Qigong can be divided into several types. Such as medical treatment Qigong, fitness Qigong and the type we will discuss: Wushu Qigong. Wushu Qigong also has many different types. Within the Shaolin system we have Natural breathing and Reverse breathing styles, and then this can further be divided into many different styles of practice. For example one type may not place importance on the limbs, but emphasise focus on the Dantian instead. Another type, although also involving the Dantian, does not have the breathing centralized there. Here the Dantian is seen as if suspended by iron threads, and the focus is gathering Qi to the four extremities.
In this article we will use 4 types of different characteristic Fist arts as example to aid explanation. They are: I-shaped Tiger Taming Fist which first needs the Dantian’s stability to drive movements; Chang Quan’s criteria of circular movements, with changes in posture influenced coordinated with breathing. Next Crane fist and Snake fist which are also different. Crane fist uses reverse breathing and raising up the breath, this is because its main concern is speed. Raising the breathing up creates lightness instead of steadiness. The process of drawing the Qi into the lower Dantian is not fast, so the Tiger can only be mighty and fierce, sunken and stable, but in the Crane Fist if Qi is raised up, the power is skillful and cunning. Snake fist’s principle is with the Dantian as its central focus, but breathing and resultant Qi are continuous without breaks, spreading to every part of the body.
With Dantian as the Center
Wushu Qigong’s first basic concept is: ” The Dantian is the center”. During Wushu breathing do not use the chest to breathe. Chest breathing is acquired Qi drawn in from the environment, itself having physical restrictions. (This referring to the distinction of prenatal Qi which is the life force your conciseness had from birth, and postnatal Qi which you absorb through breath and food etc. It means that chest breathing is superficial and not linked to your bodies’ deepest Qi reservoir, which is the Dantian). From Eastern medical theory it is said that the Lung belongs to Yin, and hence it is naturally not suited to do a drastic or intense breathing cycle, as this will easily cause injury. Therefore with many Wushu practices it is suggested to use herbal wound medicine to supplement the body and to avoid injury when first starting.
The Dantian can be separated into: Upper Dantian (between the eyes), Middle Dantian (Solar Plexus) and the Lower Dantian (3 inches below the navel). In Wushu Qigong the Middle and Lower Dantian are places for storing Qi. When considering the upper Dantian we only discuss Spirit or Consciousness and not breathing. “Spirit” here means the intention. Fist practice and Qi practice both rely on the intention. Wushu has a saying: “The 3 tips align”, which is a type of intention development. The three tips are the toes, the fingers and the nose. We use inner body forging practice to achieve outer body development. The lower and upper body are united with the intention all to face ahead. Naturally once the intention is developed the body will naturally align to its command. When facing an opponent and only using the eyes to observe their movements, the eyes send a signal to the cerebellum, which then gets the body to respond. This is often too slow. Intention development lets us easily feel the opponent’s movements. As if our hand has consciousness and can detect through touch, and can directly respond.
In Wushu Qigong we inhale through the nose into the body, directly into the Dantian, without stopping the flow of air in the chest. Zhuang Zi’s staple teaching refers to: “Enlightened people breathe with their heels, normal people just breathe with the throat”. Meaning that breathing must be as deep down into the body as possible. When starting Wushu practice, even the basic movements must preserve their relationship with Qi flow and breathing. With HuoBei as example, the toes should hold the floor and the rest of the body should be relaxed. The breath can then naturally enter the Dantian. If obstructed, the Qi normally stops and vacillates in the chest area, and can cause inner injury. If the feet are not steady then the Qi is not stable and will float up, further allowing our base to sway. Progressing on from the basic movements, one’s practice is only able to advance if at the outset one can grasp these few basic essentials.
Additionally there are some common misunderstandings. The Qi entering the Dantian makes the lower belly rise and fall, hence some people will draw the breath to the belly’s outer layer. This is a mistake. When doing any movements, the spine is the support. It is situated at the rear of the body and if the Qi is drawn to the belly’s outer layer, then because the belly is flexible, the body movements follow the breath and are unsteady. Thus Qi is unable to reside at the Dantian, which is our primary requirement.
