What is Qi Gong, or, how I became the "guy on the videotape".
That was one hell of a question. It was the summer of 1995, during my first trip to the Shaolin Temple, with a group organized by Matthew Polly, that I first encountered qi gong. I was absolutely bathed in it, and I didn't even know it. But first, a little background.
I had been studying the martial arts at that time for almost ten years. And from time to time, one of my many instructors would mention something to the effect of "feel the chee", or, "move the chee to your hands". Now, being a physician, this concept of the "chee" really baffled me, as every mention of it caused me to start researching in the back of my mind through all the dozens of textbooks I had read. And each time the word arose, I tried and tried to think if I had ever come across it during my rather extensive medical training. It hadn't. But, being the polite New Yorker, or at least, trying to be, I just didn't push the issue. I kind of let my many instructors just keep talking about the "chee". On one occasion, I had asked one of my martial arts teachers to define exactly what the "chee" was, that seemed to be so damn important. The reply basically consisted of "It's your life force". I had thought to myself, I must have missed that class in medical school. Not surprising, considering how I got myself through medical school.
The whole concept of "chee" never became much of an issue, and in the spring of 1995 while preparing for my second dan in Kenpo, I came across this invitational article put together by Matthew Polly and John Chen. It had to do with a trip to the actual Shaolin Temple, and it included training with the monks for a period of a month. I decided to go, but I had to limit my trip to about two and a half weeks, as I couldn't take that much time away from my medical practice. It was during this trip (a story in itself), that I had met Matthew Polly, Gene Ching, and She De Cheng, among others. It was also my first real encounter with this nebulous unknown called "chee".
Actually, it was quite by accident that I had become familiarized with this concept of "chee". Quite by coincidence, we had gone to the Temple during it's 1500 year celebration. That really didn't get in the way of our daily training regimen, but it did give us all the opportunity to meet a Herbert Fechter, an Austrian man from what I remember, who was in charge of a video production which celebrated the 1500th year of the Shaolin Temple's existence. The Austrian film crew spent a lot of time videotaping the monks performing their kata and their qi gong maneuvers. Mr. Fechter was also interested in the fact that there were foreigners (i.e. us) who had traveled halfway around the world to train at the Temple. He took an interest in interviewing some of fifteen person group that Matt had brought with him. And it was through them, that Mr. Fechter heard about me.
Now, there was absolutely nothing special about me, except for the fact that I was a physician (a skill, I might add, that for some god forsaken reason came in terribly useful during that trip, as the majority of it's members came down with one illness or another). So, Mr. Fechter and his team searched me out, and, on the last day of their stay there, finally cornered me.
It kind of went something like this: "We would really like to interview you for this special video tape, because of your professional education, and the way you might look at all of this in light of being a physician and a man of science". Yea, it sounded pretty impressive. I told them that I would be happy to oblige, and since they were leaving in a few hours, we agreed to meet within the following two hours. And before they left, I had asked them what they had wanted me to talk about. "Qi gong, all with respect to your scientific training". I don't remember saying anything back. I do remember a certain feeling of panic starting to well up in my body. Qi gong I had thought. OK, no problem. What the hell is qi gong?
Being a properly trained physician, I fell back onto what years of training had taught me. If you don't know something, you look it up. And if you can't look it up, you do the best you can (which, to some professionals, means, well, "fudge it"). Yes, I was going to be video-taped, and yes, it certainly looked like I was going to have to fudge it.
But a savant came by to help me in my time of distress, and that savant was Gene Ching. I had first met him on this trip, and immediately thought that if anybody knew anything about qi gong, he would. I had thought to myself, "He has to know, god, he's Chinese". So off to search out Gene, and in a matter of an hour, he had told me enough of what this "qi gong" stuff was for me to fudge it.
