Qigong (or Chi Kung) is a general term that refers to various methods of Chinese exercise. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of qigong methods, but each is broadly based on the same philosophical and medical theories. These include the principles of yin and yang, Five Element theory, traditional Chinese medicine, Buddhism, Taoism and so on.
The phrase qigong consists of two Chinese characters: Qi, which can be literally translated as breath, and Gong which is translated as effort or work (as in Gong Fu). So, at one level, qigong means "breathing exercise". At another level Qi also means energy or vitality and, in Chinese medical terms, is often described as a vital force that circulates in the human body (as well as in the world around us). This energy has many components, including the oxygen we breath in, energy from the food we digest and so on. So qigong can also mean exercise to focus and refine the body's natural energies.
Broadly speaking there are five different areas of qigong training:
Healing - using qigong for general health
Taoist - to strengthen the body and spiritual development
Buddhist - to develop health and extraordinary potential
Medical - to heal others
Obviously there is considerable overlap in practice and theory of all these areas, but it is important when beginning qigong to have some idea of what your goals are. For instance, sitting in cross legged contemplation may be an excellent method of spiritual meditation, but it is not designed to improve your ability to take blows. It is also important to start at a basic level if you have not done any qigong training before. At a basic level there is very little or no chance of qigong proving harmful. This is not the case if you go into advanced breathing methods, visualisations or Iron Shirt training. Then there is a real risk of both physical and mental harm. The guidance of a responsible and knowledgeable teacher is important at that stage.
In Tai Chi Chuan we use an exercise called Standing Post as our base qigong. This is a very simple (but not easy!) method which brings benefits very quickly in a number of areas. For martial artists it is a good qigong to practice because as well as the health benefits, we are also getting some good martial training, both of which I'll discuss later. In the Yang Family system there are 18 postures in the Standing post set (not just 6 as claimed by some teachers). Students start with the first three basic postures:.
Start in an upright posture (figure 1). Make sure the shoulders and chest are relaxed and the back is straight (but also relaxed - don't "stand to attention"). Spend a minute or so concentrating on your breathing, slowing it down (breath in and out through the nose).
Bend the knees into a "horse stance". Try to get your knees in line with your toes. Make sure the back is still upright - it is very easy to lean forward or back. Get a friend to check, or use a mirror if possible. Slowly raise your hands to shoulder height, with the arms as though you are holding a large ball (fig 2). Keep the elbows a little lower than the wrists in order to help keep the shoulders down. The fingers are opened, but relaxed, there should be no tension in any of the joints. Keep the body weight sinking down into the legs. After a few minutes in this posture, slowly lower the arms to waist height (fig 3). Maintain this position for the same amount of time. To finish, slowly straighten the knees and return to your original posture.
So that's the exercise. There are three areas we need to look at in order to make the exercise effective: EXTERNAL PHYSICAL POSTURE
As described above. Take care to ensure an upright back (tucking the pelvis under slightly helps), shoulders and chest relaxed and feet parallel. The feeling is almost like you are about to sit down in a chair. INTERNAL PHYSICAL POSTURE
This firstly relates to breathing. Breathe in and out through the nose, slowly and gently. Try to breathe from the diaphragm rather than just the chest muscles. At a later stage you can use the reverse breathing method.
The second aspect is what happens to the muscles - they will start to tense, particularly the legs. It is not uncommon for people doing this exercise for the first time to experience shaking legs (even if you think you have strong legs). Try to work through it. To help dissolve the tension try to focus your breath going to that part of your body. Let the tension go rather than fight it.
In some ways the most important. I have seen people practice Standing Post for 30 minutes or so, during which time they looked around, spoke to other people and so on. Doing this sort of thing may help your legs a bit, but little else. It is very important that you have a focused and concentrated mind in this sort of training. A common misconception is that we practice qigong and Tai Chi Chuan in a dreamy, trance-like state. This is not the case. Without correct intention (what the Chinese call "yi") the exercise is futile. For a beginner, the focus should first be on the breathing. Feel each breath as it comes in and out. It may help if you count the breathes - work in cycles of 10 - this will certainly aid your concentration. You should also be constantly reviewing your posture and correcting it, trying to relax into any tension and so on. At a later stage, once the above can be achieved without too much conscious thought, the focus can move to other areas.
When watching people doing Standing Post most people's reaction is that it looks easy - so easy, in fact, that they won't bother trying it themselves. This is a shame as Standing Post has many benefits.
On a physical level it really does build up the legs. Not only do they become stronger, they also become more relaxed and flexible. Regular practice opens the joints and stretches the thigh muscles. The stance also becomes firmly rooted - by that I mean that you are able to sink all your body weight into the legs. The stronger your stance the more power you can put out or absorb.
Regular practice also helps relax the upper body. Tension in shoulder, neck or arm inhibits the release of power when striking. Likewise tension in the chest inhibits oxygen intake. For those in competition particularly, the ability to move freely and easily while expending less energy is a distinct advantage.
On a mental level, practice develops a quiet concentration and strong focus. Over time you will be able to put this into anything you do. This has profound effects in terms of countering the natural fear and anxiety we all feel when put under pressure. It's also a good tonic for the mind, the chance to take time out from the rigours of the day. One reason we sleep is to allow the brain to process all the information we take in during the day. Standing Post does the some thing, after practice you should feel more mentally alert and aware.
Standing Post also helps the body's natural healing process. By promoting positive relaxation we promote blood flow, oxygen intake and so on. This has a positive effect on recuperating from injury or illness - note however that in case of fever or high temperature it is best not to practice. One other cautionary note - in the early stages of pregnancy it is best to avoid practice (at a later stage it should be OK, but practice only lightly, do not bend the knees too much). Of course, in any such cases you should always follow the advice of your doctor.
At this basic level it is not necessary to have a deep knowledge of the meridian system, or visualise energy travelling from here to there - indeed it would probably be a hindrance. Simply set aside 10 minutes somewhere to stand quietly each day, and within a week you will be feeling benefits.
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