Qigong Basic Movements’ Main Aspects.
When breathing one should inhale through the nose. The eyes are closed but still looking towards the nose. The nose points to the heart, as if watching the Qi flow down into the body. The tongue is lifted up to lightly touch the roof of the mouth. Draw in the chest. The lower jaw is slightly pulled in making the neck upright. Breathing is steady, slow and natural, inhaling into the Dantian. Don’t forcefully squeeze or press the air. When exhaling the tongue can lower a bit to the lower jaw, the air exits through the mouth. The hand movement is the same as the I-shaped Tiger Taming fist’s raising hands posture that is part of its opening greet. In our Qigong practice it is most important to clearly discuss and understand the fundamental concepts, as each particular style or form is just one kind of usage or application of those ideas. So learning forms is not the goal itself, it is merely a tool to understand these concepts.
Frequently people’s minds are easily distracted. If the eyes are open during Qi practice, the mind will be more open to external distraction unless one can look but not see. Practicing Qi above all else requires the Spirit to become focused. The eyes, ears, nose, tongue and all the bodies’ senses should become focused and unified by the control of the intention. The eyes being closed does not mean we are without sense awareness. We should be looking inward at our own breathing. Following with the breath as it moves, just as when hitting with the fist the eyes follow the fist’s path. The tip of the tongue pressing up must not shake or move, the lower jaw is slightly pulled inwards. Allowing the air to flow undisturbed into the body. The chest must not stick out but rather should be slightly drawn in. However one should not concave too much to the extent that the back is hunched vertically. The spine must stay up straight. The breath is drawn continuously along the inner side of the spine into the Dantian and not on the outer surface of the belly. We can also lightly raise the anus. When exhaling the tongue is against the lower jaw and the air is slowly exhaled out. The release of Qi is slow and controlled if we wish to acquire the goal of keeping the Qi stable. This is like blowing up a balloon with air. When releasing the air it is essential to use the hand to pinch the mouth of the balloon and let the air slowly release out, so that the balloon won’t fly around chaotically.
People have said: “Beginners practice for and hour, but experts practice for only one minute”. That is because experts can grasp all the essentials, and can hence quickly achieve the biggest effect. Also the beginners’ hour of practice will mostly be focused on lessening problems. The movements are done, but regarding the advancement of Fist Skill, and the storing and cultivation of Qi the benefit will be small. Only after forging practice for a longer time, problems of technique can slowly be reduced, and thereupon one can grasp the essentials. With both Fist Skill and breathing essentials, the more they are practiced, the more quickly they can be achieved, resulting in faster progress. Often Martial Arts practice bottlenecks if breathing and Fist Skill cannot link together. Then we are merely forging practice on posture and movement and not building our ability to nurture and use Qi.
Practicing Qi’s Four Requirements: Breathing must be Deep, Fine, Long and Even.
Qigong practices’ first requirement is the breathing must be deep. When practicing Qi it is best to find a place with fresh airflow, so to encourage deeper inhaling. The deeper the better, as if you want to inhale all the air between Heaven and Earth. Wushu Qigong development can be split into four stages namely: Inhaling Qi, Turning Qi, Moving Qi and Converting Qi. “Inhaling Qi” is initially just a process of storing and cultivation. If we want to get our Qigong to become part of our Fist skill, we must first accumulate an amount of Qi. If we equate this Qi to water carrying a boat. Regarding the storing and cultivation of Qi, the deeper the water that is available the bigger the boat that can be carried, and for a longer time too.
