Fundamentals and Benefits of Qigong

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


| January/February 2017



Qigong 1

Qigong increases and directs qi within the body.

Photo by iStock

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.





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