Relaxation is the priority and prime focus of all Taoist Exercise and Martial Arts, including Qigong. Relaxation is induced through deep breathing, awareness of and release of tension, awareness of breath, and mindfulness. Breathing in the practice of qigong is a deep diaphragmatic breathing with an expansion of the abdomen on the in-breath, and a collapsing of the abdomen on the out-breath. At the advanced stages a different form of intentional breathing is practiced. This advanced breathing practice is entitled “Reverse Breathing.” This is essentially the reverse of abdominal breathing, wherein the abdomen is collapsed on the in-breath and expanded on the out-breath.
The release of tension to induce greater relaxation in the muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and all the various systems of the body is further aided by mindfulness and awareness. If one has a general present-moment mindfulness, then the awareness of any excess tension in the body can come to the fore of one’s consciousness. Being mindful of this tension and breathing deeply, even imagining this inward breath reaching into the place of tension and the out-breath pulling some of that tension out, can lessen the rigidity of tension in that area. Repeated, conscious, directed in- and out- breaths can further release tension from the area and possibly cause that area to completely release its held tension.
If and when other areas of tension or pain are discovered with a body scan, further conscious directed breath can lessen the tension and/or pain. Conscious, directed breathing may even obliterate the tension completely. This method can also be used to release pain to varying degrees.
The second thing to focus on after breath is the mind. Focusing on mind, in truth means to be mindful of what one is doing in the present moment.
Present-moment awareness is most easily brought to the forefront of one’s consciousness by initially focusing on one’s breath then the light of one’s awareness is expanded from there to include one’s movement (both internal and external), one’s immediate surroundings, etc.
Sitting Qigong (Meditation)
Qigong can also be categorized in one of three ways: Sitting Qigong, Standing Qigong, and Moving Qigong. First we shall discuss Sitting Qigong. Sitting Qigong is essentially a sitting meditation practice. This meditation practice involves using the imagination to visualize certain paradigmatic energetic structures, or scenes, or deities, or astrological symbols, or symbolic representations of deities, animals, and actual symbols (like the Bagua symbol), etc.
Standing Qigong (Zhan Zhuang)
Standing Qigong, also known as Zhan Zhuang is a meditative practice reputed to increase the amount, the flow, and one’s sensitivity to Qi. The practice involves taking a prescribed static pose and holding it for as long as you can…from minutes to hours, with the usual prescription being 20-30 minutes.
When one is in the same pose for such a long time, day in and day out, one eventually begins to check in with the internal, energetic workings of one’s body with a consciousness and awareness further sensitized to such a thing. Furthermore one begins to relax one’s body deeper and deeper into the pose, especially into the pelvic girdle and into one’s legs and feet, and through the feet into the ground below. This relaxed rootedness is one of the goals of internal martial arts, in particular the Chinese internal styles of martial arts.
One of the most common standing qigong poses is the 3 balls pose wherein your hands, arms, and legs look as though they are holding, or encircling three balls of varying sizes. With practice one may eventually sense these balls as orbs of energetic movement and pulsation. This increased sensitivity to energies is of great use to martial artists. This increased sensitivity can be translated into the ability to read the intentions of one’s opponent before any apparent physical tells.
Moving Qigong is often when one stands in one place but moves the arms in varying ways, or squats or moves one leg in a prescribed way. These movements have an energetic, as well as physical benefit. The physical benefits include a gentle stretching and relaxation of the body. The energetic benefits, on the other hand, are more subtle, and include increased perception, and a feeling of energetic flow throughout various parts of the body.
When moving qigong is taken to its endpoint, it becomes Tai Chi Chuan. One could argue that Tai Chi Chuan is mainly certain martial movements from the Shaolin tradition performed with an awareness of qigong principles, with the emphasis being more on the energy work rather than the physical motions.
Moving qigong is what is primarily taught in a qigong class, with a bit of post-standing (Zhan Zhuang) practice and meditation thrown in for good measure.
More advanced forms of moving qigong would be the internal styles of martial arts. These would include Tai Chi Chuan, Bagua Zhang, Hsing-i Chuan, Liuhebafa, etc.
These styles of Martial Arts practices meld fighting and self-defense techniques with some qigong principles, in order to fuse their movements with the perceived added power of intense energy accumulation and flow.
Qigong and Altered States of Consciousness
The calming effect of this energy practice, whether it is sitting, standing (stationary), or moving; can lead to altered states of consciousness. Most of the time these altered states of consciousness are varying degrees of a sense of calm and inner peace. Though, one can achieve deeper and deeper states of calm, inner peace, and awareness (in particular of an internal awareness of one’s body and its present state). Theoretically, one could also achieve a blissful Samadhi-like state of oneness with all life/existence, or a Zen-like negation of the self or a rising of the Kundalini energy (from Hindu and Buddhist Tantric thought) through repeated practice of qigong, especially seated qigong meditation.
The benefits of a consistent Qigong practice are many and there is much overlap between these benefits and the benefits derived from daily Tai Chi Practice, or the daily practice of any internal style of martial arts or a gentle exercise done mindfully, such as Yoga. I will list them in a future post.