Qigong pose

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A Chinese practice based on gentle movements and breathing, qigong is simple to learn and provides many benefits.

Qigong may date back more than 4,000 years, but most Westerners weren’t even aware of it until quite recently. Today, it’s estimated that more than 950,000 American adults have practiced qigong. Pronounced “chee-gong,” the term is derived from Mandarin words “qi,” meaning life force or vital energy, and “gong,” meaning skill or practice. Together, they refer to the cultivation of energy with an aim to maintain health and increase vitality.

A cornerstone of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this ancient form of self-healing has roots in Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and can be traced back to silk paintings from the second century B.C. Developed and honed as both military training and a tribal dance, qigong teachings were shrouded in secrecy and passed down through families and villages, which led to thousands of different styles. Two main strands are practiced today: a movement-based form that incorporates breathing exercises; and medical qigong, which is more similar to Reiki. Read on for a breakdown of this popular practice and its numerous health benefits.

Movement Qigong

In this form of qigong, practitioners lead groups or individuals through a series of slow-paced, rhythmic motions that are simple and quick to learn. It’s typically done while standing, but can also be carried out sitting or lying down. Unlike tai chi, an overlapping art originally intended as a form of self-defense and combat, qigong is more adaptive. It can include individual exercises repeated a number of times, sequential movements, self-massage and meditation, all linked with deep circular breaths. “The principles of qigong are learning how to breathe deep, how to adjust your posture, and how to move intentionally,” says Bryon Abrams, certified qigong and tai chi teacher at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. “It’s essentially a dynamic meditation.”

The practice isn’t solely about moving the body; breath and movement are combined with conscious intention, the goal being to draw qi energy into the body and to breathe out stress, worries or tension. Hands may float up and gently drop back down with the flow of breath, arms may swing while twisting at the torso, or weight may shift between each leg while the arms move as if pulling a slow-motion bow. “Anybody can just bend and lift their knees; the secret of qigong is feeling that deep connection,” adds Diane Chase, certified Mogadao qigong instructor at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort in Sante Fe, New Mexico. “In fact, I call it tree-gong sometimes, because you want to feel like a tree grounded to the earth.”

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When Abrams teaches qigong, he starts by establishing the essentials of practice, setting participants’ posture and making sure their spines are lengthened. He also focuses on what he calls “the 10,000 dramas,” or being mindful of your thoughts. “We often spend our time dwelling on the past or the future. Qigong isn’t about that; it’s about being present and very mindful of how we step, how we breathe, how we flow,” says Abrams. Participants may arrive feeling tense, but they leave totally relaxed.

Medical Qigong

One of the four main branches of TCM, medical qigong activates the same energy channels used by acupuncturists, but without needles. A typical session starts with a discussion about health concerns, and the patient lies fully clothed on a massage table. The practitioner performs an energetic scan of the body, and then uses their qi to energize the meridian pathways and unblock stagnant energy by moving and hovering their palms across the client’s physical and energetic form. “The goal is to balance the system and restore harmony to all levels of one’s being—body, spirit and mind,” says Linda Burquez, DMQ, doctor of medical qigong therapy and fitness instructor at Spa Solage in Calistoga, California. “If someone has a particular concern, like digestion discomfort or a stomach ulcer, then I’ll focus on those specific points.”

Table sessions are mostly hands off, but that doesn’t mean clients don’t experience results. “Some people can feel what’s happening in the moment, others just report deep relaxation,” says Burquez, who concludes sessions by teaching her patients home exercises to maintain their equilibrium. Like massage, it’s a good idea to caution clients to rise slowly and drink plenty of water. In fact, medical qigong can be easily offered in tandem with massage services as a more energetic form of bodywork.

The Right Moves

According to our experts, the results of regular practice speak for themselves. “Qigong has a long history of keeping people well,” notes Cynthia Niermann, certified qigong teacher and wellness consultant in San Clemente, California. “Based on the premise that sickness and stress are caused by energy blockage, it’s also extremely effective for strengthening muscles, keeping joints flexible, and feeling good.” In addition, research published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), among other medical journals, has shown that qigong movements can help improve balance and range of motion, and it’s been linked to boosted mood, better sleep, lower blood pressure and reduced inflammatory markers, some of which are associated with heart disease and cancer.

There is also some science behind it as a stress-minimizing tool. In a study published in the International Journal of Stress Management, subjects reported lower levels of anxiety, depression and fatigue after a 30-minute practice. “When I first discovered qigong, I found a sense of inner peace I’d never really experienced,” says Abrams. “It allowed me to get rid of the chatter and release a lot of tension I didn’t know I had.”

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Even for newcomers, just one class or treatment can make a difference— something Burquez sees regularly on her treatment table. “Clients arrive emotionally challenged, but after a session they have such a strong sense of well-being,” she says. And that sense of serenity isn’t the only thing that prevails: Chase recently taught a 20-minute flash class to six participants—some of whom had just driven for 13 hours—and she noticed that even a quick practice can be reinvigorating. “They said they felt much more alert afterwards,” she reports.

Qigong’s effects may be powerful and instantaneous, but the exercises themselves are simple, gentle and adaptable, making the practice easily added to class schedules and available to participants regardless of age, physical limitations or health issues. “You don’t need to have any experience to take a class. Everyone is capable of doing it,” says Niermann. In fact, moving isn’t even mandatory, adds Chase. “You can do it lying down, and some opt for mental qigong, visualizing the movement and circuit of breath when their bodies aren’t able to physically do the form,” she says.

Abrams incorporates music, chimes and singing bowls—but points out that such props aren’t necessary. “The beauty of qigong is that you really don’t need anything other than yourself,” he notes. Sessions can range from 20 minutes to an hour and don’t require a lot of space—or even a room. “It’s great to do it barefoot in the grass,” says Chase of her class, Body as Brush (pictured below), which starts with a qigong warm-up outside and ends with freeform calligraphy.

One thing is certain: There are a multitude of mindfulness benefits to implementing qigong, whether you plan to offer classes to clients, combine it with body services, or simply start practicing it yourself.

–by Allison Young

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