by Francis Hriadil
This article discusses the Qi Gong methodology of Lu Shui-Tian as taught by Master Bok-Nam Park. The article is based on discussions and instruction I have had with Master Park over a number of years and is being submitted here for the benefit of all interested Qi Gong practitioners.
The human body is designed for movement. It is composed of approximately 360 joints and 650 muscles that enable an almost infinite variety of large and delicate motions. These motions can range from simple gestures to highly complex and coordinated actions. It is a central principle of the natural world that there is no life without movement. As such, it is recognized in the Ba Gua Zhang method of Lu Shui-Tian that movement is a key element for maintaining the health of the body and living a normal, productive life. Movement is an inherent and fundamental characteristic of the human condition. Thus, any practice designed to improve the health of the body must incorporate movement as part of its method. But, movement alone is not enough.
We all desire good health, whether you practice martial arts or not. Many people perform physical exercise at home, at the gym, and in the park with the goal of achieving and maintaining good health. Proper physical activity will definitely raise your level of fitness; however, this is not the same thing as attaining good health. Fitness and health are different things. Fitness is related to the ability to perform physical activities, play sports, and carry out physical work. Health, on the other hand, is related to longevity and the condition of the organs, nerves, and energy systems of the body. Even today, many in the West do not understand this distinction. Both good fitness and good health are required for one to excel in the martial arts, and more importantly they are both required for one to achieve a long and happy life. The Chinese recognized this important fact a long time ago and developed methods specifically designed to promote good health. These practices were called Qi Gong (or Chi Kung). They are based on the cultivation and manipulation of Qi (or Chi), the internal energy of the body that is derived from the breath. And, they are an essential element of Ba Gua Zhang training.
Many people believe that the purpose of Qi Gong practice is to make energy in the body. This belief is not entirely correct. Qi Gong literally means energy skill. It is composed of a number of different elements. Internal energy or Qi comes from the breath, not from the Qi Gong movement. What Qi Gong movement does is create Power Circulation in the body. Power Circulation is the circulation of Qi throughout the body, and the powering or pumping of Qi into all areas of the body. In order to achieve optimum health, one must cultivate and develop this ability.
For Qi Gong practice to work, three elements must always be present and properly integrated: the form (or movement), the breath, and the mind. It is exactly this important characteristic which sets true Qi Gong training apart from mere physical exercise. Proper Qi Gong practice can promote a high level of health. But, improper Qi Gong practice can cause great harm.
There are approximately 3,600 Qi Gong exercises that exist today, incorporating around 60 different Breathing Methods. Each exercise and method has its purpose and its reason. Can you do all of these exercises? No. Do you need to do all of these exercises? No. Should you do all of these exercises? Absolutely not. You should not do a Qi Gong exercise or practice a Breathing method without a specific reason or need. Even though there are hundreds of medications in a pharmacy, you would not just use any medication arbitrarily without first understanding what that medication is for. The wrong medication could hurt or even kill you. Similarly, the wrong Qi Gong exercise and Breathing method can have a very detrimental effect on your body.
One must be careful and educate oneself about the underlying natural principles. I cannot overemphasize the point that it is risky, even foolhardy, to become involved in any form of serious Qi Gong training with a teacher that does not have the proper experience and cannot demonstrate that he or she understands the correct underlying principles. Furthermore, one should not simply copy Qi Gong exercises they see other people performing or they see presented in books and videos. In Qi Gong practice, what is good for one person may be inappropriate or harmful for someone else. Qi Gong practice is a serious matter and should be approached with knowledge and wisdom.
As important to good health as Qi Gong was in the past, it is even more important in today’s modern society. The world is no longer a simple place. In the past, life was simpler, stress was low, and the environment was clean. Today, the modern lifestyle is hectic and getting more so every day, stress is high and growing, and the environment is full of chemicals, toxins, viruses, bacteria, etc – all of which serve to attack the health of the body. Qi Gong training specifically promotes an enhanced internal energy state in the body to combat these factors and maintain good health. More people are coming to recognize this and over the past several years there has been increasing interest in Qi Gong training methods in the West.
