Qigong 101: How to Get Started
An introduction to the ancient system of improving your life through practice and perseverance
As a lifelong student of both Eastern philosophy as well as martial arts, I’ve been curious for some time about the ancient Chinese healing practice of qigong.
When I began this study, I expected much less than what I got.
You see, qigong is far more than just exercise. Although that is its primary medium, qigong is rife with some of the best and most well-supported health methods I already promote.
For example, qigong places a special emphasis on sunlight exposure and practicing barefoot on the naked earth.
These are both well-researched tactics in the health and longevity space. Light is hugely influential on biology. I’ve written a whole article on the subject on Better Humans:
How To Use Light To Optimize Your Mind
Improve Your Sleep, Increase Focus, Raise Testosterone, & Lower Inflammation Using The Power of Light
Earthing, on the flip side, is the practice of walking barefoot on the earth so you are electrically connected to the earth. This has positive effects on heart function and inflammation that are well-backed by research.
There are many cases like these where qigong guidelines correspond to research-backed modern health practices.
Qigong is itself a well-researched practice as a single entity. China includes it in their medicine system alongside more modern approaches.
In keeping with this, my aim here is not to dissect qigong into the parts that I already know to have benefit. Instead, it is to describe qigong as a whole and how I practice it as such.
My reason is this: Qigong was around for hundreds of years before science proved the benefits of sunlight, breathing, meditation, or mobility. I believe there may be parts of this practice that are good for us, even if not yet directly backed by science.
As far as my personal experience goes, in the short time I’ve been practicing, I’ve become calmer but more energetic, and my resting heart rate has dropped below 75 consistently for the first time since I developed adrenal problems in 2017.
Now, it would be crazy to say that this article will teach you how to do qigong. This would be akin to writing an article to teach you kung fu. Qigong is a practice, with attenuate levels of skill and mastery.
What I can teach you is how to start, while also providing you an image of just what qigong is and how it can benefit you over the course of a lifetime.
Health Benefits of Qigong
Before we go any further, I imagine you’d like some proof. Talk of energetic forces and blockages will put off many a skeptic.
With that said, I invite you to contemplate all the very real energies that flow through our bodies. Blood and lymph fluid carry chemical energy in and out of our bodies at every level of physiology. I’m not saying that this, specifically, is qi, but it is at least a metaphor for all of our body’s literal “life force.”
As far as energy blockages? Consider the Fascia: connective tissue that lines and connects every bone, tissue, and organ to every other bone, tissue, and organ. Tension in the fascia is known to slow blood flow and create mobility restrictions as well as impair organ function in completely different body parts.
When it comes to qigong research, there’s some pretty cool stuff. Research in this area is not well-funded, and some of these studies have small sample sizes. Yet some of the results seem promising.
If you’d like to read research on qigong, the Qigong Institute has collected abstracts of studies on the subject. You can also search for “qigong” in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) databases.
What Is Qigong?
Qi is the Chinese medicine concept of life energy, the animating force which flows through all living things. Gong translates roughly to work, particularly to positive outcomes achieved through practice and perseverance. Qigong, then, is the practice of improving one’s life energy through practice and perseverance.
What qi is specifically? Qi is ineffable, unobservable, at least in any complete way. It is something one can sense, and there are real-life corollaries that hint at its existence, but it is not something that can be fully understood itself, nor is understanding it fully the goal.
A popular Daoist poem describes a snail and a centipede. The snail asks the centipede, “How do you move all those legs?” and in thinking about it, the centipede becomes very confused and is unable to move at all.
Qi is viewed similarly. Improving one’s qi is something that is the goal and aim of qigong, but understanding fully how this occurs or what qi is is not the point. Theory and real-life corollaries can help, but at the end of the day, it is about practice more than theory.
When it comes to qigong practice itself, Chinese medicine divides qi down into multiple categories. These are:
- Breath qi — from respiration
- Food qi— from diet
- Original qi — passed down from parents or universe
- Internal qi — qi residing inside the body
- External qi — qiemanating from the body
- Nutritive qi — qi that flows along the energy meridians
- Protective qi — qi that forms a protective barrier against pathogens (immunity)
The dan tian
One of the most common terms in qigong is dan tian. The dan tians are energy centers in the body of which there are three. Dan translates to elixir, and tian to field, thus the dan tian are fields (or pools) of the elixir of life and wisdom (qi.)
Each dan tian corresponds to a different body energy. The lower dan tian is considered the most important and is located in the lower abdomen near the navel.
The lower dan tian stores qi and sexual energy called jing. If a qigong practice refers to the dan tian and does not specify which one, it is always the lower dan tian.
