What is Qigong
mindful movement and balance
Qigong can be thought of as the Grandmother of Tai Chi - and it’s simpler to learn. Qigong is an ancient Chinese self-healing art composed of flowing movements that benefit both your mind and your body. You don't need any special equipment or particular clothing other than wearing something that you find comfortable and easy to move in. Aside from this, a willingness to learn and to get your body moving are the only requirements.
There are several things about Qigong that I love and think you might too. Here are five favourites:
1. You can be proactive about your health, taking what you learn each week and practicing in the comfort of your own home.
2. Qigong is good for you both physically and mentally, working different areas of the body and helping to relieve stress and the emotional overloads of everyday life.
3. You don't need to carve a lot of time out of your day to create a daily practice – as little as 15 minutes will do it.
4. Anyone can do it - you don't need to have athletic ability. You can do it seated, if necessary.
5. You are doing something that is excellent for balancing your mind, body and spirit - and it feels really good when you do it!
If you want to see it in action - have a look at this short video by my teacher Sifu Anthony Korahais. In 97 seconds it does an excellent job of explaining Qigong and summing up some of the benefits that you may experience.
An article in the University Health News reports on research into Qigong that shows it can significantly reduce the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue. In the randomized trial, 154 patients aged 18-55 years who met the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition of chronic fatigue syndrome (unexplained chronic fatigue of at least six months duration plus multiple other chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms) were randomized to two groups. One group participated in qigong sessions twice weekly for five weeks, with each session lasting 2 hours, along with a recommended 15-30 minutes per day of practice at home, while the control group was assigned to a wait-list. Subjects in the qigong group demonstrated a 39 percent reduction in their total fatigue score. Practicing qigong for at least 30 minutes on at least three days per week produced better outcomes—nearly twice as great an improvement. The study found that more qigong practice led to less fatigue.
Lowers blood pressure and improves heart health
The movements, or forms as they are called in Qigong, are devised to stretch out the meridians or channels that our vital energy, or Qi (pronounced Chee) flows through. This stretch enables the Qi to flow more freely and that helps to promote good health. It’s not unusual to feel warmth, tingling, buzzing, more flexible and both energetic and relaxed after practice. Western medicine explains this through the ability of Qigong to improve circulation and lymphatic drainage.
Qigong really varies in intensity – it can be slow, steady and gentle, with the movements in sync with your breath, and it can also be more vigorous and challenging physically and mentally as you make sense of the movements. The slower movements really help to calm a mind and heart that are racing and they help to calm the mind as I encourage you to really focus on how your body is feeling, which calms the mind too. The more challenging forms can slightly raise the heart rate, which gives students a very low intensity aerobic workout.
In my classes I always tell students to adopt the mindset “It’s all about me!” In other words, just focus on your own body and how you feel, ignore everyone else, just focus on your own practice and progress. This means that even the most physically challenging forms can be done by anyone, regardless of age or physical ability as there are different levels that can be done. However, the other main mantra is “Pain = no gain”, so if something is hurting, make the movement smaller, gentler or just pause for a few breaths.
There have been some studies done that show qigong and tai chi can often help to reduce blood pressure by increasing stamina, strengthening the hears, boosting circulation and lowering stress. Here is a link to the results of a study done at National Taiwan University Hospital that suggests tai chi is safe and effective for patients with myocardial infarction, coronary heart disease, have had bypass surgery and heart failure. This is great news.
Improved balance = reduction in falls
Balance is a skill that we can learn, but we can also lessen our ability if we don’t practice balance. I encourage students in my classes to do some Qigong at home or even just practice some stretching and balancing movements from our classes every day. I feel very strongly that as we get older, good balance is vital. The statistics on falls among the elderly makes for sad reading and, apart from causing anyone who falls significant pain and distress, their families can also be adversely affected. So I think that anything we can do to increase our balance, strength and flexibility is helping to ensure better health for the future. Also, if we can save the NHS the cost of hip replacement operations and the after-care, surely that’s a good thing?
It’s fantastic that something as simple as Qigong can help so easily to build our balance – I’ve seen it happen for many of my students and also myself, so I know it works. Here is an article that shows the results of research carried out by Oxford University in this area. This is talking about falls in the elderly, but my thoughts are that we should start this earlier and so help ourselves to have a longer and healthier older age.
Here is an excerpt from the article: On average, those taking part in all exercise programmes had 23 per cent fewer falls than those who did not, while Tai Chi was found to reduce the rate of falls by 19 per cent.
