Qigong is a system of self-empowering mental and physical exercises developed over thousands of years by Chinese warriors, mystics, and healers. Today there are over 3,500 recorded styles which can roughly be divided into three main categories: Martial Qigong, Spiritual Qigong, and Medical Qigong.
"Qi" means "Vital Energy", and "Gong" means "Cultivation". All Qigong styles focus on cultivating this vital energy to achieve their goals. Martial Qigong uses Qi to strengthen the body for combat. Spiritual Qigong cultivates Qi to connect with the natural flow of life. Medical Qigong cultivates Qi to maintain, regain, and increase health and vitality.
Qigong uses a wide variety of movement styles, including shaking, stretching, self massage, coiling, and swinging motions, as well as slow flowing movements and challenging static postures. All movements in Qigong are done with the intention of effecting the flow of Qi. Also included are many styles of visualization, breathing, and meditation.
Effects of Qigong Breathing on Mind & Body
There are many ways to breathe in Qigong, depending on what type of "Qi" you want, or how you want your Qi to behave. The primary breathing practice though is called "The Original Breath", in which we concentrate the movement of the breath in the lower abdomen. If you look at the way infants breathe, their inhale causes the whole abdomen to expand as though they have a balloon inflating in their bellies. Thus this is seen as the "original" method of breathing.
In the philosophy of Qigong, we achieve longevity of body and lightness of heart by gradually returning to our original child-like nature. Rather than getting more stiff, stubborn, and set in our ways as we age, in Qigong we become more supple, spontaneous, and receptive as we grow wiser. A child's mind is like a clear lake reflecting the sky, and we emulate this quality by letting go of what we think we know. Thus the proverb, "The intelligent person learns something every day. The wise person forgets something every day."
In our youth we tend to have limitless energy, but as we age our reserves tend to dwindle. To recharge our inner batteries with vitality, and make our minds clear and open, we return to the Original Breath. We breath deep down to the lower abdomen just like an infant. This helps bring our focus out of our overactive heads, and down into our bodies, while pulling Vital Energy from the air and using it to nourish and sustain our internal organs.
How to Practice "The Original Breath"
- For this practice, you can be seated on a chair or cushion, or standing. Try to find a balance between your spine being both long yet relaxed. Good postural alignment helps the flow of Qi, but the excess tension of perfectionism tends to constrict the Qi. If you are standing, have your feet parallel and about shoulder width apart, with the knees soft.
- Fold your hands over your navel, and begin to notice your breathing.
- Start to encourage your breath to be longer, smoother and deeper.
- Encourage your lower abdomen to move with your breath. As you breathe in, notice your belly expand. As you breathe out, notice your belly relax back inwards.
You can continue this practice for as long as you like. Over time you will find your breath becomes longer, and the movement of belly becomes more natural and obvious. It should feel as though the lungs are massaging the organs of the belly. Don't overstrain. The goal of this practice is relaxation, centering, and rejuvenation.
How to Practice Kidney Breathing
In Medical Qigong, every organ has a function in terms of both physiology and energy. Energetically, the lungs collect the Qi from the air, while the kidneys reach upward to the lungs to pull that vital energy deeper into the body. The kidneys essentially store this vital energy like batteries, which gradually deplete themselves as we age. Through this breathing exercises we recharge those batteries, while strengthening the diaphragm and massaging the kidneys. The kidneys are located at the lower back on either side of the spine, and the adrenal glands sit on top of them.
This exercises is best done standing, after the Original Breath.
- Find your feet parallel, shoulder's width apart, with the knees soft (very slightly bent, ensuring the knees don't go forward of the toes).
- Bring you hands to your lower back. Hold the palms on the low back above the hips, with the fingers pointed down and in toward the sacrum and spine.
- Tuck you tailbone under your body, as if you were a monkey trying to reach your tail forward between your legs. This will straighten out the natural curve in the lower spine.
- Just as you expanded the front of your abdomen with the Original Breath, now as you breathe look for some movement at the lower back. This movement is usually much more subtle than the movement of the belly.
- As you inhale, encourage the lower back to expand. As you exhale, allow the low back to relax.
- Begin to include a slight tilting of the hips with the breath. As you inhale, tuck the tailbone under the body (reaching your monkey tail through the legs) to slightly round the lower back. As you exhale, untuck the tailbone to return the natural curve to the lower spine. Be extremely careful here if you have any previous issues with your spinal discs!
- To enhance the movement at the low back, you can slightly contract or constrict the front abdominal muscles. This way the breath will not be able to expand the abdomen, and will be pushed back to the kidneys.
- As the movement of the lungs and diaphragm is pushed down and back, the kidneys and adrenal glands are massaged, helping with healthy blood filtration and hormonal activity. The challenge of breathing in this way helps to strengthen the diaphragm muscle, and makes deep breathing in ordinary life more natural and easy. This exercise can also be therapeutic for lower back pain and helps support the lumbar spine.