How Qigong Exercises Are Different Than Other Activities – A Q&A for All Practitioners


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So much excitement about qigong exercises because the increase in popularity has led to an increase in practitioners which has led to an increase in people sharing how they have benefitted from their practice. But alongside this is so much confusion. Partly because qigong is a new topic to most people and also because the idea of “exercise” is extremely different from what qigong exercise actually is. 

Qigong exercises are a series of movements intended to reduce, increase, or balance the body’s energy. Based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), qigong exercises are organized in a set sequence so that energy flows through the meridian system and organs to promote healing. 

We’ve defined qigong, talked about the meditative aspects, and even delved into how it works. Here we are going to answer some of the harder questions that our students ask related to qigong exercises being fake, randomly organized, and overwhelming in number. Usually these are the questions they wait to ask us until they know us better. I appreciate their honesty and it’s apparent that what they are experiencing in class and what they are reading on the internet doesn’t match up. Skepticism is healthy when confusion abounds. Let’s clear things up. 

What is Qigong Exercise and is it Different From Regular Exercises? 

Qigong exercises are performed in a seated or standing posture and may be performed with or without movement. Typically the movements involve moving the arms and hands. In a small number of forms they may step, stomp, squat, or lift the legs. There are two focuses that are part of all qigong exercises: intention and breathing.

Breathing

Breathing is not manipulated during qigong. You use natural breathing and elongate the breath and match your arm movements. As an example, most qigong exercises inhale when the hands are raising or moving towards the body and exhale when the hands are going down or away from the body. What is extremely important is to focus on the breathing because it calms the nervous system, gets you away from random or negative thought patterns, and brings your concentration inside of the body. 

Intention

Intention can be focused on through breathing as stated above, or through movements, concentration, or visualization. Qigong exercise movements are intentionally easy and repetitive. This allows us to slow them down and pay attention to how the body part feels as it is moving. Concentration takes the form of thinking about the breath, the movement, the surrounding like the air coming across your skin, or producing a tone. Visualization aids in our ability to stay present and not allow the mind to wander. During qigong exercises it can come in the form of imagining a color or visualizing an organ or internal body part. Typically, once a person’s internal energy is strong enough for them to feel it, visualization helps move the energy around the meridian system like what is taught for the Microcosmic Orbit meditation.

Is Qi Gong Good Exercise to Get You Fit?

As you can imagine, standing in one place or sitting down is not going to give you ripped abs! Qigong exercises suffers a bit because its name is confusing. Yes, it is a series of exercises undertaken to improve your health but it is in no way exercise as that word is defined in the west. It is also called “qigong meditation” which has its own inherent problems. Yes, you may be sitting and not moving or standing still but it is not remotely close to being passive. If anything it should be called “meditation with a purpose.” Calling it by its simple Chinese name – qigong (energy work/set) may be in the future if it ever gets as popular as yoga. As for now, the words exercise and mediation are applied to it to attract and explain it to newcomers. 

No. Qigong is not designed to give you the benefits that are associated with cardiovascular exercise and working out or lifting weights. I would go as far as to say that qigong can extend your ability to do exercise by promoting the flexibility, stretching, and awareness needed to remain active. Here is what I mean:

I do qigong exercises every morning. I also lift weights and do other fitness activities. Part of doing qigong is checking in on my body and energy level. I have found myself to be extremely sore and therefore pushed off a workout for another day. I have found muscles I aggravated which I can then address through rest or massage. I have woken up to extremely low energy and threw the brakes on everything because I was concerned about getting sick. The old version of me who didn’t do qigong exercises would have just pushed through whatever was planned for the day. By checking in I feel that I avoid so many missed workouts and injuries that my friends are complaining about. 

how many qigong exercises are there

How Many Qigong Exercise Routines are There?

There are reported to be over 10,000 qigong exercise routines that can be divided into two groups. There are the traditional sets of qigong exercises like Eight Pieces of Silk Brocade that have been passed down for centuries. Of this type, there are less than 100 well-known and well-developed ones. Secondly, medical qigong practitioners prescribe qigong exercises to their patients. You can imagine the infinite number of sets that can be made depending on a person’s gender, age and ailment. Such as a 60-year-old woman with fibromyalgia versus a 60-year-old woman with cancer. This is why there are so many sets of qigong exercises but you don’t need to memorize them all! Learn one of the traditional and famous sets or attend a session with a medical qigong practitioner to have a series of qigong exercises prescribed for your specific needs.

