Jan 31, 2019
If you find it difficult to get your body and mind up to speed in the morning, think of coffee as a saviour of your mood and productivity, spend hours in a half-dozed state before being able to commit yourself to serious work or mental activities, you will definitely enjoy the benefits of QiGong, practised first thing in the morning. You will not need to learn long and elaborate forms. Some simple, yet effective exercises, paired with the correct breathing technique will work miracles for your body and mind, if you spend only two minutes practising after you get out of your bed to perform this simple routine outlined in the fully illustrated guide below.
What is QiGong?
When people think or talk about QiGong, they tend to have a general idea of some ancient Chinese way of specific, very light and gentle movement, that is used to regulate Qi, the invisible and mystic life force, as it flows from the universe into and through the human body and back. While not far from reality, this concept of QiGong is somewhat of an oversimplification of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge and experience. Even the meaning of the word Qi itself is often misunderstood, or misinterpreted due to such simplification and distortion of a complex idea.
The simplest translation of QiGong is “the cultivation of life energy”. The word itself consists of two parts, Qi and Gong. Of these, Qi means “energy”, while Gong (Gung or Kung) means “skill”, a cultivation of a skill with meticulous practice. The most interesting and misunderstood is the true meaning of the word Qi. Depending on the form of writing, the word pronounced Qi can have over 100 meanings in Chinese language. The original way of writing of the word Qi, as used in the context of QiGong, was made up of a character meaning “nothing” and the radical for fire, making the word Qi literally mean “no fire”.
The reason behind this was that since the ancient times QiGong was practised alongside medicine, with the aim of regulating the energies of the body, whether there would be too much, causing a fire inside, or too little of it causing illness because of the lack of energy. As the often quoted saying goes: “Too much rain forces a river to flood or change its path, but without rain, vegetation will die”. “No fire” meant balance, a perfect state of the body, where all energies are regulated, everything works as it should so that no illness may occur. Of course in ancient times people understood little of the energy systems of the human body and they have debated what the energy making us alive, might be. Many, often contradicting explanations of Qi and the nature of this life-sustaining force were born, many of which have survived the ages, and are widely believed and used as explanations even today, disregarding their inherently speculative nature.
The Modern Concept of Qi
Today, it is mostly agreed in the west and the east alike that there are energy systems which can be anatomically described (think glycogen, ATP, etc.), while there is an invisible, but measurable bioimpedance or bioelectricity that is present in all living forms. The most important substances our body draws its energy from, are oxygen (provided by breathing), and glycogen (provided through digestive system as it breaks down the food we eat). These substances are then carried by the bloodstream, (that is regulated by the heart) to all parts of the body, where they can feed the cells with fresh oxygen and glycogen. Of course, to make things work “properly” we need a nervous system, carrying electric impulses between the brain (or the spinal chord) and the rest of the body; a lymphatic system, that plays an important role in aiding the circulatory system in delivering substances across the body, while also aiding the immune system, protecting the body from diseases. It is easy to see, even through this simple description, why a human body is referred to as a “system” in western medicine, and how everything inside is inter-connected.
Since people understand better, how the body works, the concept of Qi has changed significantly, which is also traceable in the way of writing the word. The character used today to write Qi is that is made up of two characters (also pronounced Qi) meaning “air”, which represents breathing, and (pronounced Mǐ, meaning “rice”, which represents food (or glycogen): The two essential substances, to provide the human body with energy, allowing it to function are both present in the Chinese character for Qi: A fine example of how Chinese symbolism is capable of transmitting ancient knowledge, while accommodating modern advances of science at the same time.
In other words, the contemporary concept of Qi is one that includes all of the above-mentioned systems, with the addition of bioimpedance, a demystified “life force”. QiGong then means nothing less than the regulation of all bodily processes through exercise, meditation, nutrition, and ancient ways of Chinese medicine, such as acupuncture and other direct ways of stimulating the human body and returning it into a state of balance, by regulating the forces of life within.
The following exercises will help you achieve just that, regulate your breathing, and essential life functions, “firing up” your body systems, to perform at their peak, after having left the realm of dreams. Just as coffee is thought to increase your Qi, these exercises will have the effect of allowing Qi to flow freely in your body, essentially though stretching out your limbs and muscles, so that blood and lymph might flow easier, enhancing circulation, and through it oxygen and glycogen delivery.
