Qi Gong Principles
What Are The Key Concepts in Training
Qi Gong is a term from the 1960s, historically known as Dao Yin, it is an ancient Chinese health preservation system dated 4-6000 years ago. Active Qi Gong is the widely known physical exercise system that is typically performed standing up or seated. Passive Qi Gong is found in stillness, when standing, seated or lying down as meditation system. This article will explore active Qi Gong as a movement practice.
What is the difference between Tai Chi and Qi Gong as movement arts?
Qi Gong is the original practice combining a well aligned posture with awareness and breath work. All movements start from the standing Qigong stance and foundation principles , then travel through a larger range of motion when performing a movement, then return again to the principles. The focus is on inner healing through the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine. As a new beginner Qigong is usually easier than Tai Chi to learn as the routines are shorter and each move is repeated on both sides of the body. There are three key concepts in Qi Gong practice, called the San Tiao or three regulations.
- Tiao Shen – Regulating the physical body
- Tiao Xi - Regulating the breath
- Tiao Xin – Regulating the heart-mind
Tai Chi is a much younger practice that uses the principles of Qi Gong as the foundation for a martial art. Tai Chi movements follow the Qi Gong principles, keeping the body well aligned throughout the form. The focus is on martial intent. Poor Qi Gong principles = no martial power. Tai Chi is more difficult and complex to learn, as you learn a choreographed form, like a dance routine.
Qi Gong Principles - Core Skills
Slow abdominal breathing or the relaxation breath is a key part of Qi Gong practice. You learn to regulate and control the breath when moving slowly. Depending on the Qi Gong routine, the breath work can be variable in pace, it can be circular breathing, or breath work with pausing at the end of the exhale. Deep breathing helps to activate the relaxation response in the body, moving you towards the rest and digest state of being. For some Qi Gong practices reverse breathing is used, known as the energetic breath, it is the opposite to the relaxation breath. Follow along with my breath work course and find out about a variety of breathing techniques, part one can be found here.
Developing physical and mental awareness is an important principle in Qi Gong training. On a physical level knowing where you are in space without using your eyes is a valuable tool, as you use the feeling side of the brain to control your body movements (right hemisphere), which is often less dominant. This develops your proprioception, which is how you body hold space in an environment and helps with balance, stability and reduces the chances of falling. Staying present as you move is another awareness skill to train, to pay gentle attention, observe mental distractions and leading yourself back into awareness from distraction. This requires being in the present moment with a single point of focus, which when practiced regularly helps to lengthen your attention span and can be considered an expression of mindfulness. Awareness also relates to how you hold yourself, your thoughts and emotions and the practice of self compassion. Read more in my article on awareness.
Intention is part of awareness and attention training in Qi Gong. Know as 'Yi' in Chinese, it is also called the intellectual mind intent, conscious thought, or being present in the moment with focused concentration. Yi applies to the physical body, the mind and the breath, awareness of everything together at the same time. The mind is the ruler of movement. It could be cognitive thinking, a conceptual idea, your creative imagination or physical exploration by doing, the mind leads all of these actions. That focus sends commands to the body to move and function in a coordinated, controlled and deliberate way. By practicing slowly you can feel your way through your 'Yi' intention and improve your quality of being. The 'Yi' intention in the body is to be aware of what the body is physically performing, whether the shape of your limbs, the coiling motion, the softening of the connective tissue etc. Regulating our posture and body movements also helps develop the mind body connection, as we can mimic the body language and movements of someone who is relaxed and at ease, and lead the mind into the same state. Read more about this in my article on deception training.
Applied relaxation, known as principle "fang song" relates to both the mind and body. This is developed by aligning the body, loosening the joints, releasing inappropriate muscular tension, suspending through the connective tissue and structure whilst relaxing and melting into the body. It is also being aware, soft and present in mind. I describe this as the absence of resistance. Applied relaxation does not mean a floppy, soft or collapsed body. The other principles e.g. alignment, rooting, lengthening, yin yang, must be maintained with fang song.
In Qi Gong practice, rooting and grounding is a quality of gentle heaviness in your lower body structure. It is part of the 'Song' principle as it relates to applied relaxation. In standing practice Qi Gong, the lower body from the pelvis downwards holds 60% of your body weight. The feet root into the ground like the roots of a tree. The centre of gravity is lowered as you sink into a hip squat, with the joints relaxed and loosened. There is a balance between over-rooting and up-rooted, find the neutral position in between the two. The feet and legs will feel heavy with more pressure than the upper body.
If you have every heard the phrase noodle legs and arms from your Qigong or Tai Chi teacher, you will know that a collapsed, loose and floppy structure is not what you want to develop. Lengthening your structure means to open and loosen the joints, elasticise the connective tissue, reach and lengthen to a soft limit and then rebound, all with dynamic relaxation. Consider an expansive, connected, elastic, lengthening, rebounding, spiralling quality that expands outwards from all directions. Your structure and connective tissue have the appropriate volume as you move towards the top of a movement, the yang phase.