The definition that he gave me, was that qi meant breathing, or breath, or air, and gong, meant work. Qi gong was the process of breathing, which, when extrapolated out, (which you do when you translate Chinese to English), it kind of referred to that all surrounding life force. But how that related to monks smashing bricks over their heads, or laying on top of pointy spears, really kind of confused me. What I had gathered from the various qi gong maneuvers and demonstrations that I had seen was that the monks moved their qi around, and had put it in places that they had needed, like, in their bellies to hold dishes on them, or, in their necks, to prevent the bent spear from puncturing their throats. Qi had been moved to their skulls so that they could break stones with them, or, qi had been moved to their abdomens, so groups of monks could strike at them with a small version of a telephone pole. Mr. Fechter and his Austrian crew had seen this, along with the laying on the bed of nails trick, and the walking on the sword edges move. The monks had explained that all of this was due to the great power and control of "qi gong"; they had wanted to know what a "professional man's" opinion was.
And initially, I had thought, this was going to be pretty easy. I was going to sit in front of the video camera, and when they asked me what qi gong was, in my professional opinion, I was going to say, "In my professional opinion, after many years of college and medical school training, I have to admit that this qi gong stuff, is, well, all bullshit". And that would be that. Pretty simple. Pretty authoritative. Then the thought occurred to me, that I was deep in the heart of China, a big bald man in the midst of millions of far smaller and not so bald people, and that I was going to be discussing an issue which was considered to be tradition, almost a sacred tradition. No Toto, this wasn't Kansas, and if I wanted to see Kansas again, I was going to have to leave the New Yorker out of this, and come up with something. And therein led to the problem. How to make fudge out of bullshit.
It wasn't easy, with an hour left to go, but I had come up with something. No, I certainly did not present myself as an authoritative consultant on the concept of qi gong, but from what I hear, if you see the videotape, they certainly made me out to be one. As Gene had told me, "the video was great, it was just you and the monks". I guess the fudge didn't turn out so bad after all.
So, as an introduction to what qi gong is, let me first give you a synopsis of my fudge:
Qi gong has to do with breath, with air, with life, and with all those processes which keep us alive. It is though of as a life force which travels along meridians (pathways throughout the body); it travels along certain pathways during certain times of the day, and disruption of these pathways, with the resultant disruption of the flow of qi, ends up with the body suffering from a disease state. Now, being a physician, who had spent far too much time in his life studying and seeing disease states, I had a hard time believing this, especially since I never had the opportunity to see anatomically or microscopically, these so-called "meridians", which the qi flowed through or along. But, I tried to explain all of this, without making too much of a fool of myself.
I broke down the whole concept of qi gong into nine different concepts, which, I still believe in today. I categorized qi gong into these nine formats solely for the purpose of presenting the overall concept of what qi gong was, and not make new kinds of qi gong. They are the following:
* Meditative qi gong,
* Meditative with slight movement qi gong
* Meditative with soft movement qi gong
* Meditative with hard movement qi gong
* Meditative with power movement qi gong
* Psychological qi gong
* Physical qi gong
* Medicinal qi gong
* Spiritual qi gong
Meditative qi gong: I use this term to refer to those acts in which one uses meditation, or some sort of activity that resembles meditation, to build and strengthen one's qi. Typically, sitting in a quiet place, cross legged, with hands over thighs, palm up, and reflecting quietly on an "empty mind", would be a form of meditative qi gong. Some forms of yoga would be related to this (as it probably is). Damo's sitting in a cave for nine years would also be similar. The end result of this type of meditation, is to build and strengthen one's qi, but in my mind, one of the major results of this, is just pure and simple relaxation. De-stressing, no matter how one does it, is healthy, and being healthy, or doing health conscious acts, will no doubt strengthen one's qi.
