Roots, stem, branches, leaves and fruit of QiGong By Henri Lebedev
This short story about QiGong is first and foremost written for myself, to start organising the knowledge I have acquired about QiGong over the past years. I am but an enthusiastic beginner in QiGong and this story merely covers the very basic introduction to the topic and does not include any in-depth discussions, nor does it include any practices. Besides myself, if there will be anyone reading this paper, I hope you will find something interesting and new about the topic and at the very best, be inspired to pick up the QiGong practice for yourself.
Table of content
1.1What is Qi?
1.2What is Gong?
1.3 Origin of the word QiGong
1.4 Origin of the practices
1.5 In modern era
2. Foundational principles in QiGong
2.1 The Dao
2.3 Three Treasures
2.4 Five elements
2.5 Yi - Mind
2.6 Micro- & macrocosmic flow
2.7 Ming & Xing
3. Potential of QiGong in 21st century
3.1 Daily health & wellbeing
3.2 Life quality
3.3 Scientific development
Injury & illness treatment
Sports & Martial
What is QiGong? According to Chinese Medical QiGong professionals, QiGong is the unified training of breath, posture alignment and mind focus, which results in a psychophysiological state of being. QiGong stems from age-old Chinese shamanic practices and are intertwined with the history of daoist, buddhist, confucian, martial, medical cultures and practices of China. In recent decades, QiGong has spread across the globe and is easily accessible outside of China and South-East Asia, with millions of people practicing one form or another. Often however, the origin and the transmission of QiGong practices remain unknown, with people practicing a set of QiGong exercises thinking their way is the best or the only right way to practice. It is the purpose of this short essay to shed light to so some of the key aspects that relate to the QiGong culture and practices, both from a historic and contemporary perspective.
1.1 What is Qi?
In English, the word Qi (chi) is often translated as “vital life-force energy” and most commonly comes across in QiGong and Traditional Chinese Medicine practices. Qi is seen as a real substance, energy or force, that penetrates all that is living and being. There are many described forms of Qi, with the Heaven/Universe Qi, Earth Qi and Human Qi forming key categories of Qi classification, with many, if not countless subcategories of Qi variations. For example, the Heavenly Qi includes the influence of sun, moon and the stars. The Chinese word for weather is “heavenly or sky Qi” (天气), which includes the combination of wind, clouds, seasons, time of day, humidity and other contributors, all of which have their own unique Qi. The Earth Qi manifests in geomantic lines, terrain, rivers/seas/oceans, volcanoes and countless other forms. According to HuangDi NeiJing (黄帝内经), the classic of Chinese Medicine, there are dozens of Human Qi variations. Each organ has its own characteristic pattern of Qi flow; blood, semen, saliva all have their own distinct relation to Qi. There are several layers of protective Qi (Wai Qi 外气). Food for example, is know as edible Qi (GuQi). Not to mention all living beings, trees, animals, insects and according to some, ghosts and spirits, all have Qi to some extent. Qi is a Chinese word with thousands of years of history, during which the word has shaped, transformed and moulded according to the culture, arts and science of a given time. The very earliest Zhou Dynasty (1066-770 BCE) characters of Qi depicted three lines 三 , creating a picture of Qi to be an ether, mist or cloud like energy. The three lines symbolise earth in the bottom, heaven/sky on top and Qi in form of clouds in between.
With numerous alterations of the character over two millennia, the modern character for Qi looks like this: 氣, consisting of two seperate characters of 气 meaning breath, anything gaseous or air; and the second component being 米 meaning rice, substance or food. Together, the character 氣 has at least two, but most likely many more interpretations, with the first being air 气 above and food 米 below, which respectively are the most important components for humans to generate “vital life force energy”. This translation is perhaps more common and easily understandable for modern day people. Another less known interpretation is the image of cooking rice 米 below, which creates steam 气 above. This interpretation originates from Daoist practices, and refers to inner alchemical processes. As a concept, Qi has been central in all forms of Chinese culture, including spirituality, martial arts, medicine, calligraphy and painting, language, nature, state affairs, literature, cuisine and more. Characteristic to traditional Chinese culture, Qi can be interpreted and sensed via science and art. The traditional Chinese worldview was that the ultimate reality, the primordial origin of the universe was the Dao, the nameless, formless order of the chaos. For ancient Chinese, the understanding of the existence of the whole world comes from the transformation of Qi. Thus it is said: “Dao is the root of Qi, Qi is the function of Dao”.
