Great article written by Si heng Andrew Sneath who is currently living in Taiwan
Qi Gong Level 1
The actual movements that are taught in qi gong level-one class have been covered extensively in other articles. The movements are very simple yet most people have many problems. This is due to the fact that the actual practice of qi gong is not dependent on the physical movements. Rather the physical movements are a vehicle through which the real practice can be achieved. For these reasons, the movements will not be discussed in this article. This article covers some principles of practicing qi gong as well as some of the mistakes most students make.
Qi gong practice was categorized into two sections; external and internal. External refers to the physical aspects such as muscle, bone, and sinew. Internal is further categorized into qi and intent. Qi relates the the use of breath and intent relates to the use of mind. The external and internal need to be harmonised, yet the focus of power is based on the internal.
The class was held over three weeks which roughly correlated with three kinds of breathing; dan tian breathing, body breathing, and stable breathing. Dan tian breathing is the foundation of healthy breathing. Proficiency in dan tian breathing is necessary for the practice of qi gong. Body breathing supports dan tian breathing and provides momentum for dan tian breathing to be more effective. Stability breathing comes third in order for one to put into practice dan tian and body breathing on the opponent, stability is essential, and maintaining stability between inhale and exhale is the goal of stability breathing.
The first thing to note before starting is one’s posture. One needs to stand with feet shoulder width apart, weight evenly balanced, in an upright but relaxed posture. The chest should be slightly concave so that the breath is unobstructed and may sink as low as possible. The chin should be slightly tucked-in so one’s spine is straight. The tongue should be pressed against the roof of the mouth, behind the top front teeth. This can be thought of as a circuit breaker that ensures the circulation or qi in the body. Hands should be folded and rest lightly on the lower belly, about three finger-widths below the navel. The reason for this is that the mind follows where the hands go. This can assist in bringing awareness to the dan tian and broaden one’s sense of where the dan tian resides in the body.
Dan tian breathing
Dan tian breathing has four characteristics: deep, long, fine steady/even.
Deep- the three levels
The body is divided into three sections. The first is shoulder/neck level, next rib-cage level and finally waist level. Due to external factors such as stress, poor posture, tension and bad habits, most people only breathe as deep, or as shallow, as their shoulder level or rib-cage level. The natural and most effective way to breath is to relax and allow the breath to sink deeper, below the shoulder level, below the rib cage and below the waist level into ones core, or dan tian. If you find that the breath is still not going deep enough try to imagine that your toes, the deepest part of your body, are drawing in and expelling air.
Long- correct timing
When breathing, the inhale should be six seconds and the exhale six seconds. When one is comfortable with this length of time it can be extended into longer intervals. Breathing should be through the nose, not the mouth, because the nose is more suited to the proper breathing technique of the four characteristics. Breathing through the nose, one has more control over timing as well as the quality of air inhaled or exhaled.
Breathing should be natural with minimal effort. There is no reason for the noticeable difference in the body posture between inhale and exhale. It is a subtle force that draws breath into the body and if one’s chest or shoulders rise it’s a clear sign or poor form. It’s useful to image a pulley system deep in the abdomen that is subtly filling a pail with air. It is this pulley system that, requiring no muscular exertion, both draws and expels air.
The combination of deep, long and fine breathing should naturally result in steady breathing. The vigour, or the force, of the air should be even, stable and controlled. It should not be rushed or forced. If you run out of air before six seconds or you find you have too much air in your lungs after six seconds, your breathing is uneven and unnatural.
Body breathing has the same basic foundations as dan tian breathing. In addition, there are two extra characteristics; namely rounded and extended. Rounded means that there are no sharp angles in the joints of the body as this restricts qi flow. Apart from the joints, the back should be rounded in a convex manned and the chest rounded in a concave manner. This helps to prevent obstructions, especially the obstruction caused by using shoulder and upper back strength in movements. The rounded posture allows for a more relaxed body with less obstructions and sharp angles that cut off the flow of qi.
