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An Introduction to Qigong—The Chinese Art of Being

May 12, 2004 09:50 AM

Transcribed and edited from a talk delivered at a class on the nature, origins and benefits of qigong.

What is the relationship between Qigong (Chi Kung) and Tai Ji (Tai Chi)?

(A special note about the spelling of terms: At one time, the most usual way to transliterate Chinese terms was based on the Wade Giles system?which gave us "Chi Kung" and "Tai Chi". More recently, the Pinyin system has dominated?and given us "Qigong" and "Tai Ji". To complicate things, though, many people still prefer to use the old spelling of Tai Chi while adopting the new spelling of Qigong. You will see that same mix of transliteration systems below).

Tai Chi is a martial art and its full name is Tai Chi Chuan, which means, "supreme ultimate boxing". There's often confusion with the Chi word in Tai Chi, because?despite sounding similar?the Chi word in Tai Chi isn't the same as the Qi word in Qigong.

However, Tai Chi martial artists?who punch, kick, block, and take down?appreciated many of the methods taught in Qigong, which means, "working with your Life Energy." The "Qi" here signifies Life Energy, breath, or Life Force. "Gong" means "dedicated practice."

So Qigong's a very generic concept, as generic as yoga, which means, "union," usually union with the human and the Divine, or union of body and spirit.

Where did Qigong come from and how did it develop?

Qigong is generally considered to have been around for 5000 years, but if you think about it...every culture is going to have some form of Qigong, when you define it generically as "working with your Life Energy".

By legend, Qigong had its origins in communal healing dances and shamanic practices, which is something that we find in other indigenous cultures such as Africa, the Americas, and Australia. Many different cultures have employed the idea of getting together and dancing around as a healing practice, of spontaneous movement, or of stylized movement imitating certain animals.

Over time, other systems and dances developed in China and were systematized by Chinese medical practitioners. Around 1800 years ago, a famous Chinese doctor, Hua To, put together "The Five Animal Frolics," which is a system I teach, and which has stood the test of time. He essentially took both folkloric and shamanic healing systems and put it into a lay health regime that anyone could practice.

Over the years, different interest groups saw aspects of what was implied in "cultivating your energy" and started to develop techniques for their own goals. The monastic traditions?Taoist groups, Buddhist groups?started using Qigong practices to enhance their spirituality. Their qigong practices allowed them to go more deeply into meditation.

One of the things that I really like about Qigong is that it helps take you out of your mind, which is one of the essentials to being able to go deep in meditative practices. It kind of seduces you into it stillness.

Martial artists appreciated Qigong because, when you employ Qigong techniques, you learn to master tension and relaxation. Part of the whole skill training in Qigong is know how to be extremely relaxed, but to employ tension when you really need it. And to have that kind of awareness in your body that allows you to be much more fluid and generally mobile with the way you use your energy.

As we get older, we tend to start to stiffen up. We tend to become stagnant. Areas in our body become tense and we lose the buoyant flexibility we had as young kids?and the kind of buoyant flexibility and vitality you see in wild animals.

So Qigong looks to bring that quality back into our lives. Martial artists have found this extremely useful. Internal martial artists found that when they practiced the skill of moving slowly and attentively, they developed a greater skill in the ability to be deeply relaxed, yet also suddenly issue force. They were better for it in their martial art.

Qigong encourages sensitivity. And, it encourages responsiveness, which is another quality valued by martial artists. So, Tai Chi employs breathing and movement practices to enhance that sensitive energy.

The Chinese medical practitioners found that they could prescribe Qigong methods and Qigong techniques to their clients. Chinese medicine is preventative in its overall attitude?it has a perspective that the doctor almost owes it to the patient to keep them well. That, the doctor is going to fail the patient if the patient gets sick.

So, after noting certain imbalances in their patient's system, the Chinese doctor would prescribe particular techniques to keep them well.

Qigong operates almost like a self-acupuncture system. Chinese medicine sees you as a series of electric flows, bio-electric flows. A Chinese medical practitioner will look for areas in that flow that have become stagnant, look for areas that have become excessive and then help balance that out. Chinese herbs will do that, acupuncture will do that, acupressure, and also Qigong practice.

Qigong is not always exactly aligned with acupuncture. There are meridians that you can create for yourself in Qigong practice that do not exist in traditional acupuncture maps. But a lot of the time, you are essentially playing with the meridian flow in the body and helping to balance your own energy. For those areas that are stagnant, you are bringing fresh energy into that area. If there are areas that have become excessive, you are going to drain them and help balance them.

