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What is Qigong?

Qigong (pronounced chee-gong) is an exercise and healing technique developed in China more than 4,000 years ago. Certain slow movements seen in qigong look similar to t'ai chi. One could argue that t'ai chi developed from qigong. Yet the practices are very different.

T'ai chi originated as a form of exercise and martial arts only a few hundred years ago. Qigong has little in the form of such movement based on self-defense. In contrast, qigong has a far deeper spiritual or paranormal base that many today would describe as pseudoscience, with various characteristics — touch healing, distance healing, levitation — that clearly violate known laws of physics.

Similarly, whereas numerous studies have shown the health benefits of t'ai chi for balance, flexibility, stamina, mental health, pain management, Parkinson's disease and certain chronic diseases, qigong has not produced similarly strong and positive results.

Qigong is not without merit in terms of improving health, however. At a very basic level, it does have aspects of exercise. Many people in China and in the Western world find qigong exercises to be rejuvenating, not unlike transcendental meditation.

Qigong also is seen to be more useful and legitimate than falun gong, an adulteration of t'ai chi and qigong largely considered utterly useless yet nonetheless practiced by many Westerners.

Qigong vs. t'ai chi

There's no competition between practitioners of qigong and t'ai chi. They are simply two different things. The first difference is in the name; the word "chi," which can be confusing.

The "qi" in qigong is indeed the "chi" or energy flow often discussed in Chinese medicine. Qigong means energy cultivation, or harvesting the chi to your benefit, revealing its healing arts roots. The "chi" in t'ai chi sounds similar to qi to Western ears, but it means "extreme." The full name, t'ai chi ch'uan, means something similar to "grand, extreme fist," revealing its martial arts roots.

Most t'ai chi movements, as slow as they may seem, are associated with fast and powerful martial arts movements. The qigong movements are instead associated with cultivating the chi energy flow.

At the risk of generalizing, qigong movements tend to be circular and, in a distant way, correspond to acupuncture and its intent to release and move chi. Yet quite similar to t'ai chi, qigong movements also entail focused breathing and concentration.

One of the most basic forms of qigong is Baduanjin qigong with eight movements, often called the Eight Pieces of Brocade, or Fabric. Translations vary. The movements are: Pressing the Heavens With Two Hands, Drawing the Bowstring and Letting the Arrows Fly, Separating Heaven and Earth, Wise Owl Gazes Backward, Punching With Angry Gaze, Bouncing on the Toes, Big Bear Turns From Side to Side, and Touching the Toes Then Bending Backwards.

Qigong
The eight movements of Baduanjin qigong: 1. Pressing the Heavens With Two Hands; 2. Drawing the Bowstring and Letting the Arrows Fly; 3. Separating Heaven and Earth; 4. Wise Owl Gazes Backward; 5. Punching With Angry Gaze; 6. Bouncing on the Toes; 7. Big Bear Turns From Side to Side; 8. Touching the Toes Then Bending Backwards.
Credit: Public domain

Exercise vs. healing

A Westerner's experience with qigong may be these eight movements only, and thus one may think that qigong is a poetic form of t'ai chi, often accompanied by New Age music. But the river runs deeper.

Unlike t'ai chi, the world of qigong includes masters who view themselves as healers. Some of these healers not only teach the movements and meditative properties of qigong to their patients, but they also attempt to transmit their energy to the recipient.

Qi or chi, as stated, is the unquantifiable energy or life force within all living things, according to certain Chinese philosophy. In this view, all disease emanates from an imbalance of this energy. The role of the qigong healer is to adjust or unblock the chi and enable the healing process. This is not entirely unlike the role of an acupuncturist.

A qigong healer may go about adjusting a patient's chi by placing his hands on or over the patient, which is also called touch healing (or reiki) and distance healing, respectively. The Internet is full of anecdotes of healing all sorts of ailments in this fashion, including doing so over the telephone with a patient. Qigong healers have claimed to cure cancer and quadriplegia paralysis.

Scientific support of qigong

Unlike with t'ai chi, there is a dearth of high-quality studies showing the healing benefits of qigong, either as an exercise or as a paranormal force. There is less controversy about the exercise aspect, however, when limited to gentle movements and relaxation.

One of the largest studies involving qigong — a review of 66 studies totaling 6,410 participants — was published in 2010 in the American Journal of Health Promotion, but the researchers unfortunately combined qigong and t'ai chi. Nevertheless, the researchers found various positive results from these exercises when lumped together in improving bone health and balance.

Perhaps as expected for a meditative exercise, a 2007 study published in Journal of Hypertension found that qigong exercise had a mildly positive effect in lowering blood pressure. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that qigong exercise as a mildly positive effect in controlling diabetes. And a 2010 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that qigong exercise helped in improving sleeping patterns.

A 2007 study published in Acta Oncologica, however, found that qigong exercise wasn't effective in prolonging the life of cancer patients.

Of course, there is no evidence that qigong healers can indeed heal by touch or via a distant, paranormal force, as practitioners of falun gong claim.

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