1.2 What is Gong?
The word Gong 功 literally means work, skill, effort, practice. For non Chinese, this character is most well known from the word GongFu, referring to high skills in any given area, e.g martial arts. In sense of QiGong, the Gong means repetition and hard work, after which ones inner condition will inevitably change. QiGong practice is life force cultivation, where majority of the work is subtle and internal. Hence, it is easy to learn the physical QiGong forms, but much more difficult to achieve the potential these exercise allow in form of increased vitality, internal cultivation and changing of ones nature. If Qi is the objective of the practice, then Gong is the method and state of achieving.
1.3 Origin of the word QiGong
Ancient as the QiGong practices are, the coining of the concept and word is recent and clearly established.
After the Communists had come to power in China in 1949, they started revising, restructuring and centralising all affairs in their new state, which also applied to medicine. At the time in China, there was still very few Western medicine practitioners, and the most populous country in the world largely relied on the Traditional Chinese Medicine. So it happened, that a Communist Army member by the name of Liu GuiZhen (picture on right) fell ill in late 1940-ties, and was allowed to leave the army due to his severe ill health. To his great fortune, he was subsequently treated by his uncle by the methods of certain QiGong exercises. To the great surprise of his comrades, Liu reappeared in service after a few months, completely healed from his previous severe illness. This aroused curiosity in high ranking Chinese Communist Party members, who amongst other matters, had to design a practical, affordable medical system, that could be prescribed to the masses. After research and analysis, the Chinese Communist Party endorsed QiGong as a form of Chinese Medicine. Until then, the word QiGong was unknown and not commonly used, and the practices that now form QiGong were known by many other names, such as DaoYin导引 or NeiDan内丹. The Communist Party, looking for cheap and effective methods to alleviate the illnesses and sufferings of the masses, accepted the medical aspects of QiGong, and wished to disassociate from the traditional origins of Qigong practices, which stemmed from daoism, buddhism and confucianism, which emphasised spiritual and traditional values, contradictory to the materialistic views of the Communists. Hence, they carved the medical aspects of the ancient traditions and looked for a new name, that would be more scientific and modern. After many considerations, QiGong was chosen as the umbrella name for all life-force energy cultivation practices, regardless of their origins and previous names. The Communists founded several hospitals specialising in Medical QiGong and started scientific experimentation of QiGong practices. From then onwards, Medical QiGong was endorsed in major hospitals and clinics, with the exception of the Cultural Revolution era from 1966 – 1976, when the chaos of the social order also effected QiGong practices. QiGong flourished in 1980ties, until the Falun Gong incident, which due to anti government activities, was forbidden. Unfortunately, because Falun Gong contains forms of QiGong exercises, all QiGong schools and hospitals were severely effected by the political movement and subsequent banning of Falun Gong movement. Today, various forms of QiGong are practiced in China daily by millions of people and with the current Chinese government endorsing traditional values, there is relatively great freedom to practice any form of QiGong, so long as it is not anti government nor politically minded.
1.4 Origins of the QiGong practices
According to a comprehensive research, there are over 100 000 unique QiGong exercises, which means that it is impossible for any one person nor even an organisation to know them all. The main sources of QiGong practices are the following:
Very often, practitioners used a range of different QiGong styles, as the different styles share the key principles that are mutually inclusive, differentiating in purpose and outcome.
The ancient Chinese shamans, healers and sorcerers were known as Wu 巫, whose role in the society was to mediate humans, earth, heavens and spirits. Amongst their tasks were healing, divination of future, performing offerings to deities and natural forces of many kinds and even being able to manipulate the weather. These Wu shamans laid the foundation to many of the practices known today as QiGong.
