“I’ll answer your question,” I said.
Here’s what I didn’t say: “This answer is going to get me into trouble!”
I was in Orlando, Florida speaking with a new student. I’ll call her Martha.
We were breaking for lunch during one of my qigong workshops. She approached me to ask a question.
“Which qigong exercise should I practice for ______ ,” she asked.
I don’t remember her exact condition, honestly. It was years ago, and I get this question so often that they all start to blend together.
For example, here are some common variations:
- Which qigong exercise should I practice for chronic knee pain?
- Which qigong exercise should I practice for Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
- Which qigong exercise should I practice for anxiety attacks?
- Which qigong exercise should I practice for diabetes?
- Which qigong exercise should I practice for Parkinson’s Disease?
The examples above are from actual emails, messages, and voicemails that I’ve received in the past month.
If I receive that many in a month, just imagine how many I’ve received since I started teaching in 2005!
X Exercise for Y Problem?
Look, Martha’s question was fair. And so were all the similar questions I’ve received over the years.
And I want to answer these questions honestly. I really do!
But I know you’re not going to like the honest answer.
You want my answer to sound something something like this:
“Yes, if you practice Black Crow Teases Miniature Schnauzer for 10 minutes per day, then your _____ problem will magically go away in 6 weeks!”
But I’m not going to say that because it’s not true.
It’s more complicated than that.
The reason it has taken me almost 10 years to write a blog post on this subject is because the honest answer is also the more complex answer.
The honest answer is not only complex, but it will also get me into trouble.
Like it did with Martha.
The Inconvenient Truth
Look, I know you just want to get results with ____ problem.
To do that, to actually get results in the real world (as opposed to fantasy land), we need to dig a little deeper.
Back to Martha.
Before the workshop, Martha mentioned that she had already learned qigong from a Chinese teacher.
Here’s what you need to know about Martha’s qigong: It was truly awful.
I’m not talking about her form. I couldn’t care less about that.
A student from another teacher can have totally different techniques than mine, but I can still recognize the skill underneath — if it’s there.
With Martha, it wasn’t there. Nada.
Maybe she was just a new student, or maybe she hadn’t learned deeply enough from her other teacher.
It was clear to me that she was practicing qigong purely on a physical level, with zero awareness of the internal aspects.
This is ironic because that’s the exact opposite of how I teach.
If you’ve ever done a workshop with me, then you know that I often say this:
“You have my permission to butcher the form!”
Despite this, Martha was STILL obsessed with the form. She kept opening her eyes during meditative sessions, watching me like a hawk as I demonstrated the exercises, and asking irrelevant questions about the physical form.
All of my teaching about the internal secrets of qigong were lost on her.
We can, and should, learn from Martha’s mistake.
Here’s the lesson to be learned: There is much more to qigong than just the physical form.
I’ll explain that in a moment, but first, let’s back up a bit.
The 5 Categories of Qigong
There are thousands of styles, but all of them fall into one or more of the following 5 categories
- Medical Qigong
- Longevity Qigong
- Scholarly Qigong
- Martial Qigong
- Spiritual Qigong
Lots of schools, like mine, cover all five categories. Other schools focus on just two or three categories (which is not a slight on them at all).
If you are practicing the 1st category, then your art should follow the principles of classical Chinese Medicine.
Makes sense, right?
But how do you know if it’s Medical Qigong?
If you’re asking me questions about medical conditions, then it’s Medical Qigong!
For example: “Which qigong exercise should I practice for acid reflux?”
That’s a medical condition.
By default, if someone asks me which exercises to practice for _____ problem, then they’re asking about Medical Qigong.
How Chinese Medicine Gets Me Into Trouble
Here’s where I often get into trouble.
If you’re teaching Medical Qigong, then you’re practicing a branch of Chinese Medicine.
Good! I believe the world could use more Chinese Medicine, especially Medical Qigong!
But if you’re simply telling students that X exercise will fix Y symptom, then you don’t know squat about Chinese Medicine.
Chinese Medicine is many things with many branches and many variations, and not everyone agrees on all of the classical principles.
