What Is Qigong?

Principles of Qigong

Qigong is a complex ritual based on a spiritual and ascetic discipline, the principles of which, include breath control, meditation, and the rendering of specific bodily postures, in order to achieve relaxation, and improve health. Qigong is a broad-ranging label that categorises more than 1200 different styles of these exercises into a meaningful context. Qigong was originally described in the earliest texts as Tuna, or breath exercises, and Dao Yin, or exercise postures. It was also used in Taoism as a way of attempting physical and spiritual immortality. The hypothesis of Qigong is based three elements of subtle energy, know as the ‘Three Treasures’; Jing, Qi and Shen. These three elements are interdependent for overall health and wellbeing.

The earliest records from the archeological discoveries at the Ma Huang Tui Tombs revealed a series of dance like postures combined with breathing that were used for health. Researchers at the Shanghai Qigong Research Institute have theorised that Qi Gong is probably an integration of dances of early Wu Shaman, and Buddhist Yoga practices introduced from India. Dance was used in these rituals and ceremonies to induce trance states for communicating with the spirit world. Many of these dances were based upon animal movements and included the wearing of skins and masks to further heighten the effect. The Daoist monk, Jun Qian is credited with creating the early form of Qigong, however Hua Tao is responsible for developing the specific systems such as “Frolic of the Five Animals”. Hua Tao incorporated the early developments of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Theory of Channels and the ‘Three Burning Spaces’ (upper, middle and lower). They were combined with Shamanic practices into a series of exercises, with the intention to preserve and further the health of the individual. The concept of self exercise, rather than participating in group rituals and ceremonies, marked the beginning of Qigong systems. This paralleled the development of Naturalism or Natural Law by the Confucian School of Philosophy. The idea that the individual had responsibility for self cultivation or development was very important.

The Three treasures

Jing — The first treasure is called “Jing,” meaning “essence.” Essence is seen as fundamental to growth, development, and reproduction. A subdivision of essence, is congenital essence, which is inherited from your parents and is necessary for feotal and childhood development. 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. It is often associated with the perception of depth or a quality of endurance of a person.
Although the ancient Chinese Medicine Practitioners did not possess the technology to identify DNA, they recognised that vital properties were passed from parent to child, and that issues with this substance could cause serious issues with growth, reproduction, and development.

Qi — With the rise of the Taoist Philosophical School and its emphasis on nature and following the Natural Way also helped stimulate the development of Qigong Systems. An underlying premise in these systems was that of Qi, defined as breath, vital substance or vital energy. Qi was believed to circulate externally in Nature in its various manifestations such as weather, plants, animals, minerals, etc. This was probably a development based upon early animistic beliefs that all things have a vital force. Qi also was believed to circulate internally through the rivers, valleys and mountains of the body. The development of the concept of channels or pathways was based upon a much more literal sense of the geography of the body that is still revealed in the traditional names of acupuncture points, i.e., Kun Lun Mountains, Spirit Pass, Sea of Blood. Health was based upon the free flow of the Qi through the channels. If the Qi became blocked, an area of the body then had too much (i.e., excess) and another area had too little (i.e., deficiency).

The element of Qi has specific functions, it is the source of all movement in the body, it warms the body to maintain a normal temperature, it defends the body against pathogens, it transforms nutrition into productive substances in the body, and it helps to sustain organs, blood and the vessels in their environment, and prevents them from prolapsing. Blood and body fluids, including, sweat, tears, lymphatic and synovial fluids cannot form without the transformative actions of Qi. Blood is deemed a major Yin substance in the body, and its main function is replenishing the body.

Shen — Shen usually translates as spirit and refers to that aspect of our being that is spiritual. It represents consciousness, emotions, and thought. According to Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Shen is said to be responsible for the activities that take place in the mental, spiritual, and creative planes. When Shen is disrupted, the form of a person changes and consciousness becomes disturbed in ways that western psychology interprets as “neurotic” or “schizoid”.

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 Qigong exercises. Qigong utilises a wide variety of methods to affect this relationship. The Shanghai Qigong Research Institute has identified over 1200 distinct systems. However, the main active principles for Qigong exercises are breath, posture, movement, relaxation, and concentration / visualisation. These five principles are involved to varying degrees in the five systems. Depending on the style, a particular principle will be the predominant focus of the activity. For example, in the Taoist Elixir System, breath and relaxation are emphasised while the concentration / visualisation 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.


In TCM theory, the lungs function to govern the Qi and respiration, which they disperse or direct 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 fuelling the vital physiological functions associated with digestion and formation of blood. The lungs also govern the surface of the body with protective Qi know as Wei Qi, that moves just below the surface of the skin. It forms a protective barrier against the invasion of external pathogenic agents. Controlled breathing techniques are used to mobilise and intensify the flow of Qi. The breath forms a spiritual link between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Modern science, teaches that the breath is the means that the body uses to draw oxygen into the blood for transportation to the cells where it provides the biochemical trigger for cellular metabolism.The act of breathing also provides an important pathway for releasing waste metabolic gases. It regulates the acid-alkaline balance of the blood stream and helps regulate the water balance in the body. The muscles employed in breathing facilitate the flow of lymph through the lymphatic system, and both activate and massage the organs of digestion and elimination.
The spine is regarded as the central post around which the rest of the skeletal structure is built. This main vertical structure gives protection and support for all of the internal organs and provides pathway network for the nervous system. The spinal cord innervates the organs as well as, relaying sensory and motor information to the brain. The framework of the spine provides the energetic link for the flow of Qi into the internal organs from the rear of the body.

In terms of health, the position of the spine affects the relationship and functioning of the internal organs 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 blood, or stagnant blood in TCM theory.

Adverse movement of the spine can reduce the available lung surface area, lowering the intake volume and inhibiting mechanism of breathing. The flow of Qi 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 junctures across which the Large Intestine, Small Intestine, Lung, Pericardium, Heart and Triple Heater channels flow.
Correcting posture also helps improve the overall biomechanics functioning of the musculoskeletal system, by reducing overall stress and tension in the body. By reducing pain and sensory motor nerve activity the nervous system as a whole functions more harmoniously. 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.


The use of repetitive movement of the body stimulates the nervous system, circulatory system, and the free flow of Qi through the channels. Repetitive movement encourages an increased free flow 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 has low pressure, and relies upon muscular contraction to move the lymphatic fluid through the system. When performing rhythmic movement of relative low intensity and frequency (slow and relaxed), the system is activated but its load is not increased due to a larger volume of blood being forced into the capillaries, by 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 localised 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.


The principle of relaxation combines the features of the other principles and adds a harmonising aspect. Relaxation amalgamates the neuromuscular, endocrine, emotional and mental state in which the activity of Qigong 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 “energy blocks” to the free flow of Qi and blood.

Relaxation lowers the background of sensory input interference, 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. 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 aim of Qigong practitioner should be to perform the ritual with intent, thereby investing in an outcome, and by involving awareness in the performance of the activity, the neural feedback required to perform the activity becomes attainable. This increases the positive experience of the activity by making it easier to perform at a higher level. In TCM theory, this mental awareness is associated with the concept of Shen.

Conversely, when practicing any activity without concentration in mechanical manner, the functionality of the most simple of tasks is impaired, therefore limiting its positive effects.
Concentration can also be expressed as the use of imagination, or creative visualisation. 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. Fire-walking, and resistance to cold and other normally harmful stimuli, can be temporarily induced through powerful imaginal states. The use of visualisation 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.

Yin Yang Theory


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