This is an elegant and powerful 18-sequence qigong (chi gong) form that has its origin in the flowing movements of tai chi. Known as taichi qigong shibashi, it is a wonderful daily practice, taking around fifteen minutes to perform. Qigong - traditional Chinese body-mind-breath training – is designed to calm and centre the mind, deepen the breath, and train the body by cultivating rootedness, balance, flexibility and strength. The course is primarily designed for those who have some knowledge of the taichi qigong form but it is possible to learn the form from the video – especially with some previous experience of qigong. In the end, however, nothing can replace learning with an experienced live teacher.
Qigong ('gong' = skill, in 'qi (chee)' vital energy, is a 20th umbrella term for a vast range of traditional practices - most of which emphasise the smooth integration of body, breath and mind. Tai chi is one of the traditional 'internal' martial arts of China. Shibashi simply means 18.
This is a single take video of the whole taichi shibashi qigong form to assist in practice. It includes titles with the names of each move and an optional voice-over (turn off sound if you don't need it) emphasising key points for each move.
This is a simple and richly enjoyable practice which both helps equalise the weight (left to right and front to back) when standing, and helps us access the deep still point at the centre of the body's core.
The mechanical view of the anatomical body - as made up of separate and isolated parts - is increasingly being replaced by the kind of integrated view that has always been part of the Chinese internal exercise and medical traditions. Modern research into the fascial connective tissue reveals the body to be a tensegrity structure ... when one part moves, every part moves. Learning to move the body as an integrated whole leads to greater power, strength, balance, proprioception and physical wellbeing.
The free flow of what is known as qi (chee) and blood is one of the key principles of good health in Chinese medicine. Sun Simiao - the great 7th century 'god of medicine' - said we should learn to exercise from nature, taking inspiration from continually flowing water. One of the features of this qigong style is that from start to end the movement flows continuously - without stopping or slowing. This generates a very special feeling in the body-mind.
Natural, rounded movements are a feature of qigong and the internal martial arts. They create strong postures and allow for the freest circulation of qi and blood.
The principle of 'stopping before completion' runs through the Chinese health tradition - for example stopping eating before we are full, stopping exercise before we are exhausted etc. The same applies in qigong and the internal martial arts. While there is often a temptation to stretch to 100%, lengthening to 80 or 90 per cent is understood to offer martial and structural advantages.
The simple, yet profound, theory of yin yang runs through the core of Chinese medicine, the Chinese health tradition, and Chinese culture. In qigong we mirror the universe we inhabit by working with the yin yang polarities of rising and falling, forward and backward, inhaling and exhaling, strength and softness, speed and slowness, internal absorption and external awareness, and much more. In this way we attune ourselves to the natural order of things.
Proprioception means the awareness of where the various parts of our bodies are in space. Proprioception declines with age, by ignoring and disassociating from the body, and with alcohol (which is why being asked to close the eyes and touch the nose with the tip of the finger is a test for drunk driving in the USA). Being able to maintain detailed awareness of the different parts of the body is vital for physical wellbeing and for all complex physical activities. Failure to do so results in a greater risk of injury and falling - especially in older people. BKS Iyengar, the world famous yoga teacher, once said "Health is not fitness but awareness, which flows like a river through every part of the body".
Synchronicity means that all the movements of this qigong form are synchronised to start and end at the same time. For example one move may involve a small raising of the heel and a large raising of the arms. Learning to synchronise them adds grace and optimum free flow to this practice.
The central channel - a term used in the internal exercise arts - describes a line that runs from the centre of the top of the head, down to the centre of the perineum - right through the very core of the body. Most movements of this qigong form (as in tai chi) require the central channel to be held vertical/erect. Practically, this is more useful than thinking of holding the spine erect since that tends to favour the posterior part of the body.
Good balance is vital in daily activities and is especially important in the martial arts. While the more dramatic martial arts may impress with their powerful kicks and punches, tai chi and the internal martial arts make holding balance a priority - a balance which is maintained through every part of every movement.
Deep, slow, profound breathing is a key part of this qigong practice, and as we deepen into it, this kind of breathing is something we try to develop. However, while slow deep breathing can have profound beneficial effects on the body-mind, forced deep breathing can be harmful in many ways. We therefore always try and encourage deep breathing but never force it by trying to hold the breath.
