Though I am no master, as a qigong practitioner I’ve had sufficient practice with both modern Western and traditional Eastern styles of qigong or energy work, as well as personal experimentation, to feel competent in assessing a method for its worth and usefulness.
However, it’s a difficult thing to give advice on the matter when someone asks, “Would I like this method?” or “Would I benefit from this practice?” Everyone is very different, and the elusive nature of qigong makes it even harder to pin down. I’ve been in qigong classes that I’ve felt quite negatively about, where other attendees of that same class proclaimed life-changing experiences.
Rather than attempt to say one thing or another about this or that class, style, or system, I’d like to make some general statements regarding the factors and criteria that can be useful to assess a qigong style or method for its worth.
The seed of anything worthwhile in qigong is the method. If the method is not good, it will not lead somewhere useful.
A qigong exercise usually consists of several layers, including:
- the physical form or structure
- the breath
- the mind
None of these things are, in and of themselves, qigong. However, a properly relaxed form, a well-regulated breath, and a relaxed and focused mind lead to the experience of qi.
In my opinion, the direct experience of qi is the single most useful measure of a qigong method.
Unfortunately, this experience can be an elusive thing, which is why it’s difficult to articulate and therefore easily derided as unscientific or superstitious. It cannot be grasped like a solid object. Nonetheless, qi can be felt. Like water, like air, it flows where it will, not entirely at random, but with a freedom denied to denser objects.
I define qi as vital energy or life force.
Others, including the Chinese medicine historian Paul Unschuld, will disagree and state that this is a mistranslation of the character, that “qi” refers simply to air. But, no one who works with and directly apprehends qi can mistake it for air.
To engage qi means, not grabbing hold of it with your hands, but becoming aware of its action in your body. You do this by entering into an altered state of consciousness, which is achieved by relaxing and focusing the mind, emotions, and body. This is not an extremely altered state of consciousness of utter dissociation; rather, it’s a subtle shift that allows you to open to more sensations.
These things are built in to any good qigong method, and is in fact one of the aims of such methods. Increased sensitivity to energy should arise as a natural byproduct of a useful qigong method.
It is important to note that receiving benefits from qigong does not absolutely require this sense. Ultimately, the best measure of a method is how well you have achieved your goals. A person may become healthier without any iota of qi sensation. But, the point of qigong is to engage and work the qi for specific aims, and the best way to do that is a direct method, to sense and build and circulate the qi. This is what sets it apart from other methods of physical cultivation.
It may be argued that all physical activities use qi, and this is true in some sense. But it is not really true to say that activities such as weightlifting or jogging, as normally performed, are qigong. As an analogy: Just because you breathe all of the time doesn’t mean that breathing exercises are superfluous. It’s one thing to breathe unconsciously to survive, another thing to actively and consciously work and shape the breath for specific purposes. But, once you’ve engaged the breath that way, you can reintegrate it with whatever activity you’re doing, thus transforming that activity—whether it’s yoga, deep sea diving, or opera singing—into a breathing exercise. Similarly, weightlifting or jogging can become qigong—if done in a qigong way.
If this is confusing, it’s because of the paradoxical nature of discussing a concept that is simultaneously a separate entity and an indistinguishable part of everything. It’s a similar difficulty to discussing the integration and interface of water with the human body. Water can be clouds, rain, rivers, oceans. It’s also part of the blood, urine, and other bodily fluids. What makes water easier to discuss is that you can touch it, feel it, and put it under a microscope and analyze it.
Qi offers no such luxuries. Unless you develop the ability to feel, see, and manipulate it. That’s the whole point of qigong.
Being able to sense your energy leads to the ability to use it to gauge the effects of a specific practice. Can you feel the energy when you do a particular form? Does it flow? Does it feel harmonious, or does it accumulate? What effects does it have on you, both during and after practice? What effects does it have on you long-term?
This is the benefit of developing qi sensitivity.
The main thing you need to keep in mind when it comes to locating yourself within a qigong method or system:
The qi experience and the cultivation of qi vary according to the practitioner or student’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual condition. Thus, any and every aspect of the individual’s being has potential to influence both the practice and the outcome of qigong.
This includes not only the more momentary and obvious aspects, e.g. the difference between agitation and relaxation, but even deeper and more invisible things, such as repressed emotions and entrenched belief systems, and the very structure of personality itself.
Once again, an analogy can be made to water. Water molecules remain fundamentally unchanged by temperature, but they can condense and crystallize into ice, they can flow as a liquid, and they can disperse as water vapor. Moreover, water can flow in deep underground currents as well as surface rivers; it can collect in lakes and roil in oceans; it can evaporate, it can rain, it can even form typhoons and hurricanes. As ice, water can form snow or hail, it can become icebergs and glaciers. As water vapor, it can be steam, fog, and clouds. Life on earth is intimately tied to water in all its forms.
