In this series of articles, I will humbly attempt to share with you my thoughts on the meaning of Qi Gong (氣功). I take full responsibility and ownership of any mistakes and misunderstandings, and none of these should reflect on what my teachers have taught me. These are solely my own interpretations from over 30 years of practice in the Asian arts. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s proceed..
To understand the practice of Qi Gong (氣功), one must first understand the meaning of the term, which in the Chinese language is made up of two characters, Qi (氣 often spelled and pronounced as “CHI”) and Gong (功 often spelled as “KUNG”).
Qi 氣, is one of those Asian concepts that many in the West have difficulty understanding and explaining, myself included. Defining Qi 氣 would be like defining the meaning of “life”. The questions would be, ¿whose life? Life can have many meanings depending on who is living it. Some live life to its fullest regardless of life’s conditions. While others barely enjoy it. Life goes on, so they say, or does it?
So as with life, Qi can mean a number things to a number of people. For example, within the Chinese medicine context, we talk about the Qi of the organs – Righteous Qi, Evil Qi, Middle Qi, Protective Qi, and much more. In Tai Chi we speak about “the Qi sinks to the elixir field”. In fact, Qi permeates all aspects of the Chinese culture including calligraphy, medicine, martial arts, painting among a few.
Those who study the history of words, the etymologists, tell us that Qi then, is the vital energy that derives from food, here represented by the rice radical (米) and the steam it yields during cooking (气). Rice in this context, stands for nourishment from grains in general and not to rice itself.
Gong 功, is not as difficult to interpret and in its most basic translation means “work”, “achievement”, “merit” “cultivation” “practice”. The character is used in the term KUNG FU, which literally translates to “achievement through practice”. Kung fu has in the West been associated with martial arts, however, the term applies to any discipline or art form in which one has attained a high level of expertise such as in the culinary arts – a chef would be a kung fu in cooking, a doctor in medicine, Jimmy Hendrix was a kung fu in music, and Tiger Woods in golf.
So when we look at the two characters together for Qi Gong (氣功), we could loosely interpret the term as the practice or cultivation of breath and vital energy. By inference, allow me to define “vital energy” as the by-product from the extraction of nutrients from food and oxygen, that is transformed into a usable form for human work.
Key Points To The Practice Qi Gong
Practicing Qi Gong is not difficult. Anyone can practice it and in time experience the benefits. There are, however, a few key points to keep in mind when practicing – below are a few:
- Time – Qi Gong can be practiced any time of the day. However, morning time is the best time for several reasons which I will explain later.
- Place – While Qi Gong can be practiced anywhere, to derive the most benefits, it should be practiced outdoors, and not in a windy or rainy day.
- Attire – Always wear loose comfortable clothing. Avoid any tightness around the waist.
- Food – Do not practice when very hungry nor after eating. And by all means avoid cold drinks particularly after the practice.
- Shoes – Barefoot is ok as long as the ground is not too hot, cold, or damp. I prefer to wear flat shoes.
- The Mind – When practicing Qi Gong, one should keep a calm mind. Take the time assigned for practice as a time for self-healing. It is alright if your thoughts wander, but as soon as you realize that you’ve lost concentration, bring the breath back to the lower abdomen.
How To Practice Qi Gong
There are many styles or systems of Qi Gong and to enumerate them would be beyond the scope of this article. Regardless of the style that one chooses, all of them share the synchronization of breath and movement in common. As you may recall from above, one of the meanings of the Qi pictogram, represents, air, gas, smell, steam, and breath.
Most of us, as we go about on our day to day living, are basically inhaling and exhaling without any conscious effort on our part. In fact, breathing is the natural process of air transferring from a high pressure area to low pressure area as the ribcage expands and contracts. Most of the time, this exchange is rather shallow and takes place in the upper to mid lobes of the lungs. This, however, is not the same as practicing breath work.
For beginners, breath work in Qi Gong, is done through the conscious effort of abdominal breathing. In other words, the voluntary expansion of the abdomen as we inhale, and the natural contraction as we exhale (in some systems, this process is reversed. But that’s another topic). Later, with practice, this becomes second nature. Well, in actuality, in time we return to natural way we breathed as babies and how we breath when we sleep – abdominal breathing.
Expanding the abdomen while inhaling in Qi Gong practice has numerous benefits. Most notably the intake of air to the lower lobes of the lungs provides more oxygen to the blood. It also has the added benefit of improving circulation back to the heart. The contraction and expansion of the abdomen acts as pump aiding circulation back to the heart by way of the large vein called the inferior vena cava Read more about this vein here
I hope that you are starting to see the benefits of Qi Gong.
In the next article we’ll discuss the movement aspect of Qi Gong.
Fernando Bernall, AP
Saint Augustine, FL