Meditative with slight movement qi gong: One can build and strengthen the qi with activity that includes meditation, but has associated with it, various non-strenuous maneuvers, to "help move the qi around". Whether it moves the qi around or not, I really don't know, because, even to this day, I am not a firm believer in the whole qi theory, but the exercises no doubt are good for you. Ba Duan Jin and the Lohan drangoon exercises, when performed properly, are not overly strenuous by any means, and, like meditative qi gong, are terribly relaxing. The main focus as I see it, is that performing these exercises, forces one to clear one's mind, and therefore, with the end result, end up de-stressing. The exercises help in strengthening the body, and also assist with increasing one's flexibility. If you go to the Temple, you will notice that a large majority of the monks use the Ba Duan Jin qi gong maneuvers, especially towards night time as they ready for bed (They say it helps them sleep). The Lohan drangoon exercises were taught to me by my qi gong master, who said that these were necessary to master before I learned how to use qi gong as a medicinal agent for other people. My other monk masters tried to sway me away from performing the Lohan drangoon qi gong exercises, claiming that they were "dangerous", and that I should stick to doing the Ba Duan Jin qi gong exercises, which were "safer". There was something about the whole mystique of the Lohan exercises that I never really understood, except for that they might be far more "powerful" than the Ba Duan Jin exercises. I readily accepted their beliefs, as doing the Lohan form of qi gong was just much too much work anyway.
Meditative with soft movement qi gong: As we go up the physical intensity scale, we now get to a more physical form of practicing qi gong. And here is where I like to place the various Tai chi exercises and forms. Tai chi has a few different forms, some with weapons, some without, but it is a more physical form of meditation. Note that I continue to refer to this as "meditation", the reason being, that while performing these activities, in order to do so correctly, one needs to focus and concentrate solely on what one is doing, which results in the "clearing of the mind and the strengthening of the heart". Tai chi is excellent for the health, not only as a good form of mind and stress clearing meditation, but as a way to keep the body flexible.
Meditative with hard movement qi gong: Now we're getting out of the usually thought of realm of qi gong, and moving into more of the world of gong fu. Performing the various kata in gong fu in a slow methodical way, keeping one's mind focused on what one is doing, is most definitely a method of strengthening the body's qi. Some of the traditional forms are listed under Traditional Gong Fu. Now, one might think that the sole purpose of learning these forms is to increase one's ability to fight. True, knowledge of these methods, and the various applications that lie within them, are helpful towards understanding the fighting aspects of these forms. But more importantly, a slow methodical practice of these forms is in itself a form of meditation. If you carefully analyze the gong fu forms, you will find that there is a certain amount of repetition within them, but only to a certain degree. On the surface, one can notice some repetition within the forms, but the repetition is not clear cut. In an early part of a form, action A might lead to action B which might lead to action C which might then lead to D; then A goes to B goes to C goes to D might be repeated once again, but following that, you might find A leading to B leading to E and then leading to C and D. Shaolin gong fu is notorious for throwing in these little "from outta nowhere" moves. The purpose of them? All I can surmise from trying to learn (and remember) them, is that this "logical confusion" was designed to promote increasing one's focus and concentration. No doubt it was also made this way to make the learning of the art more difficult, and to keep the various applications within, secret. Practicing the forms in a slow methodical way will definitely clear one's mind, as the amount of focus and concentration required to just get through the form can be daunting.
Meditative with power movement of qi gong: Well, if you haven't noticed a pattern yet, you haven't been paying attention. Time for more focus and concentration. Yes, this is the natural next step in my little progression, as we move up the qi gong practice scale into more physical movement. Practicing the various traditional gong fu forms with power and speed is just the next logical step, and for the same reasons as above, it includes a great deal of focus and concentration. It is just another way of meditating and clearing the mind, though, in it's most physical way.
