Introduction to Qi gong
By Brodie Welch, L.Ac.
Qi gong (pronounced “chee gung”) is a self-healing practice that combines breath, movement, and intention. It originated in China thousands of years ago. The practice of qi gong, or “energy exercise,” is like a moving meditation, gentle form of exercise, and breathing practice all in one, making it an extremely efficient and potent self-care practice. In addition, Qigong is simple to do, generally safe, and accessible regardless of one’s level of physical fitness.
Qi gong is considered the “exercise” branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine (the other branches being acupuncture, herbology, bodywork, and dietary therapy). According to Chinese Medical theory, health is predicated on the free flow of vital energy, or “qi,” throughout the body. Just as an acupuncturist inserts needles to direct energetic traffic in a patient, we can encourage the free flow of qi in our own bodies through the practice of qi gong. If you’ve seen people practicing slow, flowing movements in a public park, you’ve likely witnessed the practice of qi gong or tai chi chuan, which is a particular subset of qi gong (think genus vs. species in which qi gong is the genus and tai chi chuan is the species).
Like yoga, qi gong practice is a mind-body practice where the practitioner combines breathing and internal focus with a specific movement or posture. Qi gong movements tend to be simpler, slower, more flowing, and less physically demanding than yoga. Each movement within a particular form or routine is often repeated and coordinated with the breath, giving the mind something to focus on as the practitioner focuses their attention inward. This inward focus is one of the hallmarks of qi gong practice. According to the Chinese Medicine axiom yi dao, qi dao, “where the attention goes, the energy flows.” Some forms of qi gong are practiced without any movement at all, relying on the power of breath and concentration to gather, collect, and circulate energy throughout the body. Simply imagining a particular movement can activate the same neural pathways as actually doing it. Thus, qi gong can be an especially useful practice in recovering from injury and restoring functionality.
Qi gong, often translated as “energy exercise,” “energy cultivation,” or “energy skill,” is a modern umbrella term that encompasses a broad spectrum of practices as our vital energy can be put towards a variety of different purposes. Some types of qi gong promote self-healing, other forms aim at spiritual awakening, and still, others cultivate energy for the purposes of self-defense (as in martial arts) or the healing of others (as in medical qi gong). Each of these general categories contains several traditions that co-evolved in different places across what is now China. Even the same classical form or routine might appear distinctive when handed down through separate traditions that evolved in different villages, just as different artists covering the same piece of music will interpret it differently, adding flourishes and adaptations. Rather than searching for the purist or most authentic tradition, beginners are encouraged to explore how different styles and forms feel in their bodies.
Benefits of Qi Gong
Even just a few minutes of practice can help you relax, alleviate stress and pain, or boost your energy. It’s a great way to get out of your head and into your body. When we slow down and draw our awareness inwards, we increase our capacity to notice what’s going on with our breath, our muscles, and even our attention itself. As this awareness and connection grow, so does our capacity for self-regulation and self-healing.
Perhaps the most powerful benefit of qi gong lies in its power to regulate the autonomic nervous system, which toggles between two modes: parasympathetic and sympathetic. When we’re relaxed, our parasympathetic nervous system dominates, allowing our bodies to convert food into energy, repair cellular damage, build healthy bones and muscles, fight off pathogens, prepare for reproduction, sleep soundly, and feel calm. This state, known as “rest-and-repair” or “rest-and-digest” mode, is where we’re supposed to spend most of our time.
Sadly, this is often not the case. It’s extremely common to remain in near-constant, low-grade emergency mode, as we do when we’re under stress. When our minds perceive something as stressful, we activate our sympathetic nervous systems. This branch of the nervous system is the emergency mode that readies us to fight, flee, or freeze to defend ourselves from predators with an outpouring of cortisol, adrenaline, and other excitatory hormones. Although modern stressors (e.g., not having enough time, interpersonal conflicts, financial concerns, chronic illness, worries about the state of the world, etc.) rarely require us to fight or flee for our lives, our nervous systems don’t know that, and the cascade of stress chemicals happens entirely too often.
Adrenaline and cortisol levels increase this sympathetic-dominant state of chronic stress, tension, inflammation, and pain. We feel tired but can’t relax or fall asleep easily. Hormones go out of balance, affecting menstrual cycles, fertility, thyroid, and blood sugar. We might feel anxious, overwhelmed, and eventually burned out. The less time we spend in a rest-and-repair state, the less of a chance our bodies have to recover, digest, relax, sleep, and heal.
The fastest way to shift our nervous systems from fight-flight-freeze mode back into rest-and-digest is through the skillful use of our breath. When we allow our breathing to slow, lengthen, and become even, we send a message to our bodies that the emergency is over. In addition, when we allow ourselves physical movement, we reduce the deleterious effect of stress chemicals on the body. Slowing down and tuning in is an excellent antidote to the speed, noise, and overstimulation of our world. Combining slow, deliberate breathing with movement, qi gong practitioners employ two of the most powerful nervous system-calming tools in existence.
