Qigong offers an alternative to both conventional exercise and seated meditation.
Qigong (also spelled chi gong, or chi kung) is T’ai Chi’s great, great (add as many as you want, as it predates written history) grandmother, preceding T’ai Chi by thousands and thousands of years. Its literal definition is also more basic — qi (or chi) simply means energy, or breath, and gong means work. Though it sounds the same, it should not to be confused with the chi in T’ai Chi. People often think T’ai Chi refers to the qi in qigong, meaning life-force energy, which is logical, because it sounds the same. However, T’ai Chi’s chi (and Wu Chi ‘s Chi or Ji) means infinite or without limits. Now is that perfectly clear?
In China, qigong has been employed by traditional Chinese medical practitioners for millenia, used in clinics for centuries, and in hospitals since the mid-twentieth century. Many legendary kung fu monks and nuns were also healers, serving the people in the environs of their respective temples. Qigong has helped in the recovery from and preventation of diseases such as arthritis, high blood pressure, cancer, anxiety, hypertension and depression (among many others). Qigong has been successful when used as prescribed, which is often in conjunction with healing foods, herbs and acupuncture.
Qigong is a complementary practice that is often part of a complete, solo T’ai Chi training session. Like T’ai Chi, it employs imagery, movements and breathing to balance and integrate energies and improve health, but without the added edge of martial intent. Qigong’s sole purpose is to heal and revitalize, and most kung fu systems contain a qigong form that is purely meditative, energetic and healing as part of the complete training program. Without this, kung fu can become a mindless fighting exercise lacking in spiritual content.
Qigong integrates the Three Treasures: Jing (original, birth energy), Qi (breath, daily energy) and Shen (spirit, mind, soul). Too much or too little of any one of these forces creates imbalance. For example, in Western terms, someone who over-thinks things will have a loss of emotional intelligence, or individuals with too much spirit and not enough mind might fatigue or even hurt themselves if they exceed their physical capacity from over-exertion. Qigong training when emotionally upset, tired or hungry can backfire, causing the practitioner to even become more exhausted or unbalanced. Qigong solves the problems that we cause ourselves. Practicing slows us down and changes our biochemistry so we have less stressful thoughts.
While Qigong and T’ai Chi are therapeutic and provide answers to questions unanswered by other practices, training by itself cannot resolve deep-seated emotional and psychological problems, and can on occassion exacerbate psychosis. Other modalities that deal specifically with the psyche or social relations may be needed, such as somatic therapy, counseling, or medication when a condition is extreme. One reason why early morning practice is so beneficial is that it occurs before we are beset by hunger and the problems of daily life. Between 3:00 to 5:00 and 5:00 to 7:00 am, the energy is moving from Lung to Large Intestine. This makes it an excellent time for deep breathing, and also for cleansing. From 7:00 to 9:00 am, the energy moves through the stomach and then the spleen, so this is the best time to take in nourishment for the day.
If the organ clock seems implausible, try this little experiement. When you most feel like getting up and doing things, just glance at your clock and make a mental note of what time it is. Also observe the time when you are arguing with yourself to do something, and the inspiration is just not there. The biochemical aspect to how we feel and therefore what we do is irrefutable, as is the fact that qigong (and therefore t’ai chi) changes your biochemistry and affects the way you feel, think and act.
Most qigong forms consist of gentle, receptive, relaxing movements coordinated with breathing. Some forms are more strenuous with dynamic movements, or alternating tension and relaxation. Other qigong forms are practiced while standing motionless, seated, or even lying down.
Many qigong forms advocate timing the movements with the practitioners own natural rythym for inhalation and exhalation, and never to strain. Others prolong the breath and restrain oxygen, after which the system is gradually saturated with oxygen with c0ntrolled deep breaths. The Muscle Change Classic, Tendon Exchange or Yi Gun Gin is a good example of a form that utilizes breathing techniques in conjunction with movements.
Yi Gun Gin, was made famous because Tamo practiced it in his cave and taught it to the monks at the Shaolin Temple. In this form, the belly gradually tightens during exhalation while the arms gradually relax, after which, conversely, when the arms gradually increase tension, the breathing muscles slowly relax.
This form requires tremendous concentration because of timing the breath with movements that are counterintuitive. We tend to either relax everything or tighten everything. When practicing Yi Gun Gin, you are relaxing and tensing at the same time, and to make it even more perplexing, with increasing intensity.
Yi Gun Gin is one of several forms advocated by the Chinese government as scientifically proven to be effective. When I learned it, the master who taught it to me (Peter Kwok) told me the legend associated with this form — If done three times a day for two hours each session, after three years, a knife would not be able to penetrate the body. (I tried this for just one day and the next day at art school was too tired and sore to hold up a paint brush without dropping it).
