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  • Writer's pictureNick Loffree

Animal Qigong: The Ancient Shamanic Origins of Qigong and Tai Chi

Tai Chi has become reasonably popular over the last 60 years in the United States. There are about 2.5 million Tai Chi practitioners and 800,000 Qigong practitioners in the US. 

While Tai Chi is still significantly more popular, I think Qigong is set to become much bigger in time. Why?

First off, Tai Chi has had much longer to reach that number, and may have already peaked. It was given the Communist Party's stamp of approval decades before Qigong, and was thus exported abroad much faster. While Tai Chi has had it's roots set down in the US since the 60's and 70's, Qigong only gained Chinese government acceptance in the 90's (see Falon Gong, an eccentric religion whose Qigong practices are still oppressed by the CCP today). 

I think Qigong is just getting started globally. It can address so many different health conditions and mental and spiritual ailments. It is accessible for all ages and ability levels. It is easier and more approachable than most yoga. And, most significantly, it gives most of the benefits of Tai Chi but is much, much easier to learn (and has more variety). 

Besides the self-defense benefits of learning true Taichichuan (Great-Ultimate-Fist), one of the amazing benefits of Tai Chi is the full body proprioception and balance that comes from moving the upper and lower body in coordination. In Tai Chi, every upper body motion has a lower body motion to go with it, such as a step, a pivot, a sinking, or a lift of one foot. These steps coordinate with the arms, hips, hands, etc to create the fluid full body "dance" we see when we think of Tai Chi. 

Rooster Stands on One Leg - A movement from Taiji that translates to a block with the forearm and shin in martial arts - But is great for balance and focus in Qigong.

While Tai Chi is a beautiful practice that I myself deeply enjoy and seek to master, there is a significant up-front time investment in learning all the steps before one can truly enjoy and benefit from the practice. That is why some Qigong teachers will take just one movement out of the long, complex Tai Chi forms and teach that in a simplified, repetitive form.

Interestingly, the style of stepping and moving the arms slowly that we attribute to Tai Chi may actually be much older than Tai Chi itself. It may go all the way back to the shamanic rituals of China's ancient hunter-gatherer past, where Shaman's would "dance" while channeling the spirit of a particular animal. Eventually these dances would be cataloged into teachable exercises that people in a time without shamans could benefit from.

That is likely why the oldest known Qigong forms are the Five Animal sets, where the practitioner moves in the spirit of certain animals in order to channel their psychological and physiological healing benefits. I would imagine that if Qigong evolved from shamanic dancing, the oldest Qigong must have involved more footwork, and thus been closer in nature to the original dances. As such, most of the 5 Animal Qigong sets I have learned have involved significantly more footwork than almost all other forms of Qigong I've come across - putting them closer in style to Tai Chi than contemporary Qigong. 

One of many sets of five animals used in various Qigong and Kung Fu schools.

Channeling animals sounds perhaps like just fun and play - and it can and should be - However, it really is no joke or superstition. I have had some profound healing experiences with animal archetypes as the mediators.

For instance, some of you might be familiar with my "bear story", where I spent three weeks in the forests of Ontario meditating and doing Yoga - during a drought where the bears were starving and breaking into people's cars and coolers every night on the campground looking for food! Not a very zen environment for personal retreat. One bear would walk within two feet of my tent every single night on his way to the campground. Fortunately my meditation practice paid off, and one night while walking I fell into a trance where I completely slowed down my breath and mind. In that state my mind attempted to drift to thoughts of fear around the bear, but the fear was immediately transformed into compassion, as I thought of the bear's hunger during the drought that year, and how it must be scary for him or her to come into the campground full of scary people and their fires and lights and machines just to get a meal. 

As soon as I put myself into the bear's shoes (or paws) and saw the world through its eyes, I suddenly had a vision of the bear wrapping itself around me, like how the shamans of old would don the bear's skin in order to channel its power. I saw myself grow a long black snout, and become encased in fur. I felt my steps become slow and lumbering like a bear, and my belly began to churn as blood and energy focused at my digestive organs. I saw a field of golden light glow around me, in which I felt strong and protected, and a central locus of golden light glowed in my solar plexus as my energy burned slow and warm there. In that state, it seemed impossible to worry. All my pensiveness, anxiety, and scattered-ness (which are my typical imbalances) utterly dissolved and were replaced with the deepest sense of centeredness I had ever experienced. I started to direct my attention to things I was used to worrying about, and simple answers would arise spontaneously from my "center", as though my body was digesting information and producing solutions of its own accord - call it Gut Instincts, if you will. 

Of course, this experience faded, but it pointed the way towards what I felt I should be working on. The funny thing was, I had this experience about one month before I tried Qigong for the first time. I immediately noticed that Qigong brought me back to something at least close to that state I had channeled from the bear, so I started to include it in my practice every day.