Likewise, qi—vital energy—is held in many different kinds of structures, giving way to great variety, while also remaining one thing.
In its densest form, qi is like ice. It forms solid structures, such as the human body.
In its more fluid form, qi is the energy that is what I refer to sensing when I describe the “qi experience.” By now it should be evident that the “qi” in the term “qi experience” is actually a subset of the Qi that permeates and composes everything in the universe.
In a still more refined and “vaporous” form, qi becomes the stuff of thoughts and beliefs, which, in some ways, do have a spatial reality.
We can further subdivide each of these forms. On the “frozen” or physical level, if we consider everything in the human body as a form of qi, then we can also start to differentiate that, for instance, bone is a more “frozen” form of qi than blood; and blood is, in turn more “frozen” than the breath.
On the mental level, it becomes obvious that foundational beliefs about your identity and place in the world are more “frozen” forms of energy, while superficial thoughts and feeling about passing interests are more “vaporous.”
Incidentally, when people talk about “vibrations,” these different forms are what they’re referring to. This is why spiritual experiences are described as being “high vibration,” and why sex is considered “low vibration.” The term has perhaps become banalized by certain segments of the New Age movement, which also makes the mistake of assigning moral values to different vibrations (e.g. “low vibration” = evil). Nonetheless, the term is based in truth. It refers to an actual palpable phenomenon that can be validated experientially, through—you guessed it—the qi experience.
Additionally, those people already well-versed in Chinese medical concepts will recognize these forms as referring to the Three Treasures, jing, qi, and shen.
Thus, qi coalesces into all the structures of the human body. It also creates, organizes, relates, and influences the many forms of mental and emotional organizations and activities that we call beliefs, opinions, memories, habits, feelings, and thoughts. And, because individuals do not exist in a vacuum, it also relates to family relationships, to social and cultural influences, to one’s experience of nature, and to religious and spiritual experiences.
To return to the original point: Because who you are is, on every level, an aspect of qi, this will in turn affect anything you attempt to do to directly and intentionally cultivate or manipulate qi. So the better you know yourself, the more capable you are of making their influences conscious.
Thus, it is my opinion that a qigong system is not complete unless it guides the student to understanding the total effects of self on the qi, and the effects of qi on the self. At the very least, a useful system will prescribe guidelines to follow in areas beyond those to do with the experience of vital energy.
This is the reason behind the moral principles that many qigong schools have established. Not necessarily that these schools want to create a separate religion, but that they recognize that qi and moral integrity are inseparable. Cultivating qi without cultivating your self in all other ways is like gathering water without crafting a good container: Problems are bound to occur.
Even though all of the above is true, and everything that affects you—basically, all of life—affects and influences your qi, simply and practically speaking, in the context of qigong practice, the most direct influence on your qi is your teacher.
Good teachers possess high qualities in all areas. They are spiritually refined and morally upright, and emotionally and physically balanced. They should be knowledgeable about what they teach. And, as should be proper for anyone promising to teach qigong, they should have well-developed qi.
All of this is just common sense. However, the elusive nature of qigong in general, as well as the lack of knowledge about it in modern Western culture, leave open plenty of room for imbalance, incorrect assumptions, error, and even fraud.
How, for instance, does the average beginner assess if a teacher has developed their qi? How does the average beginner assess a teacher’s knowledge, or their spiritual refinement? If a teacher tells a story or makes a claim, how can the facts be verified? In fact, nearly the only things accessible to the everyman is what can be observed about the individual’s physical bearing and presence, and the way they relate to other people. This is truly judging a book by its cover! The desire for more information can lead to such dubious methods as soliciting gossip or salacious reviews from others regarding this or that teacher; and the sad thing is that news about the immoral behind-the-scenes dramas of a publicly respected qigong teacher often is relevant, because these things are directly related to the qi.
Although such approaches may be illuminating in some respects—maybe you should question things if you see the qigong teacher kick a dog—as a coherent way to assess the quality of the instructor, they are woefully incomplete.
Unfortunately, it’s my opinion that this situation will not change much in the near future.
Simply, qi and qigong are, in Western culture, akin to magic (the real kind, not stage magic). With the aura of mystery and awe, on the one hand, and deep skepticism, on the other, these concepts and practices are relegated to the murky margins of society, in the same gutter where paradoxes and trickster figures are allowed to exist. In such shadows, it can be nearly impossible to tell what’s going on.
