What are the benefits of Qigong?
My first encounter with Qigong (pronounced “chi-gong”) meditation happened when I was 6 years old.
I was staying with my grandmother, or “nai-nai” as I used to call her in Chinese, for the summer. One afternoon I woke early from my nap and wandered from the bedroom in search of my nai-nai.
There she was standing in the middle of her sun-lit living room in an old apartment building in central China.
I watched her with the most curious eyes as she extended her belly gently in and out with silent, long breaths, her arms moving slowly and gracefully through the air to the sounds of traditional Chinese flute playing in the background.
I couldn’t stop looking. This, in the mind of a 6-year-old, was magic.
Later I learned there was a name to this strange and fascinating ritual she was doing. It was Qigong.
What is Qigong Meditation
Qigong meditation is a form of ancient practice originating from China more than 4000 years ago. It is both a form of physical exercise AND a meditation practice (you’ll see me refer to it as both “Qigong exercise” and “Qigong meditation” all throughout this article).
Like yoga, it’s a type of “moving meditation”.
Qigong weaves intentional movements, conscious breathing, and mind focus all in one powerful routine.
It embodies the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine and aims to re-balance the body’s two complementary and opposing energy forces—yin and yang—to create harmony in the body, mind, and spirit. The movements, breathwork, and mind focus work together to channel qi (“chi”)—our vital life energy—throughout our body.
Qigong Meditation Rebalances
Sounds confusing? Think of it this way: our body is like a network of railways and qi is like the trains that move along on these tracks carrying essential resources. Our yin and yang are like the supercharged batteries that power these trains.
When there’s a balance of yin and yang in your system—like positive and negative terminals on a battery—qi flows steadily and the trains run smoothly on course.
Sometimes our yin and yang can get out of whack due to things like pollution, stress, or an unhealthy diet, and this imbalance affects the flow of qi. When that happens, the trains become sluggish or in some parts, stop running altogether.
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If you’ve ever been stuck in your rush hour commute because of a subway malfunction, I don’t need to describe to you what kind of chaos this can create.
So thousands of years ago, some wise folks in ancient China developed a system of Qigong exercises to help the movement of qi throughout the body. Over the millennia, Qigong gradually evolved into the forms we see today.
Forms of Qigong Exercises
There are two major categories of Qigong exercises today: medical Qigong and martial arts Qigong. The first is more specific for healing, and the second has a stronger emphasis on fighting.
All the “Kung Fu” cool stuff you see in the movies? A lot of that comes from martial arts Qigong.
It’s also perfect for those who are looking for an easy way to maintain physical and mental health without years of fitness training or a deep understanding of the philosophies behind Qigong.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about how medical Qigong benefits our total health, my experience practicing one of the most accessible forms of Qigong meditation for beginners, and how you can incorporate an easy Qigong exercise routine into your daily life.
Medical Qigong Benefits Our Body, Spirit, and Mind
On the outside, Qigong meditation may look gentle and unassuming, but when it comes to health benefits, it sure packs a punch!
Studies have found that Qigong can help improve the following:
- Bone density
- Cardiovascular health and lung function
- Falls and balance
- Depression and anxiety
- Immune system and inflammation
But why is this slow-moving practice so powerful?
Qigong Is All About Breathing
The secret, as I learned from my Qigong master when I started practicing 3 years ago, lies in the combination of the movements with deep and controlled breathing.
The movements help circulate our blood, remove blockages in our meridians, and strengthen our muscles and bones. More importantly, they help direct the flow of qi. As our hands move through the air, so too, does our qi.
With some practice, you can even feel the presence of qi in the palms of your hands, exuding from your fingers in waves of gentle warmth.
The breath invigorates our body, spirit, and mind.
Our breath is our communication channel with our body and mind. It is the quickest and most effective way for us to consciously influence many of the bodily processes that are automatic—such as our heart rate, blood pressure, and even our temperature.
With each expansion and contraction of our belly and diaphragm, the breath gently massages our internal organs and deliver vital life force to each and every cell.
If you’re not breathing the right way, the movements lose its full power. If you’re not moving the right way, the breath only goes so far. One cannot be without the other.
It is this very combination of movement and breathing that makes Qigong meditation the powerhouse that it is in terms of health benefits.
How I Started Qigong Meditation
When I was 10 years old, my parents decided to move to Canada. In this beautiful land of maple leaves and hockey, nai-nai and her Qigong became a distant memory.
Then 3 years ago, while waiting at a bus stop, I picked up a program brochure for a nearby community centre that was sitting on the bench. Something caught my eye as I skimmed through the pages—it was an ad for Tai Chi/Qigong classes.
Something lit up in me. For a second I was back in nai-nai’s living room watching her graceful moves with awe.
Could this be my answer to better health? I thought to myself. Could this help me survive longer?
You see, 5 years prior to this I had undergone a bone marrow transplant as a last-ditch effort to cure the blood cancer that came raging back after remaining more than a year in remission. It was a life-changing procedure that left its fair share of battle scars while saving my life.
