Qigong: Centuries Old Wisdom for Modern Times
Modern life is busy and stressful. The speed in which we live can be exhausting and the catalyst for a host of ailments. In our chronically overscheduled lives, learning to cultivate a sense of balance can be difficult. However, there is an ancient solution to this very modern problem: Qigong, a centuries-old method viewed as a way to find peace, balance, mindfulness and a way to tap into one’s life energy.
Originating in China, qigong is actively practiced around the globe by people of all ages; from those seeking increased flexibility, health, spirituality, improved posture, and ease of movement. What is qigong and how has this “life energy” form of exercise become such a popular form of self-care?
Qigong can best be described as a gentle form of martial arts that unites breathing, movement, and meditation. According to the National Qigong Association, qigong is not one form. It literally has hundreds of styles and applications, traditions, practices, and lineages. What is agreed upon is that, at its center, qigong is a philosophy based on two essential aspects: qi, the subtle breath or vital energy; and gong, a skill cultivated through steady practice working to stimulate our Meridian system.
Qigong: Where Mind Body and Spirit Come Together
Whether called qigong, chi kung, or chi gung, the ancient form dates back more than 4,000 years with evidence that the earliest version can be linked to shamanic practices that evolved into Taoist belief. This iteration eventually became associated with the Yellow Emperor and the Huangdi Neijing, or Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, the influential reference book for Chinese medicine.
Despite the many benefits qigong provides, those benefits remained hidden in China until the West was allowed entry after a visit by President Nixon in 1972. Initially adopted by those within the New Age movement, qigong masters began to introduce the form to new audiences, eventually reaching the 1993 PBS series “Healing and the Mind” with Bill Moyers, which allowed millions of viewers to learn about the modality, increasing interest and practitioners.
Qigong Exercises: Healing From Within
The balance at the center of qigong is based on the theory of yin/yang. The yin is focused on breathing, relaxation, visualization, and stretching and can be beneficial for mindfulness training, stress reduction, and spiritual development. The yang is more aerobic and dynamic, geared toward building one’s immunity, and for treating more serious conditions such as cancer. The exercises move through 12 primary channels and eight extra channels which provide support, strength, and harmony on a holistic basis, from mind to body, to spirit.
The most basic qigong form is known as Baduanjin, often called the “Eight Pieces of Brocade.” These highly descriptive movements include: Pressing the Heavens with Two Hands; Drawing the Bowstring and Letting the Arrows Fly; Separating Heaven and Earth; Wise Owl Gazes Backward; Punching With Angry Gaze; Bouncing on the Toes; Big Bear Turns From Side to Side; Touching the Toes then Bending Backwards.
Another popular style is “Spring Forest Qigong,” taught by Chunyi Lin, Grand Qigong Master. Founded by Lin in 1994 and reported to be one of the leading training and healing centers, the modernized take on an ancient form that claims to be a “simpler, effective system of movements and meditations that can be done anywhere, anytime, and by anyone.”
Common to all styles and derivations of qigong are three intentional corrections:
- Posture: It is believed that the health of the spine is critical to releasing blocked energy, higher and more sustained endurance, stronger immune systems, and fewer injuries.
- Breathing: Qigong uses abdominal breathing which oxygenates our cells, as well as relaxes our nervous system, and cleanses toxins from our systems.
- Mental Awareness: Qigong’s gentle movements, focus on abdominal breathing, and supported posture help to foster a heightened mental awareness or mindfulness.
The reported result of the three intentional corrections is what practitioners describe as a sense of “cheerful indifference,” or relaxed alertness.
Qigong vs Tai Chi; What’s the Difference?
Qigong is often confused with a not so distant cousin, Tai Chi. So, how does Tai Chi differ from qigong? Both rely on slow, gentle movements, with qi energy at the core, as well as the goal of healing and well-being. However, the power one gains from Tai Chi is often thought of as being dense, while qigong emanates a sense of lightness. Tai Chi relies on a defined choreography, or “form;” while qigong can be broken up in parts and practiced more freely.
Tai Chi can also take longer to learn because of the intricate and specific moves; qigong movements can be learned quickly with relative ease, with the focus being on stillness and meditation. Tai Chi is often referred to as a “moving meditation,” while, as we will discover, qigong’s meditative practice relies on a sense of stillness.
Qigong Benefits: Medical, Meditation, and Mind
The health and medical benefits of qigong are well-known and well-documented. Health professionals, from cardiologists to psychiatrists, have studied how qigong can lower stress, boost the immune system, increase mobility, and counter anxiety as well as depression. Harvard Medical School has touted the many benefits of qigong including increased cognitive function, balance, concentration, and memory recall. The University of Minnesota’s Earl Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing dedicates an entire section of their website to the many benefits that the different kinds of qigong offer us.
