Master Shi Yong Yao is a 33rd Generation Shaolin Temple Grand Master Monk. Originally from China, he now lives in Oakland, and has been hosting regular classes at the Oakland Asian Culture Center in Oakland for years.
The concept of qi (“chee”) entered American consciousness some time ago, as many people embraced traditional Chinese medicine practices, such as acupuncture, and martial arts like tai chi became popular. By itself, qi means “energy” or “life force,” and the word gong means “cultivation.” So, “qi gong” means “life energy cultivation,” and this ancient healing practice is finding its own niche in the range of complementary healing.
Though references to similar practices are found in Chinese history dating back at least 4,000 years, including in the Taoist The Book of Changes, the actual term “qi gong” (sometimes spelled qigong) originated in 1949 with a clerk named Liu Guizhen, who returned to health using a system taught to him by his uncle. Made aware of his remarkable recovery, the Chinese government decided to approve and adopt a version of the system, renaming it “qi gong” to distinguish it from the Buddhist name used by Liu’s uncle, neiyang gong. Popularized in China, various forms of qi gong began reaching other countries, including the United States.
Master Shi Yong Yao is a 33rd Generation Shaolin Temple Grand Master Monk. Originally from China, he now lives in Oakland and has been hosting regular classes at the Oakland Asian Culture Center in Oakland for years. Through a translator, Master Yao explained that he teaches multiple forms of qi gong, but that all of them use a series of slow movements coordinated with a special breathing technique.
“Most of the movements use open palms,” he said. “Many parts of your body and tendons are stretching as external movement, with very slow breathing as internal movement. Externally must be fortification; inside must be purification; unifying matter and spirit.”
In qi gong practice, when you breathe in, you imagine that you are breathing into the lower dan tien, or LDT, first. The lower dan tien “is an energy center located below your navel about three finger widths down and two finger widths in,” Master Yao said. “It is considered the center of gravity of the human body and is the seat of one’s internal energy, or qi.”
Master Sheldon Callahan, who teaches both qi gong and kung fu through Shaolin Life at the Shaolin Temple in East Oakland, started doing kung fu at age 16, and in college encountered a video depicting qi gong. Fascinated by the connection between the use of energy in martial arts and its use in qi gong, he also began studying with a tai chi master, who emphasized how energy moves through the body and how the mind influences it.
“When the Shaolin monks [including Master Yao] came to Oakland to open a temple, I became one of their students,” he said. “I learned to cultivate mindfulness, because my teacher didn’t speak English.” Eventually, he became director
of the temple and now teaches multiple classes in the form of qi gong known as “Eight Pieces of Silk (or Brocade),” with students ranging in age from kids to seniors. The “Qi Gong Flexibility” class, for example, focuses on strength and mobility, using relaxation techniques in standing exercises, and is also designed to improve balance. “Qi gong practice cultivates awareness of the body. You become acutely aware of how you feel, and there are many health benefits associated with the organs we target,” Master Sheldon said.
Master teacher Liping Zhu, who teaches at her Qi Dragon Healing Center in Eureka, as well as through the San Francisco Zen Center, called qi gong “an ancient life preservation practice.” It works directly with the energy of the body, mind and breath, she said. “The practice helps circulate qi, boosts one’s energy, and calms the mind.”
Liping noted that her classes and workshops attract adult participants of all ages, from those in the their 20s through those in their 70s. “Some come to qi gong for healing, some for health maintenance and longevity, and some just love how good doing qi gong makes them feel,” she said. And some, she added, are interested in the mind/body/spirit aspect of qi gong “that leads to more physical and mental freedom.”
Jerri Miner began studying qi gong 28 years ago, and now teaches classes at the Wen Wu School of Martial Arts in El Cerrito. She came to the practice when she was introduced to Chinese medicine modalities such as acupressure while she was working as a physical education teacher helping seriously disabled students. She teaches the “Wild Goose” form of qi gong, which, she said, is 1,700 years old and originally developed by a Taoist monk. This form incorporates 64 movements, with one movement flowing into the next.
Classes consist of warmups, then repetitions of what the class has learned to that point, and then moving to a new sequence. In her experience, health benefits include fewer colds, lessening of aches and pains, better sleep, and faster recovery from surgery.
All of the experts interviewed concurred that qi gong integrates very well with other forms of exercise.
Master Sheldon’s classes often host dancers, yoga practitioners, runners, and weight lifters, he said. “Runners can achieve more Achilles tendon flexibility and learn to run lighter, lessening the chance of injury,” he said. Weightlifters learn to lift slowly, in a relaxed manner, and release unconscious tension in their shoulders and hips.
Since qi gong works with qi, breath, and the mind, it’s different from “pure muscle, tendon and physical body training,” Liping said. The integration of practices can “possibly enhance one’s overall well-being.”
Yet another advantage of qi gong, agreed the experts, is that it can be practiced on a simple, basic level and still provide many healing benefits. The practice is gentle on the body, and can be done at home once properly taught and understood.
Master Yao has noticed a large increase in Western interest in qi gong, partly propelled by depictions of the practice on PBS, and on The Dr. Oz Show. “Qi gong will indeed balance your energies and increase your vitality,” he said. But he noted that the practice is not just about physical health. “For those who are seriously practicing qi gong, it can help them seek enlightenment and awakening.”
Miner has observed that many members of her classes form their own groups to practice together, in addition to taking class.“You reap the benefits for what you do and how much you do,” said Liping. “But practicing at all is beneficial.”
Where to Find Qi Gong Classes
Many studios and facilities now offer qi gong. Here are a few suggestions.
Shaolin Temple/Shaolin Life, 1244 23rd Ave., Oakland, 510-992-3514, ShaolinLife.org
International Chi Institute, 1532 Webster St., Alameda, 415-832-0118, InternationalChiInstitute.com
Wu Wen School of Martial Arts,
10124 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito,
Rudramandir Center, Classes with Master Yao’s apprentices Shifu, David Doyle and Shifu Caxton Fung, 830 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, 510-486-8700, Rudramandir.com
Liping Zhu’s Upcoming Workshops
“One Day Qigong for Health: Qin Quan,”
May 11, San Francisco Zen Center
“Qigong for Health: Abdominal Qi Healing,” May 12, Green Gulch Farm (Marin County)
“Healing with Qigong Retreat,” Aug. 27-Sept. 1, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.
Contact the SF Zen Center for more information or to register, 415-863-3136, SFZC.org.