Chi or ‘qi’ is the circulating life energy that according to Chinese philosophy is inherent in all living things. Chi flows through the body along energy pathways and is the key underlying principle in martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine, the ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’ that unites the body, mind and spirit.
Which activities can harness and control chi?
Exercise is one of the best ways to develop and guide chi throughout the body, to promote healing and improve general health. Several types of exercises share the basic principles for harnessing chi in what is described in traditional Chinese medicine as the three regulations: body, breath and mind focus, thereby involving posture, movement and meditative components. The following meditative movements are known to optimize the flow of energy in the body through following these regulations.
Often described as meditation in motion, tai chi has become one of the most well-known methods for refining chi and guiding it around the body. Tai chi was originally developed as both a martial art and form of meditative movement, hence each motion has a particular combative application and theoretically could be used in self-defense. Tai chi is similar to other traditional martial arts in that postures are often taught progressively and have a defined start and finish.
Tai chi motions are typically slow and gentle, resembling the flowery movements of some Kung Fu styles, yet are highly choreographed with complex and lengthy sequences. It is a low-impact, weight-bearing exercise, however the key components of fitness are still addressed, the practitioner deriving muscle strength, balance and flexibility as well as some aerobic conditioning. The focus is on softness, spiritual cultivation and developing internal energy.
With roots in traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy, qigong is considered to be the modern offspring of some of Asia’s most ancient healing and medical practices. Qigong comprises a variety of simple and repetitive stylized motions, which therefore deem it more accessible by many individuals than other forms of meditative movement. Often practiced in nature, qigong exercises entail a series of gentle and exacting motions, coordinating rhythmic breathing, relaxed awareness and movement, all designed to enhance chi function and guide energy to parts of the body. A key underlying philosophy of qigong is that the practice effects the cultivation of balance and the harmony of chi, positively influencing the body’s chi pathways, promoting health and healing.
Yoga has developed over many thousands of years to embrace a varied range of styles and disciplines. Much of the yoga practiced today is known as Asana, involving physical postures that emphasize lengthening of the spine and are designed to build strength and flexibility. Poses can follow each other in quick succession, thus creating heat in the body through movement, or be practiced slowly to perfect body alignment. The exercise is believed to promote the flow of chi through the nervous system and assist in strengthening core muscles, joints and connective tissues, helping to relieve stress, eliminate toxins and improve overall mental well being. Yoga is both a spiritual and ascetic discipline which focuses on harmonizing the body and mind, as well as breath control and simple meditation, with the ultimate goal being a state of permanent peace.
What are the benefits of meditative movement exercises?
According to Harvard Medical School researchers, a growing body of evidence is building a compelling case for the prevention and rehabilitation of many health conditions as a result of meditative movement being combined with standard medical treatment. Much of the research surrounding chi and its effect on the body is limited in scope, however those who regularly practice these movements report heightened feelings of well-being, improved strength and flexibility, enhanced quality and duration of sleep, better balance and coordination, greater awareness of self and reduced pain and stiffness.
A significant number of controlled trials have demonstrated consistent, positive results that meditative movement improves circulatory, lymphatic, digestive and respiratory functions as well as cardiovascular health, and are good tools in combating stress and decreasing symptoms of fatigue. Scientists have also found a link with improved immune response to common viruses, reporting twice the amount of immunity in those that practice meditative movement to those who don’t. It has also been established that meditative movement lowers blood pressure, improves mood and physical functioning, helps maintain bone density, decreases side-effects associated with many conventional forms of medical treatment and improves quality of life. Studies focusing solely on qigong and tai chi have also found both alpha and beta brain waves have been boosted in those practicing the exercise, suggesting that health benefits not only include relaxation but result also in strong focus and sharpening of the mind.