But if there’s one thing that everyone agrees on, it’s this:
Chinese Medicine is holistic.
In fact, this is the defining characteristic of the medicine. Thousands of years before we in the West had any clue of holistic medicine, the Chinese were perfecting it.
What does holistic mean?
- characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and emotional factors, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease.
If you are prescribing physical qigong exercises for symptoms like back pain, if you aren’t treating the whole person and taking their mind and emotions into account — then it’s not holistic.
And if it’s not holistic, it ain’t Chinese Medicine.
I’m not saying anything radical here. Pretty much any professor from any acupuncture college would agree with me.
But it still gets me into trouble with other qigong teachers and students.
Here’s why: The truth raises uncomfortable questions about qigong teachers and their understanding of Chinese Medicine (or lack thereof).
But My Master Said…
Martha was aghast after I tried to explain all of this to her.
Her response was a typical one: “But my master said that….”
I’d be happy to discuss her master’s theories and compare them to the fundamental principles of Chinese Medicine. But that’s not really what she was saying.
What she was REALLY saying was this: “I refuse to believe that my master, who is Chinese and has a really cute accent, could possibly be wrong!!”
This is a widespread phenomenon in the qigong and tai chi community.
(To be fair, this phenomenon also exists in many martial arts, yoga, and sitting meditation communities as well.)
And it’s not just the students. It’s the teachers too!
Far too many qigong teachers are brimming with ego and bravado. I know of one qigong master who — as a matter of policy — never admits when he’s wrong. He firmly believes that it’s bad for the students’ morale if they see that he’s fallible!
With attitudes like that, no wonder Martha was unable to accept that her teacher might be wrong!
As you might expect, these teachers and their students don’t really take kindly to me raising uncomfortable questions about their methods.
Sadly, the reaction from them is almost always the same: Mudslinging.
Have at it. Stick and stones. I’ve developed a thick skin over the years.
Here’s a pro tip for you: When a teacher presents himself as infallible, when the students believe he’s never wrong, and when all of them choose to sling mud rather than discuss theory and philosophy — that’s your cue to walk away.
That is — if you want the truth. If you prefer a comfortable lie, then, by all means, stop reading now because I am DEFINITELY not the teacher for you.
What REALLY Matters in Qigong
Some teachers might argue that ALL qigong is holistic and that prescribing X exercise for Y condition still follows the principles of Chinese Medicine.
Actually, I almost agree with this argument. Almost.
Here’s my corrected version of that argument:
All medical qigong that is practiced as an INTERNAL ART is holistic.
If you’re practicing Medical Qigong exercises, but you’re just doing the physical motions — then it’s not an internal art, and it’s not holistic medicine.
Here’s what really matters: With qigong, what happens on the inside is FAR more important than what happens on the outside.
This is a fundamental truth about qigong that people like Martha seem to miss.
An analogy may help you to understand.
Imagine 2 people practicing zuo chan (sitting meditation). One of them is sitting in the perfect double lotus meditation posture. The other is sitting on a chair.
Which one of them will get better results?
The answer is that it depends on who is actually meditating!
What if the person in the perfect lotus posture is just thinking with his eyes closed?
Just like in qigong, the physical aspect of sitting meditation is the least important thing for getting results.
With Martha, I knew that even if I gave her the absolute best qigong technique for her problem, it wasn’t going to help much.
I knew that she would take that technique and perform it on a physical level, ignoring the internal aspects of qigong.
In other words, I knew that she was barking up the wrong tree.
The 4 Primary Skills
All this talk about X exercise for Y problem ignores the elephant in the room — the issue of skill in qigong.
Skill is invisible and internal, but it’s what REALLY matters if you want to get results with qigong.
Do you want to get health benefits from your qigong? Then ask yourself the following 4 questions:
- Are you able to relax your body, clear your mind, smooth your emotions, and tune in to your qi (energy)?
- Are you able to get your qi circulating through the 12 primary meridians?
- Are your meridians, your limbs, and your vertebrae properly aligned?
- Are you able to gather more qi into your energy system?
