“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” — Dylan Thomas
“The older, the stronger, the wiser, and the happier” — traditional Taiji saying
An 89 year old internet friend asked me how he should begin to learn and to practice the Chinese arts of qigong to improve and maintain his health. So although I’m not an expert or a master, I wrote the following. Qigong or chi kung may be translated literally from the Chinese as “breath work.” Qi is considered to be the interface between spirit and matter. Qi is equivalent to the Indian prana, the Japanese ki, the Latin spiritus, the Greek pneuma and the Hebrew ruach. T’ai Chi or Taiji is one form of qigong. Massage, acupressure and acupuncture (these are called wai dan) and some forms of meditation( nei dan) are also forms of qigong, as is the art of feng shui, of which I’m more than a little skeptical.
You need to get Justin Stone’s book called T’ai Chi Chih, Joy Through Movement. ( Mr. Stone lived to be 96.) Also get his DVD of the same title. He distilled T’ai Chi Ch’uan( 108 choreographed movements, Yang style) to 19 movements. More than 40 years ago I did T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the Yang style, specifically Cheng-Man Ching’s ‘short’ form of 68 movements, for about 8 years( but not without interruption) at the Joy of Movement Center, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a student of Alan Shapiro. At that time I also did Mr. Stone’s T’ai Chi Chih, self-taught from his book. Today he also has a DVD. Mr. Stone’s is not only much easier to learn but you can actually feel the qi, especially as tingling in the hands. The qi energy of Chinese medicine and martial arts may be related to the — biological/neurochemical — placebo effect. Interestingly there is an important qigong saying: “The yi leads the qi( chi).” More precisely the xin-yi leads the qi. This may be translated as the mind-intent or imagination leads the qi energy.
Then you need to pick out about 8 of Justin Stone’ 19 T’ai Chi Chih movements or at least 6 and overlearn them. It is not necessary to learn all of them, as he explains in his book. You need to practice these movement-forms pretty much every day for more than a year. As Stone says, “T’ai Chi Chih teaches you T’ai Chi Chih.” After about 3.5 years I connected the separate forms I had overlearned into an even more efficient continuous practice. But it is easier to learn them separately. Incidentally learning the novel movements is good for non-young brains and involves novel use of our proprioceptors.
You also need to learn to do wuji zhuang, a.k.a., “standing pole” or “standing like a tree.” Taijiquan( T’ai Chi Ch’uan) is called “moving standing pole,” huo zhuang. Wuji zhuang or standing pole consists of standing with one’s feet shoulder width apart or slightly more with the toes pointing slightly outward and the knees flexed or bent slightly, while holding the arms out in a incomplete circle with the hands at shoulder height, as if hugging a very large tree. This position must be maintained in in a state of relaxation with minimal muscular effort. Eyes may be open or shut or preferably half shut. Imagine a sheet of paper balanced on top of one’s head. With the eyes shut swaying back and forth may occur, as an indication of proper muscular relaxation. You may feel a slight inner smile during practice. There are numerous illustrations of wuji zhuang or standing pole available on the web. E.g.:
If possible it is recommended to do this outside in a natural setting. Wuji zhuang is among other things a form of mindfulness meditation, which nurtures our qi energy and also gradually strengthens our core musculature, improves posture automatically without conscious intent, both sitting and standing, and may unexpectedly alleviate low-back problems in my experience.
Standing pole is a form of meditation in which the practitioner does not generally fall asleep. The breathing during standing pole is natural and uncontrolled. During a longish session the breathing spontaneously become slow and diaphragmatic. Reportedly many large-muscled bodybuilders cannot do standing pole for very long. Also apparently quite a few individuals who attempt to do standing pole cannot bear to simply stand before their thoughts without distraction for a few minutes.
In qigong there is a form of breathing called embryonic breathing. According to some qigong teachers this is the pattern of breathing found before birth in an embryo, which was intuited by ancient Taoist sages. The lower dantien about 1.5 inches below the navel, but internal below the surface, is the primary reservoir for the storage of qi energy, according to ancient Taoist theory. ( Interestingly the navel is, of course, the point of entry of nutrients to the developing embryo and fetus.) Embryonic breathing is abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, which has in fact been demonstrated to lower blood pressure in Western medical research. By contrast most adults breath from their upper chest.
During moving or dynamic qigong inner exercises, as taught by Dr. Yang, “reverse breathing” is employed. Here, during inhalation the abdomen is pulled inward and upward and during exhalation the abdominal muscles are relaxed. This is the opposite of normal breathing in adults and may, according to some teachers, massage the internal organs. Reverse breathing is the breathing pattern observed for new born babies, according to Yang. Presumably this abdominal movement also occurs with a fetus in utero, in order to draw in blood, oxygen and nutrients from the mother.
Standing pole has mostly been kept secret except within families until recently. But on the Boston common about forty years ago students of John Chung Li’s Hwa Yu style Taiji did standing pole publicly. “One standing pole is worth more than 100 practices.” “One stillness is worth more than 100 movements.” These are traditional qigong martial arts sayings. Another noteworthy saying is: “The qi follows the mind-intent( xin-yi); The blood and oxygen follow the qi.” Also: “Qi, no pain; Pain, no qi.” Standing pole is at least 2700 years old. It may be 5000 years old and appears to be referenced in the Tao Teh Ching. As during T’ai Chi Chih practice you can feel what is presumably the qi energy in your hands, when doing standing pole for a protracted time. But in this case the hands are quite motionless and relaxed.
