The Way of Qigong
The Teachings of Kenneth S. Cohen
Qigong, Tai Chi, Taoism, Health, Tea & Cultural Arts
Qigong (also spelled Ch’i Kung) is a powerful system of healing and energy medicine from China. It is the art and science of using breathing techniques, gentle movement, and meditation to cleanse, strengthen, and circulate the life energy (qi). Qigong practice leads to better health and vitality and a tranquil state of mind.
In the past qigong was called nei gong 內功 (inner work) or dao yin 導引 (leading and guiding energy). Today, an original ancient word for qigong is being revived: yang sheng 養生. Yang sheng means “nurturing” (yang) “life” (sheng). This beautiful term includes not only healing exercises and meditations but also diet, emotional balance, spiritual development, and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle. Nor is yang sheng restricted to personal well-being. To nurture life is to live in a way that cares for the life around us, all of nature.
How do I say it?
Qi pronounce chee
Gong pronounce gung, as in lung
How old is Qigong?
The documented history of qigong goes back approximately 2,500 years. However Chinese archaeologists and historians have found references to qigong-like techniques at least five thousand years old.
Tranquil Meditation, a gift to Gao Han (Ken Cohen) from calligrapher Tu Xinshi
What about Taiji Quan (Tai Chi)?
Taiji Quan is both a martial art and a style of qigong. It is graceful, relaxed, slow, and fluid, like a slow- motion dance. Unlike some qigong methods that exercise specific systems or parts of the body– nervous system, endocrine system, heart, kidneys– Taiji Quan is a whole body, whole mind exercise. It treats health systemically, restoring the body to its original “program”, uncorrupted by stress, pollution, and disease. Ken Cohen offers training in all aspects and levels of Taiji Quan as well as other related Chinese Inner Martial Arts (Nei Jia Quan).
What are qi and qigong?
Qigong means the skill (gong 功) of cultivating the vital breath or life energy (qi 氣). It is the ancient Chinese art and science of becoming aware of this life energy and learning how to control its flow through a precise choreography of posture, movement, respiratory technique, and meditation. Like biofeedback, qigong teaches psychophysiological self-regulation; the student becomes aware of bodily functions such as blood pressure, respiratory rate, even the flow of nutritional energy to internal organs-- and learns to restore a healthier balance.
Who can benefit?
Qigong techniques are suitable for men and women, young and old, athletes and sedentary, and for the disabled. Because qigong includes both dynamic and gentle techniques that can be practiced from standing, seated, or supine postures, everyone can enjoy it. Practices can be tailored to individual needs making it an ideal aid to recovery or rehabilitation from illness or injury. Qigong may be considered a form of complementary medicine. It works well with other therapies or interventions but should never be used as a substitute for necessary treatment by a physician or other health care professional.
Is Qigong scientific?
Qigong is practiced by more than 80 million Chinese people and by more than 700,000 in the United States. Qigong has been rigorously tested in controlled scientific experiments and clinical trials and is often used as an adjunct to conventional allopathic medical treatment. Research suggests that hypertensive patients who take medication and practice qigong fare better than controls who only take the medication. Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine noted that Taiji Quan (Tai Chi), in spite of its gentle nature, has positive effects on high blood pressure and may have other positive cardiovascular effects. There is also solid evidence that qigong may improve immune function and mental health, and slow down or prevent age-related physical and cognitive decline. Qigong acts like Vitamin C, increasing the activity of an enzyme that helps to deactivate free radicals, highly reactive chemicals that promote tissue degeneration and loss of memory. In 1995 the Journal of the American Medical Association published evidence that Taiji Quan, when practiced as a form of qigong, is effective at preventing loss of balance and falling injuries among the elderly.
Both China and the U.S. have hosted conferences for academic exchange of qigong research. Qigong has been shown to improve posture and respiration, induce the relaxation response, cause favorable changes in blood chemistry, and improve self-awareness and concentration. Scientists have examined the effects of qigong on Asthma, Arthritis, Cancer, Cardiovascular Disease, Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Headaches, Pain, and a wide variety of common ailments. External Qi Healing 外氣療法, in which qi is projected from a practitioner's hands into the patient or client, is effective for the same range of illnesses as acupuncture. To learn more, see the Research on Qigong page.
How do I pick a style and find a teacher?
There are thousands of styles of qigong. Most are designed for general health and well-being or to condition and strengthen the body for sports, martial arts, or athletics. These may be practiced every day for a lifetime. Others are time-limited adjunctive therapies designed to treat specific health challenges or types of imbalance . All styles are based on similar principles: relaxed, rooted posture; straight, supple spine; diaphragmatic respiration-- the abdomen expanding on inhalation, retracting on exhalation; fluid movements without excess effort; and tranquil awareness. Quality is more important than quantity. Students are advised to learn one or two qigong styles that are enjoyable and effective.
Finding a qigong lao-shi, qigong teacher, is not an easy task. Although qigong is popular, the training is not standardized-- I do not believe that it can or should be-- and both quality and qualifications can vary immensely from teacher to teacher. There are unfortunately too many con-artists, charlatans, and magicians among our ranks, trying to impress the public with stunts of allegedly supernatural qi-power such as pushing objects without touching them. Students should apply the same standards of professional excellence to qigong teachers that they would apply to teachers of any other subject. A qigong lao-shi should be humble and compassionate and open to questioning and dialogue. He or she has not arrived at a final goal, but is rather on a never-ending quest for expanded potential and deeper understanding.
