Pros: Fantastic detail; thorough; frank and honest; well-researched
Cons: I believe this is the best book you’ll find on the subject
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 12/22/2000
“The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing” is a brilliant attempt by qigong master and author Kenneth Cohen to produce a comprehensive guide to qigong, accessible to Westerners as well as to Easterners.
What is Qigong?
Qigong is nothing special, yet very special. I stand, I breathe. What could be more natural or more profound?… The complexity of qigong becomes a way to recapture simplicity and innocence.
Qigong is simple: breathing, meditation, movement. Yet it is complex: formalized movements passed down over centuries (if not millennia in some cases), self defense, healing, spirituality, diet, sexuality, relaxation, way of life. The idea is that, through various techniques (such as breathing and movement), you manipulate your qi flow. Qi is energy. Actually, qi is more complex than that. There are different types and categories of qi that are created, moved and manipulated in different ways. But much of that is covered in this book, in enough detail that you’ll feel a little wiser, without so much that you’ll feel overwhelmed.
Qigong, like Western biofeedback therapy, is a systematic training in psychophysiological self-regulation.
Most of you who read this have probably never heard of qigong – or so you think. I’m willing to bet that most if not all of you will recognize T’ai Chi, which is a form of qigong. Most of the martial arts could be said to be outgrowths of qigong, or variations of qigong. In China, qigong is actually prescribed in some hospitals. Some also have qigong clinics for their patients as an adjunct to other therapy. Some studies have shown that patients who receive both kinds of treatment get better faster (and stay that way more reliably) than patients who only receive one.
In other words, the purpose of qigong is to understand… How to lie down, sit, stand, and walk.
This book concentrates primarily on qigong as a method of healing (both self-healing and “external qi healing”), but it is yet a comprehensive work that touches on other aspects of qigong as well. There is an entire chapter on diet, another on tea, one on meditation, another on breathing, one on sexual qigong, and so on.
History and Research
One of the things I find so interesting about qigong is the number of parallels between qigong theory and various theories of healing in other cultures, from Africans to Mexicans to Native Americans. Cohen goes over some of these parallels, as well as the great deal of history behind qigong. In one form or another, the concept of qigong has existed for literally millennia.
Cohen discusses many fascinating scientific studies, medical details, biology, chemistry, and so on. I’m not always a huge fan of reading lots of historical or scientific information, but Cohen keeps things interesting. He has a quirky and amusing sense of humor, he has a wonderful store of anecdotes (that he uses well to supplement his material, not to stand in for it), and he doesn’t get bogged down in details only interesting to academicians. While this book took me a little time to read, I was never tempted to put it aside.
It’s obvious that Cohen has done his homework. Between the huge number of notes and other references, the stunningly thorough bibliography, and the sheer weight of detail and scientific understanding in here, it’s hard not to come away from this book feeling greatly enlightened. It’s clear that unlike many authors Cohen not only did his research, but went out and learned enough so that he could understand and communicate other people’s research and theories coherently.
I never once felt lost or confused while reading this book, despite its thickness and breadth. His writing style is clear and accessible. He seemed to leave no assumptions or implications unstated. Few authors can claim his thoroughness and clarity. I rarely underline passages in books, but I kept a pencil (as well as those spiffy Post-It flags) with me constantly while reading this book.
How Do You Do Qigong?
Qigong is a daily practice of breathing, meditation, and/or slow, gentle movement. I say “and/or” because in qigong, breathing is meditation and movement. You can perform qigong and be totally still, or you can follow any of the various sequences of postures. Don’t let the “daily” aspect frighten you. You can practice it for as little as ten minutes a day, or as long as a couple of hours. Qigong the way Ken Cohen tells it is about doing what’s right for you, so he gives plenty of information on personalizing your practice.
I find that qigong has a very low threshold of performance. It’s so easy and effortless that it takes very little willpower or energy to get started, and it feels good enough that once you get started it’s easy to continue. I’m no poster-child for exercise. I have trouble getting myself to do even a semi-regular yoga practice, let alone walking regularly or something like that. But qigong? I have no trouble at all doing it every day.
The Inner Skeptic (Or, Does All This Stuff Work, Anyway?)
Does qigong heal all your ills, make you more energized, and cure cancer besides? Darned if I know. I have a pretty strong inner skeptic, so it’s hard for me to just read lots of material on “energy healing” and qi flows with total acceptance, despite some pretty interesting scientific studies.
But do I need that acceptance? Not really. Qigong stretches your muscles, makes you more flexible, promotes circulation of the blood and lymph through movement, lends relaxation and patience through quiet meditation. That’s pretty useful in its own right, whether or not the rest of it is true. I’m happy to take that and to keep an open mind with respect to the rest. That’s good enough.
I do feel less tired since I started qigong, and so does my fiancee. We need a little less sleep than we did before. Maybe it’s because qigong promotes relaxation, which probably helps us sleep better. Both my fiancee and I have found that we can’t drink as much coffee as we used to before we started qigong, and yet we have more energy. I was having some tendonitis problems recently (probably due to a snowstorm), and it had stopped hurting by the time we were done with that morning’s qigong. It hasn’t started up again since.