In the end, it will come down to one simple answer: your own experience, ideally enhanced by your qi experience.
It is unfortunate that there is no standardized way to determine whether a teacher is good or not. No “qi-meters” to tell how strongly a person can transmit qi. No “Top 100” list to describe which is the best qigong exercise. It’s unfortunate, but logical, because if anything and everything theoretically affects qi, then anything and everything must be taken into account. And who can do that?
The truth is that good qigong teachers must be judged on multiple levels simultaneously. In a sense, they have to be good at everything—or, if they’re not, you have to be clear on what they’re not good at.
- Spiritual refinement and wisdom
- Moral character
- Intellectual knowledge
- Emotional equilibrium
- Qi cultivation
- Physical condition
Some teachers might be good in one area but mediocre or bad in another. Some might be excellent in all areas but one, and completely terrible in that one.
Be clear about what you’re getting, so you know where your teacher is and isn’t capable of taking you.
There are many potential obfuscating factors. For instance, some teachers are Chinese. The language barrier in itself can pose difficulties. Further, there may be various minor cultural issues, such as the insistence on being called certain titles like “sifu,” or the assumption that students will perform various tasks or duties. Chinese teachers may adhere to a hierarchical culture wherein students do not question authority. Worse, some Chinese teachers are known to avoid imparting important information to any but their own family; such secrecy has doomed some systems into extinction, but family lineages remain part of China’s heritage.
Culture is only one obfuscating factor. Another is simply the social role occupied by qi and qigong. As mentioned before, it is very evocative of mystery and awe. Indeed, this is only logical, because qigong masters can and do perform feats that seems to defy natural laws. Warming the body with a thought, dispersing clouds, healing sickness at a distance.
Teachers who achieve such abilities, but who lack moral integrity, can lapse into a sort of power-madness—like anyone else who achieves power without developing the character to handle it.
The other side of the coin is students who seek that kind of power without regard for anything else. Based on an internal experience of inferiority or emptiness, they fanatically seek power and follow individuals that appear to hold power. This then manifests as cult worship.
Any kind of cult worship can be further degraded by people who claim to have achieved powers, but haven’t. In other words, frauds.
The list goes on and on. Suffice it to say that the aspiring student should never give up his/her critical faculties, and should always maintain perspective by assessing, as objectively as possible, all the aforementioned dimensions.
Just because a teacher is Chinese or is a “lineage holder” doesn’t mean they have power.
Just because a teacher is nice and knows a lot of big words doesn’t mean they have power.
Just because a teacher has power doesn’t mean they will lead you down the right path.
Bottom line: Know your goals so that you can recognize what you want when you finally find it.
There’s one thing I left out of the list of good qualities of teachers: the ability to transmit their knowledge. This is the interface between Teacher and Method.
There are different types of transmission, including:
- Knowledge and concepts
The form is the lowest and easiest method of transmission, while spirit transmission is the highest.
The first three can be considered “linear” forms of transmission, while the last is “nonlinear.” I’ll explain this in a minute.
Teachers will vary in their communication of information. To some extent this is determined by their own ability and insight, by their abiltiy to articulate and communicate verbally, or by the priority they place on the topic.
For instance, a teacher may not instruct you about refined, subtle details about proper form because (a) they themselves do not know those details, (b) they are unable to articulate those details, or (c) those details are simply irrelevant to the practice.
Different styles and systems will emphasize different aspects. One style may be very form-based, and the instructors will be selected in part on their ability to cultivate self-awareness of their own form and to convey this information to others. Another style may be completely formless, rendering such details completely nonsensical.
One style may be very “top-heavy” in terms of theories, concepts, and details about yin and yang, tongue position, rules of posture, finger positions, visualizations. Another style may completely lack these elements. The instructors will be chosen accordingly.
These examples are two out of the three “linear” forms of transmission. These two are the more obviously “linear,” in that they are conveyed through rational discourse and verbal conversation, as well as visual and kinesthetic demonstration. Everything can be understood primarily in a relatively left-brained way.
Qi transmission is less so. First let me describe what is meant by qi transmission.
Say you’ve never been kissed and want to know what it’s like. The form of it could be described. The theory and concepts can be explained. The sensations can be articulated. But nothing will suffice as well as having someone plant a wet one right on your lips! And anyone who’s had a marvelous kiss can attest to how completely indescribable it is.
Similarly, a qigong master has the ability to transmit qi as a direct experience to the student, thus in a sense showing them what the qi experience is like and what they are shooting to achieve on their own. This educates the energy body in an entirely different way from intellectual knowledge or form adjustment.