In our system some people can have a mistaken notion that we only begin to develop the relationship between Fist skill and Qi after learning the I-Shaped Tiger Taming Fist. But actually from the very beginning with the basic movements of Huobei and Shuaiyao or even beginner forms like Lian Bu Quan and Gong Li Quan, breathings natural close connection with Fist Skill should not be broken. In accordance with normal reasoning when practicing the I-Shaped Tiger Taming Fist, because of its power and pace, breathing co-ordination should be very smooth and fast. But when one is just starting to learn the I-Shaped Tiger Taming Fist one is only starting to understand Qi, and hence when encountering breathing that should be fast, it causes one to breath incorrectly and only use chest power. This makes the force generated neither hard nor fierce, as it should be, but diffused instead. This is because the beginner has no idea of Qigong’s basic concepts. Once in place though they serve as a guide when trying to combine Qi with Fist skill and the use of weapons also. Hence these two Wushu disciplines both can transform to have the liveliness and vitality originally intended.
When beginning to practice the I-shaped Tiger Taming Fist normally it is done in a fierce manner, but regarding Qigong practice this should be avoided. At the beginning of ones Qi practice one definitely needs to store and nurture Qi. If the breathing isn’t deep into the Dantian then there is no centre. Having no centre ones base will be unstable. Hence one can only generate power using muscle action and has no awareness of using the Spirit. Hence only using Li (muscle power) and no Jing. (The term for power generated through harmonised body Qi and intention. Normal muscle force is short and burst like, Jing is continuous and recyclable). “Li” is only dependent on muscle and bone structure to produce force. When Jing is emitted the muscles are definitely not tense, Jing uses intention to apply Qi, then uses Qi to apply force, so using almost the whole bodies power. Most notably with the waist, legs and Dantian as center, then integrated through intention, breathing and posture changes combine to achieve the force.
It is important to know that the hard and fierce Jing emitted for the I-Shaped Tiger Taming Fist is not the only use of Qi. Chang Quan, Snake Fist and Crane Fist’s emitted Jing are different types of Qi expression. Qi itself is formless, it can be flat, it can be round, it can be long or short and it can change. Applying Qi can be light or heavy. Just like water it can become a big wave and also can transform into a small stream. How can our intention guide this stream of Qi? How can we develop this type of force totally by our selves? Of course you must first have this stream of Qi. Then if you want to make it into a big wave you must have enough stored Qi supply for this task.
During Qigong’s forging practice one certainly cannot be impatient. One needs to trust gradual development. “Xi” then is in order to cultivate patience, and slowly achieve progress one small step at a time. Impatience causes the flow of Qi to be broken, and hence we cannot achieve the result of “If the Qi is long (unbroken), the force will be big”.
When inhaling it is like drawing a silk thread into the Dantian. Exhaling is also the same. If the breath is too fast then the flow is interrupted and the “thread” is broken.
Practicing Qi is like the flow of water, it needs to be continuous (unbroken). Only then can the Qi be continuous. Through impatience one will not be able to develop the martial power to use against others, further more it can actually cause the practitioner to harm them selves. Continued practice in this way can cause the so-called “Excess of fire Qi”. This is normally because of impatience. In this case the balance of “Fire Qi” (connected to the liver) and “Water Qi” (connected to the Kidneys) is out, and the excess of Fire Qi harms the body. It has also been know to cause delusions.
Fist practice and Qi practice both place extreme emphasis on the intention being focused. Qi practice requiring the breath to be finer has even greater need for this focus.
Starting off the breathing must be very fine, so fine that only you yourself can feel the air flow. Exhaling is different for our two styles. The Northern Shaolin Fist requires the exhale to be fine. The Southern Shaolin practice requires an audible exhale, but this breathing is still fine. Through this exhale sound we can check if the breathing is correct or not. It must be done without stops or breaks. Later if we note that when practicing Qi the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and intention are all totally focused, then there is no need to further depend on the exhale sound as a check. So we mostly adopt the traditional Northern Shaolin principle of not emitting sound. However in the Southern Shaolin styles there are some movements that are comparatively fierce, so they do require the emission of sound. In this case of applied use of breathing to generate power, if one doesn’t emit sound one may feel the Qi is smothered or blocked and that they are holding back when delivering power. However in our discussion of the cultivation stage of Qigong, silent breathing is correct and should not be confused with the above discussion of applied Qi usage.