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Just weeks before I picked up this brochure, I was diagnosed with a rare and irreversible lung condition that was yet another side effect of the transplant. A lung function test showed that I had developed moderate restrictions in my breathing abilities and the jury was still out on whether this downward spiral would continue.
I knew what life with this condition could look like—it was not pretty. Endless coughing, steroids prescriptions, oxygen therapy, then perhaps a lung transplant if you’re lucky. Even if you survive after that, you’d be on medication for life.
After weeks of wallowing in fear and sadness, I decided I was not going to go down without a fight. I was resolved to do whatever I could to keep my lungs working as well as they could for as long as they could. But I wasn’t sure where and how I would start.
So when I saw that ad in that program brochure at the bus stop for Qigong/Tai Chi classes at a community centre, I took it as a sign from the universe. I went to a class the very next Saturday and kept going every weekend after that.
How Qigong Meditation Improved My Life
At the time of my diagnosis, my FEV1 (an important marker for lung function) was at 1.79L. Within 6 months of starting Qigong, it was at 1.89L and has been staying at this level up until now. The doctors are amazed.
I’m still not on any medication. The condition hasn’t affected my life and besides the regular checkups, it remains mostly in the background.
Considering most people with this condition decline year after year, my steadiness has truly been the silver lining in all of this.
I can’t say with 100% certainty that Qigong meditation was THE cause for this positive result because I also do other things that benefit my lung health. But what I can tell you with certainty is that besides the more obvious benefits of helping me build muscle strength and flexibility, Qigong has brought me countless hidden gems.
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Qigong has taught me to breathe deeper and longer than ever before. It has taught me to move with intention and think with focus, even if it’s just for 15 minutes a day in this crazy hectic world. Because of Qigong meditation, I’ve been able to keep my anxiety in check.
At times while practicing, I’ve felt a profound sense of peace and joy from within. Other times, I’ve sensed a deep connection with the universe. It’s an indescribable feeling of wholeness. At that moment I believe with every inch of my being that I’m going to be okay.
And that feeling is better than any medication out there.
Qigong Meditation for Beginners: Start With 8 Pieces of Brocade
After reading all the benefits of Qigong meditation, you must be itching to try it out! But the question you probably have in your mind right now is: “Where do I start?”
I highly recommend beginners start with a Qigong exercise called “8 Pieces of Brocade”, also known as “Baduanjin Qigong”. The form consists of 8 different sets of movements. It is one of the easiest and safest forms of Qigong meditation for beginners—almost anyone at any age can do it!
- The entire set takes no more than 15 minutes to complete.
- The Chinese Health Qigong Association gave it their seal of approval by recommending it for general public practice.
- It’s great for building lower-body strength (toned legs are always a plus for me!)
- There’s been a lot of research on 8 pieces of Brocade and its health benefits.
- You can practice it anywhere. Unlike Tai Chi or other forms of Qigong exercise which requires plenty of space to move around, 8 Pieces of Brocade takes up little room.
- It’s easy enough to learn it yourself!
8 Pieces of Brocade: A Step-by-Step Guide
Below is a simplified version of the steps to each of the 8 sections of 8 Pieces of Brocade. I renamed each section to make it easy to understand. To truly understand each movement of this Qigong exercise, watch this Youtube instructional video:
#1. Double Hand Lift
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, keep your hands leisurely by your side.
Slowly bring your arms in toward the centre of your body while you inhale deeply. When they reach your naval, lift both arms up towards the sky.
Stretch your arms to the fullest above your head, your palms facing upward.
Lift your chin and look up at your hands for 2 seconds, and then bring your arms down again on each side while you exhale. Repeat this movement 6 times.
#2. Archery Stance
Stand with your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart and relax your hands by your side.
Slowly bring both arms toward your chest while inhaling a deep breath.
Bend both knees and lower your body until you feel the weight on your thighs. While you do this, exhale and open your arms and pretend like you’re drawing a bow to the left side of your body.
Straighten your knees and bring your arms back to your side and repeat the same sequence on the right side of your body. Repeat 3 times on each side.
#3. Alternating Hand Lift
Similar to the first section, this one involves lifting the hands above your head, except this time you alternate the hands. When one hand goes up, the other comes down and you repeat this exchange in a fluid motion.
Inhale as your hand extends above your head and exhale as it comes down. Repeat 3 times on each side.
#4. Chest and Neck Stretch
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, keep your hands leisurely by your side.
Slowly stretch your palms backward and open your chest.
Turn your head to one side as far as you can and look towards the back for a full chest and neck stretch.
Turn your head back to the centre and relax your arms.
Repeat again by turning your head to the other side this time. Inhale as you open your chest and exhale as you relax. Repeat 3 times on each side.
#5. Upper Body Sway
Stand with your feet wide apart and bend your knees like how you did with the Archery Stance.
With your hands on waist, lower your upper body to the right as if you’re a giraffe lowering your head to take a sip of water.