The jing energy of the lower dan tian flows downwards through the body towards the earth and is associated with physical and sexual vitality. It is associated with the yin energy of the yin and yang.
The middle dan tian is located at the level of the heart, stores qi, and is related to respiration and the health of the internal organs. It is the balance between yin and yang and flows both upwards and downwards in the body.
Finally, the upper dan tian is located in between the eyebrows at the point known in some cultures as the third eye. The upper dan tian stores shen, which is a term referring to spirit or conscious energy. It flows upwards towards heaven and is associated with yang of the yin and yang.
Qigong views each dan tian like a reservoir. Jing, qi, and shen are used up in dealing with the stressors of life, but the reservoirs are refilled through meditation or qigong techniques, good nutrition, breathing, and time in nature.
Furthermore, each of the three energies—jing, qi, and shen—is associated with different organs and organ pathways as well as functions and movements.
Beyond this, qigong also categorizes based on the five Chinese elements.
You can learn more about the etymology and categorization of qigong by reading a book such as The Way of Qigong by Kenneth S. Cohen, but also simply by practicing.
Just remember this base in the dan tians as well as the jing, qi, and shen forces, as they are the foundation of qigong.
Qigong is separated into two categories, active qigong and passive qigong.
Active qigong (dong gong) is that with which the West is most familiar. It involves movement and activity and is associated with yang energy but conceals yin. Externally the body is active and moving, but internally the mind is still, peaceful, and at rest.
Passive qigong associates with yin and conceals the yang. Externally the body is not moving. It is still, yet internally the mind is working actively to cultivate qi.
Basically, active qigong is exercise and qigong flow while passive qigong is meditation.
Both passive and active qigong share certain elements, namely time of practice, breathing, intentional relaxation, posture, and visualization.
Time and place
The time of day is important in qigong, and it is not recommended one simply practice whenever. Ideally, qigong should be practiced early in the morning at sunrise.
If you practice more than once during the day, the next best time is at sunset to close out the day. Generally, it is recommended that morning practice start slow and build up in intensity, in order to prime your qi for the day you are about to take on.
Sunset practice should instead focus on starting with higher energy movements and steadily becoming less energetic and more calm. This is to close out your day in peace and calm.
As far as location, nature is a huge component of qigong. If it is sunny and warm, qigong should be practiced outdoors and in a park or other beautiful, natural locations if possible. Alternatively, if it is dreary, rainy, or cold then qigong should be performed indoors.
Orientation is also a component. Based on the season, you should face different directions during your practice. In springtime, qigong is best practiced while facing the east. This season and direction are associated with the liver and gallbladder. In summer face the south, and the high qi organs are the heart and the small intestines. In late summer, face any direction, but imagine the qi coming up from the ground. Late summer is associated with the spleen and stomach. In autumn the qi direction is the west, and the associated organs are the lung and large intestine. In the winter, face north, and the organs of focus are the kidney and bladder.
Personally, I think the direction you face may or may not matter so much. I cannot find scientific backing behind these specific directions, but it may have value. Still, I choose to adhere to these guidelines, and I will sometimes pick the direction I face based on the organs I am interested in healing.
If nothing else, the practice of belief and visualization may be the sole benefit from adhering to these goals. Basically, it might be a placebo effect, but every day we learn that placebos are still positives, even if the reason for the benefit is simply our belief rather than from the practice.
Fortunately, the techniques ahead of us have definite grounding in scientific reality. Good posture, breathing, and relaxation are unarguably good for us.
“All qigong techniques are based on the qigong stance. Like a musical composition, the stance is the theme, and the other qigong movements are the variations.” — Kenneth S. Cohen, “The Way of Qigong”
Posture is the center point of qigong. Your posture either restricts or facilitates your qi, as well as the effectiveness of other components of qigong such as breathing or relaxation.
As stated in the quote above, qigong posture is the theme of qigong. Your posture will vary as you move through active qigong or assume different positions for passive qigong, but adhering to the qigong stance as your foundation should be on your mind.
The theme of qigong is effortless effort. It is relaxed efficiency and nonaction, a concept in Daoism by which you are able to perform life’s activities with the absolute minimum necessary force, so that it may appear you are not acting at all, yet life molds itself around you.
With regard to posture, this results in a feeling of smooth relaxation in everything.
Head and neck
Xu Ling Ding Jing: “Empty the neck, let energy reach the crown.”
- Release the muscles along the outside of your neck as well as down your spine, lengthening and opening. The head should feel light and balanced atop the spine.
- Your spine should feel long and open. You should neither slouch nor be rigidly standing tall. Imagine a string is attached to the top of your head from heaven, giving a feeling of being lightly suspended.
