Qigong: What is it and how does it differ from Tai chi?
I’m always happy to see research bringing new insights and a deeper understanding of ancient health traditions. Recent studies have demonstrated that the holistic practices of ancient China have many proven benefits for us today. Although most medical research is focused on Tai Chi, Qigong offers the same advantages.
What does 'Qigong' mean?
The "Qi" in Qigong translates as "air/breath/energy/spirit" and the "gong" as "achievement/skill/discipline". So Qigong means the cultivation and development of chi or energy for increased vitality. Don’t worry about the spelling! You’ll see Chi Kung and other variations; there are many different styles of Qigong from China, Japan, and other countries. Qigong has been evolving for around 3,000 years and stems from the Chinese traditions of martial arts, Taoist meditation, and meridian-based treatments like Shiatsu and acupuncture.
The principles of Qigong
Qi or chi refers to our body’s natural bio-electro-magnetic energy. Chi is also the oxygen and nitrogen from the air we breathe; the nutritional energy from the food we eat; the subtle vital energy of the natural world. By doing Qigong, eating well, breathing deeply, and spending time outside, we are continually topping up our chi levels like inflating a tyre, making us more resilient to the inevitable bumps along the road of life.
You can think of Qigong as "standing meditation" and Tai chi as "walking meditation". In Qigong, we follow a sequence of standing positions that get the chi flowing through the meridians while strengthening the body and calming the mind. Among the many traditional forms are the Iron Shirt Qigong and the Eight Pieces of Brocade. When you have some experience, there is also the capacity to let the chi guide you, allowing movements to flow intuitively with the breath, following the spirit rather than the letter of Qigong.
Qigong is a chance to enjoy where you are and lay strong foundations for your healthy future.
The benefits of Qigong
The grounding qualities of Qigong make it a valuable practice in its own right. It is also the ideal preparation for, and companion to, Tai chi. People are often attracted to Tai chi as its stepping movements look so elegant, but it’s that very travelling nature that requires us to put down strong roots first. Qigong helps us to do that.
Benefits for the body
Qigong, like Tai chi, is often described as a 'whole body' exercise. I prefer the phrase 'whole person' or 'whole being'. It’s impossible to separate the benefits for mind and body; it’s a relationship. What I love about practices from the Taoist tradition, whether exercise, meditation or receiving Shiatsu, is that we feel the benefits immediately and they increase the more we practice.
Qigong is ideal for complementary/physical therapists and healers. It was an essential part of my Shiatsu training with Kris Deva North, who taught Qigong alongside Taoist meditation as mandatory energy management for hands-on therapists. What began as a way to look after myself became a way to add variety and longevity to my career when I trained to teach.
Qigong is a stable way to exercise, suitable for all ages. You don’t have to punish the body to burn calories and feel fit. There is more research now to prove that Qigong gives a thorough cardiovascular workout; it’s not just standing around! It promotes a healthy heart, immune and endocrine system, can help with weight loss, and benefits the muscles, tendons and ligaments for strength and flexibility combined. By improving posture and balance, and keeping us steady on our feet, Qigong is a great gift as we age.
As it’s done standing, Qigong is perfect for people who struggle with bearing weight on their wrists and knees in Yoga and Pilates. With any new exercise, people with lower back and knee issues will need to take extra care. It’s also important to choose an appropriate class and discuss any health concerns with your teacher. Qigong is versatile; it can be an excellent partner to the hard martial arts and other dynamic sports. It can be combined with floor-based warm-ups such as the Makka-Ho Stretches, or adapted into a seated practice for people with restricted mobility.
Qigong generates more energy than it uses up; after a class, people don’t feel exhausted but revitalised, uplifted, and connected. We feel full of chi.
Benefits for the mind
Strength is not always about size and muscle. It’s about inner resources, and how we relate with the world. Strength can mean developing self-reliance, the ability to bounce back, and control where our mind takes us. Qigong has been shown to help people feel more calm and relaxed – less stressed, anxious or depressed. Qigong helps us to withstand the challenging moments life brings, and to recover our equilibrium when we’re feeling shaky. Try it before an important phone call or meeting!
Some of the fun in Qigong comes from its expressive elements; the way it encourages us to enter into the moment with some attitude. We can feel our eyes sparkle with a fierce gaze in the Buffalo (from Iron Shirt) and Punching with an Angry Gaze (from the Eight Brocades). This isn’t just for show; Qigong develops our mental clarity as we harmonise alpha and beta brain waves for relaxation and focus combined. It gives us a feeling of ease and confidence that flows out into our lives. We change how we feel.
Combining the benefits of meditative breath work with mindful movement restores our emotional balance, making Qigong the perfect partner for seated meditation and spiritual practice. If you find it hard to settle or find yourself getting too 'floaty' in meditation, then Qigong can ground you so that you embody the harmony of Yin and Yang.
How to begin and not give up!
Be gentle with yourself in the beginning. Both Qigong and Tai chi involve some subtle and, for beginners, occasionally challenging coordinated movements. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t all drop into place in the first lesson. Learning builds up in layers. Students often want to rush and feel they should be 'getting it' sooner than is realistic. Many people are carrying the memory of stressful learning experiences at school and at work. Remember there’s no competition here, there’s nothing to fail, you will only improve. Keep going.
As a continual student (I’ve recently qualified in McLoughlin Scar Tissue Release®, and I’m also developing my poetry) one of the best lessons my teacher Kris Deva North gave was "Make lots of mistakes early, you learn more quickly!" It can take time to relax into self-compassionate learning. Qigong, by anchoring our feet to the earth, helps us shed the old treadmill mindset and enjoy tuning in to the flow of chi.
Taking part in a class and feeling the special atmosphere that comes from doing Qigong together is a benefit in its own right, establishing our place in a community. If you’re learning from videos, remember that you have fellow students all over the world. Give a smile to all the other Qigong practitioners out there. You’re not alone.
You don’t need any equipment for Qigong, and you can start with five to 15 minutes of practice. Try a few movements before or after meditation. See how it feels to pause on a walk and practice in the open air. Use it to warm up before giving hands-on treatments, or to replenish and centre yourself after active listening. Do some Qigong at the airport, filling the time before your flight. Let Qigong help you restore good posture and mobility after a long journey or time at the computer. Integrate the focus on the breath into your day, and notice how you feel. Qigong is a chance to enjoy where you are and lay strong foundations for your healthy future.
- Harvard Medical School (2022), 'The Health Benefits of Tai Chi', Harvard Health Publishing, Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi
- BBC Radio 4 (2023), 'Try Tai Chi', 'Just One Thing' with Michael Mosley, Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001hf9h