1.4.2 Daoist Qigong
Daoism groups together various Chinese indigenous cultures and has many facets, such as the religious deity veneration, meditative self cultivation, philosophical worldview and other. Core principle for Daoists was the goodness of human nature, which was at its best in new born babies and highly achieved saints, both who saw the world as it was, without the filters of words, ideas and concepts. Large portion of the Daoist QiGong is dedicated to unlocking the practitioners original nature, ultimately returning to the original source or the Dao. It is fair to say, that Daoist have contributed the most to the myriad of QiGong practices.
1.4.3 Buddhist QiGong
Buddhism, originating from India, spread to China at least by 213 BC. Buddhism, which has many similarities with Daoism, contributed a great deal to the QiGong practices and vice versa, the Chinese indigenous practices and concepts blended with Buddhism and became a unique Chinese hybrid. For Buddhist practitioners, there is great deal of overlapping Indian and Chinese concepts, for example the concept Prana being similar in its meaning and use to that of Qi. The history of Chinese Buddhism and how it has contributed to unique Qigong practices is colourful and diverse. Most well known Buddhist that are practicing unique Qigong styles are known as the ShaoLin monks.
1.4.4 Confucian or Scholarly QiGong
Confucianism, consisting of rituals and practices of correct social order, have been the central part of Chinese civilisation for over two millennia. The crux of Confucianism is cultivating virtues, such as justice, filial piety, subordination, good will, righteousness and loyalty. The Confucians, unlike the Daoists, claimed that highest virtues have to be learned and cultivated, unlike the Daoists, who claimed that to reach the highest virtue, one has to unlearn social norms and concepts. Confucians contributed many QiGong practices for general wellbeing and cultivation of the virtues.
1.4.5 Martial QiGong
Chinese martial arts is diverse and colourful, there are endless number of different schools and practices, methods and tools. Some are very well known, such as the ShaoLin monks, who use QiGong exercises to gain “Iron Shirt” protection, or ability to move fast, jump, kick and fight better then others. Another well known martial art that utilises QiGong is the practice of TaiJi (TaiChi), which has become popular across the globe for its healing benefits. In general, the Chinese martial arts consist of internal and external styles, with both usually, if not always also training some QiGong forms.
1.4.6 Medical QiGong
Qi is the central concept of Traditional Chinese Medicine and sees origin of many illnesses in either blockage, irregularity, deficiency or excess of Qi, with many of the treatments based on the proven effects of stimulating Qi via a needle, acupoint massage, herbs, moxa, massage, dietary changes or QiGong exercises. QiGong exercises have been proven to cure myriad of illnesses, ranging from cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure to mental disorders. QiGong practice works best as preventative for general health, with specific exercises designed to purge, heal and balance particular conditions. Since 1950ties, Chinese government has endorsed Medical QiGong as a standard treatment, recently also becoming more well known and accepted outside of China.
1.5 QiGong in modern era
The 21st century has seen the spread of QiGong practices across the globe, especially in Europe, North-America and Australia, where QiGong is seen similar to Yoga or often confused with TaiJi (TaiChi). There are countless schools, masters, teachers, books, online modalities and other tools available for those who wish to learn QiGong. Indeed, Qigong is more available to the modern people as it has ever been, unlike historically, when QiGong practices were treasured, guarded and kept in secret within family or sect lineages and were difficult to come across. Today, it is possible with a few clicks of a button to order advanced QiGong materials, however the lifestyles of modern people can greatly hinder the integral practices, with many QiGong practitioners being deluded in the name of particular style or the reputation of teachers. The skill or Gong level of people who call themselves QiGong masters varies greatly and there is no standard as to what makes one a master, with many self claimed masters clearly not adequately prepared to teach. Rare are the outstanding organisations with founders and masters with proven lineage and strong ethics, who are bringing the deeper levels of QiGong to the modern era. In modern times, QiGong is mostly practiced for its therapeutic and healing effects, with most people not being aware and engaged in any of the deeper or advanced practices of QiGong.
