The term QIGONG is composed of two words. The first, qi, has been translated as the "life energy" or "vital force" within the body; gong has been translated as "work" or "mastery." Together, the word qigong can be interpreted as "energy work" or the act of mastering one's vital force.
Qigong is a healing practice that combines breath control with concentration of the mind. There are many forms of qigong, but they all basically fall within two types: passive or active. Passive qigong is performed seated or lying down and resembles the stances we associate with meditation. This is also known as internal qigong or nei gong. In the active form of qigong, breath control and focused attention are combined with specific movements to create a type of moving meditation. Active qigong, also known as external qigong or wei gong, is similar to tai chi and yoga.
The practice of qigong is an ancient one. These exercises were known by several names over the centuries, including Dao-Yin, "leading and guiding the energy." Silk scrolls that were discovered in the Mawangdui tombs in 1973 have silk texts dating back to 168 BCE. A chart was found among these scrolls that depicted the Dao-Yin postures. The Dao-Yin Tu (Dao-Yin Illustrations) consists of four rows of eleven postures, forty-four in all. In these illustrations, the roots of most modern qigong practices can be found.
There were also descriptions of the stances, instructions for the movements, and indications for the use of each exercise. Certain Dao-Yin exercises were deemed valuable in treating low back pain and painful knees; others were indicated for gastrointestinal disorders, and still others were designated to treat anxiety. This demonstrates that not only were Dao-Yin exercises prescribed as a medical therapy, but that ancient physicians appreciated the utility of this type of qigong practice in the treatment of emotional disharmony.
As old as qigong is, its development was likely influenced by the older Indian practice of yoga. The earliest known documentation of yoga was found in the Indus Valley and dates back 5,000 years. Two millennia later, in approximately 1000 BCE, the Upanishads were written. These commentaries emphasize the personal, experiential nature of the journey toward spirituality and elucidate many basic yoga teachings, promoting an understanding of the principles of karma, chakras, meditation, and prana.
In India, the vital life force is known as prana and pranayama is the cultivation of the life force through breath control. By breathing with intention, the prana is moved through the nadi (channels). The intersections of important nadi are called chakras. There are many similarities between this system of energy management and that of qigong and Eastern medicine. Qigong requires the same attention and control of the breath and the movement of qi through channels of the body. Interestingly, the locations of many important acupuncture points correspond to the positions of the chakras.
While yoga and tai chi have many benefits, we feel that qigong is the best practice if you are new to these Eastern healing arts, especially if you have any physical limitations that prevent prolonged standing or impede your ability to move between standing and lying positions. Whether you practice nei gong or wei gong, the regulation of the following components are related and inseparable: the body, the breath, the mind (thoughts), the qi, and the spirit (emotions). The purpose of regulating and strengthening these components is to achieve good health and longevity.
The Three Treasures
These related and inseparable elements can also be understood, in a traditional sense, as the Three Treasures—jing, qi, and shen. In Eastern medicine, the Three Treasures are considered the root of life. The jing is open translated as essence and, in a Western sense, is akin to your genetic constitution; it is a fundamental substance that is intimately involved with reproduction, growth, and development of the body from birth to death. As we discussed previously, qi has been described as the vital, dynamic force that animates the body. It could be considered the current that runs the motor of our metabolism and drives every aspect of our bodily functions. The term shen is harder to translate; for our purposes, it can be thought of as our mind or spirit. Depending on the context, the word shen can mean immortal, god, spirit, mind, or soul. By practicing qigong we can strengthen the Three Treasures. Because the jing, qi, and shen are inseparable, they support and fortify each other, leading to better physical and emotional health and well-being.
It is well beyond the scope of this article to have a complete discussion of the metaphysical aspects of qigong. An in-depth understanding of qigong is not necessary for you to begin your practice. What is necessary? You must focus attention on your breath and be aware of the flow of qi as you move your body with intention.
Qigong is a journey. The goal is not perfection, but incremental improvement in physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Patience and persistence is the key to receiving the many benefits of qigong.
Benefits of Qigong
Qigong practice benefits all parts of the body, including all the organ systems and the brain. Here are some examples of the benefits of qigong.
Nervous System Benefits
Qigong offers huge benefits to our nervous systems, both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Qigong practice helps concentration, improves mental alertness, and helps control emotion. Practice also helps preserve vision and hearing as the body ages.
Qi is dynamic. It performs like a motor that pushes the blood where it should go. If a person's qi is strong and circulates well in the body, their blood will also circulate well. If a person's qi is stagnant or weak, it will cause blood stagnation, which, according to Eastern medical theory, can cause heart disease. Qigong contributes to better heart health by regulating the autonomic nervous system. In particular, these exercises activate the vagus nerve, which is a great way to preserve heart energy, normalize cardiac arrhythmias, and maintain normal blood pressure.
Through deep and slow breathing, more oxygen goes into the lungs. Slow and deep breathing also activates the parasympathetic (calming) part of the autonomic nervous system. Recall that the nervous system interfaces with the immune system. This process helps the functioning of all cells through proper oxygenation as well as improves defensive energy—which in Western medicine we call the "respiratory immune system"—through modulation of the immune system. The lining of the nose, throat, lungs, gut, and urinary tract all contain immunoglobulin A (IgA). IgA is an antibody in the respiratory tract, which protects it from various germs and pathogens and acts as the first line of defense against bacteria and viruses. If the respiratory immune system is strong, immunoglobulin A can fight germs, making it harder for colds and other respiratory infections to take hold. This is why those who practice qigong generally have fewer illnesses.
Gastrointestinal (GI) Benefits
Qigong can improve stomach and spleen energy, which is related to digestion and absorption. From a Western perspective, qigong regulates the vagus nerve, which also controls digestion. With regular practice, digestive enzymes and digestive movement stay balanced through vagus nerve regulation.
Once the circulation of the qi and blood are improved, muscles receive more oxygen and blood—the muscles become more resilient, more toned, and stronger. Muscle aging is delayed, and joints become more flexible. Overall, we can maintain a younger body even though we are going through the aging process.
Metabolism and Endocrine System Benefits
Balanced qi also helps balance the body's organ systems, which helps balance metabolism and the endocrine system. Here again, these benefits are due to the effect that qigong has on our nervous systems. The central and peripheral nervous systems are intimately connected to the endocrine and immune systems. Neuroendocrine-immune dysfunction can explain a variety of Western diagnoses, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis.
Immune System Benefits
Qigong helps maintain normal immune function. We have already spoken about how these exercises can improve respiratory immunity and help keep infections at bay. For cancer patients, a healthy immune system can prevent infections during treatment. For those without cancer, a healthy immune system can identify precancerous cells and destroy them.
By balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, qigong also balances the immune system, so that the immune system is neither too weak nor too strong. A weak immune system will result in recurrent infections. An overly aggressive immune system may result in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system turns against the body and attacks normal tissue. Qigong and tai chi help keep the immune system balanced.
Other benefits of qigong include delayed aging, improved balance, reduced risk of falling and injury, and improved memory.
Now it is time to begin your journey and start your qigong practice.
The above is an excerpt from True Wellness for Your Heart: Combine the Best of Western and Eastern Medicine for Optimal Health by Aihan Kuhn, CMD, OBT and Catherine Kurosu, MD, L.Ac., Publication Date, May 2020, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN 978-1-59439-735-6.