This ancient practice links rhythmic breath with meditative movements to improve your mental and physical health — at any age.
While more intense workouts (think: HIIT) can get your heart pumping and give you a mood-boosting endorphin rush, sometimes what your body actually needs is to slow down to realign your physical, mental and spiritually parts. Doing QiGong, a form of meditative movement that’s rooted in Chinese Medicine, can help rebalance the flow of energy or qi (pronoucned chi).
“‘Qi’ is basically defined as vital energy. ‘Gong’ can be translated [in Chinese] as gathering or cultivating,” says Jenelle Kim, DACM, LAc, QiGong and martial arts expert. “We have this vessel of a body, and it holds all of this qi. If you don’t know how to work with your qi and cultivate it properly, it becomes chaotic” or stagnant. According to Chinese Medicine, if qi isn’t balanced or able to flow freely, it can lead to a range of ailments (e.g. headaches, chronic pain).
That’s where QiGong can come in to promote the flow of energy throughout the body, alleviating any potentially harmful stagnation, says Kim. The only problem? QiGong is often associated just with older adults, causing plenty of people to miss out on this practice and it's many mental and physical rewards.
Ahead, experts break down exactly what QiGong is, its benefits and how to start a practice.
What Is QiGong?
Developed in China thousands of years ago, QiGong is a practice that uses exercises to improve energy in the body, mind and spirit and, as a result, your overall well-being, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
While practicing QiGong, you’ll typically focus on three kinds of energy, says Manjit Devgun, a certified QiGong and meditation instructor at THE WELL New York and the creator of the Manjit modern mindfulness app.
- Jing: physical energy or, in Devgun’s words, “essence” that’s stored below your navel or lower dantian
- Chi: vitality and attitude that’s kept in your heart and torso
- Shen: spirit that’s stored in your head
That being said, because QiGong's roots date back centuries, there are hundreds (if not thousands!) of different styles and lineages of the practice. In general, however, each style contains three key components and is based in a few core principles ...
Foundations of QiGong
Much like yoga, breathing is a key part of a QiGong practice. Incorporating your breath into sequences of movements allows qi to enter your body and help you release tension and stagnation in certain areas. In most forms of QiGong, the breathwork is typically slow, long and deep, according to the NCCIH. Although it's not uncommon to move from abdominal breathing to breathing combined with speach sounds.
In fact, you'll likely begin a QiGong practice by breathing into your belly, aka lower dantian breathing. “This [abdominal breathing] is important because in times of stress, people are breathing into their chest too much,” Devgun explains. But through abdominal breathing, you should be able to calm down, since this type of breathwork is known to calm the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system and activate the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system.
In other words, as you inhale and exhale with lower dantian breathing, you should be able to quite your mind enough to not only feel less stressed but to also focus on the present practice.
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At its most basic, QiGong involves coordinating rhythmic breathwork with physical movements or postures. There are typically two types of postures: stationary postures, where you hold a pose for a few seconds to minutes at a time, and dynamic moving postures, where you’re transitioning from one move to the next in a flow. All movements work your upper, middle and lower body in tandem to help promote the flow of energy, per Chinese Medicine, says Kim.
Take, for example, wuji palms, which is a good example of a moving posture. It is essentially like putting two pebbles in each hand and moving "almost like a figure-8 movement," Devgun says. "It’s like dancing in QiGong, and you can do it fast or slow. You really feel the fascia (connective tissue) being worked in the arms and the sinews being stimulated in a way that they don’t normally."
Wuji stance, on the other hand, is when you stand in a relaxed state with your knees slightly bent, explains Devgun. As you hold this posture, "you actually tilt the pelvis forward, so you can really feel the line of energy from the base of your spine and imagine it shooting up out of the head," she says. "Your palms can be faced outward or inward, just in a relaxed sense. The most important thing is to be able to envision or start to invite the energy moving up your body."
Just as Devgun explains in terms of the wuji stance, visualization is an integral part of a QiGong practice.
Essentially, visualization allows the practitioner to guide the energy to different areas of the body, such as organs or meridians (i.e. energy pathways), says Brendan Thorson, LMP, QiGong instructor at THE WELL New York. "Often what we’re trying to do is to increase the energy level in a certain area." Why? To encourage the body to operate at a higher level for optimal health. "To use an analogy, it's almost like charging up your phone," he adds.
For instance, when you’re anxious, you may feel physical pain in your chest or belly. In QiGong, you would envision light moving qi through your body as a way to soothe and calm yourself, Devgun says.
Benefits of QiGong
Reduces Stress and Anxiety
Stress can cause a blockage of energy, whether it’s mental or physical, but doing the meditative movements in QiGong can help release some of that stagnant energy, Kim says. “There’s something about doing the movements [in QiGong] that have been around for centuries that manipulate your organ systems and rebalance your meridians, so you can feel yourself de-stress within just a couple of minutes."
Lowers Blood Pressure
Not only can they potentially ease stress and anxiety, but the deep breathing and meditative components of QiGong might also be able to lower blood pressure. In fact, a 2021 scientific review suggests that the practice can result in "significant reductions of blood pressure," particularly amongst those with high BP.
Promotes Better Mobility and Balance
In addition to improving your mental well-being, QiGong's gentle movements can allow you to work your joints through their full range of motion and loosen up any tension in the connective tissues in your body.
“Working out is moving your muscles and making them stronger, but what about the organs and the blood? QiGong stimulates the organs and directs healing energy to all those places when you unite the different parts of qi. Because the movements are gentle, you’re also loosening all the parts that hold your muscles to the bones, so it’s great for your fascia,” Devgun says.
Meanwhile, a small 2021 study found that Baduanjin, a style of QiGong, was effective in proving balance, mobility and lower-body strength in people living with chronic stroke. Additional research also suggests that the practice can increase balance, muscular strength and flexibility by focusing on controlled, slow movements that improve awareness of your body.
How to Start a QiGong Practice
You don’t need a lot of time to make QiGong a daily (or even weekly!) practice. In fact, just 10 to 15 minutes a day is enough to cycle your qi, Kim says. “Even five minutes, when you really put your mind and heart into what you’re doing, you can really feel a difference.”
For those who just have three or four minutes in the morning, Devgun suggests starting in a wuji stance and twisting from side to side. This helps cultivate the qi inside you while strengthening your spine, which is where your nervous system lies. “And so if you’re focusing on the base of your spine, you’re thinking about bringing energy to your body,” she says.
When looking for a QiGong instructor or class, you can check out THE WELL New York. Don't live in or near NYC? Head over to the Qigong Institute's site, where you’ll find a directory of teachers in your area. There are also a number of QiGong instructors sharing their practice on YouTube, including Kim.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any official accreditations for QiGong instructors, so Kim advises researching a person’s background before working with them. “See where their style comes from. Where do the techniques come from? How long has it been around?” she says. “Remember, QiGong practice has been around for thousands of years. So find a route, find a lineage, find a link to someone — and then you're definitely on the right path.”