Traditional Chinese 氣功
Simplified Chinese 气功
Qigong practitioners at World Tai Chi and Qigong Day event in Manhattan, New York City, USA.

Qigong or chi kung (气功 or 氣功) (pronounced "chee-gong") is a practice of aligning breath, movement, and awareness for exercise, healing, and meditation.[1] With roots in Chinese medicine, martial arts, and philosophy, qigong is traditionally viewed as a practice to balance qi (chi) or intrinsic life energy.[2] Typically a qigong practice involves rhythmic breathing, coordinated with slow stylized repetition of fluid movement, and a calm mindful state.[3] Qigong is now practiced throughout China and worldwide, and is considered by some to be exercise, and by others to be a type of alternative medicine or meditative practice.[4] From a philosophical perspective qigong is believed to help develop human potential, to increase access to higher realms of awareness, and to awaken one to one's true nature.[5]


What is qigong?


Qigong[6] or chi kung[7] are English words for two Chinese characters: () and gōng ().

Qi (or chi) is usually translated as life energy, lifeforce, or energy flow, and definitions often involve breath, air, gas, or relationship between matter, energy, and spirit.[8] Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. Gong (or kung) is often translated as work or practice, and definitions include skill, mastery, merit, achievement, service, result, or accomplishment. (see online Chinese language tools)

The two words are combined to describe systems to cultivate and balance life energy, especially for health.[1]


With roots in ancient Chinese culture dating back more than 5,000 years, a wide variety of qigong forms have developed within different segments of Chinese society:[9] in traditional Chinese medicine for preventive and curative functions,[10] in Confucianism to promote longevity and improve moral character,[1] in Taoism and Buddhism as part of meditative practice,[5] and in Chinese martial arts to enhance fighting abilities.[11][12]

In the 1940s and the 1950s, the Chinese government tried to integrate disparate qigong approaches into one coherent system, with the intention of establishing a firm scientific basis for qigong practice and as part of the political philosophy of the Cultural Revolution. This attempt is considered by some sinologists as the start of the modern or scientific interpretation of qigong.[13][14]

Through the forces of migration of the Chinese diaspora, tourism in China, and globalization, the practice of qigong has spread from the Chinese community to the world. Today, millions of people around the world practice qigong and believe in the benefits of qigong to varying degrees. Similar to its historical origin, those interested in qigong come from diverse backgrounds and practice it for different reasons, including for exercise, preventive medicine, self-healing, self-cultivation, meditation, and martial arts training.

Training methods

Qigong is not just a set of breathing exercises, but rather comprises a large variety of physical and mental training methods based on Chinese philosophy.[15] While implementation details vary, all qigong forms can be characterized as a mix of four types of training: dynamic, static, meditative, and activities requiring external aids.

  • Dynamic training involves fluid movement, usually carefully choreographed, coordinated with breath and awareness. Examples include the slow stylized movements of T'ai chi ch'uan, Baguazhang, and Xing yi.[16] Other examples include graceful movement that mimics the motion of animals in Five Animals,[17] White Crane,[18], and Wild Goose (Dayan) Qigong.[19].[20]
  • Static training involves holding postures for sustained periods of time.[21] In some cases this bears resemblance to the practice of Yoga and its continuation in the Buddhist tradition.[22] For example Yiquan, a Chinese martial art derived from xingyiquan, emphasizes static stance training.[23] In another example, the healing form Eight Pieces of Brocade (Baduanjin qigong) is based on a series of static postures.[24]
  • Meditative training utilizes breath awareness, visualization, mantra, and focus on philosophical concepts such as qi circulation.[25] For example, in the Confucius scholar tradition meditation is focused on humanity and virtue, with the aim of self-enlightenment. In various Buddhist traditions, the aim is to still the mind, either through outward focus, for example on a place, or through inward focus on the breath, a mantra, a koan, emptiness, or the idea of the eternal. In Taoist and traditional Chinese medicine traditions, the meditative focus is on balancing qi flow in meridian pathways.
  • Use of external agents: Many systems of qigong training include the use of external agents such as ingestion of herbs, massage, physical manipulation, or interaction with other living organisms.[5] For example, specialized food and drinks are used in some medical and Taoist forms, whereas massage and body manipulation are sometimes used in martial arts forms. In some medical systems a qigong master uses non-contact treatment, purportedly guiding qi through his or her own body into the body of another person.[26]

T'ai chi ch'uan vs qigong

T'ai chi ch'uan (tàijíquán, 太极拳), or simply tai chi, is often translated as "supreme boxing" or "supreme balancing", and is a popular system of internal (Nèijiā 內家) martial arts focused on spiritual, mental, and qi-related aspects of practice and characterized by complex stylized movements.[16][27] The Chinese character 极 , jí or chi, means "final" or "extreme", in contrast with 氣, qì or chi, which means "life energy". While some scholars and practitioners consider tai chi to be a type of qigong[28], the two are more commonly distinguished as separate but closely related practices, with qigong playing an important role in training for tai chi, and with many tai chi movements performed as part of qigong practice.

