Qigong, qi gong, chi kung, or chi gung (simplified Chinese: 气功; traditional Chinese: 氣功; pinyin: qìgōng; Wade–Giles: chi gong; literally: “Life Energy Cultivation”) is a holistic system of coordinated body posture and movement, breathing, and meditation used for health, spirituality, and martial arts training. With roots in Chinese medicine, philosophy, and martial arts, qigong is traditionally viewed as a practice to cultivate and balance qi (chi), translated as “life energy”.
According to Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian philosophy, qigong allows access to higher realms of awareness, awakens one’s “true nature”, and helps develop human potential.
Qigong practice typically involves moving meditation, coordinating slow flowing movement, deep rhythmic breathing, and calm meditative state of mind. Qigong is now practiced throughout China and worldwide for recreation, exercise and relaxation, preventive medicine and self-healing, alternative medicine, meditation and self-cultivation, and training for martial arts.
Over the centuries, a diverse spectrum of qigong forms developed in different segments of Chinese society. Traditionally, qigong training has been esoteric and secretive, with knowledge passed from adept master to student in lineages that maintain their own unique interpretations and methods. Although the practice of qigong was prohibited during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s; it was once again allowed after 1976; and disparate approaches were merged and popularized, with emphasis shifted away from traditional philosophy, spiritual attainment, and folklore, and increasingly to health benefits, traditional medicine and martial arts applications, and a scientific perspective. Since a 1999 crackdown, practice of qigong in China has been restricted. Over the same period, interest in qigong has spread, with millions of practitioners worldwide.
Research concerning qigong has been conducted for a wide range of medical conditions, including hypertension, pain, and cancertreatment. Most systematic reviews of clinical trials have not been conclusive, and all have been based on poor quality clinical studies, such that no firm conclusions about the health effects of qigong can be drawn at this stage.
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- Traditional and classical theory
- Contemporary Qigong
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- T’ai chi ch’uan and qigong
Qigong (Pinyin), ch’i kung (Wade-Giles), and chi gung (Yale) are English words for two Chinese characters: qì (氣) and gōng (功).
Qi (or chi) is often translated as life energy, referring to energy circulating through the body; though a more general definition is universal energy, including heat, light, and electromagnetic energy; and definitions often involve breath, air, gas, or relationship between matter, energy, and spirit. Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. Gong (or kung) is often translated as cultivation or work, and definitions include practice, skill, mastery, merit, achievement, service, result, or accomplishment, and is often used to mean gongfu (kung fu) in the traditional sense of achievement through great effort. The two words are combined to describe systems to cultivate and balance life energy, especially for health.
Although the term qigong (氣功) has been traced back to Daoist literature of the early Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the term qigong as currently used was promoted in the late 1940s through the 1950s to refer to a broad range of Chinese self-cultivation exercises, and to emphasize health and scientific approaches, while de-emphasizing spiritual practices, mysticism, and elite lineages.
History and origins
With roots in ancient Chinese culture dating back more than 4,000 years, a wide variety of qigong forms have developed within different segments of Chinese society: in traditional Chinese medicine for preventive and curative functions, in Confucianism to promote longevity and improve moral character, in Daoism and Buddhism as part of meditative practice, and in Chinese martial arts to enhance fighting abilities. Contemporary qigong blends diverse and sometimes disparate traditions, in particular the Daoist meditative practice of “internal alchemy” (Neidan 內丹术), the ancient meditative practices of “circulating qi” (Xing qi 行氣) and “standing meditation” (Zhan zhuang站桩), and the slow gymnastic breathing exercise of “guiding and pulling” (Dao yin 導引). Traditionally, knowledge about qigong was passed from adept master to student in elite unbroken lineages, typically with secretive and esoteric traditions of training and oral transmission,and with an emphasis on meditative practice by scholars and gymnastic or dynamic practice by the working masses.
Starting in the late 1940s and the 1950s, the mainland Chinese government tried to integrate disparate qigong approaches into one coherent system, with the intention of establishing a firm scientific basis for qigong practice. In 1949, Liu Guizhen established the name “Qigong” to refer to the system of life preserving practices that he and his associates developed based on Dao yin and other philosophical traditions.This attempt is considered by some sinologists as the start of the modern or scientific interpretation of qigong. During the Great Leap Forward (1958–1963) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), qigong, along with other traditional Chinese medicine, was under tight control with limited access among the general public, but was encouraged in state-run rehabilitation centers and spread to universities and hospitals. After the Cultural Revolution, qigong, along with t’ai chi, was popularized as daily morning exercise practiced en masse throughout China.
