Science-Backed Health Benefits of Qigong + How To Get Started
Qigong (pronounced "chee-gong"), is a mind-body practice that can change your life if you use it regularly, and its proven benefits are numerous. In addition to supporting mental health, the traditional Chinese medicine practice has been shown to enhance the immune system, improve lung function, ease pain, support energy and cognition, and more.
And contrary to popular belief, this practice isn't just for older people in the park. Qigong has been used by people of all ages for thousands of years because it's designed to support all aspects of health and vitality. Here's an introduction to this powerful technique and how to get started.
What is qigong?
Qigong helps you regulate the flow of energy through your body, which directly impacts how you feel both physically and emotionally. The word qigong literally translates to qi or chi, meaning "vital force" or "life energy," and gong, which means "practiced skill."
According to Chinese medicine, chi is synonymous with life, and its most essential characteristic is movement.
When chi moves through your body in a calm and steady way, you feel healthy, balanced, and vibrant. But when chi is stuck, you feel physical and emotional pain; when chi is erratic, you feel moody and unstable; and when chi is sluggish, you feel lethargic and heavy.
In order to feel good, you want to support a healthy flow of chi, and there are many different ways that qigong helps you do this.
The most popular styles of qigong involve slow, gentle movements that focus the mind and relax the body as a form of moving meditation. The breath naturally becomes deep and slow when using these practices as the sympathetic nervous system turns down its stress response and the parasympathetic nervous system turns on.
But qigong isn't always slow and gentle.
There is a school of qigong called Jinjing Gong that involves long stretches of "shaking." When you practice Jinjing Gong, you jump up and down in place, vocalize with grunts and moans, and occasionally slap or tap specific channels and organs in the body.
If you're brand-new to the method, you'll almost definitely feel self-conscious the first few times you try it. But the beneficial effects can be truly transformative, as Jinjing Gong is thought to help your body discharge stress and trauma. In his book, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., discusses how animals naturally "shake off" stress after potentially traumatic events, while the human inclination is to suppress this primal response.
Interestingly, after practicing qigong for a while, many people notice that even the slower qigong practices can induce gentle tremors in the body, similar to the shaking you might experience when lifting heavy weights. This is seen as a good sign that stuck chi is starting to move and tension is being released.
Mind-body health benefits.
Your mind and body are inseparable. Your body is designed to try to survive for as long as possible, and your mind is like your body's navigation system, steering you toward things that are pleasurable and away from pain. When your body is healthy and functioning well, your mind tends to be more relaxed, too. And when your mind is more relaxed, your body has an easier time healing.
So while qigong might look like a physical practice, it's easy to see how its benefits extend to mental health, too. Here are a few notable mind-body benefits of the practice that have science to support them:
It reduces stress, anxiety, and trauma.
Numerous studies have suggested that qigong can be beneficial in reducing stress and anxiety1, and researchers are just starting to uncover the significant impact qigong can also have on healing trauma2.
Most people already know that exercise and meditation are great nonpharmaceutical alternatives to help alleviate symptoms of depression. Qigong can also be beneficial for mood, especially when your time is limited. A 2021 meta-analysis3 suggests that a qigong practice can be just as effective as aerobic exercise and meditation for easing depressive symptoms in college students.
It lowers blood pressure.
A 2021 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials published in the journal Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that qigong can effectively reduce blood pressure levels4, especially when practiced regularly over an extended period of time.
This is significant because there is a clear link between blood pressure and mental health. Studies have shown5 that people with high blood pressure are significantly more likely to experience anxiety, and people with anxiety are more likely to experience high blood pressure. The same bidirectional relationship has been observed between high blood pressure and symptoms of depression6.
It improves sleep quality.
Sleep is another factor that is intimately tied to mental health, and it, too, can be improved with qigong.
As anyone who's gone a few nights with poor sleep knows, when you're sleep deprived, you're much more susceptible to mental distress7. Studies suggest that qigong can be used to improve sleep quality8 and even help with severe sleep disturbances like sleep apnea.
How to get started with qigong.
The best way to learn qigong is by working with an experienced teacher, but there are also many ways to start practicing at home. Here are a few foundational poses to give beginners a feel for the practice.