However, I still term this a “linear” experience simply because it occurs within the bounds of time and space. It is specifically linear in contrast to the last category, “spirit” transmission.
“Spirit” transmission is my term for direct knowing or direct perception of essential meaning. In such an experience, vast amounts of information can be conveyed in the blink of an eye, and even at levels too subtle or subconscious for the ordinary conscious mind to access.
My experience with this is very limited, so I can say little about it except to hint at it. Needless to say, a teacher capable of this type of transmission has a relatively high attainment!
As you may have noticed, these types of transmissions also generally describe different categories or styles of qigong. Some are very form-based, some very conceptually bound. Some focus more on the qi, some on spiritual attainment.
When you are searching for a teacher, you should understand that these types of transmission and categories of qigong exist. But you should also understand that a method is not necessarily inferior because it doesn’t use more “advanced” methods of transmission. For your needs, you may in fact be better suited with a heavily form-based method. You may have an intellectual streak that would simply not be satisfied without a plethora of concepts to chew on.
Also be aware that a teacher unable to linguistically convey information—for instance, a Chinese teacher whose English is poor—may still be quite worth learning from!
It is a bonus if a teacher is able to transmit qi powerfully and, even better, to transmit directly through spirit. But there are many teachers who offer powerful workshops to large groups of students, and I highly doubt they are transmitting powerfully and equally to each and every student who attends. In such cases, the method itself—the form and the understanding of the form—can be useful by itself.
I may seem to be contradicting myself, but I’m not. Simply, there are higher and lower forms of transmission. Each has its place.
Moreover, the potency and clarity of the transmission should be distinguished from the potency and effectiveness of the method.
A “merely adequate” transmission combined with a powerful method can be an amazing thing.
The interface between student and teacher is one of the major supports to an aspiring qigong practitioner, but also one of the major pitfalls as well.
Everything said previously about the qualities of a good teacher, particularly with regards to moral integrity, applies. Everything said previously about “knowing thyself” and maintaining your critical faculties applies.
What’s true of all relationships with power imbalances is even more true of the relationship between a qigong teacher and student, because qigong is specifically about power. When you are studying qigong, be aware of your tendency to put teachers on pedestals. Be aware that qi is by its nature magnetic and attractive, and thus qigong teachers—people who have spent their lives cultivating qi—can trigger you in fiery ways. This is compounded by the building of your own qi which can activate dormant feelings and awarenesses. Recognize these things for what they are.
Be aware of your latent power-hunger—everybody’s got some. Be aware of your own inner need to be better, different, higher than other people. Recognize the flip side of that, your need to be in service to someone who’s better, different, higher than other people. Understand that the same desperation, or insecurity, or need, or curiosity that got you to try out this strange thing called qigong is also a hook by which you can be manipulated by the unscrupulous.
Don’t give up your sovereignty. Don’t give up your right to think and understand and experience things for yourself.
But at the same time: Act with respect.
Be skeptical if you must. But don’t be rude. Question things if you must. But don’t set out to destroy. Challenge if you must. But recognize when it’s not your place to right the wrongs of the world.
Follow rules that make sense. Follow the ones that don’t, if they don’t harm anybody. If you’re in somebody else’s house, you play by their rules.
Follow directions. Don’t bother complaining that you’re not getting results if you haven’t bothered to practice as instructed.
Be an adult. Use your common sense.
You’d think these things are obvious, but based on some things I’ve seen, I think they bear repeating.
Finally, the relationship between teacher and student is a unique product based on who the teacher is and who the student is.
Some students are right for the teacher and others aren’t. Some teachers are right for the student and others aren’t.
I have been in qigong classes that have been life-changing for some individuals and average or below-average for others. Same class, different response. So all of the details about who you are and what you’ve experienced, and the fit with who the teacher is and how they teach, apply.
And then it’s up to you.
The relationship between yourself and your practice, above and beyond how well you absorbed the instruction, is simply about how much you are willing to put into this practice—in the performing of it, in the regularity of it, in the cold assessing of your progress and your strengths and shortcomings in that process.
At this point, it’s on your own shoulders, fueled by your own willpower and motivation and desires.
After all of this, it can be useful to step back and ask: What’s it all about? What’s it all for?
When all is said and done, why are you interested in qi and qigong?
What broader role does it play in your life, in your relationships?
How does it help you adjust to your body, your family, your society?
Are you using it to escape from something, or to move toward something?
Are you practicing it with petty goals or lofty ones?
Does it enhance the meaning in your life?
Does it increase the health, equilibrium, purpose, and love in the world around you?
Does it make you a better human being?