A Few Thoughts on Qi Gong

Carl Hendel, M.D.

The increasing popularity of breathing exercises based on Chinese Qi Gong has led to discussion amongst practitioners as to the appropriate way to introduce this practice to the novice westerner. There is no doubt or disagreement that breathing practices can have a significant beneficial effect on our health. I believe it important that students understand that this is a deep study and has many benefits, but some reported concerns. The comments below refer to Qi Gong as it is being widely presented currently. The area of Qi Gong healing (the use of a highly cultivated healer's mind-intent to influence the energy of another) is beyond the scope of this writing.

I am often asked about Qi Gong. How is it different from Tai Ji? In many ways, Tai Ji is Qi Gong. I certainly am no Qi Gong master, but I do sincerely study Tai Ji. Like almost everyone else, I am just a student. The comments are based on one perspective, through my limited experience.

Qi Gong is the practice of qi cultivation. It is usually considered a breathing exercise. It basically teaches the movement of the qi through the movement of the breath. There is a higher practice, that of moving the qi with mind intent (Nei Gong.)

In many Tai Ji schools, students are taught when to breathe as they move through the form. In our school, a key principle is "use mind not force." Beginning students may, through impatience or misunderstanding, force the breath, impeding the process of personal cultivation. Some believe that there is a relationship between emotions and the energy body, and incorrect breathing can actually lead to stagnation and repression of emotions. We teach that the person is to relax body and mind completely, the mind mobilizes the Qi ,and the breath will follow. In this way, Tai Ji is a Nei Gong practice.

One of the major health crises in our society is the disconnect between body and mind. One powerful way to heal this wound is through breath awareness. Qi Gong provides a series of simple exercises that anyone can learn that are beneficial for health. There is a major explosion of Western interest in this Chinese practice. Like any other great power, it is to be approached with appreciation and respect, as well as cautions. While fire can cook our food, it can burn down our house. Carelessness and inattention to detail will limit one's ability to accomplish his goal of qi cultivation. There is another Chinese term worth knowing, Gong Fu, the dedicated commitment to the work of personal cultivation. It is not careless or easy work.

I believe there to be responsibility for people who decide to teach Qi Gong to large groups. I advise that they clarify that these simple exercises are based in principles of Qi Gong, but are not the Gong Fu of Qi Gong. I suggest that some precautionary comments about practice and attitude (reverence, equinimity, etc.) are appropriate.

Here are some suggested cautions regarding the safe practice of Qi Gong:

Never use force.

Only practice exercises that you know to be completely safe.

Do not try advanced practices without a knowledgeable teacher.

I have referred to "principles" several times. An example of a practice principle is the requirement of correct alignment of the body in the energy field of the earth (gravity.) Without such alignment, the relationship of human being between heaven and earth may be lost. The benefits and safety of the practice derive from following such clearly understood relationships and principles that have been known for hundreds of years. The Classics remind us that "most give up the near and seek the far...missing by a little leading miles astray....and..... without long practice one cannot suddenly understand."

Qi Gong, like Tai Ji, is an investment. With a small investment, you will get a small return. As one begins to deepen the practice the benefits will become apparent. With a large investment, there is a big return.

I encourage everyone to learn more about practices that integrate body-mind-spirit, and to sincerely develop a relationship with correct practice, be it Qi Gong, Tai Ji, or many other meditative practices. Any of these can be your Gong Fu.

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