Is qigong good for kids?
That’s like asking if vegetables are good for kids. Duh. Of course they are.
Qigong is GREAT for kids. In fact, I would argue that qigong is BETTER for kids than it is for adults. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? With kids, we’re focusing on prevention. Or if they do have some health challenges, then according to qigong theory, those issues are less ingrained and easier to solve.
But like vegetables, it can be a bit tricky to get kids to appreciate qigong.
Since many of you are stuck at home and looking for activities, I thought that I would share my ideas about working with your own kids. Doing qigong with your kids will not only be good for them down the road — it may also stop you from going completely crazy.
Let’s dive in.
What age should kids start with qigong? This is the big question, and there’s no easy answer.
For example, legend has it that Miu Tsui-Fa (苗翠花), the mother of the kung fu hero Fong Sai Yuk (方世玉), trained him from infancy in an art called “Copper Skin Iron Bones”.
Miu Tsui-Fa was a kung fu master in her own right and probably practiced some form of Iron Body Qigong. According to legend, she brewed an herbal decoction for baby Fong Sai Yuk and bathed him it it daily. Later, she conditioned the child’s body with gentle strikes from a stick (similar to Iron Body Qigong). As a result, the adult Fong Sai Yuk was reputed to be able to withstand kicks and strikes to his body.
I’m quite sure that you aren’t interested in using this Infant Iron Body method. Good, because I don’t know the method and I wouldn’t teach it to you even if I did. Can you imagine the lawsuits?!?
My point is that there are different opinions about the best age to start a child on qigong. It also depends on the type of qigong.
The Shaolin Temple in China was the birthplace of many forms of qigong and kung fu. It was also the birthplace of Zen. Much of the qigong that I teach today traces directly back to Shaolin.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear how old students were when they started learning qigong. Children, including orphans, were sometimes accepted into the Temple at a young age and taught meditation. Kung fu might have been taught to teenagers. But what about qigong?
Qigong was kept secret even from adults, so it’s hard for us to know. For example, teenagers at the Shaolin Temple were probably taught exercises like the Horse Stance. But were they taught to practice this exercise as qigong, or just as calisthenics?
We don’t know for sure, which means that we can’t really look to the past for answers.
In my 20s, I taught karate in a franchised studio in the Bay Area. I saw an ad in the classifieds (remember those?) for karate black belts and I desperately needed a job, so I signed up.
Of course, much of what I did was just babysitting. As I’m sure you can imagine, kids classes were the bread-and-butter of these karate studios. I taught classes to kids as young as 3.
Years earlier, I had taught young kids to play tennis. And a few years later, I would teach young kids to play violin (more on that later).
All told, I’ve taught kids 4 different arts over the last 3 decades:
- Kids karate
Based on that experience, I offer the following opinion about when to start teaching qigong to children: kids can safely start learning qigong anywhere between 3-10 years old, but there are 2 major factors involved:
- The temperament of the child
- The teaching methodology
Some kids just don’t take to qigong at age 5 no matter what you do. In that case, you’ll just have to be patient.
But even if the child has the perfect temperament for qigong, it just won’t work if you use the wrong methodology.
When I say methodology, I don’t just mean the style of qigong. That matters too, but not as much as your overall methodology for teaching kids.
No style of qigong, modern or ancient, can be applied unchanged to kids. You have to adapt it if you want to be successful.
I’m a big fan of The Suzuki Method. This method, invented by Shinichi Suzuki in the mid-1900s, was originally for the violin. Later it spread to other instruments. In my opinion, it should continue to spread to other arts.
I was trained to teach this method in the late 1990s. When done correctly, it produces exceptional violinists at seemingly-impossible ages. (My parents owned a music school where The Suzuki Method was taught. The results were incredible.)
There are 2 aspects of the Suzuki Method that translate beautifully to qigong, specifically:
- Using reverse psychology
- Playing by ear
If you tell a child, “Now you’re going to learn the violin,” then they probably won’t be very interested. It’s more likely that they’ll resent it, get bored, and fail to practice. This is because the child perceives learning the violin as a chore.
