What Is It?
Qigong (pronounced “chee gung”) is an ancient Chinese discipline that uses breathing, meditation, visualization, and repetitive physical exercises to cleanse and strengthen the body. Translated from the Chinese, qigong literally means “working with energy.” It is believed that this form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) promotes health and vitality by strengthening the flow of qi (energy) throughout the body.
Although the martial arts tai chi and kung fu evolved from qigong, this discipline is traditionally practiced to keep the body in harmony rather than as a method of self-defense. Qigong is also used as a complementary therapy for a variety of ailments from asthma to high blood pressure.
There are two types of qigong: internal and external. Internal qigong is practiced by individuals themselves to promote self-healing. External qigong is a form of psychic therapy that involves the transfer of qi from a qigong master to another person for curative purposes. The master may touch areas on the other person’s body or simply pass his hands over the body. The extra qi received by the beneficiary is said to balance the person’s life force and promote healing. External qigong is not widely available outside of China.
How Does It Work?
Internal qigong can be practiced by anyone, and like tai chi, is often done by the elderly to maintain flexibility, balance, and general vitality. (Many people find it easier to do than tai chi.) While learning from an instructor is best, many people start off teaching themselves from a book or videotape.
There are thousands of different qigong exercises. Instructors use the word “form” to refer to a specific sequence of individual exercises that are traditionally performed together. The exercises may consist of simple movements designed to teach improved breathing or more complex exercises, similar to calisthenics, that can affect functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. The exercises are typically done standing, sitting, lying down, or while walking. Although forms encompass a broad range of movements, they all call for three essential ingredients: relaxation, concentration, and controlled breathing.
In addition to strengthening one’s qi, practicing internal qigong can improve physical fitness by strengthening the heart and enabling it to pump more oxygen-rich blood with each beat. Furthermore, it is believed that the meditative aspects of qigong can reduce stress and enhance general well-being.
What You Can Expect
While qigong exercises may look simple, guidance from a trained professional can help you reap the maximum benefits from the discipline. You may wish to take lessons privately or in a class. Experts often recommend doing qigong with others because it allows you to experience the collective energy of the group.
Because the definition of qigong (“working with energy”) is so broad, the class format often varies according to the instructor. A typical class might start with standing meditation, proceed to various exercise forms, and end with more meditation. You will be taught to breathe from the diaphragm: Some exercises place an emphasis on inhalation, some on exhalation; others give equal weight to each. Teachers generally advise students to keep their breaths slow, long, soft, and even. If standing is difficult for you, qigong can be modified to be performed sitting or lying down.
Classes may meet once a week for eight to 10 weeks or the discipline can be learned in intensive week-long or weekend courses. Whether you take classes or practice on your own, maximum benefit comes when you devote at least 30 minutes to qigong every day.
Proponents of traditional Chinese medicine believe that doing qigong regularly strengthens the mind, body, and spirit. Indeed, there’s little question that this discipline can reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Claims for qigong’s ability to actually treat disease, however, come mainly from China and have not been backed up by rigorous scientific studies in the West. Nevertheless, qigong is often prescribed as a complementary treatment for certain ailments.
Some practitioners suggest that doing qigong increases the flow of lymphatic fluid throughout the body, helping to strengthen the immune system. Because it promotes relaxation, qigong may also decrease the heart rate. A recent Columbia University study found that it may also lower blood pressure.
Some people suffering from migraines and osteoarthritis use qigong to help relieve pain (it’s thought that the exercise may stimulate endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers). Other ailments it may help treat include sleep disorders, bowel problems, and asthma.
More controversial is qigong’s purported ability to reduce the risk of cancer or to possibly bring about a remission in those who have the disease. While there are few studies showing qigong’s benefit for cancer patients, Chinese doctors commonly use qigong as a complement to conventional cancer care.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Currently, there are no national standards for qigong instructors (though practitioners often have licenses in other specialties, such as acupuncture). To find a class, look for information at an acupuncture clinic, yoga center, gym, or health-food store. Your local YMCA or YWCA may also offer classes. If you prefer to learn qigong privately, contact a martial arts school and ask them to recommend a good instructor.
Don’t commit to a private instructor or group class until you are sure the teacher is right for you. Be suspicious of anyone making claims of miracle cures. If possible, observe a class or take a trial class if one is available. Talk to the other students in the class and be sure to inquire about the instructor’s background and experience.
You can also check the library or a bookstore for books and videotapes that can supplement what you have learned in a class.
If you are pregnant, you should do only mild qigong exercises and only under the supervision of a teacher experienced with qigong during pregnancy.
Avoid qigong if you have a tendency toward dizziness.
While qigong can be helpful for mild depression or anxiety, it may agitate people who are experiencing a severe mental or emotional disturbance and should therefore be avoided if this is the case.
Qigong can sometimes cause numbness in the extremeties. This is generally harmless, and changing movements and breathing patterns will usually resolve it.
David Edelberg, MD