Principles of Qi Gong
In practicing Qi Gong exercises, a common question asked by the beginning practitioner is “How does this work?” and “What is happening to my body when I perform these exercises?”. To fully answer these questions may not be possible. To begin, the first stop is to define the body. Qi Gong systems are based upon the assumption that the body is primarily composed of subtle energy. This subtle energy manifests eventually as the visually obvious physical body and it is a necessary, essential component of the physical body. A traditional way of describing this condition is with the three characters Shen, Qi, and Jing. These three elements form the essential trinity of our physical manifestation.
Shen, Qi and Jing
Shen is generally translated as the spirit / mind that forms the active force for maintaining form and providing consciousness. When it is disordered, the form of a person changes and consciousness becomes disturbed in ways that western psychology describes as “neurotic” or “schizoid”.
Qi is the vital active force that animates the physical body and its vital functions. It is a person’s vitality that causes others to describe them as energetic and alive. A person may have a strong Shen or mind, but their body may not be very vital or alive. When the body has Qi the person is obviously energetic.
Jing is the underlying physical essence, a mixture of constitutional or genetic force that is associated with the sexual function and vitality of a person but without the clearly obvious active energetic presence of Qi. It is often associated with the perception of depth or a quality of endurance of a person.
These three qualities- Shen, Qi and Jing – form the basis and actuality of the physical, emotional and spiritual manifestation of an individual. They are united in a functional relationship and interact to mutually support each other. The assumption includes the idea that by performing certain actions, the relative strength and appropriate relationship of these three qualities can be affected. Traditional Chinese Medicine practice uses many methods to do this, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage, dietary practices, and Qi Gong exercises. Qi Gong utilizes a wide variety of methods to affect this relationship. The Shanghai Qi Gong Research Institute has identified over 1200 distinct systems. However, the main active principles for Qi Gong exercises are breath, posture, movement, relaxation, and concentration / visualization. These five principles are involved to varying degrees in any system. Depending on the style, a particular principle will be the predominant focus of the activity. For example, in the Taoist Elixer System, breath and relaxation are emphasized while the concentration / visualization principle is of lesser emphasis. Posture and movement are included, but not stressed. Depending upon the tradition, a particular principle will be of greater or lesser emphasis, but all of these principles will be active in any specific circumstance.
To answer the question “How does this work?”, the specific system can be analyzed in regards to its major emphasis. The five principles form the framework for understanding. Each one has its own specific effect.
The breath is linked very closely with the Qi. In Traditional Chinese Medical theory, the lungs function to govern the Qi and respiration. They disperse or move the qi through the entire body via the channels and their collaterals. The lungs cause the Qi to descend to the lower part of the body, activating and fueling the vital physiological functions associated with digestion and formation of blood. The lungs also rule the surface of the body and the Wei Qi, or protective Qi, that moves just below the surface of the skin. It forms a protective barrier to the invasion of the body by external pathogenic agents. The use of breathing techniques to mobilize and intensify Qi flow is very old. The breath is also associated with the spiritual link between the physical and spiritual worlds. All the major ancient spiritual traditions in both the East and West utilized breathing methods to facilitate their development of a greater awareness and more intense experience of spirit and energy.
In more modern scientific terms, the breath is the method that the body uses to draw oxygen into the blood for transportation to the cells where it provides the biochemical spark for cellular metabolism. Without oxygen the body begins to die very quickly. Breathing also provides an important avenue for releasing gases that are the waste from metabolism. It regulates the acid-alkaline balance of the blood stream and helps regulate the water balance in the body. The mechanical action of breathing uses muscles which facilitate the flow of lymph through the lymphatic system, and activates and massages the organs of digestion and elimination.
Various types of breathing will affect the body in different ways. Abdominal diaphragmatic breathing will lower the blood pressure, activate peristalsis and increase the venous return of oxygenated blood. This increases the overall oxygen level of the blood. It also draws the Qi down into the lower part of the body which helps to relax the mind. Focused lower belly breathing will also strengthen the kidneys and the Mingmen Fire (the kidneys in Traditional Chinese Medical theory are the activating yang element for the spleen and the lungs, thereby activating the digestive and respiratory systems).
Conversely, active breathing that is focused in the upper chest will increase blood pressure and stimulate the heart and lungs to move the Blood and Qi more quickly and with greater force through the body. For persons with low blood pressure and mental dullness due to sluggish circulation of Blood and Qi, this can be very helpful.
