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What is Ch'i Gung (qigong)?

by Dimitri Kostynick

In recent years, the term ch'i gung, often spelled qigong, has gained much attention in the United States. Almost every documentary or traveler to China reports of people in the park at dawn performing slow, graceful exercises. Ch'i gung in many ways is similar to the better known Tai Chi Ch'uan. Today literally millions of people around the world practice ch'i gung. It is the cornerstone of the health care system of the People's Republic of China. There, it is formally taught in the hospitals to patients recovering from illness, as well as practiced by individuals, especially older people, as a means of preventative medicine.

Ch'i gung (qigong) is a Chinese term currently used as an overall reference to a system of breathing and movement exercises to strengthen the internal life energies which are the basis of Chinese medicine. The widespread use of the term ch'i gung, or qigong, is relatively recent. These energies are cultivated for health (both preventive and recovery), longevity, and enhanced sensory awareness and feeling of well being. There are a number of different types of ch'i gung. The various types are derived through sources from Taoism, Buddhism, systems combined by the government of the PRC, and systems that are primarily medical or martial. No single system is necessarily best for everyone, as each has something to offer. Gentler than traditional martial arts, the main point is that practice should promote health and not injure the student. While my background is in Tao Ahn Pai (Taoist Elixir System), a traditional Taoist monastic system, taught by Master Share K. Lew here in San Diego, I will be describing general information applicable to most systems of practice.

To understand why ch'i gung is different from other systems of movement such as dance or aerobics, it is necessary to briefly look at traditional Chinese views of vital energy or life force, the body's anatomy and physiology, and the way ch'i gung works with those structures. In China, the understanding of the body and the medical system (acupuncture, massage, herbs, diet, ch'i gung) has its origins in the Taoist religious tradition. Three important points are listed below.

The first is that Taoism influenced Chinese culture to view humanity as an important, physically interconnected part of nature. The human body is linked to nature by the existence of a vital life energy, generally identified as ch'i. Most, if it not all, traditional cultures recognize the existence of some type of life force. The second point is that ch'i gung treats human anatomy and physiology different from that discovered in Europe. European medicine is based on physical structures that can be seen and felt. Chinese medicine is based on the existence of different types or frequencies of energy in and around the body rather than only one type of "body energy." This vital energy manifests through "structures" such as the "meridians" (pathways for the circulation) and the three tan tien (energy centers) whose existence is based upon the energies. The third, and perhaps most important point in a practical sense, is that the energy systems of the body can be developed by the daily practice of exercises which do not require any religious belief.

An example of this last point is acupuncture, which is based on the use of this energy which works whether the patient believes in it or not. Although a positive outlook is important for the healing process to be successful, acupuncture must be performed by a properly trained and qualified practitioner. The use of acupuncture on Western visitors to mainland China as a means of anesthesia for surgery shows that the human body is the same regardless of the cultural differences in the person's mind.

Ch'i gung is composed of exercises that specifically open up the meridian structures, develop awareness and strength in the three tan tien, build energy in the organs which store it, and increase the amount and circulation throughout the body.

Generally, it is necessary to practice every day, as each day's practice builds on that of the day before. It also is good to practice in a quiet, peaceful setting. Different instructors have their own recommendations about specifics of practice such as diet, time of day, and place (indoor or outdoors). What follows are some general components that should be present in any system.

For an individual exercise to be complete, there are four elements. The first element is the movement or posture (standing, sitting, or lying). Whereas tai chi ch'uan (which has the same roots and same goals) is a continuous sequence of movements lasting anywhere from 7 minutes to one-half hour, ch'i gung, is characterized either by a set of exercises with brief pauses between, or by single postures held for a period or time. Also, where all the moves of tai chi ch'uan are combat moves, the postures of ch'i gung have no combat application. Many people find this aesthetically pleasing.

The second element is the use of the breath, of which there are several aspects. The first is the coordination of the inhale and exhale with the movement. The next has to do with the mechanics of the breathing. While inhalation is generally through the nose, exhalation can be either through the nose or mouth, or both. An important aspect, traditionally not taught, is the placement of the tongue in the mouth. Depending on the exercise being performed, it may touch a specific part of the mouth or change position during the exercise.

The third element is the focus of the mind or "spirit." There is a distinction between shen ("spirit") and yi ("mind"). However, more details about the distinctions between ching (endocrinal), ch'i (circulatory) energy, and shen ("spirit") will be discussed in a future article. The issue here is where one's focus is concentrated, whether the spirit/mind focus is on a specific part of the body (such as the hands, feet, tan tien, or an internal organ); or if it is naturally relaxed in a "soft focus."

The fourth element is the use of the eyes. The Chinese, as do most cultures, recognize the eyes as the "windows of the soul." It is through the eyes that the mind/spirit is often focused. Some exercises require the eyes to be open; others require them to be closed.

Traditional systems generally include some form of quiet sitting meditation. However, many of the sets of exercises coming out of the PRC do not.

Something that can be important to long-term students is the way different sets of exercises fit together into systems. One hallmark of a true system is a continuity or similarity between exercises in different sets. An example would be individual moves or postures that are basically the same in different sets, but with different breathing patterns or tongue placement. In the last few years, there have been many people teaching different sets of exercises. All too often however, they teach sets learned from different instructors and different systems in a haphazard manner. While many legitimate instructors have learned different systems under different masters, the traditional view is that it is best to learn one system at a time. Over the course of a lifetime, there is ample opportunity to progress in the study of various systems. While sets from different systems may compliment each other, they also may move different frequencies of energy in ways that are not fully compatible.

An analogy is mixing prescription drugs without supervision. Serious study requires direct training with an instructor with several decades of experience. It is best to study with someone who has medical training in case something does go wrong. If one intends to study more than one system, generally it is best to do so with the same instructor. One-on-one instruction is important in the learning of ch'i gung. It is important to have a personal instructor as a book or videotape cannot correct your form. Neither can it answer your questions. The issue of correction of form is important. It is best to study with an instructor who is capable of perceiving the energy flow in the student's body. An experienced instructor will be able to determine if it is necessary to make changes in the form of the student whose energy is not moving; or to wait and let the exercise do the work over time.

While the movements of ch'i gung can be deceptively simple, the results can be immeasurably rewarding. With practice, people typically feel stronger, more flexible, and experience an enhanced sense of well being. It is especially encouraging to see people in their 70s and older, feeling more alert, vital, and active, after only a short period of practice. With the spread of the practice of ch'i gung in the U.S., its popularity will continue to increase.

Master Share K. Lew of Wong Lung Gung (Yellow Dragon Taoist Monastery), Canton, China, was the first to openly teach ch'i gung to Westerners in 1970. For further information, you may reach Master Lew at (619) 295-9855.

The author, Dimitri Kostynick, a senior student of Taoist Master Share K. Lew, currently lives here in San Diego and is pursuing a doctorate in Anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Martial arts articles of interest by Jade Dragon Online:
Martial Arts:   An Overview   Part 1 of our two-part series
Martial Arts:   An Overview   Part 2 of our two-part series
The Roots of Martial Arts
Profile:   Sifu Share K. Lew
The History of Kung Fu San Soo
Dragon Style Kung Fu
100 Years of Fighting Films
Chi and the Martial Arts
The Art of Arnis
Wing Chun - A Traditional Kung Fu System
Goju-Ryu Karate-Do: An Okinawan Treasure

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