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What Qi Gong Method Should I Practice? by Tom Bisio

One common question we often receive is “what Qi Gong Set should I practice?” I admit, it is confusing as there are many many Qi Gong and Nei Gong practices available to learn, both in live classes or online. Internal Arts International (IAI) offers a number of different Qi Gong and Nei Gong programs online, and specific Qi Gong and Nei Gong practices are part of Zang Fu Tui Na and Traditional Tui Na curriculums where they are used to develop correct internal body mechanics for both practitioners and patients. Specific Qi and Nei Gong sets are also an important part of Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang training.

So where should one start? What order should one learn these practices in? and what Qi Gong Practice is useful for my personal situation? These are all reasonable questions with no easy answers, so the following article is more a set of suggestions and guidelines rather than a fixed and rigid set of rules.

One of the difficulties in answering the above question is that the answer largely depends on the individual person and their particular needs and circumstances. So consider what follows as a set of suggestions and ideas in which the strengths and weaknesses of the different Qi Gong/Nei Gong sets we teach are analyzed. All of these Qi Gong exercises have positive global effects on the body’s energetic systems, however one must keep in mind that how the exercises are performed can modify their effects on the body. So what follows is a general analysis and should not be taken as gospel.

The Qi Gong and Nei Gong offered by IAI (or are in progress) are listed below.

Xing Yi Nei Gong

Xing Yi Nei Gong, created by Xing Yi Master Wang Ji Wu, is a very adaptable Nei Gong set that can be performed by a wide variety of people. Many of the exercises can be adapted to be performed sitting, and different levels of performance are possible. Most of the exercises are not complicated, so it is a relatively easy Nei Gong set to learn.

Xing Yi Nei Gong is designed to promote health and longevity as well as for strengthening the external body. Several exercises open the Ren and Du channels to improve internal Qi circulation, and others target specific organs, although not as specifically as Five Element Qi Gong or the Six Healing Sounds. Other of the Xing Yi Nei Gong exercises engage the whole body internal Qi Dynamic to improve circulation, and brain and organ function, however it does not dynamically work with spinal movement as much as the Tian Gan (Heavenly Stem) exercises.

Because Xing Yi Nei Gong is designed to be performed by Xing Yi practitioners, both as a series of warm up exercises and as a means of forging key structural alignments and internal connections for martial arts, it has a lot of focus on joint mobility and increasing strength and flexibility in the bones, muscles and sinews. Therefore it is a great Nei Gong set for athletes and martial artists, while at the same time it can be used to rehabilitate injuries and realign and reprogram one’s movement patterns.

Five Element Qi Gong

Five Element Qi Gong consists of nine exercises. Five exercises target the Five Zang Organs (Lungs, Kidneys, Liver, Heart, and Spleen) by employing movements that open the meridians, and squeeze and massage the internal organs so that Qi circulation is guided to a specific internal organ. Three other exercises work with Qi Dynamic of the San Jiao (Triple Heater), which regulates Qi and fluid circulation throughout the body and the spaces between the organs. The final exercise consists of four standing post postures that have different effects on the global circulation of Qi. Five Element Qi Gong also subtly works with different segments of the spine and the connection of these segments to the internal organs.

Five Element Qi Gong set is relatively easy to learn and gives back more energy than is expended in performing the exercises, hence it is great Qi Gong practice not only for promoting general organ health and improving organ functioning, but also for those recovering from chronic illness. It can be performed in a seated position.

Although Five Element Qi Gong does mobilize the joints, compared to other Qi Gong sets like Xing Yi Nei Gong or Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing there is less emphasis on movement, joint and tendon strength, and range of motion.

Xing Yi practitioners and Chinese Medical practitioners find Five Element Qi Gong to be very  helpful for gaining the ability to internally sense the Qi Dynamic of the internal organs and their interconnections.

Six Healing Sound Qi Gong (Six Mouth Shape Qi Gong)

Six Healing Sound Qi Gong is a very powerful exercise that creates vibrations in the internal organs that break blockages in the internal Qi Dynamic and improve organ function. These sounds have been employed in Chinese medicine for millennia to directly treat organ diseases. Each sound has a resonance with one of the Zang Organs (Lungs, Kidneys, Liver, Heart, and Spleen). The sixth sound globally regulates the San Jiao (Triple Heater). Making the sound at the correct pitch and timbre effects the organs. This Qi Gong set is also called “Six Mouth Shape Qi Gong” because the mouth shape and airflow through the throat for each sound are instrumental to making the correct sound, and just making the correct mouth shape without the sound has a profound effect on the organ associated with that mouth shape and sound. Adding the sound adds to the effect. Simple movements accompany the sounds and mouth shapes to amplify their resonance with the organs.

