Back to Basics: Qi Cultivation
Jennifer Moffit is a Licensed Acupuncturist
with a Masters of Science in Traditional Oriental Medicine.
She received a Bachelor's of Science in Environmental
Toxicology at UC Davis, teaches Oriental Medicine to medical
students at UCSD, and practices in San Diego at the West
Coast Center for Integrative Medicine.
||For those of you who have been following this series of
articles, we have been exploring the "Basics" in
our approach to maintaining and restoring health. So far we
have covered explored diet and cellular nutrition, sleep,
and the use of bodywork in Integrative medicine, all with
an eye to qi cultivation, preservation, and patency (smooth
As you already know, qi is the body's vital energy - sort of
like gasoline to a car - although it can seem more elusive in
concept. I have tried to show that there is a lot to maintaining
our engine - the physical body. At every level, if something is
neglected there is potential for us to 'spring a leak.'
I find it helpful to think of healing and health in terms of
a pie chart - we can even give it a title. In our "Pie Chart
of Self Care" every aspect must be present in order for the
chart to be complete. Let's consider the ideal first
A Perfect World (sigh):
In our idealized view, as you can see, all the elements of self
care are pretty evenly represented, with a category I like to
refer to as "Sheer Luck" being the smallest of all the
values at around 5 %. By 'luck' I mean that margin of error (or
grace for the more optimistically inclined), by which we can use
and abuse this balance and avoid health pitfalls or injury. You
know - all those near misses on the freeway, too many Frappacino's
in the summer, not enough veggies - they draw from the 'luck'
Unfortunately, the 'Pie Chart of Self-Care' in the folks I see
clinically usually looks more like this:
Hmmm, not enough of several elements, and far too much reliance
For the patients who come in with a chronic illness or acute
injury, often it seems like luck has run out. And then we have
an added category which I like to call "Meds' which has with
it pros and cons as well.
The reason I bring out visual aides this month is to drive home
the point that all the elements of self-care are important. Far
too frequently we rely on one or another and hope it is enough.
Then we go to the physician (of whatever modality) and expect
them to fix the deficits in our self-care, preferably as quickly
For chronic conditions which have been around a long time, whether
pain or internal medicine - many times there are been aspects
of self-care which may have been neglected for months or years.
I find this is true even with an injury that is sudden onset -
an accident or a pulled muscle that is very painful and which
refuses to heal. How entrenched an injury becomes is often a reflection
of the care and maintenance that was given to the body prior to
the onset of the problem. So even if you never had a chronic backache
before, if it suddenly shows up over night, and you have not been
including bodywork, nutrition, exercise, play, etc., realize that
you were primed for a condition to develop.
Realize there is no blame here - these are aspects that have
been ignored and minimized by western medicine for far too long.
I may be dating myself here by mentioning that the sayings my
grandmother used to quote (while sneaking last night's peas into
my pancakes) were true more often than not, I just had to go through
10 years of school to realize it. The good news is that the word
is out - now you know too and you can use all these tools to help
restore and maintain your health.
Now there are a few sections of self-care that we have not covered
yet - qi cultivation, play/pray, and exercise. We will cover these
as a unit because they have a common theme. In future columns
we will cover more about the TCM approach to the mind and emotions
and how they affect the physical organs. I want to make a pitch
to include some of the following activities in your self-care
routine and briefly explain why.
Qi Cultivation (Tai Qi, qi gong, yoga, martial arts), Play/Pray,
I include the all of the above as Qi cultivation because in different
ways they all help balance the cellular effects from certain physical
and emotional states, and to help maintain the patency or 'free-flowing'
nature of qi. Some of you who read my article on bodywork now
understand that the nature of qi is like a river, and it needs
to flow freely and evenly. Chronic pain and disease are signs
that the qi has gotten diminished or stuck in some way. This category
includes ways to help ensure that qi moves freely and smoothly,
and also helps bring a level of self-awareness into your body
to help prevent recurrences in the future.
Qi cultivation or Qi gong is the 4th of the four pillars of traditional
Chinese medicine: Acupuncture, Massage, Herbal Medicines and Qigong.
Broken into its component parts: Qi and Gong: Qi = vitality, energy,
life force, Gong = practice, cultivate, or mastery. 3 Roughly
speaking, it is the practice of cultivating or nourishing one's
life force energy. In layman's terms, these are practices by which
you can not only fill up your gas tank, but also keep the motor
more finely tuned.
