What are the Health Benefits of Qigong?

From a lecture series taught by David-Dorian Ross, International Master Tai Chi Instructor

Qi is the Chinese word for the energy of life, and the ability to manipulate this energy is at the heart of a great many Asian martial arts. But what are the Health Benefits of Qigong?

What is Qigong and How Does it Work?

The art of understanding the flow of qi and what it does is called qigong, which can be translated “working the qi” or even “meritorious energy.” Qigong is a category of systems and styles of energy work, rather than a distinct style. It’s an umbrella term, and under it you will find scores of other distinct styles and routines. There are many different qigong routines, all for the basic purpose of purifying and harnessing the power of the inner life force.

Underneath all of the different martial arts, and in particular the Chinese martial arts, is a theory of inner energy that real martial technique goes beyond the strength of your body, the size and power of your muscles or the speed of your technique and relies instead on your qi.


In the Chinese language, the character for qi is a picture of a pot of rice.


Inside the character, you can see the grains of rice, and you can also see steam rising out of the top of the pot, which tells us that not only is it nourishing like food, but it’s also hot and steamy, vaporous. You can kind of think of your whole body as like a steam engine and all of your martial techniques running on the engine of that steam.

Now the word for the practice of nurturing this energy is called “qigong,” gong meaning work. It’s the Chinese word for work or practice. So, qigong is a kind of exercise that many people do, for a variety of reasons, not only martial arts. In fact, there are three different aspects of qigong practice.

Medical Qigong

A Qing Dynasty manual of qigong, illustrating the seated form of Separate Heaven and Earth
A Qing Dynasty manual of qigong, illustrating the seated form of Separate Heaven and Earth

Medical qigong is likely the oldest category. For centuries, Chinese healers have developed a system of medicine based on the theory of qi as a life force. All illnesses—including mental illnesses— are considered to be some kind of problem with the circulation of qi in the body or the quality of qi in the environment. But in the traditional approach to health, the best method was to be proactive and prevent disease rather than trying to cure it. In fact, in ancient times, the village healer only received payment as long as his patients stayed healthy. They forfeited their fees if the patient became sick. To that end, there has developed a whole category of gentle exercises that are done to promote optimal cultivation and circulation of the qi. These are typically referred to as meditations, and they include routines like the five animal frolic and the eight sections of silk.

Spiritual Qigong

Spiritual qigong is practiced for the purpose of achieving enlightenment and, in some cases, immortality. Much like the medieval European alchemists who searched for the Philosopher’s Stone, Chinese philosophers also pursued the so-called pearl of immortality. Although some of these alchemists took the concept of immortality literally, for most others it was seen as a metaphor for attaining a state of consciousness in harmony with the universe.

Martial Qigong

Martial qigong is made up of special breathing and visualization exercises for the purpose of increasing martial prowess. For example, according to qigong theory, qi can protect the body from damage when struck by punches and kicks. By the same token, channeling qi into kicks and punches will make them much more devastating.

Image of the physical exercise chart; a painting on silk depicting the practice of Qigong Taiji; unearthed in China from a 2nd-century BC burial site.
The physical exercise chart; a painting on silk depicting the practice of Qigong Taiji.

This is a transcript from the video series Essentials of Tai Chi and Qigong. It’s available for audio and video download here.

Many martial artists have devoted entire lives to just the practice of the qigong portion of their martial arts, thinking that it would be even more beneficial than practicing their kicks and punches. In fact, there’s one style of martial arts called “itran,” meaning mental martial arts or mental boxing, which is all about the meditation of circulating and developing the qi, harnessing this energy. And that’s all the practice they do. They don’t even practice kicks and punches or fighting stances or anything. But their interactive sparring is very devastating.

Common Question—What is the Difference Between Qi Gong and Tai Chi?

According to livestrong.com, it’s all about emphasis. Energy, or Qi, is the focus of both Tai Chi andQi Gong. In both styles, the practitioner uses visualization, breathing and body movement to guide the circulation of Qi as it moves through and around the body. However, Tai Chi has a more overt emphasis on the martial aspects of the training


Qigong exercises are called meditations.There are four ideas to keep in mind during qigong practice:

  • alignment
  • breath
  • relaxation
  • visualization

These four components are thought to impact the ability of the qi to flow harmoniously and synergistically in the body, and create health and longevity.

image of lady practicing qi gong for article about what are the Health Benefits of QigongSo, how does qigong prepare the martial artist for fights? Well, the theory is that underneath all of the martial techniques is this inner energy, because it’s really the qi that does everything. The qi makes things moves. The qi fills your punches and kicks with power. But then what happens if you don’t have qi in the correct position? If you don’t have qi in the fists and the feet, or in the body if you’re trying to protect yourself? And the reason for this is that, as we’ve said before, because of lifestyle, because of different bad habits, because of the way that we eat, the way that we stand, the way that we sit, the qi gets blocked. It gets bottlenecked. It gets stuck in the body. And so, qigong is a practice of opening up the channels for the qi to circulate around the human body, so that it gets to all the parts of the body and will be there when you need it as a martial artist.

Microcosmic Orbit

This circulation actually follows very specific pathways. Now there are lots of pathways throughout the body. These are called the acupuncture meridians or “jing luo” in Chinese. And they go everywhere. They go all throughout the legs and the body, the torso, the head even, the arms and the fingers especially. But there’s one particular pathway that the qi is flowing around—up and down the spine. This is the primary conduit of the qi energy and the full circulation of the qi throughout the spine—down the front and up the back—is called the “microcosmic orbit.”

According to this theory, there are two major channels, or meridians, through which the qi flows in the microcosmic orbit. The first one is called the Ren channel, which guides the qi down the front of the spine. This meridian starts under the lower lip and continues all the way to the perineum. At the perineum, the Ren finishes and the Du channel begins. It proceeds up the spine, over the top of the head, continues down across the forehead, and ends just above the upper lip. Along both channels, major acupoints serve as gates or valves that regulate the flow of qi through the orbit.

All three aspects: martial, spritual, and medical qigong share the fundamental microcosmic orbit mediatiation.

Now the microcosmic orbit is a fundamental qigong meditation, and it’s so basic that all three aspects of qigong, martial qigong, medical qigong, and spiritual qigong all share this particular kind of meditation, this particular kind of qigong. It’s always happening. It’s always conscious in the mind of the martial artist, in the background of his movements, that I am circulating the qi throughout so that it is where I need it when I want it.

The microcosmic orbit involves a very relaxed kind of meditation in which you are using your breath, your posture and most of all your imagination, to visualize the qi flowing through this conduit, up and down the spine, and through very specific points, which we might call gateways. In the yoga tradition, we call them chakras, wheels where the energy passes through. And so the microcosmic orbit meditation is about visualizing, one by one, these gateways, these points, and the qi flowing through them, guiding it very specifically and very deliberately down the front of the spine, up the back, over the top and around again.

Even though this meditation is not used for fighting as a fighting tactic, it is how fighting becomes effective. It is how your martial techniques go beyond the strength of your body and the speed of your technique but into something more internal and powerful.


From the lecture series: Essentials of Tai Chi and Qigong
Taught by David-Dorian Ross, International Master Tai Chi Instructor