The Suzuki Method uses simple reverse psychology in order to permanently shift this dynamic. In short, the method starts with one of the parents learning the violin rather than the child.
The child is allowed to observe the lessons and the practice sessions, but no suggestion is made that the child might be allowed to learn. This creates both tension and curiosity in the child.
Eventually, the child will ask, “Mommy, can I learn to play violin like you?”
Success! You just outsmarted a 4-year-old! But don’t give in yet. Instead, try something like this: “It takes commitment to learn the violin. I’m not sure that you’re ready.”
It won’t be long before the child asks again. Depending on your own patience, you can continue to use reverse psychology to plant seeds. For example: “To learn the violin you will need to practice for 10 minutes every day.”
By the time the child gets their first violin, they have already been primed. They are ready and committed. And best of all, they will actually ENJOY playing the violin, which is a beautiful thing.
This method has worked for thousands of kids all over the world, on many instruments. I’ve used it successfully for qigong as well. In fact, I think it’s perfect for qigong because most of you reading this are already practicing.
Playing By Ear (or Eye)
Another major component of The Suzuki Method is that children learn to play by ear rather than learning to read music. This allows them to learn the same way they learn a language — by listening.
We can’t translate this perfectly to qigong, but we can get close. Instead of learning by ear, kids can learn qigong by eye.
Mirror neurons give us the ability to watch another human, and then mimic it. This is an ancient human skill, developed over millions of years through evolution, allowed humans to mimic survival skills like tool-making and hunting.
All kids have the ability to mimic. In fact, their ability is uncanny. Have you ever seen a video of a young child mimicking a dance that they saw on TV? Often, they don’t just mimic the big movements but also the micro-movements. The results often seem impossible to the adult mind.
Kids can do the same with qigong. And this should be encouraged.
Here’s my recommendation:
- Have them watch first, but without copying. Just let them watch you.
- Next, have them mimic what you did.
- Go back and forth a few times, adding details like the breathing, the stance, or key points of relaxation.
- Finally, do the exercise together with the eyes closed. (They will peek, but it’s okay.)
Butcher the Form?
If you know me, then you know that a major part of my teaching is encouraging my students to “butcher the form”.
This is critical for adults because it frees them from worrying about the physical form of the qigong exercise and allows them to focus on more important things, like the breathing, softening, and mindfulness.
Qigong is an internal art. This means that the important stuff happens on the inside.
The physical aspect of qigong is less important than the internal aspects. Butchering the form allows adults to stop worrying and to immediately focus on the internal aspects.
This is similar to allowing an adult to practicing sitting meditation on a chair rather than asking them to sit in a full lotus posture.
But how does all this translate to kids?
From Form to Formless
With kids, we need a different method. Kids do better when they have an obvious structure to follow.
Also, they don’t struggle with worrying and rumination the way adults do.
I recommend that you start with the form. Let them learn by eye as I described above.
I also recommend that you treat it like kung fu. In fact, you might consider telling them that you’re teaching them kung fu. I mean, what kid doesn’t want to learn kung fu?
Qigong and kung fu have been intertwined for so long that this isn’t a lie. Qigong is a modern term. If you learned qigong from my teacher’s, teacher’s, teacher, he might have called it kung fu and made no mention of qigong.
Make it Fun
If you don’t make it fun, it won’t stick. We’ve solved part of this by using reverse psychology. But we need to do more.
Learning qigong is not easy. It’s like learning any art, which means that there is repetition and monotony and even boredom. Kids need to persevere through all this.
The good news is that qigong is pretty enjoyable on its own. But you can enhance this by making it fun.
Kids like learning new things, and they like doing a good job. So rather than always doing the same qigong exercise, teach them something new.
If you’re in my Qigong 101 program and/or my Qigong 201 program, then this will be easy. Go back to the beginning of the program and pick a new exercise to teach each week. As you watch the video, instead of thinking about learning it for yourself, think about how you will teach it to your child.
(As a bonus, you’ll be amazed at how much this will deepen your own practice.)
If you’re not in one of those programs, then you’ll have to acquire at least a half-dozen different qigong exercises. You’ll probably need that many in order to keep your kids interested.
