What is Qi Gong?
What is Qi Gong? There are many descriptions of Qi Gong on the internet these days. Most of them describe the history of Qi Gong, some basic principles and usually a long list of ailments that it can help cure. With that in mind I will try to offer a different approach to the question "what is Qi Gong?". In this article I will leave out historical facts and medical trivia and attempt to give the reader a clearer idea of the processes that they should go through if they were to start learning this art of transformation. I hope that this article also serves to show the depth of Qi Gong practice which unfortunately is often missing in modern Qi Gong schools. Much like Modern Yoga that has in my opinion been stripped of its depth and power in place of a few asanas in the local leisure centre! (I am sure however this is not always the case!) Qi Gong (pronounced Chee Gong) is the term used to describe the ancient Taoist practice of working with the vital life force (energy) of the human body and also that of the environment around us. The translation of Qi Gong into English is "Energy Skill" or rather "Qi Skill". This points to the often overlooked fact that Qi Gong is not something that we practice from the start but rather it is the attainment that we can achieve through practicing the exercises and methods related to this attainment. We can call these methods Qi Gong methods. Today Qi Gong is famous for its ability to heal the body of disease and for achieving a peaceful mind, excellent health and a strong and flexible body. These are the elements of the practice that are emphasized and focused upon today but to the ancient Taoists this was not the main focus at all. Rather it was a by-product of the practice. The Taoists' main purpose of practicing Qi Gong methods was to refine and transform the base substances or energies of the body in order to access higher states of consciousness and to prepare for even higher alchemical practices like Nei Dan. In order for this transformation to be successful they required that the vessel (body) be in an excellent state of health. This is because it forms the physical root of the energy body meaning that the state of the physical body directly reflects the state of one's Qi. For this reason the foundational practices of Qi Gong should always start with the strengthening, opening and conditioning of the physical body. If we look at the physical body with regards to practicing Qi Gong methods it can be thought of as a kind of workshop or laboratory where the work of energetic and spiritual transformation takes place. With this image in mind it is easy to understand that this laboratory must be in good working order before any successful work can take place! Another analogy that I often use in my classes is that of the car: What do you think would happen if we put a Ferrari engine into a rusty old Lada? It wouldn't last too long and it wouldn't be very safe to drive either! Likewise, when we do qigong we are essentially ramping up our energy system, increasing its power and efficiency way beyond what we are usually used to. Therefore it should be obvious that the vehicle that contains this energy system should be strong enough to contain it safely. It is this foundational preparation of the vehicle that is so often neglected but is actually the element that enables the real transformations of health that attract people to learning Qi Gong in the first place. Unfortunately, it is very common for modern practitioners to want to skim past this often difficult stage to get to the "energy (Qi) stuff" but in doing so the effects of their practice will be superficial and the true benefits that these arts have to offer will not be achieved. It is also important for the newcomer of Qigong to realize that although the beginning foundational practices place a lot of importance on working with the physical body, working with our Qi and consciousness is also done from the start, it's just that the emphasis of working with the three elements that make up our entire being i.e. the physical, energetic and spiritual changes as we progress through the process. Starting with a greater emphasis on the physical at the beginning and then on the energetic and spiritual once the foundations have been properly established. That is not to say that once the foundation has been laid the physical work is neglected or discarded! The basics must be maintained and refined throughout the lifetime of one's practice. Preparation of the physical body for Qi Gong method practice: 1) Opening and balancing: The first thing that a practitioner must do is essentially to start reversing the main negative effects that the aging process has brought about to the body. These effects mostly come in the form of tensions which restricts us from moving as efficiently as we should be. These tensions reduce the overall flexibility and mobility of the body and cause blockages to the circulation of blood and Qi. These Tensions and blockages are basically a record of past negative emotions caused by events in our daily lives that are stored within the body. The first method we use to remove these tensions is a combination of directed awareness (yi) and stretching with use of correct breathing. As we release the main tensions that we carry in the body more space and freedom of movement is created allowing the Qi flow to increase. The energetic imprints that underlay these tensions are also able to dissolve as a result of this. 2) Listening and letting go: Through various other practices that utilize the skill of listening inside (ting) to see where our deeper tensions and blockages are and then using gentle awareness and relaxation/letting go (sung) to let those blockages go we are able to release deeper layers of tension within both the physical and energy bodies. 3) Structural alignment: Most of the methods of qi gong require that we stand or sit with the correct structure to enable the process to take place properly. Setting up this structure is the first stage that we must go through which requires us to receive correct postural adjustments from a qualified teacher and then to allow sufficient time for the correct posture to be hard-wired into our body's memory. Once we understand the correct shape that our body must form while standing we can continue the process of releasing tensions and blockages while standing. This structural alignment must be maintained during all the moving practices that we may learn. This is one of the skills that we must refine and improve throughout our life as a qigong practitioner. 