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How to Balance and Maintain the Practice of Multiple Qi Gong Methods by Tom Bisio

Note: This article builds on last month’s post: What Qi Gong Method Should I Practice?   So if you have not read that article/post, it might be helpful to peruse it before reading this post.

By the nature of the topic in addressing the question of practicing different kinds of Qi Gong this post is bit non-linear – the topic is broad and there are no definitive answers, so there is probably some repetition.

A question that has been asked with greater frequency as we have released more Qi Gong and Nei Gong Online Learning Programs is:

I have purchased several of your programs. How does one balance their schedule with the multitude of quality practices available in your programs? They are all so beneficial but a person cannot possibly do each one every day.

A second related question is:

Is there a particular order to practicing several different Qi Gong sets?

Depending on who is asking, this second question refers to either “how do I schedule the practice of more than one Qi Gong set in a single day and in what order”, or, “should I learn Qi Gong method ‘X’ before going on to Qi Gong method ‘Y'”?

There is no easy answer to these questions, because the answers largely depend on each individual’s abilities, goals and personal needs. However, in this post I will attempt to give some guidelines.

Balancing One’s Qi Gong and Nei Gong Practice Schedule

Because I learned a variety of Qi Gong and Nei Gong practices over a period of many years (even decades), usually while learning a new Qi Gong practice I would focus on one method – or maybe two methods – for a period of at least 3-6 months to much longer. So, one approach in learning is to focus on one Qi Gong method for a period of 3-6 months before going on to another Qi Gong method for 3-6 months.

When learning Qi Gong, three to six months is the recommended amount of time to make an internal change that lasts (traditionally – a minimum of 100 days, without missing a day). Once you have done one Qi Gong set consistently for 3-6 months, when you return to it later (months or even a year later), the energetic signature of the exercises is still imprinted a bit in your nervous system, and therefore you are not starting again from the very beginning. In returning to a Qi Gong method you have already practiced for 3-6 months, you will find fairly quickly that you are able to perform the exercises at the same level as before. However with a comprehensive and slightly complex Qi Gong/Nei Gong method like the Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing, one might want to practice it for at least a year before adding something else or moving on to another Qi Gong.

The first Qi Gong sets I learned were Ba Duan Jin (Eight Brocade) and Five Element Qi Gong. Both of these Qi Gong sets can be performed in 20-30 minutes and both are fairly easy to learn, so they are often a good starting point for those who have never practiced Qi Gong before. Once one practices Five Element Qi Gong daily, for example in the morning, it is easier to add a practice like Xing Yi Nei Gong or the Six Healing Sounds in the afternoon, after work or before dinner, as once learned the Six Healing Sounds takes about 15 minutes and Xing Yi Nei Gong perhaps 25 minutes.

Some Qi Gong/Nei Gong sets such as as Xing Yi Nei Gong or Tian Gan Nei Gong are often used as a warm up to martial arts practice, which makes them easier to integrate into one’s daily training schedule: for example, doing Xing Yi Nei Gong before practicing Xing Yi Quan’s Five Element Fists, or Tian Gan before practicing Ding Shi Ba Gua Zhang and Lao Ba Zhang.

Xing Yi Nei Gong prepares the body for the Five Elements by opening up the joints and also by opening the energy pathways of the body and reiterating correct internal alignment so that one gets the most out of one’s Xing Yi practice. Similarly, Tian Gan changes the bones and marrow and teaches correct use of the Yao and its connection to the limbs so that one gets the most out of one’s Ba Gua practice. And, because the Five Element Fists and Ding Shi Ba Gua Zhang are themselves types of Qi Gong/Nei Gong, combining them with a Qi Gong practice creates a very powerful practice. Similarly, Tu Na Si Ba is usually performed before practicing stance-holding San Ti Shi and/or practice of the Five Element Fists.

Tu Na Si Ba, although usually associated with Xing Yi training, also offers many benefits for practitioners of Ba Gua Zhang and Tai Ji Quan. Tu Na Si Ba combines elements of Shaolin Nei Gong/Southern Shaolin Internal Exercises with Yi Jin Jing, Marrow Washing, and of course Tu Na breathing exercises. Every movement in Tu Na Si Ba is infused with the essence of these four practices (without emphasizing one over the others), and they are all present at every moment throughout the Tu Na Si Ba exercises. Hence Tu Na Si Ba is a very efficient practice method for martial arts practitioners, and can also be used as an adjunct exercise for meditation. Although we have produced a book on Tu Na Si Ba and have posted video footage of our teacher Song Zhi Yong performing Tu Na Si Ba, it is better to learn these exercises from a qualified Xing Yi Quan instructor as Tu Na Si Ba is subtle and complex.  The book and the videos are simply educational resources for students learning from a teacher.

