Qigong is the best exercise I have found for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. Laurie Hope
What is Qi? (also chi, ch’i, ki)
Chances are if you’re on this website you have some problem with qi. Qi is the Chinese name for the life force or vital energy that flows around and through our bodies, animating our cells and keeping us healthy. It is the same thing as ‘prana’ in yoga. When properly nurtured, qi is capable of extending beyond the human body to reach throughout the universe.
What is Qigong?
“There are infinite ways to move and strengthen qi”
‘Gong’ means practice or work. Any practice that works to increase or balance the flow of qi can be called a qigong. It is said that there are 10,000 forms of qigong, which is the Chinese metaphor for infinite, so there are infinite ways to move and strengthen qi. This means that there is a qigong practice suited for everyone, even for people too ill to practice other forms of exercise. Qigong is practiced in Chinese hospitals and is an important part of traditional Chinese medicine.
There are qigong practices that require nothing more than lying down, breathing and directing the qi flow with your mind. There are specific gongs for specific illness, such as cancer, high blood pressure, or digestive problems. There are slow gongs, fast gongs, short gongs, long sequence gongs, shaking gongs and gongs that use sounds. There are spontaneous gongs where you allow your body to do whatever it feels like, trusting that the intelligence of your system will lead you to harmony. The important thing is to find those practices that work best for you.
Where Does Qi Come From?
Qi cannot circulate in an unrelaxed body so the more relaxed we are the stronger our qi will become.
We are all born with a given qi constitution inherited from our parents. This gets consumed through the course of our life and there’s not much we can do about this. But we also receive qi from food, water, air and sunlight, and it is possible for other living beings to transmit qi to us as well. Our lifestyle can add to or diminish our qi field considerably. We all know what it feels like to be energized by being in a qi-filled natural environment such as a forest or by the ocean. Qi cannot circulate in an unrelaxed body so the more relaxed we are the stronger our qi will become.
Why Qigong is the Perfect Exercise for ME/CFS/FMS
ME/CFS is a disease of qi deficiency. When there is deficient qi it cannot circulate well through the energy pathways (meridians) of the body. The inner organs depend on the flow of sufficient qi to do their jobs properly. Stagnant qi can result in pain and many other symptoms.
Specific qigong postures and movements help us release stagnant or toxic qi and there are also gongs that help us pull strengthening universal qi into our systems.
While many forms of exercise are not possible for people with ME/CFS, qigong is slow, gentle and integrative. Even just a few minutes of practice can trigger the relaxation response and lower stress levels. Many gongs focus on strengthening the kidneys/adrenals and since ME/CFS is usually accompanied by adrenal exhaustion this is very important. Practices to increase digestive ‘fire’ can also be extremely helpful.
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When our bodies are chronically uncomfortable we tend to disconnect from them.
Qigong embodies the Taoist idea: “I am in the Universe. The Universe is in me.” Because illness can be isolating, qigong helps to relax any sense of separation by connecting us to the universal life force. When our bodies are chronically uncomfortable we tend to disconnect from them. Qigong invites us to connect our breath, feelings and body sensations. The more embodied and grounded we are, the more we can receive qi from the earth, and the more open and relaxed we are, the more we can receive the cosmic qi all around us.
Mind moves Qi.
“First in the mind, then in the body.”
The Taiji classics say, “First in the mind, then in the body.” Qi can be directed by intention and willpower. Even on my most brain-fogged days when exercise is impossible, I can still practice breathing into my navel area. This “dantian” is our qi storehouse, and focusing on it can help build our qi reserves. Plus it’s a good way to calm the mind as it encourages energy to flow downwards out of our heads.
Because energy follows attention, we can use our minds to clear blocked pathways, increase energy flow to specific areas and nourish ourselves physically and emotionally.
Balancing Yin and Yang
The yin/yang symbol represents the transformational processes of life. All things contain their opposite and life is a continual flow between these forces. The practice of qigong helps us to be both strong and soft, expanded and grounded, active and receptive. By opening the crown of the head to ‘Heaven’ (the cosmic qi field, or spirit) and rooting the feet in ‘Earth’ (form, matter), we are balancing and stabilizing the opposites within ourselves.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) also works with the qualities of the 5 elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) to maintain harmony of not only our bodies and organs but our emotional and mental energies as well. The TCM system is quite elegant, elaborate and exquisitely subtle, but it is not important to have a full understanding of it in order to benefit from qigong.
Inner Smile Practice
You can listen to the Inner Smile practice on my website. This version is an adaptation of Mantak Chia’s practice which can be found in some of his excellent books on qigong.