4) Connecting the body: While going through this process chances are that you have been learning some form of movement which usually entails copying the movements demonstrated by the teacher and allowing enough time and practice to become fluent enough that you no longer have to think about how to do them or what come next. The next stage is to use the movements you have learnt as tools to unify the body into one connected unit. This allows Qi and information generated from our practice to travel evenly and efficiently through our body as we move. Without this our movements lack power and substance and at best the benefits will be a little bit of increased Qi flow and relaxation. If we want to attain true "Qi Skill" then we must learn to move correctly in a way that is both free from unnecessary tension and in a unified manner. 5) Working with the Breath: Lastly although not necessarily in this order we must refine and increase the efficiency of our breathing. The way that we breathe has a very strong effect on our health, emotions and Qi. It is very much intertwined with all we have talked about so far and so forms a very important part of all Taoist internal practices. The breath also acts as a vehicle for our Yi (directed awareness) to travel along so that we can stimulate different energy centers to open. Throughout our practice we should constantly be improving and refining the quality of our breath and it is a subject that is so vast that I'm afraid I will not be able to do it justice in this brief explanation so I will merely outline the aspects of breath that the beginning and intermediate practitioner will have to work with. The most common type of breathing that we use is "abdominal breathing". Abdominal breathing is not really some exotic, esoteric breath but rather how the human being is designed to breathe. This becomes apparent if we look at how a baby or young child breathes. You will notice that young children naturally breathe deeply causing the abdomen to inflate like a balloon when they inhale and deflate on the exhale. When we practice abdominal breathing we are simply retraining the body to return to its natural way of breathing. This is the active or doing stage of breath work. After some time practicing this consistently, it will gradually become our default way of breathing which means we no longer have to try to abdominal breathe as the body will do this automatically even when not practicing qigong. Here we see an example of the Taoist principle: wei wu wei (doing not doing). This is key principle that is actualized throughout our practices whereby we actively try to effect change in a particular way. Once this change has taken place we step back and allow the process to carry on naturally while we simply pay attention to what is taking place. How we lose our ability to breath efficiently: The reason we lose the natural ability of abdominal breathing is that excessive emotions throughout our lifetime cause us to breath shallower higher up in the lungs. Emotions like anger, worry and grief cause our diaphragm to become tight and bound which restricts our ability to breath properly. Through the combination of stretching, releasing and re-training the breath we can free up space in our diaphragm and return our self to a more balanced state. Next time you become worried or angry notice how this changes your breathing. Through gaining awareness and mastery of our breath we can learn to deal with difficult situations by simply changing our breath which will in turn have a positive effect on balancing out excessive emotions. Harmonization of breath and movement: As well as learning how to correctly breathe from the abdomen we must also learn to harmonise our breath together with our qigong movements. This will add further power to the movements as the breath acts as intermediary, bridging the gap between our physical and energy bodies. This harmonization of breath and movement must then be continuously refined through your training life as well as the balancing and smoothing of the breath. Other Breathing methods: There are also other methods of breathing that we utilize in our practice, the most common being the reverse breath which is the opposite of abdominal breathing. The abdomen is drawn in slightly as well as the perineum on the in breath and released on the out breath. This type of breathing is often used when more force or power is needed during practices such as Dao Yin that aim to expel pathogenic Qi from the body. Unlike abdominal breathing we should never allow the body to make reverse breathing our default breath. Shedding the layers of the "Acquired Mind/Self": As you have probably seen from this article so far, Taoist cultivation practice is very much about the gradual releasing and letting go of things that are restrictive to our nature so that our true congenital nature can shine through. In other words so we can know who we really are. All the tensions, pains and excessive emotions that we are trying to release and balance are aspects of what the Taoists refer to as our "Acquired Nature". According to Taoist theory before we are born our perception of reality is untainted and our true nature is undistorted. This is known as our "Congenital Nature". But from the moment that we are born layers of distortion begin to collect as we go through life experiences. The various defense mechanisms and conditionings that are learnt as a result of our life experiences start to distort the way we perceive reality and also the way we see our selves. This includes the physical tensions and energetic blockages that we carry as a result of these life experiences. These aspects are what form our "acquired nature". Taoist cultivation practices including Qi Gong are tools that we can use to take us through the process of shedding the layers that prevent us from knowing who we truly are and perceiving reality as it really is. Along the way we are able to drop many things that restrict not just our physical movement and health but also that which prevents us from contentment in life, living to our full potential and ultimately knowing who we really are at our core. The Taoist approach is not the only way, there are many wisdom traditions that can offer us a map to reach our goals of good health and higher consciousness. It is my hope that by writing this article more people can discover the treasure that is Taoist internal cultivation and Qi Gong and perhaps better understand how these practices work and what they can offer. These practices have improved my life in many many ways and continues to do so as my journey of these vast and amazing arts continues. I wish you good luck on your journey of self discovery and hope this writing will inspire more people to explore Qi Gong and the internal arts!