Qigong is considered a collective term for a long-established, extensive set of exercises first created in China more than 2,000 years ago. As many Eastern medicinal practices continue to gain popularity in the West — including acupuncture, meditation, Ayurveda and yoga — qigong and Tai Chi are also going mainstream.
Eastern practitioners have known about the benefits of qigong for centuries, and today Western scientific research is following-suit, confirming that qigong can help prevent and manage many different health problems. The ancient practice is especially beneficial for older adults and people who are chronically stressed out.
In 2010, a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that after reviewing 77 articles on qigong, the research demonstrated consistent, significant benefits associated with the practice. Key benefits include: better bone density, cardiopulmonary effects, physical functioning, reduced falls and related risk factors, improved quality of life, lower psychological symptoms and better immune function. (1)
What Is Qigong?
Qigong is the term for not just one, but many types of gentle movement and concentration practices stemming from China. Some experts believe that there are more than 3,000 different styles of qigong in existence today. Tai chi and other forms of qigong are one of the secrets of people living in blue zones. Today, holistic practitioners promote qigong for its proven stress-reducing benefits, plus its ability to improve flexibility and inner-focus.
Qigong involves performing gentle movements that are synchronized with the inhalations and exhalations of the breath, making it similar to yoga in that it’s a powerful holistic practice for both the “body and mind.” (2) Qigong is considered to be a form of exercise, but also a mental skill that must be mastered over time with practice. Science confirms qigong improves energy, inner peace, strength, sleep quality and vitality. Today, people practice many different forms of qigong (just like yoga), including tai chi – a gentler type that’s well suited for older people – and kung fu, a more vigorous practice that’s similar to other martial arts like karate.
No matter the style of qigong, all types usually share several key characteristics:
- They feature specific body positions or exercises, which are both fluid and also held in place (stationary).
- Movements are tied to the breath.
- While movements are being performed, concentrated focus is also very important, giving qigong qualities similar to mindfulness meditation.
Qigong requires no equipment, can be performed just about anywhere, and can be tailored to an individual’s needs depending on their goals and physical abilities. This makes it a good exercise choice for just about anyone who’s looking to improve range of motion and relaxation.
5 Proven Qigong Benefits
Although it’s widely believed in traditional Chinese medicine that qigong practices can help just about all aspects of life, below are some of the ways qigong has been proven to help the most:
1. Qigong lowers blood pressure and improves heart health
Movement associated with qigong/tai chi is said to stimulate natural energy, known as qi (chi). Many tai chi practitioners report feeling warmer, more limber, tingly and more energetic after they practice. In western science, this idea is explained through qigong’s ability to improve circulation and lymphathic drainage.
Qigong can definitely range in terms of intensity, which means it affects the cardiovascular system differently depending on the style. Some practices involve slow, steady, deep and smooth movements linked with breath. This helps calm a racing heart and mind. A more vigorous practice increase someone’s heart rate, causing them to sweat while providing a low-to-moderate intensity aerobic workout.
Studies show that qigong/tai chi can often help improve blood pressure by increasing stamina, strengthening the heart, boosting circulation and lowering stress. Recent studies out of National Taiwan University Hospital suggest that tai chi is safe and effective for patients with myocardial infarction, coronary heart disease, those who have had bypass surgery and heart failure. (3)
2. Qigong lowers your risk of falling & injuries in older adults
A 2005 study published in the Journal of Gerontology found that a three-times-per-week, 6-month tai chi program effectively decreased the number of falls, the risk of falling and the fear of falling in patients over the age of 70.
They also found that patients experienced significant improvements in overall functional balance and physical performance, even when the patients were physically inactive and limited in their abilities before the study. (4)
3. Reduces negative effects of stress
A 2014 review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that tai chi interventions have beneficial effects for various populations on a range of psychological well-being measures, including depression, anxiety, general stress management and exercise self-efficacy. (5) Because stress and digestion are closely linked, tai chi and qigong can also help with issues like gastritis, IBS and ulcers.
