By now, many people have heard of the once-rare practice of qigong, and understand it is a "mind/body exercise" involving specific postures and movements combined with breathing methods to improve your health. But many still ask: "What is the relationship between our energy and our immunity?
Qigong means "energy skill," and it is a gradual process of becoming familiar with the subtle energy circulating within your body on a cellular level, and how it is changing every day, every hour, second by second. This energy, or qi, is bioelectricity; you are a living bioelectromagnetic field. With continued practice and observation, a qigong practitioner becomes more sensitive and aware of how the body's energy is fluctuating on a daily basis and why. Repeated qigong practice leads one to gradually feel healthier, and ultimately reach a point of feeling that it is "difficult to get sick." But this process takes Kung Fu, which literally means "effort / time" and can be understood as "time spent at skillful work." Practice.
It's important that you have confidence about your body's energy when you work with it. We can, and I often do, have looong conversations about qi, and how to understand your own energy in a more meaningful and practical way. Qigong practice is a subjective, internal experience, and qi is "invisible," in that we can't see on a molecular level. We don't see the atoms our bodies are comprised of, but do we doubt they are there? We experience daily the energy we are capable of exerting in our physical movements, and the energy we utilize with our thinking; this is qi. Human energy is measured in the brain with an EEG, in the heart with a EKG, in the entire body with an MRI or CT-scan. People commonly discuss whether the body is acid or alkaline, measuring their Ph balance; the potential hydrogen is a measure of our voltage.
Then again, think: when you look and see something, you are seeing photons, or particles of light, minute packets of electromagnetic radiation. Your vision is the conversion of light into electrical signals which can be processed within the retina of your eye and sent to the brain. So, we see qi all day, every day, and take it for granted. Humans are like fish in water who don't realize we are swimming in energy.
Qi is this mundane energy of our body's everyday function, but it is also the energy of our spiritual experience. Advanced yogis and meditators have documented the full potential of the human energetic spectrum in great detail for those interested to research further. There are centuries of stories of incredible healing and longevity for those who have cultivated their energy to higher capacity than normal.
Develop Deeper Feeling
To begin to improve our immune response and feel healthy, we can just relax and practice along with a brilliant time-tested qigong form such as the Ba Duan Jin (Eight Pieces of Brocades). Repeated practice of these simple exercises will pump the circulation through the body, and reliably result in better health within a few months. But for qigong to advance from a follow-along "layperson" practice, to one in which you are more intentionally expanding your qi for optimal health and immunity, then your mind needs to become continuously involved.
Over time, you will develop your personal feeling for this mind/body connection; my teacher Master Yang, Jwing-Ming describes it akin to learning a language, to more fully develop the bridge between your mind and body. Once a stable internal experience is established in feeling your qi reliably, you then begin to lead the qi with the mind, with two main goals: to increase the quantity of qi and improve the quality of your circulation. The yi (intention) leads the qi (energy).
Over time, you will develop a stronger feel of your qi circulation all day long, not only during mindful movement. A complete qigong practice also involves anything else that affects your energy: everything you eat, drink, view, how you internalize stress, your sleep, etc. You will experience a process of regulating your mind to be more stable and focused, and emotions to stay calm, centered, balanced.
A primary goal in practicing qigong is to keep your spirit high. High spirit leads to high energy. This is done psychologically by maintaining your morale or PMA, positive mental attitude. But it also involves physical aspects: when practicing qigong and meditation, you can raise the spirit by aiming your eyes slightly upward, and lightly paying attention to the sensation in the third eye in your forehead. You are projecting your intention upward and forward, like taking aim, propelling your energy in the process. In practice, if we let the mind "float" or gaze lift too high, we can become "scattered in confusion," with the mind engaged in random thinking. If we let the mind or gaze lower too much, we can become "sunk in oblivion," spaced out or falling asleep letting the subconscious mind take over. Practice in a "happy medium" state in which you totally relax but keep that spark of awareness intentionally focused.
These are the steps for a beginner practice to help you feel better right away and improve your immune response. Take a sip of water beforehand and wear loose clothing when you practice.
1. Stand, unless you must sit, with the entire body centered and relaxed. Any muscles that are tense will stagnate your Qi circulation. Take a moment and soften from head to toe.
2. Inhale quietly for 5 seconds, exhale slowly 7 or 8. We can inhale and exhale different durations using a different flow rate. Inhale in an unimpeded way. Exhale, while slightly constricting the breath. Pause at the end of your exhalation.
