The Healing Art and Science of Qigong: Movement, Meditation, and Breath

Qigong is an ancient form of self-healing originating in China. It has been called the mother of Chinese healing and is one the cornerstones of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Qigong is the phonetic transcription of two Chinese characters (Qi and Gong). Qi has been translated to mean vital breath or life energy, often described as the life force that flows through all living things. Gong means to cultivate, work at, or practice.

According to Chinese Medicine, health means a full and flowing supply of qi and a balance between the two fundamental influences of Yin and Yang. When qi does not flow, certain areas of the body have too much energy (Yang condition); other areas have too little energy (Yin condition). This imbalance results in disease. Qigong uses breath control and slow, relaxed motions to increase the flow of qi in the body. Deep breathing provides oxygen to the cells, blood and organs, and helps relax muscles and relieve tension. It also slows the heart rate and quiets the mind. Concentration along with continual movement between Yin and Yang (left to right, forward and back, reaching and bending) helps the qi circulate.

Qigong, then, helps to foster a state of mental and physical wellbeing by restoring balance to the body’s life force. With the practice of Qigong, one acquires the skill of cultivating, guiding and inducing the body’s vital energy or qi to promote health and heal disease.

QI FLOWS IN MANY DIRECTIONS

The practice of Qigong has been divided into three major categories: medical, spiritual (meditative), and martial. There is much overlap between the three classifications.

Qigong Master and China scholar, Kenneth Cohen, breaks these classifications down further to describe Qigong techniques: dynamic or active Qigong (dong gong) and tranquil or passive Qigong (jing dong). “Dynamic Qigong includes obvious movement. The entire body moves from one posture to another, as though performing a dance, or a posture is held while the arms move through various positions. It is yang, active, yet it conceals the yin, passive. Externally there is movement, but internally the mind is quiet. In tranquil Qigong the entire body is still. The qi is controlled by mental concentration, visualization, and precise methods of breathing. Jing gong is externally yin, passive, but internally yang, active.”

Within the categories of Qigong mentioned above, there are literally thousands of different styles and forms. There are those based on the three most important Chinese philosophical schools: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Other styles are named after the animals whose movements they emulate: Crane, Bear, Tiger, Monkey, and Deer. Still others are named after what the exercises actually do: Reducing Inflammation Qigong, Tendon Strengthening Qigong, etc. And there are still other styles founded by a particular master and handed down personally from generation to generation. There is also Tai Chi Chuan and Pa Tuan Chin (Eight Pieces of Brocade), two of the best known and most widely practiced styles of Qigong. And while there are many variations of Qigong, all styles promote health and longevity and follow the basic principles of balance, relaxation, healthy breathing, and good posture.

QIGONG PAST AND PRESENT

The history of Qigong is a long and rich one. Researchers at the Shanghai Qigong Research Institute have theorized that Qigong likely originated over 5,000 years ago from the dances of early Wu Shamans. Dance was used in their rituals and ceremonies. Many of these dances were based upon animal movements and included the wearing of skins and masks. The earliest records from the archaeological discoveries at the Ma Huang Tui Tombs, the Dao-Yin Tu, or the Dao-Yin illustrations from 168 BC, provide important information on the ancient forerunner of modern Qigong. This work contains painted, captioned figures which reflect the major tenets of modern Qigong which are breathing, posture, movement, and self-massage. The captions refer to ways to move the body and names of specific disorders, implying that specific exercises were helpful to treat specific ailments. This concept of self-exercise to promote health marked the beginning of Qigong systems.

Today, Qigong is practiced by millions of people worldwide. In China, there are numerous institutes devoted to the study of the effects of Qigong and there are even hospitals where Qigong is used as the primary method of treatment. Western interest in Qigong has increased as well with thousands of practitioners in Canada and the United States, and there is growing support for more scientific research into the health benefits of Qigong.

THE HEALING WAYS OF QIGONG

It is universally accepted that exercise benefits health. Research into Qigong has shown similar beneficial results; however, as Qigong Master, Kenneth Cohen points out, “Qigong is more than exercise or sports. Qigong’s unique combination of movement, breath, and meditation improves the functioning of virtually all the systems of the body and has both preventative and curative effects.”

Heart disease is still at the top of the list for causative factors in mortality rates in Canada and the United States. The Chinese research on the cardiovascular benefits of Qigong is quite extensive. In his book, The Way of Qigong, Kenneth Cohen provides information on one particular study conducted by the Shanghai Institute of Hypertension. The study involved a group of 242 hypertensive cases studied for 30 years. 122 of the patients practiced Qigong; the remaining 120 were non-practitioners (control group). All took the same standard hypertensive drug therapy. After the 30-year tracking period, 47.76 percent of the control group had died, with 25.41 percent mortality in the Qigong group. The incidence of stroke in the control group was 40.83 percent, in the Qigong group, 20.49 percent. The incidence of death due to stroke was 32.50 percent among non-practitioners vs. 15.57 percent for practitioners. When forty of the patients were diagnosed with ultrasound, the Qigong group was found to have stronger heart muscles and better left ventricular function. A follow-up report concluded, that according to both past and present investigations, it was believed that “Qigong plays a major role in improving the self-regulation and alleviating the multiple cerebro-cardiovascular risk factors.”

