Thousands of Qigong Forms
There are thousands of qigong forms, associated with hundreds of existing schools/lineages of Taoist practice. Some forms include a lot of physical movement – similar to taiji or martial arts forms. Others are primarily internal - focused on breath, sound and visualization in ways that require little or no physical movement. While all qigong forms aim to cultivate life-force energy, each of the many specific forms has its own specific techniques for accomplishing a particular kind of “cultivation of life-force.”
Basic Qigong Axiom: Energy Follows Attention
In spite of their differences, there are basic mechanisms that are common to all forms of qigong. The primary axiom of qigong practice is “energy follows attention.” Where we place our awareness – our conscious attention – is where qi, i.e. life-force energy, will flow and gather. You can experiment with this right now by closing your eyes, taking a couple of deep breaths, and then putting your attention, your mental focus, into one of your hands. Hold your attention there for thirty seconds to a minute, and notice what happens.
You may have noticed sensations of warmth, or fullness, or a tingling or magnetic feeling, or a sense of heaviness in your fingers or palm. These are common sensations associated with a gathering of qi in a particular place in our body. Each person’s experience, however, is unique. What’s most important is simply to notice what it is that you are experiencing, and to develop some kind of confidence in this basic principle of qigong practice: energy follows attention. In the Hindu yoga systems this axiom is rendered, with the Sanskrit terms, as: prana (life-force energy) follows citta (mind).
Breath As A Conduit For Linking Energy & Awareness
What is the mechanism by which “energy follows attention”? In the initial stages of practice, this has a lot to do with the physical breathing process. By learning to rest our attention on the cycling of the inhalations and the exhalations – merging our mind with the movement of the breath – we activate a capacity for our mental focus to be able to guide the movement of qi.
The Chinese word “qi” is sometimes translated into English as “breath” – but this is not, in my opinion, the best choice. It’s more useful to think of qi as energy plus awareness. The physical breathing process is used to guide awareness into a union with life-force energy – the offspring being what is pointed to by the word “qi.” As this union of life-force energy with awareness is stabilized within the bodymind of the practitioner, the physical breath becomes (over years of practice) more and more subtle, until it is absorbed into what is called embryonic breathing.
In embryonic breathing, we draw energetic sustenance directly into the bodymind, independently of the physical breathing process. The physical breathing process is used as a kind of raft. Once we’ve crossed the river – returned to the land of the Cosmic Mother (dissolved our notion of separation from all-that-is) – we’re able to leave that raft of physiological breathing behind. In the same way that a fetus “breathes” through the umbilical cord, we’re able now to draw qi directly from the universal matrix.
Clarifying The Flow Of Qi Through The Meridians
All qigong forms aim, in some way or another, to open, balance and clarify the flow of qi through the meridians. In the course of our lives, when we have experiences that we’re not able, in the moment, fully to digest, the energy of those experiences – like undigested food in our intestines – creates blockages in the meridians. The particular patterns created in our bodymind by these energetic blockages define what in Buddhism is called “ego” – our own unique way of being unconscious, which we mistakenly believe to be who we are, fundamentally.
Qigong practice helps us to untie these energetic knots, allowing energy/awareness to once again flow freely in and as the Present Moment: a luminous emptiness in which the play of our bodily elements continuously unfolds.