With the requirement of the breath being fine, at the same time we must make sure that there are no breaks in the flow of air. So typically in Long Fist practice, when doing Lian Bu Quan this continuity is still achievable, but when practicing Gong Li Quan some people in order to try and punch with more power stamp down the foot hard when punching out. This only serves to break the flow of Qi. Although saying it has a lot of power, and appears to have a lot of intention, but after striking with one fist like this one’s power is exhausted (i.e. no accumulated power). The way of developing Jing is not easily manifested, so that after hitting with one fist all power is not dissipated. Each time then power build up must start a fresh, and from one punch to the next having to pause for a bit, being unable to link up ones power.
When practicing Qigong the duration of the breath definitely must be longer than normal breathing. We often use the tortoise, snake and crane to represent longevity because their breathing is very slow and long. Their metabolism is slow so they have a long life.
Qi practice is not only about breathing. Spirit or conscious awareness is also important. If Spirit can continue longer, intention and breathing then can be continuous and unbroken.
We often use Chang Quan and Snake Fist’s movements to increase the breathing length. Their movements, even though they could be done very quickly, if slowed down and enlarged it allows the breathing to follow the changes in body posture. The eyes should also follow with the general body movement. Earlier we mentioned that Fist practice should not have breaks. Between one strike and the next, although the Jing has stopped, the intention is not broken. Unbroken intention will let the movements easily follow on when it is time to continue, and hence it is not necessary to start again afresh building power from nothing.
Qi practice also requires intention to be unbroken. Broken intention makes each movements’ Jing need to be formed afresh leaving gaps between movements. Fist practice requires these empty gaps to be reduced. If each time we do one movement all the intention is scattered only to have to be formed afresh for the next move, then after practicing for 10 years our Wushu will still be useless. Even if one punch could knock down a tree, but with scattered intention after hitting once we would have nothing more. Suppose your one punch misses and your opponent can return 4 or 5 strikes. Qi practice then needs to make the empty spaces between moves disappear. Just like the sea. One wave rises and is followed by the next before the first has leveled out, so as to continue unbroken.
When starting fist practice one needs to use slower movement so we can be sure to check that breathing is flowing with body posture and stepping. If movements are fast and with lots of muscle power and holding the breath, this can feel like there is sweet chili sauce flowing in the blood. This is caused by holding the breath and over exerting. The Qi production is stopped, which can cause injury to the body. Also when extending the intention it can be used to watch the Qi along its path. One should check to see if the Qi is an unbroken link from when entering the body until when it exits. If it is unbroken then there is no problem, and one can continue with practice. If incorrect, one must normally return to the beginning and review the basic movements. So our potential to progress past this bottleneck then lies with our practice of continuous self-review and checking of movements already learned.
4) Even/ Unbroken:
“Even” is breathing’s equal distribution from inhale to exhale. Not only must the breath not break at any point but further more it must be of a constant rate of flow. In application this seems impossible with Fist practice having light and heavy, fast and slow movements all intermixed. This has already been discussed with the application of Qi earlier. As a beginner starting Fist practice, movement must not be fast, but rather slow and uniform. This is the only way that the whole bodies breathing can link up. By the time the movement is well practiced, intention can naturally accelerate the movement to be faster. When practicing the I-Shaped Tiger Taming Fist we say it must have: “Raising steps that lift wind and clouds, roaring breaths that move mountains and rivers”. But when first learning it must be slow. Slow movement is the only way to stay connected. If we start to introduce speed too early the flow of breath will be interrupted. The remedy for this is continued forging practice, nothing more.