Deliberate - Slow - Connected Movement
Qi Gong movements are performed slowly to engage with awareness in every moment of choreography, posture and breath work. This helps us stay within the present moment. In those moments nothing else exists, the past, the future, the cliché is there is only now. Engagement of the connective tissue, loosening of the joints and releasing tension are explored through deliberate focus, intention and awareness of physical feeling, sensation and proprioception. Slow movements help to settle and slow down the central nervous system into the relaxation state. When the mind gaps, the principles drop, and we start again.
Repeating the same movement over and over again calms down the central nervous system through rhythm and familiarity. This allows the body to move into the parasympathetic nervous system state (relaxation response) and stimulates the vagus nerve. Repetition nourishes the soft and connective tissue; fascia, sinews, tendons, muscles, it expands and compresses the joints to lubricate and open, and it activates the pump within the lymph system. Practice, practice, practice, repeat, repeat, again and again. This becomes a mantra like state which soothes and calms. Enjoy every moment.
Balancing the yin yang phases of each movement. Yang is expressed through expansion, outward, opening, reaching, lengthening, towards the "top" of the movement. This includes an outward, positive or opening rotation /spiralling quality through the limbs and torso. Where as Yin is expressed through contracting, inward, closing, compressing, melting, releasing, withdrawing, towards the "base" of the movement. This includes an inward, negative or closing rotation /spiralling quality through the limbs and torso. Yang is expressed through the weight changes between the legs, from the Yang "full" leg to the Yin "empty" leg. Yang is also expressed through the inhale with the abdomen expanding and through Yin as the exhale when the abdomen releases. Through this the organs receive a deep internal massage, the connective tissue starts to elasticise and mobilise, the muscles contract and release, which helps physical tension gently to start to release and melt away.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Each movement has a connection to the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine, whether working with the meridian channels and vessels, bringing awareness to specific meridian points, to balancing yin yang, and strengthening the organs through the five element cycles. Each movement has a health preservation purpose. Working to harmonise the three treasures with the human body; Shen (spirit/mind), Qi (activity of movement/energetic) and Jing (physical/vitality). The caveat is that the quality of Qi should not be forced or manipulated as this can cause ill health. Instead the principles of movement, alignment and awareness are practised, leading the student to a natural discovery. There are many qualities of Qi in Taoist philosophy, from the human body, the environment to food and our ancestors, not all qualities of Qi are the same. Read my article on what does Qigong mean for an understanding of how Qi and blood are related.
The knees are quite a rogue joint in the body, as they can swing and rotate wildly. It is important to learn to stabilise the knee joints when performing Qi Gong, to keep the knee safe. Aligning the knees to move with the hips and toes is the first thing to consider. Tight hips and tight lower back will usually end up with the knees travelling out of alignment easily, as the student tries to mimic the instructors movements rather than working with their own physical baseline. Developing your lower body structure is top priority as a beginner, as the arms can be likened to decoration. The root must be solid and stable. What if your knees hurt during Qi Gong practice? Read my article on the healing process here.
In Qi Gong practice a neutral spine is maintained unless the movement requires a flexion or extension of the spine, which moves the range of motion outside of the principle. The spine is held upright, without an excess curve in the lower back, nor an excess curve in the shoulders. The spine is lengthened from the tail bone to the crown with equal and opposing pressure, which opens the vertebrae and creates space and relaxation along the spine. Read more in my article on how to hold the spine in Tai Chi and Qigong, known as principle Ding, and spine health benefits when practising Qi Gong.
Hip / Pelvis / Lower Back Alignment
The hips/pelvis and lower back are often exploited in Qi gong practice. The hips move out of alignment when they become wonky, whether over tilting forward, over tilting backwards, or over tilting to one side. Any of these posture distortions means the weight of the body gets stuck in the lower back or hips, rather than transferring to the ground. Misalignment of these joints also means the diaphragm and the pelvic floor do not align correctly, leading to problems breathing and moving well. Maintaining a neutral pelvis and lower back is the ideal, unless the Qigong movement specifically moves the hips to a greater range of motion and then returns to neutral. Find out more about the pelvis.
Hip / Kua Squat
In Qi gong practice, the foundation movement is a kua squat. Using the hips/groin to sink the weight back/down. As opposed to a knee squat, where the knees are pushed forwards over the toes. This helps move the body through an expansion and compression motion, yang and yin. The squatting motion can be combined with the arms, torso and breath work.
Shoulders / Chest Alignment
The shoulders and chest hold the key to the weight of your body being able to route appropriately. If the shoulders and chest are misaligned then the weight will get stuck in your neck, shoulders or back and not transfer to the ground. The shoulder joints in particular, as a major joint in the body can hold a lot of physical tension that can restrict movement. It is typical to see students wearing their shoulders as earrings in class or rounding and collapsing their shoulder crest forwards. All from carrying all of their stress around in these parts of their body. Part of the principle song is to relax inappropriate muscular tension around the shoulders and chest, to root the shoulder blades down the back with an external rotating quality, to sit the shoulder crests in a neutral posture and to release holding on in the trap muscles on the tops of the shoulders. Whenever the arms raise is an opportunity to develop song shoulders, a skill worth the effort to reduce tension and discomfort. Some movements require the shoulder blade and/or the trap muscles to raise up in an unnatural way, once you have travelled through a larger range of motion, return to a neutral shoulder alignment.