Six Healing Sound Qi Gong set can be done by anyone and can be performed seated or standing. One can also just make the sounds without performing the movements. Additionally one can choose just one sound to practice in order to heal a specific organ. Six Healing Sounds is useful for those who are chronically ill or as a daily health maintenance and longevity exercise. It does not include a lot of joint mobilization or strengthening of tendons, bones and muscles.

The Six Healing Sounds are said to be able to treat and cure all kinds of viscera diseases, using these six words can also extinguish irrational thoughts and keep demons far away.[1]

As with Five Element Qi Gong, Xing Yi practitioners and Chinese Medical practitioners find this set very helpful for gaining the ability to internally sense the Qi Dynamic of the internal organs and their interconnections.

Eight Brocade Exercises (Ba Duan Jin)

This classic Qi Gong set may be the most practiced Qi Gong set in the world. Eight Brocade Qi Gong has been practiced for centuries by martial arts practitioners and Chinese physicians and is often prescribed to patients to improve energy, mobility and general health. The eight exercises are easy to learn and for the most part can be performed while seated. Some of the exercises work with specific organs and organ function, but not as directly and specifically as Five Element Qi Gong and the Six Healing Sounds.

Because of its simplicity, Eight Brocade is often the first Qi Gong set many people learn. It does not globally work the whole body like Xing Yi Nei Gong or Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing, but it does mobilize key joint structures and strengthen tendons and bones.

We are working on the production of this Qi Gong course.

Yi Jin Jing and Xi Sui Jing (Muscle-Tendon Change and Marrow Washing)

These interlinked Qi Gong/Nei Gong practices work directly with the fascia (tendons, bones, muscles, ligaments and connective tissue), and they replenish and circulate the marrow internally to improve brain and spinal cord function. Performed together, the Yi Jin Jing and Xi Sui Jing  (Muscle-Tendon and Marrow Washing) strengthens weak sinews and repairs damaged sinews, while simultaneously cleaning the marrow and strengthening the brain and spinal cord.

Muscle Tendon Change and Marrow Washing were purportedly developed by Bodhidharma who brought Buddhism to China, and they are also said to be the foundation of Shaolin Kung Fu. Whatever the origin of these two methods, they have a powerful effect on the fascia and marrow of the body.

Yi Jin Jin/Xi Sui Jing build integrated whole body strength. These practices have been used for centuries by martial artists to improve sinew strength and maintain the elasticity of the fascia. Although Yi Jin Jin/Xi Sui Jing are powerful internal practices that literally transform the body, they are difficult to do correctly and require more time daily for practice than some of the Qi Gong/Nei Gong sets mentioned above. For more information on Yi Jin Jing and Xi Sui Jing you can read a series of nine posts on these fascinating exercises. To read the first post in the Muscle-Tendon Change, Marrow Washing & Fascial Training series: CLICK HERE

Tian Gan (Heavenly Stem) ExercisesTian Gan

Tian Gan exercises are originally training exercises for Ba Gua Zhang. Tian Gan Nei Gong develops a torsional spiraling power dynamic that is very useful for martial arts practitioners of all styles. Ba Gua/Xing Yi Grandmaster Zhang Jun Feng described Tian Gan as developing the innate energy and strengthening the Central Axis (Central Channel) of the body (which includes the spine), in order to connect the Central Channel to the four limbs. Master Zhang goes on to say that “if you practice patiently according to the key principle, you can achieve the magical effect of shedding one’s mortal body and exchanging one’s bones, returning to the pre-birth state.”[2]

Tian Gan exercises develop the power of the Yao and its connection to the Kua and the legs. The torsional movements free-up restrictions in the spine and rib cage and by doing so activate the brain and spinal cord to retard the aging process. Many Tian Gan exercises focus their action on specific spinal segments, leading to increased mobility and strength in these areas.  Tian Gan is also a powerful way of activating Ming Men (Live Gate). I feel that Tian Gan “wrings out the spine”, slowly correcting small deviations in spinal alignment and blockages within the spinal cord circulation.