With your head in a lower position, move your upper body in one sweeping motion to the left side and slowly lift up your body and return to the centre.
Repeat this motion by lowering your upper body to the left and lift up on the right side.
Inhale just before your lower your upper body, hold your breath as you move, and exhale as you return to the centre. Repeat 3 times on each side.
#6. Full Body Stretch
Stretch your arms upward. When you bring them down place your hands on your back and move them down all the way to your ankles while you lower yourself into a full body stretch.
Keep your legs as straight as you can during this sequence for a full body stretch. Lift your hands and your upper body slowly upward again and repeat.
Inhale as your arms go up and exhale as your hands travel down your back to your feet. Repeat 6 times.
#7. Alternating “Angry” Fist Punch
This section is similar to the Archery Stance with the same lower body stance.
Instead of drawing a bow, this time you’re punching your fist out in front of you in an alternating fashion.
Each time you punch out, look intensely at your fist as if you’re glaring at it. This is an important aspect of this section.
Exhale as your punch out and inhale as you withdraw your fist. Repeat 3 times on each side.
#8. Bouncing on Your Toes
Then bring your heels back down and “knock” them on the ground.
Remember to wear proper exercise footwear when you do this move!
You will feel a gentle vibration throughout your body when your heels come down. Inhale as you lift your feet up onto your toes and exhale quickly as you bring your heels down. Repeat 7 times.
How You Can Incorporate a Qigong Exercise Routine Into Your Daily Life
Qigong exercise, especially 8 Pieces of Brocade, is excellent as a stand-alone regime or part of a more comprehensive exercise routine. You can do it once in the morning when you wake up and once at night before you go to bed, or whenever you have 12 to 20 minutes during the day.
It’s also a great way to stretch the muscles and calm the mind before or after a more intense workout.
I like to do 2 sets each time to get the full effects of this Qigong exercise. But if you only have time to do one set every time, that’s okay! CONSISTENCY is key here. Doing one set a day every day will be more beneficial than doing 2 sets every other day or 5 sets in one sitting once a week.
If you can’t squeeze out even 12 minutes out of your day to do a full set, then pick one or two sections from the set and concentrate on practicing those particular movements.
The cool thing is, each section has specific benefits for different bodily functions.
For example, section two, the “Archery Stance” is great for improving lung function, so if you’re getting over a cold and a lingering cough, you can focus on practicing section 2. Section 3 improves digestion, section 5 is great for heart health, and section 6 benefits the kidneys. The rest of the sections are good for total body health.
You can decide where you want to focus your time and energy on those days when you don’t have much of either or both. There’s a lot of flexibility with 8 Pieces of Brocade!
Even when I don’t have time to do a full cardio workout, or if I’m feeling tired that day, I still like to do a set of 8 Pieces of Brocade. Why? This Qigong exercise routine is gentle enough on the body and yet, still makes you sweat.
When you get into the flow of Qigong, you will feel a wave of warmth wash over you. That warmth is both invigorating and relaxing, like the feeling you get from a hot, soothing bath.
8 Pieces of Brocade is truly a versatile Qigong exercise routine that you can adapt and make it part of your daily life!
Qigong Meditation for Beginners: Final Tips and Thoughts
Before you begin your Qigong meditation journey, I’d like to leave you with a few tips that will help you get the most out of this wonderful practice:
- Try to practice Qigong meditation where there’s fresh air. If it’s too cold to practice outside or you’re too shy (like me) to do so, you can practice indoors but make sure you let in some fresh air.
- 8 Pieces of Brocade, like many other forms of Qigong exercises, requires reverse breathing where you contract your belly and diaphragm when you inhale and relax your belly and diaphragm when you exhale. This pattern is the opposite of natural breathing. There are many benefits of reverse breathing and it is the key to getting the most out of your Qigong exercise routine. Don’t worry if you can’t get the breathing pattern right in the beginning. Focus on learning the movements first and worry about the breathing part later.
- If your mind starts to wander, don’t beat yourself up! Simply bring your thoughts back to the movements and your breath.
- Qigong meditation requires a combination of strength and flexibility. The movements should have a fluid quality to them. Don’t be too rigid, loosen up! If a move is too difficult at this point for you, don’t force yourself beyond your body’s limits.
- If you can, try to breathe only through your nostrils while keeping your tongue “glued” to the roof of your mouth. Resting your tongue on the roof of your mouth stimulates a crucial point in your body where the meridians meet and this helps the flow of your qi.
Ready to start practicing Qigong meditation?
More About Guest Contributor
Sabrina is a Chinese-born Canadian blogger living in Vancouver, Canada. She was diagnosed with Leukemia at age 19 and received a bone-marrow transplant in 2009. As a result of her cancer treatments, she now lives with a rare and irreversible lung condition. Not one to let these health challenges stop her, she continues to travel, hike, play dodgeball and write in her blog “The Budding Optimist” where she shares tips, stories, and ideas that inspire people to live a healthy and happy life.