Why are there so many more yoga than qigong practitioners?

I teach qigong and have done for a few years now [here are the details of a weekend I will be teaching on October 8/9].

I usually get around ten students for a course or a drop-in, but often it’s fewer than that – just five or six sometimes. And I am the only teacher at the Brighton Natural Health Centre offering qigong. Meanwhile, in the larger next door studio, yoga classes run right throughout the evening and weekend, 25 students at a time. It may sound arrogant but I know that this disparity is not because I’m a poor teacher … it’s something to do with the profile of qigong versus yoga.

Yoga, of course, benefits from constant exposure in the media. You can barely open a lifestyle magazine without seeing a lithe young woman in slinky clothing doing a yoga pose. And everyone ‘gets’ yoga. The movements and stretching experienced in one’s first yoga class deliver a powerful and satisfying experience. Yoga bodywork fits what we expect bodywork to be like [perhaps because the evidence is increasingly strong that many yoga asanas are modern inventions inspired by a mix of late 19th and early 20th century Scandinavian gymnastics, British army training and stage contortionism – see this for example].

By contrast, qigong has a low profile … even it’s name is a challenge since it’s unpronounceable by anyone who doesn’t already know how to say it. And compared to yoga, the practice is slow to reveal its riches. Rather than powerful stretches, qigong works with coiling and uncoiling, lengthening and releasing – often to only 70/80 percent of capacity. In traditional terms, this is movement that opens the  channels/meridians, while in modern anatomical terms it works mostly on the fascia. And while restoring youthful flexibility to the fascia is profoundly rewarding, it is generally accepted that it can take months to start to reap these rewards.

Qigong is slow too, and it can be hard to learn the long deep breathing that harmonises with the movements. This integration of body, breath and mind (stillness, absorption) is what produces the ‘qigong state’ and once again it takes dedicated practice before it starts to reveal its secrets.

Maybe it is no mystery then that qigong is the poor cousin to yoga. What is mysterious to me, however, is how few acupuncturists practise qigong seriously. The two seem to me to be integral to each other. Qigong makes real the ‘energy body’ that otherwise tends to be mainly conceptual. It also cultivates the qi vigour traditional associated with a good acupuncture practitioner.

It was Julian Scott who once pointed out to me that Western medicine recognises how different ‘types’ go into different branches of medicine. For example the thinkers gravitate towards general practice while the hands-on types go for surgery. We can see something similar in Chinese medicine. The herbalists are the intellectuals, with treatment traditionally prioritising talking over palpation, and deep and clever thought resulting in an elegantly written prescription.

At the other end of the spectrum, tuina and orthopaedic work requires physical power, strong hands and direct physical contact with patients. When I was in China in the 1980s, I would say that the acupuncturists I studied with allied themselves more to this end of the spectrum – they were proud to demonstrate a similar kind of vigour and directness in their needling and their handling of patients.

Working with the body is a vital part of maintaining health, and since the role of a Chinese medicine practitioner includes teaching and modelling positive lifestyles, it seems fair to say that all practitioners should be cultivating their bodies in some way. There is a wide variety of practices to choose from and we need a range of activities to maximise wellbeing – ones that build a moderate degree of aerobic fitness, for example. But it’s hard to argue that the millennia-old wisdom that informs good qigong shouldn’t form the foundation of a practitioner’s practice. And if practitioners awaken to the transformational power of qigong, they can become advocates who help raise the profile of qigong to a level we now associate only with yoga.


  1. That’s such a valid point you are making here. I, as a practitioner of Chinese medicine often thought how is it that my degree did not expect me to study Qi gong? Qi gong, acupuncture and herbal medicine are the cores of Chinese medicine yet we spend number of hours studying other modalities but nothing on Qi gong!

    Your point about Qi gong being the poor cousin of yoga also is interesting. I have practiced yoga for many years and have done so because it was available to me. I would love to join a Qi gong class if it was available. Who, then should go forth with populating Qi gong? Well, I think it should be us, Chinese medicine practitioners! We should be learning it as a part of our degree so that we can actually hand down this tradition to our patients to empower them.

    But hang on, it’s not taught at university!

    Yes, I think your call to awaken us to being educated on Qi gong is very valid and I will endeavour to learn it. Which is why I am also very excited to see some video materials of your teachings!

    May Qi bless you in your breath and movements.

  2. I have been practicing qigong and martial art for over 25 years . Am just coming into prequalifying period in chinese medicine. Again the missing link in colleges is that there isn’t enough QI work done practically. I have been prescribing qigong as medicine for many years as taught by my master.

    However I think that qigong has an identity crisis.
    Anything that takes some time to attain is deemed as not of value . As society we have an entitlement to have things immediately . Unfortunately having everything immediately results in quick depletion as we search for the next thing. Qigong, Chinese medicine all come from TAO maybe we should focus on that as a principle then educate people to breath deep and awaken .

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