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Qigong (氣功 – pinyin: qì gōng, Wade-Giles: ch’i kung) is an increasingly popular aspect of Chinese medicine. In general, qigong schools teach their own variations of physical training routines based on coordinating different patterns of breathing with different physical motions of the body. Qigong relies on the traditional Chinese medical belief that the body has an energy field, known as Qi. Qi means breath or to breathe in Mandarin Chinese, and by extension the energy produced by breathing that keeps us alive; gong means work or technique. Qigong is then “breath work” or the art of managing the breath to achieve and maintain good health, and especially in the martial arts, to enhance the leverage and stamina of the body in coordination with the physical process of respiration. Qigong is mostly taught for health maintenance purposes, but there are also some who teach it, especially in China, for therapeutic interventions.
Attitudes toward the basis of qigong vary markedly. One view which is one taken by most Western medical practitioners, many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, as well as the Chinese government views qigong simply as a set of breathing and movement exercises, with many possible benefits to health through stress reduction and exercise. Others see qigong in more metaphysical terms, claiming that breathing and movement exercises can influence the fundamental forces of the universe. An extreme form of the latter view was advocated by some participants in the Boxer Rebellion of the late 19th century who believed that breathing and movement exercises would allow them to ward off bullets.
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Qigong under various names has a long history in China. The written records referring to qi and its effects are as old as 3,300 years (Shang dynasty oracle bones, Zhou dynasty inscriptions). Numerous books have been written about qigong during the subsequent history of China. The development of Chinese qigong can be divided into three periods:
- In ancient China, people came to believe that through certain body movements and mental concentration, combined with various breathing techniques, they could balance and enhance physical, metabolic and mental functions. These movements were likely based on the imitation of various animals as part of shamanic practices. This research was passed down and refined according to teacher-disciple relationships of lineage orapprenticeship. This accumulated body of traditional knowledge is known as Chinese traditional qigong.
- In later centuries, these practices became more standardized, very often associated with religious practitioners. For example, incense burning was originally used to measure time and also to repel insects during qigong practice, and eventually became an important part of the meditative process itself. Over time, new forms of qigong were created and passed down through various schools; Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, Neo-Confucian, Chinese medicine, and the traditional Chinese martial arts.
- In the 1970s, researchers began studying qigong using the scientific method, with peer-reviewed and controlled studies of various techniques to provide a scientific evaluation of claims for the efficacy of qigong.
Today millions of people in China and around the world regularly practice qigong as a health maintenance exercise. Qigong and related disciplines are still associated with the martial arts and meditation routines trained by Taoist and Buddhist monks, professional martial artists and their students. Formerly much more closely guarded, in the modern era such practices have become widely available to the general public both in China and around the world.
Medical qigong treatment has been officially recognized as a standard medical technique in Chinese hospitals since 1989. It has been included in the curriculum of major universities in China. There are thousands of different forms, methods or styles of qigong. For example “Yan Xin Qigong” has become a widely known method.
Yan Xin, founder of Yan Xin Qigong, believes that in order for qigong to be accepted by the modern world it must pass the test of scientific study. Without such studies, Yan maintains that qigong will be dismissed as “superstition”. In the mid-1980s he and others began systematic study of qigong in some research institutions in China. More than 20 papers    have been published.
After years of debate, the Chinese government has decided to officially manage qigong through government regulations in 1996 and has also listed qigong as part of the National Health Plan.
Qigong and its intimate relation to the Chinese martial arts are often connected with spirituality. They have thereby have been considered the province of religious practitioners in the popular imagination for many centuries. This link is much stronger than with other techniques in traditional Chinese medicine. Qigong was practiced extensively in Taoist and Buddhist monasteries, as were martial arts, and the claimed benefits of martial qigong practice are widely known in East Asian martial traditions. As well, the traditional teaching methods of most qigong schools (at least in Asia) descend from the strict teacher-disciple relationship conventions inherited in Chinese culture from Confucianism.
In some styles of qigong, it is taught that human mind and nature are inseparable. According to this philosophy, access to higher energy states, ability to manipulate matter outside of the conventional laws of physics and access to information unavailable otherwise is possible through the principle of accumulating virtue (de or te, see Tao Te Ching). Accumulating virtue could be described as a process in which one harmonizes with the universe, or recognizes that one was never out of harmony, by the energy made available after choosing and implementing what are seen as positive lifestyle choices and practicing specific qigong techniques for ameliorating the effects of previous choices which may have been less virtuous.
It is claimed that the level of an individual’s qigong accomplishment is fundamentally dependent upon the level of their virtue. Therefore in qigong, the practitioner’s focus on virtue is an extremely important technical requirement, especially in the advanced levels. Without such continuous cultivation of virtue, one will not be able to achieve a highly relaxed and tranquil mind/body state.
Much of the criticism of qigong involves its method of operation. Both traditional Chinese and Western medicine practitioners have little argument with the notion that qigong can improve health by encouraging movement, increasing relaxation, and improving joint flexibility. However, the benefits of qigong become much more controversial when it is asserted that qigong derives its benefits from qi acting as a external non-physical force. Most biologists and physicists are skeptical of these claims and see no reason to believe that qi exists in this manner.
Some proponents of qigong make the controversial claim that they can directly detect and manipulate this energy, but there are those who insist that they can only demonstrate this to fellow believers. Others, including many traditional Chinese practitioners, believe that qi can be viewed as a metaphor for biological processes, and the effectiveness of qigong can also be explained in terms more familiar to Western medicine such as stress reduction.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the increasing popularity of qigong and related practices led to the establishment of many groups and methods in China and elsewhere which have been viewed in a critical light by more traditional qigong practitioners as well as skeptical outside observers. In this view, a large number of people started studying qigong under inadequate supervision, indeed, perhaps the majority of people today who study qigong study from books or video without any supervision by a teacher. This can lead to several problems, according to those who view themselves as representative of more orthodox schools. They say unbalanced circulation of inner energies leads to unbalanced effects on the various systems of the body, both mental and physical. Stories are told of people gradually developing chronic mental and physical health problems as a result of such training. A common term used by English speaking practitioners for an example of this is “Qigong Psychosis.”
This popularity also led to increased attention for quasi-religious groups teaching styles of qigong in an atmosphere of overt spirituality. As mentioned above, qigong has been associated in China with Taoist and Buddhist meditationpractices for two thousand years, and this association has been exploited, according to traditionalists, by many would be cult leaders. Perhaps the parade example of a group promoting a New Age-like synthesis of spirituality with their qigong is the Falun Gong, whose worldwide popularity grew to the point that the People’s Republic of Chinagovernment banned their practice outright in 1999.
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