What the Heck is Qigong??
Qigong is a broad category of movement and meditation practices developed mainly in China over thousands of years by martial artists, monks, soldiers, generals, shamans, doctors, hermits, wizards, and wanderers. Qi (pronounced CHEE) means "Vital Energy" and Gong (same root word as "Kung" Fu, different english spelling) means "Skill" or "Cultivation". Qi-Gong is the "skill of cultivating vital energy".
Over time, Qigong developed into over 3,500 unique styles, each style usually focusing on either healing, martial/athletic enhancement, or spiritual awakening. Two commonly known styles or sets of Qigong are The 8 Brocades Set (practiced to this day by the Chinese Military, supposedly) and The 5 Animal Frolic Set (exercises based on the movements of the bear, crane, tiger, deer, and monkey).
The idea of Qi might sound wu-wu to some, or totally cool to others. You can think of Qi like the electricity that powers a computer - You can have all the best hardware components, but until you plug the darn thing into the wall, it just won't work. Qigong is essentially the art of "plugging ourselves back in" to recharge and replenish our bodies and minds.
We plug in by using slow fluid movements, dynamic stretches, rhythmic breathing, and specifically aligned postures that harness the flow of the Qi, or vital energy. While there are many benefits to practicing, these can be summarized in my teacher Lee Holden's slogan "less stress, more energy". An ideal Qigong practice results in a body with abundant energy, yet a mind that is clear and at ease.
Ordinarily, we have the opposite: Our minds are overwhelmed with stress, worry, planning, and to-do lists. This mental overactivity stresses our bodies, depleting our resources and leaving us physically drained. With Qigong, we clear the mind and recharge the body. With more energized bodies we can meet life's challenges with greater ease, rather than falling into spirals of stress and worry about all the demands we feel unable to meet.
This all sounds great, but does it work?
Well, although no one can quite explain yet what exactly this "Qi" thing is (there are some interesting theories on electromagnetism, neuropeptides, and biophotons) we have measured the results of Qigong practice. Consistent Qigong practice has been shown to:
- Lower Inflammation
- Increase strength gains of weight lifters
- Enhance peak performance in athletes
- Improve sleep
- Improve mental performance
- Increase oxygen uptake
- Aid lymphatic drainage
- Heal arthritis and other joint issues
- Improve digestion and metabolism
- Lower stress hormone levels
- Improve overall sense of peace and wellbeing
I've personally seen these and many more benefits in myself and my students. I like to think of Qi like an energetic multi-vitamin (Vitamin-Qi!) that improves almost all organic life functions.
If you've ever received acupuncture, you have already done the clinical equivalent of Qigong. Acupuncture and Qigong developed side by side in China, and were usually prescribed together. You receive acupuncture in the clinic, then go home to do your prescribed Qigong exercises to continue the treatment. They both work on improving the flow of vital energy through the meridians (invisible energy channels of the body).
Qigong has also been used alongside martial arts for centuries to improve the overall health and power of fighters. One famous example is the Shaolin monks, who developed methods like "Iron Shirt Qigong" and "Tendon Changing Qigong" to make their bodies strong enough to take heavy hits without damage, and deal superhuman levels of force in their strikes.
Is Qigong the same as Tai Chi?
Around the year 1500 (this date is still debated), Qigong was developed into a martial art itself (rather than a supplement to martial arts), which eventually became known as Tai Chi (or Taiji Quan). Tai Chi uses similar methods and philosophies to Qigong, but applies them to combat. Tai Chi also yields many similar benefits to Qigong, but generally takes much longer to learn, as it is a series of constantly changing movements that take time to memorize and perfect.
Several other styles of Qigong-based martial arts were developed over the centuries, and are generally called "Internal Martial Arts", as they rely on the inner power of Qi (to put it simply), rather than external factors like size and weight. The most famous internal styles include Bagua Zhang, Xing Yi Quan, Aikido (in Japan), and Tai Chi (Taiji Quan). If you are skeptical about whether internal Qi development really helps with combat, ask Darwin how the teachers of these styles survived generations of war and fight-to-the-death contests against other martial artists to pass down these techniques? In a "survival of the fittest" world, these arts survived and flourished.
Is Qigong like Yoga?
Yoga is a similar movement practice rooted in India. What we typically call "Yoga" today is actually just one branch of Yoga called "Asana", meaning "Posture". The major goal of Asana was originally to prepare the body for long periods of seated meditation, and the goal of meditation was to reach enlightenment. Reaching enlightenment meant escaping from the endless cycle of reincarnation by liberating one's attachment to an identity as an individual. Yoga as we practice it today is incredible for relieving pain and stiffness in the legs, hips, and spine, and for calming the mind and clearing stress.
The development of Qigong was less focused on liberating oneself from earthly life through enlightenment, and more focused on liberating oneself from the BAD PARTS of life, such as sickness, weakness, and the physical degenerations that come with age. In short, while Yoga had one main goal - spiritual awakening - Qigong had a more diverse set of priorities: Strength, healing, and longevity, to name a few. (This is a generalization to say the least - Both systems had many sub-systems with overlapping goals)
The result of this difference in underlying philosophies is that Qigong has a wider array of tools and movement styles than you might find in Yoga. There are specific Qigong sets for just about anything, from strengthening bones and tendons, to improving sexual function, memory, or digestive health. This is not to say that Yoga doesn't have it's own condition-specific exercises, just that the stronger focus of Qigong on health and longevity lead to a more diverse suite of systems for these purposes.
If I had to really simplify things, I would say Yoga builds upper body strength, while Qigong builds lower body strength. Yoga has more focus on lower body flexibility, while Qigong has more tools for upper body flexibility. Yoga is generally more cleansing of "negative energy", while Qigong has more to offer for building "positive energy". I would advise most healthy people to engage in both practices. However people with severe illness, injury, or age related symptoms tend to find Qigong more therapeutic and accessible (very much depending on the style).
The main movement style that you see in Qigong that differentiates it from other exercise regimes is the soft, slow, fluid movements that most people associate with Tai Chi. You might wonder what the purpose of these seemingly useless movements are. They obviously don't build muscle, or improve flexibility, or burn calories. So what's the point of the slow-mo-flow?
Slow, rhythmic, fluid, relaxed movement, combined with deep breathing, builds Qi. Most people know by now that deep breathing calms the nervous system, but they don't know how much more potent that becomes when slow rhythmic breathing is combined with slow rhythmic movement. The combination tends to double the effect.
This slow-mo style is the specialty of Qigong. It helps the mind and body to find stillness and relaxation, even as they are moving. We call this "Wu Wei" - doing without doing. This combination of the Yin and Yang polarities of stillness and movement generates Qi, much the same way the polar energies of the earth and atmosphere generate lightning. After the Qi is generated, it can be concentrated or used in specific areas of the body or psychic system for specific benefits. This is why Qigong practice usually ends with a mediation practice, to guide and direct the Qi to where it will be most useful.
Really, the only way to understand Qigong is to try it for yourself. Qi is rarely seen, but can be easily felt. Check out my short video on Qi activation to try it out!