Qigong, The Term...
Qigong (Chi Kung) comes from the Chinese words "Qi" meaning "Energy" plus "Gong", meaning "work" or "practice". It is a term that describes a Chinese Exercise system the focuses on cultivating and attracting "Qi" or "lifeforce" energies. Pronounced like "Chee Gung", Qigong (sometimes spelled "Chi Kung") is a unique Chinese exercise system. Through individual effort, practitioners build up their health and prevent illness by combining discipline of mind, body and the body's "Qi" (vital force).
Qigong draws on many elements. It includes "regulating the body" through posture, "regulating the mind" through quiet, relaxation and concentration of one's mental activity," regulating the breath", self-massage and movement of the limbs. It covers a wide range of exercises and styles, such as "tuna" (venting and taking in), which emphasizes the practice of breath; "still" qigong, which stresses meditation and relaxation; "standing stance" qigong, which emphasizes the exercise of the body by relaxed and motionless standing posture; "moving" and dao-yin" qigong, which emphasizes external movement combined with internal quiet and practice in control of the mind; as well as various forms of self-massage.
Chinese Qigong has been practiced with a recorded history of over 2,000 years. But it wasn't until 1953, when Liu Gui-zheng published a paper entitled "Practice On Qigong Therapy", that the term Qigong (Chi Kung) was adopted as the popular name for this type of exercise system. Prior to that date, there were many terms given to such exercise, such as Daoyin, Xingqi, Liandan, Xuangong, Jinggon, Dinggong, Xinggon, Neigong, Xiudao, Zhoshan, Neiyangong, Yangshengong, etc.
Moving or Static, Hard or Soft?
There have been many qigong schools in China. Although each school adopts unique methods, they all agree on the basic importance of regulating the mind and deepening the respiration. Western practitioners have divided and categorized qigong into various segments. The term "soft qigong" usually refers to exercises which enhance spiritual, mental, and physical health with meditation and gentle exercises. "Hard qigong" refers to exercises done in martial arts to strengthen and protect the body from vicious blows.
Some divide qigong into "Medical", "Martial", or "Spiritual" categories depending on the purpose of the practice.
Within China, qigong is generally practiced in two major categories, "still" and "moving". "Still" qigong lays emphasis on quiet, motionless meditation, generally employing methods of internal concentration and regulation of breathing. It is usually practiced in outwardly motionless postures such as the lying, sitting or standing positions, and since it emphasizes exercise of the internal aspect of the body, it is often known as internal qigong.
"Moving" qigong involves movement of the limbs and body under the conscious direction of the mind, and since the movement is expressed externally, it is also known as external qigong.
Posture (regulating the body)
The first step in the practice of qigong is to assure correct posture. It is vital that the posture is natural and relaxed so as to allow smooth breathing and help lead the mind into a relaxed and quiet state. Each posture naturally has different physiological characteristics and hence will have a different healing effect on the body according to the needs of the practitioner.
The most common postures are:
Normal sitting Posture: Sit upright on a chair, feet on the ground, legs apart and torso at right angles to the thighs. Let the eyes and mouth rest gently closed, tongue resting on upper palate, assuming a slight, unforced smile.
Cross-legged Posture: Sit upright on a hard bed or platform, legs naturally crossed, hands resting in front of lower abdomen.
Half-Lotus Posture: Sit upright on a firm bed or platform, left foot resting on right thigh, right foot under left knee, or vice versa. Rest hands on knees.
Supine Posture: Lie on one's back on a firm bed, pillow not to high, legs straight and arms resting by one's sides.
Sideways lying Posture: Lie on one's side on a firm bed, with a low pillow; upper body straight, legs slightly bent; rest upper hand on hip and lower hand palm up on pillow.
Standing Posture: Stand erect, feet parallel and apart at about shoulder width with toes pointing slightly inward. Bend knees slightly, hold in chest and raise arms so that hands are no higher than shoulders, elbows drooping slightly, with the hands about one foot apart, palms down. Keep fingers separated and curved as if around surface of the ball. Eyes and mouth are lightly closed, with a slight smile.
Walking Posture: Stand quietly for about two or three minutes, then take a pace forward with the left foot, heel touching first, body and hands swaying to the right as one moves forward. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. When weight is fully on left foot, take a pace forward with the right foot, heel first, body and hands swaying to the left. Practice in this way moving forward and back for about half an hour or for as long as one can without tiring, the length of time varying, of course, according to the practitioner and their state of health.
Entering a Quiet State (regulating the mind)
Another basic skill to be gradually mastered in qigong is how to concentrate and regulate one's mental activity so as to enter a quiet, meditative state. Much of the success of Qigong practice depends on the level of peace and quietness one can attain. This "entering a quiet state" refers to a settled and peaceful state of mind not disturbed by extraneous thoughts, the mind concentrated on one point such as the "Dantian" (about one inch below the navel) or on the very act of breathing. All awareness to external stimuli (such as sound and light) is thereby reduced, even to the point that the practitioner's sense of position and weight are lost, until one reaches a state in which they are conscious yet not conscious, aware yet not aware. In this way, the cerebral cortex enters a quiescent state. Most people find it difficult to enter such a quietened state, being frequently disturbed by extraneous thoughts. However, with patience and perseverance it can be gradually attained.