Also, Elizabeth Reninger is an acupuncturist and TCM teacher who has some lovely simple qigong practices on her website:
Here is her version of the Inner Smile practice:
One of the most well-known of Taoist ‘neidan’ (Inner Alchemy) practices is the “Inner Smile” – in which we smile inwardly to each of the major organs of our body, activating within us the energy of loving-kindness, and waking up the Five-Element associational network. Here we will learn a variation on this classic practice, which allows us to direct the healing energy of a smile into any part of our body that we would like …
Time Required: 10 – 30 minutes, or longer if you’d like
- Sit comfortably, either on a straight-backed chair, or on the floor. The important thing is for your spine to be in an upright position, and your head arranged to allow the muscles of your neck and throat to feel relaxed.
- Take a couple of deep, slow breaths, noticing how your abdomen rises with each inhalation, then relaxes back toward your spine with each exhalation. Let go of thoughts of past or future.
- Rest the tip of your tongue gently on the roof of your mouth, somewhere behind, and close to, your upper front teeth. You’ll find the spot that feels perfect.
- Smile gently, allowing your lips to feel full and smooth as they spread to the side and lift just slightly. This smile should be kind of like the Mona Lisa smile, or how we might smile – mostly to ourselves – if we had just gotten a joke that someone told us several days ago: nothing too extreme, just the kind of thing that relaxes our entire face and head, and makes us start to feel good inside.
- Now bring your attention to the space between your eyebrows (the “Third Eye” center). As you rest your attention there, energy will begin to gather. Imagine that place to be like a pool of warm water, and as energy pools there, let your attention drift deeper into that pool – back and toward the center of your head.
- Let your attention rest now right in the center of your brain – the space equidistant between the tips of your ears. This is a place referred to in Taoism as the Crystal Palace – home to the pineal, pituitary, thalamus and hypothalamus glands. Feel the energy gathering in this powerful place.
- Allow this energy gathering in the Crystal Palace to flow forward into your eyes. Feel your eyes becoming “smiling eyes.” To enhance this, you can imagine that you’re gazing into the eyes of the person who you love the most, and they’re gazing back at you … infusing your eyes with this quality of loving-kindness and delight.
- Now, direct the energy of your smiling eyes back and down into some place in your body that would like some of this healing energy. It might be a place where you’ve recently had an injury or illness. It might be a place that just feels a little numb or “sleepy,” or simply some place you’ve not recently explored. In any case, smile down into that place within your body, and feel that place opening to receive smile-energy.
- Continue to smile into that place within your body, for as long as you’d like … letting it soak up smile-energy like a sponge soaks up water.
- When this feels complete, direct your inner gaze, with its smile-energy, into your navel center, feeling warmth and brightness gathering now in your lower belly.
- Release the tip of your tongue from the roof of your mouth, and release the smile (or keep it if it now feels natural).
- As with all neidan practices, it’s important to find a balance between effort and relaxation. If you notice a build-up of tension, relax, take a couple of deep breaths, then return to the practice. If your mind wanders, simply notice this, and come back to the practice.
- Remember to maintain the quality of a gentle, genuine smile – infused with the energy of loving-kindness and compassion – particularly when directing your “inner smile” into an injured place. If you notice frustration, anger, fear or judgment creeping in, take a couple of deep breaths, then connect again with loving-kindness and compassion – the energies that can heal us.
I hope that your interest in qigong has been piqued. While nothing beats having a personal teacher, if this is not possible I hope that you’ll check out the abundant resources now available on the web and on Youtube to find some practices that help you. My prediction is that qigong will be as popular in 20 years as yoga has become now because it is infinitely adaptable to all circumstance.
Laurie Hope uses psychology, comparative religion, Buddhist meditation, qigong, hypnotherapy and sandtray therapy to help people harness their inner resources to improve their physical, emotional and mental well-being. She is the author of the Unchosen Path: Reflections From the Inner Journey of Illness. Find her Health Rising blogs here, visit her website here. She has had ME/CFS/FM since 1982.
Thank you so much for this timely article. I have been quite ill this winter and very unhappy with my poor body, so your words “When our bodies are chronically uncomfortable we tend to disconnect from them” resonates with me. I don’t like being at odds with my physical body but it’s been one thing after another and I’ve become discouraged about ever feeling well again.
I read through the articles you’ve linked and I’m going to print them out so I can start my practice tonight. I want to be able to give my body an inner smile and lots of encouragement, instead of the disappointment and frustration I now feel towards it. It would be so nice to feel like body is my friend again, not my enemy. I truly appreciate you sharing this information with us.