I’ve found that our qigong practice makes me a little uncomfortable right now – because it’s making me aware of all the tensions in my body, all the little muscle twitches and tightnesses, all the ways in which I don’t breathe well. But this is also the first time that I’ve felt like I might make it through to the other side, that maybe I can learn to breathe well this time, to relax my muscles and tendons. In fact, those little muscle twitches are already starting to get a little better. That’s worth twenty minutes a day of something that feels really good anyway.
My One Complaint about This Book, and Why It Doesn’t Really Matter
Mr. Cohen tends to take some things as proof of qigong’s efficacy that I would take as evidence, not proof. In the section on diet he also tends to make definitive statements on how the body works that make me squirm a little – when our understanding of how the body relates to food and diet seems to change almost monthly, definitive statements are just asking for trouble.
There are a few reasons why these things don’t bother me nearly as much as they usually would, however. First, it’s hard to begrudge him his enthusiasm. Qigong has obviously done a lot for him. And judging by our experiences, I expect it to do a lot for us too. Second, and most importantly: he is always careful to provide plenty of detail. There’s enough to allow you to make your own decisions, regardless of his opinions. Too few authors even understand how to do this, much less make use of it. Third, he points out where experiments weren’t performed properly enough for us to be able to rely on their conclusions – even when those conclusions support qigong. He often points out where experiments need further work to be able to confirm their results. Fourth, he supports all of his material with references, bibliography, and thorough notes. You can go look it all up yourself rather than having to take his word for it.
Best of all, he takes a very common-sensical approach to things. He advocates moderation and living well. He recommends qigong as an adjunct to Western forms of medicine, not a replacement for it. He points out that getting obsessively involved in anything, including qigong, can be bad for you. He even details circumstances under which qigong isn’t necessarily good for you.
The purpose of qigong is to enhance life. The purpose of life is not to practice qigong.
He also makes qigong much more accessible to Westerners. He points out the places where he believes that the Eastern approach isn’t necessarily perfect, and how to balance that with a Western perspective.
Cohen provides a wealth of detail. I was never left confused as to how to perform a movement or a meditation. Neither does he overwhelm – he points out where you can bring details in slowly, rather than trying to learn everything at once.
There aren’t a large number of qigong movements in here. On the one hand, that’s because ideally you want to practice things repeatedly. It’s good for you. On the other hand, some of us get bored easily and need some variety (not that I’d be talking about anyone in specific, of course. Ahem). In here you’ll find the “Eight Brocades,” the “Bone Marrow Cleansing,” “Taiji Ruler,” and the Crane and Bear aspects of the “Five Animal Frolics.”
Cohen suggests that one way to handle the need for variety is to choose a couple of things that you do every day, and then use one part of your practice to play with other movements. This has worked well for us. If you want to do this, though, you’ll probably need to pick up one or two other qigong books that are heavy on postures and movements. There are plenty of interesting meditations, so I doubt you’ll get bored with them.
Cohen does suggest that learning qigong straight from books without taking any classes can be very difficult. Unfortunately it can also be difficult to find qigong classes in many areas. There are several cures for this:
Take a T’ai Chi class. It’s only one specific variant of qigong, but at least it’ll teach you some of the basics of movement and breath that you might have trouble learning on your own; you can get the rest from the books. T’ai Chi classes are fairly widely offered.
Get a few video tapes and audio tapes. There are some video tapes listed in the back of this book. I’ve found some audio tapes from the store at Kripalu, which you should be able to buy over the web. You can also find both audio and video tapes (as well as this book) at the author’s website, along with the schedule of the courses that he teaches. (You’ll have to order his items by snail mail rather than ordering them on-line, but hey, isn’t part of qigong about patience after all?)
Travel to someplace that offers a weekend or week-long intensive course to get you started, and then apply what you’ve learned to your books. (Kripalu, in Lenox, Massachusetts, offers the occasional weekend qigong or qigong and T’ai Chi course. We recommend anything taught by Greg DiLisio. In addition, the author of this book occasionally teaches qigong classes there!)
This is a fantastic book. If you have an interest in all the theory and history behind qigong, you can’t do better than this. If you really want to learn qigong “right,” I think you also can’t do better than this. Make sure to read (or at least skim) the entirety of any given chapter on breath, meditation, or postures, however; you don’t want to miss any details or warnings.
Probably the ideal way to learn qigong is to take a course to get you started (whether regular or intensive), immediately pick up this book so you learn all the useful details, and then gradually pick up one or two other books on postures and movements to keep you interested. Qigong is a lifelong practice, but one that adjusts to your demands – ten minutes on a day when you don’t have much time; an hour if you really just want to relax.
Can you practice qigong if you have a handicap or injury? Yes. Cohen explains how to adapt qigong to the demands of your body. He even has a chapter on what to expect from qigong, what might happen, and what shouldn’t, so you’ll be able to tell if something is wrong.
Whether or not you believe in qi flow or energy healing, it’s hard to go wrong with qigong and this book. Cohen even provides listings of tea companies, Chinese medicine books, Daoist philosophy books, diet and nutrition books, mind-body medicine books, qigong healing and meditation books, qigong inner martial arts books, sexual qigong books, books on tea, books on other healing traditions, magazines, and qigong book distributors.