Here are five of the most common methods used to help enter such a state:
- Fixing the Mind: Here the mind concentrates on a point on the body, most commonly the "Dantian". When concentrating the practitioner must rid one's mind of all extraneous thoughts, though not over-concentrating, remaining relaxed and natural, keeping one's thoughts at the point, yet not stuck there.
- Following the Breath: Here one concentrates on the breath, essentially on the undulation of abdominal breathing, making sure that conscious control of the breathing is avoided. One practices until they reach a quiet state where breath and mind are united.
- Counting the Breath: One inhalation and one exhalation form one breath. Silently count each breath until it reaches ten, then from ten to one hundred until your ears hear nothing, your eyes see nothing and there are no extraneous thoughts in your mind.
- Silent Reciting: Words or phrases recited in the mind (not aloud) should be simple so as to help the practitioner enter a quiet state. One can, for instance, recite the words "relax" and "quiet," which have proved to be of great help to many people in calming the mind.
- Listening to the Breath: Use your ears to actually listen to your respiration. It is best to reach the stage at which one cannot actually hear one's breathing, and so by attempting and concentrating to hear when one cannot, it aids the process of entering a quiet state.
To begin with, the practitioner may practice fixing the mind, then gradually turn to following the breath and listening to the breath; or may choose to stay with fixing the mind from beginning to end.
Breathing (regulating the breath)
Regulation of the breathing has proved to be an important aspect in Qigong therapy. One aims, through practice, to change from breathing in the chest to abdominal breathing, thus developing one's respiration from the shallow to the deep. This deepening of the breathing has the effect of expanding lung capacity, promoting circulation of oxygen in the blood, massaging the internal abdominal organs, and helping digestion and assimilation of food. Styles emphasizing the practice of breathing usually distinguish four major types or methods:
- Natural Breathing:This is one's innate way of respiration, normal to everyone, without any interference or control by the mind. Although it may well be soft and even, it has the disadvantage of not being very deep.
- Complementary Breathing: In this form one expands the abdomen outwards as one inhales and contracts it as one exhales. As the movement of the abdomen develops, one gradually achieves abdominal breathing.
- Reversed Breathing: This is the opposite of complementary breathing. As one inhales the abdomen is contracted, and as one exhales it is expanded. This method gives greater scope and intensity to the use of muscles in breathing.
- Stopping the Breathing: Here, during or after inhalation or exhalation the practitioner stops the passage of air for a short while and then continues. This method helps focus the mind on the action of the control of breath.
Other than those mentioned above there are certain special breathing methods which should only be used in accordance with certain illnesses. No matter which method is used, however, one must be sure to develop it slowly and gradually by degrees, without forcing it or striving for quick results.
There are some "Essential Points of Practice" despite the varying styles and the differing importance attached to various elements by individual schools, and there are certain basic features which are essential to qigong regardless of form or school.
- Relaxation, Quietness and Naturalness: It is most important that during practice, both body and mind are relaxed, peaceful, and at peace. Before practice one must relieve oneself, loosen one's belt and any other restrictive clothing, and found a peaceful spot in which to practice. Make sure that one's posture is correct, back straight and body erect though not stiff, arms hanging down naturally, and the whole body relaxed, though not limp, so both mind and body are comfortable and aligned.
- Unity of Breath and Mind: It is critical in Qigong that the mind and breath are united by concentrating the mind on the "Dantian", so as to reach a state in which the breathing is deep, even and led by the mind.
- Exercise and Rest Combined: There are different methods of breathing for various forms of qigong. If one is practicing a breathing method, one should have a short rest, returning to natural breathing after ten to twenty minutes of such practice.
- Stillness and Movement Combined:Some forms of Qigong combine both stillness and movement into one style, such as Taijiquan, and some put stress on stillness. But after one has practiced a "still" form, you must carry on some "moving" exercises like Taijiquan or jogging.
- Gradual Development: It is vital to realize that one must practice according to the body's ability and strength, allowing it to develop and progress naturally at its own pace, never forcing it or striving anxiously for quick results.
- Practice Differs According to the Individual: Since each individual has a different state of health, and illness appears in many forms, the form of Qigong chosen for practice, therefore, shall vary according to the specific needs of each individual.
- Perseverance: If one is to be successful in one's practice, one must persevere, practicing daily for several months. Qigong is not like a quick-acting medicine, and the longer one can persevere, the more profound will be the effect.
- Restraint in One's Private Life: It is clearly common sense that if the exercises are to be given a chance to help the body, one must give up bad habits such as smoking. One should also restrict excessive drinking and excessive sexual activity, being sure to regulate your life so you exhaust yourself.
