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In class the other day, a student asked me what kind of chi gung (qigong) we study. She said a friend of hers had been learning a different form and they wanted to compare notes. This is always an interesting conversation, because the term "qigong" covers a lot of different forms of exercise. Literally, it means "energy development" or "energy cultivation". The chief aim of any qigong practice is to develop your natural energy levels, making your energy, or chi, smoother, increasing your capacity to move it through your system or using it for specific applications, like martial arts or meditation.

When you compare different qigong sets, you'll find different models for understanding your body's energy behind each one. Some sets look at the "five elements" -- a theory applied to things that come in phases like the changing seasons. Other sets used the acupuncture meridian model of the body, so they are designed to activate these lines through light touch, rubbing, patting, off-body stimulation, or even imagery. Still others focus on activating the different tissues of the body through movements, big and small, and as the mind moves through the physical body, the chi starts to flow in particular patterns. I teach this last method, so I'm going to explain how qigong works from that point of view.

First, though, you need to understand what we mean when we use the term "energy".

What We Mean When We Say Energy

You probably use the word “energy” all the time to describe things that are not far out and esoteric. You have a much more intuitive sense of your own body energy than you might realize. For starters, just think of what “energy” meant at different times in you life.

When you were a baby, life was a cycle of eating, sleeping, pooping, and laughing. If you spend time around a newborn, you can clearly see the peaks and valleys of energy and rest. That's what we're talking about when we say energy.

What's the quality of the energy that you need for your daily adult responsibilities? If adolescence was all about shaking up a soda can and watching it burst with crazy kid energy, as an adult, you need to let that fizz out slowly. Adult work life, with long hours, 24/7 electronic stimulation, and complex relationships, requires a steady, even flow of energy that you can draw on consistently and deep reserves for when you need to push.

How do you know if you have that kind of chi? And if you don't have it, how do you get it?

First, you have to recognize energetic patterns in your daily life.

Patterns and Cycles

Starting to detect energetic patterns and cycles in your life can sound esoteric, but it's not. In the West it's common to think that energy talk sounds woo-woo and new-agey.

In The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, Shigehisa Kuriyama explains why, as a culture, it's hard for us to accept the Eastern view of the body and energy. Kuriyama traces two medical traditions back to their roots, trying to get at why they went in such different directions. Guess what a cornerstone of Kuriyama's argument is: dissection in the West and no dissection in the East put the two traditions on different paths.

Think about that. If you cut away skin, and you see muscle and bone, won't you start thinking about pulleys and levers and start developing mechanical stories about how the body works? On the other hand, if you couldn't cut away the layers, how you would begin to sense what was going on under the surface? What models and stories would you develop that captured the global patterns you observed? This is the central issue that separates an analytic, reductionist approach from an intuitive, pattern-based approach.

From that point of view, qigong is an internal exploration of intrinsic patterns and cycles, so you need to take an empirical approach and make some observations about your daily energy flows.

Sleep: How easy is it for you to go to bed at night or wake up in the morning? What's your wake/rest transition speed?

Illness: How quickly do you recovery from a cold or the flu?

Food: Observe your eating/digestion/elimination cycle. Does “food coma” kick in every time you eat? When was the last time you had a good bowel movement? I'm not kidding! This is a key piece of information for taking stock of your energy levels.

Work: Think about weekly and even yearly cycles of work and rest or vacation. Do you recharge with two days off? Do a couple of weeks a year give you the juice to complete your annual workflow? I'm sure you sense patterns, annual, quarterly, on a project basis, in your professional field. Why not develop the same sense of flow for your own personal energy levels?

Qigong Enhances Natural Restorative Cycles

When you learn qigong, you start moving in prescribed patterns:

The circularity and repetition allows you to move deeply into the body in a relaxed way. You start to feel things like soft tissue turning and joints opening and closing. The better your physical rhythms get, the smoother your chi gets, and the more your mind relaxes. This is how qigong works on your body, energy, and mind.

There is wide range of qigong exercises, though. Sometimes, the best practice is to do nothing at all and just stand still:

Here, instead of moving the body to slow down the mind, you hold the body still and move the mind through it. It's crucial to make this a felt experience. You don't want to dissociate and go somewhere else mentally. You "run your mind through your body" and find all kinds of internal space.

In both cases, the goal is the same, even though the approach is different: learn to feel the natural flows inside the body, and by feeling, enhance them. When you make these flows strong, the benefits of qigong kick in.