Qigong is appropriate for all fitness levels and can complement an existing exercise routine. The system relies on one’s own body, with no machinery required; the cost, once the exercises are learned, is minimal, and can be done indoors or outside. Beyond the physical movements associated with qigong, there are a number of other aspects to the practice that one can benefit from:
- Qigong Meditation: Practiced sitting, standing still, or lying down, qigong meditation involves visualization, sending the qi energy to a specific part of the body for healing purposes, and focusing on abdominal breathing patterns. In qigong meditation, the sense of ease and relaxation is the focus of the meditative practice, not simply an after effect of it.
- Qigong Massage: Since it is believed that qigong taps into our nervous system’s ability to learn how to calm itself, many qigong practitioners are supplementing the movement and breathing segments of the form with hands-on massage, both from a licensed massage therapist or with self-massage. One population in particular which benefits from qigong massage also referred to as Qigong Sensory Training, are children on the autism spectrum. Studies have shown improved “function of sensory and physiological systems in the body” of autistic children who were exposed to QST over a five-month period. Self-massage can help with vision issues, migraines, and even those annoying “floaters.”
- Qigong Martial Arts: Many martial artists from a variety of traditions incorporate qigong into their practice as a way of increasing their “qi” energy through a series of dynamic and focused tensing and releasing of the muscles, combined with deep abdominal breathing. The results of adding qigong to an existing martial arts regimen are strengthened muscles and ligaments, while also increasing the overall Meridian and internal organ systems.
How to Get Started on the Path of Qigong Wellness
The path to wellness can be lined with many good intentions; the foundation to successfully learning qigong starts with a qualified teacher, either in a class setting, on a private basis, or online. As with any new form of exercise, learning to begin is key. You can conduct a simple online search, allowing you to try qigong in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Another low-cost entry point option is a community recreation center, which regularly offers affordable beginning qigong classes. Or if you learn through reading, there are many books on the aspects of this ancient tradition.
If you crave a more in-depth approach, you can study with a qigong master teacher or at a healing center. As qigong is focused on energy, it is important to look for the following when exploring qigong with a qualified instructor and program:
- What level of mastery does the teacher have?
- What is the teacher’s or center’s lineage?
- Do you connect with the teacher’s energy?
The National Qigong Association is an excellent resource tool to find qualified and certified teachers at various levels of mastery. While there are no national standards for qigong teachers, NQA provides support, training, and information for teacher members, training centers, and practitioners.
Qigong is an easily learned and accessible approach to wellness and tapping into your body and mind’s innate wisdom. This path toward wellness can begin with one step or one breath. Whether you sign up for a class, read a book, or dive more deeply into qigong, you will begin to unlock for yourself, and your life, the multitude benefits of this ancient tradition offers to our modern world.
Transcendence: The Gift of Human Life
Transcendence is the act of rising above something to a superior state. When most people hear the word “transcendence” they usually think of experiences that involve going beyond the physical body. Experiences of transcending the dimension of time and space through meditation, dream states, and psychedelics, such as astral travel, lucid dreaming, time travel, and the list goes on.
I went through a stage in my life where I loved seeking any kind of experience that took me places that I couldn’t normally access within my normal waking consciousness. Transcending the mind and body to access the realm of spirit with practices, such as transcendental meditation, becoming conscious in dream states, and with the use of the sacred psychedelic plant medicine. These practices allowed me to shift my awareness beyond my physical body, mind, and senses so that I could see the different dimensions of reality.
Just as animals view the world differently, such as birds being able to sense more subtle changes in the earth’s electromagnetic field, allowing them to predict and flee from environmental disaster, when our consciousness shifts in form and connects with spirit, we are able to see reality from a different angle.
I had experiences going forwards and backward in time and astral traveled to different countries and planets. I once went to Saturn’s moon, Titan. From all of these experiences expanding my consciousness outside of my normal waking consciousness, I have come to understand that reality is in fact multidimensional and infinite. I have witnessed first hand that everything is created out of thought, thereby making everything possible. As John Lennon once said, “I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind”. Quantum physics also backs this, acknowledging that everything that can happen does happen.
For a good couple of years, I became quite fixated on having experiences where I could transcend the senses and the physical body. I practiced lucid dreaming regularly taking guayusa tea and I loved using psychedelics. Any opportunity to experience something out of the ordinary and I was there. Well, that was until I started experiencing what it felt like to capture these same experiences within the physical body in my normal waking consciousness.
The first time I truly understood how amazing it is to experience the gift of human perception was the first time I ever tried the psychedelic plant medicine, Mother Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca called the ‘mother’ because of her feminine presence of divine love, is the ‘the vine of the soul’. She is an ancient Amazonian plant medicine that has been used traditionally by Shamans, or medicine men, in a ceremony to induce altered states of consciousness to help communicate with other realms and for healing purposes.