Tai chi is performed slowly for health, meditiation, and martial arts training, and quickly for self defense. Practice consists of a sequence of movements that emphasize fluid motion, an erect spine, abdominal breathing, natural range of motion over the center of gravity, calm focus, and attention to philosophy and aesthetics. Tai chi can be practiced individually or as "pushing hands" with a partner.


People practice qigong for many different reasons, including for exercise and recreation, prevention and self-healing, meditation and self-cultivation, and training for martial arts.


As a form of gentle exercise, qigong is composed of movements that are typically repeated, strengthening and stretching the body, increasing fluid movement (blood, synovial, and lymph), enhancing balance and proprioception, and building awareness of how the body moves through space.[3] In recent years a large number of books and videos have been published that focus primarily on qigong as exercise and associated health benefits.

As a healing art, qigong practitioners focus on prevention and self-healing, traditionally viewed as balancing the body's energy meridians and enhancing the intrinsic capacity of the body to heal.[10] Qigong has been used extensively in China as part of traditional Chinese medicine, and is included in the curriculum of Chinese Universities.[29] Throughout the world qigong is now recognized as a form of complementary and alternative medicine [30][31][32], with positive effects on diverse ailments.[33] [34]

In 2003, the Chinese Health Qigong Association,[35] a member of the All-China Sports Federation, officially recognized four health qigong exercises:

Meditation and self-cultivation

Qigong is practiced for meditation and self-cultivation as part of various philosophical and spiritual traditions. As meditation, qigong is a means to still the mind and enter a state of consciousness that brings serenity, clarity, and bliss.[5] Many practitioners find qigong, with its gentle focused movement, to be more accessible than seated meditation.[4]

Qigong for self-cultivation can be classified in terms of traditional Chinese philosophy:

Martial arts training

The practice of qigong is an important component in Chinese martial arts.[5] Focus on qi is considered to be a source of power as well as the foundation of the internal style of martial arts (Neijia). T'ai chi ch'uan, Xing yi, and Baguazhang are representative of the types of Chinese martial arts that rely on the concept of qi as the foundation. [45] Extraordinary feats of martial arts prowess, such as the ability to withstand heavy strikes (Iron Shirt, 鐵衫) [46] and the ability to break hard objects (Iron Palm, 铁掌) [47] [48] are abilities attributed to qigong training.


Traditional view

Qigong practitioners in Brazil

Traditionally, the central focus of qigong practice is to cultivate and balance qi as it affects mind (心), body (身), and spirit (靈).[49][9] In Chinese philosophy, the concept of qi as a form of pervasive life energy includes original qi that a person has at birth, and qi a person acquires from air, water, food, sunlight, and interaction with the environment.[50][51] A person is believed to become ill or die when qi becomes diminished or unbalanced. Health is believed to be returned by rebuilding qi, eliminating qi blockages, and correcting qi imbalances.

Traditional Chinese medicine focuses on tracing and correcting underlying disharmony, in terms of deficiency and excess, complementary and opposing forces of yin and yang, and balanced flow of qi. Qi is believed to travel through the body along twelve main meridians, with numerous smaller branches and tributaries. The main meridians correspond to twelve main organs (Zàng fǔ). Qi is balanced in terms of yin and yang in the context of the traditional system of Five Elements (Wu xing 五行). These traditional concepts do not translate readily to modern science and medicine.


Whether viewed from the perspective of exercise, health, philosophy, or martial arts training, several main principles emerge concerning the practice of qigong:[3][4]

  • Intential movement: careful, flowing balanced style
  • Rhythmic breathing: slow, deep, coordinated with fluid movement
  • Awareness: calm, focused medititative state
  • Visualization: of qi flow, philosophical tenets, aesthetics

Additional principles:

  • Softness: soft gaze, expressionless face
  • Solid Stance: firm footing, erect spine
  • Relaxation: relaxed muscles, slightly bent joints
  • Balance and Counterbalance: motion over the center of gravity

Advanced goals:

  • Equinimity: more fluid, more relaxed
  • Tranquility: empty mind, high awareness
  • Stillness: smaller and smaller movements, eventually to complete stillness

The most advanced practice is generally considered to be with little or no motion.

