Richard G. Petty, MD

Tools of the New Laws of Healing: Qigong

By Richard G. Petty, M.D.

Qigong, which is also sometimes written as Chi Kung, is a component of traditional Chinese medicine that has been becoming increasingly popular in recent years, and is practiced by millions of people every day. It is an ancient system that involves the coordination of different patterns of breathing with specific physical postures, movements of the body and mental disciplines. Qigong is mainly taught for the maintenance of health, but, particularly in China, there are many who teach it as a therapeutic intervention, and medical qigong treatment has been officially recognized as a standard medical technique in Chinese hospitals since 1989. Some forms of qigong are taught in conjunction with the "internal" Chinese martial arts like T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

There are at least three thousand different styles and schools of Qigong, many of which have been modified by Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist beliefs. Most rely on the traditional Chinese belief that the body has an energy field called Qi. It is a common error to equate with "energy" or with breath. It is more accurately translated as "influence," and in the language of modern physics we describe it as a field of information — the Informational Matrix — that underlies the energies of the body. More than 25 separate but inter-related types of Qi are recognized. In Chinese, "gong" means "work", so qigong then, is working with the Qi.

There are some very marked differences in attitudes toward the basis of qigong. It was not allowed to be practiced in China from the time of the Cultural Revolution until around 1980. Most Western medical practitioners, as well as the Chinese government view qigong as a set of breathing exercises and movements exercises, that may benefit health by reducing stress and keeping the body mobile. Others see qigong in more metaphysical terms, claiming that the meditative breathing and movement exercises can influence the fundamental forces of the universe. Some practitioners have claimed to be able to do everything from felling a charging bull, to putting out forest fires. Some also claim that there is a profoundly spiritual aspect to qigong, which is seen as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment through the cultivation of virtue.

The rising popularity of qigong has had one unfortunate consequence and that is the ready availability of books and DVDs which promise to unveil all the secrets of qigong, when in actual fact learning qigong requires intense application and is difficult without a teacher. That being said, there are plenty of simple qigong methods that can be taught quickly and easily by a good teacher.

There is a substantial body of empirical research into the health benefits of qigong, both for health maintenance and for treatment. A literature search completed in January 2006 found 230 papers published over the preceding three years, of which 154 reported data from studies of everything from stress management to modulation of the immune system. Most of the studies were small, and some contained evident methodological flaws. One of the problems in the evaluation of Chinese medicine is that huge numbers of studies are done in China, often involving vast numbers of patients, but many of these studies are not done to Western standards, since in many cases it is felt unethical to undertake controlled studies. However, we have enough data to say that qigong is proving itself for stress management and for pulmonary problems.

Most biologists and physicists reject the notion of qi altogether. I did as well until I observed a number of demonstrations, and subsequently learned to work with qi myself. I can now teach most people to feel energy flows in their own body and some are also able to learn to feel it in others. Such trainings are now being offered by teachers throughout the world and generating consistent reports of the subjective sensations and of health benefits. Learning one or two basic qigong exercises is a fine adjunct to other — including conventional — medical practices and some of these materials are available through

The growing research data on qigong, both positive and negative, together with some practical exercises feature regularly on my weblog:

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