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What Does "QiGong" Mean?

Updated: May 11

Now that you've spent at least a few weeks practicing qigong, I can explore some abstract ideas without confusing or distracting you. In later lessons, I'll detail techniques and methods. For the moment, sit back and let me share some concepts & definitions.



Watch the full lesson as a video!


For years, people have walked up to me and asked, "What in the heck are you doing?" Depending upon which country I'm in, they may have heard of qigong or taiji. Others have heard of yoga or meditation and think that's what I'm doing.


My quick explanation is:

"Qigong is a fun health exercise and meditation that helps my back."

Usually, this description satisfies them, and it's worth rehearsing your own version. You'll probably use it 100 times over the next few years.

Occasionally, someone like you becomes very interested, and I get the chance to show my nerdy side. So, let's try a slightly more romantic yet equally valid definition:


"Qigong is a mind-body practice that integrates the whole person to restore wellness. Intention, physicality, and breath are cultivated toward a state of vibrant harmony with the world."

It's fun to say that with a flashy movement of the arms and a far-away look in your eyes. …and if you can fake a funny accent, use it.


Let's get grounded with some actual detail. What does qigong (氣功) mean? First of all, if you see it written in languages similar to English, it will be spelled in two confusing ways. The most common seems to be "chi kung," and the most technically correct is "qigong." While the "Q" seems strange to English speakers, it's useful because this Chinese sound is not the same as our "Ch" affricate sound. The Chinese also have a "ch" sound for other words than this one. Listen to a native speaker say it if you're learning the language. I will always use the "q" spelling as well as the more correct "taiji" or "taijiquan" instead of "tai chi."


"Qi" is a word that I don't like to translate because it has a meaning that doesn't match an English concept. Whenever someone calls it "vitality," "breath," or "subtle energy," half the meaning is lost. Yet, I'll also try (and inevitably fail) to explain this vast concept in a short lesson.


Our existence in an infinite universe filters through a mind that experiences everything as dualistic. Yin & Yang. This and that, down and up, inside and outside, cold and hot, tea leaves & water.


(I'm drinking delicious Golden Water Turtle oolong tea from Seven Cups. www.SevenCups.com )


When those seemingly separate forces interact, a kind of dynamic exchange occurs. This vibrant exchange is what we call qi. I'll repeat that in another way. When any two things share a relationship, that interchange is the source of qi. That's why we can say that qi is absolutely everything in our world. Qi isn't a single thing. It's a name that we give to relationships, transformation, and change. And our whole world is seemingly one of change. We can only talk about qi when we define what it does and what interactions are creating the qi.


In a broad sense, when the forces that make our atmosphere blend and develop things like clouds, wind, and rain, we can call it the Qi of the Sky.

When the elements of the Earth associate and form things like mountains, valleys, and rivers, we may call those relationships the Qi of the Earth.

When the Qi of the Sky descends and the Qi of the Earth ascends, they interact and give birth to all the fun stuff we call life. We can label this the Qi of Humanity.


Let's talk about your human experience. Imagine that your mind is the sky, and your body is the Earth. The interaction of mind and body generates the qi that we cultivate during qigong. This relationship expresses itself in the form of breath, emotions, sensations, etc. Altering the mind adjusts the body and qi. Adjusting the body shifts the mind and qi. These endlessly interact and transform all of the experiences in between.


Let's get even more specific. Suppose I talk about all of the capacities of our body-mind to keep us safe and protected from the elements of nature. In that case, we can call that collection of relationships "Defensive Qi." This defensive qi can function well or poorly, depending upon all of the facets required to do its job. We may even examine only its capacity to withstand invading pathogens and call it "Upright Qi."


Are you able to understand the remarkable flexibility of this term? I can use the word "Qi" to talk about the interchange of grand forces like colliding galaxies or minute interactions that lift your finger. The emotions you are experiencing right now are movements of qi from the interaction of your mind and your body. My capacity to hold tea is an interaction between my arm's dynamic forces and the cup's static force. This would be the Qi of Tea, …but don't tell anyone I said that.


When I lift my teacup, I can do it fluidly using the whole of my arm or just a single joint. If I raise my arm like a chicken's wing, the movement is broken and does not flow through smoothly. If, however, I shape my body appropriately, the Qi of Tea goes all the way through my arm to lift the cup. This is why I can say the qi in my arm is either "broken" or "through."

Through-ness is a crucial topic and will get its own session later.


Recall to yourself the last time you witnessed an interaction between the sky and the Earth when the qi became stormy and destructive. Now, remember a favorite moment when the sky and the Earth were harmonious and beneficial to life. It's quite different, and it's easy to see how one interaction is more restorative to humans. It's valuable to record how each of these weather patterns made you feel in your journal.


Examine this within your human experience. Think of the last time you experienced an internal storm that created havoc. How were your body & mind clashing in ways that caused you discomfort? Reflect on a time when you experienced harmony between mind and body. How did it feel? Which of the two experiences is better for your wellbeing? These are manifestations of the state of your qi. Write down those two extremes of experience as though you're a meteorologist on TV. Describe a weather system between the Earth and the sky of your being.


Now that you have an idea why some people call Qi the "energy of life," let's look at the other word in qigong. "Gong" is often translated as "work," "exercise," or "skill," and particularly refers to effort over a period of time.

Putting the words together, qigong refers to the systematic cultivation of the vital qi of our body-mind.


My recommendations during practice aim to create ideal conditions for a healthy internal ecosystem. It's essential that you understand these differences in your personal experience. We are using Snake & Turtle to carefully restore a harmonious body-mind. This is a condition of alert presence, physical vitality, and a peaceful heart. That's a healthy state for human qi, and is your birthright. How does that sound to you?

https://doi.org/10.4278/ajhp.081013-LIT-248

https://doi.org/10.1590/1518-8345.3718.3317


The Next Step:


The next lesson will go further into basic qigong concepts and terminology. It's important to know what I'm talking about when using specific expressions. Reach out to the community if any of this feels confusing or mysterious. They are actually straightforward concepts, and grasping them will unlock profound possibilities.


Homework:


Using the image of your body-mind as a weather system, how would you describe your day-to-day experiences? If you tend toward anger, what does that emotion feel like in the body? Is it hot or cold? Does it move up or down? Fast or slow? What about sadness? Fear? What is the state of your mind during those emotions? What is the condition of your body? Could you have one without the other? What would happen if you changed one of those factors during the emotion?

Write these things down in your journal, and share some of them in the comment section. You'll be surprised at how similar everyone's experience is to your own.


This terminology becomes a valuable way to share our experiences with others and to see ourselves as part of the natural world.

Happy training!


Remember that this is only a tiny part of a more extensive system and sequence of teaching videos. Subscribe to my channel to learn more!


Make sure that you begin your practice at the beginning of the sequence


Ready to train? Follow along with traditional practice sessions


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