Wednesday, 23 January 2013

What is Qigong (Chi Kung)?

The character Qi (sometimes written Chi) has no simple one word equivalent in English.  It has been translated as life energy, lifeforce, or energy flow, but definitions often involve breath, air, gas, or relationship between matter, energy, and spirit. Dr Yang Jwing Ming (Chinese physicist and taiji teacher) defines it as “bio-electromagnetic energy”.

Gong (sometimes written kung) actually means time or effort. In this context skill, mastery or cultivation would be more appropriate translations.

Therefore internal energy cultivation exercises would be the one of the easiest ways to translate the term into English. In China the term can be used to describe a wide variety of exercises ranging from meditation to conditioning exercises for martial artists. It would include all of the Chinese Internal martial arts (Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua). In the west the term is usually used to describe stationary exercises practiced for health and qi development.

There are literally hundreds of different types of qigong so it is difficult to generalize about what they look like. General principles include slow relaxed abdominal breathing combined with yin and yang openings and closing of the body, biomechanically efficient posture (i.e straightening the spine and aligning the joints) and smooth flowing movements. Some qigong involves stretching tendons and ligaments in a way that massages the internal organs.

A brief history of Qigong

The term Qigong didn’t become widespread until the 20th century, before this terms like dao-yin ‘leading the energy’, xing-qi ‘leading the circulation of qi’ or yang-shen ‘nourishing the spirit’ were used. As qigong has been passed down orally and evolved gradually over many generations attempts to plot its history inevitably rely on speculation, guesswork and legends. Qigong like exercises are generally believed to be about 5000 years old. Some claim that qigong evolved from shamanistic animal dances, while others assert that it evolved from yoga like exercises that came from India with Buddhism. 

For much of its history qigong was practiced in Taoist and to lesser extent Buddhist temples, with an emphasis on spiritual development and meditation.
Legend has it that Da Mo (otherwise known Bodhidharma), a Buddhist monk from India arrived at the Shaolin temple in the 6th century, to find the monks in such poor state of health that they found it difficult to meditate for long periods. The story goes that he spent nine years in a cave meditating and developed muscle tendon stretching (yijin jing) and bone marrow washing (xi sui jing) qigong to help the monks. At the time the monastery was frequently attacked by bandits, so this qigong was gradually incorporated their martial arts. 

The successful Chinese army general Yue Fei  1104-1142 is believed to have developed the still widely practiced eight pieces of the brocade (ba duan jin) to keep his troops healthy. He never lost a battle.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that qigong was taught openly in China for its health benefits. This was encouraged by the communist party, because there was a shortage of doctors at this time. Up until this point martial artists and monks only taught relatively small numbers in secret. Today qigong is practiced by millions of people in many different countries.  

Common types of Qigong

Standing postures (Zhan Zhuang)  This was the main form of qigong practiced by my two teachers from mainland China. It builds up leg strength and helps straighten the spine. The lack of movement allows practitioners to scan the body for areas of tension and focus on breathing techniques, posture and relaxation.

Wild goose (Dayan) It originated from the Taoist Kunlun school at the end of the 3rd century. It’s one of the longest qigong sets consisting of over 70 movements. Madam Yang Mei-Jun first began teaching it publically of the late 1980s. She lived to be 106.

8 pieces of the brocade (ba duan jin) This 8 movement set can be learnt relatively quickly and easily. Practiced mainly for health and often attributed to General Yue Fei.

Neigong Means internal work/skill. The term is used to describe a variety of exercises designed the increase internal power. The external movements are relatively simple, but are combined with pulsing cavities, stretching fascia, ligaments and tendons and breathing techniques. Bruce Frantzis is one of the few westerners to write about it and teach it openly. 

Bone marrow washing (Xi sui jing) Supposedly developed at the Shaolin temple by Da Mo, this exercise washes the bone marrow with qi. As we age the bone marrow produces fewer red blood cells. This exercise aims to reverse the effects of aging and increase longevity. Unfortunately it’s not taught publically.

Muscle tendon change classic (Yijin Jing)
Also attributed to Da Mo at the Shaolin temple. This set is thought have similar origins to the ba duan jin. Some versions have 10, 12 or 24 movements. It is relatively intense set that aims to strengthen muscles and tendons and therefore promote balance, co-ordination, flexibility and speed.

Dragon and Tiger medical qigong
A 7 movement set that traces the body’s acupuncture meridians and clears out blocked/stagnant qi. Taught to Bruce Frantzis by Zhang Jia Hua and can be used as a treatment for cancer.

Please note there are many other qigong sets that I haven’t been able to include on this list. Some of these exercises can be viewed on youtube, but really require an experienced teacher to explain the internal content and give feedback on whether the exercises are being performed correctly. 

My teachers

I began studying internal Chinese martial arts (Qigong taiji, Xingyi and Bagua) in 2002 and have been able to see many teachers mainly in England and China, but I have also studied in France, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Scotland and Bahrain.

My main teachers have been:

Sean Barkes (Lincoln, England) I have been studying with Sean since 2003. Sean teaches many types of Qigong, Yang style taiji long form and push hands. His teachers include Yang Jwing Ming (Tiawan) and Willie Lim (Malaysia).   Sean is also an experienced practitioner of tradition Chinese medicine.  Sean’s website

Paul Cavel (London, England)  I have been studying with Paul since 2004. Paul is a senior student of Bruce Kumar Frantzis (see ). He teaches Bagua, Wu style taiji, Taoist meditation and Qigong including Neigong. Mainly in retreats and weekend seminars in England, France and Germany.

Zhou Jingxuan (Tianjin, China) I studied with Master Zhou when I lived in Tianjin from 2007 to 2008. Zhou teaches many northern Chinese martial arts including Xingyi quan, Baji, taiji, Jingang Bashi and pigua zhang. (He taught me Xingyi and Yang style taji.) Zhou is unusual for a Chinese Master, because he had 11 long term teachers and teaches westerners openly.  An article about him by one of his western students.
Shang Wu Zhai- Traditional Chinese Martial Arts – Facebook page

Wang Hongjun (Shenzhen, China) 2009-2011. Unfortunately I know relatively little about Master Wang’s teachers and lineage. Wang’s main teacher was from Ningxia province in the North-west of China. His school is named Bei Xi’an, which is a mythical animal that’s half Lion half Tiger. Wang teaches an unusual Yin Bagua, Xingyi Combination form, Neigong and Taiji. 

Phaiboon T.W Cheng (Hong Kong) 2004 and 2009-2011. Sifu Cheng teaches Yang style taiji in Kowloon Park and introduced me to Wang Hongjun. I studied the 24 Yang short form, the Beijing 42 combination form and the 108 Yang long form with him.

I have seen many other teachers a few times these include Nigel Sutton (Malaysia he taught me Guo style Bagua), Mario Napoli (New York he taught me push hands), Faye Li-Yip (Beijing she taught me Sun style Taiji) Willie Lim (Malaysia he taught ChengManChing Yang style taji) Chris Pei (Taiwan Yang style), Zhu Hwa (Beijing Cheng style Bagua) and Shao-Nian Bates (Bahrain Beijing 42 Taiji and Bagua).