Only after the breathing is slow, steady and stable can speed be introduced. Only after a period of regular forging Qi practice does the breathing method become natural and we can feel inside the body and so produce the bodies’ expansion and contraction. When starting we only feel the bodies movements, later we feel the movement of Qi, producing the so-called “Qi Sense”. To develop this Qi Sense is Qi practice’s most important point. Taiji Quan has a saying: “If my opponent can’t sense me, and I can sense my opponents intention, then I will be invincible”. This saying can be interpreted as follows: When part of our body collides with the opponents’ body, both of us definitely have a physical sensation. But if we have Qi Sense we have sensation before the opponent does.
There is a saying: “All styles can be defeated, only the fast are not defeated”. This “fast” is actually not a physical movement done quickly but is attained by the Qi Sense going first, feeling the opponents movement. Hence they arrive late even though moving first. Unless the speed of the attack is too fast (as a bullet) or too acute or sharp, Qi Sense will be too late to respond, this is because people have a definite limit. If one’s own breathing is not uniform and stable we will not be able to sense changes in breathing coming from outside. Also not being stable we are unable to influence the opponents body posture or Qi.
Extending this Qi principle we can draw example from Qinna or breaking free from a grasp.
Due to our Qi being continuous, but the opponents’ force being segmented and with our stable sense reading the opponents changes in breath, naturally we can control them. This use of Qi’s most devastating effect is when the breathing is intensified and transformed. We don’t want the Qi to build and then dissipate, we want it to rather build and intensify. Just as one and one is added to make two and then again added to make three. As opposed to interrupted Qi flow where one dissipates to become zero and then has to become one again.
Leading with intention
It is said: “Practicing 1000 times, makes the body movement natural.” But this has one prerequisite condition: We must practice with conscious awareness, and we must know this type of “One command, one step” unified method. Otherwise the result of practice is that movement is natural, but not useful in practical application. In the historic work entitled “All Men are Brothers” there is a character Jiu Wen Long who previously followed several teachers practicing the various pole methods. His technique was extremely beautiful and smooth. The movements one could say were very natural, but once meeting Jin Wang the expert teacher of the king’s 80 000 elite guard, it was clear his pole techniques although looking good, weren’t one bit useful. Hence in our Fist Skill or Qigong our emphasis is all on consciousness and intention as the guide. This does not imply that these techniques are inflexible but rather should be guided by intention each time they are applied. Each time a technique is applied the situation will be slightly different. Range from the body can vary. The intended goal of the action will be different. There will be a different opponent and different circumstances. Each time however, our movements and postures must naturally follow to make the appropriate adjustments to achieve the required effect. If this is kept in mind then even when practicing on one’s own, progress can also be made.
When first learning Qigong we need to understand the basic ideas clearly and then start to practice. Find a place with good airflow and few distractions. Stay focused. Relax the body and don’t be in a rush or restless. Based on the required principles gradually get the breath to extend longer. Starting off the breath must not be too fast or fierce. Initially don’t aim too high. Practicing Qi is not just a routine habit. One must time after time improve one’s practice. Carelessness cannot be allowed. Preferably do the practice well once rather than carelessly 20 times. This way you will at least gain the effect of one time’s practice. Practicing Qi’s highest need is conscious awareness. Don’t practice with rigidity. If consciousness is not present normally there will be no effect.
The most important thing in Qi practice is to achieve an effect. But first the Qi Sense needs to be cultivated. First the seed must be planted, and then slowly nurtured. Be sure to avoid rushing and “pulling up the seedlings to try and make them grow faster”.
Furthermore with Wushu Qigong, the point is to get Qi to merge with our Fist Skill. Otherwise Qigong ought to belong to Qigong, and Fist Skill should belong to Fist Skill. If Fist practice cannot be combined with Qi, the fist has no way to advance. This is the so called: ” Fist practice without practicing its usefulness and applicability is futile, one can practice ones whole life and it will still be useless”.
By: Teacher Chen Qing Ho
Complied by: Instructor Lu Ray Xu
Translated by: Paul Hanrahan, Arthur Hsu, Jiang Xian Ting