“I tried qigong, but it didn’t work for me,” she said.
This is my nightmare. This is what wakes me up at night screaming “NOOOOOOO!” like Luke Skywalker after he found out that Darth Vader was his father.
I want people to fall in love with qigong. I want them to have an amazing, positive experience with this beautiful art. I want them to get the many health benefits of qigong for themselves.
And they can do exactly that, but there are some pitfalls to avoid along the path.
If you avoid these traps, then qigong will work wonders for you.
In Western civilization, one of the biggest traps is treating qigong like calisthenics.
In this article, I’ll explain why qigong is fundamentally different than calisthenics, and how to avoid this common trap so that you can get the benefits you deserve.
What Are Calisthenics?
First, let’s define calisthenics:
exercises consisting of a variety of gross motor movements—running, standing, grasping, pushing, etc.—often performed rhythmically and generally without equipment or apparatus. They are, in essence, body-weight training. They are intended to increase body strength, body fitness, and flexibility, through movements such as pulling or pushing oneself up, bending, jumping, or swinging, using only one’s body weight for resistance; usually conducted in concert with stretches. [from Wikipedia]
Let me be absolutely clear that calisthenics are a good thing.
Many, many people — especially in the US where obesity and inactivity are becoming epidemics — could benefit from calisthenics.
But I didn’t dedicate my life to the art of calisthenics. I dedicated my life to the art of qigong, and with good reason.
Calisthenics Didn’t Heal My Depression
Calisthenics didn’t save my life. Qigong did.
Specifically, it saved me from an illness that has killed more people in the 21st century than all of the global wars combined.
I’m talking about Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), or clinical depression.
Although there’s evidence suggesting that regular exercise and calisthenics can help with depression, those things didn’t work for me.
I was in my 20s when I was diagnosed.
At the time, I was already a black belt in Karate, I could crank out 50 knuckle pushups like it was nothing, and I probably could’ve gotten a job modeling men’s underwear because I had amazing, washboard abs.
I also had depression, low-back pain, a weak immune system, and anxiety.
Calisthenics are great, but they didn’t help me to heal.
It was qigong — REAL qigong — that helped my body to finally heal, not calisthenics.
The Yoda of Yoga
Before we talk about what real qigong is, let me tell you what it isn’t.
To do that, I’ll tell you a quick story.
I heard this story from a friend who, interestingly, now practices qigong rather than yoga. Since I seem to be on a Star Wars theme today, we’ll call him Luke.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, Luke was living in an ashram in India. He was there to learn from a famous yoga master.
While he was there, a young American yoga teacher came to visit the ashram. We’ll call him Han.
Han requested an audience with the guru, and it was granted. While the guru and many disciples watched, Han proceeded to demonstrate several advanced yoga postures.
You know — those pretzel-like ones that you and I will never be able to do.
After getting into one of these poses, Han would glance at the guru, presumably looking for approval.
This went on for a while, with the guru saying nothing. The silence was thick and tense.
Finally, the American stopped posing and asked, “Master, what did you think of my yoga?”
The master paused for a moment before responding. Then he spoke.
“I have not seen you do any yoga yet,” he said.
BOOM! Best answer ever! That guru was like the Yoda of yoga.
If this answer confuses you, then here’s what he was conveying with his ingenious comment:
- Yoga is more than just going through poses.
- Yoga is an internal art.
- If you’re constantly glancing at someone while doing poses, then you’re obviously not practicing it as an internal art and thus you’re not really doing yoga.
That Ain’t Qigong
These days, yoga has gotten so muddled with calisthenics that the guru’s message is almost completely lost. It’s sad, but many people view yoga as Indian calisthenics, completely ignoring the internal aspects of the art.
And the same thing is starting to happen with qigong.
Qigong is becoming more and more popular, and that’s a wonderful thing! In fact, I believe qigong will one day be bigger than yoga.
But popularity brings its own problems.
Like with yoga, many people don’t understand that qigong is an internal art.