Different systems use the breath in a variety of ways. The most common are lower abdominal diaphragmatic or “Post-Natal Breathing”, reverse lower abdominal or “Pre-Natal Breathing”, and alternating cycles of longer-shorter inhale-exhale movements.
Post-Natal Breathing is also often called Natural Breathing or Baby Breathing. When inhaling, the lower abdomen protrudes and the abdominal muscles are relaxed. Upon exhaling the lower abdomen moves toward the center of the body as the diaphragm releases and the intra-abdominal pressure is released. Pre-Natal Breathing, sometimes called Embryonic Breathing, uses an active contraction of the abdominal muscles upon inhaling to compress the abdominal cavity. These muscles then relax and the lower abdomen protrudes upon exhalation. Sometimes the muscles of the lower cavity around the anus and genitals are actively contracted upon exhalation to provide added pressure and to limit the downward flow of Qi to the genitals and lower body. The Prenatal Breathing uses the analogy of the embryo in the womb and how it “breathes” by lifting the chest as its basis. Despite the lack of a clear anatomical basis, this method can powerfully activate the Qi to move through the channels in an upward direction. This type of breathing is very useful in persons with prolapses of the uterus, vagina, or anus.
Alternating cycles of longer-shorter duration of inhale-exhale movements focus upon the duration of the cycles of inhaling-exhaling rather than the mechanics of breathing. By increasing the length of the inhale or exhale or the holding of either, different effects are produced. A longer exhale cycle will decrease carbon dioxide and other toxic gas levels and will decrease blood pressure. Holding the inhale or exhale or space between will concentrate the effects of either. Some systems will include muscular contraction of the abdomen and anus-genitals or use either Pre or Post Natal breathing mechanics to strengthen the desired effect.
It is useful to remember the yin yang principle when trying to assess the appropriateness of a particular method. Remember that more is not better. Too much energy stimulation will create an excess condition which may only intensify pre-existing symptoms. What is appropriate for one person may not be for another. Trying to force more energy through a deficient system may further weaken it by overloading certain organs. The concept of cultivation, a gradual growth due to consistent, intentional activity, is extremely important. This is especially important in the area of breathing exercises since they are the quickest acting and can produce the strongest initial response of any of the principles of Qi Gong.
The use of specific postures for changing consciousness and Qi flow through the body is very ancient. Neolithic cave paintings portray shamans dressed as animals and dancing. Drawings found in the Ma Huang Tui Tombs depict ancient Chinese people in specific postures or “Dao Yin” with explanations regarding the health benefits of each one. Posture, or the literal physical position of the body, plays a very important role in the functioning of all aspects of the physiological process. The most important aspect of posture is the position of the spine. The spine has been called the ridge pole of the universe. The ridge pole was the central post around which the rest of the structure was built. For human bodies it functions as the main vertical support for all of the internal organs and as a pathway for the nervous system. The spine not only innervates the organs but also relays sensory and motor information to the brain. It provides the skeletal framework around which the rest of the skeleton organizes itself to provide bipedal upright posture. The erect bipedal posture is a major evolutionary distinction for human beings. Not coincidentally, the spine provides the energetic link for the flow of Qi into the internal organs from the rear of the body. The Du channel, or governing vessel, flows contiguously with the spine. The Urinary Bladder channel forms two branches that run parallel with the spine. The Transporting, or Shu, points are located on the back branches and send energy directly to the major internal organs. They are used both diagnostically and therapeutically in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In terms of health, the position of the spine affects the relationship and functioning of the internal organs most directly. When the spine is chronically flexed and rotated it literally compresses the internal organs, producing impaired circulation of Qi, blood and fluids in the digestive tract. Due to the very close physical relationships of the abdominal viscera, compression also results in an accumulation of venous system blood, or stagnant blood in Traditional Chinese Medical theory. This blood contains toxic gases and waste products of cellular metabolism which change the ph or acid-alkaline balance of the blood, making the blood less able to absorb oxygen and Qi from the lungs.
The flexed rotated posture of the spine also affects the function of the lungs and the mechanics of breathing by reducing the available surface area of the lungs and biomechanically reducing the intake volume by inhibiting the physical range of motion of the mechanism of breathing.
The position of the channels that flow out to the extremities is also affected by the position of the spine and posture in general. The flow through specific channels can be altered due to muscular tension through a particular joint structure. For example, the shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers are the physical landmarks across which the Large Intestine, Small Intestine, Lung, Pericardium, Heart and Triple Heater channels flow. They mutually interact in that trauma or emotional tension of an area can also affect the Qi flow of the entire channel. The Qi level and flow of a specific channel can also affect the muscular tension of the region through which it passes producing either an excess-tense, full, or deficiency-lax, empty (which may still be tense) muscle.