Medical practitioners also developed a type of Qigong practice for healing others. One of the skills that develops out of Qigong practice is the ability to transmit information from you to another person. And, again, it's not peculiar to Qigong, but Qigong has it as a strong skill development.

The first part of the Qigong process is to learn to use your consciousness, breath, posture, and movement to affect the transmission of energy within your system. And energy and information are very close, almost synonymous. As you become more skilled in being able to move information around in your own system, speak to your own internal system, you can also then learn to start transmitting into another person. You can sense what's going on with them?and then help them start enlivening their own flow, their balance, to disperse blockages in their system.

What attracted me to Qigong?

As far as what's really attracted me to Qigong over the years?I had a vision really from my twenties that I wanted to live my life with optimal vitality. I wanted to be very engaged in life. I was frankly looking for enlightenment. I wanted to remain a very sensitive, responsive person.

I was brought up in a fairly analytic culture in boarding school in England, university in England, and I was a film critic and film maker in England. Earlier in my life I had lived in Africa and had been exposed to a very wild and natural style of life. I was looking to get back to that natural enjoyment of life and at the same time be very acute mentally, very alive?to emanate well-being.

Because of my hyper nature, I had trouble with sitting practices. I had trouble with just being still for long periods of time. One of the early appeals of Qigong for me was that I could move around, appear to be doing things, and be seduced into tranquility. At the same time, I'd be feeling very good. I'd have good energy.

I am now in my 50s. Qigong represents about 95 % of my health practice. I do a little bit of weight lifting, and some exercises like pull-ups. But, generally, I've been able to maintain very good strength, endurance and flexibility through Qigong alone. I've managed to maintain a very good immune system. I seem to be able to ward off health conditions or health challenges pretty well. So, I've been very satisfied after practicing Qigong for 25-30 years with the personal results that I have received.

I found that it's also allowed me to be more in the moment, feel more present, be a little gentler with people generally. I do some healing work on the side, almost like a hobby. It's kind of a meditative hobby and I've found that it's really contributed to my ability to help people on that level.

What benefits can you expect if you take up Qigong?

One of the great, great benefits comes from Qigong's concentration on abdominal breathing. It teaches you to come back to focusing on breathing down in the stomach, rather than focusing on upper chest breathing.

Abdominal breathing brings more oxygen into your system than upper chest breathing. The abdominal breathing style also helps activate the lymph system. Your lymph system is responsible for keeping you clean inside. Affecting your lymph system is not something that most Western exercise stresses very much. (Rebounding does and I've learned quite a great deal from the Rebounders about the importance of the lymph system.)

Qigong has bouncing movements, which also help activate the lymph system. It has stroking, a lot of stroking. This is very peculiar to Qigong and I don't see it in Yoga or many other disciplines?this kind of caressive stroking just off the body. Bioelectric Self Massage is a term I like to use for this aspect of Qigong. So, bouncing, stroking, and abdominally focused breathing?where the lungs are employed to their maximum potential?all start to activate the lymph system, which as we get older tends to get sluggish.

When the lymph system's sluggish, excessive blood proteins and fluids gather around the cells. The cells are supposed to be in what's known as a "dry" state. When the lymph system is functioning well, the excess fluids and debris are flushed away. Then more oxygen, blood, nutrients, energy or qi can actually reach and feed the cells?and keep you in a healthier state.

You are more vulnerable to many diseases if your lymph system is stagnant. So that's one of the benefits. When the lymph system is functioning well you also generate a relaxation response very easily.

And, part of the problem that we face in our culture is being constantly dis-eased, constantly feeling a little uncomfortable in our bodies, uneasy, wanting to be elsewhere than where we are, not really happy in our bodies.

The lymph system, again, when it's fully activated and you have this relaxation response firing, allows you to feel comfortable with your own body. Start re-living in your body and feel at peace in it.

Qigong affects the nervous system. One of the greatest benefits that I see in Qigong is that the nervous system shifts more into the parasympathetic than the sympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that is involved with "fight or flight." And, our culture has become addicted to that part of the nervous system. It's the "get up and go" attacking part of our system. It's triggered by a phone ringing. It's triggered by a car cutting in front of you. It's triggered by loud noises. It's designed to protect you. It's designed to activate. It sends a cascade of hormones and chemicals through the body to prepare you to deal with the threat.