Luckily, you can start learning 4 exercises for free from me. In response to the pandemic, I released an entire program for free, something that I’ve never done before. Click here to read more about the free program.
Habit and Reward
Don’t be shy about using your preferred method of rewarding kids. Whether you bribe them with ice cream or screen time or just use words of praise — give them some positive feedback for doing qigong. This will make them look forward to their qigong lessons.
At the same time, don’t worry if they seem ambivalent the first few times they try some qigong with you. Even if they seem bored or disinterested the first time you show them some, if you keep the mood light and your attitude positive, there’s a very good chance they’ll come back and try it again.
Meanwhile, keep up your own daily practice because they will be watching you! Kids do as you do! Lead by example!
Invite them to join you whenever possible. But again, don’t be too pushy or persistent. Just offer an invitation.
More Movement, Less Stillness
When I teach qigong to adults, there’s a good amount of stillness. Of course, we use WAY less stillness than, say, sitting mediation. This is precisely why so many people fall in love with qigong — because the movement makes it more accessible.
The same is true for kids — but even more so. Kids are nuclear reactors and have boundless energy. Maybe you’ve noticed?
So you want them to move. A lot. You can insert periods of stillness, but these should be short and sweet.
What about Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow?
If you’ve learned the 5-Phase Routine, then you’re probably wondering if you should teach Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow to your kids. (If you haven’t learned it, then make sure to go through my free program.)
The answer is yes, teach it to them — but not yet.
Take your time teaching this subtle skill. The truth is that young kids have no problem learning it. They are naturally loose and uninhibited.
If you’re dealing with a teenager, however, it’s a different story. More on that in a bit.
Let Kids Choose
With my adult students, I give them the following advice on planning their own qigong routine:
- Learn the 5-Phase Routine
- Learn 1 or 2 dozen qigong exercises.
- Pick your favorites
With kids, I think the advice is the same, but the order is a little different:
- Learn 1 or 2 dozen qigong exercises.
- Pick your favorites
- Learn the 5-Phase Routine (gradually)
Even if they never learn the 5-Phase Routine, kids will get a lot of benefit from just doing various qigong exercises, especially if they are encouraged to choose their favorites.
This not only empowers them, but they will naturally and intuitively choose exercises that benefit them.
You can even let them come up with their own names for the exercises they like. Let them have a little ownership over it!
How to Teach Teens
I’ve taught plenty of teens in my career. I wish I had learned qigong when I was 16, and perhaps that’s why I’m able to connect with kids around this age.
But that’s ME connecting with OTHER people’s kids. I’m an authority figure, not a parent. Teaching your own teenagers is a whole different ballgame.
Unfortunately, I can’t offer a lot of advice here because I don’t have kids of my own. When I teach teenagers, they show me a surprising amount of respect.
I say “surprising” because the parents are almost always surprised. “I can’t believe she listens to you!” is a common thing I hear from parents.
Reverse psychology probably won’t work on teens. They’re too clever.
Honestly, the best way to share qigong with the teens in your life is the example that you demonstrate — not just with your willingness to practice and your love for qigong, but the results that you get through your practice.
Give it your best shot. Or if you don’t feel comfortable teaching them yourself, then just point them to my online programs. Lots of teens do well even though my classes are geared toward adults.
Or if there’s enough interest, maybe I’ll offer a webinar specifically for teens. (I’m imagining some sort of a live webinar without parents, but I’m open to suggestions.)
One thing that teens can appreciate is the theory behind what we’re doing. They’re smart enough to appreciate this information.
Consider showing them the video in this blog post to pique their interest:
In summary, here are my 11 tips for working with kids
- You can safely start kids on qigong between the ages of 3-10 (later is fine too, obviously)
- Use reverse psychology on kids (but not on teens)
- Play by eye (mimicking)
- Tell them it’s kung fu
- Focus on form first
- Make it fun
- Use positive reinforcement (i.e. rewards)
- Use more movement and less stillness
- Teach Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow — but later
- Let them choose their favorite exercises
- Good luck with your teenagers!
Those are my thoughts. Did I miss anything? Let me know what you think it the comments below. From the heart, Sifu Anthony