Learning to turn the waist and lumbar spine (rather than twisting the legs or turning in the upper back) can be a surprisingly hard skill to learn, especially in the Western world where our favoured ways of exercising seem to miss out the spiralling, twisting movements found in other cultures (especially their dance styles). An immobile waist can increase the risk of accumulating visceral fat which is known to be a risk for many different diseases. At the same time, a strong and supple waist is the prime source of power in most martial arts and sports.
The military posture of a raised chest and a closed upper back (think of a marine saluting) is anathema to the Chinese health and martial tradition. Of course the chest should never be allowed to collapse, but as long as the central channel is well held, the shoulder blades spread to open the upper back, and the breath taken deep down to the lower back and sides, the chest can be allowed to sink and the heart and lungs to become quiet. A quiet heart means a quiet mind, while a naturally sinking chest lowers the body's centre of gravity, leading to better rooting and balance.
One of the explanations of the term 'internal exercise/martial arts' is that movement begins in the core of the body and then manifests outwards. With practice, we learn to engage the waist, legs, ribs, and low, mid and upper back, and then the arms move in response - remaining soft and relaxed without any tension, especially in the shoulders.
Spiralling movements are an important feature of many qigong and martial styles and in the tai chi qigong practice we focus on smoothly turning/spiralling the arms with full awareness of how the soft tissue wraps around the bones.
We all know what it's like to have tight and tense shoulders, and when we start a practice of this kind we also became aware of how we tend to raise the shoulders - especially when raising the arms - often without being aware of it. Learning to soften, drop, and relax the shoulders can take dedicated awareness and practice.
We take care never to lock the elbows (by not straightening the arms to 100%) and to work to keep the tip of the elbow pointing down to the ground. This keeps the arm aligned with the body, and means that the power of the legs, waist and back can drive the arm forward with power - although as always in this practice, we emphasis soft arms.
Without tensing, we need to keep the hands open and alive. The centre of the palm - known as Laogong - can open and spread like a flower, and the fingers remain spread and active throughout.
The wrists are ket soft and relaxed throughout.
Tai chi and qigong are proven to benefit knee problems such as arthritis - mainly through strengthening the leg muscles, especially the quadriceps. However we need to be alert to ways in which - incorrectly performed - the moves have the potential to injure the knees. In this video we see how the knee has to always bend in line with the foot (not medial or lateral to it) and we should never load weight onto the leg when it is bent so far that the kneecap extends beyond the tip of the toes.
Breathing - one of the three integral parts of this practice (body, mind and breath) is deep and slow, travelling down to the lower back and sides and filling the inside of the lower abdomen. Breathing in this way has numerous proven benefits, especially in calming the mind and activating the parasympathetic 'rest and relax' state at the expense of the sympathetic 'fight and flight' stress state.
Like all valuable skills, the fruits of qigong can only be tasted with dedicated and prolonged practice. It seems to be a feature of this kind of internal work that it can take longer to awaken to its pleasures and benefits than it can to some more 'obvious' practices - aerobic exercise, demanding external martial arts, strong stretches in yoga etc. But dedicated practice (the Chinese say that when first learning qigong we should practise for 90 days without a break) will reveal ever more layers of richness. A daily practice is a reliable friend and support amidst the swirling changes of human life.
An additional pleasure of qigong practice is that whenever possible it is done outside - close to nature. If we can find a spot near trees, the sea, a river or lake, where the air is fresh and we are surrounded by birds and other wildlife, all the better.
Our feet are our root. Strongly rooted, treading the 'great square of earth', helps us maintain physical and emotional balance. In the Chinese view we first need to establish this solid grounding on the earth before exploring the rarefied delights of heaven.
The Chinese tradition is to wear soft, flat-soled shoes. This may be because practice was done outside whenever possible - where the ground might be rough, wet or cold. It could even be that before modern plumbing, getting the feet dirty was undesirable. Whatever the reason, it is true that shoes help us with balance.
Peter Deadman has been involved in the so-called 'alternative health' field for 45 years. In 1971 he co-founded Infinity Foods - a natural, organic and macrobiotic food store - in Brighton, England. He then trained in Chinese medicine (acupuncture and herbal medicine) and practised for 30 years. He founded The Journal of Chinese Medicine in 1979 and has had a long career writing about and teaching Chinese medicine all over the world. He is co-author of the best-selling A Manual of Acupuncture and author of Live Well Live Long : Teachings from the Chinese Nourishment of Life Tradition. He has practised qigong and other forms of the Chinese internal arts tradition regularly sine 1993 and has taught qigong for many years.