Exercise is not just about physical strength. It’s also about mental strength and the ability to control how the body moves. The slow, graceful movements of Tai Chi and Qigong involve both aspects of exercise and are gentle ways to engage the mind and body. Find out which practice is right for you with this overview.
Qigong breaks down into two words that describe the practice as a whole: “Qi” (pronounced and sometimes spelled “chi”) means vital life force or energy. “Gong” means cultivation, practice, or development. Thus Qigong translates to “energy cultivation.”
The practice of Qigong focuses on movements that promote the smooth circulation of blood and energy throughout the entire body. Mentally, it is the practice of learning to pay close attention to what the body is doing through measured, intentional movements. Qigong can be done standing, sitting, lying down, and walking. The freedom to choose how a practice is performed makes Qigong great for people who experience limited mobility as well as for people who love to be on their feet.
Qigong involves moving the entire body, but the connection of the feet to the earth is essential to establishing a solid foundation for one’s practice. Some Qigong sessions begin with a foot massage that works to invigorate the foot so that it can move fluidly throughout the various stances. The foot is also where energy transfers from the ground into the body, which is why it is important for feet and earth to connect. The measured physical movements of Qigong strengthen and tone muscles. The mental discipline of continued practice strengthens the mind.
There are many different forms of Qigong. Many mimic the movements of wild animals. Dayan or Wild Goose Qigong, for example, is based on the graceful movements of wild geese. Instructor Lita Buttolph of Wen Wu School Portland recognizes the power of this extremely gentle form of Qigong, which “improves energy and aids in relaxation and is perfect for people who desire a low-impact exercise.” Each movement works to align specific acupoints, which can help with a variety of ailments by strengthening the movement of energy within the body.
Tai Chi is a type of Qigong that has three essential elements: the physical, the intellectual, and the martial. The martial aspect focuses on the fighting or war portion of the practice, which is absent in Qigong.
In Tai Chi, the foot is always moving. The simple but pronounced weight shifts build strength throughout the body. If you’ve ever seen Tai Chi being practiced, you might have remarked at it’s slow speed. The primary reason Tai Chi moves slowly is so the practitioner has ample time to pay attention to what the body is doing. When movements are too quick, there isn’t time to tune into the body. Slow movements make room for fluiditiy.
Anyone can practice Tai Chi. The practice is almost always immediately renewing, but it has long-term benefits too. Though it is not necessary to train for a long time, and it does not require obvious physical effort, a person must be willing to commit in order to truly reap the benefits of Tai Chi. Instructor Joel Fraley at the Portland Shaolin center says the ultimate goal of Tai Chi is daily practice. Aside from that, there should be no specific destination in mind. You can’t skip a step and leap forward to mastery. Fraley says that “it’s incredible what Tai Chi can help with. Don’t give up on it too quickly. The hardest thing is to do a little bit every day. Be smart and focus.”
Tai Chi and Qigong give a framework for movement that can be applied to everyday life and reduce stress in the mind and body. Because of the gentle movements and poses that make up each practice, the hardest part is cultivating the discipline to do it regularly. But for those who do, the rewards can be tremendous.
Getting into Qigong and Tai Chi at Home:
Before diving into a full practice, you can start on your own with some fundamentals. Both Qigong and Tai Chi are based on the harmony between the two opposing energies of yin and yang. For the purposes of Qigong and Tai Chi, yin=earth and yang=sky, or heaven. These two energies meet within body and Qigong and Tai Chi help balance them. The feet are very important to yin in Qigong and Tai Chi. This practice helps ground the body, starting from the feet: Take a few breaths and feel the soles of your feet. Where is your weight? Try to get in touch with how they feel, shifting as needed. From there, move to your knees, hips, and upward. But don’t forget about the feet! Check in with them again. The goal of this stationary standing pose is awareness–one of the building blocks of Qigong and Tai Chi.
The mental part of Qigong and Tai Chi can also be accessed outside of a traditional practice through meditation. Lie on your back on a yoga mat or blanket and slowly spread awareness across your entire body, starting with your feet. This practice works well with a partner dictating which parts of the body to focus on but can also be done alone.