Qigong (pronounced chee-gung) is becoming widely recognized for providing an array of surprising and scientifically validated health benefits through slow-moving exercises and breathwork that anyone can learn. It’s great for your mind and body, and can be done almost anywhere.
Considered a form a meditative movement akin to more well-known practices like yoga and tai chi, qigong offers the benefits of simple movements and standing practices that are easy to get started with and require no special clothing or equipment. This makes it more accessible for people of all ages looking for both relaxation and healing.
What Is Qigong?
Like tai chi, qigong developed in China, and the two practices share movement principles and health benefits, such as bringing a sense of inner peace and an enhanced connection between mind and body. Some researchers argue that the two are so closely related that they should be considered a single form of exercise for the purpose of studying their health benefits (although practitioners might disagree).
The origins of qigong are subject to debate, but most agree that it has existed in some form for several thousand years old. It has been passed on in schools, temples, families, and even the military. Although practiced en masse in China and other parts of Asia, it’s only begun to receive significant attention in the US in the last few decades, and many people still say “chee-what?”.
Qigong is made up of the Chinese words qi and gong. Qi means energy or information. Although people often think of it as a magical or imaginary power, like the Force in Star Wars, the term can refer to anything that moves and circulates in the body to keep us alive, including blood, lymph, nerve impulses, thoughts, and more.
Gong means skill or mastery. So putting the two together, qigong is a practice of developing skill in optimizing everything happening inside our bodies.
One of the basic tenets of qigong is that wherever you focuses your mind, qi follows. So by focusing on the movements, postures, and breathwork of qigong practice, we can learn how to direct our energy in a healthier way.
Benefits of Qigong
Qigong is great for your spine and offers many other health benefits which have been documented through scientific research.
According to this review of studies on the benefits of qigong and tai chi, both have been found effective in improving balance and coordination (and reducing falls), increasing cardiopulmonary health, boosting immunity, reducing pain and inflammation, and enhancing overall quality of life.
Several studies have also shown increases in bone mineral density, which has been surprising to some, since this effect is usually associated only with resistance-based exercise.
Qigong also offers many psychological benefits, including mood enhancement, reduction in anxiety and depression, improved stress management, and confidence with movement and exercise.
Some of the benefits come from stretching and moving your body in ways that are different from what we’re used to and specifically designed to break up habitual tensions.
This helps open up any blockages to the flow of blood, lymph, nerve impulses, and qi. Where any of these flows is restricted, pain and illness can develop, so a system like qigong that clears these blockages can give a major boost to our well-being.
How to Start
Thousands of varieties of qigong exist—some focus on spiritual development or martial arts ability, while the majority work primarily on health. Most forms share a few common elements in terms of posture principles and the coordination of movement and breath.
Compared to Tai Chi and many forms of yoga, qigong movements are simpler and easier to learn. Although deeper levels of the practice involve complex theory and years of dedicated training to achieve Jedi-level mastery, you can get started with basic health-promoting movements and postures in minutes. They can be done anywhere and require no special equipment, making qigong an accessible wellness practice for almost anyone.
The most basic form doesn’t even require any movement—you simply stand in a balanced posture, with a few key details, and breathe. Here are the basics:
- Set your feet shoulder-width apart with your big toes pointing slightly inward. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed in both feet.
- Bend your knees to lower your upper body a few inches. Fold at your hip joints (anatomically called the inguinal crease, and known as the “kua” in qigong) to tilt your upper body slightly forward.
- Let your pelvis hang off your spine, neither tucked under or sticking out.
- Stretch up the top of your head to elongate your neck.
- Touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth.
- Position your hands about 4-6 inches in front of your body at hip height, palms down.
- Breathe slowly and gently, allowing your belly to expand as you inhale and flatten as you exhale.
You may notice that the combination of #3 and #4 stretches out your spine from each end—this is an important aspect of qigong practice that eases the compression our spines are always dealing with. It may feel strange at first, but your vertebrae will thank you.
You can practice this posture for 30 seconds to a minute to start with and work up to 15 or 20 minutes. In the beginning you may find it surprisingly tiring, but with a little practice, it becomes easier and more comfortable.
Once you get the basic shape down, you can add movement by alternating between straightening and bending your knees and hips. Lift and lower your arms straight in front of you in conjunction with your leg movements. Inhale as you rise and exhale as you sink.
As with the standing pose, you can start with a short session and built up over time. It’s hard to do too much qigong—the research has shown no adverse effects so far, which can’t be said for most forms of exercise.
If you’d like to try other qigong forms, check out these follow-along videos for additional practices.
Have you tried qigong? Tell us about your experience in the comments!