Okay so let’s get the two most important and commonly asked questions out of the way first:
What does it mean?
How do you say it?
You will see it translated as ‘Energy Work’, ‘Energy Cultivation’, ‘Working with Energy’, ‘Energy Life Cultivation’ – and other similar terms.
It is often difficult to directly translate ideas and concepts deeply entrenched within the history, culture and psyche of Chinese thought and healing practices, especially ones as esoteric as energetic practices.
I tend to go with ‘Energy Work’ but at the end of the day, it is ‘Qigong’, and I refer to it as such – or, hang on, is it ‘Chi Kung’ ….. confused?
Clear as mud….
Don’t worry – I’ll aim to add a bit of clarity to the whole situation – and as Lao Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching, “Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles and the water is clear?”
If so, read on…
You tend to see it written in two ways: ‘Chi Kung’ or Qigong’. Both are pronounced the same and phonetically it sounds like, ‘cheegong’.
The difference in the transliteration being, ‘qigong’ is pinyin and ‘chi kung’ is Wade-Giles. Both are standardised ways of converting Mandarin into a Romanised script. Pinyin replaced Wade-Giles in 1958 as the standard used in mainland China, and (as a student of Mandarin), it is the script that I prefer.
Phew… so we’ve established that it’s ‘qigong’ – pronounced ‘cheegong’ – and pretty much translates as ‘energy work’.
Mark…. Can we just get on with the blog post now please!?
Okay. Here goes:
You will find reports from archaeologists and historians tracing qigong practices back as far as 5000 years – personally I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it has been practiced for much longer than that.
Slow moving meditative movements with breath, mind and body in perfect harmonious synchronisation could be a practice that is as old as self aware humans – and the practice, or similar practices, may have developed elsewhere in the ancient world. There are many overlaps between qigong and yoga, for example, and according to many beliefs, yoga has been around for possibly up to 10,000 years.
It is likely that practices emanating from ancient shamanism, and meditative practices were the wellspring of qigong, as well as Chinese medicine, with which it has been intrinsically linked for millenia.
The origins of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) generally date back to around 2696–2598 BCE, with the Yellow Emperor’s ‘Huangdi Neijing’ or ‘Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor’. Regarded as the seminal text of TCM, it details the relation between humans, their world and the cosmos.
TCM is made up of several ‘branches’: herbalism, acupuncture, massage (tui-na), diet, and qigong.
Qigong is used to encourage the free flow of energy (qi) throughout the body. It is believed that stagnant or low quantities of qi will affect the health of the individual, causing illness and disease. Specific exercises are given according to the particular condition of the individual patient. TCM is a huge topic and will be explored in future blog posts and articles.
Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism are the central pillars which have pervaded Chinese thoughts and ideas over the centuries.
Where Confucius was scholarly and academic in his output – advising on the morally correct way to live one’s life, Taoism leant more towards living a life in harmony with nature and your surroundings.
Both schools of thought recommended qigong as a practice for cultivating energy and remaining in good health. For the Confucian, a healthy body and mind would mean being a happier and healthier individual, able to live a morally correct life. The Taoist would be more in touch with the natural world around them and in time, with dedicated practice of meditation and qigong, reach the higher realms of existence, eventually achieving harmony with the dao.
Buddhism arrived in China around 600 BCE. With its roots deep within the Hindu culture, there were inevitably yogic practices which arrived with the Indian monk Bodhidharma at the Shaolin Temple, where the physical state of the monks were greatly improved by the introduction of a series of qigong exercises known as ‘Yijin Jing’ or ‘Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic’.
It is said that Bodhidharma, known as Da-Mo in China, retreated to a cave for 9 years before returning with the Yijin Jing, these became the bedrock of the Shaolin martial arts, which of course have spread far and wide over the last 2500 years!
Qigong and Tai Chi
Fundamentally qigong is an energetic practice, designed to increase and improve the physical, mental and spiritual health of its practitioners. It clearly works – as the millions of people up early practicing qigong forms and moves across the whole world every morning can testify!
What then, is tai chi – and how does that differ? Could you not describe tai chi as ‘an energetic practice, designed to increase and improve the health of its practitioners’? Well yes you could!
Tai chi is though, at its core, a martial art. Each move teaches the principles of a fighting style, upon which a myriad of techniques can be built. As you see a tai chi form being performed, if you are looking carefully enough, you will see that each move can be a strike, a lock, a hold, a block, a kick, etc, etc… (I will write more about the martial arts element of tai chi in future blogs, I don’t want to stray away too far from qigong on this page).
I always say that tai chi can be many things for many different people… it can be a martial art, it can be physiotherapy, it can be a form of meditation. It can also be an energetic practice designed to increase and improve the health of it’s practitioners.
So, is tai chi a form of qigong?