Many qigong forms have been deemed ineffectual for curing diseases and are potentially dangerous for one main reason: if used alone, an untreated illness or injury can worsen. On the other hand, there will be no unintended side-effects, as sometimes is the case with pharmaceuticals and invasive surgeries.
The best way to find out if a qigong works is to test it on yourself. One-hundred days (three months) is a good dose for curing something, although most people feel much different even after just their first session. Qigong is a medicine that should be administered regularly, even after symptoms have gone, in order to keep feeling good and to maintain a balanced, healthy state.
I have avoided multiple surgeries for decades (torn tissues in the knee and shoulder) by doing qigong, tai chi and supplementary exercises. I teach others these exercises in order to encourage self-care and lessen the need for medical procedures and their extreme costs. Caring for oneself has a huge, positive impact on the individual and on society — one of which is that your work can help others. The saying Physician, Heal Thyself comes to mind. The thousands of scientifically unvalidated qigong forms that exist have proliferated because people feel better after doing them. This proves that focussing the mind on the intent to heal is effective in and of itself. Some qigongs don’t move at all, which puts the focus on the posture and the mind. The stationary, standing meditation that I practice moves ever so slightly just to change the arm positions at intervals, rather like existence itself — moving from one slightly uncomfortable position to another. However, this lack of external movement of my body causes the biggest movement in my mind and spirit.
Because I practice moving (T’ai Chi Ch’uan) forms, I prefer standing qigong. Small movement is better than big movement and no movement is better than smalll movement. For me, stillness has the most elegance. Participation of the patient is critical for healing with qigong on all levels, physically, mentally and spiritually. It is essential that a patient believe in it or else they won’t practice it. In the strictest sense, qigong will work if the belief in it is followed up by doing it. This is where it diverges from Christian Science or other systems that heal with pure thought, chanting or prayer.
Some qigong has been restricted in modern People’s Republic of China, especially those with quasi-religious or mystical undertones. In the 1990s, Falun Gong, which was hardly subversive, promoting personal virtue, meditation and simple exercises, and grew by leaps and bounds. The inventor, Li Hongzhi refused to be part of the larger governing body of qigong of the PCR, and also offered free training from its practioners to its initiates.
To all intents and appearances, this conflict resembles a power struggle between a religious leader and a government, not unlike many we have seen throughout world history. By the turn of the twentieth century, with an estimated 70 million practitioners, more than the membership in the Communist Party, Falun Gong has grown even larger internationally since being ostracized. Many have migrated to Taiwan, where they congregate looking for converts in public places.
I can only attest to the efficacy of the qigong forms that I practice. I prefer to alternate them because I like to channel qualitatively different energies. They all make you feel better after you practice them — looser, more energetic and more focussed from the inside-out — and enhance the T’ai Chi Ch’uan training experience immeasurably.
Some healers who practice energy medicine administer long-distance healing with thought and no touch. They attract thousands of followers who say they feel much better after participating in group healing events. Qigong healers claim to cure illnesses, and their successfully healed patients will affirm this.
Perhaps the qigong healer is the inspiration the practitioner needs to heal him or herself. Prayer and religion work in this way too, by inspiring reverence. The notion of respecting God, who is often personified as Grandfatherly, can be likened to the Confucian respect for an elder. People who get involved in any church community, no matter what the denomination, often maintain a higher level of healthiness.
It was not until Buddha that the belief in an entity outside of the mind, of Gods and God, was put to task. Ch’an Buddhists feel that pure meditation does not fixate on anything — faith, a candle flame or God — just the meditation process, as a discipline for opening and cleansing the heart and mind.
There are even qigong systems that attempt to incorporate Buddha, Allah, Jesus, God, etc … to appeal to everyone and channel all spiritual affiliations. Aspects of Buddhism (meditation, karma) have been incorporated into syncretic systems such as Falun Gong, and made into a sort of Godless religion. While this is good for many (even agnostics who recognize the possibility of a higher power), atheists prefer qigongs with no such associations.
A belief in an idea can motivate people to do astounding things, but when the idea defies the absolute laws of nature, there are unintended repercussions. The infamous Boxer Rebellion, where many Chinese kung fu fighters lost their lives resisting occupation by standing up to gunfire, is a tragic example of this.
On the other hand, the use of the thought is crucial, especially when practicing T’ai Chi. Doing the movements without thinking about what the movements are doing reduces T’ai Chi to qigong. Form without content borders on ritual and rites, and at best can be called T’ai Chi for Health; T’ai Chi minus the Ch’uan.
