History and Purpose
Qi Gong is an ancient system of exercise from China, aimed at cultivating good body posture, movement, strength, breathing, mindfulness and energy. The name comes from Qi, the Chinese word for universal life energy, and Gong, meaning cultivation or work.
The practice of Qi Gong generally falls into three categories; health (preventative and healing), spirituality, and martial arts. Often, a Qi Gong form (a set of exercises) will be useful in more than one of these aspects. Indeed, some martial arts schools may improve the fitness of their students using Qi Gong forms, such as Ba Duan Jin, which is considered a medical form.
Today, tens of millions of people worldwide use Qi Gong in some form or another. This growth in popularity is due to the export of Chinese culture, the Chinese diaspora, and the sharing of information and ideas across the internet.
Practical Use and Benefits
People who practice Qi Gong on a regular basis will generally see an improvement in their energy, posture and strength. The use of gentle stretching and postures in forms exercises muscles and joints, while abdominal breathing increases energy.
Benefits may also include improved concentration and mindfulness. The correct use of a form, with all its postures and the need to monitor one's breathing and body, requires a practitioner to be in the moment.
Because of the use of gentle, full-body movements, Qi Gong is subtle yet effective, with efficient use of the body and its resources through its forms. This is in contrast to, for example, lifting weights, where one exercise may only affect a couple of different muscle groups at a time.
One of the great practicalities of Qi Gong in terms of practice is how little space it uses. Generally speaking, if you can stand comfortably (or sit, as with chair forms) with a leg's length around you, then you should have enough space to practice your form of choice.
It is important to practice Qi Gong safely, especially if you are not used to this kind of exercise. Below are some essential notes that can help you look after yourself when practicing.
Breathing - Qi Gong uses abdominal breathing. This aims to improve breathing and energy levels. Unfortunately, many people forget how to breathe this way and have to make a real conscious effort to do so. If you feel light-headed or dizzy when first starting out in Qi Gong, then sit down immediately and let it pass. Don't be put off, but do take care of yourself, especially if you have respiratory health concerns.
Joint and Muscle Stress - Qi Gong increases strength and movement by placing subtle stresses on joints and muscle groups. When starting out in Qi Gong, you may find your legs, arms, shoulder, etc. aching. Don't be put off by this, as your endurance will grow with practice, but if you have underlying physical health issues, then take it slow and end the form when you have to rather than trying to reach the end. Alternatively, consider chair-based Qi Gong.
Be Mindful - Qi Gong requires you to be in the moment with your exercise. Being mindful will not only ensure you get the most out of your exercise, but it will also help ensure that you keep an eye on what your body is doing, allowing you to practice safely.
Ask Your Doctor - If you are unsure if Qi Gong is right for you, or you have concerns about your health and how the practice may affect you, then ask your doctor for advice.
Below are some examples of popular Qi Gong forms. There are more out there, so explore other types if the examples don't suit you. Please also note that you may sometimes find that different institutions and teachers have slightly differing takes on the Qi Gong forms, in that two examples may appear different in some ways. These differences are only in practice; the end goals and results are the same.
Wu Xing (Five Elements)
Based on the Five Elements of Taoism (Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal), Wu Xing Qi Gong promotes health and balanced energy. The elements and their system of interplay are used in traditional Chinese medicine and have been used to promote wellbeing, longevity, and preventative healthcare for centuries.
Please click here for an example video of Wu Xing Qi Gong - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJXIkLW_eCY
Ba Duan Jin
One of the most popular forms of Qi Gong around the world, this form is excellent for promoting general health. It is also commonly referred to as Eight Sections of Brocade or Eight Pieces of Brocade. This name comes from the eight exercises having an almost silken quality to their movements.
Please click here for an example video of Ba Duan Jin Qi Gong - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=445Fz8AQvX8
Chair-Based Qi Gong
As previously hinted at, not all Qi Gong has to be done standing up. Some forms can be adapted for seated exercise. This is particularly beneficial for older practitioners or those with physical disabilities who would find standing difficult or impossible. An extra benefit of seated Qi Gong is being able to practice at a desk, allowing for practice at work without causing disruption (or drawing everyone's attention).
Please click here for an example video of seated Qi Gong - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppM9FRRX-Uo