Yoga & Qigong: Contrasts & Complementarity, Part One

b7a482e0f6ba04afe7b94d176881e995Today’s topic at “The Living Yoga Blog” comes from one of our readers, who asks:  “Along with yoga, I see that you also practice and teach qigong.  Could you share a bit about how the two compare for you, as well as the benefits you experience from practicing both?”


As you may know, qigong and yoga have a great deal in common – they are both powerful traditions for improving health, and they both place great emphasis on the mind-body connection.  At the same time, they also have significant differences, both in terms of practices and the guiding principles behind them.  In today’s article, I’d like to share a bit about what they have in common, where they differ, and how combining the two can be especially beneficial for our health and spiritual growth.


The Foundations of Qigong


Let’s begin with the basics of qigong.  The word qigong literally means “cultivation of vital energy,” and it includes a diverse body of practices designed to improve our physical, mental, and spiritual vitality.  Developed over many centuries, qigong has come to include a range of exercises, but they all share the goal of improving our energy so we can grow spiritually and also support the people around us in doing the same.


Obviously, our over-all energy depends on three factors: how well we can absorb energy from the sources around us, how smoothly energy flows through our bodies, and finally our ability to reduce unnecessary expenditures of energy.  The practices of qigong are designed to address each of these three issues in order to improve our over-all vitality and health.


Where Energy Come From: Obvious & Subtle Sources


According to qigong, energy comes from several sources.  Some of these are familiar but surprisingly limited, while others are more esoteric, taking time and effort to access but, once we do, providing a far greater supply of energy.  By learning to connect with these greater sources, we can dramatically improve our energy and quality of life.


Classically, qi is divided into several forms.  The first is “original qi,” which we inherit from our parents.  This is very powerful and allows us to extract qi from other sources, but it is limited, so we want to spend it wisely.  We also of course gain qi from food, water, and air.  These are more plentiful, but not very efficient – that is, even nourishing food takes energy to assimilate.


Beyond these familiar sources, there are three additional sources of energy – sources that are in fact far more abundant and powerful, if we can learn to absorb them.  These three are heavenly qi, which flows down from the sun and stars, earthly qi, which rises up from the ground, and human qi, which we receive from one another.  Again, if we can learn to absorb these forces, we can dramatically improve our vitality, for both worldly activity and spiritual growth.


Where Energy Goes: Obvious & Subtle Expenditures


In addition to learning to better absorb qi, it is essential to know the many ways we expend qi, especially the unconscious and unnecessary forms.  Again, some of our expenditures are a natural part of daily life, but a great number are unrealized and far from productive.  While we expend a fair amount of energy through physical exertion, we expend far more through lifestyle choices, such as poor diet, not getting enough sleep, or excessive sexuality.


Even more importantly, we also expend a great deal of energy through our emotions and our thoughts.  When our thinking is scattered or distracted, this expenditure is amplified, significantly reducing the energy we have for more important areas of our lives.  By adding mindfulness practices such as meditation and visualization, we can significantly reduce these unnecessary expenditures and have more energy to move toward our deeper life goals.


The Importance of Healthy Flow


Finally, along with improving our ability to absorb energy and diminishing unconscious loss, the founders of qigong realized that healthy flow of qi throughout the body is essential for over-all wellness.  Just as we know that poor circulation or restricted lymphatic flow can dramatically impact our health, the same is true for the flow of qi.


The founders of qigong observed that energy naturally flows through our body along specific channels or meridians.  When these channels become restricted or the flow becomes weak, the health of our organs and muscles become compromised.  If we think of qi as a form of nerve communication, we can see the logic of this: if our ability to feel what is going on in our bodies or to move in a healthy way is limited, our over-all wellness will be dramatically impacted.  For this reason, many of the practices of qigong are designed to open these meridians and restore our natural flow.


Core Practices of Qigong


Again, qigong includes a wide range of practices, but each is designed to support the goals mentioned above.  The many exercises of qigong can be divided into four basic categories, again each of which can be used separately or in concert.


  • Self-Massage/Reflexology – The founders of qigong observed that massage of specific points along the channels of the body – particularly points on the ears, hands, and feet – can dramatically improve flow of qi, enhancing the health of individual organs and the body as a whole.
  • Breathwork – They also observed that regulation of the breath can help focus the mind, calm the nervous system, and enhance vitality.  This allows us to increase the energy available to us while decreasing unconscious expenditures.  These benefits can be further enhanced when combined with the remaining two practices, movement and visualization.
  • Gentle Stretching & Breath-Based Movement – Qigong includes gentle patterns of movement, often linked with breath and visualization.  These exercises promote flexibility, improve posture, and enhance flow of qi through the meridians.  Because of this impact on the channels, these exercises also enhance the health of the organs and systems of the body, including digestion, circulation, and lymphatic flow.
  • Meditation/Visualization – Finally, qigong uses meditation and visualization to build mindfulness, increase the absorption of qi, and improve its flow through the body.  Again, because we dissipate a great deal of energy through lack of focus, these practices not only improve our ability to assimilate qi but also help prevent its unnecessary loss.


Again, some practices within qigong include one or two of these activities while others incorporate all four.  This variety allows us to find the blend of approaches that fits our bodies, our needs, and our lifestyles.


In Our Next Article…


Now that we’ve explored the basics of qigong, in our next article we’ll look more specifically at where qigong and yoga meet, where they differ, and why an understanding of each can dramatically enhance our personal practice.  Until then, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”

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