Qigong comprises breathing, physical, and mental training methods based on Chinese philosophy. People practice qigong for many different reasons, including for exercise and recreation, prevention and self-healing, meditation and self-cultivation, and training for martial arts. While implementation details vary, all qigong forms can be characterized as a mix of four types of training: dynamic, static, meditative, and activities requiring external aids.
Dynamic training involves fluid movement, usually carefully choreographed, coordinated with breath and awareness. As a form of gentle exercise, qigong is composed of movements that are typically repeated, strengthening and stretching the body, increasing fluid movement (blood, synovial, and lymph), enhancing balance and proprioception, and building awareness of how the body moves through space. Examples include the slow stylized movements of T’ai chi ch’uan, Baguazhang, and Xing yi. Other examples include graceful movement that mimics the motion of animals in Five Animals, White Crane, and Wild Goose (Dayan) Qigong.
Static training involves holding postures for sustained periods of time. In some cases this bears resemblance to the practice of Yoga and its continuation in the Buddhist tradition. For example Yiquan, a Chinese martial art derived from xingyiquan, emphasizes static stance training. In another example, the healing form Eight Pieces of Brocade (Baduanjin qigong) is based on a series of static postures.
Meditative training utilizes breath awareness, visualization, mantra, and focus on philosophical concepts such as qi circulation. As meditation, qigong is a means to still the mind and enter a state of consciousness that brings serenity, clarity, and bliss.
In the Confucius scholar tradition meditation is focused on humanity and virtue, with the aim of self-enlightenment. In various Buddhist traditions, the aim is to still the mind, either through outward focus, for example on a place, or through inward focus on the breath, a mantra, a koan, emptiness, or the idea of the eternal. In Taoist and traditional Chinese medicine practice, the meditative focus is on cultivating qi in dantian energy centers and balancing qi flow in meridian and other pathways.
Use of external agents
Many systems of qigong training include the use of external agents such as ingestion of herbs, massage, physical manipulation, or interaction with other living organisms. For example, specialized food and drinks are used in some medical and Taoist forms, whereas massage and body manipulation are sometimes used in martial arts forms. In some medical systems a qigong master uses non-contact treatment, purportedly guiding qi through his or her own body into the body of another person. As a healing art, qigong practitioners focus on prevention and self-healing, traditionally viewed as balancing the body’s energy meridians and enhancing the intrinsic capacity of the body to heal.
Traditionally, qigong training has been esoteric and secretive, with knowledge passed from adept master to student in lineages that maintain their own unique detailed interpretations and methods. Over the centuries, a diverse spectrum of qigong forms developed in different segments of Chinese society, with emphasis on meditative practice by scholars, and gymnastic or dynamic practice by the working masses. Disparate approaches to qigong were merged as part of the cultural change that occurred as China modernized.
In contemporary China, the emphasis of qigong practice has shifted away from traditional philosophy, spiritual attainment, and folklore, and increasingly to health benefits, traditional medicine and martial arts applications, and a scientific perspective.