In modern times, we mainly use only the narrow definition of Qi, which refers to the energy circulating in the human body. Qigong practitioners study and train the Qi circulating in the body. Qigong includes many aspects, from how our bodies relate to Heaven Qi and Earth Qi, to the overlapping fields of acupuncture, herbal treatment, martial arts Qigong, Qigong massage and exercises, and ultimately spiritual enlightenment.
In ancient times, Qigong was called Tu-Na, which means to “utter and admit,” namely focused breathing. Qigong depends on correct breathing. Zhuang Zi said, “Blowing to breathe, utter the old and admit the new. The bear’s natural movement, and the bird’s extending (of the neck), are all for longevity. This is favored by those living as long as Peng Zu, who practice Dao-Yin, and nourish the shape (cultivate the body).”
Peng Zu was a legendary Qigong practitioner during the reign of emperor Yao (2356 B.C.), said to have lived for 800 years. Qigong was also called Dao-Yin, meaning to use the mind and physical movement to guide and lead Qi circulation. The movements imitate natural movements of animals such as bears and birds. A famous medical Qigong set passed down for nearly 2,000 years is called The Five Animal Sports (Wu Qin Xi), which imitates the movements of the tiger, deer, bear, ape, and bird.
Qigong and acupuncture view the physical body as having twelve major energy channels (Shi Er Jing) in the body, branching into many secondary channels (Luo), similar to the blood circulatory system. The primary channels are like arteries and veins, while the secondary ones are like capillaries. The Twelve Primary Qi Channels are also like rivers, while the secondary channels are like streams flowing into and out of the rivers. Qi is distributed throughout the body through this network which connects the extremities to the internal organs, and the skin to the bone marrow. The internal organs of Chinese medicine do not necessarily correspond to the physical organs as understood in the West, but rather to a set of clinical functions related to the organ system.
The body also has Eight Vessels (Ba Mai), called strange meridians (Qi Jing), that function like reservoirs and regulate the Qi circulation. The famous Chinese Daoist medical doctor Li, Shi-Zhen described them in his book, The Study of Strange Meridians and Eight Vessels, “The regular meridians (12 Primary Qi Channels) are like rivers, while the strange meridians (Eight Vessels) are like lakes. When the Qi in the regular meridians is abundant and flourishing, they overflow into the strange meridians.”
When Qi in the eight reservoirs is full and strong, so is that in the rivers. Stagnation in any channel leads to irregularity in the Qi flow to the extremities and organs, and illness may develop. Every channel has its own particular Qi flow, its strength affected by your mind, the weather, time of day, food you have eaten, and even your mood. In dry weather, Qi in the lungs tends to be more positive, or Yang, than in wet weather. When you are angry, the Qi flow in your liver channel will be irregular. Qi strength in different channels varies throughout the day in a regular cycle, and at any particular time one channel is strongest. For example, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. the Qi flows most strongly in the heart channel. The Qi level of the same organ differs from one person to another. When Qi flow in the twelve channels is irregular, the eight reservoirs regulate it back to normal.
A qigong practitioner should become familiar with the energetic circulatory system of the body, which is the same as used in acupuncture, though some channels or points have different names depending on their usage. The body also has several energy centers, called Dan Tians (elixir field), which act as a battery for storing energy to a higher capacity. It is important to be familiar with the energy centers, vessels, meridians, and channels, and to develop a physical sensation of them through practice. In this way, you can make subtle adjustments in your behavior, diet, or exercise and keep your Qi balanced to avoid illness.
A sick person’s Qi tends to be either too positive (excess Yang) or too negative (deficient Yin). A Chinese physician would prescribe herbs to adjust the Qi, or else insert acupuncture needles at various points to adjust the flow and restore balance. The alternative is to practice Qigong, using physical and mental exercises to adjust the Qi. This would be considered Medical Qigong.
In Scholar society, Qigong is defined differently, focusing on regulating disturbances of the emotional mind into a state of calm. This relaxes the body and enables Qi to rebalance and circulate smoothly, so mental and physical health may be attained.
In Daoist and Buddhist society, Qigong is the method to lead Qi from the Lower Dan Tian to the brain for spiritual enlightenment or Buddhahood. This place in the abdomen stores Qi in abundant quantity, and this Qi is used to eventually reopen the third eye. Religious Qigong is considered the highest and most rigorous level of Chinese Qigong training.
Martial Arts Qigong practitioners manifest their Qi to energize the physical body to its maximum efficiency and power. Martial arts Qigong originated from religious Qigong, especially Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/Brain Washing Qigong (Yi Jin Jing and Xi Sui Jing) which was derived by Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch of Buddhism, during his time spent teaching at the Shaolin Temple. The most profound level of martial arts Qigong training is the same as that of religious Qigong, namely spiritual enlightenment. This involves a lengthy process of regulating the emotional mind, while simultaneously refining the body, breath, qi, and spirit, until the third eye is reopened.
The most basic Qigong, in which the practitioner doesn't need to know any qigong theory, uses mostly physical effort and the mind is not involved very much. This can be aerobics, dancing, walking or jogging in which the mind is just relaxed and harmonized. This does not need special training, and is classified as secular Qigong. In intermediate Qigong, mental and physical activity are combined in equal measure. This would be the slow-moving Qigong commonly practiced, in which the mind is used to lead Qi in coordination with movement. With slow, relaxed movements, the Qi led by the mind may reach deeper into the ligaments, marrow and internal organs. Deep internal feeling can lead Qi there significantly. Taiji, White Crane, Snake, and Dragon are typical systems of Qigong, cultivated intensively in Chinese medical and martial arts societies.
At a deeper level of practice, the mind becomes critically important. It is actively involved while you are in deep relaxation. This is cultivated primarily by scholars and religious Qigong practitioners. There may be some physical movement in the lower abdomen, but the main focus is cultivating a peaceful and neutral mind, and pursuing the final goal of spiritual enlightenment. This practice includes Sitting Chan (Zen), Embryonic Breathing (Tai Xi Jing Zuo), Small Circulation (Xiao Zhou Tian), Grand Circulation (Da Zhou Tian), and Brain Washing Enlightenment Meditation (Xi Sui Gong).
Different Qigong practices aim for different goals. For a long, happy life, you need health of mind and body. The best simple Qigong for health is the intermediate level, regulating both body and mind. You may practice the Yin side through still meditation, and the Yang side through physical activity. This balances Yin and Yang, and abundant Qi may be accumulated and circulated.
- Any activity able to improve Qi circulation is Qigong.
- Qigong which emphasizes the physical more will improve physical strength and Qi circulation, conditioning the muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
- Qigong activating both physical and mental can reach deeper, enhancing physical strength and Qi circulation. By coordinating the relaxed physical body with the concentrated mind, Qi may circulate deep inside the joints, internal organs, and even the bone marrow.
- Qigong which focuses on achieving a profound meditative state may however neglect physical movement, causing physical health to degenerate. It is important to maintain harmony and balance of both body and mind.