‘Qigong’ is a cover-all name given to a myriad of Eastern health-related exercises and practices. There are literally thousands of different styles and approaches, and they tend to be much more diverse comparably than the different styles of yoga. Finding the most suitable practice is a matter of exploration and being open-minded.
A good starting place is to first identify your needs- are you primarily seeking the health benefits of qigong? Are you looking for a practice that can bring more peace to your life? Are you looking to feel more energized? Are you looking to be free of your achy shoulders and back? To get better sleep? To have more libido? To have more efficient movement or better control and balance over your body?
Once you have an idea of what you need it makes it easier to match with the right practice. If, for example, you have a lot of tension in the body and restlessness in your mind, a qigong practice that has a lot of movement, stretching and shaking can feel wonderful. If however you are very low-energy and weak or recovering from an illness, this may not be so good- a strengthening practice could be much more beneficial.
All types of qigong are orientated toward particular goals and purposes. Often these goals are shared by different traditions but their way of going about it differs. Out of the thousands of styles of qigong, some come from traditions of martial arts, some come from medical traditions, and some come from spiritual or religious traditions. Accordingly, their goals might range from having extraordinary sensitivity and skill in fighting and self-defense, to being in vibrant health through all the years of one’s life, or for using qigong as an entry point to meditation and spiritual wisdom. All share in a few fundamental principles, but beyond this they can appear quite different.
In general, qigong that derives from systems of martial arts are most appropriate for the young and fit, where-as a certain kind of maturity is needed to engage with spiritual qigong. Some qigong is very much engaged with working on the physical level, with the bones, tendons, and muscles. This type of qigong uses plenty of stretching, specific postural awareness exercises, and self-massage. It is sometimes referred to as Dao-Yin, and is often used as a precursor to more subtle exercises, somewhat like Hatha Yoga. It is fantastic for working with posture, physical injuries, aches and pains, and is most systematically taught within the ‘internal’ martial arts such as Tai-Chi-Chuan or Ba-Gua-Zhang.
Other types of qigong engage more with the mental-emotional bodies. These often use specific sounds to vibrate and visualisations to hone awareness through the body. These types of exercises can be a powerful adjunct in the healing of more deep-seated illnesses. They can also be used to enhance health and rejuvenate both body and mind (this is something that is better felt rather than understood through words).
When it comes to healing forms of qigong, it good to know that a huge amount of experiential research has emerged over the last 40 years in China, with millions practicing qigong, and many hospitals developing specialist wings dedicated to using qigong for healing. Specific approaches for healing cancer, heart disease, and many other illnesses have been developed, and so if you are looking to engage in a healing practice it can be very beneficial to tailor your qigong to your personal circumstances.
Lastly, what I’ve termed spiritual qigong is also referred to as Nei-Gong, Shen-Gong, or sometimes ‘internal alchemy’. Often these are rooted in Daoist or Buddhist traditions, and as such place stronger emphasis on meditation, the cultivation of virtue and extending ones practice throughout day-to-day life and social interaction. These traditions seek to engage with the very essence and meaning of life. They can be very powerful.
When it comes to actually learning qigong, much of the fundamentals can be learnt from books or youtube but finding a good teacher will take it to another level. Qigong is a personal practice, so it is important that you resonate with a teacher, that you like him or her. Make sure to listen to your gut instincts and your heart when seeking a teacher.
It should also be known that there are two types of approach taken by teachers. One approach is to convey the teaching through demonstration and explanation. The other is to convey the teaching through transmission. This is a subtle but important difference, as the student-teacher dynamic is quite different from one to the other. Qigong systems that teach through transmission tend to originate from very old lineages, and rely on the power of this accumulated experience. Qigong systems that teach through example focus more on self-reliance. Both ways are wonderful, it is a matter of personal taste as to which suits you.
Qigong is a skill that shows its wonders and benefits most if practiced regularly. A daily practice will reap the most rewards, but a session a few times a week will also be of great benefit. Regardless of what style of qigong you practice, the more you put in the more you will get out. Once you have found what you like, dedicating a regular amount of time to the practice is key.
This journey into qigong can be stimulating both physically and intellectually, at times it can be challenging, but if you find the right way to practice it is hugely rewarding, joyful and fun.