Psychological qi gong: I now digress, and get out of the physical framework of my categorization of qi gong, and move into some of what I call, "other forms" of qi gong; or, more specifically, reasons and explanations for what people think is qi gong. And just when you thought you had my whole thought process on this qi gong stuff down pat. Picture this if you will: the images of monks being beaten about the head with stone blocks, others lying on a bed of nails as another monk crashes down a sledge hammer on a stone atop his abdomen, another monk twirling around on top of a spear, or leaning against a spear lodged firmly against the soft part of his neck. Explain that with qi gong. How does the movement of qi to these areas of the body explain the lack of injury? Well, one of the things I mentioned years ago, and still believe, is the power of the placebo effect. The placebo effect is basically this: If you take two groups of people with similar diseases (let's use headaches, which unfortunately, I am no stranger to), and give one unknowing group aspirin, the other unknowing group sugar pills, and lead them all to believe that they're getting aspirin, an inordinately large amount of the people receiving the sugar pills will claim to get pain relief. Leading someone to believe that they will derive a certain benefit from something, can sometimes cause that person to derive that benefit. (The opposite is true also, people can "think" themselves into certain types of illnesses, what we call "malingering", or the "Munchausen Syndrome") No doubt, after years of practicing qi gong, the monks are going to derive a certain amount of placebo effect from it. How much this plays a part in their so called resistance to pain from various activities, I do not know.
Physical qi gong: We can take this whole concept the other way, in our attempt to understand the benefits of qi gong. It is without a doubt that physical conditioning plays a major role in what we see during qi gong performances. The repeated stress or trauma to body tissues results in those tissues getting stronger and more resistant to further trauma. A good example would be the soles of you feet; the more you walk without shoes, the harder and thicker the skin pad under your heel and the ball of your foot gets. It is a natural response to repeated trauma. The same goes for repeated trauma to the head; the more you strike the front of your skull with various objects, the thicker and more calcified the front of the skull becomes. Similar responses occur in the hands, arms and lower legs. It is not uncommon to see people training in Shaolin village, punching trees or the ground, striking trees with their forearms or lower legs, or doing repeated fist push ups on concrete, all with the purpose of hardening those areas. (see Iron Palm training). Repeated trauma to the neck, or abdomen, or any other place, will result in more scar tissue formation; the end result being more resistance to further trauma, and it's accompanying pain. Thus, one can reasonably assume that poking a spear in one's throat is not a problem, if one has done so repeatedly for a prolonged period of time.
Medicinal qi gong: I bring this up, because my qi gong master had intended to teach me this. But first, I had to practice my Lohan drangoon qi gong for an extended period of time, so that I "felt the qi". Well, I still don't feel the qi, mainly because I never really got into practicing Lohan drangoon qi gong for any length of time. But yes, an experienced practitioner of qi gong can use his powers of manipulating the qi for the benefit of others around him. And I had the opportunity to experience this a few times over the past couple of years. My Lohan master had used his ability to manipulate my qi in an effort to relieve me of a bad headache I had once. (As for the result, all I can say is, "Nah..."). But, again, we are now bringing in the psychological aspects of qi gong, in that , if I believe that this will definitely help me, via the placebo effect, I might see some relief. I can personally attest to the effectiveness of using Ba Duan Jin qi gong practice to help relieve bad migraine pain, however, I feel that the relaxation effects of this practice may play a more significant role towards that pain relief than any manipulation of the qi. I had another opportunity to experience Shaolin qi gong massage, which Shi Xing Hong had used on me during his last visit to me here in Las Vegas March 2000. Again, he manipulated his own qi, and used it, via massage and pressure points, to help relieve my migraine pain. It did help, but then again, how much is psychological, and how much is relaxation? I'm not sure. Be it what it may, just keep in mind that medicinal qi gong exists; trained practitioners use it to assist those that are in need.