2. Foundations of QiGong practice
There are countless different forms of QiGong, with every successive teacher adding their own twist to the tale. What makes a practice QiGong, is training at least the following three principles:
- Breath awareness and breathing in particular manner in a given exercise
- Correct body and postural alignment in static or dynamic practices
- Ability to attention or focus the mind to sensing the movement of Qi
The result of unifying the breath, body/movement and mind/sensing is the QiGong psychophysiological state of being, which can then be used either for healing, meditative practices, martial arts or other. Besides these three principles, there are quite a number of foundational concepts that one should known, if there is interest to progress to any advanced levels of practice. Following are some of the key principles that any practitioner of QiGong should be interested to comprehend according to their circumstances and intention with their practice.
2.1 The Three Treasures 三宝
Qi as a concept is one of the Three Treasures of daoist and Chinese medicine traditions.
The other two are Jing 精and Shen 神. Anyone serious about their QiGong practice should familiarise themselves with all of the Three Treasures, and understand how one effects the other. In a very broad interpretation, Jing 精 is a more gross form of energy of the body with lots of unique functions, For example, Jing is stored to a great degree in the kidney areas; it has a relation to reserving energy, making it available when needed. Shen 神 loosely translates to a more subtle energy, related to mental and spiritual functions. Again, there is lots to know about Shen, such as each main bodily organ having its of relation to Shen, for example the Po of the Lungs being more Earth bound and the Hun of the Liver related to out of body “soul travel”. There is lots written about the Jing and Shen in relation to Qi, and there is no generic view as to how much one needs to know about any of the Three Treasures. As an analogy, Jing could be compared to a candle, Qi could be seen as the fire and Shen as the light emanating from the candle. Or, Jing could be seen as the car batteries, oil and fuel, Qi the combustion taking place in the engine and Shen as the driver. These analogies give an idea of the direct interrelatedness of the Three Treasures, thus, if QiGong is practiced, both Jing and Shen are influenced.
2.2 The Dao 道
Achieving unity and alignment with the Dao, the nameless nature and all penetrating reality, has been the aim for many QiGong practitioners. There is a saying in Chinese: Dao follows Nature 道法自然，which can be translated as Dao being accessible in natural flow of the world, for example in an untouched forest, in a wave of an ocean, in the flow of ones blood. Those who practice QiGong will inevitably turn inwards, towards their own natural rhythms and human potential. In this inwards turning of QiGong practice, it can be very useful to familiarise oneself with the concept of Dao. Lots has been written about this concept that is said to be indescribable, nevertheless, Daoist classics and understanding of past followers of the Dao can help a QiGong practitioner to fast track and correctly unfold the inner transformations that accompany deeper QiGong practices.
2.3 Yin-Yang or TaiJi
Yin-Yang 阴阳 is the most well known Chinese symbol. In Chinese, the symbol itself is known as the TaiJi Tu 太极图, vaguely meaning the symbol or sign of ultimate polarity, consisting of the two polar, interdependent, constantly changing opposites: Yin and Yang. For QiGong practitioners, Yin-Yang is an important concept both internally and externally. Internally, a practitioner can learn to distinguish and utilise Yin and Yang Qi, that come in many unique forms and patterns. Externally, QiGong practitioner can align with the Yin-Yang transitions of the nature, Earth and Heavens/Universe. For example, a person with Yin imbalances can utilise the Yin nature of moon by doing specific Moon QiGong exercises, as a Yang imbalanced person can utilise the Sun for regulating Yang.
2.4 Five Elements
The Five Elements 五行 or Five Stages of universal energy transformation, is a central concept in Chinese cosmology. They relate to the five senses, five tastes, five key organ pairs and many other phenomenon. In QiGong practice, the Five Elements concept is central to regulating ones Qi in the organ system, with many exercises designed to effect particular organs.