Song Zhi Yong performing Tu Na Si Ba – photo by Valerie Ghent

Although Tu Na Si Ba is efficient, it good to keep in mind that more efficient can also means less specific. For example, if you are trying to rebuild damaged fascia and nourish and clean the brain and marrow, the Muscle-Tendon Change & Marrow Washing more specifically focuses on these aspects, while simultaneously developing qualities that are useful for power generation and meditation.

The Muscle-Tendon Change & Marrow Washing is one of the more complex courses and takes an hour or more a day to practice all the parts, which interlock with each other. Depending on one’s goals, some of the Muscle Tendon Change may be performed twice a day and the Massaging/Patting (An Mo Pai Da) aspect even three times a day, so that may increase the practice time to one and a half hours or more. This level of intensive practice is usually performed when you are trying to rebuild damaged fascia and completely nourish the brain and spinal cord, and it is traditionally said to take three-four years of practice.

Although the Muscle-Tendon/Marrow Washing is a bit more time intensive, it can be divided into segments for easier practice, and/or segments can be added sequentially over time.

Supplemental Yi Jin Jing/Xi Sui Jing Exercise

The Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing have traditionally been used by martial arts practitioners to strengthen the body and cultivate internal energy. One question I have been asked several times is some variation of the following: I am practicing Ba Gua Zhang through the online learning program and I also want to practice Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing. The Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing course says it takes 45-75 minutes daily for practice, and Ba Gua seems to require another 45-75 minutes a day to practice. How might you suggest allocating time to each on a daily or weekly basis?

This is a good question and ultimately it depends on how much time you have each day to train. The Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing should be done at least 5 times a week (better daily). Ba Gua Zhang training is more flexible and different sections can be done at different times of the day. The most important parts of Foundational Ba Gua training are the Foundational Exercises (Ji Ben Gong), 12 Standing Postures, Circle Walking (Ding Shi) and later Lao Ba Zhang. One doesn’t need to do all of the Ji Ben Gong every day and they can eventually be done fairly quickly as a warm up to walking the circle holding fixed postures (Ding Shi Ba Gua Zhang). Ba Gua training can also be divided up into segments – practicing some parts in the morning and some later in the day, or even in the evening.

In my own practice I typically would get up early and do the Muscle-Tendon Change, or other internal exercises that take up a solid block of time with focused attention, and then the rest of the day can be flexible. On some days, I might practice a lot of Ba Gua – on others less, or only the essentials. It is good to keep in mind that even if you do only one or the other on a particular day, Ba Gua (or Xing Yi) practice has many connections with Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing. The more you do both, the more they interweave, so you are not losing out by missing a day of one.

In general it is best not to be too rigid, taking a day off and doing something else, or just relaxing, can also be a good thing.

Daoist Circle Walking Meditation

Although the Tian Gan exercises  are generally associated with the practice of Ba Gua Zhang, they can also be very beneficial to practice concurrently with Daoist Ba Gua Circle Walking Meditation and Daoist Seated Meditation, because Tian Gan, in addition to developing certain internal connections for martial arts, also opens up the Governing Vessel and changes the bones. So Tian Gan can facilitate the Microcosmic and Macrocosmic Orbit practices that are part of Daoist Meditation practices.

If time is limited, Seasonal Qi Gong (based on the 24 seasonal nodes) and the Comprehensive Daily Dao Yin can be done in 15 minutes just after getting out of bed, and then it is possible to do one other Qi Gong set before eating breakfast and going to work. Then depending on your schedule it may be possible to do another practice after work in the afternoon or early evening,

Order of Learning or Practice

Addressing the question of what order one should learn and practice a series of Qi Gong/Nei Gong: The answer largely depends on each individual’s abilities, goals and personal needs, so once again it is possible only to give some guidelines.