The first movements of BaDuanJin
The below exercise consists of two traditional movements, called “Hold the spirit and guard the one” and “Two hands hold up the heavens”, taken from the traditional QiGong for of BaDuanJin (“Eight pieces of brocade” or “Eight treasures”), that is believed to be a distillation of YiJinJing, the Muscle-Tendon Changing Classic, allegedly written by the Boddhidharma for the use of Shaolin monks, to enhance their physical strength and health. Of course, the true origins of BaDuanJin are lost in the mists of time, with almost every tradition claiming to know a different origin of the practices. While the origin may be ancient history, the effect of the exercises are undeniable and will provide a great way to start your day.
The first part of this exercise is meant to regulate your breath, bring your mind to the practice and find the ball of Qi between your palms, to have an initial feel for it. The second part of the sequence helps to expand the depth of your breathing and benefit the triple burner through opening it up in a series of stretches. (The triple burner is considered a separate organ in traditional Chinese medicine. It could roughly be described as your torso’s internal cavity, holding all your internal organs.)
As the following exercise is meant to help to maintain the health of the triple burner and through this, it affects all of the organs within, this sequence is probably the most important of all the movements of BaDuanJin. If this is all you do for daily practice, your health will already enormously benefit from it.
The hand- and arm-stretches throughout the movement will also loosen up your pectoral, latissimus and deltoid muscles, stretch out your elbows and forearms while helping your shoulder to return to its most natural position. Regularly practising these movements could help you regain the ability to lift your hands and arms overhead, which is often lost due to a seated and overly-convenient lifestyle. (Nothing really is overhead anymore, so many of us never really lift the arms up.)
The bouncing movements in the end are an addition form another movement of BaDuanJin (called “Seven diseases and hundred disorders disappear”), meant to “shake you up”, quite literally, also enhancing the circulation of lymph in your body, that is, unlike your blood flow, not aided by the beating of your heart.
Repeating the simple sequence of exercises presented here only takes a few minutes at once, and should not tire you either mentally or physically. If you do only one QiGong, it should be BaDuanJin and if you do only one series of moves from BaDuanJin, this should be it.
Besides performing each movement correctly, it is very important to breathe the right way, throughout the practice. Breathing and the oxygen it supplies is a very important part of Qi and QiGong, so make sure you regulate your breath and always perform all QiGong exercises with the correct breathing technique.
The most useful breathing techniques to use with this practice would be either inverted breathing, as described here, or abdominal breathing, as described here. If you can not/do not want to learn the above techniques, you should make sure you breathe into your abdominal region and keep your breaths deep and even.
Throughout the instructions, breathing phases, such as inhale and exhale, will be marked with bold type. When you see inhale, you should continue inhaling, until you read exhale. When you read exhale, you should continue doing so, until you see inhale again. There will be no need to hold your breath after inhaling, or pause it after an exhale unless explicitly stated so. Pace your breathing in synchrony with the movements, try to breathe smoothly and continuously.
For the following exercises, your movements should be smooth, continuous and uninterrupted. The end positions of the movement would often to be held for a number of full breaths, meaning inhales and exhales, usually three times. While holding a position, never hold your breath, instead just count them to make sure you hold for an appropriate time. Only pause or hold any position, where you read “hold this position”, otherwise, you should keep moving smoothly but deliberately. Try to focus on you breathing and your movement at the same time and never rush through the movements, to get make the best out of your practice.
- Stand upright, with feet shoulder-width apart. With an inhale, start slowly lifting your hands, palms facing upwards, fingers pointing towards each other, as if you were about to wash your face and were just lifting some water up, elbows pointing out.
- When your hands reach chest height, just under your neck, turn your palms down, and with an exhale start pushing them down, just like you were trying to press a large ball under water, keeping the elbows out, until you reach the bottom position, where you cannot reach further with palms facing down.
- As you inhale, bring your palms under your navel, while starting to pull them away from each other. Still inhaling, pull your hands apart, fingers pointing inwards and towards each other. Pull your whole arm, leading from the elbow, forming a large circle, just like hugging a very large ball from the bottom.
- As you exhale, start moving your hands together, while your arms maintain their arched position, until your hands reach each other. Rest your hands in the cosmic mudra position (your left palm, facing upwards, resting on your right palm, your thumbs touching in an oval shape over your palms). Hold this position for three full breaths, inhales and exhales.
- With an inhale, start pulling your hands apart, in a similar movement as previously, starting to form a large circle, as if hugging a ball from underneath. Now, instead of reversing the direction of the movement, continue outwardly, while also continuing to inhale. Straighten your arms to your sides, palms facing down until both arms are fully stretched out sideways, at shoulder height. Then, without pausing, turn your palms up, arms still outstretched to the sides.
