History of Qigong: The 5 Categories of Qi Cultivation

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We all know that qigong is great for healing. But is there anything else it can do? Like maybe clean the garage? Because that would be awesome.

What if I told you that, in addition to healing, qigong is terrific for building strength, improving memory, and stimulating creative thinking?

What if I also said that qigong can be used to improve your cash flow, and that it is great for building stamina?

And what if, in addition to all of this, I said that qigong can increase the frequency and depth of spiritual experiences?

I know what you’re thinking.

How can one art possibly do so many different things?!?

The answer is simple: It can’t.

The Qigong Umbrella

Qigong isn’t really one art.

The word qigong is actually a modern invention. It is an umbrella term for a slew of ancient Chinese energy arts.

Qi means “vital energy”, and gong means “cultivation”.  To make it more poetic, we might translate qigong to “the art of vital-energy cultivation”.

If you’re curious, the Chinese characters are as follows:

氣    功
qi gong

But if we went back in time and spoke with past masters (in Chinese, of course), they might not even recognize the term qigong

They would understand the literal meaning of the two words, and might get the gist of what you were talking about. But if you asked them what art they practiced, they might answer with another term, like neigong.

Nei means “internal”, and gong still means “cultivation”. So a poetic translation would be “the art of internal cultivation”.

內    功
nei gong

Other masters might have used terms like daoyin or xiu dao.

Still other masters might have called their art by the name of the technique itself, like One Finger Shooting Zen.

In the modern era, we love convenience, so the term qigong has been adopted as an umbrella term for all of these arts.

And this term fits because they all involve the cultivation (gong) of our internal energy (qi).

But it leaves out the many different types or categories of Chinese energy cultivation.

How Do You Take Your Qi?

As I said, the common theme in all of the different arts is that they all involve the cultivation of internal energy (or qi).

But the question is — how do these different arts cultivate the energy?

I’m not just talking about the techniques, but also the specific results you might get from practicing them.

A rough analogy would be Western fitness training.  There are countless different techniques — like heavy lifting, sprinting, isometric stretching, jumping rope, etc.

Different athletes cultivate their fitness in different ways according to what they need.

Just like you can cultivate the human muscular and cardiovascular systems in different directions for different needs, you can also cultivate the human energy system in different directions for different needs.

The 5 Categories of Qigong

Looking at the various energy arts practiced over the millennia, we can see 5 distinct types or categories:

  1. Medical Qigong (also called Health Qigong)
  2. Longevity Qigong (also called Vitality Qigong)
  3. Intellectual Qigong (also called Scholarly Qigong)
  4. Martial Qigong (also called Warrior Qigong)
  5. Spiritual Qigong

When we include all 5 categories, there’s a HUGE spectrum of possible benefits with that single word qigong.

The benefits you get depend on what direction you choose to go with your energy cultivation. But the sky is the limit.

(Actually, the sky is not the limit; your mind is the limit. But that’s a subject for another blog post.)

Okay, let’s define each of the 5 categories so that you’ve got a better idea what we’re talking about.

Medical Qigong (also called Health Qigong)

One of the best Medical Qigong exercises I know, called “Lifting The Sky”

These techniques are specifically designed to help heal all kinds of pain and illness. They are a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and thus a cousin of acupuncture.

If you have low-back pain, depression, or a digestive disorder, then Medical Qigong is for you.

Lifting The Sky and Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow are two examples of Medical Qigong.

Note that I’m specifically referring to self-healing techniques. More recently, the term Medical Qigong is being used for what I would call Qigong Healing Therapy, where a qigong master transmits energy to a patient. But the terms are constantly shifting, so I might need to switch my own terminology to something like Health Qigong instead.

Vitality Qigong (also called Longevity Qigong)

A Vitality Qigong technique called “Three Levels to Earth”

These techniques cultivate strength, flexibility, suppleness, and fitness, all of which contribute to overall vitality and thus longevity.

If you want to be able to touch your toes, or you want to build muscular strength, or you just want to live longer (and better), then Vitality Qigong is a good choice.

Techniques like Three Levels to Earth, Old Monk Takes Off Shoe, and Dancing Fairies are good examples.

Intellectual Qigong

This category covers a lot of ground — from boosting intelligence and memory, to helping with decision-making, to improving your luck (yes, you read that right).

The word “intellectual” isn’t perfect. Sometimes it’s called Scholarly Qigong because it was treasured by the Confucian scholars.

This category incorporates subtle techniques, like Focusing on One, or Positive Visualization. But we can also include dynamic techniques when they are used towards scholarly goals.

For example, if we use Nourishing Kidneys to boost the Kidney Qi and thus improve our memory, then that would be Intellectual Qigong.

Warrior Qigong (also called Martial Qigong)

A Warrior Qigong technique called “Luohan Carrying Water”

Martial artists need speed, agility, and stamina. Courage, mental clarity, and grace under pressure were also of prime importance.