Extension should start in the dan tian and move the limbs forward. Extending stretches the body and opens it up for unrestricted flow of qi. Furthermore, extension is the opposite of contraction, which is associated with muscle strength, not conducive to qi gong. Extension of the body naturally frees one from muscular force and allows for dan tian power to be the source of movement.
Body breathing doesn’t involve an explicit inhale and exhale as dan tian does. It is rather an expansion and contraction of the body’s internal space. The practice of body breathing is used in conjunction with dan tian breathing. First, one uses body breathing then one makes a smooth, subtle transition to dan tian breathing. Body breathing creates space and momentum for dan tian breathing to be more powerful.
Stable breathing is added to a sound foundation of dan tian and body breathing. It add the important element of stability to creating qi power. In gong fu, being stable is usually an unassailable advantage. Moreover, when using qi power on an opponent, stability is essential. The practice of stable breathing cultivates the ability to maintain one’s stability while generating dan tian or body breathing pwwer. IN stable brathing, pauses are taken between inhale and exhale to bring attention to the dan tian and focus intention on maintaining a stable core. Once the core (dan tian) is stable, the next section of the sequence can be done. The key aspect of this training is to always maintain a stable core and initiate all movements, not from limbs and joints such as shoulders, but from a stable dan tian. With increased focus on using the power from the dan tian, the more relaxed muscles are joints become. Tension and soreness in muscles and joints is a good indicator that your form is wrong, and is likely due to not being stable in your core and therefore not being able to use the power that can be created from the dan tian.
No feeling of qi in dan tian breathing
At first there is no sensation except for the gentle rise and fall of the lower belly, so it is difficult to k now at first whether you are breathing into your dan tian or not. To gain some sensation, stand in the dan tian breathing posture with hands on the belly. While breathing, slowly rock back on the inhale and rock forward on the exhale, maintaining a straight relaxed back and chin tucked in. The dan tian naturally fills when rocking back and naturally empties when rocking forward. By bringing awareness to the sensation, one can get a sense of where the dan tian is situated and perhaps a sense or qi.
No sense or understanding of body breathing
Body breathing is a difficult subject to conceptually understand, especially without a practical experience of it. To get a feeling of the expanding and contracting of internal space and qu that can occur without explicit breathing, stand as in the posture above for dan tian brathing and do the same excersise but without purposefully inhaling or exhaling. You should not hold your breath but allow the air to meove freely. Body breathing will naturally occur during this excersise and you can experience the feelingyou should have when bracticing body breathing.
Bad posture / poor form
Common causes and indicators of bad postire are rising, tense shoulders; protruding chin or bent upper neck; rtense muscles, especially shoulder, neck, and upper back.
Common indictors or poor form are; dissiness or seeing stars; not being sure if you are using yor muscles. It is extremely usefil to pobserve these symprtoms in the body while practicing. If one or more arises know why it is occurring and correct it immediately. If you cannot fix the problem immediately stop practicing for a few minutes or even decide to call it a dal and try again tomorrow.
The source of most problems is not using dan tian to power the movement. The dan tian needs to be stable and be the engine of all movement. Sometimes we use the dan tian to a point and then meet a force. Unfortunately, our habitual reaction to force is to use force so that when we mee a force we start to use muscles, particularly shoulder muscles to overcome this force. And when we switch from using dan tian to using shoulders we lose the momentum and power of the dan tian. Aim to stay focused on instigating all movement from the dan tian and you have a better chance of overcoming force through yielding and overcoming with power of the dan tian.
Bruce Lee once said; “It’s about daily decrease, not daily increase.” This mirrors Taoist philosophy which generally emphasizes a natural simplicity in tune with nature and “returning to the state of the uncarved block” (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching; Ch 28). In a similar vein, the Master said that it doesn’t matter if you practice a form 100 times; what matters is how many problems you discovered about yourself. And this is, or me, the essence of the learning and practicing of qi gong. The movements are simple enough for anyone to perform so the focus should be on discovering obstructions and problems in your technique and grinding away at them until nothing remains. When all obstacles are grinded away, the qi can flow freely and powerfully and mastery will have been achieved. A daily decreasing of one’s own muscular force and bodies problems should be the goal and practice of qi gong.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be” – Lao Tzu