Unfortunately, our bodies haven't caught up with our telephone systems, our fax machines, and all the other so called creature comforts that we've surrounded ourselves with that have actually induced stress into our lives. Over time this creates a chronic tensing in the body. Nothing wrong if that tension is used functionally for a survival situation, but what happens in our normal lives is that we tense up and then not all of that tension is relaxed away. We start to gather tension in our bodies and we suffer from what's known eventually as Sensory Motor Amnesia. The signals get sent to a part of the body to move, but they simply don't make it through to that part of the system.

BioSomatics came up with that term and Qigong is essentially a biosomatic system which through very gentle, conscious, slow movement helps enliven areas that have started to fall asleep.

Choosing the "ah" feeling over addiction to stress

When you practice Qigong, you are taken out of this desire to constantly put yourself into a surge of excitement and are moved into the parasympathetic system that's associated with pleasure and harmony. It's that feeling that you get sitting on the beach in Hawaii looking at a beautiful sunset, listening to your favorite music, gazing into your lovers eyes, that "Ah" feeling.

The "Ah" feeling is our birthright, but we make it hard for ourselves to live there, thanks to our culture of stress-addiction. So I found that for myself, Qigong works very well. The more you practice it, the more you go into that state. And it's not a passive, kind of sluggish, lying back on the couch kind of state. It's very alive, very buoyant, pleasureful. I compare it to slipping into a warm bath. That kind of feeling, a gentle kind of pleasure, as opposed to the rather harsh or seesaw like affect that is associated with those adrenal rushes.

So, Qigong practice can help just smooth your life out. Instead of being up and down a lot, become more like a gently undulating wave.

From a Chinese Medical perspective, a lot of disease comes from emotional imbalances in your system. And, there is also an element of disease that comes from external pathogens. Well, Qigong is wonderful for starting to balance your emotions. When you start balancing yourself energetically, you automatically begin having an impact on your emotional states.

Emotions?of which there are hundreds?are specific communication patterns we use to navigate the world. Every emotion has its place and use.

However, when certain emotions begin to act like bullies or dictators?fear and anger are great examples?the delicate equilibrium of information processing becomes disturbed.

Another way to think of it: imagine an orchestra where the drums refuse to follow the conductor's lead?and begin to play on their own without regard for the other musicians.

Qigong helps your Inner-Conductor regain control of your emotional orchestra through "energetic re-flow".

Most Western exercise, if it focuses on the internal organs at all, tends to focus on the heart, cardiovascular exercises, and the lungs, and that's about it. In Qigong you'll find that you'll be focusing on the health of your kidneys, liver, and other internal organ systems as being crucial for your overall internal health.

It's not something you're necessarily going to pick up on right away?that your liver is in better shape or that your kidneys are in better shape?but over the years, if you take Qigong up as a discipline, it's something that you're really going to appreciate.

In Qigong, your overall health and vitality have to be addressed from every aspect of your being.
Our interior beings are like children and most of the time we've abandoned those children. Most of our attention in our lives is externally focused. What I've appreciated about Qigong is that it teaches you to take care of yourself before you take care of anybody else. If you want to really help other people, you need to be emulating what you want to help them with; if you are a caregiver the same thing.

If you are a nurse or a doctor, a massage therapist, or working with people in any kind of a way, your body doesn't lie. It's giving out signals all of the time. If you are distressed, that's going to be communicated to the people that you are dealing with?and affecting the care process.

So, I've found that Qigong practice is excellent in a very practical way in really every aspect of your life: for your personal relationships, how you are with your family, how you are in business, how you are if you're leading people and if you're caring for people. In all of those ways, I've found that you can expect Qigong to help you model what's coming out of your mouth. So, there is congruence between what you say and what you actually are as a being.

If I wanted to sum up Qigong, I'd say that it's "the art of being." It's learning skills to develop yourself as an ongoing work of art.

You'll see the word "play" used a lot in Qigong practice and in Tai Chi. It's a kind of dance, in a way. It's an art form. There are skills that you learn in the process. At the same time, there are aspects of it that are very physical. You can expect to: get stronger from it; maintain your flexibility; circulation will improve; your general muscle tone will be affected; you can expect your digestion to improve or to maintain; many physical benefits; and then all the more subtle benefits that I have discussed.

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