The above-mentioned eight essential points are fitting for all forms of qigong. When you practice a form of qigong, regardless of the style, you should follow these specific requirements.
Throughout its whole history, Qigong has been employed and developed as a method for curing illness and strengthening the body. Qigong's main therapeutic properties lie in its regulation of the activity of the cerebral cortex, the central nervous system and the cardio-vascular system, its effect in correcting abnormal reactions of the organism, massaging effect on the organs of the abdominal cavity, and its effect as a means of self-control over the physical functions of one's body.
As far as electro-encephalogram response is concerned, there is clear difference in such readings between practitioners and non-practitioners. An electro- encephalogram for a normal person in an ordinary waking state shows a great quantity of low amplitude, high frequency waves of about fifty micro-volts, with different regional brain waves showing poor synchronization. The brain waves of a Qigong practitioner, however, shows large frequency "A" waves of around eight hertz with amplitudes as high as 180 microvolts, as well as a tendency towards greater synchronization of regional brain waves. These characteristics are even more apparent in the frontal lobe and parietal lobe of the cerebrum. Moreover, the frontal lobe is the highest center of the C.N.S., controlling mental activity. The longer one practices the better the synchronization of the "A" wave band, while the expansion of the low frequency wave band can greatly increase the functions of the cerebrum. (data courtesy of "Chinese Qigong: A Unique Fitness Art", a "Facts and Figures" booklet published in China.)
Respiration: When one is practicing, the rate of respiration decreases while the duration of each breath increases. Such an increase in the period of inhalation and exhalation will enlarge the scope of the diaphragm's activity, causing a greater flow in the volume of air, increasing the practitioner's lung capacity. When one is practicing deep breathing, the breath often seems to stop, but actually becomes a series of micro- movements of the breathing muscles. Animal experiments have shown that the increased excitation of the C.N.S. when exhaling can spread to the parasympathetic nerve center, while the increased excitation when inhaling can spread to the sympathetic nerve center. This would suggest that through deliberate regulation of the respiration and deeper breathing one can promote the tendency to stabilize any functional imbalance of the autonomic nerve system.
Metabolism: When practicing sitting or lying qigong it has been shown that the body's consumption of oxygen decreases by about thirty percent, the level of the metabolic rate also dropping by about twenty percent, which is accompanied by a drop in the respiration rate as already mentioned. This condition of lowered metabolism is an aid to reducing the patient's physical consumption of energy, allowing the gradual accumulation of energy, fostering the body's strength, and providing the basis for the body to combat and defeat illness.
Self-Control and Bio-Feedback:
When Qigong and bio-feedback are combined, the aim of developing health through self-control becomes considerably easy to achieve. Bio-feedback is the monitoring of certain physiological functions (blood pressure, muscle tension, etc.) using electromyographic equipment, demometers etc., and then allowing the patient to sense, visually or audibly, the fluctuations in signals. This enables patients to appreciate what is happening in the body and use their own will to try to control the fluctuations of his or her physiological functions, helping them to revert to normality and hence aiding in their treatment.
It has been readily shown that abdominal breathing has the effect of massaging the internal organs of the abdominal cavity. This effect is even more marked when practicing the "stopping" or "reversed" breathing methods. During practice gastric secretion also increases, hence improving digestion. The range of the abdominal and diaphragmatic muscular activity may increase by up to three or four times, and the resulting periodic fluctuation of pressure in the abdomen will massage the stomach, intestines, liver, spleen and other internal organs. This will promote peristalsis in the stomach and intestines, reduce blood stasis in the abdominal cavity, and improve regulation of internal secretions, further helping to improve digestion and assimilation. As a result appetite is likely to improve, enabling patients to eat more, a great help in the process of treatment of many ailments.
The Circulation System:
Blood vessel activity during practice depends on which form one is practicing. During the practice of "internal cultivation" and "relaxation and quiet" qigong, blood vessels in the hands manifest expansion in over half of the subjects, this being more marked in the case of the latter style, whilst blood vessel contraction sometimes appears in practitioners of "standing pole" qigong. In experienced practitioners, however, transition of the blood vessels remains relatively stable. In those who inhale longer than they exhale, an increase in cardiac output is registered, while a decrease is registered in those who exhale longer than they inhale. This is the result of the influence of the respiratory center on the cardiac-vagal center and heart rate. However, tests on practitioners of both "internal cultivation" and "relaxation and quiet" qigong register a general drop in heart rate. A clear lowering of blood pressure also appears in those who persist in daily practice.
All in all, we can see that the most important effects of practice are that it lessens the intrusions of emotions, allowing the body to reach a state of high physiological and bio-chemical efficiency through greater relaxation and concentration. Furthermore, the relaxation, contemplation and breathing aspects of Qigong can enable the cerebral cortex to prepare to meet any urgent need, provide advantageous conditions for the organism's rest, recuperation and regulating functions, and through gradual adjustment reduce the overall consumption of energy and increase the body's ability to resist illness.