When it comes to martial arts there is a long-held precept that states, "learn the form, but seek the formless". As the predecessor to kung fu, the same concept holds true for Qigong. With that said, on the journey to achieve the pinnacle of Qigong training, a freeform Qigong program takes the top spot.
What do the movements of Qigong do for the body?
It's important to remember that the movements of Qigong exercise serve a specific purpose. Qigong exercises are specifically designed to stimulate the acupuncture meridians so to promote the movement of Qi throughout the body.
Qi moves blood and blood nourishes tissue. It is the smooth and effortless movements of Qi (energy) around the body that allows every organ system to work efficiently. The meridians or "rivers" of energy travel throughout the connective tissue layers of the fascia.
The fascia not only connects all, muscles, bones, tendons, and organs, but it is interwoven within them all. You can visualize fascia as an ever-growing spiderweb of connective tissue. Forever being torn down and rebuilt over and over again and we move through life.
Every time we stretch our body through large or different ranges of motion, we tear apart a fine layer of new fascia that has been built. This is a necessary process for our body to be healthy and to function properly. On the contrary, limited activity and movement allow for the build-up of successive layers of fascia.
As new fascial layers grow upon themselves they begin to take on a more rigid scaffold-like presentation. Over time our body begins to stiffen as our muscles lose their ability to pull and the joints lose their ability to bend. This is why sedentary lifestyles are damaging to health and why it is so important to keep moving in new and challenging ways as we age.
It is the total body connection that allows the fascia to act as a conduit of information exchange throughout the body. Traveling within the facia are trillions of microscopic nerve endings and blood vessels. It is through this complex network of electrically charged signals that the fascia acts as the internet of the body.
At certain locations within the body, the arrangement of fascia is organized in such a way as to clearly define a path or "river". By way of countless trials and errors on millions of people, over thousands of years, ancient Traditional Chinese Medical Practitioners mapped out 405 access points into this information network.
These access points stimulated by touch or with a needle came to be known as Acupuncture points. Through these access points, practitioners could improve communication between all organs muscles, and tissues of the body and bring the patient back into a state of health.
How does the mind affect the body?
Moving the body is vitally important to ensure not only the continual fascial remodeling process but also the stimulation of the acupuncture points and the meridians they lay within. This is where the mindful connection to movements becomes important.
It has long been said that "YI Dao, Qi Dao", "Where the mind goes, the Qi follows". So when it comes to Qigong practice, yes, the specific ways in which you move the body is important, but even more important, is the mental connection to the movements.
By mentally reviewing your grocery list or planning your weekend while engaged in your Qigong practice, you limit the powerful healing effect the practice can provide. With a focused mindful connection to the activation and stimulation of the tissues being used to perform each movement, a Qigong practitioner can literally give themselves a free acupressure treatment.
Now yes, knowing the course and path of the meridians would take the healing nature of your Qigong practice to the next level, but it is not necessary to receive the benefits. Connection to the moment by way of connection to the breath and body is enough to provide some well-deserved self-health care.
Simply moving one arm can be turned into a full-body sensory experience. Don't just lift your arm. Feel your arm lift. Feel where the shoulder tenses. Feel where pressure is exerted on the elbow joint. Feel the air press against the skin of your hand. Feel how your weight shifts and your core engage as your balance is challenged.
Every moment you are mindfully connected to the tissues of your arm you are also connected to and influencing the flow of Qi through the six different meridians that travel through it. In just the simple movement of lifting one arm, you can stimulate the lung, large intestine, heart, small intestine, san jiao, and pericardium meridians.
Movement is medicine!
Now take that concept and apply it to the rest of your body during the rest of your practice. It is one of the major reasons why Qigong is performed slowly. By moving slowly you allow your mind to connect to your movements in a way that fast explosive movement just doesn't allow for.
The rest of the external world falls away as you connect to your very own private internal world of your body. There are no pains of past emotions or anxieties of future events. There is only the feel of your body at the present moment. This is how Qigong practice becomes a moving meditation. It is also why connecting to the way you move rather than "how" you move is more important for healing both mind and body.
Why do we learn Qigong sets instead of just moving freely?
The simple answer is, most of us are just not mentally free enough to move freely, lol. Most of us are used to moving our bodies in limited ways. Unless we play a sport, dance, hike, do yoga or martial arts, most people's major physical activity is ...... well, walking. Not exactly a dynamic physical activity!
The specific movements incorporated into Qigong sets are designed to challenge the body in many ways.
- Slowly shifting the body weight from one foot to another challenges the balance and vestibular system.
- Activating the opposite arm and leg at the same time challenges coordination as well as activation of both hemispheres of the brain.
- Circular movements of the torso challenge the core muscles to stabilize the spinal column.
- deep diaphragmatic breathing challenges the lunges to exchange oxygen more efficiently.
- performing complex choreography challenges spacial perception and memory.
- dynamic movements challenge joints to move through large ranges of motion.
- unique motor movements challenge muscles to provide strength and stability.
However, at a certain point, the goal is to remove the limiting mental obstacle "our adult critic" and just move! We need to take a note from kids playing in the playground. Children do Qigong without ever giving it a thought. They twirl around, swing their arms in the air, balance on one foot, and walk on their tippy-toes.
With not a care in the world, there is only the moment they are in, and the fun they are having. At a certain point, this is the aim of Qigong.
"First learn the way, then find your own way!"
Don't get me wrong, there is a wonderful benefit in learning the long-taught specific movements of the Qigong sets that have been created over the history of the practice. I have spent decades doing just so. But at a certain point, the goal is to merge mind, body, breath, and intention and just move.
It's where Qigong practice takes on a dream-like quality. It's the moment where just like in a dream you are creating and experiencing the reality around you at the same time. You become your breath, you become your body, you become your movement. In that moment you are pure energy. Your way becomes the way, and a freeform qigong program is the vehicle.... give it a try!