Chi Gong

Your guide to chi gong

What is chi gong?

Chi gong is the English translation of simplified Chinese characters that roughly mean life force cultivation. It is also known as qigong, qi gong, chi 'ung and chi gung, among other names. These all mean the same thing to a Chinese ear, however. The difference is that westerners tend to pronounce consonants slightly differently to make the right sound, hence why chi and qi, for example, are both attempts to write the same sound in English. Regardless of the terminology used, all practitioners of chi gong will adopt a system of body posture movements to coordinate their breathing and position with their internal selves in a form of meditation. There are many reasons that people take part in qi gong, such as to improve their health by manipulating the life force, or qi, that runs through them, to gain deeper spiritual insights and to practice a form of martial art. It is practised widely in China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea.

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 What is the difference between tai chi and chi gong?

There is no difference between tai chi and chi gong. Like the aforementioned other translations of the term, they effectively mean the same thing. Tai chi has become one of the commonest ways for the practice to be referred to in the West, especially the United States and the UK. However, many people who undertake this form of exercise will know it by other names. That said, some people will differentiate between different forms of qigong by using different terms. In the West, this sometimes means that tai chi is used to refer to a series of practised movements for a sequence that affects the whole body. In contrast, chigong is often used to talk about specific movements designed to help in specific situations. Nevertheless, these distinctions are far from being universal. In the main, the terms are interchangeable.

What is the origin of tai chi?

Originally a Chinese practice, tai chi is said to date back over four millennia. In both Taoist and Buddhist traditions, tai chi was used to help people to meditate and to gain spiritual insights into themselves from the point in time when they began to spread throughout southern China. It is also known that tai chi features in some early texts relating to TCM traditional Chinese medicine where it appears to be recommended as a kind of preventative cure-all. There again, the philosopher and statesman Confucius is known to have promoted the practice as one that can help improve the moral character of individuals while also helping them to enjoy a long and satisfied life. The practice spread throughout eastern Asia largely by word of mouth, with masters of tai chi passing on their knowledge to students. Many millions of people practise it regularly throughout the world these days.

Is chi gong a martial art?

Yes and no. It is said that many of the movements associated with tai chi come from martial arts postures. Indeed, there are some 75 ancient forms of the practice that are still in operation today, and some owe a great deal more to martial arts than others. Active chi gong, often called dong gong, uses a slowed down and deliberate set of movements that echo martial art postures. On the other hand, a more passive form of chi gong, jing gong, focuses much more on still positions accompanied by very controlled breathing. Both owe something to martial arts, but, clearly, less passive forms of tai chi tend to be easier to directly associate with activities like kung fu or karate. Bear in mind that many martial arts focus on chi, or life force, to help develop power. In this regard, it is probably best to say that chi gong is a foundation of most martial arts rather than constituting one in its own right.

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What is chi gong breathing?

Breathing – or, more accurately, focus on breathing – is a big part of all forms of chi gong. That said, it is often referred to as a practice in its own right. It is very similar to mindful breathing that people will often practice when they are trying to clear their minds so that they can enter a meditative state. In the Taoist tradition, chi gong breathing means returning the air we have inhaled to the world in such a way that each exhalation is in harmony with the world. In practical terms, this will mean centring oneself so that each breath means something and is not merely a passing moment. By focussing on an activity like breathing, chi gong practitioners believe that the body becomes more aware of itself and is not dominated by thought processes so much. Using the diaphragm to aid exhalations, rather than the rib cage, helps to push the air out of the lungs in a way that many people find therapeutic both at a spiritual and physical level.

Can you teach yourself chi gong?

Yes, you can. Although the skills and movements in tai chi and chi gong are usually learned from an instructor, it is possible to teach them to yourself. There are some free videos you can stream which will demonstrate the basics, for example. However, without the feedback of a master or tutor, it is not always easy to determine whether what you are doing is as correct as it might be. Sometimes, people read self-help books that help them. 'Teach Yourself Chi Kung' by Robert Parry is just one example of the sorts of practical guides you can buy for yourself. Equally, 'Qi Gong For Beginners: Eight Easy Movements for Vibrant Health', which first came out in 2007, provides plenty of easy to follow tips for people who are teaching themselves. Remember that even if you are learning what to do on your own, it does not mean you cannot attend a guided session here or there to help make sure you are on the right track.

What is chi gong energy healing?

Like other therapies that deal with chi, or life force, chi gong can be used to heal. The idea here is that people suffer from ailments and conditions when their energy, or chi, is out of alignment and not flowing through the body as it should like acupuncture, which focuses on certain points of the body where needles can help to improve the flow of chi so that chi gong movements can promote a better flow of chi. In other words, simply by taking part in a tai chi session, many people believe you can help your body to stave off unwanted problems, such as contracting a disease. In some forms of chi gong, the focus is firmly placed on manipulating energy flows. It is these types of the practice that are most often referred to as chi gong energy healing. However, it is important to note that all forms of chi gong include some element of energetic healing.

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Is tai chi a religion?

