Qigong is a very new term for a very old practice. The roots of Chinese energy cultivation extend back over three thousand years. They can be traced to the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty, and found flowering in the writings of Master Lao Tzu. Originally, qigong was known as Yang Sheng, a vague term which means ‘nourishing life’ and masters still call qigong exercises by this name today. At the same time, Chinese culture values systemization. In the last century qigong has been classified into four branches: medical qigong, martial qigong, spiritual qigong and philosophical qigong. There’s also terms such as nei gong (internal cultivation), wai gong (external cultivation) and shen gong (soul cultivation). With such an extensive history and multitude of applications, it’s no wonder that there are 100’s of styles of qigong and over 10,000 different qigong exercises.
So, the most common question people ask me is, “What kind of qigong routine should I practice to gain the most benefit for my body?”
Here is what I have gathered from my personal exploration and studies with some of the world’s leading qigong masters:
1. Harmonize your routine with the seasons
One of the main goals of a qigong practice is to align our energy with the energy of nature. When we are in harmony with nature, we are in harmony with our true nature. A simple way to do this is to choose qigong practices that correspond to the five seasons: autumn, winter, spring, summer and late summer.
The five seasons are a result of the alignment of the earth’s magnetic poles within the orbit of the sun. They are Mother Earth’s expression of our interdependent connection to the greater Universe. All phenomena, from atoms and molecules to planets and stars, are composed of energy. We too are energy beings. Each of us has our own unique rhythm; we pulse, vibrate and resonate with the world around us. The Taoists observed and organized patterns of energy into interconnected rhythms called the Five Elemental Phases. Each season is associated with a different elemental aspect of nature—Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, Earth — and corresponds to the five vital organs, five body systems, five emotions as well as colors, sounds, food, herbs and much more.
Seasonal energy runs in cycles, creating patterns of that are stronger and weaker at certain times of year. Therefore, we can use seasonal energy as a special time to support and focus our qi cultivation practice. For example, summer is the peak of yang or rising energy. It’s time to express ourselves, nourish the heart, radiate love and enjoy the light. Summer's polar opposite, winter, is the peak of yin or sinking energy. Animals hibernate and nature is quiet. It’s a special time for introspection, cultivating inner peace and focusing on who we are. The dominant organ of winter, the kidneys is an important organ for conserving life force energy and reproduction. In the spring yang begins to rise from yin, it’s the energy of expansion and growth. This is the time to cultivate your creativity and start new projects as well as detoxify the liver. In autumn, energy in nature solidifies and we too begin to descend. It’s a powerful time to let go of the past, clean out the garage and breathe deeply into the lungs. The fifth season, late summer, is a special phase of energy that is the earth element. It is the energy of stability that supports the harvest period. Late summer is a wonderful time for qigong practices that nourish the stomach-spleen organ pair and to center our energy.
Often our internal energy is disconnected from the external energy. That’s why in autumn people tend to get allergies or get sick; resistance to change and letting go are showing up. This is partly an effect of modern lifestyles. Before we discovered how to turn the lights on, humankind co-depended on the cycle of farming. Now most of us don’t grow our own food, and many people suffer from insomnia and rely on caffeine to make it through the day. In this state of dis-harmony we can pick up acquired energy more easily, get thrown off emotionally by life’s challenges and weaken the body’s systems. This can easily be rebalanced when we align our intention with the energy of the season to optimize our health and true being.
Here is a simplified table of seasonal correspondences:
Lastly, it’s important to remember that the rhythms of the Five Elemental Phases also interact within you every day throughout the year. There is no fixed rule that you must practice specific qigong that corresponds to the season. The point of this illustration is that the energy of nature is always here to support your practice. A good place to start is to ask yourself, “Am I in flow with nature today? Could I expand my connection to nature even deeper?”
You can find the YOQI seasonal routines here
2. Emphasize practices that address your state of qi (purge, tonify, circulate)
The first level of qigong practice is to develop a healthy body. Even in average healthy people there can be some imbalances in the energy system because we do not have control over the toxins in our environment, food sources, accidents and other external factors that put stress on the body. If we respond quickly, we can resolve minor health challenges before they become major illness, often by simply working with our energy and giving the body, mind and spirit what it needs. Therefore, it’s helpful to emphasize practices that address the state of your qi.
Qigong practices are designed to nourish our life force energy for self-healing and to promote longevity. The original Taoists were very interested in immortality, or prolonging life. And not only in this physical body, but in the astral body as well! The result of their experiments with alchemy contributed to the brilliant system of Traditional Chinese Medicine today. The branch of qigong that addresses health issues is called medical qigong. Medical qigong not only focuses on curing dis-ease but on preventing dis-ease from arising and then creating a surplus of energy for optimal health. When our qi is strong we make different decisions from when our qi is depleted. When our qi is depleted, our survival instincts kick in. But when we have a surplus of qi we become more resourceful and can tap into our full potential. We can move more qi, connect deeply to others and share qi to help others.
