Qigong (or Chi Kung) literally translates as ‘Qi practice’. It is a Chinese method of exercise that seeks to harmonise the mind, breath and movement of the body so as to cultivate resilient health and strength. There are 1000’s of different types of qigong with different functions, for instance martial and medical – in hospitals in China patients may be taught specific qigong exercises as part of their treatment regime. Recently, I encountered a 73-year-old martial practitioner who, standing in a normal stance, could sustain the full effort to move him of men literally twice his size and half his age, however his muscles were incredibly relaxed and limber when you touched him.
The question of ‘what is Qi?’ tends to come up in Westerner’s minds – it is so imbued as a concept in the landscape of the traditional Chinese that the same query seldom arises and Chinese teachers often respond to it being raised with a degree of amusement: “Why would you even bother to ask that?!” I feel that it remains a valid if elusive question. The concept of meridians as channels for Qi in the body relating to the different organs is a fundamental aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine. One of my teachers, Chen Xiao Wang has said that Qi relates to the nervous system – certainly much qigong practice involves directing one’s mental focus within the body, inevitably involving the nervous system. However, in my own practice I have found it useful not to define Qi too rigidly. It provides a useful metaphor for a tangible relationship between the mind and body, akin to the manner in which the gears operate between the engine and tyres in a vehicle, to quote Chen Xiao Wang again. Qigong is more of a direct experiential than intellectual pursuit – knowing what something is does not necessarily provide a useful relationship with it.
The style of qigong that I have learnt is rooted in the ‘internal’ martial arts, with a strong focus on health, relaxation and strength. It involves working with the primary channels that run around the front and back of the midline of the body. A key aspect is putting the mind (not the thoughts!) into specific sites in parallel with fairly simple shapes and movements. These are not as complex or elaborate as those comprising T’ai-Chi, liberating the practitioner’s attention from the raw choreography to facilitate tangible experience of the effects upon the body and mind.
What are the benefits of qigong practice? There are many areas that may benefit from qigong. It is useful for posture, providing a relaxed manner in which to align structures. It focuses upon stretching and rejuvenating the tendons (connect muscle to bone), so often the focus of injury and strain. It helps build a deep form of flexible and relaxed strength, particularly in the lower extremities, in turn helping support the spine above. There is a stress reduction function – many modern people exist in a state of pervasive worry because they have too many things going on in their minds from moment to moment. Having something that invites near-total absorption provides respite from this purgatory, helping to reform and rebalance the mind away from a tendency to being over busy – sources of stress may not evaporate but your relationship with them can be eased. This meditative aspect perhaps alongside the effect upon the meridians has potential physiological benefits for such areas as blood pressure and digestive function.
Beyond these health-related functions, there is also the pure interest inherent in exploring a totally different exercise paradigm from that dominant in our culture. Qigong often appeals to those who do not get on with gym-based exercise, enabling them to do something useful for their bodies. Since I first encountered Chinese internal arts in the mid-eighties I have found endless fascination and benefit in their pursuit – not without reason – in days gone-by the Chinese considered them as a pinnacle of their culture. It is not an over-statement to say that qigong can radically transform the relationship the practitioner has with their body.
I teach a range of exercises providing access to the core of Qigong practice and offering a system of exercise to attendees. Classes are quite hands-on when adjusting body alignments. Regular attendance plus some home practice between classes will greatly assist progress.
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