Spiritual qi gong: And lastly, what I refer to as spiritual qi gong. From my interpretation of what I experienced talking to various professors of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and from just talking to the typical Chinese on the street, so to say, there seems to be some mystical or spiritual aspect to this. As one TCM professor told me, I was better off going to the Shaolin Temple to learn qi gong (which was advisable to help me deal better with my chronic migraines) because "the Temple is full of qi gong, there is no better place". Images of some sort of mystical ether, surrounding and bathing the place, came to mind. Stories of qi gong masters, who can bend spoons, and use telekinesis, occasionally come to light when talking to people (I had some people in Beijing willing to set up a meeting with me and a Beijing qi gong master, so that he could demonstrate his skills to me. I didn't have the time then). Stories of mystical abilities sometimes can be found, whereby the people that tell them seriously believe in their truth. I have not had the opportunity to witness any of this first hand. And, of interest, during my last visit to the Temple in 1999, stories on the television were full of the government's attempt to shut down one self-proclaimed qi gong master, because of his "shenanigans". (I think that the central government has it's limits also). So, it is easy to disregard the scientific methods of looking at things, and just taking them for what they say they are. I have trouble doing that, but I am willing to keep an open mind, for maybe, just maybe, at some time in the future, more "scientific" proof of these claims, and the existence of qi and it's meridians, just might come forth. I personally keep an open mind about this, and that's why, I add this final aspect of qi gong, the so called spiritual qi gong.
In a related science, the use of acupuncture has a direct correlation to the so-called science of qi gong. Using needles along certain points of the meridians to "unblock" the flow of qi, thus bringing health to the body, is a very commonly used method of treating disease in China (Though, their medical facilities, and medical training, is starting to lean more towards western thought). I personally have used acupuncture successfully to treat my migraines (and others), and still do, though I'm not sure I agree that putting skinny little needles through your limbs unblocks qi of any sort. Acupuncture is scientifically related to the release of beta-endorphins in the brain; morphine-like substances that help relieve pain, and which are also responsible for that "runner's high" that people who exercise consistently get (to the point that exercise can become an addiction....) I can personally attest to the fact that after using acupuncture, I feel as if I've been narcotized. The shuffling of the feet, constricted pupils, pain relief, feeling of euphoria, sedation, etc, are all present after a successful acupuncture session. Now, to be successful, I've found that accurate placement of the needles is mandatory, and, quite to my surprise, when I was learning these techniques from a Traditional Chinese Medicine professor in Beijing years ago, he had given to me an electrical unit, which not only enabled you to impart electrical impulses to the acupuncture needles to increase the effect, but it also allowed you to actually pinpoint the exact acupuncture location, by way of that location's decreased electrical resistance (which one might expect over areas if increased nerve bundle or fibers, or over blood vessels). I was quite intrigued by the fact that this device actually worked; it accurately denoted the various acupuncture spots which are well described in the literature. Some of the acupuncture spots lie over nerve branches, or over major nerves; some don't. The explanation for decreased electrical resistance in these non-nerve related areas is beyond me. Be it what it may, I've personally discovered that acupuncture doesn't really work well, unless one adequately finds the correct spots.
Also, quite to my surprise, I discovered, while traveling in Thailand, that the famous Thai massage uses the Chinese acupuncture points. Acupressure, is just a less invasive method of altering the qi (or however you may feel it works) than acupuncture. A more aggressive method is to electrically stimulate the needles; also, moxibustion, the burning of herbs on the acupuncture needles while they are in place, is used to accentuate the acupuncture effects. I found it interesting that a different culture used the same theories, which in my mind, tends to give credence to both.
Oh, and as for that "guy on the videotape" stuff. That all started with my second trip to Shaolin village years ago, when some Europeans had pointed at me from across the street, and yelled, "You're the guy on the videotape!" Baffled, and with a typical New York response, I just kind of ignored them and went about my business, which at the time, if I remember correctly, was concerned with the discovery of a relatively clean and safe restaurant (considered to be one of Shaolin's searches for the veritable holy grail. the other being a properly functioning flush toilet). I never found one, but those Europeans had eventually found me again. Apparently, that video was quite the hit in Europe, which really is not a surprise, considering the fact that the Europeans seem to have a greater presence in Shaolin than us Americans. (I think it has to do with Europe's earlier "better relations" with China than us). The whole "guy on the videotape" stuff became a relatively frequent occurrence for me at Shaolin during all of my visits there. If they only knew then what you know now....
So, to cap this off, I think that one can see from my disgustingly long diatribe, that, as I say at the Temple, "It's all gong-fu", one can also say, "It's all qi gong".
Because, from one degree to another, it all is.
Click to open: