Qigong is a meditative practice incorporating breathing techniques, movement, sound, and self-massage. Its origins lie in traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy.
According to the National Qigong Association, qi means “vital energy,” while gong means “skill cultivated through steady practice.”
There are many different styles of qigong, with some focusing on health, while others revolve around martial arts training or spirituality.
This article looks more closely at qigong, including what it involves, its potential health benefits, types, and how to get started.
Qigong is an ancient practice that people believe can benefit the mind, body, and spirit. It derives from Chinese philosophy and medicine.
Similarly to other traditional Chinese practices, qigong derives from the idea that qi, or life force, flows through the body. If qi becomes blocked, stagnant, or flows too quickly, it can lead to health issues. Qigong aims to restore this balance within the body.
Qigong has four components:
- breathing techniques
- body postures
- guided imagery
The practice has gained popularity worldwide — in 2002, 5.8% of American adults participated in either tai chi, yoga, or qigong. In 2017, this figure rose to 14.5%.
Types of qigong
There are many types and styles of qigong, some of which no longer draw on Chinese philosophy. Within the traditional practice of qigong, there are two broad approaches.
The “Wai dan” method is primarily a physical practice that focuses on body postures. Practitioners call it “external elixir.”
In contrast, the “Nei dan” approach is an inward-focused type of qigong that relies more on meditation and visualization while seated. Practitioners call this technique “internal elixir”.
People can also classify qigong styles by their main goal. This could be:
- medical, which focuses on healing
- martial, which improves physical fitness and skill
- spiritual, which looks to spiritual enlightenment
Scientific research into qigong’s potential benefits is relatively new. The existing evidence tends to be low quality, making it difficult to determine if the practice offers these health benefits. However, the limited available research suggests qigong may help with certain aspects of health.
Qigong may ease some types of pain, including chronic pain, though studies examining this claim have mixed conclusions.
For example, a 2019 study reviewed previous research on qigong for chronic pain. The research showed that qigong might offer some relief, but the authors caution that more research is necessary.
Meanwhile, a study from 2019 followed 72 office workers with low back pain. Half of them practiced qigong at a class for 6 weeks, and the other half did not. Compared to the control group, the qigong participants reported a reduction in low back pain.
Promoting fitness and flexibility
Baduanjin qigong is a type of qigong that focuses on body postures and movement. In a 2016 review, researchers looked at previous studies to learn how this activity might affect general fitness. Overall, they found evidence that Baduanjin qigong can improve:
- hand grip strength
- torso flexibility
- blood pressure
- resting heart rate
These benefits were present in studies on younger and older adults. Because qigong is a fairly low impact activity, it can be a suitable form of exercise for individuals with limited mobility or stamina.
Supporting respiratory health
A 2020 paper argues that qigong may have potential as a complementary therapy for older adults who wish to reduce the risk of developing COVID-19. The researchers state that several qigong breathing techniques may:
The paper also suggests qigong may help people recovering from COVID-19 with rehabilitation.
However, while qigong may have potential for supporting respiratory health, there are no controlled trials that assess whether it has any beneficial effect on individuals with COVID-19. Qigong is not a replacement for medical treatment or COVID-19 vaccination.
Learn more about preventing COVID-19.
Improving quality of life after cancer
A 2017 review and meta-analysis on the benefits of tai chi and qigong for cancer survivors found that both practices appear to improve quality of life.
The researchers looked at 22 previous studies, which included a total of 1,200 participants. Tai chi and qigong practice had correlations with improvements in depression, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.
As a practice for the body and mind, qigong does not solely focus on exercise and physical health. It incorporates mindfulness, meditation, breathing regulation, and movement, all of which have general links to stress reduction and mental well-being.
Several studies have also found that practicing qigong can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, although the results are mixed.
The 2017 review cited above on cancer survival found that qigong appeared to lessen depression. A 2019 analysis of prior studies also found the practice had an antidepressive effect, but only in five of the nine studies examined. There was also a high risk of bias in these studies.
Additionally, qigong may help with mental health by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that induces a state of rest and relaxation. However, more high quality research is necessary to confirm these benefits.
There is no evidence documenting any serious risks or side effects associated with qigong.
As with any exercise, it is possible that a person may fall or otherwise injure themselves. However, because qigong uses slow, controlled movements, the risk of injury might be lower than those of more intense forms of exercise.
Additionally, no studies have shown that qigong can act as a substitute for mainstream medical treatments. As a result, it is vital to seek medical help for any health condition.
There are many ways to start practicing qigong. It can help narrow down the focus and style of learning before looking for classes or other learning resources. A person can try:
- Identifying a main goal: It can be easier to choose a type of qigong if an individual has a primary goal in mind for their practice. For example, they could be interested in managing a chronic condition or improving fitness or mental well-being.
- Choosing a way to learn: After identifying a goal, people can think about the ideal way they wish to learn qigong. For example, they may prefer an in-person class, video tutorials, or books.
- Finding resources: Once someone knows what they want to focus on and how they want to learn, they can begin looking for the information or class they need.
- Asking questions: If an individual is working with a qigong teacher, they can ask questions about their style and approach before attending a class. For example, they could ask how physically demanding sessions are or whether the style is traditional or modern.
- Sampling different styles: People may wish to sample alternative styles before settling on one type of qigong.
Qigong is a practice that traditionally focuses on the mind, body, and spirit. It comes from ancient Chinese philosophy and medicine, and it aims to ensure that a person’s life force, or qi, flows freely through the body.
Some scientists believe qigong may have physical and mental health benefits due to its emphasis on mindfulness, breathing exercises, and physical movement. However, high quality research on the practice is limited.
Some may find qigong helps them stay fit and active, ease chronic symptoms such as pain, and reduce stress. However, a person should always speak with a doctor if they have any troubling or persistent symptoms.