The five pillars of qigong
Qigong is usually defined as a Chinese system of breathing exercises, body postures, movements and mental concentration, intended to maintain good health and the flow of vital energy. There are thousands of books and articles on the subject each of which gives specific methodologies and theories for you to experiment with. One of the problems of modern life is that we have so many sources of information available to us that it is easy to be confused as to the best path to take. In previous times people seeking to learn qigong would usually only have one teacher who would show them his way. If they were lucky they may have access to books (assuming they were literate) but there would be nothing like the ease of access to information that is now possible.
So for those of you who wish to study qigong but are confused with often conflicting information then let me break it down for you. There are five main areas that you need to understand and master. All of qigong knowledge, all the schools and teachings refer in a large part to these five pillars and how to bring them together to create within you the ability to improve your health and wellbeing through the knowledge and conscious control of qi (chi). These pillars all overlap with each other so practice on any of them will enhance the others.
The first pillar of qigong is relaxation. Energy cannot move easily through tense muscles. An overly tense muscle is like a light bulb. A light bulb emits light and heat because it resists the flow of energy going through it. Tight muscles do much the same thing. The energy can’t flow through so the energy gets locked up in the muscles producing the feeling of tension and, eventually pain. Only by learning to relax your muscles can you release the energy that’s tied up in them and allow it to flow unimpeded through you. The aspect of releasing long term tensions is so important that I’ve written a book about it. Click here for more details.
Full relaxation is only possible when your body is aligned with gravity. Any time you are leaning forward, backward or to one side then tension must exist on the other side to prevent you from falling over. Much time is spent in tai chi and qigong classes going over small changes in posture and movement to allow the body to relax downwards and to rely less on muscle tension to keep it upright. I have written several articles about the importance of good physical structure and how to achieve it and, again, my book goes into a lot more detail. Click here for a good article on achieving physical structure. Always remember that when you’re body is aligned properly with gravity then your muscles can learn to relax around the bones. The weight of these muscles will pull your skeleton more firmly down onto the ground and make you stronger and more stable. It will also connect you to the earth element and allow your qi energy to flow more easily.
A good posture is also one that enables a full and easy breath. Too many people sit and stand in a way that allows the ribcage to collapse downwards preventing the diaphragm to work as it should. This promotes over reliance on the smaller muscles of the chest for breathing. In doing so they aren’t able to bring in nearly as much oxygen and energy as they should. Every cell in your body needs oxygen and produces carbon dioxide and this internal respiration affects every aspect of your health and wellbeing. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that improving your breathing is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your health and quality of life. In China the word qigong refers only to breathing exercises. The breath brings in energy with each inhalation and releases tensions with each exhalation. Again I have written arcles about it, click here to read one of them.
It is true to say that your mind controls your body but only if you learn to take control of it and keep control of it. Many people have what the Chinese call a monkey mind. That is a mind that constantly leaps from thing to thing and chatters endlessly. It is axiomatic in qigong that your energy will follow your mind but if your mind is scattered then your energy too is scattered. There are many, many forms of meditation but all of them have, as a starting point, the goal of training the monkey mind to focus on just one thing. That one thing can be anything: your breathing, heart rate, a chant or mantra, a candle flame or other external object etc. The thing is to focus on it and stay focused for as long as you are able. Gradually the mind quietens down and starts to learn to focus. When your mind is focused you can focus on any area of your body and send energy there through a combination of mental focus and directed breathing. All the aspects of qigong require you to focus, usually on yourself. Focus on your breathing, focus on different areas of your posture, focus on releasing tension and so on. Without a trained mind qigong is not possible.
This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of qigong training. Many people scoff at qi, they cannot see it, video footage looks, and often is, faked and they don’t believe this mysterious energy exists. The only way to know it exists is to feel it for yourself but they can’t feel it so they disbelieve it. The reasons they can’t feel it are the same reasons we’ve already discussed: They aren’t relaxed enough, their minds are too scattered, they aren’t breathing enough to generate any excess energy and, finally, they don’t know what energy feels like. The sensations of qi are very subtle, at least to begin with though, when you are more practiced, the sensations can be very strong indeed . The better you are able to feel subtle energies the better your mind can lock onto them and increase them hence sensitivity is very important. As we age our minds and bodies become increasingly numb to the sensations that assail us. Never before in our history have we been assaulted by so many new sensations, smells, colours, media attempts to manipulate our emotions and so on. We protect ourselves by becoming increasingly numb but at what cost? We lose contact with ourselves and the energies that sustain us. We become a victim of our own habits and rely on them to get us through the day. These habits automate our responses to everyday stimuli yet rob us of the awareness and sensitivity of those stimuli and in doing so they enable the mind to be elsewhere doing its thing and prevent us from being here, living this moment fully as we could and should. Learn to become more aware of yourself and your habits during your day. Become more conscious of everything you see hear and feel. This practice alone will help both mind and body relax. The more relaxed you are the more sensitive you become. The more you are able to focus your mind on a particular area the more sensitive that area becomes. As always these five pillars overlap in many areas.
So these are the five pillars of qigong – relaxation, posture, breathing, focus and sensitivity. Cultivate each one and you will feel the energies moving through you. More importantly your health and wellbeing will improve dramatically and you will become more at ease with yourself and the world and people around you.