I find that Tian Gan exercises can help those with spinal cord restrictions and they are also useful for those who play sports that rely on torsional power dynamics like tennis and golf. However Tian Gan exercises don’t target specific organs and their functions as do Five Element Qi Gong and Six Healing Sounds, and they can be a bit more difficult to learn than Five Element Qi Gong or Eight Brocade.

Dao Yin Exercises

Dao Yin is originally the name for what we today call Qi Gong, so traditionally it refers to a broad category of internal exercises and self-cultivation practices. Today Dao Yin is often used to describe self-massage and meditation related health preservation methods. Seasonal Qi Gong includes many Dao Yin practices.

One advantage of Dao Yin exercises is that they are easy to do and do not require a lot of output of physical energy. Therefore many Dao Yin exercises can be done by anyone and can benefit robust individuals, or people that are more feeble or chronically ill. Dao Yin is simple to learn and a easy way to slowly build and regulate the internal energy. Many martial arts master perform some form of Dao Yin daily to help regulate the body and preserve health. Dao Yin has an intimate connection with Daoist Yoga and Daoist Meditation methods and often these three elements are combined together.

Dao Yin is a perfect adjunct of athletic and martial practices or the practices of more active Qi Gong exercises. For those recovering from illness, Dao Yin can be a good way to start to heal the body and get it ready to become more active again.

Daoist Yoga

Daoist Yoga was originally part of the Dao Yin tradition and there is often considerable overlap between Dao Yin and Daoist Yoga. In modern times they are sometimes separated to emphasize different foci. In this modern context, Daoist Yoga movements “pull” and extend the sinews to keep the joints and tissues elastic, flexible, and mobile so that Qi can flow without interruption or impingement. The gentle and rhythmic Daoist Yoga stretches open and unblocks the meridians (channels and collaterals), extends the joints, and lengthens and “stretches the muscles and sinews.” The goal is not to perform great feats of flexibility, but to gently and rhythmically extend the sinews, stretch the meridians and open up the joints, much like a cat stretching out its whole body in slow, relaxed movement. A balance of seated, lying and standing exercises both strengthen the body and increase flexibility. While not as dynamic as some other Qi Gong sets, one advantage of Daoist Yoga is that the movements can be done sitting and lying on the floor.

Five Animal Play

Five Animal Play has its roots in ancient exercises described as early as the 2nd century. As its name implies, Five Animal Play attempts to imitate the natural movements of animals to heal and regulate the body and increase longevity. The five animals – Bear, Deer, Bird, Tiger and Monkey – have specific relationships to the five Zang organs (Kidney, Liver, Heart, Lungs, and Spleen). There are many versions of Five Animal Play that stretch and move the body in different ways. Some versions are more dynamic and others more static. One interesting aspect of Five Animal Play is that it probably evolved from ancient shamanic practices. This element clearly comes out in practice. Adopting repeatable animal patterns and forms allows one to transform and partake of the specific power and abilities of each animal, thereby providing a means of self-transformation and transcendence.

The Five Animal Play Taught by Internal Arts International comes through several Xing Yi Quan lineages. When practicing this method, it is easy to see how much this version of Five Animal Play relates to Xing Yi body principles and footwork. The relationship to Xing Yi Quan is particularly evident in the emphasis on different stepping patterns for the different animals  that express the power and movement for each animal. Some of the movements also resemble the Xing Yi Animal Forms.

In this version of Five Animal Play, each animal has a unique walking step that activates a different organ and meridian system, and each modulates the movement of the Qi in specific ways that are congruent with the principles of Chinese medicine. With five stepping patterns and 25 exercises, Five Animal Play takes the body through a wide variety of movements and internal body dynamics. It is challenging set of exercises and much more complex than Qi Gong sets like Five Element Qi Gong and Xing Yi Nei Gong.

Daoist Circle Walking Meditation

Daoist Circle Walking Meditation is an inner alchemical Nei Dan practice that employs non-martial postures and movements that circulate Qi through the “Waterwheel” (the Microcosmic Orbit), while walking a circle with Ba Gua footwork patterns Activating this inner circulation recharges the body’s internal “battery” and dispels negative emotions, while restoring a sense of harmony and unity. Yi Jing diagrams are sometimes visualized to understand and harmonize with the energy configurations unfolding in the body. Some practitioners refer to Daoist Circle Walking Meditation as “Monastic Ba Gua” in order to differentiate it from the martial aspects of Ba Gua Zhang.

