense of serenity qigong produces results partly from a slightly increased body temperature, and an increased rate of oxygen absorption. Qigong activates qi, improves blood circulation, and balances yin yang. It bolsters the immune system, and stimulates the conductivity of the meridians and channels through which qi flows (Dong & Esser 1994:94-6).
In Chinese medical theory, many diseases come from adverse environmental conditions such as (MacRitchie 1993: 64): heat, cold, wind, dryness and humidity; wrong diet; spoiled food; worms and microbes; poisoning and pollution; trauma and accidents. Internal conditions can arise from excess or deficient emotions of anger, joy, sympathy, grief or fear [and] inappropriate mental attitudes and beliefs. There are also maladies of the spirit which can cause serious problems.
These factors can cause one’s chi [qi] to become excessive, deficient, stuck, blocked, congested or stagnant, and thereby cause all manner of problems.
When the immune system is strong, one is emotionally centered within one’s body, and qi and blood are flowing freely, then most diseases should disappear.
The goal of practising qigong is to make our qi circulate strongly in our bodies. This helps us resist or overcome imbalances or blockages and their resulting disharmonies. That is also the goal of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. Practising qigong helps us intuit the infinity of the universe. It lets us sense our place as organized clusters of energy-information within the immense whole. Qi is an informational message and its carrier, a complex energy substance basic to life itself. Chinese medicine can prolong life, vitality and well-being by slowing the ageing process. This it accomplishes due to the affinities of certain herbs to qi and the milieu within which qi exists. Qigong therefore ‘fits’ into the regimen of Chinese medicine. The qigong art thus plays a fully active role to prevent disease or permit recovery.
One need not become a qigong master to experience many of its healing effects. For health purposes, you need to learn only a few exercises. Conversely, qigong is far from being an instant cure-all. To benefit one must achieve a state of tranquillity, find release from tension, build a positive attitude, and develop strong, committed will power. We can get benefits in one of three ways.
First, one can go to a qigong master for treatment by that master’s external qi. This is only possible in China, or perhaps at times in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Vancouver. Any one particular master may be unable to cure your problem (they are specialists!).
Second, one can seek get treatment from a master and practice exercise and meditation.
Third, in a supervised group, one can learn to treat oneself. This last is the only real option for most North Americans.
Under the third option, to gain full benefits of qigong requires time, patience, commitment to its practice, determination and persistence. This art involves more than simple physical training. It requires educating one’s breathing and thought processes. This means increasing one’s ability to sense one’s body, and to feel and imagine. As with any other aspect of human endeavour, some people will prove more adept at the art than others, and so will progress more quickly. However, anyone with enough motivation can learn adequate qigong skills to make a large impact upon one’s quality of life. This can take from a minimum of three months up to a year (Dong & Esser 1990:52). There are no shortcuts. There are also though no obvious limits to how far one may progress.
Because qigong thins blood and increases circulation, women should not practice it during menstruation. If you have internal bleeding, or bleeding after tooth extraction or trauma, avoid qigong exercises until the condition disappears. Avoid exercising if you feel dizzy. Qigong is not for severely disturbed mental patients, pregnant women or people suffering from acute infectious diseases. Do not eat or drink within an hour and a half before a session. Especially avoid alcohol. When exercising, face either North or South, in line with the earth’s magnetic field. Exercise at the same time(s) of day and the same days through the week, except do more on holidays.
Sustenance energy comes into the body, we think, partly from the sky and air, and only partly from the earth through what we eat. The lungs take in qi from the air. One can teach the skin at a few acupuncture points to take in qi energy-information from the sunlight, moonlight, starlight, and electric lights, etc. Qigong involves a conscious effort to increase our connectedness with the universe. That means taking in more sustenance energy from non-food sources. For novice qigongers, it is exhilarating to take in energy directly from the universe. There is a consequent temptation to slight one’s food-based nutritional needs. People with a tendency toward anorexia may find the tendency growing during a period of intensive qigong practice. If so, they must stop the exercises until the condition recedes. Fasting (bigu) can have a place in qigong.
However, undertake a genuine fast only under the strict supervision of a Chinese medical doctor well versed in qigong.
People often want to try as quickly as possible to emit external qi like a qigong master through the eyes, fingertips or palms. This can be dangerous. One should not attempt it except after long years of practice, and only then under close supervision of a qigong master or Chinese medical doctor. Do not be in any hurry to emit your qi. Doing that can dangerously deplete your own vitality. Avoid sexual intercourse for at least one hour before and after a qigong session.
There are limits to what you can learn about qigong from reading. One really should begin to practice this art by enrolling in a course or joining an organized group.
Dong, Paul and Aristide H. Esser. 1990.Chi Gong: The Ancient Chinese Way to Health. New York: Paragon House.
Eisenberg, David with Thomas Lee Wright. 1985.Encounters with Qi: Exploring Chinese Medicine. New York: Penguin Books.
MacRitchie, James. 1993. Chi Kung: Cultivating Personal Energy. Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element Books.
McGee, Charles T. with Effie Poy Yew Chow. 1994. Miracle Healing from China: Qigong. Coeur d’Alene, ID: MediPress: 17-19.
Wozniak, Jo Ann, Stevenson Wu and Hao Wang. 1991.Yan Xin Qigong and the Contemporary Sciences., prelim. ed. Champaign IL: International Yan Xin Qigong Association.
Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. 1972. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.