Ancient movements energize and center you
If life is about maintaining balance, the ancient practices of qi gong (pronounced CHEE-gung) and its older “cousin” tai chi has demonstrated physical, mental, and spiritual benefits that can help us balance our lives.
Qi gong is an indoor-outdoor exercise. The only equipment you need is yourself, and the patience and intention to learn something new that’s also really old. These smooth sequences of flowing movements and mind-body interactions may actually date back at least 3,000 years.
Defining qi gong
“There really is no specific English-language word to completely describe what qi or chi is,” says acupuncture and naturopathic physician Mark H. Nolting, ND, L.Ac., of the Edmonds Wellness Clinic in Edmonds, Washington.
“The word qi essentially means breath or the essence of energy behind the breath and the way we move it around us,” says Dr. Nolting, who’s been teaching qi gong for 30 years. “Gong is the gentle exercise or movement described as the manipulation of that breath or energy. Qi gong also is the root of all martial arts.”
The National Qi Gong Association describes qi as the life force or vital energy that flows through all things in the universe. It says gong is an accomplishment or a skill cultivated through steady practice. Qi gong incorporates a posture, breathing techniques, and mental focus.
Keep It Simple
If this sounds too difficult, remember that when something is new, it can sometimes feel unattainable but is actually very much within reach. Take a deep breath and promise yourself to take qi gong one simple step at a time, Dr. Nolting says.
Considered a part of traditional Chinese medicine, qi gong really doesn’t have to be complicated, he says. It is usually practiced standing or sitting, and it may be done if someone is pregnant or uses a wheelchair, he says. “It’s appropriate for all ages, including for those in their 80s or 90s.”
He practices every day, starting first thing in the morning in a special spot in his backyard and then later during his daily morning walk. “Although the practice is not religious, I also frequently incorporate a bit of prayer at that time,” he says.
What to Expect
You may do still meditations, during which you hold postures for specific periods of time, just as you do in yoga. You’ll do low-impact exercises while you work to improve the movements and postures. Then, as you become more advanced, you’ll learn to recognize the flow of energy that’s occurring as you do this moving meditation.
How to Get Started
Here’s how Dr. Nolting suggests you begin. For three or four minutes, with a focus on being centered, you breathe intently and rhythmically out of the lower abdominal area, right below the navel. To challenge yourself, you can “stretch” your breath. For example, count one-two-three-four on your inhale, holding your breath for several seconds, then exhale at the same count. Try to increase one count each time, maybe up to 10. If your thoughts interfere, it’s ok to notice them, but then dismiss them and return to focusing on your breath.
The joy of qi gong is that you don’t have to stress much about anything. “You want to clear out thoughts and clutter in the mind. Don’t try to over-think this,” Dr. Nolting says.
If you’re already fit, some of the starter exercises may seem easy, but qi gong is about progression. And just as with yoga, more advanced exercises can be as challenging as you want them to be. With qi gong, you don’t have to be a super strong weight lifter or so flexible you can put your palms on the floor when you touch your toes.
You can feel proud that you’re accomplishing something that you actually enjoy, and that’s good for your body and your brain.
You’ll also perform physical exercises very slowly and deliberately, usually starting with the arms. This might mean swinging both arms at your shoulders, first from side to side and then back to front, as you explore their full range of motion. Next, you might move your hand up and down in front of the body as you focus on that experience.
“Then you ‘move’ that energy into various other parts of the body, using arm movements,” he says. “You may also move your legs, but you’re really not going anywhere. As you practice qi gong and its flowing movements, you imagine moving what’s called your mind’s eye throughout different parts of the body. That helps you retain your focus and center the energy right there.”
Reap the benefits
Don’t expect qi gong to do the same things for you as “intense” exercise such as running several miles or doing strength training for an hour. Sure, you can do those things too, for qi gong is an ideal complement to your current exercise program. It’s just different.
It is also a safe, alternative form of exercise for many people who may not be motivated to do the “usual” forms of exercise. According to a 2011 review of health benefits published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, here’s what qi gong can do for you:
- Improve bone density
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate
- Improve physical function
- Enhance balance and posture, and help prevent falls
- Improve quality of life
- Strengthen the immune system
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Other research has shown qi gong can raise body awareness in general, which is especially helpful for older adults. Studies have shown it can ease fibromyalgia pain and reduce chronic neck pain. It also may diminish symptoms of menopause and chronic fatigue.
Where to Learn
First, always check with your doctor or health care provider before starting any new exercise routine. Yes, you can get tips from watching a video or reading a book, but taking in-person instruction is always preferable, says Dr. Nolting. Your local community center or YMCA or fitness center may offer classes, but contacting a licensed acupuncturist is also an excellent way to find a teacher who is fluent in qi gong. Be sure to ask about their training and experience before you sign up.