How Does Qigong Work?

ZHAOTONG, CHINA - NOVEMBER 05: Over 1,000 people perform Qigong during a contest on November 5, 2017 in Zhaotong, Yunnan Province of China. VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

Qigong or "life-force cultivation" is a form of Taoist yoga, with roots in ancient China. Along with supporting general health and wellbeing, qigong practice is the internal foundation of all of the martial arts.

Key Takeaways: Qigong

  • In Taoist yoga, qi is the life-force energy, and qigong is the practice which allows us to cultivate that energy.
  • The primary axiom of qigong practice is “energy follows attention.” Where we place our awareness—our conscious attention—is where qi will flow and gather.
  • In the Hindu yoga systems, this axiom is rendered with the Sanskrit terms, as prana (life-force energy) follows citta (mind).
  • Different forms of qigong employ more or less movement, but breathing is always key. The physical breathing process is used to guide awareness into a union with life-force energy.

Thousands of Qigong Forms

There are literally thousands of different qigong forms, associated with hundreds of existing schools/lineages of Taoist practice. Some qigong forms include a lot of physical movement—similar to taiji or martial arts forms. Others are primarily internal, i.e. focused on breath, sound, and visualization in ways that require little or no physical movement. While all qigong forms aim to cultivate life-force energy, each of the many specific forms has its own particular techniques for accomplishing a unique variety of “cultivation of life-force.”

Basic Qigong Axiom: Energy Follows Attention

In spite of their differences, there are basic mechanisms that are common to all forms of qigong. The primary axiom of qigong practice is “energy follows attention.” Where we place our awareness—our conscious attention—is where qi, i.e. life-force energy, will flow and gather. You can experiment with this right now by closing your eyes, taking a couple of deep breaths, and then putting your attention, your mental focus, into one of your hands. Hold your attention there for thirty seconds to a minute, and notice what happens.

You may have noticed sensations of warmth, or fullness, or a tingling or magnetic feeling, or a sense of heaviness in your fingers or palm. These are common sensations associated with a gathering of qi in a particular place in our body. Each person’s experience, however, is unique. What’s most important is simply to notice what it is that you are experiencing, and to develop some kind of confidence in this basic principle of qigong practice: energy follows attention. In the Hindu yoga systems, this axiom is rendered, with the Sanskrit terms, as prana (life-force energy) follows citta (mind).

Breath as a Conduit for Linking Energy and Awareness

What is the mechanism by which “energy follows attention”? In the initial stages of practice, this has a lot to do with the physical breathing process. By learning to rest our attention on the cycling of the inhalations and the exhalations—merging our mind with the movement of the breath—we activate a capacity for our mental focus to be able to guide the movement of qi.

The Chinese word “qi” is sometimes translated into English as “breath”—but this is not the best choice. It’s more useful to think of qi as energy plus awareness. The physical breathing process is used to guide awareness into a union with life-force energy—the offspring being what is pointed to by the word “qi.” As this union of life-force energy with awareness is stabilized within the body-mind of the practitioner, the physical breath becomes (over years of practice) more and more subtle, until it is absorbed into what is called embryonic breathing.

Embryonic Breathing

In embryonic breathing, we draw energetic sustenance directly into the body mind, independently of the physical breathing process. The physical breathing process is used as a kind of raft. Once we’ve crossed the river—returned to the land of the Cosmic Mother (dissolved our notion of separation from all-that-is)—we’re able to leave that raft of physiological breathing behind. In the same way that a fetus “breathes” through the umbilical cord, we’re able now to draw qi directly from the universal matrix.

Clarifying the Flow of Qi Through the Meridians

All qigong forms aim, in some way or another, to open, balance and clarify the flow of qi through the meridians. In the course of our lives, when we have experiences that we’re not able, in the moment, fully to digest, the energy of those experiences—like undigested food in our intestines—creates blockages in the meridians. The particular patterns created in our body mind by these energetic blockages define what in Buddhism is called “ego”—our own unique way of being unconscious, which we mistakenly believe to be who we are, fundamentally.

Qigong practice helps us to untie these energetic knots, allowing energy/awareness to once again flow freely in and as the Present Moment: a luminous emptiness in which the play of our bodily elements continuously unfolds.

By Elizabeth Reninger.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Reninger, Elizabeth. "How Does Qigong Work?" Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, Reninger, Elizabeth. (2020, August 28). How Does Qigong Work? Retrieved from Reninger, Elizabeth. "How Does Qigong Work?" Learn Religions. (accessed March 28, 2023).