Psychedelics, such as Ayahuasca, expand the consciousness beyond the physical body and mind, where you are able to experience what it feels like to come into contact with spirit. When I am talking about spirit, I am talking about the inner essence of the soul which is in absolutely everything. And to come in contact with spirit is to come in contact with the ever-changing and morphing energy which sustains all of life. I could attempt to explain more about how this feels, but it’s not something I can really put into words as it is a feeling that can only be known through direct experience.
Just as you can’t really describe the colour purple or the smell of a rose, you can’t describe the experience of coming into direct contact with the energy of spirit.
The psychedelic experience is entirely unique from one time another and from one person to the next, but most commonly involves people having highly visual experiences and spiritual revelations about the self and/or reality. I myself have had a myriad of experiences taking the medicine, from purging old emotional wounds to feeling the bliss and joy of being touched with the divine. I have time traveled, moved through parallel dimensions and have experienced my consciousness morph with those from other realms, from the spirit world to the animal realm.
I remember one particular experience where my consciousness merged with an ants and I felt tiny, helpless and terrified. I can honestly say that ever since that experience I have developed great compassion for all animals and have never squashed a bug since. Well, intentionally anyway.
Why Explore Other States of Consciousness?
In both psychedelic and deeply meditative states of consciousness, where you are able to connect with your own spirit, you gain access to parts of yourself that you normally wouldn’t be able to in waking consciousness. You can go deep within yourself to places and spaces you aren’t usually aware of, to find deep stressors and memories that are stored within you that are the cause for emotional, physical and mental suffering. When you go deeper into the fabric of your existence to the level of your energetic body, or spirit, you are not only able to witness these old wounds, but you are able to move past them so that when you come back into physical presence, your body and mind feel are less weighed down by these old emotions and memories.
It helps you to free yourself from emotional and mental behaviours and patterns which limit your ability to experience your spirit, or inner joy with freedom of expression.
The first time that I took Ayahuasca, she connected me with my own inner essence, or spirit and I became pure spirit form, morphing into all kinds of different colors, shapes, and geometry. At first, the experience was incredible- a bit like transcendental meditation, but on steroids. And as much as I enjoyed the experience, after about an hour I really started craving being able to feel with my physical body again.
I distinctly remember the moment I sank back into my body- it was one of the most blissful experiences I have ever had in my life. I couldn’t help but continuously touch my own body. It felt like I was reborn again, experiencing being in a body for the first time. I remember crying with such joy and gratitude- how could I normally be so ignorant of how amazing the experience of being alive is? It was a huge wake-up call for me.
I realised just how much I normally take for granted being busy and caught up in my head analysing life instead of simply dipping my feet in its joy.
I spent a couple of years going deep into myself with meditation, yoga, and psychedelics. I used these practices to shift my awareness into parts of myself, or what some call the ‘subconscious’ to heal the emotional wounds of my past. Accessing these deeper states of consciousness, I was able to go in and release the stresses in the body that were causing me discomfort in my mind and body during my waking state. And by releasing the discomforts within the mind and the body, I started noticing that I was able to remain more present in day-to-day life. By entering these altered states of consciousness and deep states of meditation on a regular basis, I was able to clear any parts of myself that were limiting my ability to reach my full potential to be my true, uninhibited self.
Eventually, I started to learn that as amazing as it felt to connect with spirit outside of the body, I could do this within the body. The more I learned to transcend the mind, such as with meditation and psychedelics, the more peace and stillness of the mind I experienced when I came out of these states into my waking consciousness.
The state of stillness, or meditation, that I was gaining access to, which is known in Hinduism as Turiya, or ‘pure consciousness’ was starting to become my normal state of consciousness. Instead of being consumed by discomfort within my mind and body, I was able to feel a profound sense of peace, or watchfulness.
I was starting to learn what it was to be one with my soul, or spirit, within the physical body. Not only was I able to stay more grounded and present in the moment, but I was also able to really feel more. Without the distractions in my mind, my senses started to become more heightened. My psychic senses, such as my ability to feel and hear telepathically, including being able to communicate with animals and plants, started growing developing stronger.
Since starting to feel more alive within my body, being able to see, hear, taste, smell and feel more sensitively, I have come to realise just how amazing the experience of being a human is.
A couple of years ago when I was living and studying in a Buddhist monastery, my teacher kept emphasizing how lucky we were to have the opportunity to experience life as a human, expressing that reincarnation into human form is very rare. I never truly understood this at the time. But now I get it. There is so much that can be experienced in the human body that cannot be experienced in other forms. There is so much potential and so much beauty that can be witnessed with the human body, mind, and senses.
We are pure spirit form before we enter the human body and again when we leave, so for now, I am happy to wait to have any more experiences outside of the body. I now know that what’s more important is that we enjoy every moment that we are alive in this amazing human body that we have been gifted.
After having all kinds of amazing experiences, I can now see that the ultimate form of transcendence is to be present and alive within my own body so that I can experience human life to its ultimate potential.