as published in Chronogram, July 2001
Qi Gong: Unveiling Eternal Delight
by Cassia Berman
People are always asking me what the difference is between T’ai Chi and Qi Gong. As a longtime T’ai Chi student, I had never heard of Qi Gong myself until Master T.K. Shih, a fifth generation master of Qi Gong and traditional Chinese medicine, came to this area in the mid-1980’s and opened the Chinese Healing Arts Center. He taught T’ai Chi then because so few knew what Qi Gong was. But as students were drawn to him because of the special energy he emanated, he slowly began to reveal to us the endless treasures of this ancient Chinese art of self-cultivation and healing. The information in this article comes from years of study with him, for which I’ll always be grateful.
By now most Americans are somewhat familiar with the appearance, at least, of T’ai Chi, through seeing filmclips of people doing it in parks early in the morning in China, and most recently, even in a tv commercial which has healthy, attractive westerners dressed in suitably oriental-looking clothing doing T’ai Chi by a lake to promote a rejuvenating medication. A series of circular movements that advance in shifting steps in space, to the casual onlooker T’ai Chi looks like a slow, graceful dance but is actually an intricate discipline of relaxing and aligning body, mind and spirit in precise, coordinated movement that takes many years to do correctly. As the commercial’s imagery implies, practicing T’ai Chi does indeed give rise to a peaceful, youthful long life—but as a gradual process of inner unfoldment, not through a dose of medication!
While there are several standard forms of T’ai Chi, handed down through family lineages or regional traditions, there are literally innumerable forms of Qi Gong. Qi Gong can be translated as “energy practice”—Qi (pronounced “chee”) is the Chinese word for energy and Gong (pronounced “goong”) means practice or work. It is the name given in modern times to a broad variety of meditative exercises, evolved over thousands of years, that combine movement, breathing and visualization to gather, circulate, refine and store life energy. There are Qi Gong practices for general health and well-being, to strengthen specific organs or systems in the body, to heal specific illnesses (including cancer), to tone and beautify the body, and even to cultivate special capacities, ranging from healing power to extrasensory abilities to the highest spiritual development. When T’ai Chi is practiced as a healing art rather than as a martial art, it can be said to be a form of Qi Gong. Both arts use the same alignment and integration of mind, body and breath to circulate energy through the body, but whereas a T’ai Chi form has many movements, a Qi Gong form usually consists of one or a few simple movements done repetitively to generate energy, and is easier to learn and remember. T’ai Chi, of course, is done standing; Qi Gong can be adapted to sitting or lying down positions if a person is unable to stand.
What I love most about both arts, aside from the not inconsiderable benefit of real and resilient health they both confer, is the deep sense of joy in one’s own life energy they unveil. They both help you experience, as nothing else I’ve found, the line of poet William Blake: “Energy is eternal delight.”
Qi Gong is actually the most ancient form of traditional Chinese medicine. Thousands of years ago, Chinese sages, meditating in nature, came to deep understandings about the nature of life in the universe that our modern physicists are only now, with the most advanced instruments, beginning to substantiate. These sages saw that all energy in the universe is connected, and they were able to observe how it circulates in the cosmos, in nature and, in microcosmic form, in the human body. They saw “rivers” of energy, now called meridians, which flow through our bodies, and that when energy becomes stagnant or doesn’t flow properly, illness results. They discovered that the flow of energy can be affected—corrected and generated—by the mind and by movement.
From ancient manuscripts we learn that in the earliest times, people did tribal dances to promote the proper circulation of energy. Later, specific ways of moving and meditating were devised to correct particular ailments and to cultivate oneself in various ways. For those who were lazy or unable to correct their energy themselves, the sages found ways to unblock and stimulate energy with needles and herbs applied to specific points on the meridians, and the art of acupuncture was born. But the highest form of traditional Chinese medicine, says Master Shih, is to learn to care for and correct your body yourself, without needing someone else to do it for you.
We hear so much about mind-body medicine these days. Qi Gong is one of the original mind-body medicines—a very simple, practical and enjoyable way to maintain your own health every day, and once you learn to do it, it’s free. When Clinton took office and there was so much talk about reforming the health care system, I remember Master Shih saying, “I would like to talk to the President. If everyone in the United States learned to do Qi Gong, health care costs would go down, because people would be healthy, happy and peaceful, and wouldn’t need to go to doctors so much.” Studies undertaken since then at the National Institutes of Health have documented Qi Gong's effectiveness in healing and minimizing the symptoms of stress, high blood pressure, arthritis, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s and other chronic conditions not easily helped by allopathic medicine. Though we have yet to see Qi Gong taught as part of our national health care education, a convoy of American Qi Gong instructors recently travelled to Cuba and were received enthusiastically throughout the country by doctors. teachers and the general public. Because, among other things, Qi Gong is known to strengthen the immune system, people were hungry to learn whatever they could, and planned to institute widespread practice of Qi Gong to balance the shortage of medicine caused by America’s embargo.
So how does Qi Gong work? In all the many forms of both Qi Gong and T’ai Chi, you will find the same basic principles. First of all, to receive the benefits of “practicing energy,” you need to open your body and mind so that energy can circulate fully. In simple terms, that means relax, which in Qi Gong is a dynamic state: aligning the body, breathing naturally and deeply, and quieting the mind.
It becomes easy to do all three when the mind focuses on certain points in the body. In a sense, learning just the basics of Qi Gong is like being given an instruction manual for living well in a human body. A saying in Taoism, China’s ancient wisdom tradition, provides the guidelines: “The human being is the meeting place between heaven and earth.” This is not just a poetic line of philosophy to ponder with the mind, but a vital instruction we embody and experience as we practice.
~Though it’s obvious that the earth is always somewhere under our feet, in our head-oriented culture it’s something we more often forget. In Qi Gong we learn to consciously connect to the earth, and feel it. Just like trees and plants in nature send their roots down into the ground, we relax the feet with the mind, and send roots deep into the earth. This simple inner action, which brings the mind down through the whole body and “grounds” us in relationship with all that earth is, has far-reaching effects. Try it. (It’s the cheapest cure for a headache, too!)
~“Headtop hanging up”—the image is of being suspended from heaven by a golden thread attached to your headtop— brings the body into relaxed, natural alignment—spine straight, weight hanging downward in harmony with gravity—and opens us to the upper energies that every culture has in its own way termed spiritual.
~The third point, dantien, is the body’s center—about three fingers below the navel, a third of the way in—where we relax the breath, focus the mind, and store the energy we generate through whatever practice we do. Cultivating breath, mind and energy in dantien is the heart of all Qi Gong and T’ai Chi practice, and also has profound healing effects. Breathing in dantien and focusing the mind there easily relieve tension, worry and other disturbances of the mind.
Relaxing in this way, you can begin any Qi Gong or T’ai Chi form, or use this position in itself for standing or sitting meditation. Concentrating on these special points in the body while doing the flowing, circular movements of any of the forms naturally balances and generates healthy energy, as well as calming the mind and emotions. Through consistent practice you develop what Master Shih calls “special something”—as energy flows more fully and correctly through the body, each person’s natural talents and abilities improve, and over the years, a true feeling of happiness and peace emerges, which becomes unshakable even under trying circumstances. Frankly, I didn’t believe at first that this last claim was even a possibility, but over the years of my own practice, and observing my students and other long-time practitioners, I know that it’s true.
But, Master Shih is careful to make clear, Qi Gong training is not only for bringing health and peace of mind to oneself,. At the highest level of Qi Gong, it is a natural progression for the heart and spirit to open, and then this energy can also be used to help others. Qi healing is an extension of Qi Gong practice, and can easily be learned. A Qi healer opens to universal energy and, without touching the body, balances, strengthens and cleans the energy of another. A few minutes of Qi healing profoundly relaxes the client, and has been found useful in quickly taking pain away and reversing chronic conditions of all kinds. A Qi Gong Therapist, on the other hand, learns to prescribe Qi Gong practices so that a client can heal him- or herself, bringing the practice full circle. Both healing arts are taught by Master Shih in the traditional way, as a transmission to small groups of students whose qualifications are having open hearts and the desire to help others.
“Qi Gong can reveal the mystery of life,” says Master Shih. “To have good energy, to be truly healthy, the mind must become quiet and look inward, not outside. Then you will really be healthy, really find peace. If everyone in the world practiced Qi Gong, people would learn to be happy with what they have inside themselves. Then they would not want to fight or take from each other, and they would have good heart with everybody. Then we would truly have world peace.”
Cassia Berman has been practicing the Chinese healing movement arts for more than 23 years. A Qi Healer and Qi Gong Therapist certified by the Chinese Healing Arts Center, she lives in Woodstock, where she teaches weekly classes and private sessions in Qi Gong and T’ai Chi, as well as workshops in poetry and feminine spirituality. She can be reached at (845) 679-9457.
Master T.K. Shih is Director of the Chinese Healing Arts Centers in Kingston, NY and Danbury, CT, where he teaches intensives in Qi Healing, Qi Gong Therapy and other forms of Qi Gong. Master Shih and his family also practice acupuncture, and run an Acupuncture Certification Program in partnership with Nanjing University. He can be reached at (203) 748-8107 or (845) 338-6045.