On a Saturday morning at any given park, you may see a group of people flowing through movements slowly and with soft smiles on their faces. What are they doing? And why do they all look so peaceful? They might be practicing qigong yoga, or tai chi, three forms of movement that originated in India and China. These ancient practices are becoming increasingly popular—the percentage of U.S. adults who regularly practiced yoga, tai chi, and/or qigong in 2002 was 5.8%, but by 2017, that percentage had jumped to 14.5% (Trends in Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong Use). And it is still climbing!
CommonSpiritual Foundations of Qigong, Tai Chi, and Yoga
Although qigong, tai chi, and yoga are different practices, their foundations are the same (Scientific Study of Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong). There are three basic elements that all three movement forms share:
- A relationship between the body and the breath, where the breath moves the body.
- The body moving as one connected whole, every part in harmony with the other parts.
- Involvement of a higher power that is the source of all energy in the universe.
You’ll see these elements come up again and again as you read about the specifics of qigong, tai chi, and yoga. There are several mental and physical benefits to these practices if you do them consistently, but this article will primarily focus on the spiritual benefits.
Qigong, tai chi, and yoga may seem different than what we typically view as spiritual practices, but spirituality is intrinsic in their definitions. These practices can awaken you to the vastness of the universe—to a God who is infinite and capable of accomplishing everything. Through these movement practices, you can learn your eternal place in the balance of the universe. You can tap into the boundless power of the divine so you can accomplish much more with much less.You can discover what gifts you’ve been given to fulfill your unique purpose (The 7 Spiritual Laws of Yoga).
Just as your spiritual wellness can enhance all areas of your life, qigong, tai chi, and yoga can do the same. For instance, trying to forgive someone who’s hurt you may seem impossible at times. When you’re overcome with anger or sadness, choosing forgiveness is the last thing you want to do. But taking a deep breath and going through some movements to calm your mind and bring you to your center can realign you with the good energy that constantly flows through the world—the good energy that comes from the divine. With this philosophy, you can draw upon that energy to exchange your negativity for compassion. Qigong, tai chi, and yoga are practices to help you get out of your own way, so to speak, and notice the inherent spirituality of the world around you.
Origins of Qigong
Qigong was first documented at least 5,000 years ago in China. It has been said that ancient farmers observed the lives of plants and animals and then imitated those principles (History of Qigong). Over the millennia that it was practiced, it continued to evolve. Qigong has been used in various scenarios throughout time, including in military, aristocratic, religious, and medical settings (About Qigong). Although there are several different branches of qigong, all qigong involves focused breathing and graceful movements, with aims for meditation, releasing stress, and generally feeling better.
Qigong itself translates to something like “energy work” (What is Qi Gong?). The idea of energy work is a good way to understand the basic principles of qigong. It starts with qi (energy). Your breath harnesses energy for your body, and then it allows you to move in a graceful, centered way. You’re not creating energy within yourself or taking it from anywhere in particular—rather, qi (energy) comes from the power of the universe, which is all around you and through you, always (What is Qi Gong?). And that energy can direct your spirit.The “work” you’re doing is not the common definition of work that you’re used to. Believe it or not, the principles of qigong assume that you can accomplish more with less work—less pain, force, and exertion. The energy work in qigong is not so much work as it is realigning yourself. It can be difficult, yes, but it’s not intended to cause excruciating pain.
Do you want to try a simple qigong exercise right now? This is one way to summon your qi, or tune into your energy. Stand up. Take a deep breath in, then let it all out, letting your body relax a bit. Now start to wiggle your arms, like you’re trying to shake water off of your hands. Concentrate on moving your whole arm, not just your hand. If the muscles in your arms begin to hurt, take a deep breath and relax them. Let the movements happen naturally.Keep breathing deeply, and continue shaking your arms for one minute. How did that feel? Energizing? Harder than expected? What’s amazing about it is that it narrows your focus just to your breath and your movement, calming your body and mind so you can connect with your spirit.
Origins of Tai Chi
One of the branches of qigong that emerged was tai chi. Evidence of the practice of tai chi dates back to over 3,000 years ago, but different legends exist as to exactly how it came about. Although tai chi is a martial art form, it is practiced today more for its health benefits than for gaining fighting skills. The movements in tai chi are slow and graceful, sequenced to flow into each other, and connected to the breath. Like in qigong, in tai chi, all parts of the body move as one unit, staying as relaxed and connected as possible (What is Tai-Chi). What makes tai chi different from qigong is that it involves the memorization of a sequence of movements, whereas qigong can be much more simple (Tai Chi vs. Qi Gong).
