At the end of a session together, one of my qi gong clients, almost as an afterthought, said to me, “Oh, and I want to reduce my stress and be happy again.”
She had come to me after a breast cancer recurrence, and when I had asked her what she wanted to accomplish during our medical qi gong sessions, she rattled off a litany of issues that included fatigue, brain fog, stamina, weight loss, and neuropathy—but it was the issue of stress and anxiety that struck me as the most significant medical condition to be addressed.
In the past, clients would be referred to me for back pain, knee issues, mobility and balance problems, osteoarthritis, or for help managing cancer, Parkinson’s, and other diseases, but now the predominant health issue is anxiety and stress. This increase in the prevalence of anxiety is confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Anxiety has become a worldwide epidemic, and it is linked to many other diseases and health issues.
How Qi Gong Can Help With Anxiety and Stress
Fortunately, qi gong, an ancient practice that couples gentle movement with deep breathing, is well-equipped to tackle anxiety and stress since its practices are designed to heal on physical, mental, and emotional levels.
Therapeutic qi gong, which falls under the umbrella of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), has been used for thousands of years as a way to maintain health and harmonize body imbalances that can cause disease, or as a way to treat a disease. Qi gong’s movements, which have been refined over thousands of years, engage the channels of qi (energy) throughout the body to create a balanced, harmonious, and healthy body.
This definition of "health" extends beyond the circulatory, lymphatic, and nervous systems, as well as muscles, tendons, and the interconnected network of organs. Health includes psychological wellness and balanced emotions, too. Specific emotions within TCM philosophy are linked to particular organs:
Qi gong corrects an emotional imbalance through carefully designed physical movements that target an organ and its pathways, accomplishing this through the principle of bending, stretching, and massaging an organ.
For example, the lungs—which TCM divides into four quadrants of front, back, side, and side—can be manipulated by collapsing and bending forward, thereby stretching the back open and focusing the breath there. Leaning to the left or right will simultaneously bend and stretch the sides of the lungs. A stretch or elongation makes that part of the body more active, or yang, and activates circulatory flow; to bend makes that part of the body more yin, which pools qi in that area.
The massage of an organ requires internal pressure, and this is accomplished by synchronizing the physical movement with abdominal breathing, thereby creating an internal undulation that, in coordination with a bend or stretch, internally stimulates the lungs.
Buddhist Breathing for Anxiety
An effective “internal massage” depends upon using a breath technique known as abdominal breathing, or Buddhist breathing. The technique is simple and extremely relaxing. The practitioner breaths in and out through the nose, and with the inhale, the breath fills the abdomen as if it were a balloon. With the exhale, the breath is released, and the abdomen deflates like air released from a balloon. There should be no muscular tension to the breath, which is deep, long, slow, and soft, thereby creating a feeling of tranquility. Abdominal breathing can be practiced sitting, standing, or lying down, and it can be performed independent of a qi gong movement, too.
Western science also touts the value of this breath technique and its ability to lower cortisol levels while increasing dopamine and serotonin. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, which has been directly linked to anxiety. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that makes us feel content, satisfied, and happy. Serotonin is the hormone that plays a role in staving off anxiety and depression. This breath technique alone is a great method to counter anxiety, but coupled with qi gong, it is even more effective since the breath cycle maximizes the internal massage; this amplifies the pumping muscular action, which targets the body pathways.
The Right Qi Gong Technique for Anxiety: Rising and Setting of Sun and Moon
Addressing anxiety presents a slight challenge for the qi gong practitioner—anxiety is not explicitly listed for one organ and it can be seen as the result of a number of combinations of emotions (and organs): anger (liver), fear (kidneys), depression (lungs), hate (heart), and worry (spleen). Some TCM practitioners assign anxiety to a specific organ, such as the spleen or the heart, but a better approach, and one suited to address anxiety in all of its potential emotional aspects, is to use a qigong form that manipulates and massages each of the five major organs. The master movement for anxiety is called Rising and Setting of Sun and Moon, which is simple and yet extremely effective.
To practice Rising and Setting of Sun and Moon qi gong, place your feet shoulder-width apart; keep your knees, hips, and waist relaxed with your back straight and head aligned with the spine. This position is known as Zhan Zhuang, or Standing Pole. (To learn more about this classic standing posture, see my book Cultivating Qi.) The hands are relaxed with palms facing inward in front of the thighs.
With a relaxing deep inhale, lift the hands leading with the wrists in an arc up and away from the body and over the head. The hands then rotate so that the palms face each other, and then with an exhale, the wrists lead away from each other and arc to the sides and downward toward the outer thighs. This is Rising and Setting of the Sun.
For Moon Rises and Sets, reverse the movement: Inhale as the palms turn upwards and rise up the sides over the head, then exhale as the palms turn forward and arc downward to the starting position. Take care to match the movement to the breath, which is slow, soft, deep, and long, into the abdomen.
Proper abdominal breathing is necessary for the movement to “massage” the organs and their pathways. The lifting and sinking of the arms shifts the focal point of the breath internally to the different quadrants of the lungs while also stimulating the liver, spleen, kidneys, and heart, targeting all five major yang organs, their energetic pathways, and associated emotions.
Please note: Before doing the Rising and Setting of Sun and Moon, first do 10 to 12 abdominal breath cycles, which centers the body and sets a natural cadence for the movement. Take care to keep the body relaxed with no muscular tension. Repeat the form nine times since the number nine is associated with longevity and health.
Interested in more? Explore the qi gong exercise "Lifting the Sky."