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Qigong : levels and applications

The first thing we need to understand when practising qigong are the three areas of application and three levels of practice. The three areas are

1. Medicine and health.
2. Martial arts.
3. Spiritual practice.

The three overlap to a degree. For example, having a degree of health is a prerequisite for practising the martial arts, but after having acquired that we wish to go further, we will specialise our qigong to the results we want to achieve. Practices like Iron Shirt make the body resistant to blows, but if we are not focusing on the martial arts we probably will not use this qigong. It can be said that in qigong, mens sana in mens corpore; that is a healthy mind in a healthy body is a prerequisite. So qigong begins in general health and moves into the other areas (or not) depending on the intention of the aspirant.

From a spiritual point of view attainment in the first two categories does not entail attainment in the third. One may become an excellent martial artist and be completely spiritually numb and unaware or even evil. Quite often people who are focused on power and domination will be blind-alleyed by the power aspect. Spiritually this is unfortunate because the physical body is doomed to decay and die, so to invest all one's efforts in the first two categories and neglect the third is to miss the ultimate purpose of one's incarnation.

In Taoism, the real focus is on the third category. Taoism is unusual in requiring physical health as a foundation for spiritual practice. No other major religion really has the same focus on the physical as Taoism. Yoga as a spiritual discipline perhaps comes the closest. Years ago, when very ill, I was turned away as a Taoist because of the poor state of my health and the teacher's incapacity to remedy the problem. Generally we should not turn away sincere students who are ill, but encourage them through healing practices to attain health before moving to spiritual practice. Illness is often a spur to the person to develop their inner resources.

After the three areas of application we come to the three levels of practice.

1. Hard qigong.
2. Soft qigong.
3. Neigong.

These have some relation to the three areas of application. The focus of these practices goes from the outer to the inner, with neigong being the deepest. The outer layer of the body consists of the muscles, tendons and fascia. In hard qigong we train for strength and flexibility. The techniques rely on stretching and twisting to open the range of movement of the body and to open the meridians. Isometric exercise in which there is no movement but muscular strength is used against a fixed resistance (such as Standing Like a Tree) to build muscular endurance. Iron Shirt packs energy into the fascia and combined with a regimen of controlled striking of the body makes the body resistant to blows. Hard qigong therefore has direct application to martial arts.

Soft qigong relates primarily to the internal organs and the meridians. The goal is to nourish the internal organs. I used to say to people 'Nobody died because their arse was too big.' Meaning, if we concentrate too much on the externals, of looking great and having muscles, but our internal is weak then in the long run our achievements will disappear. Body builders who rely on steroids to build mass fall into this trap. When we die, it is because one or more of our internal organs fail. Soft qigong seeks to activate the meridians of the body which are linked to the organs. The movements follow the lines of the meridians. Soft qigong builds the foundations of internal health and longevity.

We can say that there are two aspects of soft qigong; the external and the internal. The external consists of getting the movements right. The internal consists of matching the breathing and the intent to the motions. Li or intent is used to direct the energy according to the nature of the motion. At this point qigong becomes a moving meditation.

Many qigong forms cut across the division between hard and soft qigong. the moves as it were, wander the divide. We may find a movement emphasising isometric endurance is followed by a softer move. This does not mean the distinction between hard and soft does not exist, it just means that certain forms embrace both aspects.

When we master the internal aspects of soft qigong then we begin to approach neigong. In neigong the mind alone guides the energy. Neigong is a form of meditation; it is energy meditation and the very heart of Internal Alchemy. In classical neigong there is no movement or very little, and intent drives the energy. Neigong is intimately involved with the application of qigong to spiritual development.