Qigong is said to help reestablish the body/mind/soul connection. In this way, it goes beyond what many other types of exercises do, often impacting practitioners on a deeper, emotional level. Some of the mental benefits associated with qigong/tai chi include deeper spiritual development, experienced body confidence, better attention span and a deeper sense of connection to others.
The linking of body movements, breath and focus makes tai chi and yoga very similar. Both practices help improve functions of the parasympathetic nervous system, which calm the body and mind down, reduce nervousness and muscle tension, improve deep breathing and can help with relaxation and deep sleep.
4. Qigong improves immunity and cancer protection
The Hospital of Guangzhou Medical University in China reports that of all mind-body interventions which are widely used by cancer patients to reduce cancer symptoms and better cope with disease, qigong/tai chi has emerged as one of the most effective.
The institution’s research tested the effects of qigong’s ability to improve quality of life (QOL) and other physical and psychological effects in 592 cancer patients. The results showed that qigong practice significantly helped reduce fatigue, improved immune function and lowered cortisol level in the majority of patients. (6)
5. Qigong reduces chronic pain
In 2008, the Peninsula Medical School performed a review of data from 12 controlled clinical trials testing the effectiveness of tai chi for treating degenerative joint diseases such as osteoarthritis and joint pain.
The study found significant pain reduction in patients practicing tai chi compared to routine treatment. Researchers also found some evidence of improvement of physical functions and activities of daily living in the tai chi group.
While there’s some encouraging evidence suggesting that tai chi may be effective for controlling chronic pain, researchers point out that future studies done on a larger patient population and for longer treatment periods are still needed before tai chi will replace other standard treatment options. (7)
The most popular way to practice qigong is to learn a short series of tai chi. Tai chi is usually practiced as a series of graceful, seamless hand forms which vary in length. Chen Meng is credited with creating a popular, shortened version of traditional tai chi that lasts about 15 minutes. It’s simple to learn and perform at home. Tai chi series normally require a significant amount of open space, so it’s common to practice outside in a field or in an empty room.
- Warmup: Make sure you first warm up by practicing simple stretches or calisthenics to move your legs, arms and back. Wear loose clothing that allows you to move around and stay cool. For tai chi beginners, it’s usually best to take things very slow and spend 10 to 20 minutes a day learning just a few postures rather than rushing through an entire routine. It takes time to learn proper form and posture, so be patient and try not to force the practice. (This can defeat the whole point.)
- Beginner posture: This is the most basic tai chi pose. It requires your feet to be shoulder distance apart, your toes facing slightly inward, knees soft, chest and chin slightly hollowed, and hips slightly tucked. Some describe the pose like you’re sitting in a high stool.
- Basic stepping exercise: Stepping from one posture to the next is important in qigong. This requires learning how to transition smoothly and gently, rolling/placing the feet with balanced weight. Keep your center of gravity low while stepping and rolling your entire foot so both feet rest on the ground in the end position.
- Catch a Ball/Ball of Energy: Rub your hands together, pull them apart (they are now “filled with warmth and qi”). Then bring them close together again, but don’t allow them to touch. Continue to pull your hands apart and bring them closer together, repeating with a slow and steady rhythm, perhaps stepping at the same time.
- Single whip or Ward off: This moving hand position is typically used for jabbing, whipping, striking or even in massage. Place the hand with palm facings downward and the four fingers curled to lightly touch the thumb. The front leg is extended out, body open to the side, front arm moves forward and the wrist bends down as the fingers open and close.
- Roll back: This move uses the waist and is done in a diagonal position. Put weight on left leg and turn waist to the left. The right arm curves to hold a ball against your chest, fingers move upward while left arm arcs first downward, then left arm floats up to shoulder height.
Who Can Benefit Most From Qigong?
According to the National Qigong Association, qigong practices can be classified as “martial, medical, and/or spiritual.”
From an alternative/complementary medicine perspective, qigong is medical because it is a sort of exercise, involves the body and can promote better cardiovascular health, joint flexibility, and even stronger immunity through lowering chronic stress.
