Qi Gong for Stress
Chinese qi gong has been practiced for centuries to promote health and mental clarity and has been shown, through time-honored practice and scientific investigation, to be effective in relieving the symptoms of a variety of ailments. Sometimes called “moving meditation,” one of the primary benefits of qi gong practice is stress reduction. As research shows that stress is linked to a variety of related conditions—including hypertension, asthma, depression and heart disease—interest in the stress relieving properties of qi gong has spread around the world.
How Does Qi Gong Relieve Stress?
Many practitioners believe that the key to qi gong’s stress relieving properties is the integration of body and mind that emerges with repeated practice. This relationship can be separated into three related elements;
- Breathing: Qi gong practitioners learn to control their breathing through exercises involving holding and releasing the breath in conjunction with movement. When deep breathing is combined with postures and movement, the body naturally and automatically releases hormones that bring about a feeling of relaxation and relieve stress.
- Movement: Depending on the type of qi gong—seated, standing, stationary, moving—practitioners learn to contract and expand the muscles, circulatory and nervous pathways in specific sequences. Qi gong movements are not arbitrarily linked, but have been choreographed to yield specific effects. The movement is also meditative, helping to create a calming, relaxing state of mind.
- Focus: The mental aspects of qi gong practice are as essential as learning correct movement and breathing. The central goal is to learn to control one’s focus while practicing. Regular qi gong practice helps to develop a sharpened focus and ability to concentrate.
While most types of exercise have a positive impact on stress levels, adherents believe that because qi gong is directly geared to bring about a state of relaxation, it is more effective at relieving stress than other types of low-impact aerobics or exercise.
What Causes Stress?
While most people have a visceral understanding of what constitutes stress, the physiological mechanisms and the links between mental and physical stress are more difficult to understand. Stress is closely related to, and often accompanied by, anxiety and/or depression. From a physiological standpoint, the stress response may be due to certain neurochemicals such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which circulate through the blood and bring about physiological changes in the body. Neurochemicals signal the organ systems to behave differently by, for instance, increasing blood flow and/or breathing rate and rerouting blood to major organs and away from the extremities.
Hormone levels increase when the body encounters any of a number of “stressful situations,” which may include anxiety, physical and/or mental exhaustion, poor nutrition, or problems with social/intimate relationships. In these cases, the body circulates neurochemicals intended to prime the body for activity or trauma. Unfortunately, if the stressful condition continues, long-term damage to the body and changes in ones mental state may result.
Researchers have found that the “sympathetic nervous system,” is highly active in controlling levels of neurochemicals. To reduce stress, therefore, individuals should concentrate on two goals; (1) learning to reduce focus on stressful stimuli, and (2) altering the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Qi gong has been shown to aid in achieving both of these goals, making it an ideal activity for controlling stress.
Even though there are generations of Chinese people that have used qi gong to control stress, recent scientific studies have begun to illuminate the mechanisms behind qi gong’s relaxing qualities. One example comes from a Japanese researcher, Higuchi Yuzo, who reported in a 2003 issue of the Journal of International Society of Life Information Science, that qi gong reduces sympathetic activity in the central nervous system, a key factor in the body’s stress response.
What is Qi Gong?
Qi gong is a form of exercise that was developed in China more than 2000 years ago. Closely related to Chinese philosophy and the practice of Chinese martial arts, qi gong is believed to help absorb “energy” from the surroundings and distribute it through the body. The word “qi gong” is a combination of the term “qi” which translates as “breath” or “vital energy,” and the word “gong,” which translates as “acquired skill.” Literally, “qi gong” is the skill of cultivating the breath and energy.
There are numerous types of qi gong practiced in China ranging from relatively simple, stationary exercises to vigorous and highly athletic forms. The martial art taijichuan, known in the West as “tai chi,” is a form of qi gong that combines martial skills with meditative breathing, postures and movements. Chinese martial artists are often taught some form of qi gong to help maintain physical health and to learn to cultivate and control the body’s energy.
Whether or not one accepts that qi gong helps to absorb “vital energy,” the benefits of qi gong practice have been well demonstrated. Because many types of qi gong are low impact, seniors and individuals with chronic injuries can practice as easily as those with greater physical prowess. Also, there are forms of qi gong that take only a few minutes to practice, allowing individuals to fit qi gong into busy daily routines.
Finding a Professional
Few states regulate the practice or teaching of qi gong, but reputable teachers will have documented permission from their own teacher or from the institution where they trained. A good way to find a reputable qi gong teacher is to contact licensed specialists in traditional Chinese medicine, such as an Acupuncturist or Chinese Herbalist, and ask for recommendations on qi gong instruction.
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Mori, Kazu. “Effect of stress relaxation of Qigong.” Eastern Medicine. Vol.15; NO.1; Pg.1-23, 1999.