Qigong: The New (Ancient) Way of Improving Health and Performance
My name is Chris Holder and I am the head strength coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. We are a Division I athletics program competing in 21 varsity sports and on paper we operate and function like every school in the country.
What separates us from the rest is something that happens every morning around 11:00am. I walk over to the stereo, change the music to either Enya or Lama Gyurme, and the room stops. Those athletes who have been involved with this process all gather around, we walk over to a central space in the room, and we begin a practice that has been performed for thousands of years.
This illustration depicts Chen Tuan shui gong, a Qigong technique that can aid digestion.
Besides being a strength and conditioning coach, I am a Medical Qigong Doctor - and most of you have no idea what that is. First, the pronunciation of Qigong is chi-gung. Qi means energy and gong means skill. Qigong practices revolve around breathing and thoughtfully directing energy through choreographed movements.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has four main philosophical pillars: acupuncture, massage, herbs and Qigong. The medical philosophy of TCM focuses on treating the root cause of any illness and is less about treating symptoms. Qigong is the discipline of manipulating the bioenergetic field that surrounds and pervades every human being. Take a handful of Daoist philosophy, mix in a dash of mysticism, and add a boatload of quantum physics and you have Qigong.
"Qigong as we know it has been dated back over 5,000 years. It is the foundation of TCM theory and is the mother to acupuncture."
Once the music begins at the Cal Poly School of Strength, I lead the group through a Qigong practice intended to supercharge those participating. I have spent the last eight years researching and developing specific Qigong practices that can be used to enhance an athlete’s performance, focus, retention, flow states and recovery.
The specific practice we use is a Dao Yin Qigong practice (think flavor of Qigong). In the winter of 2015, my assistant Chris White and I set out to conduct formal research on the effects of a daily Qigong practice (the one mentioned above) on strength gains with three varsity sports: football, women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball. Backed by the university, as well as our kinesiology and athletics departments, we were able to substantiate the power of consistent Qigong work and its enormous benefits to strength-trained athletes. (More to come on this study in the next few months.)
My Qigong Path
My personal exposure to Qigong was on a dusty field in Minnesota on the third morning of my RKC weekend in April of 2004. We were all dog-tired. All I wanted was to lick my wounds and go home when John DuCane from Dragon Door stepped out in front of us and led what he called a morning recharge. After around thirty minutes of “Taichi” type movements, we got back to the business of kettlebells and believe it or not, I felt better. I didn’t know why, but it seemed to give my batteries a bump that I was in desperate need of.
"Qigong is the discipline of manipulating the bioenergetic field that surrounds and pervades every human being. Take a handful of Daoist philosophy, mix in a dash of mysticism, and add a boatload of quantum physics and you have Qigong."
Fast-forward five years. I stepped into a classroom in Monterey, California at the International Institute of Medical Qigong on my first night of medical school feeling nervous yet somehow having a deep seeded knowing that I was supposed to be there. I had taken a leap of faith on a recommendation from two of my clients. They were both high-level yoga practitioners and the most attractive thing about them was their level of connection with divinity. I didn’t know what I was getting into other than I was going to get to study with a legend in the kung fu and qigong world, Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson. But the moment I walked in the door, the feeling of home and belonging ensured me I made the right decision. Four years later, I received a dual doctorate in Medical Qigong with an emphasis in oncology.
Me working with a patient.
A Deeper Look
Qigong as we know it has been dated back over 5,000 years. It is the foundation of TCM theory and is the mother to acupuncture. If you have ever been needled, you have been under the influence of ideas that Qigong created.
"Each organ has its own creek (meridian) and when the water (energy or Qi) is moving unobstructed, that organ thrives."
Medically, we Qigong practitioners look at the body as a giant sea of energy. Everything, including solids like bone, is purely energy vibrating at a specific frequency. Modern day physics support this. Over the course of a lifetime, this energy can experience fluctuations due to diet, environmental influences, emotional distress, physical stress, surgery, and aging. If these influences are strong enough, the system can tip and this is where we see disease, premature aging, pain syndromes, you name it.
Taking it an additional step, within this sea of energy, each organ system has its own inlet/outlet of energy that works in a similar way a creek runs. Each organ has its own creek (meridian) and when the water (energy or Qi) is moving unobstructed, that organ thrives. Imagine now a tree or a boulder falling across the creek creating a block in the movement of the water. That body of water begins to pool, stagnate, and become turbid. The end result is illness. That boulder or tree represents all the factors mentioned that influence our fluctuations of energy.
The Unfortunate Truth
Here’s what everyone needs to understand. Life, however we chose to live it, presents challenges to the system. No matter how cleanly we eat, how careful we are with our relationships, how much we love our jobs, or how connected we are spiritually, everyone is conducting business in a state of relative disharmony.
If you are reading this, you are likely a person who has a strict training regimen and loves to go hard in the gym. What you might not understand is, you are creating disharmony with the stress of training. It can’t be avoided. Again, no matter how disciplined you are with diet and everything that comes with hard training, you still need your energetics reset.
"Every Qigong master in the world has spent a large bulk of his or her training owning breathing patterns to cultivate Qi, manipulate the nervous system, and facilitate deep healing."
How many of you have heard the term “life force”? In most energetic circles, life force is simply another way of saying Qi. You were born with it and you have an abundant supply to carry you through your entire lifetime. We spend life force every day, in every way imaginable. As time goes on, this abundant supply begins to wane. If you aren’t doing your due diligence in the form of some cultivation practice, this seemingly unending supply of energy starts to become compromised. Systematically, your body starts to weaken, and it becomes more susceptible to illness and injury. Once you have exhausted what you have banked, it’s game over.
Harsh, I know, and perhaps a little aggressive, but unfortunately accurate. This is why a practice of some kind is so important to everyone, particularly those of us who train hard. We are burning the candle at both ends and we need a way to replace and stay ahead of the energetic drain.
A Place to Start
So where should you begin? Let’s start at the most fundamental aspect of what keeps us alive - our breath. Every Qigong master in the world has spent a large bulk of his or her training owning breathing patterns to cultivate Qi, manipulate the nervous system, and facilitate deep healing. Much of the coming wave in the fitness industry revolves around this very idea.
"Training styles like CrossFit put such an enormous load (yang) on the system that without a companion yin practice, it won’t take long for the breakdown to begin."
If we look at the classic yin-yang symbol, the image represents the balance of energy throughout the body. Extremes in either direction can be cataclysmic, so your focus should be directed at bringing harmony to your activities.
Weight training is perhaps one of the most yang things you can do. Training styles like CrossFit put such an enormous load (yang) on the system that without a companion yin practice, it won’t take long for the breakdown to begin. We must consciously embark on a practice to restore the balance, begin the recovery, and shake off the overexcitement to the nervous system.
Qigong helps restore balance that is lost in life and training.
I want to start you out with something easy, something we all can do. In our busy lives, the hardest part of this will simply be finding a quiet place where you can be alone without distraction.
- Chose to either stand or sit. I don’t recommend lying down unless you have time to sleep because this will sedate you to a point where snoozing is nearly inevitable.
- Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth where your top gums and teeth meet. This acts as an electrical “ground.”
- Focus your mind on your breath. If you become distracted, simply return your attention to your breath.
- Take a deep inhalation through your nose down deep into your belly. This should take 4-6 seconds. We want to breathe into our basement, low into our bellies. Try to avoid chest breathing of any kind. Don’t worry, the lungs will fill, but the chest should stay quiet throughout. This might be challenging for some, but keep working at it.
- Exhale through your nose at a slow pace. A 5- to 8-count exhalation is the sweet spot.
- Repeat this process for 5-15 minutes. As you breathe, see with your mind’s eye (your imagination) anything dark in your system (illness, stress, fatigue, unhappiness) leaving your body with each exhalation, and inhale pure and clean energy with each inspiration. Fill your belly with clean white light that builds throughout the duration of the practice. The more you can organize your intention and thoughts to match your breathing, the more the effectiveness skyrockets.
- As you become more comfortable with this practice, take it to a new level by drawing your breath from the six directions. Above, below, front, back, left, and right. Think of the breath as not only entering through the nose, but envision your entire body inhaling the clean Qi.
- Practice at least once a day, following a stressful activity like weight training. If you live a high-stress life, have trouble sleeping, or simply need a break, feel free to practice this more than once a day.
Disclaimer: This practice is completely safe, first and foremost. It’s what happens after where we need to be careful. Even with a short practice, you will have a considerable feeling of intoxication. This technique brings the nervous system down quickly, so make sure you have about thirty minutes afterward to get your bearings. Do not do this in your car in the parking lot at the gym after a grinder, and then attempt to drive home. Treat this “prescription” like you would with most pharmaceuticals - do not operate heavy machinery after doing this practice.
- What Is Qigong?
- How Meditation Can Heal Your Adrenal System
- The True Meaning of Having Heart
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
Photo 1 by Welcome Images, via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo 2 courtesy of Chris Holder.