Thanks Mary Anne. Sorry it’s been a tough winter for you and I hope these practices help. Whenever I start feeling like my body is my enemy it seems so hopeless because I can’t change how my body is (despite all efforts!). But when I shift to seeing that maybe it’s my mind that’s the enemy (after all it’s the one doing the judging and rejecting of my body) then that’s something I can change. Usually I can’t just change my mind by an act of will, but it almost always changes when I drop into my heart and ‘try a little tenderness’ towards myself.
Can we just not relax and breathe nowadays without embracing Taoism and other Eastern mystic religeous practices?
The East has provided us with numerous self-healing practices, many of the best of these derived from the “barefoot doctor” self-help techniques of ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine. TCM has provided relief for many NID experiencers where Western disease-management care has failed. These carefully developed “Eastern” practices have long proven health-boosting without one’s having to embrace or deal with “Eastern mystic religious practices.”
Herbert Benson and many other strictly science-backed researchers in the U.S. and elsewhere have made similar breathing and relaxation response techniques popular for the last forty years; they leave out the cultural lingo, and it all works when practiced regularly. Even the University of Miami now has an entire building dedicated to Mindfulness Awareness meditation training for anyone affected with PTSD and other imbalances. Mindfulness Awareness made its way into U.S. academic, healing and military institutions mostly by way of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn’s (sp?) lifework. Although many Taoists, Hindus, and Buddhists have taught Westerners for over a hundred years, the health practices needn’t be religious, mystic nor cultic and can be practiced by anyone of any faith or no faith. Good stuff for free that really produces results is now mainstream. In our national chaotic and often unaffordable insurance situation, this is great news.
Wow. I had no idea about the U of M and that it has spread so far. Thanks for all the info.
Well said, Jeanette.
Sure you can Dawn. Personally I find that qigong goes far beyond simply breathing and relaxing and helps me have some mastery over the way energy moves through my system. We all need to find what works best for us.
Hi Iam a fibromyalgia patient what practices can you advise me thanks
Iam 35 year old from California abc suffering from fibromyalgia since 4 years
Nice to know I’m not alone in wishing this
I do a little yoga when I can and already have a book on Qui gong. which you’re article has encouraged me to pick up and read.
I think we should explore and embrace anything within reason that might make us feel more comfortable and help us deal with our health problems on a day to day basis. Just my view.
So nice that qigong gets some attention here.
I have been practicing it since September 2012; started with the first set of Shibashi, very easy, and from day one my headache that had been my constant companion since I fell ill in 2008 was gone!
It felt like a miracle.
There are hundreds of different qigong styles and they address different deficiencies, some are easy and some are difficult. For me it is important that what I do is easy and does not involve the mind too much since I can’t focus anymore (started with Tai Chi, found it too complicated). This quest has led me through Shibashi, Sheng Zhen, Zhineng Qigong and now I’m practicing CFQ qigong (Chaoyi Fanhuan Qigong). It was actually a remark by Steve on this blog that made me look into the results of the Dalhousie University research on fibro and CFQ qigong. I started practicing at the end of January this year and again, a miracle: the IBS that had reoccured disappeared despite the fact that it was quite severe.
CFQ is different in that it isn’t about storing qi or building qi, it is about letting go, releasing and relaxing. It is very beneficial for the gut. The fibro is not better yet but it’s early days!
This is the first type of qigong that I can practice twice a day, one session standing, one session sitting, each one at least 30 minutes. With a cardiac output and a ventilation rate of 40% of what it normally should be, I am low in energy and yet I can do this and I’m enjoying it.
If you are ill with ME or fibro, 10 minutes a day will not help that much, nor will it do much good if you are not eating well ( candida free diet or macrobiotics seem the best option).
It is so much more than excercise. Before I got ill I did yoga, one hour and a half each day, but I find qigong to be much more complete, it nourishes the body, the heart, the mind and the spirit. It is so very inspiring and don’t we need inspiration with this gloomy disease?
I do have reactions: belching and yawning and in the beginning the fibro was even worse and old pains resurfaced but somehow that was okay.
Every style of qigong I learned, I learned from dvd’s or books; I live in Belgium where the offer of qigong is very limited.
There is nothing mysterious or religious or occult about it: qi is a fact, a given and if we can tap into it, so much the better, it is a free gift.
Great to hear Ria….There is so much to learn about qigong! (Who knew?). I think, now that you mention it, that ‘releasing’ or letting go is key…
Yes, and the best part about that is that you don’t have to make it happen, it happens by doing the movements!
