Historical records of what we know as Qigong or chi kung indicate that its origins date back approximately 2500 years. However, Chinese archaeologists and historians have found references to qigong-like techniques even older than 5,000 years.
Qigong has had a continuous evolutionary development and many names throughout the centuries. However, it was not until well into the 20th century that the name qigong became popular, previously known as tu gu na xin (expelling used energy and absorbing new energy), xingqi (mobilizing qi), yangsheng (nourishing the life force), neigong (inner realization) or more commonly daoyin (conducting and guiding energy).
Qigong is not a simple set of movement techniques. Rather it is an essential element of the unique traditional Chinese culture and maintains a strong relationship with advanced traditional medicine, martial arts, and the spiritual philosophies linked to Taoism and Buddhism.
For centuries Qigong practice complemented the practices of monks and the religious to maintain good physical health while developing their spirituality through meditation and detachment from material and worldly feelings.
With the irruption of communism in China, any religious practice or activity associated with it came to be considered a kind of “feudal heresy” that had to be eliminated. Thus religions were banned or intervened and adapted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to its atheistic interests.
Qigong suffered the same fate, although, over the decades, it was again accepted, but no longer in the same way. Instead, the new conception of Qigong was imposed in a much more banal way, leaving aside any connection with the divine and the spiritual and emphasizing only its relaxing characteristics.
This qigong New Age style model is the one that China exported to the West and quickly became popular. It generated an actual trade of the precious art, which marked a massive difference from the original styles far removed from the economic and commercial interests because they were rightly linked to spiritual and divine welfare.
Origin of Qigong
The first references found to use techniques similar to qigong movements in ancient China date back some 5,000 years.
These first known movements were performed by shamans who used to wear the skins of wild animals and imitated their movements, followed by ordinary villagers wearing masks and ornaments. Many cave paintings depicting such rituals are found in many places in China.
According to the interpretation of specialists, these primitive dances had the objective of eliminating demons and plagues that threatened the various communities. At the same time, they functioned as a repellent for the harsh effects of the cold and humid climate of some regions where they were practiced.
Huang Ti (The Yellow Emperor) is considered the creator of many health and longevity practices linked to qigong styles more associated with what is known today. His speeches and movement techniques were recorded in books that later became part of traditional Chinese medicine.
The earliest documents that attest to Qigong as a series of synchronized, standardized movements with a curative or wellness purpose for the body date back to the 10th century B.C.
Around 1122 B.C., The Book of Changes (I Ching) first recorded the concept of qi, or vital energy, to establish certain connections between the divine, the earthly, and man.
Around 450 B.C., Lao Tse, the founder of Taoism, described breathing techniques in his book Dao De Jing, recommending that the breath should be collected and allowed to descend through the body, thus collaborating with the evolution of Qigong.
Interest in breathing and life force (qi) increased during this period and became one of the roots of Chinese medicine, along with the concepts of yin and yang and the five elements.
Beginning around 200 B.C. and extending to around 500 A.D., the meditation techniques of Buddhism and yoga practiced in India for thousands of years were brought to China and incorporated into Chinese culture.
The existing qi gong of that time merged with these imported techniques and began to be practiced at a deeper level of inner workings and with strong spiritual goals.
However, these teachings were kept secret for centuries for religious purposes and passed down only to a few specially chosen disciples in each generation. For hundreds of years, they were rarely taught to laypeople.
The secrecy surrounding qigong teachings gave rise to many different styles. Many family groups, religious and martial arts groups in other regions of the vast country, developed their practices separately, for their particular purposes, and were only selectively passed on within their small circle.
Some examples of distinct styles are Tai Chi, Animal Frolics, Eight Pieces of Brocade, Swimming Dragon, Microcosmic Orbit, and Six Syllable Secret.
Science and Qigong
Qigong is a practice that involves generating energy through gentle movements and meditation, seeking to unify mind and body under the precept that cultivating both leads to a significant and holistic improvement of the person, physically and mentally.