As of 2001, over 3 million Canadians suffered from serious respiratory diseases, and an estimated $3.79 billion was spent on prescription drugs to treat these diseases. Chinese medicine theorizes that someone suffering from breathing problems. like asthma, likely has blocked qi in the lungs, trachea, or nose. The body needs oxygen to survive and in order to receive oxygen the blood must be circulating freely in the body. It has been shown that Qigong practitioner’s method of diaphragmatic breathing (the lower abdomen moves out with inhalation and in with exhalation) conserves energy as less breaths are required and is more efficient for absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. In short, Qigong helps to increase lung capacity and enhances overall breathing. Better breathing translates to alleviation for those with respiratory illnesses.

Toronto Qigong Master, Teresa Yeung shared a personal experience regarding the benefits of Qigong for people with asthma:

“My eldest daughter, Rebecca, has practiced Qigong since she was about 10 years old. She was suffering from asthma from 3 years of age. She wheezed at night and coughed frequently. She needed to carry a puffer (asthma medication) for use in school. She would start coughing from running a short distance and had difficulty catching her breath. After practicing Qigong for abut a year, she gradually did not need her puffer and the asthma disappeared.” (Vitality Magazine, April 2005.)

I recently attended a wonderful workshop on Qigong entitled A Second Spring. The objective of the three hour workshop was to show women in the years of peri, pre, and post menopause, that there are safe ways to deal with the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause. As Instructor, Sheila Furness explains, “Ongoing practice of Qigong nurtures the mind, body and spirit, teaches us self-acceptance and connects us to the flow of life – allowing us to embrace the challenges we face as we transition into Second Spring.”

This is a very good thing, as it has been estimated that by the year 2020 more than 60 million North American women will be menopausal.

Sheila demonstrated specific qigong exercises, such as “Opening and Closing the Three Burners”, that can help balance the Yin and Yang energies of the body, reducing symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. We performed gentle, flowing movements, drawing fresh, pure energy deep into the tissues of the body while inhaling, and imagining excess heat and toxic energy being purged from the body while exhaling. One of the most delightful aspects of the workshop was learning how to walk like a Crane. The Crane is from the Five Animal Frolic style of Qigong (Wu Qin Xi). The Crane movements are light, relaxed, and help to keep the body cool. This seems a very sensible, safe, and enjoyable way to deal with the discomfort of hot flashes and mood swings.

The following will provide the reader with a short list of documented and anecdotal benefits of Qigong.

1. More efficient circulatory and respiratory systems
2. Improved posture and balance.
3. Better sleep.
4. Increased energy
5. Decreased stress
6. Improved memory
7. Better digestion
8. Stronger immune system
9. Alleviates migraines (See Qigong success story for migraines below)
10. Increased strength and flexibility

EXPLORING MY QI

My very first experience with Qigong was at a Tai Chi workshop. The exercises required a combination of strength, grace, and balance. More than ten years later, I still use some of the movements in the fitness classes I teach today. In addition to the Second Spring workshop mentioned earlier, I also recently attended my first medical Qigong group class. Gathering qi, energy shower, opening and closing the triple burner, connecting heaven and earth are just a few of the new terms and concepts I have been exposed to.

Senior Instructor, Donna Oliver led an early morning group through Medical Qigong Regulation Exercises. “This is a profound series of 10 movements designed to regulate, tonify, and purge the body’s channels and collaterals according to Traditional Chinese Medical Theory.”

The first exercise we did is called “Descending and Cleansing the Qi internally.” This cleanses the body of toxins. Another exercise we did that morning (my favourite) was the “Dragon playing with the Pearl in the Ocean.” It involved a lot of twisting and bending, but we were instructed to move slowly, carefully, and with intent. This exercise opens the spinal column and helps to relieve backache.

All the exercises were soft, flowing, and easy to learn. What was a little more challenging (I am told all that is required is practice) was the rhythmical breathing in conjunction with the movements. Donna also let us know that while the exercises are easy to learn, “it may take some time before one relaxes enough to feel the channels open and the flow of energy is felt throughout the body.” The whole point is to be natural, to relax and quiet the mind, while maintaining alertness, to let the body and mind connect. It was a wonderful experience; a quiet, yet challenging 75 minutes.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Qigong is a safe and simple exercise modality to learn and it is so much more – it is a comprehensive system of mental, physical, and spiritual development. It is a time-honoured and tested method of achieving the ordinary from warming up the muscles for sports to the extraordinary accomplishment of self- healing, self-realization, and even a greater understanding of life.

References

  • Senior Instructor, Donna Oliver, Tai Chi and Meditation Centre, 416-972-1045, http://ca.geocities.com/taijidao. Donna also teaches Qigong classes at Esther Myers’ Yoga Studio (416) 944-0838, and Kokoro Dojo (416) 925-5722.
  • Instructor, Sheila Furness, Tai Chi and Meditation Centre, (416) 465-6122, www.powerofbalance.com
  • Master Teresa Yeung, Wu’s Qi Gong & Tai Chi, (905) 707-6558. www.Wu-Gigong.com

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