I am so happy to see this beautifully written article here. I’ve struggled with ME/CFS since 1986 and discovered qigong three years ago. The improvement in my functioning has been extraordinary – I would even say miraculous. Not only is my energy much stronger and more dependable, and my crashes shallower and faster to resolve, but the surprise for me was in how much more joyful, playful and grateful I am in the world. What a gift!
I study Zhineng Qigong through the Chi Center (www.chicenter.com). They have classes and materials online, which has been enormously helpful. They also have retreats (primarily in the Bay Area and in Colorado Springs). The first retreat I went to, I spent most of my time sleeping on the floor of the practice room while others were practicing. I still went home with significantly reduced symptoms.
Laurie and Cort, thank you for this article. I do think that qigong has tremendous healing potential. I encourage everyone struggling with this illness to give it a try – and keep trying until you find a form that works for you.
More joyful and playful and more energy – that’s divine, Amy…:)
I think the diversity of Qigong practices is so fascinating and thanks for mentioning that different forms fit different people.
I am severely affected and bedridden 24/7, too weak to sit up, let alone stand. How can qi gong be used for me? Many thanks
A very simple practice is to imagine that when you inhale you are bringing healing universal energy into your forehead and as you exhale imagine it dropping to just below your nave and feel it collecting and strengthening there. The more you can embellish your imagery the more effective (and pleasant) it will be – light, color, warmth, whatever works for you.
Another is to imagine the energy entering directly into your tantien (about 2 finger widths below the navel) as you inhale and imagine it being pushed back into your lower back as you exhale.
Don’t tax your concentration – a few breaths practiced frequently throughout the day is a good way to begin.
Let us know how it goes!
You can also listen to the audio version of ‘Smiling Down the 3 Channels’, the link is in the article just under “Inner Smile Practice”.
You can gently flex and arch your hands and feet, separately, while lying in bed. Start with five counts and gradually increase that number. The more you can do this, the better; be sure to respect your limit. It is a good sign when you have to yawn or burp. Also, watch what you eat.
Your article inspires me to try Qigong again – I also have too foggy a mind to remember all the Tai Chi patterns but in Qigong, that is not such a problem.
Hi Annie. Sorry to hear that you are so affected by CFS. I understand because I was almost bedridden for years. But there is some great info here and testimony that some of us do get better, so I hope you can find the right methods to help you. Thanks Laurie and Cort for this wonderful information.
One of the most effective qigong practices I did is called Three Palms Together and I’ll post a Youtube link to a demonstration of this form. Although it’s being demonstrated standing up, you can do this practice sitting or even lying down. Just be sure to keep the form: feet shoulder width apart and gently/slightly grip or bend the toes to release sick chi from the body from the Bubbling Springs Point. (I let the bed covers support my toes as long as they aren’t pressing them down too much). I did this lying down during the day for several months and got stronger and stronger. Hope this helps!
Wishing you and everyone else great health and wellbeing.
I tried to embed the video in your comment and it looks like it worked. To do that simply click on Share and then Embed 🙂 (WordPress is amazing :))
I love this very gentle form of movement. I have the Gaim QiGong for cleansing. I try to do it at least once a week. Thank you for writing on this subject.
Bugger, tried to type some words but it got all to difficult. Would love to share but writing is hard.
Quickly then. Qigong, various different forms over last 5-6 years felt nice but made no dents at all in what I think is cfs. I was on slow decline rather than quick. But I kept persevering. It’s fun and a learning experience even if no changes occured.
Getting steam up now!
So then I started something called coherent breathing. It’s Googalable(?!?) No moving, just simple breathing. Little dent. Bit easier to think. After about 6 to 7 minutes I would feel something switch off in my brain. I think it speeds up blow flow or some such.
Then I tried a standing version of coherent breathing. By now I could read again and understand a bit, if not always remember stuff. Now body would relax deeper especially at that 6-7 min mark but it seemed to go no deeper.
Then I heard about a different type of qigong. Very physical feelings, nothing nebulous -did I feel that? Out of reach for most with extreme tiredness I would say as I realy felt it and I was never really hard hit as some folks are. It’s called Reflexive Exercise and it’s teacher is John Alton in America. Again Googleable.
You do simple circles to to your sides, like drawing a four leaf clover at different heights -low torso, mid-torso and head. It’s should be easy but it really hurt to do the first time and I think on reflection I should have modified the movements more to make them easier. But I got a set done. Oh and you have to pull your belly in slightly on an in breath.
