We came to Chi Gong after studying T’ai Chi Ch’uan for several years and have found that how we practice T’ai Chi applies equally to Chi Gong exercises. Since both our T’ai Chi and Chi Gung exercises study the same principles of movement and cultivate the same spirit, throughout this book we reference T’ai Chi classics, adages, axioms, stories, and metaphors as meaningful insights into the spirit and nuances of the work.
“Concentrating your chi reverses the aging process and bestows youthful vigor; this is T’ai Chi’s most important benefit.” ~Cheng man-ch’ing~
The origin of Chi Gong exercises lies in ancient eastern traditions of therapeutic and preventive medicine. In the forty-sixth century, B.C., when the Yellow Emperor first defined the art of Chinese medicine he ordered the creation and performance of a “Great Dance.” Huang T’i recognized the importance of fluid movement to stimulate chi circulation, the core traditional Chinese medicine concept to promote optimal health and cure the kingdom of disease. The movements of the dance, or Chi Gong as it has come to be known, were patterned after animals: cranes, bears, deer, tigers, and monkeys. Later on, Chi Gong movements patterned after the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, rats, oxen, hares, serpents, dragons, horses, rams, roosters, dogs, and boars, were included. Today there are hundreds of Chi Gong exercises.
Eight Ways cultivate internal energy over purely physical development. The Chinese word for exercise means circulating chi with movement. Chi is many things, including the circular flow of the river of energy animating the universe, life force, and intrinsic energy. Chi follows awareness. A T’ai Chi proverb tells of a ruler who promised his kingdom to anyone who could thread a nine-tunneled pearl. A sage advises one on the way to try their hand at it, to attach the thread with a dab of honey to the back of an ant that will pull the thread through the nine tunnels. The pearl is the body and the nine tunnels are the wrist, elbow, shoulder, hips, knees, ankles, base of the spine, atlas, and top of the head. The thread is chi. The ant is attention and the honey is the practice of Chi Gong. So, Chi Gong is the practice of using your attention to thread the chi through the nine tunnels of the pearl.
In this work, you place emphasis on the qualities of the movements. Fluidity, poise, power, ease of motion and equanimity are prized along with internal strength to cultivate vitality. When chi sinks down into a relaxed body, called collecting or concentrating the chi, it induces a calm, composed, light-hearted feeling. Concentrating chi, balancing energy, softening bracing, and restoring poise are the primary goals of Chi Gong, acupuncture, acupressure, herbs, and other eastern medicinal modalities.
Lineage of the Eight Ways
Cheng man-ch’ing was a master of painting, poetry, calligraphy, Chinese medicine, and T’ai Chi. He supported his family from the age of twelve with his paintings, published with the major poets in China at eighteen, helped reform the Chinese alphabet with his calligraphy, was renowned and highly sought after for his Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments, and inherited the mantle of the Yang family of T’ai Chi. Cheng man-ch’ing developed Chi Gong Eight Ways exercises to counteract the effects of aging and poor health.
Tam Gibbs was one of Cheng man-ch’ing’s translators and his “boxing boy,” a title given him when he accompanied Professor Cheng to China as his protégé. During the Naropa Institute summer program in 1978, Michael served as Tam’s assistant.
In the evenings, several T’ai Chi players hung out with Tam at Jane and Bataan Faigao’s. There, Tam sometimes played guitar and sang old blues tunes, sometimes soaked in the hot tub, and often recounted stories of his time with Lao Shr, Tam’s affectionate name for Cheng man-ch’ing. On one such evening he told us he would begin teaching us the Eight Ways.
Summer program T’ai Chi practice began at seven in the morning under the library and was followed by beginning, intermediate, and advanced form classes and later in the day t’ui shu (sensing hands) and chien (sword) classes. For the next several weeks, in addition to the several hours of daily practice, we gathered one evening each week in the Faigao’s courtyard, and, for the next couple of hours, Tam taught us an Eight Ways exercise.
The sessions began with a short explanation of the name, a brief demonstration of how the movement embodied the name, sometimes a demonstration of a martial application and an hour or more of quiet practice. The practice involved following Tam about the courtyard mimicking his every move down to the smallest nuance we were able to absorb. We were all dedicated T’ai Chi practitioners, and he took for granted our understanding of the basic principles as well as our capacity to follow as closely as a shadow and with the careful attention of one entrusted with a precious jewel. Occasionally Tam elaborated on some detail we were overlooking. Invariably the correction concerned the spirit of the movement and was almost never about technical details. Tam made it clear that doing the work meant working the images as intensively as our legs.
In the mid-eighties, Chi Gong was just catching on in the U.S. when Jane and Bataan asked us to help with Eight Ways Chi Gong classes at Naropa, at the Dali Lama’s Conference on Education, and at an East West Journal Conference. In addition, we began holding Eight Ways clinics at senior centers and retirement communities and continued to do so around the Midwest and Northwest throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
Then, in 1997, the Poudre Valley Hospital Aspen Club engaged us to help with a clinical study of the efficacy of T’ai Chi for averting a fall, decreasing the severity when one occurs, and keeping bones strong. More than 300 people ranging in age from 60 to 96 participated over a period of about a year. The Aspen Club recorded pre- and post-test results of blood pressure, bone density, strength, range of motion, and balance. Tabulated results were inconclusive. Anecdotal results, however, were clear.
By around the fifth class, seniors had begun talking about how the work was showing up in their daily lives and how happy they were to be able to do things they enjoyed that they had believed were behind them. Over time, they reported positive results from visits with their doctors in lower blood pressures, increased bone density, and less suffering from arthritis and rheumatism. Enthusiasm replaced cautious skepticism, and, despite winter weather and busy schedules, attendance was high with very few dropouts. Energy levels were consistently higher after classes. Years later, there are now many seniors who have gone on from the Chi Gong exercises to study the Yang family short form, and more than a dozen who have also completed the sword form.
Benefits of the Eight Ways Practice
Eight Ways exercises address a wide range of aging and poor health issues including limited vision, diminished strength and ability to deal with being jostled, waning balance, inflexibility of joints and brittle bones, slumping and shuffling, declining agility, diminishing vitality, decreased concentration, and isolation due to fear and immobility. Professor Cheng wrote, “Whoever practices T’ai Chi correctly and regularly, twice a day, over a period of time will gain the pliability of a child, the health of a lumberjack, and the peace of mind of a sage.”