All of these things are skills. In fact, those 4 questions highlight the 4 primary skills of qigong, which are:
- Discovering the Qi
- Circulating the Qi
- Aligning the Qi
- Gathering the Qi
(Note that other teachers might use different terminology, but we’re all referring to the same fundamental skills.)
“Gathering the Qi” is not a technique. It’s a skill. If you have that skill, then you can use any of the following techniques to gather more qi:
- The Wuji Stance
- Hugging the Tree
- Monk Gazing at the Moon
- Holding the Full Belly
- Dragons Embracing the Sun
- Unicorn Holding the Moon
- Playing the Lute
- White Crane Spreads Wings
- Golden Bridge
- One Finger Shooting Zen
- Cosmos Palm
These are just techniques from my school. Other schools would have dozens of other techniques for gathering the qi.
In other words, the skill of Gathering the Qi is not imprisoned inside a specific technique or posture.
Here’s a quote that I love:
”For the unskilled, the best technique won’t help. For the skillful, even an inferior technique will suffice.” – Ke An Dao
Like that quote?
I like it too. That’s because I made it up. Ke An Dao is my Chinese name.
So Wait, Which Exercises Should I Practice?!?!
This isn’t my first rodeo.
Even after this lengthy explanation, I know that people will send me emails asking what exercise they should practice.
Want a simpler answer?
Let’s pretend that you’ve just asked me which qigong exercises you should practice for ______ condition.
Here’s my answer, no matter what you put in that blank:
For ______ condition, you should practice the following 12 exercises:
- Entering Zen
- Smiling from the Heart
- Lifting The Sky
- Pushing Mountains
- Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow
- Flowing Stillness
- Consolidating Qi at Dantian
- Washing the Face with Both Hands
- Combing the Hair with the Fingers
- Massaging the Vital Points
- Rubbing Two Coins
- 24 Heavenly Drums
My students will get the joke here. It’s a trick answer.
The exercises I just described form the basis of my 5-Phase Routine. Except for #3 and #4, we do all of these exercises during EVERY practice session.
Instead of #3 and #4, we might insert several other exercises. In fact, my best advice is for you to chose your favorite exercises.
But we always do the other 10 exercises.
Meanwhile, far too many qigong practitioners and teachers are ONLY concerned with #3 and #4. That’s it. Just those 2 parts of the larger equation.
In other words, they’re focusing on 1/6th (i.e. 2/12ths) of the equation. And that 1/6th isn’t even the most important part!
Looking at the exercises above, most of them focus on INTERNAL skills rather than external ones.
- Entering Zen and Smiling from the Heart get us into a meditative state.
- Lifting The Sky and Pushing Mountains are dynamic qigong exercises that help get our energy flowing.
- Flowing Breeze Swaying Willow is a subtle skill that circulates the qi through the meridians.
- Flowing Stillness and Consolidating Qi at Dantian help us store qi at or natural energy center.
- And #8-12 are part of what we call the Closing Sequence, a self-massage sequence that helps us transition back from a meditative state and also brings energy to the eyes and face.
I should mention that all of the exercises/skills listed above are taught in my online program called Qigong 101: The Art of Healing for Busy People.
People absolutely love this program. No really. Here’s some unsolicited praise from students in the program:
“I appreciate your systematic way of teaching. I have tried learning qigong from two other instructors in the past without great results. With your method, I feel I am making real progress and things are starting to make so much more sense to me!” – Holly Blackburn
“I have been excited about qigong since the first month of this course. It has been a wonderfully transforming experience to feel the positive effects of practicing every day and learning new ideas. Thank you, Sifu Anthony. Your work is certainly changing my life in amazing ways.” – Susan Kaye
This program focuses on SKILL, not just technique.
Practical Next Steps
We’ve covered a lot of theory in this article. In a follow-up article, I’ll talk about practical next steps.
I’ll tell how to choose exercises appropriate for your situation, and also which 2 questions you should ask yourself before making any decisions.
Questions? Comments? Have something to add to the discussion? Go ahead and comment below, I’d love to hear from you! From the heart, Sifu Anthony