Qigong is an ancient system of health care and a profound healing art, practiced to encourage wellbeing and revitalise, build, store and circulate qi (energy) in the body.
It can be very helpful to people with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and insomnia, as well as cognitive impairment. It can also be helpful to those who struggle with sitting meditation, using the practice of qigong movement to help them attain a meditative state.
One of qigong’s foundational theories is the 5 Regulations, which are inextricably connected and mutually supportive.
The Five Regulations/Cultivations of Qigong (Wu Tiao)
The 5 regulations, or cultivations, are based in traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy, and are talked about in the classic of Chinese literature the Dao De Jing written by Lao Tzu between the late 6th and the late 4th Century BC.
They were taught to me by, Dr. Yang Jwing Ming. They represent a map, not just for the practice of qigong and Chinese Gongfu (Kungfu), but more importantly, for the practice of life.
We use the analogy of a battle to describe them. The battle we are fighting is against ill health, ageing and mortality, as well as against emotional, mental and spiritual dis-ease.
In our modern societies, this battle is exacerbated by our exposure to chronic stress, toxic load through chemical and electromagnetic pollution, poor nutrition, etc. Qigong is one of the weapons in our arsenal to defend us against the daily attacks to our immune and nervous systems, and against the depletion of our energy, vitality and wellbeing.
1. Body => Battlefield
The first regulation is the body. We are human beings inhabiting a body, and we enter the emotional, mental and spiritual planes through the body.
In a battle, the first thing we have to do is to survey the battlefield. The body is the battlefield, so we have to first regulate the body.
From a qigong perspective, this means we must regulate and cultivate the body’s movement to efficiently switch from relaxation to tension as required by the circumstances, in order to root and centre the body, and in order to strengthen and build the healthy structure of the body.
Studies have shown that practicing qigong over a period of at least 6 weeks induces significant physiological changes (decreases cortisol levels, decreases blood pressure) that helps reduce tension and stress in the body. Griffith, M.l., Hasley, J.P., Liu, H., Severn, D.G., Conner, L.H. and Adler, L.E. (2008). Qigong Stress Reduction in Hospital Staff. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, [online], 14(8), pp. 939-945. Available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/acm.2007.0814?casa_token=B4k48_a6Ix8AAAAA:7EJDD1h5rqltcmhaRGj7vQgaU-KFI54WPPOyJMfOsrep6CCEXDtnEy8L4BfSs5_kdkBuFH8vf9aWjQ Terjestam, Y., Jouper, J. and Johansson, C. (2010). Effects of Scheduled Qigong Exercise on Pupils’ Well-Being, Self-Image, Distress and Stress. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, [online], 16(9), pp. 939-944. Available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/acm.2009.0405 Wang, C., Chan, C.H.Y., Ho, R., Chan, J., Ng, S. and Chan, C.L.W. (2014). Managing stress and anxiety through qigong exercise in healthy adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, [online], 14(8). Available at: https://bmccomplementalternmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6882-14-8
We must also regulate and cultivate the internal movement: the breath.
2. Breath => Strategy
The second regulation is the breath. Using the war analogy, our breathing is the strategy we use to fight the battle.
Breathing changes throughout the day, depending on our state of mind, the conditions we encounter, and our activities.
Just as the Commander must change the strategy depending on what conditions he/she encounters on the battlefield, so qigong teaches us to regulate the breathing by making the automatic action of breathing conscious, and improving it until better breathing becomes natural and automatic.
Conscious breathing techniques (of which there are many in qigong practice) can change the conditions of the body and mind, and help open up areas of the body where the qi has become stagnant, increasing the flow of qi through relaxation.
Mental health illnesses such as anxiety are often associated with rapid and shallow breathing Chow, Y. and Tsang, H. (2007). Bipsychosocial Effects of Qigong as a Mindful Exercise for People with Anxiety Disorders: A Speculative Review. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, [online], 13(8), pp. 831-839. Available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/acm.2007.7166?casa_token=ZAe98YyouuMAAAAA:95pqV7motr5mN-8myfhAftrl-xA6T26NnYix4J2qPlaSJ0Ytbxj41S854RHfJ8uGVY-NUf36Xzf3zQ, Masaoka, Y. and Homma, I. (2001). The effect of anticipatory anxiety on breathing and metabolism of humans. Respiration Physiology, [online], 128(2), pp. 171-177. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S003456870100278X?via%3Dihubwhich keeps the body in a constant state of tension and activates our sympathetic nervous system (the system that is known for the “fight” or “flight” response). By working on regulating our breathing, we get our body back into a restful state, which in turn allows our mental health to become more stable and regulated.
3. Mind => Commander
The third regulation is the mind. Many people ask why the mind is not number one?
This is because in the beginning of the practice, the mind is passively controlling the body and the breathing. Only when the first two regulations (body and breath) begin to harmonise and improve, can we start to fully use the power of the mind.
In the analogy of a war, the mind is the Commander. The one who surveys the battle field (body), and decides on the strategy (breath). The mind is the God of the body.
In qigong practice, we learn to efficiently regulate our bodies and our breathing using the power of our minds, so that we can lead the qi (energy) to where we want it to go, and take control of the daily battle we are fighting against illness, ageing, and adverse circumstances.
