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  health > alternative > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Qigong: Political dynamite or elixir of youth?

September 24, 1999
Web posted at: 2:11 PM EDT (1811 GMT)

In this story:

The mystery of qi

Tapping the force

Elixir of youth?

Qigong under the microscope


By William Collinge, M.P.H., Ph.D.

Falun Gong

Alternative medicines

(WebMD) -- It sounds innocuous enough. The adherents of Falun Gong, blending Taoism and Buddhism, believe in the virtues of truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance. Daily they practice the ancient Chinese exercise discipline of qigong. But the movement is growing so fast in popularity worldwide, including the United States, that the Chinese government apparently feels threatened. This summer it took the surprising measure of banning Falun Gong.

The controversy surprises qigong teachers, who see their practice as a route to healing and enlightenment, not political power. Still, the Chinese government's fear, along with Falun Gong's growing popularity, has brought new attention to the practice of qigong. Scientific evidence is accumulating that there may be a basis for the remarkable health claims that practitioners make for the discipline.

The mystery of qi

Qigong (pronounced chee kung) is a marriage of "qi," meaning vital energy, and "gong," to work with or cultivate. Qigong has been practiced for thousands of years and is the mother of all the martial arts, though qigong itself is not used for fighting. Recently, a substantial body of research from China has begun to find translation into English. While much of it does not measure up to Western standards of research design, there are some very intriguing findings.

"Qigong consists primarily of meditation, physical movements and breathing exercises," explains Kenneth Sancier, Ph.D., president of the Qigong Institute in Menlo Park, California, and a professor at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. "Practitioners develop an awareness of qi sensations in their bodies and use their mind, or intention, to guide the qi."

Qi itself is a subtle energy that cannot be measured directly, but the electromagnetic field it generates can. Using digital electromagnetic wave detection equipment on two qigong practitioners in the laboratory, researchers at the Showa University Medical School in Japan found a dramatic increase in the strength of the body's energy field during the practice of qigong.

Other researchers have found that practitioners can intentionally "send" or "emit" such energy outwardly. For example, in a tightly controlled experiment at New York's Mount Sinai Medical School, two qigong masters using emitted qi were able to alter the chemistry of an enzyme solution in a test tube from five feet away.

Tapping the force

"I was four years into chronic fatigue syndrome, completely debilitated, when I began the practice," recalls Ellen Raskin, now the director of the Flowing River Institute in San Francisco and a qigong teacher herself. "Of all the treatments I tried, it was qigong that helped my body heal, and it continues to keep my mind, body and spirit in balance now that I'm healed."

Impressed with her own experience, Raskin helped organize an experimental program at the institute to treat other chronic fatigue sufferers with qigong. A study of 60 of these patients found that those who used qigong and meditation were three to four times more likely to see long-term improvement in their health than those who did not. While this was a small sample, the findings were statistically significant.

People with other illnesses may benefit as well. A Chinese study of 127 patients with advanced cancer found that those who added a practice of qigong for two hours per day over three to six months had improvements in strength, appetite, freedom from diarrhea, and weight gain that were four to nine times greater than did patients relying on conventional treatment alone.

Elixir of youth?

In other studies, Chinese researchers have found evidence that qigong might help:

  • Balance sex hormone levels.
  • Improve blood flow to the brain.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Qigong under the microscope

    Western scientists have criticized the Chinese studies because they were not designed to eliminate the placebo effect; patients may have benefited simply because they knew they were receiving extra attention and not because of the qigong itself.

    A study underway at the University of Michigan's Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research in Cardiovascular Disease will attempt to address that criticism. About 100 heart surgery patients have been randomly assigned to receive either a healing dose of qi by a qigong master or a visit by a qigong master who doesn't perform any therapy. Neither the patients nor the surgeons know which patients are receiving qigong and which are not.

    At the end of the study, researchers will see which group of patients had the best bone healing, wound pain relief, infection rates, immune cell counts and general quality of life.

    Meanwhile, other researchers are exploring the use of qigong in helping the body to absorb and use drug treatments.

    "Qigong," says Sancier, "can complement Western medicine in many ways."

    Copyright 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Alternative Systems of Medical Practice - Fields of Practice
    John Crosby's Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine

    The Qigong Page from HealthTraditions
    International Qigong Society
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