Some Qigong principles
1) Relaxed attention
There is an apparent tension between these two words. We are asked simultaneously to relax and to pay attention. To relax is to become soft, let go of tension, forget about worries, settle down. To pay attention is to be alert, concentrate, wake up. Qigong demands a balance of these two states. We are asked to relax without collapsing our posture, becoming dreamy or falling asleep and to pay attention without tightening the muscles, holding the breath or becoming too intense.
Relaxed attention, or attentive relaxation, is necessary to enter the Qigong state. If we relax but fail to be attentive, we enter a state closer to sleeping than the Qigong state. If we concentrate too tightly, without softness, we will also fail to achieve the Qigong state through constricting the energy flow. The Qigong state is an attunement of the bodymind to the subtle world, a coming-into-resonance with the subtle energy, or Qi. It is a relaxed, awake and pleasant state in which profound levels of healing are possible.
Qigong can be thought of as an active form of rest. Although Qigong can be quite strenuous and demanding at times, it is distinguished from most western styles of movement by the restful quality that informs its practice. Recently a Channel 4 series about Qigong played on this concept calling itself ‘Stand still, be fit’. It is this ‘not-doing’ which makes it quite a challenging practice for most westerners.
2) Take an open posture
The mental state of relaxed attention needs to be mirrored by a physical state of relaxed and open posture. Qigong challenges our often deeply held habits of struggling, trying too hard and competing with others. Progress is achieved through softening and opening. Qigong stresses the importance of opening the joints to allow the Qi to flow, and aligning the posture. More subtly it speaks of opening the invisible ‘cavities’ of the body and allowing the subtle exchanges and movements of energy within the body and between the human being and the cosmic environment.
Qigong also teaches us to reverse some of our habitual reactions. Rather than contract when we experience pain, Qigong teaches us to soften and extend, to go through the difficulty. Rather than ‘toughing it out’, Qigong recommends that the way through is to melt, not to harden; and to release through the breath, not to clench the muscles and constrict the breath. There is an emphasis on creating more space in the body, not just between the joints but increasing the spaces between the cells, or even between the atoms and molecules.
By creating space we open to nourishment. Not only can the Qi circulate more freely but nourishing energy from the cosmos can fill the body. My own teacher sometimes uses the phrase, ‘discharge to recharge’. When we empty out the heavy tiredness from the body and clear the chaotic chatter from the mind, fresh energy and positive thoughts can come in. Implicit in this is a basic trust that the universe is on our side, that through opening and emptying we will be supported and filled.
In fact, from the perspective of Qigong, the true nature of all phenomena is their essential emptiness. Not lack of significance or pointlessness, but insubstantiality. Qigong leads us to the direct perception and experience of this insubstantiality, of the vibrational nature of the universe. Strange though it may sound, Qigong connects us to this pre-manifest level. It is through re-patterning at the energetic level that Qigong achieves its physical benefits.
3) Give the weight to the earth
It is easy these days to live lives disconnected from the earth beneath our feet. Posturally, through fear and too much mental activity, our centre of gravity shifts higher than it should be and we hold our weight away from the ground. Qigong trains us to surrender our bodyweight into the earth, to relate to gravity.
This has several benefits and implications. When we manage to let our weight go down, we also become more relaxed and mentally less preoccupied. Often the breathing becomes fuller and deeper. More subtly we discharge the heavy, accumulated energy into the earth and open to receive light, ascending, lively energy up through our feet and into the body.
This is one of the ways that Qigong seeks to align a person ‘between heaven and earth’. In Chinese philosophy, the human being exists at the interface of the two great energies of heaven and earth. Life on earth is the fruit of this cosmic marriage. Qigong attempts to harmonise the practitioner with these forces. Our weight, the heavy and dense aspect of our being, is surrendered downwards to return to earth whilst the light energy ascends towards spirit. Qigong can thus be seen as a way of aligning with nature.
4) Connect to the Qi
Connecting to the Qi is something which defines Qigong as distinct from not-Qigong. To practise Qigong as simply a series of physical movements or postures is to miss the point. The primary method of Qigong is to connect to Qi. Its various postures and motions are simply tools to achieve this connection. To connect to the Qi is not an abstract idea but something felt and directly experienced. Qigong’s ‘technology’ leads us into the direct experience of Qi and opens us to healing.
Qi is frequently perceived as magnetic sensations, as tingling, as warmth, as subtle movement, as vibration, as waves or even as light. This depends partly on the practitioner and partly on the level at which the work is happening. For many people, their opening to Qi through Qigong awakens an awesome sense of life’s magic. It shifts their perception and opens up a deeper level of reality.
Of course, the encounter with Qi can also lead to confusion and delusion. The journey must be navigated with sincerity and heart. Nor is it a quick fix or shortcut to everlasting good health and enlightenment: it takes persistence and practice to achieve its benefits. It is, however, time-honoured and rooted in many generations of practice, experiment and insight. I hope that this article has given you some flavour of what it is about and perhaps whetted your appetite to try it for yourself.