Qigong is generally considered to have been around for 5000 years, but if you think about it...every culture is going to have some form of Qigong, when you define it generically as "working with your Life Energy".
By legend, Qigong had its origins in communal healing dances and shamanic practices, which is something that we find in other indigenous cultures such as Africa, the Americas, and Australia. Many different cultures have employed the idea of getting together and dancing around as a healing practice, of spontaneous movement, or of stylized movement imitating certain animals.
Over time, other systems and dances developed in China and were systematized by Chinese medical practitioners. Around 1800 years ago, a famous Chinese doctor, Hua To, put together "The Five Animal Frolics," which is a system I teach, and which has stood the test of time. He essentially took both folkloric and shamanic healing systems and put it into a lay health regime that anyone could practice.
Over the years, different interest groups saw aspects of what was implied in "cultivating your energy" and started to develop techniques for their own goals. The monastic traditions-Taoist groups, Buddhist groups-started using Qigong practices to enhance their spirituality. Their qigong practices allowed them to go more deeply into meditation.
One of the things that I really like about Qigong is that it helps take you out of your mind, which is one of the essentials to being able to go deep in meditative practices. It kind of seduces you into it stillness.
Martial artists appreciated Qigong because, when you employ Qigong techniques, you learn to master tension and relaxation. Part of the whole skill training in Qigong is know how to be extremely relaxed, but to employ tension when you really need it. And to have that kind of awareness in your body that allows you to be much more fluid and generally mobile with the way you use your energy.
As we get older, we tend to start to stiffen up. We tend to become stagnant. Areas in our body become tense and we lose the buoyant flexibility we had as young kids-and the kind of buoyant flexibility and vitality you see in wild animals.
So Qigong looks to bring that quality back into our lives. Martial artists have found this extremely useful. Internal martial artists found that when they practiced the skill of moving slowly and attentively, they developed a greater skill in the ability to be deeply relaxed, yet also suddenly issue force. They were better for it in their martial art.
Qigong encourages sensitivity. And, it encourages responsiveness, which is another quality valued by martial artists. So, Tai Chi employs breathing and movement practices to enhance that sensitive energy.
The Chinese medical practitioners found that they could prescribe Qigong methods and Qigong techniques to their clients. Chinese medicine is preventative in its overall attitude-it has a perspective that the doctor almost owes it to the patient to keep them well. That, the doctor is going to fail the patient if the patient gets sick.
So, after noting certain imbalances in their patient's system, the Chinese doctor would prescribe particular techniques to keep them well.
One of the great, great benefits comes from Qigong's concentration on abdominal breathing. It teaches you to come back to focusing on breathing down in the stomach, rather than focusing on upper chest breathing.
Abdominal breathing brings more oxygen into your system than upper chest breathing. The abdominal breathing style also helps activate the lymph system. Your lymph system is responsible for keeping you clean inside. Affecting your lymph system is not something that most Western exercise stresses very much. (Rebounding does and I've learned quite a great deal from the Rebounders about the importance of the lymph system.)
Qigong has bouncing movements, which also help activate the lymph system. It has stroking, a lot of stroking. This is very peculiar to Qigong and I don't see it in Yoga or many other disciplines-this kind of caressive stroking just off the body. Bioelectric Self Massage is a term I like to use for this aspect of Qigong. So, bouncing, stroking, and abdominally focused breathing-where the lungs are employed to their maximum potential-all start to activate the lymph system, which as we get older tends to get sluggish.
When the lymph system's sluggish, excessive blood proteins and fluids gather around the cells. The cells are supposed to be in what's known as a "dry" state. When the lymph system is functioning well, the excess fluids and debris are flushed away. Then more oxygen, blood, nutrients, energy or qi can actually reach and feed the cells-and keep you in a healthier state.
You are more vulnerable to many diseases if your lymph system is stagnant. So that's one of the benefits. When the lymph system is functioning well you also generate a relaxation response very easily.
And, part of the problem that we face in our culture is being constantly dis-eased, constantly feeling a little uncomfortable in our bodies, uneasy, wanting to be elsewhere than where we are, not really happy in our bodies.
The lymph system, again, when it's fully activated and you have this relaxation response firing, allows you to feel comfortable with your own body. Start re-living in your body and feel at peace in it.
Qigong affects the nervous system. One of the greatest benefits that I see in Qigong is that the nervous system shifts more into the parasympathetic than the sympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that is involved with "fight or flight." And, our culture has become addicted to that part of the nervous system. It's the "get up and go" attacking part of our system. It's triggered by a phone ringing. It's triggered by a car cutting in front of you. It's triggered by loud noises. It's designed to protect you. It's designed to activate. It sends a cascade of hormones and chemicals through the body to prepare you to deal with the threat.
Unfortunately, our bodies haven't caught up with our telephone systems, our fax machines, and all the other so called creature comforts that we've surrounded ourselves with that have actually induced stress into our lives. Over time this creates a chronic tensing in the body. Nothing wrong if that tension is used functionally for a survival situation, but what happens in our normal lives is that we tense up and then not all of that tension is relaxed away. We start to gather tension in our bodies and we suffer from what's known eventually as Sensory Motor Amnesia. The signals get sent to a part of the body to move, but they simply don't make it through to that part of the system.
BioSomatics came up with that term and Qigong is essentially a biosomatic system which through very gentle, conscious, slow movement helps enliven areas that have started to fall asleep.