You may be wondering Qigong can help with memory, but it really can help. One obvious aspect is that you learn a sequence of forms, and their names (which are often a bit strange – Green Dragon presents Claws, for instance), which can help. Also the aerobic and meditative aspects of this exercise, along with controlled deep and slow breathing gets blood, lymph and other body fluids moving. Keeping a good supply of blood to the brain may well help.
Recent research has shown that the brain has the ability to generate new cells throughout our entire life span, not only in earlier life. The brain can make new connections and even increase in size later in life, which can also improve cognitive function. There is lots of exciting, cutting-edge research being done in the field of neuro-plasticity. Keep an eye out for news items and headlines for more results.
You’re probably thinking that this gentle exercise isn’t going to do anything for your overall fitness levels, but it actually does. Although many of the movements are very gentle, some are quite demanding. For example, Three Levels to Earth, which is one of the forms in a set called The 18 Luohan Hands, is essentially squatting. Also we use a stance called the Horse Riding Stance, which stretches out and strengthens the legs, and the full movement is reasonably challenging. The main thing, though, is that you do as much or as little as works for you. Going back to one of my rules where I ask students to adopt the mindset “It’s all about me” they only do as much as feels right at the time they are doing the movements. They can push themselves a bit, but not to the extent where they are in pain. When she started Qigong classes, one of my students had a goal of being able to touch her toes without bending her knees. She hit that target after only a few weeks – her knees are unlocked, but she doesn’t have to bend them anymore. She’s now moving onto her next goal.
The BBC programme Trust me, I’m a Doctor did an experiment in which they got people to do either Zumba or Tai Chi (remember, Qigong is the grandmother of Tai Chi) and tested their levels of fitness at the beginning, middle and end of a 12-week programme. A link to the full article is below, here is just an excerpt:
At the beginning, middle and end of the 12 weeks, the volunteers had their blood pressure checked and the flexibility of their blood vessels measured using ultrasound - part of exercise's power to improve your health lies in its ability to improve both of these.
The more flexible your blood vessels, the healthier they are.
Scientists also measured the volunteers' blood for levels of antioxidants and other raised levels of chemical markers of stress and inflammation - which may sound bad, but they're actually a healthy response to exercise and lie behind many of its benefits.
As might be expected, the Zumba Gold group were all fitter after the 12 weeks. Their blood vessels were more elastic and their blood pressure had dropped, while their blood results showed improvements too.
More surprisingly, the results from the tai chi group showed similar benefits, with improvements in blood biomarkers results, blood pressure and vessel flexibility.
So how could tai chi be doing this?
The answer may be deceptively simple. Tai chi may look slow and graceful, but it's not as gentle as it seems.
Dr Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten, a senior lecturer in biological psychology and part of the research team, said: "We have found that doing a session of tai chi leads to similar increases in heart rate as moderate intensity exercise.
The best way to manage stress and anxiety, which is often a by-product of stress, is through self-care. The type of Qigong that I practice and teach is all about self-care and self-healing. I really encourage my students to become aware of their bodies from the top of the head to the soles of the feet. We focus on how the body is feeling, where there is tension or just little kinks in the body and how to release them. We also concentrate quite a bit on breathing and on releasing the breath. All of this helps with relaxation and release of tension and stress. Some of my students report that their sleep is better after class. One noticed after a workshop that their sleep apnoea score was much better the next day. These are all really positive outcomes. And the beauty of this is that you can do any of the forms I teach in the privacy of your own home, at a time to suit you, for as little as 10-15 minutes a day and feel benefits – you don’t have to do hours and hours. Qigong really can fit into our lives. We need to find 15 minutes a day, which might mean 15 minutes less on other things that really aren’t as important as our health, for instance, the computer, social media or watching TV. If we can’t find 15 minutes for self-care, then eventually we may well have to find time to deal with illness.
In terms of independent research into the benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi, a 2014 review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that this type of movement and exercise can have beneficial effects for various populations on a range of psychological well-being measures, including depression, anxiety, general stress management and exercise self-efficacy. Because stress and digestion are closely linked, Qigong and Tai Chi may also be able to help with issues like IBS and gastritis. Qigong is said to help re-establish the body/mind/soul connection. This takes it beyond what many other types of exercises do and may impact students on a deeper, emotional level. Also some benefits may include increased body confidence, better attention span and a deeper sense of connection to others.