There are several principles of qigong, and in class I tend to focus on one per session, although all of the principles are involved in every class, as one principle feeds into another. The top ten principles that I am going cover here are:
- Soft and gentle movement
- Duration of exercise
One aspect of relaxation is to notice tension in the body that we can feel and consciously release, whether that is by sequentially scanning through the body, top to toe, one joint at a time or as we work, regularly checking in with the body. The shoulders can be particularly prone to wander up towards the ears.
Another aspect of relaxation is known as ‘sung’ and is the sense of sinking the weight down through the body, as if hanging from a bar. Peter Wayne in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi describes it as the opposite of being uptight “The Chinese character or pictogram for Sung depicts hair contained in a tight bun letting go and hanging freely.”
In qigong, concentration should be relaxed, not forced. It is about observing sensations in the body and having moment-to-moment awareness. As such it is a mindful practice. It is through concentrating on what we are doing that we develop body awareness and improve our practice.
Alignment is all about minimising effort in any given posture or movement so as not to waste energy or strain the body. This is epitomised in the standing meditation known as wuji, which roughly translates as extreme nothingness. In wuji we imagine hanging from a thread attached to the very top of the head; jaw relaxed; shoulders relaxed; arms relaxed with a natural, slight bend in the elbow; shoulders balanced over the hips; a slight bend in the knees as we feel the weight sinking down through lightly flexed ankles and evenly distributed across both feet. I think of it like pebbles balanced one on top of the other on a beach.
I often feel like a puppet on a string when practising qigong and I love the sensation, for example as a wrist and ankle lift together or an arm and leg circle simultaneously. We can coordinate a sense of sung with movements, for example we can feel our weight sinking down through the body as we lower our hands from overhead, either to the side of the body or in front.
When we are focused on other things we can forget to breathe, which is why coordinating movements with the breath can be helpful. It can also help keep movements slow and smooth. As Kenneth Cohen explains in The Way of Qigong “One of the ancient names for qigong, tu gu na zin, ‘expelling the old, drawing in the new,’ sounds like a modern description of the gaseous exchange that occurs during respiration… One of the goals of qigong is to maintain the balance and efficiency of this exchange, so that the entire body receives the energy it needs.”
In qigong we work with three energy centres in the body: the lower dantian in the abdomen between the navel and pubic bone, the middle dantian in the chest near the heart and the upper dantian in the head between the eyebrows. The lower dantian is the most significant of the three in qigong and is the body's center of gravity. “The dan tian both stores qi in the body, like an energy reservoir, and propels qi through the body, like a pump. Dan tian means, literally, the elixir (dan) field (tian), the field of the elixir of long life and wisdom. The qigong master learns to cultivate, nurture, and harvest qi by concentrating on this energy centre,” Kenneth Cohen.
Soft and Gentle Movement
As well as coordinating movements with the breath as mentioned above, we can use visualisation to ensure soft and gentle movement. We can imagine moving through something with more resistance than air, like water or even treacle. It also helps give grace to the practice.
When balancing on one leg, whether fully or partially, we employ sung to sink our weight down into the supporting leg, bending the knee and ankle a little more (like a spring being compressed) so that our centre of gravity is lower and our position more stable. We also play with shifting our weight around so that the body gets used to rebalancing even from random or unexpected movements.
Duration of Exercise
All things in moderation as they saying goes and that applies to qigong too. “Each practice should be done over a long enough period so that the body can relax into it - but not so long as to exhaust the physical or mental energy,” Karel and Eva Koskuba.
Doing one practice, whether that is a standing meditation like wuji, a breathing meditation or a moving exercise for 10 minutes has value. You don’t have to spend an hour doing qigong if you don’t have the time or inclination for that. Probably more important is regular practise, ideally at the same time of day. And play around with that to find what time of day works best for you.
The variety of practices in a session can seem bewildering and impossible to remember, but if you remember just one or two exercises from each class and practise it or them for just a few minutes each day, you will soon build a repertoire and improve over time. You will find that you recognise them in class and pay close attention to them, which will help refine your technique.
All of these principles are inextricably linked, like organisms in an ecosystem. If this has piqued your interest and you would like to put these principles into practice, you are welcome to join one of my classes, details of which are on my website. Call me on 07528 708650 or email email@example.com to register your interest.