The words Qi Gong (sometimes transliterated as Chi Kung) are a relatively new way of describing quite a wide array of exercise techniques. Traditionally speaking such exercises were often passed on within families or specific martial arts schools. They would have been referred to collectively as Nei Gong, Nei Jia, Nei Dan or Dao Yin, exercises, but in particular, according to the specific exercises or ‘set’.

The word Qi refers to the same vital energy worked on by acupuncture, and the word Gong means work or effort; in this context a good translation is ‘endeavor’. All types of Qigong involve working with ones Qi towards an end.

Broadly speaking all Qigong is classified as ‘internal’ exercise; that is, it works on the energy and intent, as opposed to focusing on building ‘external’ muscular strength like in atheletics, body-building or some martial arts styles. Essentially the exercises are a moving meditation, beneficial to the body and mind.

There are types of Qigong known as ‘hard’ qigong which include body conditioning exercises and the kind of thing you might see the Shaolin performers doing when they break iron bars over their heads. There are specifically meditative styles aiming to promote awareness and wisdom, and there is medical Qigong which aims to promote health. The systems I use are predominantly health promoting but also have some link to the internal martial traditions like Taiji Chuan, Xing Yi Chuan and Ba Gua Zhang.

General Principles

All Qigong exercises should have certain key principles in common, whether it is vigorous or gentle.

The first is structure. One should find and hold ones centre at all times. The posture should be upright and should include the sensation of expansiveness outwards in all directions from the centre. This opposition through the whole body creates length in the spine as the base (sacrum) is sent downwards toward the ground, and the crown of the head sent upward to the sky. This allows us to find the natural curvature of the spine.

The second is relaxation, but relaxation within the structure. When relaxed the breath moves lower, the upper part of the body should be empty and feel light. An image often used in teaching is to visualise moving through water as you perform the exercises.

The third is intention, the mind should be focused on the excersise and the breath, on coordination and balance.The mind should be focused on your centre of gravity, in the lower abdomen and all movement should come from there.

The styles of Qigong that I practise and use in therapy follow with a breif description.

18 Step Taiji Shibashi

This is a system of 18 exercises related to Yang family Taiji Chu’an and is one of the more widespread and popular systems. The movements are performed repetatively a chosen amount of times each and flow into one another naturally.

The exercises are always balanced left and right and performed slowly and smoothly ‘as if moving through water’. It is a soothing system which promotes health and builds the Qi

Eight Balls of Silk- Ba Duan Jin

This is also a very widespread Qigong series of eight exercises. It is also known as the ‘eight balls of silk’, ‘eight strands of brocade’ (because very precious) and the ‘eight fine exercises’. It is performed more vigourously that the shibashi system and the exercises can be adapted from very gentle to quite demanding depending upon the health and needs of the person practising.

The sequence the exercises go through works and stretches all the channel pathways of the body and done correctly massages the internal organs to bring about a more balanced state and harmonise the Qi.

Primal Five Animal Qigong – Wu Qin Xi

This is the oldest known internal exercise system. Pictures of some of the postures have been found on scrolls dating from 100 AD as such it can be seen to have influenced many later Qigong systems, and in practising it one can certainly see the similarities.

Although traditionally said to have been developed by the great Chinese physician Hua Tuo during the Eastern Han period (2nd. and 3rd. centuries AD), it may be that he refined and systematised them, rather than created them.

He did, however, strongly advocate the practice of this sequence, both for the restoration and the maintenance of health; in the classic Annals of the Three Kingdoms, Hua Tuo says, in part:”… a person’s body has an innate desire and need for work and exercise … such activity causes food energy (gu-chi) to be dispersed, and the blood to flow freely, such that illness can take no hold. This is why the sages of old practiced dao yin exercises, such as the ‘strolling bear’, and the ‘owl looks behind’… I (also) have a method, which is a form of dao yin, called the ‘5 Animal Play’ … if one has an illness (then I prescribe) the relevant play to dissipate it …’

It is comprised of five sets of five exercises, each of which is practised repetetively however much is deemed necessary. As it can be seen from the above, individual exercises may be used, or one may do a chosen set, or practise all five run together in a smooth and flowing sequence.

In each set of exercises the movements relate to an animal, which also related to a phase of the wu xing, and therefore a season, an organ channel system and an emotion. When done continuously they follow the order of the controlling (ke) cycle of five phase correspondences, Metal, Wood, Earth, Water then Fire.

The exercises vary in how relaxed or vigourous they are performed depending on the phase and animal you are practising, but they can all be adapted into easier forms for people with less strength. In practising regularly one balances ones energy which promotes good health and state of mind.

Five Phase Qigong – Wu Xing Gong

This is a shorter Qigong set which is more recent, but draws from the primal five animal sequences. There are five movements, one for each of the five phases (wu xing). One moves through them returning to earth as a transition between the others, metal, water, wood, and lastly fire.

The movements in this set are done very gently, but there are places where a more intense physical intent can be used. I was taught it as a more advanced deeper Qigong, not to be used until a student is familiar with incorporating the principles of Qigong and competent with the shibashi system.

This sequence reflects the generation (sheng) cycle, and the older philosophical construction of the phases. This idea corresponds to the seasons, Water relates to Winter, Wood to Spring, Fire to Summer and Metal to Autumn.

In this earlier conception Earth was seen diagrammatically as the centre, the phase representing and essential to the transition between each season and the next. There was a return to the Earth phase between each different phase. Later Earth was seen to relate to late Summer, a fifth season, the transition to Autumn.