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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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