Yes. And more 🙂
Is qigong a form of tai chi?
If you consider that any movement your body makes could potentially be striking an opponent, then yes, I guess you could say that – but personally I would not call qigong a form of tai chi because there is no martial intention. The point of qigong is to be healthy, to have good energy, to move efficiently, to be calm.
What I would say is that qigong is a great way to prepare your mind and body for the martial arts (such as tai chi).
One of the great things about qigong – it’s really easy!
Often people come to tai chi classes and initially prefer, and reap more rewards, from the qigong that we do in class, usually as a part of the warm up. Over time this levels out as they get more used to tai chi – but qigong is instantly accessible, easy to learn and you feel the benefits straight away.
On a physical level, qigong gently stretches out the body, releasing tension in the muscles and connective tissue (fascia). It is a great way to get the body moving – especially in the morning. It can make you stronger but does not put any pressure on the body, in the way that some yoga moves might do, or running, gym training, etc.
Qigong is great for everybody. The elderly can practice, keeping themselves limber right into old age. Younger adepts will feel the benefits across all of their activities – I hear of tennis serves improving, golf swings getting better, posture when sitting at a desk being much straighter. So, despite most articles you read reporting that qigong is just for the elderly, it really is an activity for everyone.
The breathing is such an important part of what makes it an incredibly healthy activity. Diaphragmatic breathing reduces stress levels, anxiety, helps insomnia, regulates hormones, increases the amount of oxygen. When else do you slow down and just breathe? It is so important. We are walking around in a stressed out state most of the time – rushing here and there, driving, waiting impatiently, sitting working hard on laptops…. All of which encourage shallow, chest level breathing. Qigong encourages you to return to a natural state of being, move slower, breathe deeper and remain calmer. It really is amazing, and so simple!
The third main health benefit I’d like to introduce is the meditive element. Mindfulness is having it’s hayday at the moment – perhaps thanks to the internet and social media it’s biggest since the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama!!!
Meditation is cool! It’s a fact. Celebrities do it, mind-body gurus do it, Silicon Valley executives do it, rockstars do it… everybody is doing it… my mum is even doing it – and so can you…… Or can you?
Do you find it hard to sit still? It’s really difficult to not move, calm your mind and follow your breath, or follow a count, or think of little fluffy bunnies jumping over clouds and the waves of the ocean gentle breaking on the shore and what am I having for dinner and what’s on my to do list, I shouldn’t have spoken to my boss like that and I need to remember to renew my password and ohhhh…. dammit …. I’m supposed to be meditating!!!
That’s basically what my mind used to do – and qigong really helped with that. Just adding in some simple movements helped me train my mind from wandering off into craziness and generally kept it more focussed. I now find it much easier to do my sitting meditation and it’s great becuase I have a choice – moving or seated meditation.
I don’t think I need to list the benefits of meditation, if you’re not sure – ask Google. There are lots!
So we’ve discussed the etymology, the origins, the past and the present – but what about the future.
Yoga is obviously huge but personally I think there are a lot of people who are drawn to yoga who might benefit more from the gentler art of qigong.
Those who are drawn to meditation might find it easier to calm the mind if a little gentle movement is added to the activity.
Those into Crossfit, MMA, golf, tennis, football, rugby, basketball, etc, etc, etc… will find they have much more longevity in these activites if a little qigong is learnt and practiced everyday. Everyone needs a little Yin to their Yang.
Workplaces and corporations are waking up to the fact that their workforce are much more productive if they do not beat them into submission with emails, meetings, rules and regulations every day for 10 hours and offer them a little downtime where their batteries can be recharged. Qigong is perfect, it can be done in a small space and you don’t even have to wear special clothing – and even 5 or 10 minutes a day can have huge benefits.
Schools are now starting to teach their pupils meditation and hopefully qigong may follow on. I wonder how much more productive my schooling would have been if I’d started every day with a 15 minute breathing, mindfulness and movement activity, rather than singing songs to Jesus and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a stuffy assembly room, standing uncomfortably in uniform rows.
I believe that qigong is becoming more well known and there is an awakening beginning which will see the popularity rise even further.
The exercises are immediately accessible for anyone, can be performed nearly anywhere and the benefits are immense – there is much for us to learn from Chinese medicine and philosophy about living a balanced lifestyle, which qigong can greatly enhance.
We are living in crazy times where we’ve become practically inseparable from technology – as with anything, this is potentially both positive and negative and it’s up to us to find the balance.
Without the advent of modern technology, many of us might not even know about qigong. The fast-paced nature of our modern lives means we have more of a need to just occasionally look back and reinvigorate and bring ourselves back into balance with an ancient practice, such as qigong.
(Learn tai chi, qigong and meditation online)
(Tai chi, qigong, kung fu and kickboxing classes throughout Sussex, in the UK)