- Lightly touch the tongue to the roof of the mouth, relaxed, with the lips slightly touching. Saliva is considered to be a powerful component of Jing energy and should be swallowed if necessary.
Shoulders and elbows
Chen Jian Zhui Zhou: “Sink the shoulders, drop the elbows.”
- Shoulder tension creates a cascading chain reaction down the torso, as well as being associated with anxiety. Allow the shoulders to sink down towards the earth without tension.
- Be careful not to roll the shoulders forward nor to tighten them back. Simply let them naturally sink.
- Simultaneously, loosen the elbows. The elbows should always be slightly bent during qigong, as should the knees and fingers.
Back and chest
Chen Jian Zhui Zhou: “Central and erect.”
- The spine acts as a highway for qi. The spinal cord transmits messages from the brain to the rest of the body. If the spine is crooked or bent, this cannot happen as efficiently.
- With a stable and centered spine, you should feel your bones stacked one on top of the other, requiring less effort.
- Think of the spine as a rope rather than a stick or pole, attached at one end to your tailbone and stretched slightly to the string at the top of your crown from head and neck exercise.
- Allow the spine to feel open, with space between each vertebra. Give your vertebrae room to breath.
- Do not try to wrench your spine into a perfectly straight line, but instead aim for openness and to be mostly straight. Focus instead on the feeling of stability and openness as well as uprightness without effort.
- Your chest should feel open and slightly sunk, but not concave. It should not be wrenched open nor hunched in. Good chest posture should come naturally from your spinal and shoulder posture.
Song Kua: “Relax the Kua.”
- The kua is the area of the hips where the thighs and trunk crease. It includes our hip flexors and psoas.
- Relaxing the muscles around this area allows qi from the lower dan tian—the most important energy center in the body—to better flow to and vitalize the rest of the body, as well as allowing for healthier movement.
One thing you may notice is that the qigong stance is in itself a powerful exercise. It highlights areas of tension in your body. Merely holding the stance for a few minutes is enough for many to notice the knots in their shoulders, or realize their hips are sore from merely standing with slightly bent knees.
Despite the very relaxed nature of this stance, tension held in your body becomes very obvious. This is good: Now you are more aware of yourself, which is an essential component of qigong.
Beginning with qigong posture, we can now move on to qigong breathing. There are many breathing techniques and meditations in qigong practice, but we’re just going to cover the basic breathing in this article. I do still recommend picking up a copy of The Way of Qigong or looking up more techniques if you are interested deeply.
Like other parts of qigong, though, the basic techniques can last you a lifetime and yield most of the benefit.
Qigong focuses greatly on effortlessness, and if there were a way to sum up qigong breathing in two words it would be “breathe naturally.” You should not force the breath but merely guide it, and breathing should follow your natural current.
In qigong, we breathe with our stomach first, then the chest. We also breathe through the nose, rather than the mouth. To start building your qigong breathing, begin using these steps:
- Place your palms on your belly.
- Inhale through the nose and allow the abdomen to expand as your lungs fill with air.
- Exhale and allow the abdomen to contract, thinking of your belly button getting closer to your spine.
- Imagine this process gently massaging the internal organs as well as allowing the lungs to take in more oxygen than shallow chest breathing.
- Do not tense or restrict the chest. If your chest expands too as you inhale, that is fine. Heed your body’s natural desires and do not restrict them militantly.
Over time, abdominal breathing should allow you to naturally lower your breath rate as you begin to feel more calm and relaxed.
As you breathe, look for the six qigong qualities of the breath:
Keep these in mind as you breathe. Also keep aware of the four stages of the breath:
- The turning point from inhalation to exhalation
- The turning point from exhalation to inhalation.
Do not force anything, merely observe and gently guide towards deeper more relaxed breath.
Simply practicing this natural breathing during your qigong daily will gradually improve your breathing in general. Also, feel free to practice this any time you can during the day.
That said, don’t feel the need to force this style of breathing if you are doing a workout or an activity that asks for faster or more energetic breathing. There are different natural breathing styles for different activities. The qigong way is actually to allow for these other styles as they are appropriate.
Soon we will detail some passive and active qigong techniques, but first I’d like to start with the standing meditation.
China is one of the only places where standing is itself given great thought and contemplation, and Kenneth S. Cohen dedicates a whole section to standing meditation in The Way of Qigong.
This meditation is where I start for every qigong session I do, be it passive or active qigong. You can practice any time of day, with your qigong practice or separately, but Cohen suggests it be early in the morning if possible.