The more classical oriental traditions include meditation exercises
of Qi gong, and tai ji. But these are rooted in a very different
culture than ours, and many of my patients have not had a heart
connection with the practices. I like to include general exercise,
play/prayer, yoga, pilates within this category. What types of
qi cultivation you choose depend on personality and taste, and
I don't find one to be more beneficial than the other. It should
be something in which you find immediate gratification (or you
won't continue doing it).
I have experimented with almost everything - sadly I lack the
temperament to do tai ji - gave it my best shot for over a year
and do not have the patience for it. But I had immediate luck
when I started doing yoga for my back, so to each his own. My
own reasons for beginning a practice of qi cultivation were very
prosaic and not rooted in anything nobler than my finances - I
was a poor grad student and could not afford to go see the chiropractor
much. I had to find something to help with the back pain that
I could do on my own. After taking a few workshops, I learned
a series of poses that were very helpful for my condition, which
I continue to this day.
In general I find there is a need for something with movement
and stretching (frees up the qi in the large muscle groups and
maintains flexibility and strength) and something that allows
for quiet time and contemplation (relieves stress and allows the
body to mentally and physically recharge). Sometime they can be
combined like long walks on the beach with the dog, so again,
search out ones that are pleasing.
In addition to the physical benefits of clearing out stress,
improving flexibility, freeing up stuck qi from the large muscle
groups, the process of qi cultivation for me personally has brought
with it a greater level of awareness of how I hold myself during
the day, where my qi gets stuck, how my emotions affect me physically.
This is very liberating because I am much less at the mercy of
them - I am more aware that when I haven't taken the time to stretch
or have quiet time for inner contemplation, I am a little too
tightly wrapped, both mentally and physically. And I have learned
over time, that when this gets really out of balance, then I get
grumpy, my back goes out, and the cycle begins again. The great
news is that I have the practices to go back to, and within a
fairly short period of time, the qi is flowing, and my body and
mind are in better shape. This is ultimately the essence of qi
gong within any tradition - the art of mindfulness - to discover
more of yourself and how you move in relation to yourself and
the rest of the planet, and how to make that more peaceful and
All Work and No Play
I also find that 'play' is one of the most important aspects
of self-care, and one that seems to get left behind after childhood.
Dogs and kids remember this. Play can be anything, but it should
be something that genuinely is joyful, makes you glad to be alive,
and renews the heart. Dinner parties with friends, tennis, golf,
singing, salsa dancing, church choir. It doesn't matter what.
Let's be honest, martyrs are boring - remembering to play makes
us more enjoyable to be around, and it provides a reserve of good
feelings so that on bad days I am less likely to go home and kick
the dog or yell at my spouse. It gives us a cushion - which again
is partly biochemical! If we go back to the idea of cellular chemistry,
play has a powerful affect chemically on the body in terms of
the pleasure receptors in the brain, and stimulates the immune
system. From the TCM perspective, it helps to stimulate the heart
energetic (joy), and relieves mental and physical stagnation.
Seriousness of mind leads to seriousness (or stuck- ness) of the
body, and we now know what happens now when the qi gets stuck.
In the oriental classic, The Great Dao 2 (a great read by the
way), great attention is given to qi cultivation and self- care
- meaning right diet, right action, right thought, bodywork like
tui na, etc. Acupuncture was considered crude and invasive - it
was only used when the other aspects had been neglected. For the
practitioner who was skilled in therapeutic massage and offering
wise counsel in terms of diet, exercise, and mindfulness, there
was no need to resort to something as crude as needles
While I am not yet ready to give up my weekly acupuncture visits,
this brought me to a renewed respect for all the elements of self-care,
including qi cultivation. Truth be told, there are not enough
hours in the day for me to do everything I need to maintain myself
so that I don't need to rely on bodywork to help balance the equation.
I would rather go horseback riding
Contact me directly at email@example.com.
2. The Great Dao Doctrine was founded by Liu Deren, who declared
that an old man had taught him the mysterious Dao in the second
Huangtong year (AD 1142) of the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), leading
to the birth of the Great Dao Doctrine. (http://www.eng.taoism.org.hk/general-daoism/major-daoist-sects/pg1-3-18.asp)