Continuing to inhale, now bring your outstretched arms to the front, drawing two arcs in the air with your fingertips. When both arms are pointing forwards, start bending your elbows and bring your hands in, towards your chest. Bring your left hand under your right hand, just in front of your chest, but not touching it, approximately 6–8 inches (15–20 cm) apart.
It is worth noting that this is a rather long movement for one single inhalation. There is a possibility, that you will run out of breath before the movement finishes. Do not worry, this is perfectly normal. Do not start exhaling, until the next movement, rather just hold your breath until the movement is finished. Alternatively, you can speed up the movement, so that it finishes before you would run out of lung capacity. Choose either way you feel more natural. Eventually, your breath will deepen enough to finish the move with one inhale, without any problem.
- Starting to exhale, turn your top palm (the right palm) facing down. Now the two palms are facing each other. Form two ‘cups’ with your hands, as if you were holding a small ball between them and continuing to exhale, bring this small ball down, in front of your abdomen. Once you are in a position holding a ‘small ball’ between your hands and a ‘large ball’ with your arms (i.e. your arms are arched in a way as if you were hugging a very large ball), hold this position for three inhales and exhales.
- As you inhale, bring your palms together. Once the palms are touching, turn them both facing forward, rubbing them against one another. Your fingers should now point forward and slightly downward, palms touching. While continuing to inhale, extend your arms in front of you and slightly downward, following the direction in which your fingers are pointing, maintaining contact between your hands all the time.
- Once you cannot comfortably extend your arms further, raise your touching hands above your head, while keeping your arms straight, drawing a large arc in the air.
- When your outstretched arms are pointing up, with palms touching, start to exhale, bend your elbows and let them move out to the side while lowering your hands in front of your chest. Your fingers should be pointed upwards, palms and fingers straight and touching each other. Bring your hands down in front of your chest, into a ‘praying’ position, trying to keep your elbows up. Continue moving this way, until you start to feel some tension in your wrists and the lower portion of your forearms. You should keep your elbows up, as much as you can, and push your wrists down. If the bottoms of your palms separate, that is fine, but the larger part of your hands should keep touching each other. Do not let your shoulders lift up, continue holding them down. In this position, the elbows will not be able to move up, but you should continue applying some tension, although only within your comfort zone. Hold this position for three inhales and exhales.
- Inhale and open your hands. Still keeping the elbows up, draw them behind your back, keeping your arms bent. Your hands should now be in front of your shoulders, palms open, facing forward, just like you were lying face down, with palms touching the ground right beside your chest, elbows tightly behind your back, not sticking out to the side.
- Exhale, and press your palms forward. The end position should be just like you were pushing an imaginary wall away, arms extended forward, palms open, pointing forward, fingers pointing up. Make sure your shoulder blades remain flat and your shoulders stay down. Hold this position for only one inhale and exhale.
- With an inhale turn your palms up, and start drawing your hands in, towards your chest, elbows moving out sideways. Once your hands (palms facing up) reach the chest, turn the palms out to the sides, both facing away from your body sideways, like you were holding very narrow walls next to your shoulders, letting the elbows drop, but still keeping them close to your torso. Pull your scapulae (or shoulder-blades) close together.
- Exhale, and press your palms away as if you were moving those walls and widening the space you are standing in. Fully extend your arms to the sides, palms facing away, fingers pointing up.
- As soon as your arms are fully extended, begin to inhale, turn your palms up, and bring your outstretched arms in front of your body, drawing arcs in the air with your fingertips.
- Continuing to inhale, push your elbows out and bring your still upward facing palms in front of your shoulders, then turn your palms outwards, pulling your elbows close to your body, like you were once again holding very narrow walls.
- Exhale and push your palms away, widening the space, feeling the tension on your straightened palms.
- Then inhale again turning up your palms and draw your hands in front of your shoulders, exhale and push away two more times. You should this drawing in and pushing away three times in total. When you push away for the third time, pause your movement there. Keep your shoulder blades down and don’t let your shoulders come up to your ears. You should feel a slight tension in your palms, in both upper and lower arms, the front of your shoulders and the topmost part of your pectorals. Try to extend your fingers upwards and backwards slightly, continuing to push away with the base of your palms. Hold this position for three full breaths, inhales and exhales.
- With an inhale, turn both of your palms up, and with extended arms start drawing large arcs in front of you, until your arms are extended to the front once again. Continuing to inhale, draw your upward facing palms in, to your chest, as the elbows move outwards, just like in a previous movement.
