How is Chinese exercise different? What is Qi Gong? 气功
In China, the first rays of light shine on citizens in the park who are starting the day with an ancient tradition of morning exercise. The Chinese believe the best time to wake up is with the rising sun, for at this time the body qi is rising too. You may see plenty of chatting, walking, martial arts, badminton, singing, dancing, feather kicking and gymnastics including Taiji and Qigong. Many of these exercises are based on ancient Daoist ideas of health preservation and longevity.
Soft-style gymnastic exercise has a long and interesting history in China. The gymnastic exercises are called dǎo yǐn, 导引, which literally means ‘guiding and pulling’. They are known as preventatives against old age and sickness, but also serve to cure certain diseases, chronic and acute. Their medical value has caused them to be considered a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), just like acupuncture, massage and pharmacology. Dǎo yǐn was originally developed from a sort of therapeutic dance designed to the ward off the effects of flooding over 3000 years ago. The dances were developed as a means of resolving the congestion and stagnation of vital energy, to ensure its healthy circulation within human beings. The loosening of the limbs and the proper guidance of the qi is one of the essential functions of dǎo yǐn. They confirm to the Daoist principles of blending body and breath, balancing essence and energy. Daoyin became the ancient foundation of Chinese callisthenics and martial arts.
Daoist exercises aim at keeping qi and blood moving and circulating. The focus is internal over external. Nurturing life requires one to keep oneself as fluid and flexible as possible, as illness and disease is thought to stem from this stagnation of energy in the body. Just as flowing water never stagnates and a busy door’s hinges never rust, as Sun Si Miao, the famous Tang dynasty physician explained, natural rhythmic movements are our best protection.
When man is born, he is soft and flexible
When he dies, he grows hard and rigid
So it is with all things under Heaven
Plants and animals are soft and flexible in life
But brittle and dry in death.
Truly, to be hard and rigid is the way of death
To be soft and flexible is the way of life
[dào dé jīng] 道德经
The physical aspects of Daoist exercises are different from western forms. Daoist exercises tend to focus on loosening, stretching and relaxing the body. Where as Western exercises tend to tighten, compact and tense the body. Daoist exercises are slow and rhythmic while western forms are faster and more spontaneous. Daoist exercises also involve controlled, regulated breathing patterns. This controlled breathing and physical movement harvests qi into the body, coordinates mind/body and circulates blood using the diaphragm taking a load off the heart. The Daoists believe that life is not measured in years, rather breaths and heartbeats. Therefore, exercise is not about getting the heart racing and pouring with sweat, in fact, the strongest qi comes from doing just enough to feel warm and with the pores of the skin just opening so that you are nearly but not quite sweating. The focus is more on regularity of movement.
Another significant difference is that Daoist exercises focus on the joints and associated muscles of the spinal column. The spine is considered the largest micro-system in the body and of great importance to the healthy functioning of the entire system. Loosening and stretching these vertebrae and softening the spinal muscles restore optimum nerve and energy impulses to the vital organs.
Physical relaxation during exercise is a prerequisite for proper breath control and energy circulation, which is essential for cultivating strong spiritual and mental powers. The Daoists believe physical relaxation and mental clarity are strongly linked. We can use soft-style exercise to calm the mind and create space, encouraging action from inner wisdom rather than from material consciousness. This type of physical exercise is not only of benefit to the physical body but is linked to mental clarity, coordinating body and mind, essence, energy and spirit.