The scientific materialism promoted by communism in the mid-twentieth century tried to discredit this type of art basically by the prejudice arising from the fact that Qigong is related to religion, spirituality, and belief in God.
But more and more scientific studies have demonstrated the positive effects of Qigong and meditation and the actual existence of extraordinary energies among those who practice it.
In 1998 a large group of American academics traveled to China to conduct a study on qigong masters. According to the study, the Qigong practitioners tested were found to develop intense bursts of infrasonic light waves that were 100 to 1000 times more powerful than those produced by the average person. Moreover, after a few weeks of training, even those new to the practice saw a fivefold increase in their infrared energy output.
In 2004, American neuroscientist Richard Davidson published research supported by Stanford University on the energy emitted by Tibetan monks.
Davidson analyzed the bodies of veteran monks, each with between 15 and 40 years of meditation practice. He measured the gamma waves emitted by their brains with electroencephalogram (EEG) and brain scan tests. In addition, a control group of 10 students with no previous meditation experience was tested after one week of training.
Gamma waves are described as “some of the most important and highest frequency electrical brain waves.” The production of gamma waves requires thousands of nerve cells acting in unison at extremely high speeds.
Davidson found that some monks produced more powerful and higher amplitude gamma wave activity than any other documented case in history. The wave motion was also much better synchronized than test volunteers who did not meditate.
The Harvard University Gazette published another important experiment in 2002. Researcher Herbert Benson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard University, studied a meditation technique known as “g Tum-mo” for 20 years and conducted an in-depth study of the Tibetan monks from northern India who practiced it.
The monks, scantily clad in their typical robes, were placed in a room where the temperature was 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). They covered their shoulders with sheets soaked in cold water and entered a state of deep meditation. Under these conditions, any ordinary person would shiver uncontrollably, and the drop in body temperature could even cause death within minutes.
According to the report, the monks stayed warm and even dried the sheets with their bodies. Once the sheets were dry, they covered themselves with more cold, wet sheets. Each monk dried three sheets over several hours.
The study concludes that meditation can cause bodies to emanate large amounts of various types of measurable energy. They are also capable of controlling metabolism and other seemingly involuntary bodily processes.
Energy and health
In ancient China, qigong energy was directly linked to medicine. Famous physicians were also qigong masters and used these techniques as the treatment par excellence. However, if that practice were insufficient to restore the patient’s balance, the physician would prescribe an herbal formula and/or acupuncture.
Advanced masters sometimes used the “emitted” qi as a strong boost to the patient’s energy field. Over the years, medical Qigong became the cutting edge, providing steady development and further systematization of qigong methods.
From a deep understanding of the principles of Heaven and Earth, physical body and spirit, physicians of ancient China developed systems of knowledge that allowed the consolidation of medical procedures that had a direct relationship with the flow of the universe.
Traditional physicians could understand the relationship between the movement of the universe and its cycles and how the metabolic process and the disease states of the human body are harmonized.
When the properties of qi are not balanced, the person experiences symptoms such as colds, fever, tremors, body aches, night sweats, high blood pressure, depression, mania, agitation, and anxiety.
In these cases, the physician’s role is to restore the flow of qi with the application of various techniques, including the application of pressure on the affected part, the insertion of needles, suction or heating of hundreds of specific points along the meridians, or certain qigong exercises that generate the recirculation of this internal energy.
In case of timely treatment and perseverance of these imbalances, the discomforts can end in serious diseases such as cancer and tumors, among others.
Styles of Qigong
As mentioned above, there are hundreds of styles of Qigong with thousands of different exercises. Finding a way to group them into broad categories can be an almost impossible challenge because they have so many things that differentiate them and resemble them. Countless methods of Qigong that transcended ancient China were passed down from generation to generation until they are known today.
One of the earliest documented styles is Wu Qin Xi (five animal exercise), developed by the physician Hua Tuo, considered the father of traditional Chinese medicine.
Hua Tuo observed the movements of animals in creating these exercises to promote health and longevity. The exercises seek to imitate the qualities of the various animals, both physically and mentally. The five animals are tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and bird.