When someone says, “I tried qigong, but it didn’t do much for me,” it makes me want to scream because what they did most likely wasn’t qigong.
They were just doing bad calisthenics.
Often, these are the same people who ask which exercise they should practice for X problem and then expect that exercise to fix their problem in just 3 weeks.
In the West, we have no point of reference for an art like qigong.
When we see the slow, gentle exercises of qigong we have nothing from our culture to compare it to. So we just compare it to calisthenics.
Here’s an example from my recent retreat in Costa Rica:
From a Western perspective, an exercise like this makes no sense. How could something like that make you healthier?
It’s too gentle, too soft, and too simple.
Even when compared to yoga, qigong is gentler.
With yoga, if you ignore the guru’s advice from above and you practice it as calisthenics, you’ll still get some health benefits.
Anyone who has accidentally wandered into an “All Levels” yoga class knows just how challenging it can be.
That shit is hard!
I think that many people who practice yoga KNOW that they’re just doing it as calisthenics rather than an internal art.
But they’re still getting results because calisthenics are good for you! Duh.
The Secret of Both Qigong and Tai Chi
With qigong, it’s different. There are many styles of qigong, and some are more vigorous than others.
But all of them are built on a foundation of softness and relaxation.
If you were learning qigong in Mandarin Chinese, then virtually every teacher would say the same 2 words over and over, regardless of the style:
fang song (放 松)
This simply means “loosen and relax”.
Even if you were doing a tai chi form, which is more complex and usually more vigorous than qigong, you would still hear fang song repeated over and over.
(If you’re not clear about the difference between qigong and tai chi, then this article will help.)
Both tai chi and qigong aim to get the qi, or internal energy, flowing smoother and smoother.
And to do this, to get your qi flowing smoother, you need to practice fang song.
Softness vs. Calisthenics
This concept of softness is not found in calisthenics nor in yoga.
Savasana (Corpse Pose) is the closest thing I’ve found in the yoga tradition, but it’s characteristically different because it’s done lying down rather than standing.
If you try to fang song (loosen and relax) in yoga like we do in qigong, your teacher will not be happy.
And fang song is even more foreign in calisthenics.
Relax while doing pushups? No way! Tense yours muscles and your core!
Keep heart rate low? No way! Get it up into the target zone!
Really, qigong and calisthenics couldn’t be more different in their approach.
This is good news for people who hate calisthenics.
The truth is that many people come to qigong precisely because they hate calisthenics. And that’s fine!
As long as you’re doing REAL qigong, you’ll still get results even if what you’re practicing is super gentle.
What Is Real Qigong?
What is qigong then? I’m glad you asked! Let’s start with a simple definition.
An ancient Chinese mind-body practice that cultivates the internal energy, or qi, to restore wellness, build mental and emotional strength, reduces stress, and increases vitality.
The key words in there are:
This is similar to what the guru was trying to tell the American about his yoga. And that’s what I’m trying to tell you.
Here’s a simple way to tell if you’re doing REAL qigong, or just calisthenics.
Can you get results with a simple, gentle exercise like Gathering Qi from the Cosmos?
(If you don’t know this exercise and you’d like to learn it for free, then click here for lifetime access to an online mini-course.)
This exercise is a good example because there’s no real stretching, no squatting, and no complex movement.
If you can get health benefits with an exercise like this, then you’re doing REAL qigong.
Essence, Mind, and Energy
In Chinese, there’s an ancient phrase that nicely sums up the difference between calisthenics and qigong:
nei lian jing shen qi
wai lian jin gu pi
This translates to:
Internal training cultivates essence, mind, and energy;
external training cultivates tendons, bones, and flesh.
(It sounds better in Chinese. It even rhymes!)
Here’s another way to say this:
With internal arts, the most important stuff happens on the inside!
The Best of Both Worlds
Of course, not all qigong exercises are easy.
Some of them are downright challenging, even if you’re in good shape.
For example, Lift Heels Bend Knees (#18 from the 18 Luohan Hands) involves a full squat while balancing on the toes.