A third way in which qi gong helps us to self-regulate is in the practice of noticing what’s going on with our body and breath. This noticing is the essence of self-awareness and one of the building blocks of mindfulness. By bringing to consciousness that which is usually unconscious, we can create new patterns in how we hold ourselves and even how we think. Layering on the attitude of softness, moving like water, and you get a potent form of moving meditation that encourages relaxation, openness, and spaciousness within.
Because qi gong contains elements of exercise, meditation, and breathwork, it’s not surprising that it can help people with a wide variety of health conditions. A 2017 systemic review of research studies on qi gong revealed it to be beneficial “in the promotion, prevention, and rehabilitation of diseases and physiological disorders in adults and the elderly, such as cancer; fibromyalgia; Parkinson’s disease; COPD; Burnout; stress; social isolation; chronic low back pain; cervical pain; buzz; osteoarthritis; fatigue; depression; and cardiovascular diseases.” In addition, a growing body of research suggests that qi gong improves psychological well-being: reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and improving mood, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. A meta-analysis of 19 randomized controlled studies into one classic form of qi gong (Ba Duan Jin, or “Eight Brocade”) indicates that the practice benefits, quality of life, sleep, balance, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, resting heart rate, grip strength, and trunk flexibility.
Theory and Origins
The earliest written references to qi gong date back over 2,200 years to the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. This is one of Chinese Medicine’s seminal texts that emphasizes living in harmony with natural rhythms and cycles. The Daoist Classic, the Dao De Jing, written approximately 100 years BCE with an oral tradition extending perhaps hundreds of years prior, contains passages about slowing and deepening the breath to regulate the body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Painted depictions of dao yin, an early type of qi gong practice that involves stretching and contracting the limbs in conjunction with the breath to treat pain and prevent disease, were discovered on silk scrolls from 138 years BCE.
The first qi gong forms likely evolved from the dances of early Chinese shamans embodying the movements of animals. While gi gong is not a religion, its underlying philosophy has been shaped by Daoism, Buddhism, Naturalism, and Confucianism, in addition to Chinese Medical theory. Chinese Medicinal philosophy grew out of observations of nature. Because human beings are a part of nature, the cycles of the seasons and the qualities of the different elements of nature are thought to exist within the human body as well. Just as in a natural ecosystem, all parts of the human body affect the whole, so one diseased organ system could potentially throw the entire system out of balance. Unregulated thoughts and emotions are also considered causes of disease.
So what is this “qi,” you may well be wondering? While no single term sums it up, qi can be translated as “energy,” “breath,” “gas,” the “breath of life,” or “vital life force” that flows inside us, around us, and between all things. Quantum physics reminds us that we’re comprised mostly of empty space bound to tiny bits of matter on the atomic level and that we emanate a field of electromagnetic energy that envelops our physical form. Thinking of ourselves not as our physical bodies but as fields of energy, we can conceive of qi as “matter on the verge of becoming energy, or energy on the verge of materializing.”
In this world view, there is no separation between Nature and us, as all entities are comprised of dynamic fields of energy that overlap and influence one another. We inhale what trees and other beings have exhaled. Our bodies are made of the recycled remains of stars.
The notion of health in Chinese Medicine is predicated on the idea that life is dynamic, interconnected, and that our energy, or qi, needs to flow freely. The main pathways that energy is said to move along are referred to as “meridians” or “channels.” We can think of these channels as rivers. When the water is flowing freely, the ecosystem is nourished. But if you introduce a log jam, problems arise. Upstream, the river overflows its banks, flooding the surrounding land; downstream, the fish and plants are deprived of the water they need to thrive.
Just as stagnant water breeds disease, when qi stagnates in our bodies (due to too much stress or too little physical movement, to name two common causes), we experience tension, pain, fatigue, and a host of other problems. Getting our qi moving through breath and gentle movements of qi gong can help relax tension, decrease pain, and re-energize us in just minutes. In addition, as qi gong increases circulation and microcirculation in the body, it facilitates nutrients getting where they need to go and the timely removal of metabolic wastes.
Qi can also be depleted through overwork, chronic illness, poor diet, and insufficient sleep. A short daily qi gong practice can help revitalize us when we’ve been running an energy deficit. Through the practice of qi gong, we can recharge ourselves by inhaling deeply, gathering energy from the natural elements around us, and guiding it into our bodies. With regular practice, we can add to our energy reserves.
Rather than thinking of your body as a machine made of mechanical parts that wear out with use, consider yourself to be a self-organizing, dynamic field of energy, changing all the time, where all parts affect the whole.
Because everything in life is qi, it can be difficult to wrap our heads around it without breaking it down into categories. The broadest categories of qi are yin and yang, which are dynamic, oppositional forces that can’t exist without one another, like two sides of the same coin. Yin is dark, cool, still, and restful; yang is light, hot, moving, and transforming. You can think of yin and yang as matter and energy, respectively: yin is the stuff of who we are; yang powers the processes at work within. Everything in the world of duality has both yin and yang qualities; nothing is purely yin or yang. For example, in the body, yin functions to keep us cool and moist and enables rest and recovery. In contrast, yang keeps us warm and active and powers the processes like digestion, respiration, and circulation.