How much should I practice?
Qigong is one of the most cost-effective self-care methods in the world. The only investment needed is time, a half-hour to an hour each day; the dividends of better health, increased vitality, and peaceful alertness accrue daily and are cumulative.
Why study Qigong?
Qigong has four major areas of application:
Healing Qigong (Yi Gong 醫功). Healing Qigong is the preventive, self-healing, and wellness aspect of classical Chinese medicine. We are all exposed to stress. Qigong teaches us how to control our reactions to stress so that life events are less likely to cause disease, frustration, or anxiety. Healthy people practice qigong for longevity and to become more than healthy-- vibrant, resilient, joyful, full of life. Health care providers, including nurses and physicians, appreciate that qigong prevents exhaustion (“healer burn-out”) and helps them maintain a positive presence.
External Qi Healing (Wai Qi Liao Fa 外氣療法). Qigong includes a sophisticated system of health assessment and non-contact treatment called External Qi Healing (EQH). The healer learns to tap into a well of healing energy in nature and transmit it through the hands to the client’s area of illness, discomfort, or distress. EQH also includes exercises that increase the practitioner’s sensitivity to energy fields and thus the efficacy of treatment. External Qi Healing techniques may be used as a stand alone form of wellness treatment or may be combined with massage, acupuncture, Therapeutic Touch, osteopathy, or any other form of energy or body-work.
Sports and Athletic Qigong (Wu Gong 武功). In athletics, including sports and martial arts, qigong is the key to strength, stamina, coordination, speed, flexibility, balance, and resistance to injury. Qigong exercises may enhance performance in any sport, improving the golf drive, tackling ability in football, power in a punch, accuracy in tennis, stride and stamina in running, and breathing and coordination in swimming.
Spiritual Qigong (Fo Gong 佛功, Tao Gong 道功). As a spiritual discipline, qigong cultivates self-awareness, tranquillity, and harmony with nature. Although the spiritual aspect of qigong evolved from Taoism and Buddhism, qigong is not a religion and people of any faith may practice, enjoy, and deepen their spirituality.
What are the roots of Qigong?
Qigong is like a great river fed by four major tributaries: shamanism, spirituality, medicine, and martial arts:
An ancient text, The Spring and Autumn Annals, states that in mythic times a great flood covered much of China. Stagnant waters produced widespread disease. The legendary shaman-emperor Yu cleared the land and diverted the waters into rivers by dancing a bear dance and invoking the mystical power of the Big Dipper Constellation. As the waters subsided, people reasoned that movement and exercise can similarly cause the internal rivers to flow more smoothly, clearing the meridians of obstructions to health. Qigong-like exercises are found on ancient rock art panels throughout China. Chinese shamans used these exercises and meditations to commune with nature and natural forces and to increase their powers of healing and divination.
2. Spirituality (Taoism and Buddhism):
A. Taoism. Qigong philosophy and techniques are mentioned in the classic of Taoist philosophy, the Dao De Jing, written in the fifth century BCE. "By concentrating the qi and making your body supple, can you become like a child?" Qigong was the ideal way for Taoists to realize their goal of wuji 無極, an empty, alert, boundless state of consciousness, and xing ming shuang xiu 性命雙修, "spirit and body cultivated in balance." Taoists and qigong practitioners were both looking for a harmony of yin and yang: inside and outside, earthly and spiritual, stillness and activity. The majority of works on qigong are still found among the approximately 1,100 texts in the Taoist Canon.
B. Buddhism. The Buddhist emphasis on tranquillity, awareness, and diligent practice are part of qigong. Several styles of qigong were developed by Buddhists who needed an exercise and healing system to complement their lengthy seated meditations.
Chinese medicine includes acupuncture, herbalism, massage, and diet. Like other healing traditions, it changes and evolves over time. In the past, prayer and invocations (zhu you 祝由) were primary treatment modalities, though they have largely faded today. Chinese doctors sometimes refer patients to qigong teachers and healers to help their patients improve and take charge of their own health. Yet qigong is not fundamentally medical, as it was originally designed to restore systemic balance rather than treat individual diseases. The patriarch of Chinese medicine, Hua Tuo (second century) was one of the greatest early qigong masters. His "Five Animal Frolics" imitate the movements of the Crane, Bear, Monkey, Deer, and Tiger and are still practiced today. Hua Tuo said that just as a door hinge will not rust if it is used, so the body will attain health by gently moving and exercising all of the limbs. Although China recognizes the Five Animal Frolics as therapeutic, it is classified as an "intangible cultural treasure" with applications to both well-being and martial arts.
4. Martial Arts:
Qigong practice can improve performance in the martial arts or any other sport. Chinese martial artists designed or created variations of qigong techniques to increase speed, stamina, and power, improve balance, flexibility, and coordination, and condition the body against injury. Interestingly, Qigong was a major influence on the development of western gymnastics, thanks to Jesuit P. M. Cibot's 1779 illustrated French translation of Taoist qigong texts: Notice du Cong-fou des Bonzes Tao-see (Kung Fu of the Taoist priests). Cibot's descriptions inspired Swedish physical educator Per Henrik Ling (1776-1839) to create the first school of modern gymnastics in Europe.
You can see why it is hard to find a simple definition for such a comprehensive system of mental and physical development. Qigong is a spiritual practice with roots in shamanism and Taoism. It is a powerful method of self-healing and a warm-up for any sport. It includes both exercise and meditation.