Ba Gua Circle Walking Meditation has several components, all of which open the energy gates and guide you into a deep meditative state as you walk, turn, and circle smoothly and effortlessly. Rotating and walking harmonizes the body’s energies with the cyclical circular movements of the earth, the stars and the planets. This connects us to the natural forces of which we are a part. In turn, this connection allows the mind to become quiet and tranquil, so the heart becomes calm and relaxed, and the spirit becomes rooted and serene.

Circle Walking Nei Gong is more complex than Qi Gong sets like Dao Yin, Daoist Yoga, Five Element Qi Gong.

Seasonal Qi Gong

The creation of Seasonal Qi Gong is attributed to Daoist adept Chen Tuan. Chen Tuan’s genius and deep insights into the natural world allowed him to expand upon earlier ideas about seasonal health and Qi Gong in order to create the 24 Seasonal Node Qi Gong. The theory behind this Qi Gong is based on energy shifts that occur every 14-15 days, based largely on the position of the sun relative to earth. There are 24 exercises; one for each approximately 2-week period (Seasonal or Solar Node). These exercises harmonize the body with the seasonal energies in order to keep the practitioner healthy throughout the year. Not only does each exercise both prevent and treat diseases that can occur at a particular two–week period, but by performing this exercise at the appropriate seasonal node one is able to take advantage of the pulsation of Cosmic Qi manifesting at that particular time. This allows one to “ride” the energetic momentum and impetus generated by the arrival of each Seasonal Node in order to address chronic diseases that are already manifesting, or to short circuit disease mechanisms that are already in progress, but not yet manifest. Seasonal Qi Gong recharges the body and attune body, mind and spirit and connects one with with the ongoing cycles of change in the natural world.

Seasonal Qi Gong is easy to do and has many overlaps with Dao Yin, Daoist Meditation and Daoist Yoga, and it can easily be combined with these practices. For the most part, the Seasonal Qi Gong exercises can be done in 10-15 minutes.

Tiger Taming Qi Gong

Tiger Taming Qi Gong is set of traditional exercises that regulates the body and calms the mind and spirit. In hospitals of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tiger Taming Qi Gong is traditionally prescribed for health issues such as: hypertension, asthma, headaches, a sense of heat in the head, chronic stress, anxiety, mental restlessness and insomnia. Although often used for hypertension and headaches (both signs of Qi rising upward) Tiger Taming Qi Gong can also be used to counteract the effects of chronic stress,  being on the phone too much and overuse of the computer or tablet, and feeling the need to be constantly in touch and engaged. This outward focused attention pulls on the body’s reserves of energy and can lead to chronic stress, anxiety and fatigue. Tiger Taming Qi Gong can be done in less than twenty minutes and is specifically designed to counter the effects of rising Qi and stress. Several of the exercises can be done as five-minute stand alone exercises that immediately start to calm down the nervous system and balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. We are working on the production of this Qi Gong Course.

Meridian Qi Gong

Meridian Qi Gong is powerful Qi Gong practice that dredges and opens the channels and collaterals (meridians – Jing Luo) while simultaneously creating a deep connection with the meridian pathways and their internal and external branches. This is a great way to really learn about acupuncture points, the pathways of the meridians, and the interrelationship or the meridians while simultaneously improving health and preventing disease. Meridian Qi Gong incorporates elements of Dao Yin and Tai Ji Quan as well as packing Qi into Dan Tian. Admittedly, this Qi Gong set is a bit complex to learn, however it is ideal for acupuncture students who are learning acupuncture points and the channels and collaterals, as well as martial arts and Qi Gong practitioners who are interested in learning more about the meridian system. We are working on the production of this Qi Gong Course.

 

Notes:

[1] The Immortal: True Accounts of the 250-Year-Old-Man Li Qingyun, Yang Sen. Translated by Stuart Alve Olsen (Phoenix, AZ: Valley Spirit Arts, 2014) p. 80

[2] Blurred Boundaries: A Martial arts Legacy and The Shaping of Taiwan. Hong Ze-Han (Wolfeboro, NH: YMMA Publication Center Inc., 2023) p. 168.