Every YOQI video contains a colored spiral symbol to help guide you to find the practices that optimize the state of your energy right now. They are Purge & Tonify, Circulate & Refine and Complete Routine. Here is a brief definition of each:
PURGE: Clear and cleanse out toxins, stagnation, tension, stress, mental agitation, emotional disharmony, and repressed emotions
TONIFY: Nourish and strengthen the qi in the meridians, organs, glands, immune system, and seal energy leaks.
CIRCULATE: Irrigate the meridian pathways, infuse tissues with energy, energize organs, recycle energy, build internal power and strength.
REFINE: Transform one type of energy into another type (for example transform depression into inspiration). Raise the vibrational frequency.
COMPLETE ROUTINE: All the above included in routine
You can test the state of your qi here!
3. Practice Quality over Quantity
When I first added yoga to my daily meditation and qigong practice I became overwhelmed with practices. There just wasn’t enough time in the day to do it all. Also, different masters had given me different practices and told me not to do others. Which practices should I do? I discovered the answer at a meditation retreat when my mind was in a state of complete surrender. One morning I stood on the mat with no plan. The mind was still. I stood in pure awareness and began to move. The qi moved itself. The mind moved the qi and my practice took on a new level of quality. I realized it was not about how much I did every day, it was how I did it.
Quality of practice refers to quality of awareness. Without mindfulness, qigong is just energy exercises. It still works, but not optimally. To optimize and maximize your practice, skillful attention and right attitude are required. Right attitude includes joy. Joy is an attitude of the heart, which is an important aspect of mindfulness that is often overlooked. The alchemy of awareness combined with an open heart infuses our practice with a power packed high quality frequency.
Another aspect of quality over quantity is to consider how many exercises to do in a practice, and how often. A qigong master once said to me “American’s love to mix practices”. It’s true, we do. He was referring to what is called energy soup. Mixing too many qigong practices can result in a mix up of energies that leads to a range of experiences from brilliant to ineffective to counterproductive. For thousands of years qigong masters have mixed and designed routines based on specific principles to generate a desired energetic outcome. In medical qigong traditions, a doctor will prescribe 1-3 qigong exercises to be performed up to 3 times your age per day! In Martial Qigong one taijichuan form can contain 72 movements. Your daily qigong practice can range from one exercise and a meditation to thirty movements in a full program. Therefor, you don’t need to practice thirty exercises every day to receive full benefit. Nor should you interchange different programs every day of the week. Qigong cross-fit training usually results an energy soup, unless its specifically prescribed by a qigong master. It’s best to stick to one prescription, program or theme until the desired result is accomplished and then move on to the next. For example, if you are purging, focus on purging until you feel clear. If you need to build up your energy center, do centering practices until the lower dantian is warm and full. If you would like to focus on seasonal energy, then follow the YOQI seasonal program guide. This is also why great teacher is very helpful. A teacher will help you focus on the practices that are most important to maximize your efforts. Ultimately, we are our own best masters, and the intuition brought about through awareness will help you discern what practices are working or not working for you. So will the results.
4. Practice consistently over time
The Buddha said, the mind has the tendency to bend to that which we place our attention. All forms of mastery, from Olympic gymnastics to learning Chinese have one thing in common: repetition. Energy cultivation works the same way. A fifteen-minute practice every day is more beneficial than one hour per week. One hour a day is also very good!
Through consistent practice, the energy body becomes entrained to the patterns we are programming in the system. Healthy qi moves in specific rhythms and patterns in and around the body. For example, figure eights and spirals can be found throughout nature moving tornados, forming seashells and our DNA. When we become stressed or disrupted these spiral patterns become disrupted. We can also get locked into unhealthy negative patterns. The longer we wait to address imbalances, the more entrained they become. So patient, consistent practice over time is the key to unwind, unlock, restore and revitalize!
Ultimately, the goal of qigong is to refine our energy into a body of light - free from environmental, biological and acquired conditioning - and return to our authentic nature. The process to refine qi is not achieved through force, but rather through a gradual process of nature’s unfolding. Qi is moving inside you already, you don’t have to create something that’s not there. It takes time for the body to digest increasingly higher frequencies and high-grade energies. As your qi refines so does your ability to transform negative states into higher virtuous states of compassion, generosity, wisdom, courage. Through consistent dedication to this work, we peel back the layers of the mind and transform a selfish outlook into a deeper connection to all of life.
Would you like access to a video library of qigong, yoga and energy routines designed to guide you through the seasons and move your practice to the next level? To learn more about how you can subscribe to the YOQI video library click here.
May all being be happy, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be free from suffering. Amituofo!