In Chinese Medicine, the goal is to maintain a balance of yin and yang in the body. In a society that prizes yang qualities of busyness, speed, productivity, and external achievement, it can be difficult to take time to slow down, do less, and focus inward. We often neglect our yin in pursuit of overdoing. Yet we know that we need good healthy yin to support the yang. It’s tough to be productive without adequate sleep, and we’re much more likely to get injured without adequate recovery time. We often spend too much time in fight-flight-freeze (yang) and not enough time in rest-and-repair mode, which taxes every system of the body. So while it may seem like yin and yang are opposites, they actually support one another. Because qi gong draws the attention inward, slowing and lengthening the breath, it’s an excellent antidote to the excessive yang of modern life.
Of course, different ways of using the breath affect the body in different ways through the regulation of various gases in the body (e.g., nitric oxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide), which function as neurotransmitters, so different types of qi gong can be used to either upregulate or downregulate the central nervous system.
Beginning a practice
Many qi gong practitioners warm up with a few minutes of relaxing into silent meditation, turning the attention inward, and guiding the breath into the “lower dan tian” (i.e., the lower abdomen). The lower dan tian is the space roughly one hand’s breadth below the navel, between the spine and the front of the body. This space is said to be where the energies of Heaven and Earth (yang and yin) are said to meet. Rooting our awareness down into lower dan tian creates a feeling of being grounded, centered, and powerful. The practice of Abdominal Breathing begins here. To practice, inhale long and slowly through your nose, expanding the lower belly outward like a balloon inflating. As you exhale, the lower belly moves towards the spine. Just a few minutes of abdominal breathing can relax the central nervous system.
Before tuning in to moving energy through the channels, qi gong practitioners often warm up with self-massage. Self-massage increases the flow of qi and blood and helps us become aware of where we are in space. It invites tight areas to loosen up. Like banging on the pipes from the outside before turning on the faucet, self-massage can help unblock the channels.
Try this: Pat down the arms and legs with an open hand. Then, with a flat palm, begin patting down the inner aspect of your upper arm all the way down to your fingertips. Then pat back up the outside of your arm. Now switch sides and pat the yin meridians down the inside of the other arm, then up the yang channels on the outside.
Qi gong self-massage can also be less physical and more energetic. Try this: Bring your palms together and rub them quickly back and forth for 10 seconds. Then bring them close to your face (you can even lightly touch your face) and make gentle circles, as though washing. Allow your face to receive the warmth from your hands. Notice the sensation.
Internal gazing is one of the pillars of qi gong. As we shift our attention from the external world to the internal world, we might focus on where the breath is going in the body, the pathways it’s traveling along, or areas of stuckness or tightness. Allowing our attention to rest in these places that feel stuck or tight, we invite them to open. The intention leads the qi, and the qi leads the blood, fluids, and consciousness.
Some qi gong traditions make use of visualizing different colors of light or qi coming into the body via acupuncture point portals, gathering in larger energy centers (like chakras), or flowing through the body. The source of this energy may be the sun, moon, stars, a nearby tree, a body of water, or the Earth itself. Practitioners may imagine being imbued with the qualities of these natural elements: the fluidity of water, the energizing power of the sun, or the rooted yet expressive nature of a tree.
Try this: Face a healthy-looking tree. Find a comfortable stance, with feet somewhere between hip and shoulder distance. Soften your knees, let your shoulders and back relax. Let your tailbone drop towards the earth as the crown of your head lifts towards the sky. Let your gaze soften, and allow your tongue to float to the upper palate behind the upper teeth. Allow your arms to float out in front of you, softening into a circular shape as though hugging a tree. Feel how little energy it takes to stand. What else can you soften? Let your awareness drop deep into the earth below you. Feel into the earth with your imagination. Now bring your attention to the bottoms of your feet, to a point located about one-third the distance between the ball of the foot and the heel, between the second and third toes. Imagine energy bubbling up from the earth into this point, known as “bubbling spring.” As you inhale, feel that energy moving up from the inner legs to the lower abdomen. As you exhale, visualize the energy flowing up to your chest, then through your softly rounded arms. Continue breathing energy up from the earth and out through your hands, keeping your body as relaxed as possible. Notice what you feel.
Shaking in qi gong is pretty much what it sounds like: whole-body vibration, which has been shown to help with bone density, skeletal muscle strength, cardiovascular health, and balance. Shaking is something mammals do after an acutely stressful situation––like being chased by a predator––to minimize the adverse effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Athletes often shake before a sporting event to invite tight muscles to relax.
Try this: Find a soft stance. Put a gentle bend in your knees and simply bend and straighten (be careful not to lock out the knees), allowing the movement to extend through your whole body. Let your arms float and flop, letting the arms, wrists, and hands shake in whatever way feels good. Let your weight shift slightly from left to right and then back several times. Let the shaking initiate from whatever part of the body you want. Imagine that your cells are exchanging energy with the surrounding air as you inhale. As you exhale, imagine that you’re letting go of metabolic wastes and toxins––anything you no longer need. Gradually slow the shaking down and come to stillness. Notice the movement still occurring within the stillness.
A simple moving practice: “Bringing down the Heavens.” Follow this link for a simple practice to help you feel grounded, centered, and calm.