Yoga & Qigong: Contrasts & Complementarity, Part Two

qigongIn our previous article we began an exploration of the relationship between yoga and qigong with an overview of the basic philosophy and practices behind qigong.  Today, we’ll continue our discussion with a deeper look at where the two traditions differ, as well as how they can be seen to complement and enhance one another.

Even a brief look at its elements shows many parallels between qigong and yoga: for example, both traditions emphasize the importance of respiration, the value of taking the body through its full range of motion, and the crucial role of the connection between body and mind.  That much said, there are some significant differences between the two which make the combination of both more powerful than either on its own.  Let’s take a look at some of those differences and how familiarity with both traditions can dramatically amplify our practice.

Parallels & Distinctions 1: Two Vital Forms of Movement

We’ll start our comparison with the role of movement.  The postures of yoga, or asana, generally emphasize more dramatic stretching and strengthening.  Longer holds are used in order to build strength and stamina (as seen in the standing poses and arm-balances), or to promote muscular and mental relaxation (as seen in forward bends).  Further, a large number of yoga poses are designed to improve health through stimulation of the organs, either through muscular contraction (as in agnisara dhauti), or pressure from one or more limbs (as seen in peacock or half spinal twist).

By contrast, qigong movement tends to be far gentler, using either mild stretching or simple motion that is linked with the breath.  Where asana could be said to work on a more “mechanical” or structural level, the movements of qigong could be said to work on a subtler or more fundamental level.  The slow and steady nature of movement in qigong also provides even greater relaxation than most yoga postures.

Clearly, each of these approaches offers benefits.  The more-intense nature of asana makes it especially suitable for those who are in good health and would like to improve their flexibility, stability, and stamina, while the gentle nature of qigong makes it especially apt for those with health-issues.  In addition, the relaxing nature of qigong might be exactly what we need, even if we already enjoy good health, in order to balance the more taxing elements of our lives.

Parallels & Distinctions 2: The Many Benefits of Breathing

Moving on to the subject of breathwork, the yogic breathing practices, or pranayama, generally emphasize regulation of the breath – including modifying the length of inhalation, exhalation, retention (holding the breath after inhale), and suspension (holding the breath after the exhale) – in order to achieve various benefits.  Pranayama also emphasizes how certain physical and psychological goals can be achieved through what could be referred to as mechanical control of the breath, such as breathing through one nostril or a rolled tongue.

By contrast, the breathing practices of qigong more commonly focus on how breath and mind can be used in concert to influence the flow of qi – that is, how linking respiration and visualization can help direct energy to certain centers of the body or through specific channels in order to enhance our health.  In addition, many breathing practices of qigong are directly linked with movement, not only to amplify the range of the breath but also to promote the flow of qi through the meridians.

Again, clearly both approaches have considerable benefits, but each might be better suited to specific situations and temperaments.  The structured nature of pranayama tends to appeal to those of a more analytical nature, while the visual emphasis found in qigong makes it especially suited for those who enjoy imagery.  Finally, the movement-based breathing practices of qigong are especially beneficial for those who tend to be restless during stationary practices or who simply appreciate the efficiency of combining multiple practices in a single exercise.

Parallels & Distinctions 3: Reflexology & Abhyanga

Perhaps the greatest difference between yoga and qigong, and in turn an area in which practitioners could best benefit from a combination of the two, is qigong’s emphasis on reflexology.   Again, the founders of qigong observed that each of the major organs of body lies on an energy channel which flows through the rest of body.  They also found that gentle stimulation of points along these channels – especially on the hands, feet, and ears – can improve the health of the organs and the body as a whole.

From this observation came a wide variety of techniques, including the science of acupuncture. Fortunately, we do not need extensive knowledge to benefit from this connection – the simple practice of rubbing the ears, hands, and feet can provide major health benefits, especially if we concentrate on any area that feels tender.  If desired, we can then extend to other points on the meridians or the organs themselves – for example, gently massaging the region of the kidneys or liver.  As little as 5-10 minutes a day can have significant health benefits, and it is something we all can do, even if tired or infirmed.

Again, the ease of reflexology makes it a great addition to any self-care program.  It is worth noting there is a less-common yoga practice that is very similar, known as abhyanga.  Abhyanga involves gentle self-massage using warm oil – an element that makes it especially soothing but also a fair bit more challenging to fit into a daily routine.  For that reason, many find reflexology more practical on a regular basis, reserving abhyanga for times when their schedule is more relaxed.

Parallels & Distinctions 4: Meditation vs. Visualization

Concluding with the mental side, once again we can see similarities and differences.  The primary focus of the contemplative practices of yoga is improving control of the mind – that is, building the ability to keep our minds focused on a single concept or object.  Yoga also places great emphasis on self-study – becoming more conscious of our patterns so we can rise above them, while also deepening our compassion for the people around us who are dealing with their own versions.

By contrast, the contemplative practices of qigong place greater emphasis on visualization.  Again, the founders of qigong realized that there is a direct link between the focus our minds and the flow of energy in our bodies.  A well-focused mind allows us to absorb more energy and help it flow smoothly through our bodies, whereas a wandering mind dissipates energy that could be used for more constructive purposes.  For these reasons, the mental practices of qigong use visualization of the absorption, storage, and healthy flow of qi throughout the body.  This has the dual benefits of enhancing our reserves while significantly reducing its dissipation through distraction or worry.

Clearly, the mental practices of both traditions share a wide range of benefits, including greater health, better stress-management, and improved self-awareness.  However, based on our temperaments, we might find one approach considerably easier than the other.  This is especially important when it comes to this area, because mastering the mind is in fact far harder than mastering the body.  For this reason, choosing the style of focus that most appeals to us will make the challenge considerably less daunting.

Balancing the Two Approaches

In closing, because these two traditions have so much in common while still offering unique benefits, being familiar with both can dramatically widen our repertoire and allow us to tailor our practices to our unique needs and disposition.

To explore what this might look like, you might begin by considering your personal goals and then looking at each of the four categories of activity outlined earlier – that is, self-massage, movement, breathwork, and mental focus.  For each practice, you might ask which of the two traditions offers an approach that resonates for you, as well as how effectively it addresses your objectives.  From this, you can build a routine that fits both your temperament and your current goals.

For example, if you are presently dealing with a health challenge, the breathing practices and exercises of qigong might be better suited to you.  Likewise, the healing influence of reflexology might be especially beneficial if your energy is particularly low.  That much said, you might still enjoy some of the poses of yoga, especially if performed in a way that allows your nervous system to relax.  By allowing yourself to draw from both traditions, you can better honor your current needs.

On the other hand, if you have a highly active lifestyle, the more vigorous postures of yoga might be especially beneficial for dealing with muscular tensions or imbalances, while the visual emphasis of qigong might resonate for you, especially if you already practice visualization as part of your training or athletic endeavors.  Again, that much said, you might also find the calming nature of the movements of qigong to be a great complement to your vigorous lifestyle, relaxing you so you can be better energized for the challenges ahead.

In this way, by combining these two powerful traditions, we can dramatically improve our self-care practices in the way that is best suited to us.  Ultimately, by improving our health, our comfort in our bodies, and our vitality, we can dramatically enhance not only our own spiritual growth but also our ability to support and care for the people around us.

In Our Next Article…

In our next article here at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we’ll return to the philosophical for a deeper look at one of the most frequently-misunderstood concepts in the world of Yoga: the incredibly important topic of karma.  Until then, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”


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