Contemporary view

Similar to the subject of efficacy of Traditional Chinese medicine, the chasm between the Eastern tradition of qi and the Western scientific viewpoints is not insurmountable if the analysis is limited to the effect of qigong practice on biological processes without demanding a material interpretation of qi. There is convincing argument to view the concept of qi as a metaphor for biological processes.[52][53]

The basis of qigong can also be explained in terms of contemporary views of health, science, meditation, and exercise, and using medical concepts such as stress management, [54] [55] biofeedback,[30] [56] and neurology.[57] [58]

Health benefits

Claims and medical research

Qigong has been purported to enhance health and well-being with many benefits, including improving cardiovascular function, healing specific acute diseases, and increasing longevity. Many of these claims are supported only by anecdotal evidence and traditional lore. Research examing health benefits of qigong is increasing but still only a limited number of studies that meet accepted medical and scientific standards of randomized controlled trials (RCT). In a 2010 comprehensive review of qigong and tai chi,[34] a literature search of peer-reviewed journals in medical databases for the period of 1993-2007 found a total of seventy-seven RCT studies that examined the benefits of qigong and Tai chi practice. The effects of those exercises can be broadly grouped into nine categories:

  • bone density
  • cardiopulmonary effects
  • falls and related risk factors
  • immmune function
  • patient reported outcomes
  • physical function
  • psychological symptoms
  • quality of life

The review concluded that qigong practice played a positive role in each category. While many of these studies showed positive benefits of qigong practice, various showed similar effects with exercise. This suggests that qigong may be effective primarily as gentle physical exercise, however studies have not typically been designed to control for other reasons for benefit (e.g., meditation, breathing, balance training, skill of instructor, and difference in forms).

Mental health

Various claims have been made that qigong can benefit or exacerbate mental health conditions,[59][34] including claims of improved mood, decreased stress reaction, and decreased anxiety and depression. Most medical studies have only examined psychological factors as secondary goals, however some studies have shown significant benefits such as decrease in cortisol.</ref>[34] There are also claims that in some cases the practice of qigong can result in a mental condiltion known as known as Zou huo ru mo (走火入魔) or "qigong deviation" (氣功偏差), characterized by the perception of the practitioner that there is an uncontrolled flow of qi in the body.[60][61][62]


There is little controversy concerning the benefit of qigong when the definition of qigong is limited to a series of physical movements and a set of relaxation exercises. Conflict have arisen when the claims made by proponents of qigong border on the supernatural.[63][64]

Some researchers have labeled the subject matter of qigong as a pseudoscience.[65] In addition, some claim that the origin and nature of qigong practice has led to misconceptions and misuses,[66] including psychiatric problems[14] and the formation of cults[63]

Skepticism towards qigong is also applied to the field of Traditional Chinese medicine, and extended to the broader subject of alternative medicine. The basic problem is that the information available from those fields does not fit scientific acceptability or medical interpretation. [65][66][67][68] [69] [70] Skeptics contend that most of the benefits derived from Alternative medicine are, at best, derived from a placebo effect.[71] [72]

The main arguments from the view of skeptics against the correlation between qigong practices and health-related results are:

  • The existence of qi, or any form of vitalism, has not been independently verified in a experimental setting. Such a concept is not recognized in the biological sciences.[73]
  • Demonstrations in martial arts such as breaking hard objects with strikes can be fully explained using physics, without reference to the concept of qi.[74][75]
  • Reported claims of supernatural abilities appear to be tricks more suited to magic shows than to any genuine scientific discipline.[63][76][77][78][79][80]
  • Personal benefits for some qigong masters might have provided them with an incentive to exaggerate their claims [63]

Shifting views of qigong

Traditionally, qigong training has been esoteric and secretive, with knowledge passed from master to student. Over the centuries, the exchange of ideas between various elements within Chinese society has created a more unified overview of qigong practice even though each segment maintains its own detailed interpretations and methods. In China, the emphasis has shifted increasingly on health benefits, traditional medicine, and scientific perspective, with decreasing emphasis on traditional aspects of qigong practice, though with notable exceptions.

In contrast, while most practitioners worldwide also focus on health benefits, many have also accepted the philosophical elements of qigong practice and pay homage to its rich past. The traditional philosophical, medical, and martial arts origins are recognized and used as justification for the effectiveness of qigong.[9]

See also


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