The importance of posture is that by consciously altering body position, the underlying problems can be affected. The Qi can be consciously made to flow more or less through specific areas. A general balancing of the entire body’s Qi flow can be accomplished through correct use of posture. In addition, chronic internal organ disorders can be helped through correct posture. Repositioning the suspension of the organs by correcting inappropriate chronic flexion and rotation in the spine increases the Qi and blood flow through the organs. This relieves Qi and blood stagnation and improves organ function.
Correcting posture also helps improve the overall biomechanical functioning of the musculoskeletal system. This helps harmonize the nervous system by reducing chronic muscle tension and lowering the overall stress and tension of the body. By reducing pain and sensory motor nerve activity the nervous system as a whole functions more harmoniously.
A more appropriate posture that allows for a free flow of the Qi and blood prevents and delays many musculoskeletal degenerative diseases that originate due to chronic overuse and inappropriate biomechanical relationships of the joints. This adds years of positive health to a person’s life.
An erect spine and stable lower body structure aid the body in resisting the constant pull of gravity. This benefits the overall energy of the body by reducing the activity level of the muscles involved in maintaining upright posture. Rolfing or Structural Integration has emphasized this concept in its deep tissue bodywork.
The use of repetitive movement of the body effects the nervous system, circulatory system, and the free flow of Qi through the channels. Repetitive movement harmonizes the nervous system and is used in many cultures to induce trance states associated with shamanic practices. Together with posture, repetitive movement effects the body in a variety of ways via the increased free flow of Qi and blood and its effect on the nervous system. Repetitive movement activates the circulation of Qi and blood by mechanically squeezing stagnant Qi and Blood from blocked areas.
The rhythmic contraction/relaxation of the muscles compresses the capillary system that brings nutrients and oxygen to the cells and takes away carbon dioxide and waste products of cellular metabolism. This literally squeezes and forces the blood through the low pressure end of the circulatory system, more efficiently feeding and nourishing the cells of the body. This action also increases the flow of lymph and intracellular fluids. The lymphatic system is very low pressure. It relies upon muscular contraction to move the lymphatic fluid through the system. By increasing rhythmic movement of relative low intensity and frequency (ie. slow and relaxed), the system is activated but its load is not increased due to large amounts of blood being forced into the capillaries by harder, more forceful exercise. The lymphatic system plays an important role in immune system function by removing dead bacteria and the cellular debris of infection and drawing lymphocytes to the area to help fight infection.
Repetitive, slow movement facilitates the function of the autonomic nervous system by lowering sympathetic nervous system activity and raising parasympathetic nervous system activity. These two parts of the autonomic nervous system function to regulate and control a wide variety of physiological activities that are vital to the healthy functioning of the respiratory, digestive, urogenital and reproductive systems. Generally, the sympathetic nervous system is associated with an activated musculoskeletal system. It inhibits the functions of the digestive and reproductive systems by shunting blood to the muscles and stimulating the release of hormones that heighten and increase awareness and readiness for motor action, or the “fight or flight” state. The parasympathetic nervous system functions by activating the digestive and reproductive systems. It stimulates the restorative functions that the body needs to recover from sympathetic nervous system arousal. Blood is shunted to the deep internal organs for use in digestion and nourishing the body. In a society where crisis and stress are frequent, the dilemma is acquiring adequate time for the parasympathetic system to do its part in recovering from sympathetic arousal. The restorative functions not only support the immune system but act to prevent aging and chronic diseases due to the habitual over-activity of crises and stress. The rhythmic action of repetitive movement helps remove the cellular byproducts of stress and facilitates the activation of parasympathetic functions.
Repetitive movements facilitate the free flow of Qi through the channels and collaterals. Qi tends to stagnate at areas of the body that contain muscular tension. Stagnant Qi has a causative and symptomatic relationship with muscular tension. When the Qi balance of the organ associated with the channel is either excess or deficient it can stimulate muscular tension at specific areas of the body. When emotional or mental disturbances or habits activate the muscles causing chronic contractions, the flow of Qi can be inhibited. This causes localized stagnation and either a systemic (organ related channel) excess or deficient condition. Repetitive movement facilitates a systemic rebalancing of the Qi by relaxing muscle tension and facilitating the flow of Qi through the channels. Various conditions in Traditional Chinese Medical theory are affected by this, especially conditions involving stagnant Liver Qi and deficient Kidney Yang Qi. Particular systems of Qi Gong or Health Exercises that emphasize repetitive slow movement are Hua To’s Five Animal Frolics cultivation exercises, Taoist Elixer System exercises and Taijiquan.