Five Element Qi Gong and Eight Brocade take 20-25 minutes to perform and the Six Healing Sounds can be practiced in about 15 minutes, so these are very useful Qi Gong sets to practice if time is limited, or at the office on lunch hour.

If one is planning on learning and practicing multiple Qi Gong/Nei Gong methods to preserve and promote health over a period of years, then I suggest perhaps beginning with Dao Yin, Five Element Qi Gong, Eight Brocade, or Xing Yi Nei Gong first, and then perhaps Tian Gan (particularly if one is also training Ba Gua Zhang), or any of the Daoist Nei Gong series (see below), then moving on to more complex practices like Five Animal Play, Seasonal Qi Gong, or sets like Meridian Qi Gong, Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing.

The Muscle-Tendon Change & Marrow Washing is one of the more complex courses and takes an hour or more a day to practice the various parts, all of which interlock and interweave with each other. Depending on one’s goals, some of the 12 Muscle-Tendon Change exercises may be performed twice a day, and the Massaging/Patting (An Mo Pai Da) aspect of the Muscle-Tendon Change, even three times a day, so that may increase the practice time to one and a half hours or more. This level of intensive practice is usually performed when you are trying to rebuild damaged fascia and completely nourish the brain and spinal cord, and it is traditionally said to take three-four years of practice.

    Monkey Play

Although Five Animal Play is a bit complex, with 5-6 exercises per animal, one can create a very powerful and focused practice that takes up less time by practicing one or two animals at a time in accordance with the seasons. For example, practicing the Bear Exercises in the winter to strengthen the kidneys, the Deer Exercises in spring to aid the liver, the Bird Exercises in summer to dispel heat and protect the heart, etc. Or Bear and Deer in winter, Deer and Bird in spring, Bird and Monkey in summer, Monkey and Tiger in fall, and as autumn moves to winter, practicing Tiger and Bear play. This makes it possible to learn and practice the Five Animal Play over a year or more, while simultaneously practicing another Qi Gong like Eight Brocade, Five Element Qi Gong, Six Healing Sounds, or Xing Yi Nei Gong.

Meridian Qi Gong (a course we are currently working on) can take as long as 40 minutes to perform. However Meridian Qi Gong practice can be divided into meridian units that contain four meridians each, which shortens the practice time to 12-15 minutes and focuses the practice on specific energetic units. This can very useful if one is using Meridian Qi Gong to treat a specific aliment or condition, very much like creating a focused acupuncture treatment to balance the body’s internal Qi, and dredge stagnation and blockage. This approach allows one to learn Meridian Qi Gong over time, even while simultaneously doing another concentrated practice.

Tiger Taming Qi Gong (another course we are currently working on) is a medical Qi Gong practice. Tiger Taming Qi Gong is often prescribed for headaches, neck and shoulder tension, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety, muscle tension, or fatigue and chronic stress. It takes 15 -20 minutes to perform and can be performed twice a day. Individual exercises can also be extracted from this Qi Gong Method as quick mind and body relaxation techniques that can be done at the office or in a free moment where one needs to relax the body, mind and spirit. Therefore it can easily be practiced in conjunction with other Qi Gong/Nei Gong practices

Medical Qi Gong

In addition to Tiger Taming Qi Gong, there are also many medical Qi Gong exercises that can be prescribed in groups, or used individually to treat a variety of conditions both internal and external in nature. Some of these medical Qi Gong exercises are individual exercises prescribed for say, shoulder pain or liver stagnation. Others are individual of exercises or groups of exercises that are extracted from classic Qi Gong sets for rehabilitation purposes. A good example is Xing Yi Nei Gong. In my clinic I would often teach patients one or two exercises extracted from Xing Yi Nei Gong as rehabilitation exercises – perhaps just rotating the hips and knees for knee and hip problems, or “Uniting the Original Qi” for shoulder problems.

A second example is the Six Healing Sounds. The six sounds are often performed as a group to balance the internal organs – particularly the Five Zang Organs, and to harmonize the Internal Qi. Usually the Six Healing Sounds practice consists of making each sound 6-7 times in the order of generation of the Five Elements. However, if someone has a imbalance in a particular organ, then they might make only the sound associated with that organ as many as 36 times in a practice session. The Six Sounds are often used this way in the treatment of cancer. Five Element Qi Gong can be used in a similar fashion, extracting one or two exercises in order to focus treatment on a specific imbalance.

