Qigong breathing discipline relaxes body, mind

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Qigong is one of the oldest exercises in Chinese history. Qigong is a variety of breathing exercises sometimes practiced with simple movements and visualizations. It is at the core of many martial art practices, including Tai Chi, but it is also practiced as a separate set of exercises.

Looking at the root meaning of the word qigong in Chinese, it means air and exercise.

Although qi means several things in Chinese, the most common meaning is air. It refers to life force, the life energy inside a person. Practitioners believe this life energy comes from the combination of three things: the air breathed in through the lungs, essential qi from the kidney, and qi absorbed from food and water through the digestive system. Gong in Chinese means techniques or exercises for moving, in this case, moving qi.

To put it simply, qigong is a breathing exercise. With practice in qigong, breath can become unforced -- a relaxed and bottomless, natural breathing. Practitioners believe qi circulates throughout the body, performing many functions to maintain good health, and the stronger your qi, the healthier and stronger you are. With regular practice, qigong is especially beneficial for mental relaxation.

Qigong breathing focuses on belly breathing, as if air comes into the body through the nostrils and sinks all the way down to the belly. The middle of the abdomen, called dan tian, is the body's energy center according to Chinese medicine. With qigong breathing, first the abdomen fills up like a balloon, and then the lungs inflate.

When we exhale, also through the nostrils, the abdomen contracts, pushing the air back up. This is the way a baby breathes when first born and also the way a singer breathes.

Expanding the abdomen allows the diaphragm to drop and increases the space into which the lungs can expand. Thus lung capacity is increased. Belly breathing can massage the internal organs and strengthen the deep stabilizing muscles that support the lower back. It has been shown that deep, slow breaths send a signal to the brain to relax.

While simple in principle, qigong can be complex. More complex qigong focuses on directional changes, visualizations guiding qi into certain acupoints and internal organs. It can focus on colors or sounds.

Qigong is also an integral part of tai chi for simple mental relaxation, but it can be even more simple as a form of mindful walking. When slow walking is combined with qigong breathing, it becomes a walking meditation.

To try it, breathe in as your foot lifts off the ground; breathe out as your foot comes down. Feel a connection like elastic strings stretching as your heel pulls away from the ground and the compression of energy as the ball of your foot lowers to the ground. Fully complete each movement and then flow into the next.

Mindful walking can build balance, strength and coordination with practice. The entire walking sequence is done not just slowly but continuously slowly. When I practice walking qigong, if I speed up, it means I'm daydreaming and not staying in the present moment.

Since the 1980s in the U.S. and Europe, research has shown positive effects of qigong on cardiovascular disease, COPD, asthma, circulatory efficiency, oxygen consumption, hypertension and stress.

Those who practice qigong learn to live in the present moment and not stress about things in the past or possible situations in the future, and that is a definite health benefit.

Sandi Wicher, owner of Harmony and Health, received her qigong training and teacher certification from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine and studied the practice in China in 2000 and 2011. She can be reached at www.manywaterswellnesscenter.com or 368-4305.

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