The principle of relaxation integrates the attibutes of the other principles and adds a harmonizing aspect. Relaxation refers not only to the neuromuscular and endocrine condition of the body, but also to the emotional and mental manner in which the activity of Qi Gong is performed. This attitude of relaxation is critical to the complete functioning of the other principles involved. By approaching the activity as a means of relaxation and with the attitude of trying to relax while performing the activity, the principles of breathing, posture and repetitive movement are potentiated. In addition, relaxation increases the positive effects of these principles by removing neurological “road blocks” to the free flow of Qi and blood.
Relaxation lowers the background of sensory input “noise” from tense muscles and tendons. It allows greater discrimination of essential muscles in movement and posture. Relaxation also lowers the overall metabolic energy activity of the body by reducing the neural and cellular activity of the muscle cells. This also allows the circulatory system to remove the biochemical waste products of cellular activity and nourish the cells, thereby providing important nutrients for rebuilding and repair. Relaxation facilitates the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and the sedation of the sympathetic nervous system. This also facilitates the restorative activities of the internal organs.
Performing activities in a relaxed state increases learning by reducing inhibiting anxiety states. Chinese Olympic swimmers practice relaxation Qi Gong before practices and competitions in order to remove inhibiting anxiety states that impair performance under competitive pressures.
Perhaps the most important aspect of relaxation is that it enhances the pleasure and fun of performing activities for health. When an activity is performed in a relaxed manner it is inherently more pleasurable. This increases the positive motivation for performing the activity and adds greatly to its positive effects.
The principle of concentration can be understood as the active mental component of an activity. The idea of intention or mind intent – mindfulness – implies a level of attention involved in performing an activity. Another implication is that the awareness of the practitioner is joined with the intention required to perform the activity. This provides a twofold benefit. The practitioner intends the activity, thereby investing in an outcome, and by involving awareness in the performance of the activity, the neural feedback required to perform the activity well is made available. This increases the positive experience of the activity by making it easier to perform at a higher level.
In Tradition Chinese Medical theory, the mind, or concentration/awareness is associated with the concept of Shen. Shen is one if the “three treasures” of life, Shen, Qi and Jing, or mind, energy and essence. These three treasures form the essential components of the living person. Shen, or mind, is the mental aspect, represented not only in the nervous system but also in the spiritual aspect of a person. The Shen denotes not only the focused activity of their nervous system, but also the spirit or sense of presence that a person brings forth when performing any activity.
Qi is the vital energy of the body. It is the active motivating force not only of cellular metabolism but also the electromagnetic and subtle energies that are circulated in the channels and collaterals of the body.
Jing, or essence, is the constitutional component that a person is born with, or the vital essence of the reproductive system that allows and drives us to procreate the species and ourselves. It has a more substantial quality than either Qi or Shen.
Within the tradition of the “three treasures”, the Shen leads and controls the Qi and the Qi directs the Jing. The mind directs the vital energy which draws the essence with it. In practical terms, the Qi follows whatever the mind focuses on. The mind leads the Qi to a certain place. When the Qi is focused there and gathers the essence, substance will be formed. Physical change will occur. This explains how so many different systems of meditation and Qi Gong exercises can still function when presenting seemingly contradictory theoretical and activity structures. When the essential component of concentration – mind intent or Shen – is brought to bear upon a certain idea and activity, it will function to make it work. Conversely, when practicing any activity in a mindless, unconcentrated mechanical manner the functionality of the most practical and simple method is severely impaired, drastically limiting its positive effects.
Concentration can also be expressed in purely mental terms as imagination. The use of imagination, or creative visualization, does not usually involve external activity of the body. It is well documented that imaginal states and the powerful images experienced during these states can produce intense physical experiences that lead to measurable changes in physiological functioning. Firewalking, and resistance to cold and other normally harmful stimuli, can be temporarily induced through powerful imaginal states. The use of visualization of Deities and Spirits has been a central method for many different traditions and religions. The creative power of the mind may manifest in a wide variety of ways, but the essential element of all of its manifestations is concentration.
To return to our original question, “How does Qi Gong work?”, it is still not possible to completely answer. But the principles of breath, posture, movement, relaxation and concentration are most definitely involved. From another perspective, all of these activities of Qi Gong are the activity of the nameless Tao in its eternal wanderings, a brief sparkle of the eternal in the sea of darkness as all things come into being and return to the formless.