An Introduction to Qigong
What is qigong?
Qi is the Chinese name for universal life force (energy). The concept of qi underlies Traditional Chinese Medicine and martial arts. Gong is translated as committed cultivation and the benefits and skills acquired through dedicated practice.
Qigong is the systematic method of cultivating qi through focused inner awareness and intention while practicing specific postures and movements, including techniques in breathing, self-massage, visualization, and meditation.
The goals of qigong are to cultivate, nurture, gather, refine, circulate, harvest, and store life energy; to stimulate the organs to function normally; and to stand and move with grace, poise, and power.
Qigong is practiced worldwide for health maintenance, exercise, stress reduction, prevention, self-healing, meditation, and increasing/enhancing vitality. The breadth of its popularity and diversity of its applications speak to the efficacy of the methods developed and codified over 3 millennia.
What is the history of qigong?
Early Influences on Qigong
Nature and its organic forces and processes offer us an inspiration for life, to be nourished by and learn to grow from. Qigong arose from humble origins as self-healing tools inspired by these forces of nature.
The first recorded system of qigong, the Animal Frolics, was inspired by the health, hardiness, and vitality of animals and modeled on their balanced, supple, strong, and graceful movements and postures. The fundamental goal of these exercises is to enhance and balance the circulation of qi among the organ systems and throughout the body.
Earliest Recorded Name
Dao-Yin was an ancient name for qigong, and meant “leading and guiding the qi, and extending the limbs.” The Dao-Yin Tu – “Dao-Yin Illustrations Tapestry” (c. 168 BCE) depicts people of all walks of life engaged in the practices—therapeutic exercise and aspirations for longevity were the interests of a broad spectrum of society. Dao-Yin included gentle body movements, stances, breath practice, self-applied massage, and meditation from standing, seated, and supine positions. The emphasis is on softness and yielding, self-awareness and health self-reliance.
A testament to qigong’s efficacy is its successive adoption into and practice within a wide range of life’s arenas: secular, scholastic, medical, contemplative, and martial, as evidenced in its history. The history of qigong in China can be divided into the following four periods.
Before the Han Dynasty (before 206 BCE)
The Scholar/Philosopher (Confucian/Daoist) and Medical Period
The first mention of qi occurs in the Yi Jing (Book of Changes; 1122 BCE) and introduces the concepts of the relationship between the natural powers of Tian-Heaven, Di-Earth, and Ren-Man. Although historical documents are scarce, the training was focused on natural ways of healing and maintaining health, including specific breathing methods to enhance qi circulation.
Han Dynasty to Beginning of the Laing Dynasty (206 BCE–502 CE)
Religious (Buddhist/Daoist) Period
During this period Buddhism spread into China from India and became popular. Buddhist meditation and religious qigong practices focused on attaining enlightenment/Buddhahood. Meditation practices from Daoism and Tibetan Buddhism were also absorbed into the practice of qigong. This knowledge, kept secret within the monasteries, emphasized rigorous control over internal functions of the body, mind, and spirit to escape cycles of reincarnation. At the same time, traditional scholars and physicians continued their qigong research, merging with the growing field of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The theory of qi circulation became better understood and the practices more efficient.
Liang Dynasty to the End of the Qing Dynasty (502–1911 CE)
During this period religious qigong within monasteries remained secret. Practices such as Muscle/Tendon Changing and Bone Marrow/Brain Washing so greatly improved the priests’ health and strength that they were incorporated into martial art training. Outside the monasteries, qigong exercises became more popular in Chinese society. The Six Healing Sounds and Eight Pieces of Brocade were introduced as were the internal martial art trainings of Taiji, Xingyi, and Baguazhang. Qi circulation theory and acupuncture reached a peak. Publication of medical qigong documents—including those that included massage, herbal remedies, and acupuncture—outnumbered documents on exercises.
End of the Qing Dynasty to the Present (1911 CE–present)
After the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the founding of the Chinese Republic, the new term “qigong” was used and practice entered a new era. Western culture greatly modernized Chinese thought and values. Formerly secret qigong documents have been published and styles are openly taught. The Communist regime, once oppressive to qigong during the cultural revolution, adopted the term “medical qigong” in order to legitimize and control the practices because of their ability to heal and prevent disease. The Communist leaders were especially pleased that the new techniques were simple and inexpensive—things that most people, whatever their health conditions, could do anywhere and at any time without special equipment or medicines. Qigong is now practiced worldwide.
How does it work?
- Qigong works through systematic training to focus consciousness within the body to feel sensations in each area.
- The focus, or mental intention, described in Chinese as the “yi”—the wisdom mind—directs the flow of qi energy.
- A relaxed body permits the natural flow of energy.
- Qigong uses the senses as the communication mechanism between perception and systemic change. The sensory field expands as in the suggestions of seeing without looking, and hearing without listening.
- Sensations, movements, and breath become interconnected as in one part moves, all parts move.
- With practice, attention globalizes to simultaneously connect feelings of ground support, spinal elongation, core stabilization, postural alignment, and more.
- Learning rooting and structural connectedness through kinesthetic experiences catalyzes the comprehension and integration of core principles.
- No effort, no speed gives time to sense position and make modifications so that all parts work together.
- Neural mapping is broadened and energy conductivity enhanced so that qi can be harvested and stored within the body.
- Practitioners perceive the energetic state within and surrounding their bodies.
Physiological and psychological harmony result.
How is qigong different from other offerings?
- Accessibility: Techniques are simple and inexpensive and can be performed anywhere and at any time—lying down, seated, standing, or walking, and preferably outside. No special equipment or medicines are used. Everyone can benefit, regardless of ability, age, physical condition, belief system, or life circumstances. Practices can be easily adapted for the physically challenged.
- Style: In comparison to sports, which are often goal oriented, or dance, which includes dynamics and emotional expression, qigong is performed slowly, using focused movements, which accentuates its intention, precision, and accuracy. The emphasis is on effortless ease, and on quality, not quantity.
- Intent: Qigong creates an awareness of internal health including the vital organs, endocrine system, skeletal system, and muscular system (not found in current Western forms of exercise), all of which exponentially increases the practice benefits. Enjoying the journey is a fundamental concept. Students are invited to explore, experiment, modify, adjust, and play with the energy they experience as in allowing the qi to have its way with them. A goal of practice is the balance and harmony of opposites: yin/yang, body/mind, and left/right, front/back, upper/lower, core/extremities, and weight bearing/non-weighted sides of the body. Practice is designed to uncover and release tension and blocked energy to restore balance.
- Philosophy: Defining health as resilience or the ability to adapt, a fundamental belief is that softness will overcome hardness, and a harmonious mind and body will win out over a chaotic mind and body. Like free-flowing water, the condition of good health implies that the qi in our bodies is clear, full, and flowing smoothly like a stream. Where the qi goes, the blood flows.
How does qigong serve or help someone?
- The Mayo Clinic Special Report on “Lifelong Exercise” (February 2009) covered five different and important kinds of exercise: aerobic, strength training, core stability, flexibility, and balance. An advantage of qigong is that it brings these elements together in a unified form of exercise.
- Qigong philosophy posits that the most profound medicine is created naturally within the human system. Practicing qigong enhances the activity of the natural self-healing resources within.
- Qigong develops skills to regulate the balance and movement of healing energy in the mind and in the body.
- Qigong teaches its practitioners how to deal intelligently with stress, by keeping the body relaxed and supple and the internal energy strong and healthy.
- Qigong initiates the “relaxation response,” decreasing the sympathetic function of the autonomic nervous system, reducing heart rate and blood pressure, dilating the blood capillaries, and optimizing the delivery of oxygen and nutrition to the tissues.
- Qigong alters the neurochemistry profile to accelerate inner healing. Neurotransmitters moderate pain, enhance organ capacity, reduce anxiety or depression, and neutralize addictive cravings.
- Qigong enhances the efficiency of the immune system through increased rate and flow of the lymphatic fluid and activation of immune cells. Resistance to disease and infection is accelerated by the elimination of metabolic by-products through the lymphatic system.
- Qigong increases the efficiency of cell metabolism and tissue regeneration through increased circulation of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood.
- Qigong coordinates and balances right/left brain hemisphere dominance to promote deeper sleep, reduced anxiety, and mental clarity.
- Qigong induces alpha (and sometimes theta) brain waves to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, facilitating relaxation and mental focus, decreasing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, and optimizing the body’s self-regulative mechanisms.
- Qigong moderates the function of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and pineal glands, as well as the cerebrospinal fluid system of the brain and spinal cord, to manage pain and mood and optimize immune function.
- Qigong is currently appreciated as a “metarobic” exercise that enhances blood oxygen saturation, diffusion, and metabolic function. Research is characterizing this as the physiological mechanism underlying the observed clinical effects of qigong.
What is an experience with qigong like?
- Pleasure: “It feels really good!” is a frequent response. Training begins with sensitivity to one’s self, developing sensitivity to stimuli that come from inside the body. One’s experience at any moment is accepted and welcomed.
- Relaxation: Practitioners slow down to sense the movement within the stillness, inner-cise rather than outer exer-cise.
- Natural Body Wisdom: Practitioners become quiet enough to hear and to follow their body’s wisdom. Practice is outside in nature. The body is experienced as a part of and intimately connected to the natural world.
- Responsiveness: Through enhanced focus, awareness, and sensitivity, practitioners comprehend and integrate the core principles to clearly and effectively respond to any situation. Qigong as an internal martial art is considered a preparatory training for external arts, like kung fu, which require fast, explosive movements.
- Resilience: Qigong gives you a feeling of being grounded and connected to the earth, and gradually develops strength, flexibility, and increased range of motion.
- Balance: Qigong is practiced and medically prescribed for improving both balance and bone density.
- Anti-aging: Long-term, regular practice can improve many of the biomarkers of aging. While qigong does not change one’s chronological age, it decreases functional/biological age.
- Increased Energy and Healing Potential: Those who maintain a consistent practice of qigong find that it helps to regain a youthful vitality, maintain health even into old age, and speeds recovery from illness.
- Connectivity: Practitioners learn rooting and inner structural connectedness; they perceive a boundless energetic state within and surrounding their bodies into which they can dissolve.
- Self-efficacy: Qigong improves one’s belief in the ability to exercise control over functioning in life. Benefits generalize to activities of daily living, such as lifting, maintaining balance, and staying centered.
How long or often should I use or practice qigong?
Typically 20 to 40 minutes a day can provide the majority of the benefits.
When is it best to use qigong?
Qigong is traditionally done in the early morning, between 5 and 7 (the immune system is strongest at about 7 a.m.), outside in nature, in fresh air. Start however you wish and experiment/explore/play/modify/adjust.
How do I find a teacher near me?
You can find directories through
Are there potential side effects or disadvantages of using qigong?
T’ai chi and qigong have positive health effects on multiple levels and there are no known negative side effects or contraindications associated with use.
What are some good websites to learn about qigong?
- American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
- Cleveland Clinic
- Harvard Medical School
- Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health
- National Council on Aging (NCOA)
- National Qigong Association
- Qigong Institute
About the Authors
Russell Munsell’s four-decade professional career is focused on teaching clients to maximize their potential. He trains clients to make smarter choices in health promotion and lifestyle management. At Humboldt State University, he created and delivered stress management, accelerated learning, and performance optimization programs, which he has also taught in corporations, for the government,, and in Japan. Russell is also a certified Integral Qigong and Tai Chi Teacher.
Suki Munsell has taught dance, fitness, and biomechanics to students of all ages for more than forty-five years, beginning in 1975 under the guidance of post-modern dance pioneer Anna Halprin. A registered somatic movement therapist and educator, she earned her doctorate in Movement Arts with a dissertation on body transformation, a life-long research pursuit.