My first love was yoga, and for years I practiced it on its own, noticing how it helped bring me greater clarity and a feeling of overall increased health in my body and mind. In 2003, a year after I began teaching yoga, I was introduced to qigong – paradoxically by an American-trained teacher visiting China! While standing in the qigong version of Tadasana (mountain pose) – a pose characterized by a wider stance, bent knees, softer chest, and more circular shape to the arms – I began to feel a sense of centredness and vitality that was markedly different than what I felt when doing yoga. From that point forward, I began an exploration of blending yoga and qigong’s approaches to movement and energy in my own practice and teaching.
Qigong (pronounced ‘chee-gong’) is a Chinese word meaning the ‘cultivation of life energy’. Many of the practices in qigong draw from a Daoist belief that nature and the universe are implicitly whole, and represent an ongoing rhythm and harmony that is always in balance. Human beings are viewed as a microcosm of the universe. As such, creating optimal balance and harmony within our own bodies offers us a chance to feel aligned with the innate balance and harmony of nature. Qigong also is the basis of Chinese martial art forms, and is frequently used in conjunction with Chinese medicine and Daoist practices. For example, a kung fu practitioner will practice qigong, as might an acupuncturist or Daoist priest. It is considered a healing art, and classified in China as a type of preventative medicine, or a means to help cure disease. The practice addresses the body and spirit, and works to refine the qualities of these simultaneously.
Speaking in quite general terms, yoga asanas, or postures, tend to be more linear, focusing on stretching and extending the limbs and trunk in two directions. If you consider something like triangle pose, where the legs are straight, the arms extending equally apart, and the spine moving from the tailbone back and the crown of the head forward, it’s all quite linear in shape and design. In qigong, there is a stronger emphasis on soft, round, circular movements that are similar to wind and water. Joint spaces remain relaxed, and the movements are often repetitive, slow and rhythmic. There is less focus on complex bodily positions, and more attention given to how the mind directs the vital energy, or qi, through intention. Using intention is central in the practice of qigong, and often used to visualize something such as the elimination of stagnant, diseased qi, and replacement of it with healthy, vibrant qi. For example, one might inhale pure, healthy qi to an area of the body that feels weak, and exhale out the waste, imagining it becomes compost as it returns to the earth.
Also, with qigong, there tends to be more of a focus on grounding and connecting into the earth. Active poses are often done with bent knees, allowing for the center of gravity to be closer to the ground. In yoga, unless the teacher is very conscientious to teach about the foundations and rooting through the earth, there can be a very strong upward flow of energy, or a sense of over “prana-fication.” Likewise, there are many qigong teachers who do not emphasize enough yang, or upward flow and movement, resulting in hunched bodies and rotund bellies (as Daoists are often shown!).
While yoga is still my main love, qigong has a steady place in my daily practice. I find it offers me a slow, movement-based practice that focuses my intention in specific ways to heal and rid my body of poisons – be it thoughts or physical sensations like tension or fatigue – and increase my levels of energy and healthy prana. I also find that as a teacher, I rarely get cold, clammy hands — a huge benefit when teaching and giving adjustments in class.