Popularity of qigong grew rapidly during the Deng and Jiang eras after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 through the 1990s, with estimates of between 60 and 200 million practitioners throughout China. Along with popularity and state sanction came controversy and problems: claims of extraordinary abilities bordering on the supernatural, pseudoscienceexplanations to build credibility, a mental condition labeled qigong deviation, formation of cults, and exaggeration of claims by masters for personal benefit. In 1985, the state-run “National Qigong Science and Research Organization” was established to regulate the nation’s qigong denominations. In 1999, in response to widespread revival of old traditions of spirituality, morality, and mysticism, and perceived challenges to State control, the Chinese government took measures to enforce control of public qigong practice, including shutting down qigong clinics and hospitals, and banning groups such as Zhong Gong and Falun Gong. Since the 1999 crackdown, qigong research and practice have only been officially supported in the context of health and traditional Chinese medicine. The Chinese Health Qigong Association, established in 2000, strictly regulates public qigong practice, with limitation of public gatherings, requirement of state approved training and certification of instructors, and restriction of practice to state-approved forms.
Through the forces of migration of the Chinese diaspora, tourism in China, and globalization, the practice of qigong spread from the Chinese community to the world. Today, millions of people around the world practice qigong and believe in the benefits of qigong to varying degrees. Similar to its historical origin, those interested in qigong come from diverse backgrounds and practice it for different reasons, including for recreation, exercise, relaxation, preventive medicine, self-healing, alternative medicine, self-cultivation, meditation, spirituality, and martial arts training.
Qigong comprises a diverse set of practices that coordinate body (調身), breath (調息), and mind (調心) based on Chinese philosophy. Practices include moving and still meditation, massage, chanting, sound meditation, and non-contact treatments, performed in a broad array of body postures. Qigong is commonly classified into two foundational categories: 1) dynamic or active qigong (dong gong), with slow flowing movement; and 2) meditative or passive qigong (jing gong), with still positions and inner movement of the breath. From a therapeutic perspective, qigong can be classified into two systems: 1) internal qigong, which focuses on self-care and self-cultivation, and; 2) external qigong, which involves treatment by a therapist who directs or transmits qi.
As moving meditation, qigong practice typically coordinates slow stylized movement, deep diaphragmatic breathing, and calm mental focus, with visualization of guiding qi through the body. While implementation details vary, generally qigong forms can be characterized as a mix of four types of practice: dynamic, static, meditative, and activities requiring external aids.
- Dynamic practice
- involves fluid movement, usually carefully choreographed, coordinated with breath and awareness. Examples include the slow stylized movements of T’ai chi ch’uan, Baguazhang, and Xing yi. Other examples include graceful movement that mimics the motion of animals in Five Animals (Wu Qin Xi qigong), White Crane, and Wild Goose (Dayan) Qigong. As a form of gentle exercise, qigong is composed of movements that are typically repeated, strengthening and stretching the body, increasing fluid movement (blood, synovial, and lymph), enhancing balance and proprioception, and improving the awareness of how the body moves through space.
- Static practice
- involves holding postures for sustained periods of time. In some cases this bears resemblance to the practice of Yoga and its continuation in the Buddhist tradition. For example Yiquan, a Chinese martial art derived from xingyiquan, emphasizes static stance training. In another example, the healing form Eight Pieces of Brocade (Baduanjin qigong) is based on a series of static postures.
- Meditative practice
- utilizes breath awareness, visualization, mantra, chanting, sound, and focus on philosophical concepts such as qi circulation, aesthetics, or moral values. In traditional Chinese medicine and Daoist practice, the meditative focus is commonly on cultivating qi in dantian energy centers and balancing qi flow in meridian and other pathways. In various Buddhist traditions, the aim is to still the mind, either through outward focus, for example on a place, or through inward focus on the breath, a mantra, a koan, emptiness, or the idea of the eternal. In the Confucius scholar tradition, meditation is focused on humanity and virtue, with the aim of self-enlightenment.
- Use of external agents
- Many systems of qigong practice include the use of external agents such as ingestion of herbs, massage, physical manipulation, or interaction with other living organisms. For example, specialized food and drinks are used in some medical and Daoist forms, whereas massage and body manipulation are sometimes used in martial arts forms. In some medical systems a qigong master uses non-contact treatment, purportedly guiding qi through his or her own body into the body of another person.