Before we go any further in our discussion of the keys to Qìgōng training, you should first understand how Qì is generated in your body. Generally, the Qì is generated or converted naturally and automatically from the Essences within your body. These Essences include the inherited Original Essence which goes to make Water Qì, and the Essence from food and air which is transformed into Fire Qì.

This natural Qì generation is the major source of your life force. If you eat more than you need, and don’t excrete the surplus, the extra food Essence will be stored in your body as fat. If you do not eat enough to provide for your daily energy needs, the food Essence stored as fat will be converted into Qì.

When you practice Qìgōng you are looking to build up the Qì in your body, to increase the efficiency of the conversion of Essence into Qì, and to increase the smoothness of the Qì circulation. In order to increase the smoothness of the circulation you must build up the level of Qì and create Qì potential. When there is a difference in potential, the Qì will flow from the area of higher potential to the area of lower potential, thereby increasing the circulation. This will also clear up blockages that hinder the flow of Qì.

There are many ways to build up Qì in the body. Analysis of the Qìgōng practices known to the author shows that the methods of building up Qì can be divided into four categories: 1. physical stimulation, 2. mental stimulation, 3. energizing the Shén, and 4. others.

Physical Stimulation

Physical stimulation is probably the easiest and most basic method of building up Qì. The theory is very simple. Whenever you move you need Qì to energize the muscles. If you keep moving for an extended period of time, Qì will have to be continuously supplied to the muscles. In order to keep supply Yíngqì (i.e. managing Qì, 營氣), your body has to be continuously converting the Essence stored in your body into Qì. The more you exercise, the more Qì will be converted, and the more Qì will be built up in the area you are exercising. Once you stop your exercises, part of this accumulated Qì will be dissipated into the air from your skin, and the remainder will flow into the body to increase the Qì circulation in the Qì channels.

We would like to remind you that if you over-exercise a particular area, your Qì may become too positive. As this Qì overflows into the channels, it may make your internal organs too positive, and speed up their degeneration. This is sometimes seen in people who do a lot of weightlifting. However, if you exercise properly, the Qì will circulate smoothly and your organs will receive only the proper amount of Qì. People who exercise correctly and regularly are usually healthier than people who do not exercise.

Wàidān Exercises

Exercises which build up Qì in the limbs are called Wàidān. Wàidān Qìgōng exercises are simple. They are almost like any of the exercises which are common in the Western world. The only two differences are that when you practice you must concentrate your mind at the area being trained, and that the movements are designed for special purposes such as regulating specific organs. You should understand that it is your mind which leads the Qì to the area being trained. When you concentrate, you can build up and circulate the Qì more efficiently than when you don’t concentrate. This is especially true right after exercising, when you are relaxed. When your muscles are relaxed and loose, the Qì channels are wide open. If you concentrate and use your Yì (i.e. wisdom mind) to lead the Qì you have built up to your body, in coordination with your inhalations, you will be able to reduce the amount of Qì dissipated into the air, and the Qì can more efficiently nourish your body.

Try the following experiment. It will help you to understand the key to building up and circulating Qì. It is a very simple Wàidān exercise called “Gǒngshǒu” (拱手), which means “Arcing the Arms.” This exercise originated in Tàijíquán, where it is very widely practiced. It provides the Qìgōng beginner with a simple way to experience Qì flow.

For this exercise, stand with one leg rooted on the ground and the other in front of it, with only the toes touching the ground. Both arms are held in front of the chest, forming a horizontal circle, with the fingertips almost touching. The tongue should touch the roof of the mouth to connect the Yīn and Yáng Qì vessels (Conception and Governing Vessels respectively). The mind should be calm and relaxed and concentrated on the shoulders; breathing should be deep and regular.

When you stand in this posture for about three minutes, your arms and one side of your back should feel sore and warm. Because the arms are held extended, the muscles and nerves are stressed. Qì will build up in this area and heat will be generated. Also, because one leg carries all the weight, the muscles and nerves in that leg and in one side of the back will be tense and will thereby build up Qì. Because this Qì is built up in the shoulders and legs rather than in the Dāntián, it is considered “local Qì” or “Wàidān Qì” (外丹氣).

In order to keep the Qì build-up and the flow in the back balanced, after three minutes change your legs without moving the arms and stand this way for another three minutes. After the six minutes, put both feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart, and slowly lower your arms. The accumulated Qì will then flow into your arms naturally and strongly. It is just like a dam which, after accumulating a large amount of water, releases it and lets it flow out. At this time, concentrate and calm the mind and look for the feeling of Qì flowing from the shoulders to the palms and fingertips. Beginners can usually sense this Qì flow, which is typically felt as warmth or a slight numbness.

Naturally, when you hold your arms out, you are also slowing the blood circulation, and when you lower your hands, the blood will rush down into them. This may confuse you as to whether what you feel is due to Qì or the blood. You need to understand several things. First, wherever there is a living blood cell, there has to be Qì to keep it alive. Thus, when you relax after the arcing hands practice, both blood and Qì will come down to the hands. Second, since blood is material and Qì is energy, Qì can flow beyond your body but your blood cannot. Therefore, it is possible for you to test whether the exercise has brought extra Qì to your hands. Place your hands right in front of your face. You should be able to feel a slight sensation, which has to come from the Qì. You can also hold your palms close to each other or move one hand near the other arm. In addition to a slight feeling of warmth, you may also sense a kind of electric charge which may make the hairs on your arm move. Blood cannot cause these feelings, so they have to be symptoms of Qì.

Sometimes Qì is felt on the upper lip. This is because there is a channel (Hand Yáng- míng Large Intestine, 手陽明大腸) which runs over the top of the shoulder to the upper lip However, the feeling is usually stronger in the palms and fingers than in the lip, because there are six Qì channels which pass through the shoulder to end in the hand, but there is only one channel connecting the lip and shoulder. Once you experience Qì flowing in your arms and shoulders during this exercise, you may also find that you can sense it in your back.

This exercise is one of the most common practices for leading the beginner to experience the flow of Qì, and some Tàijíquán styles place great emphasis on it. A similar type of Qìgōng exercise is also practiced by other styles, such as Éméi Dàpénggōng (峨嵋大鵬功).

This article only touches on physical stimulation. For other to ways to build up Qì in the body, using mental stimulation, energizing the Shén, and others. please refer to my book, The Root of Chinese Qigong. 

The above is an excerpt from The Root of Chinese Qigong: Secrets for Health, Longevity, & Enlightenment, Third Edition, by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, Publication Date September 2022, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN 9781594399107.