T’ai Chi is actually a blending of qigong and kung fu, and it has been summed up as Qigong with a martial intent. There are considered to be ten thousand qigong forms, with thousands of years of development, while T’ai Chi has evolved only over the last six to eight hundred years.
The thousands of forms of qigong are more varied than T’ai Chi, which has only five main branches. These branches are named for their creators — Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu/Hao and Sun. New variations of the basic T’ai Chi forms and systems are cropping up as fast as students can memorize them. Competition forms have been developed to demonstrate skill with required movements within a shorter time for tournaments. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing’s opening ceremonies, where 2,008 t’ai chi performers moved together in beautifully choreographed harmony showed a composite of all the t’ai chi styles. Slow, Sink, Relax, Shift remain the basic parameters throughout all T’ai Chi styles.
T’ai Chi and qigong share some common ground — relaxation, soft, flowing, slow movements for health — but the intention and the body frame diverge beyond those qualities. Qigong is much more repetitive, while T’ai Chi’s movements are, like a river, a constant flow of changes.
Because of the type of energy t’ai chi and qigong cultivate, they are best don early in the morning, outside in the fresh air. Devotees can be seen at daybreak in parks and villages all over China. According to traditional teaching, we assimilate planetary qi best while the night (Yin) becomes the day (Yang). Inhaling the fresh air from oxygen-producing plants, and exhaling the carbon dioxide that feeds them, we become a part of nature’s symbiosis. The meditative focus is a product of slowness, which allows the mind to tell the body what to do, then watch what it is doing as its being done, and reflect on it after it’s done, even while imagining the move that is coming. There is ample time to plan, act and observe the body’s movement as it is carried out. Both Qigong and T’ai Chi Ch’uan forms target the vital energy centers that circulate qi, but creating a mind/body/spirit energy flow that also develops martial skill by moving slowly, relaxing and sinking is the hallmark of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
The qi field of energy can be thought of like a camera lens. Imagine pulling back from a narrow focus to get a larger view, while still seeing the whole picture in close-up and high definition. I have experienced this field of energy during meditation, while dreaming, while pushing hands and while doing the form. The qi resembles concentric circles of expanding awareness, or moving while surrounded by layers of information that support each successive layer, from the bone marrow to the skin to outside the frame to the universe.
The experience is something like being inside and outside of yourself at the same time. The sages sometimes refer to this depth of field as awareness energy. Increased qi can be felt immediately during and after the first session, developing consistent skill takes long-term practicing, daily discipline and focused attention. People whose only goal is to develop martial skill may be turned off to T’ai Chi because it looks so soft and slow. T’ai Chi is gradual and subtle, adhering to the Middle Way. Energy and strength are built slowly, steadily and surely, layer upon layer, like the rings of an old, rooted tree.
In my early training phase, from the vantage point of an external stylist in Shaolin Kung Fu, I was turned off at first. Old people moving around slowly and carefully compared to explosive punching and kicking? How could anyone young chose the former?
Paradoxically, T’ai Chi’s slow, graceful movements increase the student’s accuracy and speed in martial encounters. They give the advanced practitioner the time and space internally to chose what type of force to use, to subdue with dignity rather than injure, a profound aspect. T’ai Chi prolongues the life of the practitioner and for others within his or her sphere of influence.
Resembling both meditation and tai chi, qigong puts the mind in a meditative state while it gives the body positive energy for any other type of exercise or sport. Standing meditation, with no or minimal movement, puts its primary focus on the clearing of the mind. When there are no changes to focus on, there is also no distraction. During this process, thoughts that are always hovering beneath the surface have a chance to float up, and float by. This is one of the most significant benefits of standing meditation — the clearing of the mind.
After standing (or seated) meditation, the issues that might have been causing us stress and dis-ease have worked their way out of our minds. The difference between seated and standing meditation, aside from the obvious — one sits or one stands — is that we are connected to the earth and its gravitational pull through our legs and not disembodied spirits from the waist down.
When we become wrapped up in our own thoughts and out-of-touch, we can descend into anxiety and experience a loss of positive energy — for healing, for creating and for joy. The reason standing meditation is such a powerful adjunct to t’ai chi ch’uan, and especially to spontaneous push hands, is that it frees the mind to be present with what is going on around it, rather than lost in its own quagmire. Qigong forms that have movements are similar to t’ai chi in that the slowness and multi-layering of information, such as coordinating the rhythm of the breath and heartbeat while maintaining a rooted and relaxed posture, results in an overall sense of calm and well-being.