If you practice this as calisthenics, then yes, you’ll get the benefits of calisthenics.
But why would you want to do that when you can have the best of both worlds?
Here’s a profound truth that all great martial artists throughout history have known:
You get the best results if you train both internal and external.
Internal Vs. External Martial Arts
Tai Chi is considered an internal martial art. It focuses on cultivating essence, mind, and qi. This is why it’s so closely related to qigong.
Karate, on the other hand, is considered an external martial art. It focuses on cultivating tendons, bones, and flesh (i.e. muscles).
But is it really true?
What if you practice tai chi devoid of the internal aspects? Is it still an internal art?
Similarly, what about the tiny Okinawan Karate master that I met 23 years ago who showed me an exercise to train energy and mind? (I didn’t realize what it was until many years later, sadly.)
The truth is that internal and external overlap more than many people realize.
Ideally, you want is to train BOTH internal and external together.
People who train tai chi but can’t do 10 pushups are only training the internal side.
People who train karate but can’t feel their qi are only training the external side.
Train both, and you’ll not only be a better martial artist, but you’ll be happier and healthier too.
Qigong For The Win
But this article is about qigong, not martial arts.
For many people, qigong provides us with a simple solution to this problem.
No matter what, qigong should be practiced as an internal art. But it can also be practiced as calisthenics.
It gives us a simple way to train the internal side at least, plus the external side if we want to.
But don’t fall into the trap.
There are 3 possible ways to train qigong:
a) practice it as an internal art;
b) practice it as an external art;
c) practice it as both an internal and external art;
By now, you should realize that b) is the trap that too many people fall into.
Don’t be one of them.
More Internal Training, Please
In the 21st century, what the world needs is more internal training. Perhaps more than ever before, we desperately need to train essence, mind, and energy.
We don’t need another external art. We’ve already got plenty of those.
If you want to train qigong as BOTH internal and external, great. That’s option c) from above. That’s what I do.
The same goes for tai chi. If you want to use it as both internal and external training — great. I do this too.
But if you had to choose ONLY one aspect, if you had to choose between internal and external — then make sure you choose the internal aspect. That’s choice a) from above.
You can use other arts for your external training if you like. If you enjoy yoga, use that for calisthenics. (Just don’t tell Yoda.)
If you have a calisthenics routine built into your martial art, use that.
Or if you absolutely love the elliptical at the gym — go for it.
Just make sure that you’re also training the internal side.
So How Do You Train Internally?
If you’re interested in learning the true internal skills of both qigong and tai chi, then you’re in luck.
It just so happens that I teach these skills online. What an amazing coincidence!
In a recent article, I mentioned the 4 primary skills of qigong:
- Discovering the Qi
- Circulating the Qi
- Aligning the Qi
- Gathering the Qi
Different masters might use different terminology, but these skills are universal to all forms of qigong.
If you want to train qigong (or tai chi) as an internal art, then you need to learn to relax your body (fang song), clear your mind, and feel your qi.
You need to learn how to get your qi circulating through the 12 primary meridians so that it can heal your body (and mind).
You need to learn how to align your body properly so that the qi is able to flow.
And you need to learn how to gather more qi into your system.
And that’s exactly why I spent so much time and energy creating my flagship online course called Qigong 101: The Art of Healing for Busy People.
If you want external training, then this course is NOT for you. But if you want to learn the internal side of qigong, if you want to learn the 4 primary skills, then consider joining us.
Registration opens in November, but the 12-month course doesn’t officially begin until January so you can start the new year right.
I say “officially” because you’ll get lots of goodies to hold you over, including a special module on beating holiday stress with qigong.
If you’re not already on the waiting list, then you can join at the bottom of that page. Here’s that link again.
And keep an eye out for my free video training series that I’ll be releasing in a few weeks.
I’ll teach you some of the internal secrets of qigong in that series — for free. Yes, you read that right. FREE!
In the meantime, do you have a question or something to add about the internal nature of qigong? Comment below, let’s converse! From the heart, Sifu Anthony