What is Qigong?

Since I began teaching qigong around 1990, I have learned, practiced, and taught countless styles.  I think we should change the naming conventions of qigong because they do not match my empirical experience. 

There is one book everyone who practices qigong should read, Qigong Fever, by David Palmer.  It is a history of the politics that created the name "qigong," and the communist political clique that created a vast quantity of junk science claiming qigong was good for everything from curing cancer to re-directing guided missiles (I'm not kidding).

The problem arose because the methods (styles) of practicing qigong were removed from the Golden Elixar (jindan) framework that originally grounded it.  That framework is jing-qi-shen; where jing is everything physical or structural, and shen is everything imaginary including the functional spatial imagination.  In this framework, Qi is the intermediary between these two conceptual-experiential categories.  

Qigong is simply moving with a felt sense of qi around ones body.  With regard to the internal martial arts, that feeling of qi acts as a buffer in between the physical body and the spatial imagination.  The quickest way to develop this feeling is through brush bathing.  

Brush bathing is very simple.  Sit on a bench and pour a bucket of hot water over your head.  Then scrub your whole body with a stiff brush; starting at the top and moving towards the feet, scrubbing the yang meridians before the yin meridians (back before front).  Then pour four buckets of hot water on your head and one cold bucket.  After each bucket visualize (see and feel) the steam as a color permeating your skin and out into space.  The colors should changed from dull to bright, and follow the five element color sequence: green, red, silver, violet, gold.  

Brush bathe everyday for a couple of months until this felt visuallization is easy to conjure.  Meanwhile, learn to dance while maintaining these felt visualizations.  That, in my experience, is the entirety of qigong, the rest is marketing and hand-holding.  

So what are all those other "qigong" type things that people do?  They all fall either into the category of jinggong or shengong.  (The word "gong" means work in modern Chinese, but in a non-communist milieu it means to accumulate merit.)

Jingggong is any specific pattern (or quality) of movement.  (Once you have the pattern, you can add your qigong felt visualizations to it.)  The purpose of jinggong is to change ones physical body through refining ones awareness of it.  That covers a wide range of experiences including: coordination, relaxation, imitation, rhythm, breathing patterns, and ways of connecting or integrating through the body.   

Shengong is the practice of moving the body exclusively with the imagination.  This is how all the internal martial arts work, but it also includes subtle or invisible movements that may happen while practicing visualizations in stillness.  

Jinggong works fine without qigong. And qigong is a wonderful practice on its own too.  They also work well together.  But shengong is not going to work unless one has mastered the qigong practice.  And shengong will not work for martial arts or dance unless the movement patterns (jinggong) are established first.  At the risk of stating the obvious, if one does not know how to kick someone in the head shengong will not help, learn the skill first.  

Colors are a useful way to trick ones mind into experiencing empty space as having substance, so that it becomes easier to manipulate.  There are countless other tricks.  I suspect it will be some time before my naming conventions become conventions.  But calling everything qigong, is not consistent with the basic cosmology of the body or the practice.  Let's change it.

Bathing Practice

Each culture has totally different standards and conceptions about what constitutes clean. Last year the New Yorker had some pictures of people living in a garbage dump in Nigeria. They were wearing bright beautiful clothing and looked cleaner than I do. Japanese are incredibly clean, I've watched men in public baths scrub their entire bodies as many as eight times before getting in the bath to soak. Yet I've seen rural places where Japanese will toss trash on the ground.

Within the United States, even among my friends, there is a lot of variation in what we each perceive as "clean enough." For instance I've noticed that female Italian Americans have very high standards of what constitutes a clean kitchen.

I must admit I find Chinese notions of cleanliness puzzling. Chinese brush-bathing seems to be as much about a feeling of health as it is about getting clean. The idea is to enliven the protective layer of qi on the surface of the body.

This layer of qi is called weiqi. The entire surface of the skin is stimulated so that the weiqi will be distributed evenly around the body. Uneven weiqi results in one part of the body being cold while another part is hot. It is also associated with the first stage of many illnesses, and historically with various types of spirit possession.

I highly recommend trying brush-bathing everyday for two months during the winter. After two months if you like it you won't want to stop.

Developing your weiqi will make you more sensitive to wind and changes in temperature. It tends to improve circulation and may help tonify the liver and the lungs.


  1. Bathing room should be clean, free of drafts, and not too bright.

  2. Rinse in warm water, a bathing stool, a small bucket, a large bucket, a washcloth, and a brush.

  3. Sit on the stool and fill the large bucket with hot water and douse yourself (repeat).

  4. Refill the large bucket and use the washcloth on your head, neck and face.

  5. Scrub your whole body thoroughly and evenly with the brush, beginning at the top and working toward the feet.

  6. Douse yourself with the remaining water.

  7. Use the smaller bucket to rinse yourself four times with hot water, then once with cold.

  8. Rise your equipment and vigorously dry off using a rough towel.