Through breathing, smooth movements, balance, and concentration when performing these exercises, the aim is to achieve the balance of qi and thus obtain a healthy body.
There are also other methods, such as Zhan Zhuang Gong, which offer exercises based on static postures through which one seeks to regulate the body, breathing, and mind until entering a state of “energetic balance.”
Beyond their differences, the various styles of Qigong have the common goal of balancing the body’s vital energy, allowing its free flow, and ensuring a healthy body in harmony with the spirit and the universe.
But there is one essential point to note. Qigong in traditional Chinese culture was not simply a set of movements that, when practiced, functioned as a guarantee for good health.
Qigong in ancient China was part of what was known as Xiulian (xiu = cultivate and lian = refine), where refine refers to the practice of exercises and cultivate refers to raising the spirit through detachment from worldly life, material things, and the constant effort to be a better person.
Nowadays, the vast majority of Qigong that circulates in the world is limited to the practice of exercises, leaving aside the whole spiritual question. So it ends up being something very similar to a simple sport that, on the surface, can improve physical conditions but hardly ever generate a body free of diseases.
Communism and Qigong
A tremendous cultural shift occurred after the fall of the Ch’ing dynasty as the communist leaders of the Cultural Revolution attempted to modernize society and reorder it according to their principles. As a result, ancient practices such as Taoism, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese medicine were questioned and devalued as archaic.
Anything remotely related to religion was politically taboo. As a result, qigong practitioners avoided government scrutiny because anyone involved in prohibited activities was likely to be imprisoned. For this reason, the flourishing development of Qigong was temporarily halted.
Subsequently, the revolutionary leaders realized that the West was sympathetic to specific traditional Chinese issues such as medicine, and so under that umbrella, Qigong was removed from the ban.
The qigong masters were released, and often the same authorities who had imprisoned them began to solicit their services. Some even ordered well-known qigong masters to come and cure them of their ailments in what amounted to something like “house arrest.”
In this context, the CCP decided to promote Qigong, martial arts, and traditional medicine commercially, but only from their most fundamental aspect of curing diseases and improving health, leaving aside any connection with the divine.
In 1985, the communist regime approved the formation of the China Qigong Science Association. Since then, hundreds of controlled scientific studies of Qigong have been conducted, all of which show the positive benefits of the practice.
With the rise of Qigong came countless “masters,” some recognized worldwide, teaching supposedly magical techniques that claimed to eliminate illness and disease in a few days. Unfortunately, many were corrupt merchants who took advantage of the current to generate business. Still, they have nothing to do with those masters criticized during the Cultural Revolution, much less with those virtuous doctors and monks of traditional China.
Amid the qigong boom that followed the Cultural Revolution, a discipline known as Falun Dafa or Falun Gong emerged in China.
This millenary practice differentiated itself from commercial qigong movements and positioned itself as an orthodox discipline that respects traditional customs by seeking to enter into connection with heaven and earth.
Through a set of five gentle qigong exercises and meditation, coupled with the essential scriptures of its founding master, Mr. Li Hong Zhi, teaching assimilation to the principles of Truth, Compassion and Tolerance, in a few years, it managed to attract around 100 million practitioners in China.
During the 1990s, Falun Dafa practitioners could be seen daily in the parks of major cities doing the exercises and selflessly inviting passersby to join the practice.
But the CCP could not bear that millions of Chinese citizens prioritized connecting with the divine and letting go of worldly attachments. Thus it decided to ban the discipline and begin brutal persecution that started in 1999 and continues today.
Reports by various human rights groups present compelling evidence that the persecution of practitioners includes disappearances, imprisonment without trial, forced labor, physical torture of all kinds, murder, and forced removal of organs from living practitioners for use in a vast illegal transplant network.
However, Falun Dafa managed to expand, and today practitioners are found almost everywhere globally, many of Chinese origin, exiles, or children of exiles from persecution. Westerners who have incorporated the fundamental principles of qigong practice seek to lead a life of spiritual development that brings a natural improvement in their state of health and a disease-free body.