“The face of exercise is changing in America. Instead of relentlessly pursuing a sculptured physique, people are chasing longevity, stress reduction and improved health through mind-body practices like Qigong... They want to find something they can practise that doesn’t take a lot of apparatus, allows them to deal with their stress, and gives them a good physical workout...” (New York Times, April 5, 2007)
Why should I learn Qigong?
In Europe and North America, Qigong (pronounced ‘chee-gung’) is not yet as widely recognised as yoga, though it is steadily growing in popularity as more people learn of the myriad of benefits that can be achieved with very little effort. And this is one of several reasons why so many masters of Qigong believe that in the not so distant future, it may eventually surpass yoga in terms of the number of followers it attracts.
Perhaps its most important quality is that it makes you feel really great, both during practice and afterwards! Also, it adapts far more easily than yoga to varying ages and states of health, ranging from elite Olympic athletes to the elderly and infirm, since significant health benefits can be derived from Qigong, irrespective of one’s current level of fitness or whether one is sitting, standing, lying or confined to a wheelchair.
In addition, with the rapid global growth of Chinese culture, arising from their expanding economic influence, more and more Westerners are learning to read, write and speak Chinese, and inevitably this will result in a steadily increasing interest in, and translation of, the ancient classic writings that are devoted to the art of Qigong, and also to its ‘sibling’, Tai Chi Chuan. This will further increase the popularity of both these disciplines. It is important to note at this stage, that particularly in the case of Shibashi, which is a Qigong form choreographed fundamentally from classic Tai Chi postures, that the beneficial effects revealed by controlled medical studies of Tai Chi Chuan can also be attributed to the practice of Shibashi.
The only prerequisite for success in Qigong is a strong desire to practise for 15 minutes a day or more, and what makes Qigong unique in comparison with nearly all other systems of exercise, is that many forms of Qigong were specifically engineered to impart medicinal benefits to the user, which is why there are entire hospital wings in China dedicated to teaching the system to patients.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that Qigong is considered by many top health experts worldwide to be the best physical training system for enhancing psychological, spiritual and physical health, and this is why today so many individuals who have been yoga devotees for years are now turning to Qigong as a primary or secondary practice. Indeed, it is a perfect complement to many other forms of healing such as acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic and psychotherapy, and there are a growing number of practitioners in all these areas that recommend, and teach, Qigong to their clients.
Unlike many forms of popular yoga, in order to receive significant benefits from the practice, Qigong does not require significant flexibility or strength, though for elite athletes who wish to develop these areas of physical prowess there are numerous advanced Qigong practices that cater admirably for such needs.
It is also one of the best available practices for developing mindfulness, a skill that is in increasing demand according to an article written by Kate Pickert entitled ‘The Mindful Revolution’, which comprised the cover of Time Magazine in the January 23rd issue in 2014. She writes: “We’re in the midst of a popular obsession with mindfulness as the secret to health and happiness – and a growing body of evidence suggests it has clear benefits.” The article goes on to highlight the fact that in the North American lifestyle and business arena, the meditative practice of mindfulness is attracting an increasing number of clients, and is rapidly gaining acceptance among those who otherwise would have considered meditation a bit flaky: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Pentagon chiefs and Fortune 500 titans, among others.
Major corporations in Europe and the USA now regularly discuss the importance of mindfulness for increasing efficiency and productivity in all areas of commerce, and the fact that Qigong has for thousands of years been highly regarded as a traditional and deeply respected form of mindfulness training by the Chinese – who are one of the most productive nations on the planet – has drawn further attention to this discipline.
According to legend, the practice of Qigong originally became popular with monks who spent hours in sitting meditations. Due to insufficient exercise many became unwell and weak, which reduced considerably their capacity to attain states of deep meditative absorption. However, when Qigong was included in their spiritual practice, the efficacy of their meditation was dramatically increased and thus the practice of Qigong became an intrinsic part of monastic life.
What is certain, is that the vast majority of people who practice Qigong for 15 minutes per day will achieve, in a matter of weeks, results that are likely to astound them, and with sessions twice a day or more, the results are likely to be beyond one’s wildest expectations – which is why so many who begin this practice become lifelong addicts!
And the final word of the previous sentence is in fact highly appropriate, because scientific investigation has revealed that Qigong triggers perhaps the highest endorphin release (natural opiates) of any form of exercise, and without even needing to break into a sweat! This is why it has been used so effectively in the rehabilitation of drug addicts. Indeed there have been a number of respected, scientifically controlled trials, which have revealed that withdrawal symptoms in heroin addicts are phenomenally reduced if they practice Qigong on a daily basis.
It is interesting to note that, in this sense, Qigong has similar therapeutic effects to certain forms of meditation, especially transcendental meditation, which has proven itself to be highly effective for the treatment and prevention of substance abuse and addiction in general.
Qigong is based upon the most fundamental of all concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), namely, that there exists in the universe a fundamental energy known as Qi which circulates within our body, and which is essential to our health. According to this way of thinking, ill-health or disease arises from blockages in the flow of Qi, or from insufficient or excess Qi and, consequently, these problems can relieved or cured by increasing the level of Qi when there is a deficiency, by reducing the quantity of Qi when there is an excess, and by removing any impediments to the circulation of Qi so that the flow is not reduced or blocked in any way.
Regular practitioners of Qigong – as well as practitioners of various other systems which work with life force energy, such as yoga – can easily feel the flow of this Qi, which in yoga is called Prana, and thus it is as real and perceivable to them as the process of breathing. More advanced students of these disciplines can also can guide Qi to different parts of their body in order to remove blockages and adjust their Qi levels appropriately to speed up healing from injury or illness.
What is Qi?
Since Qi holds a position of such central importance in Qigong, as well as in so many other areas of Chinese medicine and philosophy, I shall summarise the essential facts related to this important topic.
Qi is the universal, omnipresent, infinite energy resource that fills the universe, sustaining and fundamentally influencing all existence, including celestial mechanics and the laws of physics. This primordial energy field gave birth to the universe, and to all forms in the cosmos, which each have their own Qi energy fields, even so-called inanimate objects such as rocks.
The Qi circulating within us, and also within all other living beings, can be regarded as ‘bioelectricity’, for at a fundamental level, the human body is a ‘living electromagnetic field’. This idea should not be difficult to accept if one remembers that according to modern science, there is only one type of energy in the universe and that is electromagnetic energy, which consists of electromagnetic waves, and therefore, in this sense, light, heat and all other forms of energy are simply different expressions of this one universal energy.
The Qi within us can also, in many ways, be viewed as being analogous to the energy contained in a battery that powers an electric appliance; for in reality, we actually do store our Qi energy in a ‘bioelectric battery’, a ‘Qi reservoir’ that is located in an area just below the belly button, known as the Dantien, that ‘powers’ us with the Qi that circulates throughout our body, keeping every part of us energised and alive.
As this animating power supply stagnates or weakens, our body degenerates, and when it runs out, we die. However, in a manner analogous to recharging a battery, we can recharge our personal Qi supply using the practice of Qigong to replenish the reservoir in our Dantien.