Fundamentals and Benefits of Qigong

Discover the power of this ancient health care practice, and its variety of movement exercises

By Judith Boice, ND, LAC, FABNO


January/February 2017

Qigong 1

Qigong increases and directs qi within the body.

Photo by iStock

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I wish I could say enlightened self-interest prompted me to study qigong. Instead, profound fatigue was my motivation. After traveling and teaching all over the United States for 20 to 25 days a month for 18 months straight, I was beyond exhausted. I signed up for a Soaring Crane Qigong class with Professor Chen at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine (my alma mater), and that weekend changed my life.

I had quit my dream job six months earlier because of severe fatigue. Increasing sleep, walking and running, and eating an incredibly clean diet did not address the fatigue. Over the next six months of practicing qigong, I noticed my energy gradually and consistently improving. I was returning to energy levels I had not experienced in more than a decade.

What is Qigong?

In Chinese, qi means life force or vitality. Gong means skill or practice; so “qigong” is a skill, practiced over time, which increases or restores vitality. According to Chinese medicine, our bodies and our world are filled with qi. The purpose of Chinese medicine in general, and qigong in particular, is to increase and direct that vitality in the body. Learning how to absorb the incredible abundance of qi around us is one of the most powerful healing tools available.

How you practice qigong will vary depending on the particular form you are practicing. Because of its very long history, there are thousands of styles of qigong — some very ancient, some more contemporary. Some forms of qigong combine slow movements with guided mental focus; others include standing or sitting meditation; still others focus on breathing or lying down relaxation. A skilled qigong practitioner can assist you in choosing the most appropriate form for your particular health concerns.

A History of Qigong

The oldest records of qigong are 7,000- to 10,000-year-old cave paintings in the Yellow River region of China. In the first of the triptych of ancient paintings, people have red, swollen joints; the second shows people spontaneously moving and dancing; and the third portrays people with normal joints.

For centuries, knowledge of qigong was tightly held in family lineages, with the understanding that qigong not only cultivated physical health, but also supported mental, emotional and spiritual awakening. Qigong masters passed down knowledge within families, almost always from father to son. Women were rarely trained, in part because they were not highly regarded in ancient China. In addition, as women left their own families to live with their husbands’ families, they would have taken the “family jewels” of qigong knowledge with them, potentially giving them away. 

In the 1970s in China, some of the qigong masters realized that times were changing, and more people required the support qigong could provide. These masters began to teach in the parks of major cities in eastern China. Over the following decades, millions of men and women began practicing qigong. Qigong quickly spread to the West, and based on people’s positive — sometimes seemingly miraculous — responses, researchers began exploring the effects of qigong on a variety of illnesses. 

Medical Benefits of Qigong

Today, research from China, Europe and the United States is demonstrating a wide variety of conditions that can be improved with regular qigong practice. Several studies reveal that short-term practice leads to minor improvements, while long-term practice (more than a year) yields much better results. As my teacher, Professor Chen Xian, says, “a little bit of practice, a little bit of benefit; a lot of practice, a lot of benefit!” Another benefit of qigong is that it can often complement more traditional treatment, enhancing standard therapies. In several studies, patients combining pharmaceutical treatment with qigong saw greater improvements than those using the pharmaceuticals alone. Here is a list of some of the conditions qigong can benefit, according to modern research.

Menopause:

In one study, researchers had 70 women suffering from menopause symptoms practice qigong daily for 12 weeks. The women reported greater improvements in sleep quality and menopause symptoms compared with a control group.

Chronic fatigue:

In one randomized, controlled study, chronic fatigue patients demonstrated improved mental functioning, reduced fatigue and increased telomerase activity (a marker of cellular health) after four months of qigong practice. In another study, chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers who practiced qigong at least three days a week were 2.7 times more likely to report a “positive 12-month health transition” than those practicing less. 

Asthma:

Asthma patients practicing qigong required lower drug doses, missed fewer days of work, had fewer hospital stays, and reduced treatment costs. 

Cancer:

In a study of 162 cancer patients, those who practiced qigong had clinically significantly higher total quality of life scores; significant reductions in levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation); decreased tension, anxiety and depression; and increases in vigor.

Hypertension:

A 2015 meta-analysis of 20 studies found that qigong was an effective treatment for hypertension.