If this feels easy, breathe even slower, using a similar ratio: inhale for 10 seconds, exhale for 15. (Look at a clock until you have a sense of this natural rhythm.)
3. Move your abdomen in a big range of motion with each breath. Don't think too much about it. Moving the abdomen allows more space for the lungs to move freely. If you're familiar with an abdominal breathing technique, use that.
4. To increase the effectiveness of this technique, add the HA sound, as if you're trying to fog a window, as you exhale. If you are gently stimulating your immunity, the HA sound should be silent and calm. If you are in a healing crisis, you can full manifest the HA sound in a long, slow, hot exhalation with a loud audible "Haaaaaaa." Usually, we will practice with an intensity somewhere in the middle.
5. Repeat this breathing exercise for at least 5 minutes, but ideally practice for 15 minutes to experience the full benefits. Repeat at least once daily at any time of day, but ideally in the morning and again in the evening.
Pay attention to how you feel at the surface of your skin during this practice. By exhaling longer than inhaling, especially using the HA sound, you are increasing your circulation of blood, oxygen and energy outward to the skin and beyond. Right under the surface of the skin are your mast cells, which become stimulated and energized, producing more white blood cells. This expanding energy is your Wèi Qì 衛氣 (Protective Energy) extending beyond the surface of the skin. It is your aura, your shield against negative pathogens of wind, damp, cold, etc.
When you're practicing correctly, after five minutes of this breathing, you should physically feel your warmth increase and break a light sweat on the forehead. It may take longer, but don't be too aggressive. Using the HA sound takes practice, trial and error to get a feeling for reliably eliciting the gentle warming response we're seeking. Ideally, the HA sound is not used during the Summer months or in a very warm climate. A quieter Hē sound can be used at these times.
It is recommended to study the detailed theory of the HA and corresponding HEN sounds in more depth for those interested. You may also find it helpful to learn about the traditional "Six Healing Sounds", Liuzijue 六字诀.
Sometimes you may experience an unpleasant physical response, like rush of heat or chill through the body. You may turn pale and sweat profusely, or even feel nauseous. It is a common qigong experience, at least once, that when you reach and exceed your normal oxygen threshold, or improve circulation in a place that was stagnant, that your body will react. When this happens, you're done for the day. Bundle up and drink some tea. Don't be discouraged, this is a good sign. Think of it as an upgrade. If this does occur, be sure to practice again each day for a week to progress beyond this "breakthrough".
Visualize Light. You can also visualize your body radiating energy and surrounded by white or amber light. Where your mind goes, energy flows. By bringing your attention fully to the skin, you are leading your energy outward. The ancient Tibetan version of this practice involved imaging millions of little "butter lamps," just below the skin in the fascia between the skin and muscles. Once you feel these "lamps," turn them to shine outward through the skin. The ancient Chinese practice says to visualize your "body on fire". Nowadays we might say visualize millions of LEDs shining outward from your skin. Whatever it takes to help you focus your intention.
Fresh Air. Open your windows at home and work once a day for a full air exchange. Go outside for at least 15 minutes of sunlight. You are solar-powered.
Walk every day. You may also combine this breathing technique with walking, ideally out in nature. For instance, inhale for four steps, exhale for eight. Walking stimulates the bones, which are the source of many immune cells.
Weird science. Consider getting a pulse-oximeter and aim to maintain your oxygen at 98 - 100% to support your immune system.
Invest: For the 5-15 minutes of your practice, suspend disbelief. Keep your skeptical thinking mind out of the process. Mind/body exercises don't have the best results when you THINK they work; they work best when you BELIEVE they work. Read the Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton, and Molecules of Emotion by Candace B. Pert for more data of this topic.
Currently, we have additional concerns about the viral pandemic. Of course, we need to follow safety guidelines: wear a mask when out, social distance, and avoid gatherings. Be mindful of the air quality where you practice deep breathing. Avoid your exposure. Some strains of the virus are very contagious, and some strains are very deadly. Even the strongest immune system cannot withstand overwhelming viral exposure. Stay healthy, and enjoy your practice.
The above is an original article by David Silver. He developed a lifelong interest in meditation as part of his Gojū Ryū Karate training starting at age 11. He later studied taijiquan, qigong, and yoga in his 20s, and became certified by world-renown Chinese martial arts master Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming as a YMAA Qigong Instructor in 2006. He volunteered managing the fundraising for the nonprofit YMAA Retreat Center 2006 - 2016.