Personally, I think a great way to do qigong is to do 5 minutes of standing meditation upon waking, before anything else in your day.
To practice the standing meditation, assume the qigong stance.
- Your feet should be shoulder-width or a little wider, with knees comfortably bent and a relaxed demeanor overall.
- Cup the hands in front of the lower dan tian, in front of your navel, with palms facing your abdomen, elbows bent, and fingers slightly bent.
- For position two, raise your hands to heart level, the middle dan tian, with palms facing down to the ground, elbows still bent.
- For position three, raise the hands to in front of your brow, the upper dan tian, palms facing forward away from you, elbows still bent.
- It is recommended to either perform one long session of standing meditation on one of these positions or to split the meditation between all three evenly.
Kenneth’s prescription for the standing meditation is to practice for 5 minutes a day, with the session split between each position, for a week. For week two, increase to 10 minutes, and for week three onward, increase to 20 minutes.
Kenneth suggests practicing for a minimum of 20 minutes a day once you reach week three and a maximum of 40 minutes per day. However, remember to listen to your body. If you are not feeling good while practicing long, it is suggested you shorten your session.
I believe that consistency is better than intensity, and 5 minutes daily is better than 20 minutes once a week.
Passive qigong, again, refers to meditation. There are as many passive qigong techniques as there have been masters throughout history, and probably more.
With that said, qigong meditation has two main forms: ru jing (entering tranquility) and cun si (healing visualizations and concentration.)
Basically, ru jing is about being aware without any particular goal. This would be in line with Indian vipassana meditation, where the point is to simply observe one’s internal state without judgement.
Cun si, which I believe is the true hidden gem of qigong meditation, is about visualizing healing or other states so that the body and mind may follow in turn.
I have long been a fan of visualization, from the first time I read Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Malts to now when I’ve added qigong cun si to my practice. I feel that visualization tunes our minds toward better outcomes. I am not sure if there is any metaphysical element to visualization, though I do personally believe that there is.
Inner nourishing qigong (Nei Yang Gong)
Nei Yang Gong, or inner nourishing qigong is the most widely practiced cun si style meditation in China today. It is extremely gentle and focuses on healing the body.
There are two variations for this meditation listed in “The Way of Qigong,” with variation B being slightly more gentle than variation A. The only difference is that in variation A, you inhale, hold the breath, and then exhale, whereas in variation B you inhale, exhale, and then hold the breath.
It is suggested that Variation B be used for those who are weak, ill, or have respiratory problems, whereas Variation A is fine for most people.
Having done both, they are both quite gentle. I do not think there is any harm to choosing one over the other, just a matter of personal preference.
To do the inner nourishing qigong meditation:
- Begin by sitting comfortably in a chair, lying on your back, or lying on your side. Breathe abdominally through the nose and try to keep your mind focused on the lower dan tian.
- After a few minutes of breathing, allow the tongue to touch the roof of the mouth and inhale. At the same time think the words, “I Am” in your head.
- At the top of the breath, gently hold your breath and think the words, “Calm And.”
- Exhale and think the word “Relaxed.”
- Repeat this process. You are forming the phrase “I am calm and relaxed” as you inhale, hold the breath, and exhale.
- Go through at least one more round, making for at least three rounds. You can do as many as you’d like and should do as many as feels natural, but do at least three.
- After a week or so of practice, you can begin adding syllables to the middle portion of the meditation. For example: inhale “I Am,” Hold “sitting calm and,” Exhale “relaxed.” The full phrase is inhale “I Am,” Hold “Sitting calmly, body strong and,” Exhale “Healthy.”
- You can also change the phrase based on a need or healing desire. Just do not exceed nine syllables for the breath-hold portion. For example, when having thyroid problems, I have used the phrase, “My thyroid is resilient and healthy.” Split into Inhale “My Thyroid,” Hold “Is resilient and,” Exhale “healthy.”
- For Variation B, we follow the same structure except that the breath-hold is after the exhale, not the inhale.
- For example, Inhale “I Am,” Exhale “Calm And,” Hold “Relaxed.”
- As with the first variation, you can increase the middle phrase up to nine syllables and also create your own mantra. Either use “I am sitting calmly, body strong, and healthy,” or create your own phrase.
There are tons more meditations to be found in the qigong art, and I strongly suggest finding some. A word though: Do not over-meditate. I find it best to do no more than two meditations in one session.
I think it is better to use greater energy on one or two meditations and then start your day than it is to do several meditations and end up with a jumble of feelings and thoughts.
As I’ve mentioned many times, I really love Kenneth S. Cohen’s “The Way of Qigong.” It has some 10 meditations that cover everything from mental clarity to very mild astral projection.
