I’m going to write this down before I forget it. I’ve just spent five hours doing a refresher course on the Yi Jin Jing, Damo’s legendary sixth century Shaolin Buddhist Qigong set, and I’m feeling very relaxed and qi-tingly as a result, but I’m also confused. This is normal for my qigong practice of course. The difference now though is that I see a reason for my confusion and it’s this: there are two schools of Qigong: Physiological and Spiritual. For the past three years, I’ve been aspiring towards a greater understanding of the spiritual, while practicing what is essentially the physiological.
No wonder I’m confused!
The spiritual approach is characterised by its Taoist influence and is the one we’ve all come across in popular books, the one that talks about an “energy body”. Its proponents describe qi as a derivative of the Tao, a universal unknown, a fundamental energy which can be harvested by physical and psychological methods in order to produce effects within the gross body. These effects range from a sense of general well being, improved health, the healing of chronic ailments in both oneself and others, the ability to sense, manipulate and project qi, right through to the acquisition of paranormal abilities, including astral travel. Phew!
Taking the Taoist system to its extremes, practitioners work towards refining their energy body through internal alchemical methods, to such an extent they are able to achieve feats of super-human ability, as well as spiritual immortality. Those of us who do not practice such methods, it is said, will be unable to carrying our personality forwards upon death – we just fizzle out, unable to maintain our self-awareness on the energy plane – or so the theory goes. Proper Taoist immortals are rare, and possibly mythological characters.
The important thing in this school is the acceptance of, or the belief in the human energy body and this mysterious stuff called qi.
The physiological school, on the other hand, which is the one I’m familiar with, on a working level, doesn’t talk about an energy body and it doesn’t mention qi either, except in very guarded terminology that wouldn’t offend a western physician. Significantly, on the course I’ve just done, qi wasn’t mentioned at all. Instead, the emphasis was on “energy” in terms of vascular and lymphatic kinetics – basically movement of the blood and lymph.
And that’s it.
The blood gets the good stuff into the body – the oxygen – and qigong sends the oxygen deep into the tissues, where it’s needed for regeneration, repair, or day to day function. Meanwhile the lymph gets the bad stuff out, the waste, the pathogens, the poison, all the stuff that’ll do us harm if it’s given the chance to settle in. Qigong methods stimulate the flow of the lymph by a mixture of deep breathing and movement. I know this. I’ve known it for a long time. I’ve even written about it – so why is it suddenly a revelation to me?
All of the health benefits of practising Qigong (or Tai Chi) from the physiological perspective then, are the result of preventing the stagnation of blood and lymph. There’s nothing spiritual or philosophical involved here, and all it boils down to is that if you want a healthy body you have to keep it moving. In other words it’s a purely biological thing, and for anyone looking for something more mysterious behind that qi-tingly feeling, it can be a bit of a let-down, like being told there’s no such thing as Father Christmas.
This is all very interesting, but while I apparently practice the the physiological style of Qigong, and its rather prosaic explanations do answer many of my questions regarding my experiences of it - it doesn’t explain everything.
Even in the western-friendly physiological qigong school, we are taught an awareness of the meridian system and the vessels, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, derived from the Taoist tradition. We are taught to imagine the flow of “stuff” along specific channels while performing particular movements of a Qigong set. In the Yi Jin Jing, for example, when Weituo presents the first part of this pestle, he’s opening up his heart channel, and my understanding is that in physiological terms this works to the benefit of that particular organ. But when Weituo presents the second part of his pestle, it opens up his triple burner. Now, the triple burner doesn’t exist as a physical entity within the body at all – more as a concept – more a part of that imaginary “energy body” of the Taoists, so what the blood and lymph’s doing when we open up the triple burner channel, where it’s flowing to or from in physiological terms, I’ve no idea.
I’m really not getting the whole story here! All of this is very confusing of course and of no interest whatsoever to anyone else, so I think we’ll end it there.
Just one more thing! (thank you uncle)
At a practical level, it doesn’t matter what your understanding of this process is, physiological or spiritual; you simply do the moves and you feel the results.
You feel great!