The first definition of tai chi (which literally means “supreme ultimate”) in the Chinese Book of Changes associates tai chi with the two opposite elements that are in everything: yin and yang. Yin and yang are always balanced, always in harmony, like the state of nature. It’s humans and our crazy lives that jerk things out of balance, not God or the natural world. One of the most meaningful aspects of yin and yang are that they are complementary. One is not better than the other. In fact, a small part of one is inside the other. Opposites are required in order to form a complete whole (History of Tai Chi).
Try this short tai chi exercise: Stand up. Take a deep breath. When you breathe out, let your joints soften a bit. Cross your hands loosely in front of you, just so one wrist rests on top of the other. Inhale and raise your arms over your head.Think of this movement as expanding upward and outward from your center, not just moving your arms linearly. Exhale and release your arms, letting them rest again, crossed in front of you, like at the start. Do this four more times, inhaling and lifting, exhaling and releasing. Each time, try to let go of more tension than the last. At the end, ask yourself how you feel in your body, mind, and spirit.
Origins of Yoga
No one is absolutely sure when yoga originated, but some sources suggest that it’s been practiced for over 5,000 years. When you think of yoga, you probably imagine people contorting their bodies into strange positions. However, when yoga began inIndia, poses were arguably the least important element. The more important principles were the breath, meditation, and positive thinking. Only recently(the last 100 years) did yoga begin to focus so much on postures and fitness (Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga).
The word “yoga” comes from a Sanskrit word that means “to unite” (When did yoga originate?). This is a union of the mind, body, and spirit.When your mind, body, and/or spirit are in disharmony, you experience stress, pain, and disconnection. The yoga postures are tools that help you do this, but the poses themselves don’t merit anything life-changing. Perfecting a handstand won’t bring fulfillment and happiness; feeling super connected to yourself and capable of accomplishing difficult things with ease will. And that only comes when all parts of you are in harmony—not only with each other, but also withGod. Sound familiar? It’s because yoga, although founded in a different place, has the same basic foundations as qigong and tai chi.
There are thousands of free yoga videos online. Skylight’s Youtube channel has a free 30-minute yoga video designed specifically to help you relieve stress and tension in your body and mind. As you move through the yoga practice, you will also have the opportunity connect with the creator within and above. You can find other yoga practices on the Skylight app.
Returning to Forgotten Foundations
There is an ever-widening gap between what was practiced thousands of years ago and what’s currently practiced today. We’ve taken just one segment of a holistic practice and disconnected it from the principles that it was built upon in the first place. We now have people squeezing tai chi into their compartmentalized exercise regimens or seeing qigong as a forty-five-minute workout to tick off just to rush off to the next thing. Too often, we focus more on what we look like while doing yoga and less on how we feel. We’ve forgotten the foundations of these practices: the breath–body connection, the whole body moving as one, and the organizing power of the universe.
These practices are designed for everyone—the old, the athletes, the people who hate exercise. But many people don’t want to try them because they don’t think they have the proper bodies for it. When you see them as holistic practices focused on how you feel, then the hesitancy disappears. All of a sudden, qi gong, tai chi, and yoga seem a lot more simple. They’re not about forcing your body into specific postures; they’re about connecting with yourself and creating a nourishing practice that spills over into your life.
When you take your practice off the mat and into your everyday activities, you can connect to the best you. Of course, this doesn’t mean getting into a downward dog during your next job interview, but you can still take the philosophy with you to remain calm during a job interview and detach yourself from the outcome. Another example is washing the dishes. Imagine if the dishes weren’t a task to complete as fast as possible, hunched over, uncomfortable, and angry. Imagine if it was something you moved through gracefully, calmly, in a way that’s useful to you.(You may think that an ideal world would have no dishes to do at all. But the principles of yin and yang enlighten us to the opposites that truly are in everything: if we dirty a dish, we must clean a dish.)
You don’t have to love everything you do, but you can be mindful even through mundane tasks and you can find ease even in challenging situations. Experiment with qigong, tai chi, or yoga. Find a practice that is sustainable and works for you. Over time, you can feel a deeper sense of purpose, a stronger alignment with yourself, and an appreciation for the guiding power of the universe.