- Exhale and turn your palms up over your shoulders, elbows pointing outwards, palms facing upwards, fingers pointing inwards as if you were about to lift something heavy over your head. Start pushing your hands up, fingers facing inwards and towards the other hand. Continue exhaling and pushing some imaginary weight up, until you cannot extend your arms any longer. If you cannot fully extend your arms, or cannot lift them all the way up, that is perfectly fine, it is more important, that your palms stay in the right position, facing up, fingers pointing towards each other, as if there was some sort of flat weight you were supporting overhead, or reaching for a very low ceiling.
- When you reach the topmost position you can lift your arms without lifting up your shoulders, begin to inhale, turn your palms outwards and start lowering your outstretched arms to your sides. Still inhaling, move your hands towards each other at the bottom position of the arc. When your fingers point at each other, lift your upward facing palms to the level of your chest.
- Now exhale and turn your palms up and over your shoulder, then push upwards with your palm.
- Inhale while you turn your palms down, bringing your arms to the side, then hands towards each other and finally lift them to your chest, then exhale and push upwards again, two more times. You should repeat pushing upwards and bring your hands in front of your chest three times in total.
On the third upward push, pause in the top-most position. Keep your shoulders down, never let them lift up to your ears. There should be a great stretch in your back just under your armpit, that being the upper portion of your latissimus muscles being stretched. You should also feel it in your pectorals and your arms, while the deltoid muscles of your shoulders should be working really hard to keep your arms overhead. You can look up slightly, to help yourself ease into the position. Hold this position for three inhales and exhales. While you hold, make sure, that your palms stay flat, with fingertips facing each other, and arms extended as much as possible. Your shoulders should not lift up to your ears, try to keep them down. If you find it too easy to extend your arms upwards, you should check your shoulders, they probably have come up to your ears. Do not allow this to happen, press your shoulder-blades back down, even if it means a difficulty in keeping your arms up.
- With an inhale, now turn your palms facing each other and slightly downwards. Lower your arms, while your hands follow a straight path in front of your face until they reach in front of your chest, at which point your elbows go out once again as you keep your palms turned down.
- Without pausing, exhale and push your downwards facing palms further down, as if you were trying to push something, like a large ball, under water, as far as you can. Keep your palms parallel to the ground.
- Inhale and raise your straight arms to your sides, continuing to lift them above your head. When your arms are stretched upwards, interweave your fingers, with palms facing down, continuing to stretch upwards in all your length.
- Exhale and bring your hands down in front of your torso, in a slow, smooth and controlled movement, fingers interwoven, palms facing downwards, all the way to the front of your abdomen, like you were holding a balloon beneath your interwoven fingers and trying to push it as far down as you can.
- As you begin to inhale, turn your palms up, keeping your fingers interwoven and begin to lift your hands upwards, to the front of your chest, while lifting yourself up on your toes.
- Now turn your palms down, fingers remaining interwoven. Forcefully exhale, almost like you were sneezing or blowing your nose. Compress your lungs and press out the air as strongly and abruptly as you can. At the same time, bring your hands down forcefully to the front of your abdomen, leaving your fingers interwoven and drop your heels to the ground to come to a natural stand from tip-toe in a fast and abrupt manner, like a stamp with your heels. The exhalation and dropping your heels should happen synchronously.
Repeat this lifting yourself on the inhale and stamping while forcefully exhaling, three times in total.
- After the third such stamp, begin to inhale, separate your hands and turn your palms facing each other, then begin pulling them away, leading from the elbow, fingers and palms facing each other, until you make a large circle with your arms. Then, still inhaling, straighten your arms, lifting them sideways. Keep lifting them, until reach overhead, your palms never changing position, your hands almost hanging loosely. Once your outstretched arms are pointing up, turn your palms inside, facing each other, and fully extend your arms upwards, fingers pointing up.
- As you begin to exhale, bring your hands down, with your palms never changing position, like you were lowering a ball between them, until you reach the height of your chest, at which point your palms turn downwards, elbows pointing to the sides, and as you continue to exhale, keep pushing them down, as if you were trying to submerge the ball in chest-deep water, palms continuing to face down, until your arms are straightened out.
- Repeat the last inhale and exhale, with the corresponding moves two more times.
This concludes your morning QiGong exercise. You will be able to feel its effect immediately, but you will really notice how your body truly benefits from it, after having practised regularly for a few weeks. Make sure you practice every day, ideally right after getting out of the bed (or after your morning coffee).
If you want to learn more about how you can enhance your QiGong practice, read the article 7 simple steps to improve your QiGong form. The above text is a short extract from the Upcoming book “Understanding QiGong”, from which you would be able to learn breathing, meditation, joint mobility and QiGong exercises and how they act together to enhance your quality of life, movement and health.
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