No, it is not. Some people think that it crosses over into religion because of some of the spiritual aspects of the practice. However, like Buddhism, it is probably best not to categorise it as a religion and more of a philosophical approach to life that marries both the inner self and the outer, bodily one. In certain Taoist traditions, there is a strong association with the benefits and practice of tai chi. However, even Taoism, which some people consider to be a religion, is really more of a philosophy in many regards despite its similarities with other religious rituals. Few Taoists, even the most religiously minded ones, would consider tai chi to have anything to do with organised religion. Consequently, people of many faiths, such as Hindus, Muslims and Christians, all practice tai chi without thinking that it interferes or contradicts their other spiritual beliefs.

Which forms of chi gong are there?

As previously mentioned, there are some 75 forms of qi gong that are to be found in the ancient literature pertaining to it. Many of these have fallen into decline. That said, new forms have come into existence that has largely replaced them. In the main, there are five forms of the practice that you will find going on nowadays. These are medical, spiritual, martial, life-nourishing and intellectual to put them into their approximate categories. Each has all of the elements of qi gong at its heart. As such, they do not differ greatly from one another to an untrained eye. Rather, each form places less or greater emphasis on the different aspects of qi gong to provide sightly differing outcomes. One of the most popular in China is medical qi gong which has many different sub-forms. These are designed to focus on particular ailments, such as muscle tendon change qi gong, for example.

Is chi gong good for mental health?

Many people who practice chi gong find that it is good for their mental health. In most cases, improved mood is one of the most straightforward outcomes. This could be because it is a form of physical exercise but many people who do it find it is even better for them than other things they do in terms of sports and physical activity. Psychologically speaking, chi gong tends to help people to recover from anxiety and depression as well as helping them to react less to stress. However, some studies have also shown that it may have a physiological benefit in terms of lower levels of cortisol production, a hormone that is associated with stress. All forms of the practice tend to help with these mental health outcomes.

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What does medical science say about chi gong?

Perhaps surprisingly, there have not been very many large-scale scientific studies into chi gong or tai chi. This may be because there is, on the face of it, very little to study. The physical movements of the practice cause very little stress on the body. At the same time, the internal aspects of it are hard to study unless you ask people what they think the spiritual and psychological benefits are, something that is clearly subjective. Nevertheless, a 2009 review of the published medical science on chi gong found that there was little evidence to support it as a mechanism for pain management. Another review into the science in 2010 found that there was little to recommend the practice as a cancer treatment and that those studies which suggested it might be tended to be poorly designed or under-researched. However, some more recent studies have suggested it may be of benefit in helping certain cardiovascular conditions.

Can tai chi help you lose weight?

Although tai chi is not advisable as a way to lose weight in its own right, it can certainly help to do so as part of healthy eating habits. One study that was conducted in 2015 found that adults who took part in tai chis several times a week for a period of 45 minutes lost weight compared to a control group. This study also asked the participants to make no other lifestyle changes during the 12 weeks it went on. Of course, as a form of physical exercise, tai chi will help your body to burn more calories than it would do without doing anything physical. Therefore, tai chi can help people to lose weight, but there is nothing intrinsic about the practice itself that makes it beneficial in this regard other than that it involves physical activity.

Is chi gong a form of self-cultivation?

Yes, chi gong in all of its forms is a way of cultivating oneself physically, mentally and spiritually. In fact, the term chi gong started to be used in the 1940s and 50s in China to refer to self-cultivation exercises generally. Part of this is the fact that it is usually conducted communally in China, where large groups of people will perform the same moves with one another in unison. In other words, it is a socially unifying practice as well as one that focuses on the inner self. More emphatically, however, chi gong is a form of self-care whereby people do it to look after themselves. Although the more spiritual aspects of it may be more closely associated with self-enlightenment, all forms of the practice offer the chance for self-cultivation in some way.

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Chi gong in summary

Although it goes by many different names and forms, chi gong is widely enjoyed around the world as a form of relatively gentle exercise that people of all ages and abilities can take part in. Furthermore, although it is often regarded as a martial art or the basis for one, taking part in a chi gong session is a non-competitive physical activity. This means that practitioners can focus on their inner selves more during the activity rather than being concerned about the performance of opponents. Conversely, as a group activity, chi gong often has a unifying effect on people as they seek to coordinate their movements and postures with other participants. As such, it is both an individual and a group pursuit at the same time.

Of course, many people who take part in chi gong or tai chi in the West do so simply because they regard it as a recreational activity. However, at the heart of the practice is a form of self-cultivation which aims to get the best out of participants' sense of self. Sometimes this will come about because practitioners simply feel more relaxed as a result of their activity, but it is more likely that it will help them to meditate or, at least, put them into a more meditative frame of mind. By focusing on movement and breathing, so chi gong practitioners are often able to operate in a more mindful way both during sessions and afterwards. For some, this level of focus also helps to manipulate the chi, or life force, which is a big part of East Asian religion and philosophy, to self-heal and to stave off illness.

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