What is qigong (chi-gong)? Qi Gong roughly translates as energy exercise or breath exercise. Its used to refer to a wide variety of exercises including meditation, calisthenics, deep breathing, self-massage, dietetics, etc… The Chinese use of the word is a modern term for what was traditionally called yang sheng shu: the Art of Nourishing Life.
References and roots to these practices go back to the first millenium B.C. and the Chinese quest for health and longevity. After that, techniques from physicians, religious devotees, and martial artists all contributed greatly to the development and enrichment over time. The development of these practices cross-fertilized with the medical ideas of the times. Many qi gong practices reference and are explained by Traditional Chinese Medicine physiology and the acu-points.
Qi Gong exists today in a variety of different forms and styles, each with its own special characteristics and techniques. It can be said that all internal arts practices, including Taiji, are all qigongs.
Why do qi gong, why practice it? Speaking very generally, qi gong practice develops relaxation, focus, and integrated body-mind awareness. The Chinese have done a tremendous amount of scientific research on the subject in the last few decades. The core of what they’ve found has to do with the effect on the cerebral cortex which controls the central nervous system. If it becomes over-excited or exhausted, then the cerebral cortex cant function well. As this goes on, various body functions suffer from the decline in regulation and control, eventually leading to illness. The illness itself will then send harmful stimulus to the cerebral cortex, further burdening it. Qi Gong provides a way to break this cycle, it provides the cerebral cortex with a protective inhibitive state, reducing stimulation from chronic illness, giving it time to recuperate. It does this through the practices of focus of mind, relaxation of body, and the coordination of the two.
The amount of research is quite large. For example, research by the Beijing Railway Hospital showed that after forty minutes practice of a certain qigong practice, red blood cells increased by anything from 21 to 590 thousand per sq.ml. , white blood by 400-6000 per sq.m., and hemoglobin content by 1.5-2.3 gms. per sq. ml. This has tremendous impact on increasing oxygen supply to tissues and improving the body’s immune system.
One of the quickest ways to get up and running as a qi-gong practitioner is to learn about “zhan-zhuang“: stake-standing, a.k.a. standing-practice. You can get benefits very quickly without first having to do a bunch of body conditioning. My biggest recommendation is to make standing practice a part of your life everyday, and then go on to other things. Some qi gong masters do only zhan zhuang, it contains everything you need. Here are some simple instructions for standing to get you started.
A lot of people are drawn to the grace of moving qi gongs like taiji. I dont blame them. I’m partial to Chen style Taiji myself (which includes in its repertoire its version of zhan zhaung, as do all the internal martial arts). I’ve seen and experienced a bunch of different styles of qi gong here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Top one I recommend, if you are already doing standing, is Wild Goose Qigong. There are a lot of good and valid qi gongs out there, but Wild Goose is known, and a safe bet for a newbie .