There are also dynamic forms of qigong such as Sink Qi, Wash Organs, Gathering the Qi to the Dantien, Circulating the Qi, Strike Shoulders and the poetic Opening and Closing to Heaven and Earth. Doing Sink Qi and Wash Organs I can actually feel my hands tingle with qi, though the exercise is very gentle. This moving qigong exercise was transmitted to Yang by Grand Master Feng Zhiqiang of Beijing, his most renowned teacher. In addition to increasing qi one of the benefits of the moving qigong exercises is to improve balance and reduce falling in older people.
These are demonstrated and explained in Dr. Yang Yang’s excellent DVD. Dr. Yang also emphasizes that the different styles of Taiji are only differences in choreography. The principles are the same in all styles, such as the Yang style or Chen style. In theory any movement may be “Taiji,” if executed according to these principles.
Standing pole is very easy, but almost no one will actually do it! You should gradually build up to 10 or 15 minutes of standing pole daily, unless you have a cold or the flu. Also standing pole should be avoided immediately before or after sex. Otherwise do it every day. I’ve done 30 minutes of standing pole almost every day for 15 months. After doing standing pole lie down on a flat surface on your back and relax for several minutes. This is lying-down wuji and is very important to avoid any back problems.
At some point you should get Dr. Yang Yang’s DVD on evidence-based qigong and Taiji and his excellent book on the same subject. Yang Yang has a Ph. D. in kinesthesiology from the University of Illinois, Urbana, in addition to being a Taiji/qigong master. He is focused upon scientific/medical research on traditional Chinese qigong practices and applying this knowledge to improve the quality of aging. If you know anyone who may be subject to aging, this could be of interest.
There are other more meditative schools of qigong not as grounded in the internal martial arts, such as Taiji and aikido. ( For explication of differences between internal and external martial arts, please see:
According to their practitioners, it is possible with long practice by xin-yi or mind-intent to lead the flow of the qi energy along the primary meridian channels of acupuncture within the body in various directions, thereby obtaining both healing-medical results and spiritual transformation. These practices, including the microcosmic orbit and macrocosmic orbit meditations, among others, appear to be less evidence-based and perhaps more airy-fairy or ‘metaphysical’ than those rooted in the traditions of Chinese internal martial arts. Before fMRI brain-scan technology became available, combat was far more observable than were the inner results of a meditation practice and hence perhaps it was more difficult to deceive oneself about martial arts attainment.
The goal of some of these practices was to attain literal immortality for the advanced practitioner through conceiving a “spiritual embryo” within, which could survive the death of the physical body. This seems analogous to the idea found in certain esoteric traditions that we are ‘wombs’ or ‘incubators’ for the creation of a “soul” or ‘higher-being body’ in life. Such possibilities, however interesting, go far beyond evidence-based qigong.
In the macrocosmic orbit meditation qi can supposedly be deliberately exchanged between the external environment and the qigong practitioner or qi may be transfered from an individual practitioner to another person for healing purposes. Curiously one source states that one should not practice these forms of qigong for three days before or four days after one has sex. ( Do people usually know three days before they will have sex?)
According to traditional lore these techniques were brought from India to China by Bodhidharma, a.k.a., Tamo, a Buddhist monk in the 5th. or 6th. century. In these more philosophical schools of Taoism qi is considered more broadly to be all forms of energy in the physical universe, not merely the ‘subtle’ energy within the acupuncture meridians of the body, according to traditional Chinese medicine.
In conclusion I met Master T. T. Liang in Boston, Massachusetts about 40 years ago. He was a beautiful old Chinese guy, probably in his late seventies. He and William C. C. Chen, a student of Ch’eng-Man Ching, were my teacher’s teachers. Master Liang made many interesting observations on Taiji including that it took him more than twenty years of practice to discover qi and eventually you have to make the forms you practice your own. He wrote that for the first part of one’s life one should be a Confucian, the middle part a Taoist and approaching the end of one’s life one should be a Buddhist.
Only many years later did I learn that when Master Liang was in his early 40s in China, medical doctors told him he had at most 2 months to live. Opium addiction, prostitutes, cirrhosis of the liver, an virulent STD and shoot-outs in alleys with Chinese gangsters had graced his younger life. Upon receiving his prognosis he then resumed his former practice of Taiji; quit his job as a Chinese customs official in Shanghai, after deciding that he was making too much money. Subsequently T.T. Liang wrote many scholarly books on Chinese philosophy and Taijiquan and lived to the age of 102, from 1900 – 2002.
Taijiquan – The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power, by Yang Yang, Ph. D.,
with Scott A. Grubisich
Zhenwu Publications, Champaign, Illinois, USA
The Way of Energy: Mastering the Chinese Art of Internal Strength with Chi Kung Exercise ,
by Master Lam Kam-Chuen, Gaia Original Paperback
Qigong Meditation, Small Circulation, by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming
YMAA Publication Center
Boston, Mass., USA
Simple Qigong Exercises for Health,
Eight Pieces of Brocade( Ba Duan Jin),
by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming
YMAA Publication Center, Inc.
Wolfeboro, NH, USA