You might have heard of this mysterious practice from China called “Qigong” (pronounced chee-gong), but what is it? Qigong is the yoga of China; or, perhaps more accurately, yoga is the qigong of India! Why would that be? Qigong comes from two words – qi, meaning energy, and gong, meaning work or effort. Qigong is therefore literally means “energy work.” And, since any practice that moves qi (or prana) can be considered “qigong,” yoga is, technically speaking, a form of qigong!
If you understand the concept of prana from yoga, then you know what qi is – it is the energy that underlies and animates the physical form. Whether you consider it to be a bio-electrical energy or a spiritual energy, it does not matter. Qigong is designed to move the energy to create better health, well-being, and longevity.
Qigong, like yoga, has been around for thousands of years and has its roots in ancient Taoism. In Taoist philosophy, the balancing of opposites – the yin and the yang, the masculine and the feminine – plays a key role in finding that connection with the Tao, or all that is. The ultimate goals of yoga and qigong are quite similar, and many of the practices overlap. Alternate nostril breathing, for example, is a yogic practice that is also taught in qigong, as is so-called “belly” or diaphragmatic breathing.
Qigong, like yoga, incorporates postures, movement, meditation, and breathwork. Where qigong differs from yoga is that it adds a component of visualization and refined energy awareness. It also relies less on mantras or connecting to specific manifestations of divinity. Qigong movements are also generally more fluid, more subtle, and typically easier for people with physical limitations, although some choreography can be more challenging to learn at first. Most standing qigong practices can be modified to be performed in a chair, which makes them very adaptable.
A lot of people see qigong in practice and say “Oh, that looks like Tai Chi!” Tai Chi, is, in fact, a form of qigong, although it has since developed into its own martial art and its forms are much more complex and involved than the typical qigong practice. In fact, “Martial Qigong” is its own branch of qigong that focuses on developing strength and vitality for self-defense as well as human potential.
Spiritual qigong focuses more on meditation and building spiritual qualities; Confucian qigong works to build character. The type of qigong most common today in the West is Medical Qigong, which is simply the use of qigong to help improve health and well-being. At its simplest, Medical Qigong can be used for self-healing, and at its most advanced, Medical Qigong has been practiced in special hospitals in China, where qigong practitioners would guide energy for their patients using special healing techniques.
After being taught only to a few chosen disciples over generations, or passed down through families, qigong secrets are now being shared with the public, fostering a growing interest in qigong in the West. It is a wonderful complement to yoga, as the softer qigong movements can potentially teach breath awareness and movement with less strain, which can be very useful when applied to traditional yoga asana. Most qigong is gentle, and can be practiced by people of all ages and physical abilities. And since much of qigong is practiced standing, it does not required a yoga mat, or special clothes, so you can slip in a quick practice in an office or even a small closet if you need to!