2.5 Yi – Mind intention
A very central concept in QiGong practice is that of Yi 意, which translates as the Mind, Intention and Thought. In QiGong practice, besides regulating the body and breath, mind is a key aspect of the practice. Qi can be sensed or felt, starting with tingle, warmth, coolness or other sensations, advancing to various states of bliss, empowerment and wonder, whilst the ability for a practitioner to focus their Yi-mind-intention to the flow of Qi determines the quality of the outcomes. There is a saying in Chinese: “Where the Mind/Yi goes, Qi follows” 意到氣到, referring to the principle of minds function to channel and lead Qi, that we inevitable all do, unfortunately often wastefully and unconsciously.
DanTian 丹田translates as elixir field, indicating the quality of Qi to consolidate in specific areas with particular effects. There are three main DanTian's, namely the Lower, Middle and Upper DanTian's, each with unique locations and characteristics. Traditionally, great deal of time was spent on regulating and strengthening the Lower DanTian, resonating with foundational energy and healthy flow of Qi in the body, resulting in a strong foundation for the more advanced practices, a fact that can be overlooked and underemphasised by modern teachers, who may be eager to satisfy the information knowledge of their student for more advanced practices. DanTian's can be compared to the Indian chakra system, however have their unique functions and should not be confused nor bundled with the Indian chakra system.
2.7 Micro and Macro Cosmic Flow/Orbit
Micro Cosmic Orbit 小周天 refers to the natural flow pattern of Qi within humans, which the QiGong practice can enhance. The Macro Cosmic Orbit 大周天refers to the flow of Qi outside of the human body, with the relevant practices emphasising connecting to external objects or forces and thus, enhancing particular inner qualities. Both concepts are related to various QiGong practices and anyone wishing to progress on their QiGong path should familiarise with both concepts.
2.8 Ming & Xing
Ming命can be vaguely translated as destiny, whilst the Xing 性translates as ones innate nature. For practitioners of QiGong, these two ideas can allow to understand the potential of a human being (Xing) and the act of living that potential (Ming).
It is said in Chinese, to know your nature Xing is to fulfil your destiny Ming. In Chinese Medicine, illness and disease can be attributed to not living according to ones Xing and not fulfilling the Ming, regardless of ones material lifestyle quality of life.
2.9 Other important concepts
- WuJi 无极 – can be translated as emptiness, stillness
- WuWei 无为 – state of flow, natural, unrestricted creative action
- De德 – virtue, true integrity
- Golden elixir 金丹道 – advanced methods of inner alchemy in Daoism, a concept that is often watered down and oversimplified in modern English translations
- NeiGong内功 – literally translating as “inner work”, refers to deeper inner transformative practices stemming form the Daoist traditions
3. Potential of QiGong in the 21st century
QiGong used to be exclusive to Chinese living in China or South-East Asia. During the 20th century, QiGong started spreading across the world, mostly condensing in major South-East Asian countries like Taiwan or Singapore, much due to the persecution of traditional practices in Mainland China by the communists. 21st century is witnessing a new wave of QiGong practitioners, who are no longer necessarily of Chinese decent. There are increasing numbers of very advanced practitioners of QiGong, such as Damo Mitchell or Dr Jerry Alan Johnston, who are creating ripple effects of QiGong, with both strong understanding of QiGong from a traditional point of view and exceptionally good ability to broadcast the teachings to new, non-Chinese audiences.
3.1 Daily health, quality of life & wellbeing
QiGong could be seen equivalent to doing sports, however instead of growing muscles, increasing physical durability or bodily reflexes, QiGong trains one vital energy, which with practice can be enhanced, increased and improved. QiGong practices, unlike most sports, can be carried out to ripe old age and in fact, can greatly improve ones outlook for long, healthy life. QiGong can easily be practiced in office, home, parks or any public spaces, without any need for extra equipment, with the triple focus on body, mind, breath resulting in a very positive state of being, directly improving the quality of life.
Traditional Chinese sciences, such as medicine, feng shui and astrology, integrate the concept of Qi and explain various phenomenon via Qi. In relation to Qi, modern science is mostly focused on the medicinal effects of QiGong, without fully accepting and endorsing it via mainstream medicine nor sciences as Qi is not quantifiable nor measurable. Nevertheless, the universe has its order and Qi is the way it expresses its movement, which at its best promises a new or additional approach to modern science.