This is where things get kinda fun. It is also where I will hand you the reins in finding your own practice. Thankfully, we have YouTube—which is an easier way to learn movement than by reading.
Active qigong is centered around using movement to guide qi, increase qi, open up the meridians, and also teach you low-level martial arts.
It’s also just straight-up fun.
Unlike yoga where you can end up holding static and muscle-burning positions for minutes at a time, qigong is constantly moving in what many refer to as qigong flow.
The positions are generally light on the body, but if they were to be sped up, many of them could be powerful fighting techniques.
Active qigong is by far my favorite movement practice for achieving both feelings of health, as well as activating the body and starting the day with a powerful calm energy.
I should first say that the best way to practice qigong is in a class. In China, qigong is often practiced by hundreds of people, all gathered in a park or other nature setting, as they follow the graceful movements of a master.
Qigong is intended to be social, which is just another proven health benefit of this ancient art. If you were not already aware, community and social connectedness is beneficial for your health, and one of the most common shared traits of supercenturions—people who live past age 110—is that they have close personal relationships and a community such as church in which they are regularly involved.
However, qigong is not as popular in the West, and finding a class or group may be difficult depending on where you live. You can still benefit massively by getting some DVDs or just hopping on YouTube.
One of the first sequences I did while reading “The Way of Qigong” was a 12-minute sequence on YouTube called the 5 Element Qigong Practice by teacher Mimi Kuo-Deemer.
As mentioned early in this article, there are five Chinese elements which correspond to organ systems in the body. This qigong flow brings health and vitality to these systems with movements that correspond to each of the five elements.
I started by simply doing this 12-minute guided flow every morning at sunrise:
I think you’ll be amazed by the simplicity as well as the feeling this practice evokes in your body.
In the words of a friend, the best way to start qigong is to just get on YouTube and find a teacher you like. It’s really that simple.
There are an infinite number of qigong practices, as there have been many teachers and qigong is not a rigid philosophy.
One that has been around for many hundreds of years and is a great starting place is The 8 Brocades. This is the first active qigong practice in “The Way of Qigong” and can also be learned here, as well as in the following video from Mimi.
Regarding finding more active qigong to do, you can either dive into the video library of a YouTube teacher like Mimi, or search things like “qigong for liver function.”
Another amazing resource is the work of Robert Peng, a qigong master who began practice as a young boy and who has continued to this day. His book The Master Key and his many DVDs are great for learning qigong.
I personally like to learn a new qigong flow at least once a week, while practicing another as my daily flow based on my needs.
This past week I have been using the 8 brocades as my staple practice, but I am going to do a flow called Xi Sui Jing, or Bone Marrow Cleansing, tomorrow. This flow is focused on cleansing toxins and is attributed to the Buddhist sage Bodhidharma, who founded the Shaolin temple, home of some of the greatest martial artists in the world. Here is a video of that practice by the Alliance for Martial and Healing Arts.
Qigong is an ancient Chinese healing art. Despite seemingly mystical elements, many novel health techniques such as earthing, healing visualization, and nostril breathing were being used in qigong already thousands of years ago.
When it comes to using qigong yourself, this is a daily practice that takes a lifetime to master. However, the most basic techniques are arguably the most important, and you can begin with a few simple meditations and movements to pursue a powerful life of health and wellness.
My recommendation is to make time every morning at sunrise and, if possible, at sunset to practice qigong.
In the morning upon waking, I start by practicing qigong posture and breathing, followed by the qigong walking meditation. After 5 minutes of this I feed my dogs, brush my teeth, and make a cup of bone broth or tea.
Then I meditate using the inner nourishing qigong meditation. This meditation is the most commonly used qigong meditation and is a form of healing mantra. I try to do 20 minutes if I have time, but 5 minutes will suffice.
I fully intend to continue learning qigong for years and even decades to come. The health benefits I’ve already noticed—lower anxiety, easier breathing, and better resting heart rate—are more than enough to keep my interest.
However beyond that, I believe qigong fills a sorely empty hole in the lives of many: a dedicated practice aimed at living in our highest state of health.
We as westerners think too much about reaching goals, which, by definition, means we are “not there yet.” I believe that qigong, whether it is all placebo or not (it’s not) allows us to feel healthy instead of just wanting to be healthy.
Do not underestimate the power of ancient arts simply because they are ancient. On the one hand, their age means they have not been created through the scientific method. On the other hand, it means they have accumulated the wisdom of generations and very likely contain truths and benefits we are still not aware of scientifically.
As always, thank you for reading and good luck on your journeys for optimal health and better living!