Qi gong, pronounced “chee gong,” is a gentle, flowing form of movement therapy that delivers a variety of health benefits. The words qi gong mean “energy work” or “energy cultivation.” Once only associated with Taoist and Buddhist monks in China, millions of people around the world now practice this regimen of meditative motion and deep breathing to enhance their physical and spiritual wellbeing. Since 1989, qi gong has been recognized by Chinese hospitals as a form of medical treatment for health conditions like fibromyalgia, and has been steadily gaining popularity in the United States within both the conventional and integrative health communities.
What Is Qi Gong?
You have probably seen people, on their own or in groups, holding poses that resemble yoga asanas, martial arts stances or super-slow dance moves. Chances are they are practicing qi gong, or its sibling discipline, tai chi (tai ch’i). The two share some similarities in their movements, but they are not exactly the same—qi gong is a broader category of energy work that includes tai chi and various forms of martial arts.
“Qi gong is more foundational than tai chi and is usually incorporated into any devoted tai chi practice,” says Kelly Clady-Giramma, Dipl.O.M., L.Ac., an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. “Practicing martial arts or tai chi without a solid understanding of qi gong is often referred to as an ‘empty practice’ because it lacks depth and internal power and merely develops external muscular power.” There are many varieties of qi gong, and different ways to order the movements, which allows for an entirely unique and malleable experience, depending on your needs.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the principles on which qi gong is based, energy (qi) flows through our bodies along channels called meridians. When this energy is strong and flowing freely to all parts of your body, you are in a state of good health. Disturbance in this flow is thought to give rise to disease, and blockage of the flow is felt as chronic pain. Long-term exposure to big and small stressors—whether that’s undergoing cancer treatment or simply handling the pressures of a busy life—depletes our supply of qi. The calm movements and breathing patterns that comprise qi gong are designed to help restore a healthy, flowing balance of qi throughout your body, which helps improve your health and balance your mental and emotional state.
There is also a spiritual component to qi gong: Practicing this discipline is thought to bypass the mind and connect your body with your spirit, allowing you to achieve a higher state of being. You may find that a regular practice provides you with a clearer sense of purpose and peace.
Qi gong is generally performed standing up, although you can do it in any position from seated to prone (face-down) to standing. Practitioners lead you through a series of rhythmic, stylized movements, often including common ones such as raising and lowering the arms, twisting the torso gently from the waist, and gently rubbing the ears, feet and hands. You will hold the moves for several seconds or even minutes at a time, while focusing on your breath and visualizing your qi moving freely throughout your body.
Perhaps the most recognizable and quintessential qi gong pose is called standing meditation, which can be held from several minutes to over an hour. (Standing with your arms in “hug a tree” position is popular, although many arm positions can be used.) Most qi gong practices end with a variation of standing meditation which, unlike seated meditation practiced in yoga, strengthens the entire body without impact while increasing stamina and endurance. This is why qi gong is considered the foundation for many styles of martial arts: It creates both a calmness of mind and a power of body that are needed to defeat an opponent. This same power promotes the body’s self-healing ability.
Health Benefits of Qi Gong
Qi gong movements can help improve joint flexibility, muscle strength and range of motion. With its meditative elements and focus on deep, diaphragmatic breathing, qi gong is an effective way to manage tension and anxiety, too. Here are some of the other documented health benefits:
- Lowers Stress Levels: Studies have shown that a regular practice of qi gong can enhance nervous system activity and lower stress hormone levels. Because chronic stress increases your risk for illness and disease, this is a powerful health benefit.
- Promotes Heart Health: A study in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that qi gong helped people with intense, computer-based jobs slow their heart rate and blood pressure all day long, taking some pressure off their hearts. When your heart isn’t overtaxed, it’s at lower risk for developing disease.
- Reduces Pain: Women with severe fibromyalgia reported 73 percent less pain after five to seven sessions with a qi gong master, according to research in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. In rheumatoid arthritis patients who practiced qi gong for one to two hours a day, 83 percent reported improvements in symptoms compared to 57 percent who only received medication.
Starting a Qi Gong Practice
This meditative practice is suitable for all body types, ages and fitness levels, and is gentle enough for those with physical limitations or health issues (be sure to still discuss starting a qi gong practice with your doctor if you have an injury or condition).
You may want to begin by familiarizing yourself with the basic movements and principles of qi gong. Many community centers, gyms or other health facilities offer classes, and you can also look into local qi gong clubs and associations that offer tutorials or workshops to the public. There are many books and DVDs that can give you helpful lessons, as well.
Some styles of qi gong are best practiced at a particular time of day, such as in the early morning or the late afternoon, as those are the points of natural transition between the dark coolness of night (yin) and the bright warmth of day (yang). While you can practice qi gong anywhere, you may want to practice outdoors, where you can reap the soothing benefits of connecting with nature. Many qi gong groups meet in parks for this very reason. You can practice for just a few minutes a day, or take a full hour to go through more movements.
You’ll use slow deep abdominal breathing and a relaxed posture, and you’ll be alert but won’t mentally focus on anything in particular, which some qi gong masters call "cheerful indifference.” When practicing qi gong, you always go at your own pace and never push yourself to an uncomfortable or painful place with movements. How much you do is up to you and your goals.