Are Qigong Exercise Made Up or Fake or Is There Some Tradition Behind It?

Ha! Ouch! I love this one and it’s totally justified. I was taken aback when I was first asked this but it made a lot of sense when I googled the question myself. People falling down because someone waved their hand in front of them. People shaking like a leaf because they breathed in a certain pattern. There are so many benefits of qigong and medical qigong is being used to treat a whole host of ailments. Why do people feel the need to blow it out of proportion and make it seem magical? I seriously have no idea. The research speaks for itself. 

The tradition behind qigong dates back over 2000 years. The qigong exercises in the original practices are not made up. They have been designed and organized to manipulate the energy in the body. There are so many of the traditional qigong exercises being taught on YouTube these days that I don’t think anyone has to worry about doing a fake set of movements. Again, I am saddened by the number of people who find the crazy stuff first and don’t give qigong a proper try. I reviewed several basic qigong exercises on YouTube if you are looking for some guidance

Are Qigong Exercises Organized Randomly or Do They Follow an Intended Pattern?

Qigong exercises follow an exact sequence of movements which is extremely important. Think of qigong as a prescription to increase, decrease or balance energy. Conventional patterns of movements start at the head and move towards the feet or vice versa. The movements have been put in that order and assigned a certain number of repetitions to improve your health in a very specific way. Here are some examples of what qigong exercises are designed to do:

  • Increase energy slowly across the entire series of movements
  • Focus on specific movements that target a specific area of the body like an organ
  • Send consistent energy and focus to a specific area that might be blocked
  • Complete an order of movements from the head to the feet (e.g. to calm down or reduce anxiety)
  • Complete an order of movements from the floor up through the head (e.g. to reduce fatigue)
why finish all qigong exercises

The Importance of Doing the Entire Qigong Exercise Routine

On our last stop in our quest to demystify qigong exercises, we have to separate one last item from traditional western exercise that is causing a lot of people to not get benefits from qigong exercises and abandon them.

It is easy to look up an exercise to strengthen your hamstrings or build your shoulders. You just do that exercise. This use of the word exercise connotes a 1-to-1 correspondence with an activity and a result. This doesn’t work for qigong. If you are going to do qigong for knee pain or to sleep better, you have to do the entire set. As much as I am willing to give ever practitioner the benefit of the doubt, this is one place where novice enthusiasts online are dead wrong. If anyone tells you something like: “Do this one movement from these qigong breathing exercises to improve X!” run for the hills. 

I am American and I am the first to recognize that we have a fascination, no, obsession with boiling things down to tips, hacks, and best-X-for-Y strategies. You will get nowhere with qigong with this mentality, sorry. Not having enough time doesn’t cut it here either. The longest qigong exercise set I do is 13 minutes. It’s the amount of time it takes the coffee to brew and my dog to eat so we can head out on our daily walk. Most sets are shorter, even three minutes. This should make you laugh at yourself. What do you have going on in your life that you can’t carve out 180 seconds?

Let’s end with two examples to motivate you and paint a solid picture of what you should be looking for when you choose a set. I have chosen qigong balance exercises and qigong breathing exercises because all of us could benefit from both. But by all means, choose one that matches your own goals. Just read what how I am evaluating these qigong exercise videos so you know what to look for. 

Qigong Balance Exercises Example

Here’s what I like about this video: There is a quick intro telling you why it’s important to do qigong balance exercises. You are not trying to earn a PhD in the subject, just understand the why. Then the set is broken down into very distinct movements which you could easily memorize. In this set, there is an open and close to define each movement which isn’t always the case. The last thing I will say is that he specifically tells you that its qigong balance exercises for seniors. Not for an injury, not for Parkinsons, for seniors. The qigong exercises have been modified for a specific subgroup.

qigong balance exercises for seniors 

Qigong Breathing Exercises Example

In this 12 minute example we have a dedicated practitioner who begins by explaining why someone would do qigong breathing exercise and what is happening physically when we focus on the breath. Great “buy-in” portion. Then h teaches the set until about the 9-minute mark and then records the set without teaching so you can do it along with him for the last three minutes. You could actually bookmark the video at that time and do it along with him each day. Then he wraps up around the 10:30 mark by telling you what to do next and how to lengthen the practice as you gradually improve. 

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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