So, where does this leave the new, inexperienced student or current, experienced practitioner who is seriously interested in achieving optimum health through Qi Gong practice? Both must answer the same basic question. Does the Qi Gong method they are considering, or already practicing, address the health of the body in a comprehensive way according to the proper underlying natural principles? If already practicing some form of Qi Gong, is the practice producing the health improvements that are expected? Have there been no results or even negative results? Is this lack of progress due to something missing from their current method?
Naturally, it is beyond the scope of this article to address specific individual circumstances, but with an understanding of a few basic concepts, the resolution of these questions may not be as daunting as it first may seem. For any Qi Gong practice to be effective, it must adhere to the universal, natural principles that govern the world and life as we know it. In the Ba Gua Zhang method of Lu Shui-Tian, we speak of the trinity of fundamental, natural underlying principles:
- The Principle of Yin and Yang
- The Principle of Five Elements (Wu Xing)
- The Principle of Continuous Change (Ba Gua)
Much has been written about these principles in many different sources, some good and some not so good. Nevertheless, it is assumed that there is a general understanding of what these principles entail and they will not be discussed in any further detail here. The key issue in evaluating a system of Qi Gong with respect to these criteria is what the method does to incorporate these principles in the actual exercises and not just what the method says about these principles.
As mentioned earlier, for any specific Qi Gong exercise to work, the form (or movement), the breath, and the mind must be properly integrated. One must understand what breathing method is right for them, how to breathe in coordination with the exercise, and how to change the breath as one develops. One must understand where to focus the mind during the exercise and when to change that focus. If one of these elements is missing or is done incorrectly, then the exercise will not produce the desired results.
For any Qi Gong practice to be comprehensive, it must address the functionality of the body in three fundamental areas:
- the joints
- the bones
- the organs
The joints are comprised of a multitude of elements including ligaments, tendons, and nerves. They provide the body with its mobility. The bones serve as the structural framework of the body and the bone marrow is the body’s primary blood cell factory, etc. The organs serve many biochemical functions in the body including respiration, digestion, circulation, filtering, elimination, etc. The body will not function properly and will never achieve optimal health unless all of these areas are properly addressed. One may ask, “Well, what about the muscles?” The answer is that when one addresses the health of the joints, the health of the muscles is automatic. The reverse of this statement, however, is not true. Practices that focus strictly on muscle training do not automatically address the health of the joints.
How can one tell that these areas are being properly stimulated by the Qi Gong practice? The answer lies in the Qi feeling itself. In the Ba Gua Zhang Qi Gong method of Lu Shui-Tian, we speak about three levels of Qi feeling:
- the Skin Qi feeling
- the Nerve Qi feeling
- the Bone Qi feeling
Each kind of Qi feeling is different and manifests itself differently in the body. Also, there is a progression of Qi feeling from Skin, to Nerve, to Bone as one’s level of skill improves. Skin Qi feeling is the first level. It is a feeling that manifests in the skin when Qi is flowing through the energy meridians and channels that have been defined and mapped by traditional Chinese medicine. Nerve Qi feeling is the second level. It is a feeling that manifests in the joints as ones level of skill develops. Bone Qi feeling is the third level. As its name implies, it is a feeling that manifests deep in the bones. All three levels of Qi feeling serve to stimulate and revitalize the organs. It is essential to understand the significance and benefits of each kind of Qi manifestation, how one must train to achieve them, and what kind of Qi feeling one needs to focus on based on factors such as age, level of health, etc.
So as a general answer to the questions raised earlier, if the current method of Qi Gong training you are considering, or are currently practicing, does not address all of these issues fully, then you may wish to look elsewhere. Again, I cannot speak to the multitude of specific Qi Gong methods that are out there and available for consideration. But, I can discuss the Ba Gua Zhang Qi Gong Methodology of Lu Shui-Tian in light of the questions and issues that have been raised in this article.
[Look for Part II to be posted soon]
Frank Hriadil is a Certified Instructor, Lineage Disciple of Master Park Bok-Nam, and has been involved in the internal Chinese martial arts since 1975. He is the Director of Master Park’s Boston Student Group.]