The Mind-Body Benefits of Qi Gong—an Ancient, Meditative Movement Practice

This practice combines slow movements, breathing, stretching, and meditation to help lower stress and focus the mind.

There's no doubt that mindfulness and meditation have been proven over and over again to be beneficial for everything from stress relief to sleep. And there's a form of meditation that has been around for thousands of years that you may not be aware of yet, qi gong (pronounced chee-gong). Qi gong, or qigong, is an ancient Chinese practice that involves meditation, controlled breathing, and movement. Qi means energy, and Gong means cultivation or practice. Unlike traditional meditation where you sit still, qi gong involves stretching and some movements and poses that are closely related to Tai Chi. If you're familiar with acupuncture, you may also be familiar with qi, as acupuncture is another modality to balance and regulate the qi (or flow of energy) in the body. That's why qi gong is often used in conjunction with other traditional Chinese medicine modalities.

"It's great for people who want a meditative practice and overall detoxification. [It] mentally and physically aligns the body and mind (like meditation) with some motion that helps people feel less distracted and frustrated," says Gisele Wasfie, doctor of acupuncture and East Asian medicine who is also trained in qi gong and tai chi.

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How to Practice Qi Gong

Qi gong can be practiced in a group setting or individually. There are classes held across the country, although they're slightly more difficult to find than yoga classes (you can search for certified teachers on the National Qigong Association website) or you can practice at home. There are plenty of available videos and courses online to help you get started. Most qi gong instructors will take the time to walk you through the simple movements and breathing techniques so you can catch on quickly. Wearing workout clothes or even loose clothing (whichever is more comfortable) is really the only thing you need to do to prepare for a class.

The beauty of qi gong is that it can be practiced anywhere at any time. However, you may see added benefits if you do it outside. "Morning light exposure on your eyeballs is really helpful for those struggling with sleep," says Sunjya Schweig, MD, founder of the California Center for Functional Medicine. "When you do it outside you'll feel a different level of connection, as well when you do movements that pull up energy from the earth."

Qi gong is a relatively safe practice (but always check with your doctor first if you do have health issues) and gentle on the joints, which is why it's popular to see the elderly population practicing in China and abroad. It's great, too, for those with limited mobility who may be worried about injury from yoga or more intense exercise.

However, don't be alarmed if you may feel a slight headache or a bit of nausea when you first start out. "When you are doing this, you may feel energy in certain areas," says Wasfie. This especially happens if that area of the body may be feeling less than optimal. "If so, back off a little bit and go slower."

RELATED: Restorative Yoga Is All About Relieving Stress With Gentle Stretches—Here Are 6 Beginner Poses to Try

How often should you practice? Five to 10 minutes daily is all you need at first to start feeling the benefits of qi gong. Of course, if you can't squeeze it in daily, you can still see some benefits. "Just breathing and moving can really make a difference," says Wasfie.

Similar to yoga, there are multiple types of qi gong practices, but they all involve gentle movement and focused, intentional breathing. Practitioners like Wasfie even use it in their acupuncture practice to further target certain body parts. Teachers must complete a certain number of hours of training in order to become certified.

There are certain forms of qi gong designed to target particular body parts. Wasfie often works with her clients with what's known as the Six Healing Sounds. Each sound targets a different body part with a certain way of breathing, movement and mantra. For instance, targeting the lungs you'll breath out with a "sssssss" breath (think like a snake or radiator), breathing out judgment, grief, and clinging, and breathing in self-worth and detachment. The goal is to release the stressors and bring in positivity. This helpful video on the Six Healing Sounds of Qigong will give you even more of an idea of how this works.

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The Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Qi Gong

First, the gentle stretching incorporated into this movement system is beneficial to our bodies that spend entirely too much time in sedentary positions. Plus, anytime you focus on breathing, your body benefits too. Numerous studies have been done detailing the health benefits of qi gong, including stress and anxiety reduction, improvement in bone density and cardiopulmonary function, reduction in hypertension, and an impact on overall immune function. There are ongoing studies to determine if it may be a worthy complementary therapy during cancer treatment as well.

"When you move your hands around you can feel this tug in your fascia, and you can impact other body parts by manipulating this [fascia]," says Dr. Schweig who offers an online comprehensive qi gong course to his patients and practices himself.

Dr. Schweig often sees it aid in things like joint health, a decreased risk of falling (by increasing balance), an increase in energy, and improved sleep. "It's really great for recovery from severe illnesses, dealing with the post-condition malaise and fatigue," he says. "Because of its gentle nature it's just a good way to get back to movement."

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  2. Oh B, Bae K, Lamoury G, et al. The effects of Tai Chi and Qigong on immune responses: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicines (Basel). 2020;7(7):39. doi:10.3390/medicines7070039

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