You know that feeling when you’ve been sitting at your desk for way too long? Your brain is half asleep, and your body is on the verge of revolting. You could pop out for a quick run, but that would involve sloshing back into the office in sweaty workout garb. So instead, you go fill your coffee mug for the umpteenth time and return to your office.
What if you could elicit the stress-busting, mind-clearing, energizing benefits of a run or tough workout without the sweat factor? Qigong (pronounced “chee-GUNG”) can help you do just that.
With Chinese roots dating back more than 4,000 years, qigong is a broad practice defined as the integration of physical postures, breathing techniques and focused intentions, according to the National Qigong Association. (Translated, “qi” is energy, breath or spirit. “Gong” means work.)
“Qigong helps you balance emotionally, physically and spiritually at the same time, so you have the energy you need to cope with every part of your life,” says Chunyi Lin, a practitioner based in Eden Prairie, Minn., and creator of Spring Forest Qigong, one form of the practice that incorporates gentle movements, meditation, breathing and sounds.
Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing is fundamental to any qigong practice and is intended to enhance your ability to relax. (See Web Extra! for breathing instructions.) Many qigong exercises involve simply breathing and focusing one’s energy on different areas of the body.
Thousands of qigong variations exist, including external forms practiced to heal others, and internal forms that focus on cultivating self-balance. Among these are gentle, meditative practices and intensely physical ones, such as Chinese martial arts.
While Western scientific studies on qigong are limited, it has been linked to the following benefits:
- Improved quality of movement, including balance, flexibility, core strength and joint mobility.
- Better functioning of internal organs, such as improved cardiovascular, respiratory, circulatory, lymphatic and digestive functions.
- Improved general health measures, including reduced stress, enhanced immunity, lower blood pressure and greater stamina.
“The greatest gift qigong can give is restoring energy,” says John Du Cane, a qigong teacher since 1995, who began his practice in the 1970s. Du Cane has produced several books and DVDs on qigong and regularly hosts instructor workshops and certification programs.
Du Cane suggests the following exercises to help restore your energy during the workday. They are suitable for anyone and require no equipment. He recommends practicing the sequence daily for optimal results.
High Energy, No Sweat
Try this low-key workout for a big midday boost.
One element of qigong is tapping on acupuncture points in the body to direct energy to specific areas. This exercise involves the point just below the knees and outside of the tibia, known in Chinese medicine as the “walk-three-miles point,” because fatigued monks routinely stimulated it to gain the stamina to walk another three miles. Benefits include enhanced leg strength and overall endurance.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms relaxed at sides. Make fists with both hands.
- Bend your knees and fold forward at your waist to bring hands about 2 to 3 inches below your knees. Avoid rounding your back.
- Tap vigorously against the outsides of your shins, aiming for 80 to 100 repetitions.
- Breathe naturally through your nose and keep your attention focused on the area you are tapping.
Chinese Wall Squat
Chinese medicine views the body as a hydraulic system that tends to become sluggish and stagnant, says Du Cane. This physically demanding exercise is designed to move energy through the body. It also helps improve leg strength, relaxes the hip and pelvic region, prevents lower-back pain, and is believed to improve kidney function. It’s often performed facing a wall to keep your weight back on your heels and discourage leaning forward.
- Stand with feet as close together as you can while still performing this exercise successfully. Keep your hands relaxed by your sides.
- With your weight on your heels, inhale and push your hips back as you bend your knees and slowly sink into a squat. You may have to experiment with widening your feet and angling them slightly outward to find your deepest squat. (Even then, squat only as deeply as you can while keeping your weight on your heels.) Make sure your knees track evenly over your toes. Relax your abdominal muscles, and keep your back as flat as possible.
- At the bottom of the squat, focus your attention at the base of your spine (just above your tailbone). As you rise, exhale and run your attention lightly up the back of your body to the top of your head and then down the front of your body to your abdomen.
- Continue for five to 10 minutes, moving as slowly as possible.
Qigong involves using the hands to direct energy, often in a spiral pattern. Spirals are found in both nature and in the body’s fascia, or connective tissue. By practicing spiral movements, you make the fascia more flexible. The gentle spiraling hand and wrist motions in this exercise are intended to help you relax out of tension and move in a more fluid manner. It also develops energy, power and well-being.
- Stand with your feet wider than your hips, your left hand on the left hip and weight shifted onto the left leg. Bend your right elbow and bring your right hand in front of your left shoulder, with your palm facing down. Keep your shoulders and lower abs relaxed. Lower your stance to make the exercise more challenging.
- Shift your weight onto your right leg. As you do this, slowly move your right hand to the right, rotating your wrist so your thumb is pointing toward the ground. Once your hand is slightly outside of your right shoulder, move it down until it’s at your waist, rotating your wrist until your hand is palm up like you’re cupping something. Simultaneously turn 30 degrees to your right and sink down. Direct your attention from your fingers down to your abdominal area. Shift your weight back onto your left leg.
- Slowly continue making a circle, bringing your right hand back to shoulder height with your palm facing down. Direct your attention from your abdominal area until it reaches your fingers. Rise slightly and turn your body back 30 degrees to face forward.
- Repeat this circular movement for three to five minutes before switching to the other side.
Crane Stands on One Leg
This exercise comes from the “Five Animal Frolics,” a series of traditional qigong exercises based on the natural movements and postures of the crane, bear, monkey, deer and tiger. The crane exercises are intended to develop balance and agility, gently stretch your ligaments, improve circulation, and release your spine.
- Stand with heels touching and feet turned out at 45 degrees. Bend knees slightly and tuck your hips under. Relax your abdominal area, upper chest and shoulders. Focus your attention in your lower abdominal area throughout this exercise.
- Inhale as you circle your arms in front of your body and cross them at chest height with palms facing in. As your hands move in front of your chest, sink your weight onto your left leg.
- Raise your hands to come just over your head, turning your palms out as they pass your throat.
- While you are raising your arms over your head, lift your right foot and place it against your left knee.
- Continue circling your arms to the sides of your body as you turn your palms face down. Keep arms extended, with elbows bent slightly and hands at shoulder level.
- Exhale as you lower your arms back down to your sides and sink your weight onto your right leg.
- Repeat sequence on the other side. Perform at least five repetitions on each side.
- When you first practice qigong, your movements might seem jerky and your breathing shallow. “Take it one step at a time and you’ll get better at it,” Du Cane says. “It’s like learning to play the piano. Don’t expect to knock out a sonata the first time.”
Standing Still With Absorbing
This meditative exercise incorporates a practice called absorbing, which uses the mind to generate vitality in the body, says Du Cane. “It improves the efficiency of your breathing and encourages the body to contract and expand itself.”
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and bend knees slightly, keeping your hips tucked forward. Extend arms at midchest height, as if you were embracing someone. Your arms should stay in the same place throughout the exercise.
- As you inhale and your abdomen expands, you should feel as if your breath is inflating an internal balloon. Meanwhile, imagine you are pulling energy in toward the core of your body.
- As you exhale, imagine that you are sending energy back out of your body.
- Continue for two to five minutes.
Nicole Radziszewski is a freelance writer and personal trainer in the Chicago area. She blogs at www.nicolewritesfitness.com.