As if I didn't have enough motivation, the universe decided to send me a reminder a month later, at the end of my Yoga Teacher Training program near Tofino, Vancouver Island. Near an airstrip in the middle of nowhere, I hiked through thorn bushes and thick spider webs for ten minutes to get to the top of a ridge where I had seen an eagle circling over a pine tree. I had felt the eagle wanted me to follow it, and when I got to the top I was rewarded with a beautiful clearing under the tree from which to watch the sunset and look out over the forest and mountains. I laid back and relaxed in the grass next to the tree, closing my eyes and connecting to the earth for a few minutes. As I was enjoying the silence and tranquility of the forest, I began to hear what sounded like a person walking their dog through the brush. That seemed odd. Who was crazy enough to walk through all those thorns and spider webs (besides me)? As the sound got very close I finally looked up to see an enormous black bear coming around the tree, about one foot from my foot and literally about to step on me! I recoiled back, thinking I was looking into the eyes of my imminent death. The bear, like a furry mirror, was as surprised as I was and recoiled back with the same fear in its eyes - before turning tail and running full speed down the hill into the brush (I thought bears weren't supposed to be able to run downhill? I guess it was kinda diagonal...). I interpreted this as an unforgettable reminder from the universe to work on my gut, diet, and "Earth Element" as I continued to explore ways of healing my mind and body. 

In the subsequent years of my Qigong training, I learned much that made deeper sense of these experiences. The bear was actually one of the animals often incorporated into the Five Animal Qigong forms. Sometimes it symbolized the Water Element, or Kidney Chi, for its ability to conserve energy. Other times it was used for the Earth Element, or Stomach and Pancreas Chi, for it's ability to digest food and stay strong in it's center, relying on it's gut instincts to sniff out food and even medicinal plants as is often observed in sick or injured grizzly bears.

Like the bear from The Jungle Book, the Earth phase of Chi teaches us to be content, and make do with the Bear Necessities, or make the most of what we have. This means being strong and present, not worrying too much about the future or having any anxiety about life at all. In Chinese medicine, when the stomach/pancreas chi is imbalanced, we overthink everything and worry constantly, which makes us feel scattered and ungrounded. Qigong prescribes visualizations of gold and/or yellow light to strengthen the Earth chi, the locus of which is at the solar plexus. Pretty weird how much these ancient ideas, which many would brush off as superstitious or perhaps culturally specific, mapped absolutely perfectly onto my experience of channeling the same type of animal and energy, with no prior knowledge of that culture (except, to be fair, my experience with yoga, which has a similar, although not completely synchronous, understanding of energy at the solar plexus region).

I've had several other similar experiences, both of animals showing up in reality in strange and synchronistic ways, and animal spirits or archetypes coming through me to open certain energy centers and offer a glimpse of the world through their eyes. Interestingly, it makes sense that I would have these experiences, as someone who has experienced psychosis...

In recent times, a french music researcher named Corine Sombrun stumbled into an 8 year apprenticeship with a Mongolian shaman (actually a bear shaman, funny enough) who recognized her talents when she spontaneously fell into a seizure the first moment she heard his drumming (she was not an epileptic) while on a research trip. After her apprenticeship, Corine teamed up with some neuroscientists to study the brains of psychotic patients. For the project, Corine had developed a method of music induced shamanic trance using her experience with her Mongolian mentors and her original music training. She used the recordings she developed to put ordinary people into non-ordinary states of consciousness. Then she looked at their brains in an MRI machine and compared them with psychotic patients. What she and her research team found was that the change in brain activity in a normal person when they entered a shamanic trance (which, yes, anyone can do as it turns out) was exactly the same as the ordinary brain activity of a psychotic patient under no trance at all - Giving credence to the late mythologist Joseph Campbell, who stated decades ago that "The shaman swims in the same waters in which the psychotic drowns". Fascinating stuff!  I suppose my point to all this is to say that the poetic names of all our Qigong exercises that relate each exercise to nature are not just there to make the practice prettier. The names and the intentions and visualizations we incorporate with many Qigong exercises are to connect to archetypes within nature that gradually unlock psychological and physiological qualities within ourselves. This type of therapy was not isolated to one place or time or culture in human history, but is a universal force that can even be rediscovered by accident today, suggesting it is a universal human capacity to use nature as a support in healing and growth. And integrating our whole body, from toe to finger to head, in this embodiment of nature just makes it that much more lucid and profound.  Anyways, if you made it this far in what turned into a much longer article than I meant to write, I hope you will enjoy the following two videos I filmed at Land of Medicine Buddha's "Enchanted Forest" in Soquel, CA, based on the ancient shamanic 5 Animal Qigong "mindful walking" practices:

The Tortoise

The tortoise represents longevity and inner stillness - the qualities of the Water Element. It thus relates to the kidney/adrenal energy network and feelings of tranquility, rejuvenation, and willpower. The two walking meditation forms taught here have really fun names too:

  • The Tortoise Plays in the Water

  • The Tortoise Spits Out the Medicine

Don't let the picture throw you off. It is from a totally different exercise. I was just running out of thumbnail images! The Tortoise is a bit gentler than what the picture shows. 

The Crane

The Crane represents lightness of heart, and connection to the sky or the ethereal part of ourselves - our consciousness or spirit. It also represents the calm and poise of the crane that patiently waits on one foot by the water's edge for hours at a time unflinchingly. The Crane sometimes represents the Metal Element and lungs because of its connection to air and breath, but in the particular system I learned this from, due to the above qualities, it relates to the Fire Element and the heart.  You can think of the crane as a moving prayer for patience, calm, lightheartednesses, and transcendence of limited beliefs or anything weighing down the heart.  Again, don't let the image fool you. It is a very gentle form, and the image is a slightly more dynamic form that simply photographs better. Gotta get those Youtube clicks! 

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