Qi Gong: An Ancient Antidote for Modern Stress

Qi Gong: An Ancient Antidote for Modern Stress

Photo courtesy of Lee Holden

Qi gong master Lee Holden teaches how to return to the body for balance, peace, and vitality.

It’s impossible to be a human alive on planet Earth and not experience stress, but in a 2022 survey assessing stress levels in the United States, more than a quarter of American adults reported that on most days they are so stressed they are unable to function. The vast majority reported experiencing symptoms related to elevated stress, including headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure, digestive issues, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, the inability to concentrate, and feelings of overwhelm.

Lee Holden—an internationally renowned qi gong master, Chinese medical doctor, and acupuncturist—is saddened, but not surprised, by these alarming statistics. “Stress robs people of their health and many of life’s pleasures, but balance is very hard to achieve in this modern world where we push ourselves in so many unnatural ways.”

Holden points out that while our lifestyles have become increasingly fast-paced and disconnected from the cycles of nature, our bodies’ needs are no different than they were centuries ago. “Electric lighting turns night into day, and most of us are perennially tethered to technological devices that are constantly bombarding us with information gathered from around the globe while our bodies remain more sedentary. This way of life leads to chronic stress, as well as a host of serious physical and psychological ailments.”

According to Holden, one of the quickest ways to reduce stress is to move our body. “When we’re feeling stress, we can do what our body is designed to do naturally: Move stress through our system, discharge it, and replace it with a calm, centered feeling. Qi gong teaches us how to do that.”

The practice of qi gong (pronounced “chee gung”) is thousands of years old and has a rich history in ancient Chinese culture. “As one of the five branches of traditional Chinese medicine, qi gong was the branch of self-care—something practitioners did for themselves to maintain their health, strength, and balance.”

Utilizing slow movements, conscious breathing, self-massage, sound, and visualization, qi gong is remarkably effective at calming our nervous system, quieting our mind, releasing tension from our body, grounding us in the present moment, and reconnecting us to the peaceful energy of the natural world. Qi gong also fosters optimal health by keeping our body supple and stimulating our innate self-healing capabilities. And because qi gong is performed standing up in comfortable clothing and is easily adaptable for people of all ages and body types, it can be done virtually anywhere by everyone.

The Power of Qi

Qi means life force energy, and gong means to cultivate. The practice of qi gong is the practice of consciously tapping into and cultivating life force energy.

Holden explains that qi is the invisible force that propagates all of life. “Quantum physicists and ancient mystics all agree that we are literally made of, and living within, a limitless sea of energy.”

Pointing out that there are many forces that cannot be seen, only experienced, Holden says, “When the wind blows, we don’t see it directly, but we feel it on our skin and see it move the branches of a tree. Gravity is another invisible force that rules life. We are all bound by this magnetic energy. Each of us has feelings, thoughts, a personality, and a soul—all of which are invisible. When you practice qi gong, you learn how to perceive and work with the ever-present ocean of qi.”

In traditional Chinese medicine, symptoms such as fatigue, tension, insomnia, depression, turbulent thoughts, and an inability to cope with stress trace to a depletion of qi. Qi gong movements clear built-up tension in the body that cause energetic stagnation so that qi flows more freely. With healthy qi, we feel more energized, joyous, and emotionally balanced.

“It’s when we’re depleted that stress overtakes us,” Holden says. “As our energy increases, so does our ability to handle stress and create effective solutions. In fact, qi gong takes the energy of stress and transforms it into vitality.”

Entering the Flow

Qi gong flows—routines where we move our body very slowly and smoothly in coordination with our breath—are moving meditations that calm our nervous system and enable us to directly experience qi as a tangible force. “Flows imitate the movements of nature,” Holden explains. “They are designed to clear tension, optimize the circulation of qi, help us become fully present, and feel our connection to the whole universe. Our entire system returns to a state of equilibrium—a dynamic balance where we feel both tranquil and energized.”

When we slow down the body, we slow down the mind. Holden frequently reminds his students to relax more deeply and come back to the present moment by noticing how their body is feeling and what it is doing. “Qi gong trains us to enter the flow, and flow is a wonderful feeling. We move our bodies like water—softly and gently, yet powerfully, like waves in the ocean. We remember that we are part of nature, just like a pear that grows from a tree.”

Breath as the Bridge Between Body and Mind

Holden views breathing as one of the most potent tools available to integrate mind and body. “When we’re stressed, our breath is shallow and choppy. When we’re relaxed, our breath is deep and even. The amazing thing about breath is that the relationship also works in the reverse; by changing the way we breathe, we can change the way we feel.”

Breathing is unique to our autonomic nervous system because it can occur either voluntarily or involuntarily. While most of the time breathing is involuntarily, we have the ability to decide how we want to breathe at any moment. Holden refers to the breath as “the bridge between mind and body” because by simply changing our breathing patterns, we can cultivate more qi, calm our entire system, and circulate our blood more efficiently.

Breathwork is integral to qi gong because breathing unleashes the vital energies of life. “The breathing process has the ability to continuously refresh the system by clearing out tension and stagnant energies that are no longer useful, while taking in fresh energy and new possibilities. To breathe more deeply is to delve into life more fully.”

Finding Peace Within

Holden believes that many of us look to the outside world to make us feel better when the solution often needs to come from within. Rather than constantly attempting the impossible task of trying to control our external environment, qi gong empowers us to take charge of our inner landscape. “We all need to be good caretakers of ourselves and prioritize our own health and inner peace, no matter what’s going on around us. While it isn’t always possible to remove an outer problem, we do have the ability to change our response and our inner state of consciousness.”

Chinese medicine views the body, mind, and spirit as one unified system, which is why tension and tightness in our body intensifies our feelings of stress, and feelings of stress make our bodies tense up. We can break this cycle by regularly releasing built-up tension and increasing our ability to connect with the peace that comes with present moment awareness.

“It’s next to impossible to feel stress when you move and breathe slowly. This is because when you align slow movements with deep, calm breathing, you enter into ‘rest and relaxation mode.’ This is when you get out of your mind, into your body, and transform stress into vitality.”

When we make qi gong an integral part of our self-care, we spend more time feeling calm and connected, which strengthens our somatic memory of this peaceful state and makes it easier to return to. With heightened internal awareness and tools to move stress through our system, we always have the power to come back into balance and enjoy our lives more fully.

Try Holden’s six-minute “Qi Gong for Stress Relief” video to get a taste of what qi gong has to offer, and listen to his beautiful 16-minute “Dissolving into Qi” meditation below that will guide you to experience inner peace despite the chaos of the modern world. As Holden always reminds his students, “There are better things to do with our minds than worry.”

Guided Meditation from Lee Holden: "Dissolving into Qi"

A pioneer in bringing the gifts of qi gong to Westerners, Lee Holden has certified over 1,600 qi gong teachers and makes qi gong easily accessible to everyone through his PBS shows and extensive online offerings, including a 30-day challenge of seven-minute routines and class subscriptions.

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