Qigong (pronounced chee-gong), the “yoga” of China, is in many respects where yoga used to be decades ago in the West – a somewhat unknown, “fringe” practice shrouded in mystery and mysticism. This is starting to change as people of all ages look for new ways to promote health and reduce stress.
The blessing of qigong’s relative obscurity is that it has not been heavily commercialized – yet. That is probably on the way, however. (I got an email recently about Oprah’s Weight Watchers testing out a new “Chi Flow” program. So the floodgates might be opening soon!)
Even so, commercialized qigong will look and feel different than commercialized yoga. Qigong, because it focuses more on flowing movements than asanas (some of which can be highly acrobatic), simply doesn’t have the glamor that yoga can have. I’m hopeful that mainstream qigong will retain its authenticity and remain more “down to earth,” though you can be sure someone will try to exploit it if possible.
That’s one of the problems with yoga. The effects of commercialization on yoga have been in many ways devastating to its core message: Thanks to glossy ads of young, fit yoga models wearing tight, often revealing clothing, yoga can unfortunately be a source of stress, especially for women. Rather than focusing on the effects of the asana, we can become too focused on how the asana looks. Or how we look in the asana.
The peer pressure we can sometimes feel in yoga class may not have to do with our weight or age or body type, but how our athletic or acrobatic abilities “match up” to other students.
The modern competitiveness of asana – certainly something mindful yoga teachers try to discourage – is a trend we can consciously try to step away from.
Qigong can be an antidote. While a qigong practice might have a few static standing postures, these are mostly for meditation. The majority of qigong movements are flowing, simple, and slow. Unless you are studying a very obscure form of qigong, there are no arm balances, no splits, no acrobatic postures.
In yoga, if we focus too much on asana as a static posture that might help us look good in an Instagram snapshot, we make the aesthetic form of the pose the goal, which it shouldn’t be. Qigong can teach us to think differently.
In qigong, we move fluidly, from one movement in a form to the next. There is no end posture to achieve. It doesn’t matter how “deep” we go in terms of flexibility or strength, as it is the process that matters.
That said, don’t confuse “gentle” or ‘fluid” with “easy.” Qigong movements can take some time to learn and master. We’re using 3D space in ways we don’t normally. But this has the effect of sharpening the mind as well as soothing the spirit.
Qigong also teaches us to slow down. As a teacher, I often notice “restless” people in yoga class. They are the ones squirming on the mat, moving into postures before the teacher has cued everyone, or doing different, “more advanced” postures than everyone else. They often anticipate a deeper version of the current posture, which I’m trying to warm everyone up for. If they just waited a few breaths, we’d be getting to where they want to go.
These are the students I’d like to pull aside and gently explain that their very restlessness and need to move quickly is why they would benefit the most from slowing down.
Qigong, showed me how, even as an maturing yogi with an increasing appreciation for slower classes, I still had a tendency to push myself too much in yoga. Due to pride, I felt I needed to try harder than what my body really needed or wanted.
According to Ayurveda, the medical tradition of India, we should only exercise at about 50% of our full capacity. This concept is called “balaardh.” By constantly pushing ourselves, we are increasing the stress on our bodies (and possibly our minds). Cortisol, the stress hormone, adds fat to the belly. The myth is that you need to work out “hard” to lose weight, when maybe a stressed out body might respond better to relaxation.
In qigong, we exercise gently and without stressing or straining the muscles or joints. Like yoga, we move with the breath. In qigong, we learn how to become patient, mindful, and more relaxed.
Moving with the breath in a gentle, patient, mindful, and relaxed way – sounds like real yoga, doesn’t it?
This is what qigong has done for me – it helped me rediscover real yoga.