Universe Stance is one of the foundational postures in many qigong practices, and even though it looks very simple from the outside, it can be extremely powerful when practiced regularly.
To practice Universe Stance, stand with your feet hip distance apart with the outside edges being parallel—you're going to feel slightly pigeon-toed. Moving your attention up, imagine that there is a spring between your knees that you have to push against to keep your knees aligned over your toes. This will activate the entire stretch of your legs.
Then, sit your hips down as if you were resting on the edge of a stool, and lengthen your spine so the back of your neck is long. Your arms will move up to the height of your shoulders as if you're hugging a big tree, and your fingertips should be active as if you're holding grapefruits.
Close your eyes, and feel the ground pushing up against you below your feet. Some people also like to imagine that they are leaning against a large rock face or cliff as they are hugging an evergreen tree. See what this posture looks like here.
If you want to repeat a mantra, the saying that traditionally goes with Universe Stance is: "I am in the universe, the universe is in me. I am one with the universe."
You don't have to be static when practicing Universe Stance. It's totally OK to sway a bit if your body wants to. Start by holding Universe Stance for two minutes and then work your way up to longer sessions.
One thing to note is that you'll get tired quickly at first, and your body will start to hurt wherever chi is most stuck. For most people, this is in the shoulders, hips, and thighs. When you notice your body getting sore, hold out for as long as you can. My teacher, Master Ko, always said that the water has to boil before it turns to steam. If you stay with the tension long enough and just do your best to relax around it, eventually it will release and transform.
Another practice you can try at home is shaking. There are some specific moves that are traditionally used at the beginning and end of a shaking practice, but if you're just starting out at home you can simply close your eyes and start jumping up and down in place.
Let yourself pant, grunt, and moan as you do this. It may feel weird, but it really makes a huge difference! You might also want to flutter your lips or make other noises. The important thing is to follow your body's impulses.
As you shake, try out different speeds and vibrations and observe how they hit different parts of your body. Then guide your attention down your body, starting with the space above your skull, into your face, neck and throat, shoulders, arms and hands, down your spine, into your chest and abdomen, hips, thighs, knees, lower legs, ankles, feet, and toes. You can be as specific or general as you like, just feeling and shaking into different parts of your body.
Finish your session off by shaking your whole body and trying to release any places that still feel stuck. Once you're done, slow the vibrations down gradually until you feel the movement on the inside but look still on the outside. Put your hands on your lower belly, take a few deep breaths, and you're set.
Commit to 2 minutes at a time.
Just like any other mind-body practice, the biggest effects of qigong will be noticed over time.
You might be excited to dive in full force and want to start practicing for hours every day, but this usually isn't the best way to start. While you might feel some benefits immediately, consistency is extremely important for lasting results. So instead of setting yourself up for failure by trying to make a big leap, it's a better idea to start super small.
One way to build consistency is to commit to your qigong practice for just two minutes at the same time every day for a week or so. If you feel like doing more once you've started, you can, but your commitment should only be to do 2 minutes at first so you have no excuse not to show up. Once you notice yourself consistently wanting to do more, then you can start lengthening your commitment to longer sessions.
If you already have other mind-body practices in place and consistency isn't as big of an issue for you, you might want to set a goal for yourself by committing to a longer qigong practice for six weeks and keep track of the results.
Some historians date the use of qigong as far back as 5,000 years, and its health benefits are backed by science. Most studies show that the biggest beneficial effects are seen after regular practice over an extended period of time, so stick with it, especially when you're not in the mood! In my experience, it's when you least want to show up that some of the biggest transformations happen.
Katerina Baratta, MS, LAc, is a holistic mental health and wellness practitioner and writer dedicated to helping you heal the root causes of stress and anxiety.
Katerina received a BA in psychology from the University of Vermont and holds a master's degree in Chinese medicine from the National University of Natural Medicine, where she later taught as an adjunct professor.
Connect with Katerina on Instagram and TikTok for more holistic mental health strategies and inspiration. You can also visit her website to download your (free) copy of the Bliss Kit and sign up for Katerina's newsletter.