T’ai Chi and Qi Gong: Learning to be more alive

       by Cassia Berman

 Two ancient Chinese energy practices, T’ai Chi Chu’an and Qi Gong, have been getting increasing attention from Western doctors and the media as good ways for busy, modern Americans to learn to relax, relieve their stress, reverse the aging process and even heal chronic conditions.  Bill Moyers, in the first program of his TV series, Healing and the Mind, featured footage of people doing both practices in parks in China; if you’ve ever seen any film about China, you’ve probably seen groups of people doing the slow, graceful movements of T’ai Chi early in the morning outdoors.

 Most people here enroll in T’ai Chi and Qi Gong classes to improve their health and get some exercise, but they have no idea what a radically different way of being alive in a body these simple movements will open to them.

 What are T’ai Chi and Qi Gong, and what’s the difference?

 T’ai Chi (pronounced “tie jee”) means Supreme Ultimate. A series of movements that advance in space, it can be practiced as a martial or healing art. Qi Gong (pronounced “chee goong”) means “energy practice,” and is usually one or a few simple movements done repetitively, standing in one place, using the mind and breathing to circulate energy throughout the body. Both practices use the same principles, harmonizing mind, body, breathing and spirit in circular, relaxed movement.  When T’ai Chi is practiced as a healing art, you could say it is a form of Qi Gong.

 Both T’ai Chi and Qi Gong teach a special way of standing—relaxing your weight, in harmony with gravity, down through the feet, while keeping the headtop up and breathing in the belly.  Relaxation is the key word, but it’s different than the way we usually think of relaxation in this culture. It’s not slumping into oblivion, but rather the way a cat does it, letting go of tension internally, but at the same time being completely aware, aligned and flexible.

 You learn to relax the joints, muscles, and also the mind.  Rather than letting the mind run through its unnecessary and sometimes disturbing thoughts, you learn to focus the mind on key points in the body.  An acupuncturist might place needles in these points to open the flow of energy.  As you learn to focus the mind on these points, you open the flow of energy yourself. Using the mind in this way tends to make it peaceful, which in itself reduces stress and helps the body regain its health and vitality.

 The movements of both practices are circular. As modern physicists know, energy flows in circular patterns. The Chinese, like many cultures, discovered in ancient times that doing circular movements relaxes the body and harmonizes mind, body and spirit with the energy of all life.

 Breathing in the belly brings in more oxygen. When we were in our mother’s womb, we breathed in the belly, and children, up to the age of about five, still breathe there. When the breath becomes shallower, the body receives fewer benefits from breathing and gradually closes up, stifling our life force. Breathing in the belly, and even focussing the mind there, quiets the mind and brings a peaceful feeling to our whole being.

 There are literally countless forms of Qi Gong—for increasing general health and energy, healing and strengthening different organs and systems of the body, and even for developing various mental and spiritual capacities. There are many forms of T’ai Chi as well, handed down through various families and regions of China. T’ai Chi is considered the highest martial art, because it circulates energy internally rather than focussing outward at an opponent.  For that reason, it also takes many years to develop it as a martial art.

 Qi Gong movements are easy to remember, and one can quickly feel energy and health benefits when doing them. T’ai Chi has more movements to remember, which for some people is a struggle, and for some people a fascinating process. Because T’ai Chi moves in space from one foot to another, it helps improve balance and the spatial sense with which we move and relate in the world. This is one of the reasons T’ai Chi is being recommended for older people.

 One medical study recently reported that whether T’ai Chi prevents osteoporosis hadn’t been concluded. But they could say that older people who do T’ai Chi tend not to break bones—because they don’t fall as easily. However, older people often don’t remember as well, and the simpler movements of Qi Gong, with its similar concentration of the mind down through the body and feet, will bring equal benefits.

 Both T’ai Chi and Qi Gong have long been known in China to reverse the aging process by keeping the body flexible, internally massaging the organs, generating energy, and cultivating a quiet mind and peaceful, happy spirit. Medical studies, both here and in China, are proving this to be true. Studies are also finding that these practices strengthen the immune system, reduce high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, hypertension, back problems, depression and many chronic conditions.

 One of my students, a woman in her eighties who has severe tremors from Parkinson’s disease, finds her body becomes completely still as soon as she begins doing Qi Gong. Another student who suffered from panic attacks was able to visit the dentist soon after beginning to practice T’ai Chi without experiencing frightening heart palpitations. A student with lifelong kidney problems discovered that the intense pain she experiences when under stress immediately disappears as soon as she begins practice, and those pains are becoming less frequent. We were both delighted, one night when she came to class in pain during a time her family was selling one house, buying another and moving, that by the end of class she was pain-free.  A computer engineer in the midst of a career change came to me suffering from anxiety and insomnia. He now practices Qi Gong before bedtime, sleeps peacefully, wakes refreshed, and practices again first thing in the morning, finding it helps him stay calm and balanced throughout the day.

 In my own life, the bronchitis I’d get every winter without fail from my teens through my twenties disappeared, never to return, as soon as I started T’ai Chi.  And a curvature of the spine—lordosis, a condition that can require surgery as a person gets older—straightened after several years of practice. Every year I truly become happier and more peaceful, two qualities I never considered a real option.

 Both T’ai Chi and Qi Gong will help you receive all the above-mentioned benefits and more—but only if you practice them.  Setting aside a period of time each day to practice—20 minutes or more—seems to be the hardest part for some people.  But those who do invest in a rare process of learning to feel more alive in every moment of daily activities, which deepens year by year, well into a vibrant old age.


Cassia Berman has been practicing T’ai Chi since 1977, Qi Gong since 1985, and is a Qi Gong Therapist and Qi Healer certified by Master T.K. Shih of the Chinese Healing Arts Center.  She teaches weekly classes in Woodstock, NY, and also offers private sessions.  She is currently working on a book about these practices.  You can find a schedule of her classes on this Website, or reach her at (914) 679-9457 or cassia@cassiaberman.com.


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