There are no boundaries to the power of our minds, only those we place there. As Master Yang used to say “The mind is powerful beyond our wildest imagination. In our minds, we can travel to other galaxies, explore our past, walk on the surface of the moon, and look into the future”
We have only tapped into a tiny portion of this power; part of qigong practice is to remove these boundaries and tap into the limitless power of our minds.
A randomized controlled study examined the effect Qigong has on anxiety and depression. Chow, Y., Dorcas, A., and Siu A. (2012). The Effects of Qigong on Reducing Stress and Anxiety and Enhancing Body-Mind Well-being. Mindfulness, [online], 3, pp. 51-59. Available at: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s12671-011-0080-3.pdf The Qigong group showed significant physiological changes (reduced levels of the stress hormone and blood pressure) after 8 weeks of Qigong practice and after 12 weeks of practice they had significant positive changes in anxiety and depression compared to the control group.
4. Qi => Soldiers
The fourth regulation is the qi – the Chinese word for qi is made up of two characters, one for rice and one for air, illustrating that energy is produced via chemical reaction from the food we eat and the oxygen we breath. Qi refers mainly to the bioelectricity in the human body. There is nothing magical about qi, rather it is very scientific – we know that the human body creates measurable energy, which the Chinese tradition calls qi and the Indian tradition calls Prana.
The two main purposes of qigong training are to maintain smooth circulation of qi, and to build up the amount of qi the body can store.
In the analogy of a battle, the qi is the soldiers, the ones who are going to fight the battle.
In the beginning of qigong practice, we don’t need to focus on the qi. Instead, we focus on the mind, as wherever the mind goes, the qi follows. The mind leads the qi, like the Commander leads his/her soldiers. The first 3 regulations (body, breath and mind) need to be improved in order to then direct and regulate the qi.
Any action – from something as simple as picking up a glass of water, to more complex actions that will manifest our most ambitious dreams, is initiated by the mind’s intention and focus, which then sends electrical signals to the nerves, which make the blood and the qi move to the area to make the action happen. The practice of qigong aims to take control of, and improve this natural process.
If our mind is powerful and our spirit is high, then when the mind moves in a particular direction, so does the energy. This is the power of manifestation, and eventually, this energy will become action and lead to the fulfilment of the mind’s intentions.
Equally, our mind can take us to the wrong places, and act as a destructive force, causing negative things to manifest in our lives.
Every cell in the human body is a small battery. Due to chronic stress, poor nutrition, electromagnetic and chemical pollutants, our energetic systems are being disrupted. Qigong helps us to replenish lost qi.
Qigong practice often starts with teaching us how to relax and reduce unnecessary tension in our body, to eliminate resistance in the paths of circulation of qi. Only when we are relaxed, can the qi flow. The qi then fills the vessels which act like reservoirs supplying and spreading out through the 12 primary qi channels, and increases the charge in our main battery — the lower Dantian. The lower Dantian (meaning Elixir Field — the field where we grow the Elixir of life which will provide us with longevity, youth and health), is in the gut, also known as the second brain in western science.
Ultimately qigong is about leading the qi to the lower Dantian, and building such a large store of qi in the Dantian that it can be used for higher purposes, to reach our goals, ensure health and longevity, and ultimately, to help us on our path towards spiritual enlightenment.
5. Spirit => Morale
The fifth regulation is the spirit/Shen. The raising of the spirit is a natural result of correct practice.
If we start using our bodies, it doesn’t matter what kind of physical activity it is, the spirit naturally raises.
“Worms will not eat living wood, where the vital sap is flowing. Rust will not hinder the opening of a gate when the hinges are used each day. Movement gives health and life. Stagnation brings disease and death”. Chinese proverb
Going back to the analogy of war, the spirit is the morale of the army. We just have to look at history to understand how important morale is in warfare. The Mongolian general Genghis Khan was expert at destroying the morale of his enemies and keeping up the morale of his own armies. He was able to win battles against insurmountable odds.
The average qigong practitioner is mainly looking to reconnect with their energy body to increase concentration, health and vitality and to slow ageing. By doing this, their spirit naturally raises. Buddhist and Daoist priests, however, seek to build their qi in the lower dantian to such a degree that they can lead it up to raise the spirit, nourish the brain and achieve enlightenment.
The 5 regulations can be applied to many aspects of life – personal development, any physical activity (tennis, running, swimming, etc.), seated meditation, music, etc. It can also be applied to the family, community, country — anything we do can be improved through the theory of the 5 regulations.
It is especially helpful to remember these 5 regulations when it comes to mental health — that all our systems are connected, and that we cannot heal the mind without regulating the body, the breath, the energy and the spirit. They must all be consciously regulated and cultivated on a daily basis.
This theory of the 5 regulations has been absolutely instrumental in my own life, and my understanding and application continue to deepen. My deepest gratitude to Master Yang for introducing me to this simple yet beautiful universal theory.
Dr. Yang Jing Ming has recently released one of the first translations of the Dao De Jing from a qigong perspective. Lao Tzu was a qigong master. For a deeper understanding of the five regulations I highly recommend this book.