3.3 Injury & illness treatment
QiGong can be prescribed to many diseases, with a very long list of scientifically proven control studies affirming that QiGong does provide cure and support wide range of ailments. The main protocols of QiGong medicine are internal, whereby a patient regulates ones own Qi according to their condition and external, whereby a qualified Medical QiGong practitioner regulates the patients Qi.
3.4 Competitive sports
Professional sports people always look for effective ways to enhance their performance, which in case of QiGong is certainly available. Good example is that of the athletic, gymnastic and martial skill of Shaolin monks, who achieve near superhuman abilities with their regular QiGong practice. Regardless of what sports one is engaged in, QiGong practice can come beneficial.
Many of the QiGong practices are spiritual in nature, however do not require any religious belief or any certain worldview. The internal exercises can over time enhance the more subtle spiritual awareness and sensitivity of a practitioner. For those interested in the deeper practices of QiGong for spiritual purposes, there are a lot of beginners and advanced practices available.
There are multiple other ways to approach QiGong practice, such as QiGong for elderly for balance and coordination, QiGong for healthy sexual life, QiGong for Chinese culture students, QiGong for young people, with focus on balancing young energy, QiGong for mindfulness coaches and other.
The following are some of the key considerations for those interested in or already practicing QiGong.
There are a myriad of different practices of QiGong, posing two issues. Firstly, to limit oneself just to a single practice and to think this is QiGong can be very limiting, whilst on the other hand throwing oneself to learn too many different styles can also be fruitless. It is also very important to know when to practice a specific exercises, as each set serves a purpose and there is no reason to be stuck in any exercises or practices for longer than necessary.
Traditionally, QiGong was never learnt from books, but directly from masters. Surely there were hypocritical and unprofessional masters at any given era, however with modern day ease of creating information and social image, there are certainly lots of people calling themselves QiGong teachers and masters, who are unqualified. At the same time, there are old school Asian teachers, who have not always found the right methods to transmit the teachings to modern era. Additionally, many masters claim to one degree or another to have the “right or better method” compared to others, which is often based on their false self perception and fattening ego. Master or a teacher is quintessential in QiGong, however it is highly recommended to visit many teachers to get a better idea of different styles and find the most suitable practices for oneself.
Comparing QiGong to professional sports, exercising an hour or two per day will give one health and wellbeing, however Olympic top athletes can train 6-10 hours per day. Same applies to QiGong and that is why modern era has few major discoveries, new styles or breakthroughs in the QiGong practice, as the ancient practitioners on a quiet hill spent their entire lifetimes and successive generations training full time. In any regard, whichever QiGong level one wishes to achieve, discipline means success and QiGong should be seen as a lifelong daily practice.
Qi is life-force energy and how one wishes to utilise the life-force energy is an integral part of the practice. The most common reasons are health and wellbeing, however this is just the beginning, with advanced practices cultivating compassion, humour, justice, spirit, righteousness, wisdom and other. There are QiGong practices that prepare for death, there are cleansing, empowering and manifesting practices. It really does matter what ones intention is in regards to desired level and how one will utilise the precious Qi.
When embarking on QiGong path, one should consider their current circumstances. For example age, living space, type of work, available time, resources, family commitments and so on. If done correctly, QiGong will change ones inner atmosphere, which should effect the external circumstances. Hence, regardless of ones circumstances, there should never be reason not to commit to the practice. Anyone can practice some form of QiGong.
This paper excludes the most important about QiGong, which is the practices, however as per the Daoist philosophy, it is the missing bit that gives function to things. This paper aims to motivate scholars and QiGong practitioners to expand their view of QiGong, to understand the depth, confusions and possibilities that come with the practice. As QiGong is defined as posture, breath and mind training, it could be said that every human is already engaged in doing QiGong, however lousily or well it may be performed, as we all hold postures, breathe and use our mind to one extent or another. Hence it is worth the while to learn how to breathe better or with specific results, which movements and postures can have positive effects , and how to train the monkey mind to serve, rather than steal. www.silkroads.