Similarly, exercises from martial arts training like Ba Gua’s slow mud-walking step and Xing Yi Dragon (for knee pain) or “Rotating the Hips Strengthens the Kidneys” from Xing Yi Nei Gong (hip pain and misalignment) can be used as remedial ‘physical therapy” exercises.

I teach Five Element Qi Gong and Six Healing Sounds, as well as elements of Shaolin Nei Gong and Muscle-Tendon Change, all as part of Tui Na medical massage training, both to harmonize and sensitize the practitioner’s internal Qi Dynamic, and so that practitioners can teach selected exercises to patients as “homework” that continues the treatment in between sessions.

There are also dozens of individual medical Qi Gong exercises, some more complex like Swimming Dragon Qi Gong for digestive problems, and other much more simple exercises like “throwing the arms backward” (to improve circulation and help shoulder problems) or “hanging the arms and swing in the breeze” (to relieve compressions in the thoracic vertebrae).

Because two or three focused medical exercises might only take 10-15 minutes to perform, they can easily be combined with a more comprehensive Qi Gong Routine or Daoist Meditation practice.

Combining Daoist Practices

The various Daoist online practices taught in IAI’s online courses can be practiced individually, but traditionally they were often used together, and hence have many interconnections. Daoist Yoga, Dao Yin and Daoist Meditation could almost be considered a single interconnected practice. Not only are there many overlaps between them, each of these three practices enhances the others.

The seated and lying down (Sleeping Gong) meditations in the Daoist Meditation course have their natural compliment in the Daoist Ba Gua Circle Walking Meditation practices – one cultivating internal movement and transformation while sitting (or lying) in stillness, and the other cultivating stillness and transformation while walking in circles.

As I mentioned earlier, Tian Gan Nei Gong can also enhance aspects of both seated and walking meditation by changing the bones and opening up the spinal column so that the internal transformation of the Three Treasures – Jing, Qi and Shen – can unfold smoothly without blocking.

Seasonal Qi Gong can also be considered part of this Daoist group of exercises and has many overlaps with Daoist Yoga, Dao Yin and Daoist Meditation. Seasonal Qi Gong was purportedly created by the Daoist Sage Chen Tuan, who was famous for his practice of Sleeping Gong Meditation.

So if one is interested in pursuing a regimen of Daoist practices one can choose from and combine different elements of the above practices with the assurance that that each practice connects to and enhances the others.

Daoist Yoga Posture

Qi Gong “Toolbox”

My wife Valerie and I have taught many Qi Gong seminars together, as well as Xing Yi and Ba Gua. While teaching together we found another idea to be helpful, that once you have learned and practiced several different Qi Gong sets you can also think of using them as a Qi Gong “toolbox” – identifying which Qi Gong set will bring a sense of balance and well-being in your current day, depending on what you are doing and your state of mind. For example, after long hours sitting at the computer even a few minutes of Tian Gan can help open up your back and spine, while Six Healing Sounds can calm the mind and restore balance when feeling distracted or stressed. Similarly while on an airplane – or after a long meeting – some of the Xing Yi Nei Gong exercises are great to stretch the neck, shoulders, hamstrings and back, and when you get home (or a hotel) the Daoist Yoga sequences relax both body and mind while bringing a calm awareness; and practicing Tian Gan quickly and energetically can “wake up” the body.

Be Flexible

It is very easy to get rigid with one’s Qi Gong practice and then beat oneself up if you miss a day, or only do part of your desired practice schedule on some days. This is going to happen, so be flexible, try not to be rigid. Qi Gong is supposed to enhance one’s life, not take it over. Be natural, and do what you can do. One’s needs change over time, hence one’s practices may also, and they should also change and transform over time. Sometimes one does not practice enough, but sometimes a little Qi Gong each day can have a big effect, while trying too hard can causes Qi and Shen (spirit) to stagnate, thereby creating internal blockages.

The more these practices become a part of you, the more you are doing Qi Gong consciously and unconsciously during your daily activities, even walking down the street or while talking with a friend. One of my teachers once said to me that his students wondered how he could maintain his high level of skill without training hours every day. His answer was that when the average person reaches into the refrigerator, they are just reaching into it get out a bottle of milk. However, when he does the same action, he is internally connected and doing Qi Gong and martial arts – ie: he is training all the time.