Qigong (pronounced chee gung, aka, Chi Kung, Chi Gung) is one of the five pillars of traditional Chinese medicine along with herbology, nutrition, acupuncture and manual therapy. This tradition is based on the concept of qi. The word qi is usually translated as vital energy or breath and is closely related to, if not identical to the yogic concept of “prana”. This concept of vital energy pervades Chinese medicine and martial arts . When qi is sufficient and flows harmoniously in the mind-body, respiratory, cardiovascular, orthopedic, metabolic and emotional health is optimized. Indeed, traditional Chinese medicine, unlike allopathic Western medicine, does not segregate psychological problems from physiological in evaluation and treatment, since both reflect disordered qi flow. Correct biomechanical function allows qi to flow properly and that qi flow, in turn, allows ideal body mechanics and posture.
The first written record of Qigong, defined as the science of vital energy accumulation, balance and circulation, dates back to to 934 B.C. Written during this era, the classic Tao Te Jing refers to breathing techniques that “concentrate Qi and achieve softness”. Over centuries of development, emperors, philosophers, scholars, clergy, martial artists, and doctors have all contributed to the broad field of knowledge encompassed by the term Qigong. Yoga from India and Tibetan practices were gradually cross-pollinated with Qigong indigenous to China.
Qigong, true to its Taoist heritage, resists the scientific and scholarly impulse to reduce it to neatly defined categories. It can be categorized as an energy-based system or as a mind-body approach . In the same way, it is impossible to break Qigong into mutually exclusive subcategories. That being said, there are several ways to group similar practices together for the sake of analysis.
Qigong can be differentiated by the purpose for which it has been developed. Spiritual Qigong, for example, primarily focuses on attainment of enlightenment. Practice in a Buddhist tradition emphasizes cultivation of the ability to see through illusion and relinquish attachment, whereas Taoist Qigong tradition emphasizes longevity and harmony between the practitioner and the environment.
Martial Qigong includes practices that minimize excess muscle tension and effort while maximizing power. Martial Qigong is applicable to orthopedic conditions like neck pain, back pain, pelvic pain, shoulder pain, hip and knee pain. This type of qigong can also allow frail people like elders to push or pull objects such as heavy doors without strain. Medical Qigong emphasizes healing and regulates the energy circulation to maintain or improve health.
Another way to classify Qigong is as “internal” or “external”. In Nei Dan (Internal Elixir), vital energy is gathered in the dantien (abdominal area) via breathing practices, movement and mental focus and then lead by the mind to other parts of the body, especially the extremities (e.g. Microsmic Orbit). In Wai Dan, qi is drawn to the extremities and flow is stimulated by mental focus and muscular activity. When the qi flow is sufficient it overflows into the rest of the meridian system to invigorate qi flow in general.
A third way to categorize Qigong is by whether the body is still or moves (static vs. dynamic) or what position is assumed (supine, sitting or standing).
Again, these categories are by no means mutually exclusive. For example, Tai Chi Chuan, a practice primarily focused on building martial skill, has been shown in many scientific studies to improve health and prevent falls. In fact, many practice this martial art for only for health purposes and therefore, have no inkling of its martial application. In the same way, the Spiritual Qigong path includes a focus on health and longevity to improve the practitioner’s chance of achieving enlightenment in the present lifetime. Adepts of all styles feel tingling sensations, heat, or a flow of warm water through the body, thought to be manifestations of qi flow. Qi can be led to any part of the body for the purpose of healing. According to Qigong tradition, “the will leads the mind, the mind leads the qi and the qi leads the blood”. At the functional level, “qi leads strength”.
Although there are many forms of Qigong, most styles seek to cultivate a calm and quiet mind and the ability to release unnecessary muscular tension. They also teach correct posture. Qigong is also meant to facilitate balance, stability and emphasizes, in initial training, breathing into the lower “dantien”. The dantien or “sea of qi” is located below the navel and is considered to be the source of all skillful movement. The lower dantien is also known as the hara in Japanese and as the navel chakra in Ayurvedic mind-body energetics. Broadly defined, Qigong can encompass mental imagery, supine/seated/standing meditation, breath-work, self-massage, and exercises associated with internal martial arts including Tai Chi Chuan. Qigong styles that emphasize relaxation and equanimity, minimal to moderate exertion and regulated breathing, address stress related problems and treat hypertension. Qigong on the gentle end of the spectrum seems well suited for physical therapy, due to its very low risk of inducing musculoskeletal injury.
Qigong teacher and Holistic Physical Therapist, Bill Gallagher teaches therapeutic qigong and provides qigong therapy in New York City (NYC).