And of course, martial artists need to hit hard. This was especially true in the old days of life-or-death combat.

Examples of Warrior Qigong are all of the zhan zhuang postures like The Three Circle Stance, Luohan Carrying Water, or the Wuji Stance. We would also include arts like One Finger Shooting Zen, Cosmos Palm, or even Iron Palm

Spiritual Qigong

These techniques are great for — wait for it — spiritual cultivation!

In order to cultivate the spirit, you need to cultivate The Three Treasures (san bao, 三寶):

  1. Jing (精)
  2. Qi (氣)
  3. Shen (神)

At least one of those treasures should look familiar to you (i.e. qi). The other two are hard to describe, but let’s translate jing as “refined essence”, and shen as “spirit”.

The ancient Chinese concept is a bit like our modern concept of cultivating mind, body, and spirit.

It’s important to understand that “spiritual” does not mean “religious”. So these techniques can be used by anyone, regardless of their religious background (or lack thereof).

Examples of Spiritual Qigong are Flowing Stillness, Zuo Chan, and the Small Universe.

Vegas, Baby

In the past, most masters were lucky to learn one or two of the categories. To learn 2-3 categories would be like winning the lotto.

To learn all five categories would be like winning the lotto, then taking the winnings, going to Vegas, betting the entire sum on one spin of the roulette wheel, and winning big (while sipping free cocktails, of course).

I consider myself extremely lucky to have learned all 5 categories of qigong. I won big in Vegas.

But many masters, especially in the past, would have considered themselves lucky if they learned 2 levels.

We still see this in the modern era. For example, lots of Tai Chi masters in the West mainly know Warrior Qigong, plus a few Vitality Qigong exercises for flexibility.

In other words, much of the qigong in the West isn’t Medical Qigong.

Obviously, it works pretty well for healing. People get decent health benefits from practicing Tai Chi this way. But if their goal is healing, then their results would be much, much better if they practiced Medical Qigong instead.

Master Pranksters

It’s good to remember just how secretive these arts were throughout most of history. Not only was there no internet back then (gasp!), but books on the subject were almost impossible to find.

Even if you did manage to find a good book — for which you likely paid a small fortune — and even if you also knew how to read, you STILL might not be able to decipher the book.

That’s because classical qigong texts was intentionally cryptic.

For example, a classical text on the Small Universe might tell you to send the energy from Dantian, to Huiyin, to Lingtai, to Baihui, and then down to Tan Zhong.

But even if knew where those energy points were (remember, no googling!), and even if you already knew HOW to move qi in your body (remember, no YouTube!), then you probably wouldn’t have done enough preliminary qigong to have ENOUGH  qi to successfully do the technique.

In other words, unless you already had the skill being described, the text would be relatively useless. 

I’m still trying to figure out who the classical texts were meant for. Were these past masters just pranksters, recording techniques for posterity, but doing it in a way that posterity couldn’t understand unless they already knew the techniques?

Timeless Skills

Don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly grateful that past masters wrote their experiences down, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

I did not need classical texts to learn classical skills. I learned the old fashioned way — through the oral, master/disciple tradition.

I’m grateful for classical texts because when I read them (mostly in translation now since I’ve forgotten most of my classical Chinese), I feel connected to those past masters.

I know exactly what they’re talking about because my experience practicing qigong, thousands of years later, is similar.

And that’s frigging cool.

If the skills I’m describing in this article seem mysterious, please know that they are not. The appropriate techniques can be learned, and the skills can be developed through practice.

If anything, it’s a great time to be alive because we have access to so many different types of qigong!

If you want, you can even learn all 5 categories like I did. You too can win big in Vegas, baby! 

Mindfully yours,
Sifu Anthony

I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world to use qigong for their own stubborn health issues. I teach online courses, and also lead in-person retreats and workshops.

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26 Responses to History of Qigong: The 5 Categories of Qi Cultivation

  1. David Whitham February 14, 2017 at 4:00 pm #

    Great history lesson Sifu and great content thank you

  2. Rachel February 15, 2017 at 9:05 am #

    Yes, a good read! Thanks 🙂

  3. Dolores February 15, 2017 at 9:31 am #

    Thank you so much! This information is EXACTLY what I have wanted, and you did a WONDERFUL job of explaining it! Kudos!

  4. Vera February 15, 2017 at 10:30 am #

    Thank you! I finally get to understand. My teacher talked about zhan zhuang, but when I asked what it means the answer was ” this is what we are doing “. And the talk about Shen , Qi , and Jing in books is kind of vague on what it is for exactly. I have not yet seen this explanation of Qi gong divided in such way.it is great you enlighten us ! 🙂

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais February 19, 2017 at 11:41 am #

      I’m glad it was helpful, Vera!