Learning Qigong

Most classically trained teachers strongly emphasize this point: Never learn qigong from a book or video. Always learn qigong directly from a certified teacher. A well-trained teacher will know how to modify a form for someone with an injury or disability. The teacher also can identify when you are accidentally or unknowingly practicing incorrectly.

As an example, a student was practicing a liver clearing form that included elevating the right foot on a tree root or block of wood. During the winter she was practicing indoors, and she forgot to elevate her foot a couple of inches with a wooden block. She developed severe right ankle pain and visited her physician several times. X-rays revealed no injury. The doctor scheduled exploratory surgery.

Fortunately, the student attended another weekend qigong class before the planned surgery. Her teacher observed her performing the liver clearing exercise with her foot flat on the floor. The teacher understood that without elevating the toes and front of the foot during that particular exercise, qi would “pool” or accumulate in the ankle area instead of moving out through the big toe (following the path of the liver channel). As soon as the student resumed practice with a small block of wood, the ankle pain resolved.

This experience illustrates the importance of having a teacher to ensure you learn the form properly, and to correct you as you continue practicing. Even after 18 years of practice, my teacher still corrects me—and I’m amazed at how much more qi I experience with these adjustments. 

To find a good teacher in your area, visit the Qigong Institute’s directory of teachers and therapists at qigonginstitute.org/directory. Ask any prospective 
teacher the following questions:
• Are you certified to teach this form of qigong? (Some traditional teachers may have trained in a family lineage and not have formal certification.)
• From whom did you learn?
• Who is the Grand Master of this particular form? 
• What are the effects of this form of qigong?
Note: Be cautious about contemporary forms, particularly if they have not been researched.      

A Starter Qigong Exercise: “Breathing” through Yong Quan

Yong Quan (pronounced yong chWAN)  is a practice that works to awaken our connection to the earth’s energy. Yong Quan (“Bubbling Spring,” K1) is the first point on the kidney meridian and is located in the center of the foot just behind the ball of the foot. In Chinese medicine, the kidney is considered the energy “bank account” in the body, so this point is believed to be where energy begins to rise from the earth into the kidney meridian and eventually into the kidneys themselves.

Stand on the earth outdoors. Relax your whole body, including your feet, and focus your attention on Yong Quan. Imagine you have nostrils at this point on the bottom of your feet, and begin to breathe the vitality of the earth into Yong Quan. Reach with your mind as deeply into the earth as you can. Eventually you may begin breathing all the way through the earth and into the stars on the other side!

Over time this way of relaxing and focusing on Yong Quan will become very natural, and you can maintain this focus even while walking.

Safety First

Qigong practitioners warn that moving and standing forms are not appropriate at certain times, including:

• Pregnancy (increased blood and qi circulation can cause a miscarriage)
• For six weeks after surgery (physical movement and increased qi and blood circulation may disrupt wound healing)
• Extremely debilitated states (e.g. bedridden, late-stage cancer patients)
• Certain breathing forms may not be appropriate for lung cancer, COPD or emphysema patients.
• All forms of qigong are contraindicated for people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
• Incorrectly practicing qigong can cause “deviation,” physical as well as mental and emotional symptoms. This is why studying with a teacher is so important.

Internal vs. External Qigong

As you explore qigong, you may hear of internal qigong versus external qigong. When we learn any form of qigong, we are practicing internal qigong. We are learning to cultivate and direct qi into ourselves. External qigong is a passive process, with a practitioner moving and directing qi toward the body. Providing external qigong treatments is an advanced skill, one that often requires years  of training. While external qigong treatments can yield powerful 
results, their effectiveness is dependent on the skill of the practitioner. In addition, external qigong increases your dependence on a practitioner 
to improve your health.

Tai Chi vs. Qigong

Like moving forms of qigong, tai chi consists of slow movements performed with great concentration. Martial arts, which include both 
tai chi and some forms of qigong, create a spectrum, from “hard arts” (martial arts, focused on directing energy outward) to “soft arts” (qigong, focused on directing 
energy inward).

On this spectrum, tai chi resides at the crossover point, moving from hard to soft arts. Tai chi consists of slowed down martial arts fighting movements that incorporate attention to the movement of qi in the body. Although tai chi includes attention to qi, it still is a martial art, focused on cultivating and moving qi outward. In contrast, qigong is a soft art, aimed purely at directing qi inward to build or restore health.