We constantly hear about the negative effects of stress and how it’s vital to engage in stress-relieving practices. The common recommendations are exercise, hot baths, yoga and meditation.
But what if none of these techniques feel quite right for you? It’s difficult to find time for a relaxing bath in a busy schedule, and sweating it out on the treadmill seems like torture to many of us. Yoga seems to require a bendy body and an elite membership, and quieting the mind enough for meditation is a real challenge.
There is another proven anti-stress practice that is used by millions of people on a daily basis but it hasn’t caught on much in North America. It’s called qigong (pronounced chee-gung), and it has been part of Eastern practices for health and wellness for millennia.
Scientific research shows that qigong can have amazing, fast-acting benefits for stress relief. It’s also more accessible for many people since it’s a moving form of meditation. Qigong doesn’t ask you to sit still or force your mind to think about nothing. Rather, it encourages a gradual inner stillness and clarity of mind through a physical practice.
If this sounds intriguing, keep reading to find out all about the philosophy and benefits of qigong, as well as how to get started with a qigong practice as part of modern life.
The basics of qigong
The practice of qigong is built on the idea of seeking peace in the solitude of nature and encouraging the energy of life to flow through us in a free and unimpeded fashion. The name translates roughly as follows: “to cultivate or enhance the inherent functional or energetic essence of the human being.” This is tied to the core principles of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), where qi, or chi, is the life energy needed for physiological and psychological functionality.
While Western medicine traditionally views the body and mind as separate entities, it is well known that Eastern approaches integrate everything into one: When the mind is balanced and at peace, the body thrives; when the body is fit and cared for, the mind is at ease.
Qigong encourages this holistic approach to wellness by tying the breath, thoughts and physical movement into a coordinated flow. The theory is that this unification encourages a state where the body’s natural healing mechanisms are able to work optimally.
There are thousands of different forms of qigong that have been developed over a period of 5,000 years or more. Some forms are intended for meditation or spiritual growth while others are geared toward improving athletic performance and bodily strength.
The many benefits of qigong
Qigong encourages us to unify the body, mind and breath by practicing a routine of gentle movement. This simple concept results in many benefits. The breath is slowed and deepened to match the movements of the body. Deep breathing in itself is an excellent practice for stress relief. While just sitting still and breathing may seem impossibly mundane, tying it with movement makes things more interesting.
At the same time, the mind is occupied by orchestrating the coordination between the breath and the body. This is almost a way to trick yourself into meditating.
A greater awareness is drawn to the breathing mechanism and to various things that might be going on in your body. You will begin to notice spots where you hold tension or need to build more strength.
Unproductive runaway thoughts are also put under the spotlight: If you lose concentration, you will lose your place in the routine or even lose your balance. Gradually the ability to quiet the mind at will becomes a reality. This skill, developed through mind-body practices like qigong, has been shown to improve “cortical thickness,” which is a measurement in the brain that reflects the ability to make more calculated decisions and control compulsions rather than just acting on an impulse.
This mental quiet also has great implications for deeper, better-quality sleep. Not only that but energy, sexual vitality and fertility are also said to improve. This is likely thanks to the increased circulation encouraged by the slow, intentional, full-body movements of qigong.
Hand in hand with circulation, digestion also improves with qigong practice. Deep breathing and complex movements that open up the body are great for digestion. Clearer skin and better hormonal balance are benefits that have been tied to robust digestion.
These benefits are reported anecdotally but are also backed up by numerous studies over the last few decades. A meta-analysis that took into account study results from 77 studies involving 6,410 participants reported that benefits were observed for many health measures, including bone density, vulnerability to falls and injuries, and occurrence of chronic pain. None of the studies included in the review had reported a single adverse event as a result of practicing qigong — i.e., there are no side effects!
Perhaps the greatest triumph to gain from practicing qigong is reduced stress. When we live in a constant state of stress, there are many mechanisms that suffer. Blood pressure, breathing rate, heart rate, hormone levels and inflammation are all things that can either get destroyed by stress or saved by a practice like qigong. The methodical review of scientific studies mentioned above confirmed that qigong activates the parasympathetic nervous system and offers benefits for cardiovascular health and fitness. This was seen in both healthy participants and also those vulnerable to or recovering from a major illness.
Finally, there are some esoteric benefits. Qigong masters say that they gain greater creativity and intuition because the spirit is cultivated and the heart is opened. Encouraging the chi, or energy of life, to flow freely and abundantly can help clear up many emotional and spiritual issues that may otherwise go unnoticed. More scientifically, studies report improved self-confidence and resiliency, and a higher perceived quality of life as a result of practicing qigong.
How to get started with qigong
A qigong practice can take anywhere from minutes to hours, and mastering the art requires instruction from an expert. But you can easily get started wherever you are now, in the next couple of minutes, with some simple movements for beginners.
Here are a few examples:
Flowing Motion: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Put your palms upward and raise your arms up to the sky and rise up on your tiptoes. Breathe in slowly and deeply as you do this. Stretch up fully, then slowly push your arms back down toward the ground and exhale until you come to a position where your knees are slightly bent. Continue this movement at a slow pace, feeling the discomfort and impatience that may arise if you are used to faster, higher-impact exercise.
Rolling the Ball: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms out in front of you, as if you are holding a large beach ball. Slowly move the imaginary ball from side to side in front of your body, creating resistance against the air and breathing in rhythm with the movement. Gradually move to a figure-eight pattern, allowing your body to twist from side to side and flexing the knees slightly.
Waving Hands in the Clouds: Stand with one hand on your hip and the other straight out in front of you. Begin to make small circles with the extended arm, moving in a slow rhythm. As the arm continues to circle, move it toward the sky with the palm facing down, and then bring it back down with the palm facing up. Make larger and larger slow circles, feeling the muscles of your legs and core flex in response to the movement. Repeat with the other arm.
These are just some basic movements to get you started. Be sure to seek instruction in person or with online videos to further explore qigong.
Don’t let chronic stress consume you — take control in a simple and enjoyable way by practicing qigong. Here are some other mind-body practices to try.
Liivi is an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and is training to become a doula. She inspires women to find peace and personal power by taking control of health and fertility naturally. Liivi‘s passion is ancestral nutrition and primal lifestyle design. She and her partner Will live between Toronto, Canada and Queenstown, New Zealand.