Qigong is martial because it’s a learned skill that’s based on centuries’ worth of teachings, often described as a true “accomplishment,” something that can be mastered only with many years of practice. And finally, it’s spiritual because it involves a mindful concentration of the breath and a focus on improving qi (“inner life force”). This unites all people while including the use of meridians (a system used in acupuncture) involving how energy flows in the human body. The spiritual aspect of qigong makes it different than many other forms of exercise and is one of the reasons it’s believed to bring out reductions in stress for many people.
Based on the fact that qigong can help reduce stress, lower joint pain, build strength and stamina, and enhance the immune system, people who can benefit from it most include those with: (8)
- high levels of anxiety/stress
- heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol
- muscle aches and pains
- joint pain, osteoarthritis or tendonitis
- fatigue, low energy and trouble sleeping
- ADHD and learning disabilities
- low immune system function and susceptibility to infections or illnesses
- those with other circulatory, lymphatic and digestive problems (such as intestinal or kidney problems)
- older adults who can’t perform intense exercise
Qigong is most popular among middle-aged to older-aged adults. Many practitioners find that it helps them to regain flexible, strong and calm into older age. It might also help increase recovery time from illnesses or traumatic events.
Qigong vs. Tai Chi
What is tai chi and how is it different from qigong?
- Tai chi is considered to be a specific style of qigong, but it’s far from the only style. Tai chi involves a specific series of postures and exercises, while qigong can be practiced in no particular order
- Tai chi is one of the most popular forms of qigong in the West and is a gentle, slow, flowing style of martial arts. But qigong itself does not always have to be performed this way. For example, qigong can also be static such as the style called Zhan Zhuag, or very rapid and intense such as the style called Dayan.
- Tai chi moves have been shown to help promote better circulation, range of motion and mindful focus. Tai chi practices range from anywhere between 10 minutes to 2 hours long.
- Most research done in the West involving the health benefits of qigong have studied the effects of tai chi, since it’s now popular in places like the U.S and Europe, customizable for different audiences and well-suited to manage many different health conditions.
Qigong History & Interesting Facts
Qigong’s 2,000 year old roots stem back to ancient Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian philosophies. The word “qigong” (also sometimes called Chi Kung) is made up of two ancient Chinese words: Qi ,which roughly translates to “life force” or “vital energy,” and Gong, which means “skill” or “accomplishment.”
Although the term qigong can be traced back to Daoist literature of the early Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the modern interpretation only became popular in the West during the 1940s and 50s. For those living in the West who are unfamiliar with traditional Chinese medicine, it can be hard to describe all that qigong encompasses. The best way to summarize its purpose is that it promotes optimal flow of chi (energy), warms up the body and calms the mind all at the same time. Qigong practices have a long history in traditional Chinese medicine; in earlier periods, qigong was sometimes referred to by other names including “Nei gong” (which means “internal work”) or “Dai yin” (which means “steered energy”).
There have been many influential leaders in the qigong movement over the past 20 centuries, all teaching their own methods for achieving a higher realm of awareness, awakening one’s “true nature” and fostering better health. In Confucianism, qigong was promoted for longevity and moral character; in Daoism and Buddhism, it was viewed as part of meditative practice; in Chinese martial arts, it’s been used to increase strength for battle. Historically, qigong training and knowledge was passed down from one master to a dedicated student, which has created distinct lineages and many unique interpretations and methods. (9)
While qigong and tai chi can certainly help improve flexibility, risk of falls, pain and anxiety in many ways, these practices are probably most effective when combined with other healthy habits like other types of aerobic exercise, strength training and also eating a healthy diet. Qigong is suitable for older people, those with pain and limitations and people recovering from injuries, but it’s still best to get a professional opinion and clearance to begin qigong if you’re unsure. The best way to get started safely is to be guided by a well-trained teacher, so consider attending a class or even using online videos as a guide.
Final Thoughts On Qigong
- Qigong is an ancient Chinese healthcare practice that has been in existence for over 2,000 years.
- There are thousands of different styles of qigong practiced throughout the world, all of which integrate physical postures, breathing techniques and focused intention.
- Tai chi is one form of qigong. Its benefits include stress reduction, decreased joint pain, improved heart health, better physical functioning, improved balance and protection from falls.