Then you do some standing and breathing, few minutes with arms in front of you. Very difficult again. Arms really aching. Then you move your arms around your your belly area trying to feel for ‘energetic’ changes.
Then finally, for brevity’s sake and mine -now flagging – you sit down and do the belly in on in breath thing (reverse breathing)whilst imagining a red line up the front of your torso from belly to between eyebrows. I felt this pathway straight away as a movement like a touch on the skin and a feeling of pressure in the head.
Point being, the teacher has adapted this from a qigong form he learnt in China and westernized it hence calling it Reflective Exercise. He describes the various chi sensations you will feel as the sensing of heat and acoustic signals given off by the body.
Through doing the practice you develop a strange lower abdominal pulse (which has just started for me) which is felt to rise up that pathway on the front of the body when you do the reverse breathing which the teacher takes to be a linking of the neurological and immune systems. This is just a theory (obviously) and a result of his trying to understand and represent qigong in a way that is acceptable to Westerners.
All I know is that so far after practice I feel much better afterwards. I think it might be very helpful for some with cfs/me. It took me a year from finding out about it to being able to do something as trying to understand it was difficult and there’s a strange difficulty in actually doing anything other than the very habitual and easy. The desire to do something has often taken weeks to years to actually see anything get done.
If this continues to help me and make my life more manageable I will be sure to let people know. I need to gain some of the scope of my mind back (working memory seems to have taken a hit – I’m living in the moment but in a very foggy. blunted way) and also get some more experience first.
Reflective, not reflexive. Sorry.
For those of you who are interested and those of you who prefer listening:
Very interesting Robert. The many practices qigong provides continues to amaze me. Good luck with the practice and please keep us informed on how it goes.
what a clear explanation!!
Am I the only one that wishes this blog would stick to scientific medical news?
For those that want alternative therapies, there are many, many other sites and things like this just damage your scientific credibility in my opinion.
Maybe even start a second blog for this non scientific stuff? I don’t mean to be rude to those that are into this stuff, but surely I can’t be alone in being not interested in the slightest?
Hi Nick – For those who are interested in some medical studies on the effectiveness of qigong, here are some that have been published. I’m sure there are some more recent ones but I haven’t checked in a while:
Chronic pain: Relieves major symptoms of fibromyalgia, including reduced pain, better quality sleep, and improved mood. (New England Journal of Medicine, 2010)
Arthritis: A large-scale study found Qi Gong’s effectiveness in easing pain and reducing stiffness for arthritis patients. (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2010)
Hypertension: Qi Gong lowers blood pressure significantly, cuts down cholesterol levels, and lowers anxiety levels. (Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine, 2003)
Immune System: Enhances white blood cell production, increases scavenger cells’ activity, and even revitalizes the bone marrow! Qi Gong increases the number of T-cells in the thymus gland and strengthens the immune system. (Journal of American Geriatrics Society, April 2007)
Parkinson’s Disease: Qi Gong reduces balance impairments, lowers incidences of falls, and improves overall functional capacity in Parkinson’s Disease patients. It even outperformed resistance training and stretching in this regard. (The New England Journal of Medicine, February 2012)
Depression: When added to complement typical antidepressant medications, Qi Gong greatly reduces depressive symptoms, improves cognitive ability, and reduces inflammation throughout the body! (American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, October of 2011)
Diabetes: Those practicing Qi Gong show greater decline in blood sugar levels and reported better quality of life, mental health, and vitality. (Journal of Complementary Medicine, June 2009)
Cancer Patients: Show significantly higher wellbeing levels, improved cognitive functions, and less inflammation. (Sydney Medical School, 2011)
Your remark makes me thinks of a guy who once told me that homeopathic medicine was absolute nonsense. When I asked him whether he had ever tried it, he said no.
What I really wanted to say is that qi and qigong have been the subject of scientific research; there is nothing unscientific about it.
I don’t wish to get into an argument about it or anything else, your entitled to your opinions as I’m entitled to mine.
I was just curious if anyone else felt the same way about these posts being out of place on this otherwise excellent blog. As no one else has spoken up I will take it that I am in the minority on this.
It’s a very diverse blog Nick :). My rule of thumb is that if something helps someone with ME/CFS or FM it’s worthy of inclusion. I do think exercises like qigong do fit part of the research picture that’s showing up in both disorders. OF course, there are lots of other options and we’ll cover those as well. If there’s anything you think we’re missing let me know.
The Qigong Institute maintains a Qigong & Energy Medicine database which includes hundreds if not thousands of abstracts from various peer-reviewed scientific journals, demonstrating the various mental, emotional & physical health benefits of qigong practice: