What is Qi Gong (or Chi Kung) and how does it compare to Yoga?

Qigong (pronounced chee-gong) is an ancient Chinese mind-body discipline, practiced by millions of people of all ages and physical conditions to promote health, happiness, and long-life. Like Yoga, qigong is a very broad umbrella, including many different traditions and types of exercises. It can be done for at least five purposes–(1) exercise, (2) relaxation, (3) healing, (4) martial arts conditioning, and (5) spiritual development. Some readers may have heard that qigong is associated with some religious groups, such as the well known, Falun Gong cult. This is a misunderstanding; Falun Gong is a religious cult that uses qigong, but qigong itself is not religious, and can be practiced by anyone, regardless of their spiritual beliefs. There are many well-documented medical benefits from practicing qi gong, including improvements in circulation, the immune-system, digestion, arthritis, asthma, and emotional well-being. Anecdotally, after I started practicing qigong I lost my seasonal allergies, and have never had a headache since that time.

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Ask it in the Yoga forum, Chinese people believe that qi gong may be as much as 5,000 years old, dating its invention to the legendary emperor Huang-Di who laid the foundations of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Both Qi Gong and Traditional Chinese Medicine are founded on the philosophical principles represented in the I Ching, “The Book of Changes,” and best known to Americans through the yin-yang symbol. Contrary to some popular misconpetions, yin and yang are not supposed to be supernatural forces; the yin-yang symbol simply represents the profound observation that there are two complementary sides to everything, that everything is always changing, and that harmony arises through a dynamic balance of opposing forces–just like in High School physics!

Qi Gong is not about beliefs and concepts. It is about learning how to feel and work with energy–the natural mechanical, electomagnetic, and chemical energies that move through our bodies and the world around us. The word “qigong” means “energy work” and qi (“chee”) is not, as some people may have heard, a mystical or supernatural energy unrecognized by science. Qi really just means “energy”; the Chinese character for qi is comprised of a picture of a bundle of rice, which stands for “food” in general, under a symbol, meaning “air” or “breath”–in other words, the ultimate sources of all the energy in the human body–nothing more mysterious than that. It is true that in traditional Chinese culture, qi is thought of as the source and substance of all things, the force which animates life, and something which can be harnessed to generate great power. But any modern scientist would say precisely the same thing about “energy.” At the same time, breath is a metaphor for spirit in Chinese, as in many ancient cultures (e.g. prana in Sanskrit and ruach in Hebrew), and this implies that one’s breath and energy can be vehicles for spiritual experience, if you wish to practice in that way. The word gong, means “work,” not in the sense of “a job,” but rather in the sense, of labor and discipline; it implies diligence and perseverance (it is the same word as the kung in kung-fu).

As a practice, every qigong exercise has at least three ingredients–(1) something to do with your body, (2) something to do with your breath, and (3) something to do with your mind. My teacher always said you have to be using at least two of these three to be doing qigong, but using all three brings the most powerful benefits. There is both moving qi gong and still qi gong, and both internal qi gong (nei gong), which benefits your internal organs, glands, and nervous system, and external qi gong (wai gong), which benefits your muscles, tendons, and joints. Both kinds of qi gong activate the “energy meridians” used in accupuncture, and most qi gong exercises combine internal and external benefits to varying degrees. The movements are generally circular and remind people of wind and water. The mind is usually counting and paying attention to the feelings of the energies in one’s body. The exercises can range from the most general to the most strenuous, and a good teacher will help you learn how to do them in the right way for your curent physical condition and goals. Often in qi gong, the same exercise can be used for relaxation or to develop great strength for the martial arts, depending on how you do it! It is fun to be doing qi gong and realize that you could be on the road to developing all those supernatural fighting abilities seen in the classic kung-fu movies, like flying and shooting lightning bolts out your fingertips! And although these are just entertaining stories, I have seen with my own eyes that qi gong can enable people to retain great strength and agility into their nineties, which should be enough of a miracle for any of us!

What is the difference between qi gong and yoga? One qi gong master once joked, “the difference is in qi gong, when someone tries to knock you off your mat, you don’t have to move.” And this joke contains a lot of truth. Qi Gong, like Tai Chi, emphasizes “rooting” even more than Yoga does. In fact, nearly all qi gong exercises are done on your feet, with relatively few sitting or lying positions, and the ability to “root” so well that no push can move you is one of the first you will develop if you practice qi gong for strength. Yoga emphasizes flexibility a little more than qi gong; there are few qi gong positions that anyone will have any trouble getting into, approximately anyway. But the biggest difference to me has to do with the fact that qi gong has healing and fighting applications. Classes can be more interactive than yoga classes, often including a wide range of activities, and this tends to foster a playful light-hearted atmosphere.

This brings us to the last points to know about qi gong; it will make you calmer, happier, and more confident. It will teach you a lot about yourself and how to deal with other people, and other external forces in your life. It will prevent or alleviate many physical disorders and generally anable you to make yourself feel better on your own terms. It is something you can do every day with ease, without equipment, and which you can continue to do up to any age. Personally, I feel it is the best thing I have ever learned (and I have a Ph.d.!) and I am happy that I can share this knowledge with you.