      • Robert Weingeist March 1, 2017 at 5:18 am #

        What about oxygen as qi

        • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 1, 2017 at 8:17 am #

          Hi Robert. Qi means much more than “oxygen”. The attempt to limit the meaning of qi to “oxygen” is a modern one that tries to sidestep the energy issue. Since I feel qi on a daily basis, and since I’ve also worked extensively with qi in the world of acupuncture, I have no problem translating it as “energy”. That’s the real, classical definition.

  5. Ray MorneauRay Morneau February 15, 2017 at 1:58 pm #

    WOW! Congrats on your big win, Sifu Anthony!!! Thanks for sharing with us! … I think you connect us to “past masters” and I much appreciate that!!

  6. Chris Papadopoulos February 15, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    Yes Sifu, an extremely good and informative read thank you

  7. Sharon Nepe February 15, 2017 at 5:43 pm #

    Thanks for this article. It has made things much clearer. For some reason I thought I had been doing just one category of qigong. I now have a wider perspective and will start to notice what the different practices bring to me. Enjoy every moment of your retreat. Many blessings

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais February 19, 2017 at 11:43 am #

      Thank you, Sharon. We had a wonderful retreat, and my wife and I are now enjoying a few more days here.

  8. Tom Judge February 16, 2017 at 12:09 pm #

    Good morning Sifu,
    I forwarded this to my Grandson in Oregon and he ask If you would be giving us any training in Neigong? I looked this up on the web and it appears to be a very in-depth study of Qi.
    Tom J

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais February 19, 2017 at 11:44 am #

      Hi Tom. Remember that “neigong” and “qigong” are just terms, and there is no set definition. But you have already learned some “neigong” in the way that the word is commonly used. Can you guess which exercises would qualify as neigong?

      • Tom Judge February 19, 2017 at 7:49 pm #

        Sifu, as neigong is internal cultivation I think Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow is doing that.

        • Sifu Anthony Korahais February 22, 2017 at 10:14 am #

          Yes, that’s true. But most teachers don’t know Flowing Breeze, so that’s not what they’re referring to when they talk about “neigong”.

          One thing that most schools of neigong have in common is zhan zhuang, or the Warrior Postures.

          The Small Universe is another common technique.

  9. Jeff February 16, 2017 at 2:23 pm #

    “I’m still trying to figure out who the classical texts were meant for”. This does seem to be a feature of traditional Chinese culture, for better or worse. I have great respect for the Chinese masters, but having studied under a couple of Chinese teachers there does seem to be an element of A) “we want to teach/share X, i.e. qigong, kung fu, because we are worried it will die out if we don’t”, but also B) having a real reluctance to teach the important stuff you need to know to make it work, They have a number of rationalizations for this, but if I may be allowed to speculate, I think it’s just an aspect of their cultural and traditional conditioning to withhold inner/secret stuff. Then they lament that kung fu, for example, has become degenerate. Of course, there are other issues as well, including the quality of students, how well they themselves know the inner stuff, etc., but that is another topic. I will say this, though. For all of Sifu W’s issues, he does seem to have been an anomaly in this regard, at least.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais February 19, 2017 at 11:49 am #

      I think you’re right on several points.

      I used to agree with you about Sifu Wong, but I changed my perspective during my last few years with him. I think my perspective changed because he changed.

      Although he shares secrets more openly with his students (a good thing), he no longer has a high standard for his students. In other words, they’ve got the secrets, but not they don’t practice them hard enough.

      In fact, he frequently pads the egos of his students, telling him how powerful they are thanks to his unique teaching method. Meanwhile, they are not actually powerful, and that’s because they don’t practice enough.

      So the end result is, ironically, the same. But at least the students have the choice whether or not to practice.

  10. Cindy February 16, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

    Like you Sifu Anthony, I too feel connected to these arts when I read the translated classical texts. There is a feeling of being in that era, with the masters in their ancient environment and practicing as a student. The same type of feeling I had as a child when I read a book about pirates. I was the pirate with the patch and the sword. But since I was a little girl, in those days, I was supposed to be the damsel in distress. Yuck!! : ) I liked the action and excitement!

    Now, back to present day, this is how I felt when I first saw your photo on your website several years ago. I felt a connection to you, as though I could feel your energy through your photo. When I realized you offered lessons, I knew it was only a dream to study with you because I would not be able to travel or move and devote the time needed to be a student.

    So, after years of waiting, I was ecstatic when you decided to offer this course on line.
    Once again, you may still feel the emptiness from giving up your brick and mortar location, but I am willing to go as far as stating that their are many students right now, just like me, who are grateful you did. You have made it possible for me to fulfill my dream. Thank you.

    Great article! Keep em’ comin’!! : -)

  11. Joyri February 20, 2017 at 10:42 pm #

    Why did the past masters not learn all five categories?

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais February 22, 2017 at 9:51 am #

      Hi Joyri. Past masters didn’t learn all 5 categories because they didn’t have the option to do so. Qigong has a long tradition of secrecy. You couldn’t just go learn different phases from different masters. You were lucky enough to find one master!

      And most students didn’t even know about the options. Remember, no Google, no YouTube!

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