There are many ways to practice qi kung and various systems teach different movements and methods. We can also speak of external forms that emphasize specific movements, and internal forms that call our attention to breath awareness and internal energy circulation. This topic of energy circulation has been a longstanding interest of mine, and after 26 years of practice, I now see qi kung from a fresh perspective. My current interests are how some of the fundamentals of qi kung can be used in somatic therapies, and how qi circulation can be equated with awareness of subtle body sensations. I will go into more detail about this later, but I first want to draw some comparisons between qi kung practices and what I call the Big 4 of somatic therapies.
Some of the core fundamentals of qi kung practice include movement, breathing techniques, imagery, sound, and body awareness. Similarly, somatic therapies use what I call the Big 4 practices of body awareness, movement, breath, and touch as a means of healing.
Comparing qi kung with somatic therapy we find there is a lot of overlap, and that qi kung has many key principles we can apply to treat psychosomatic disorders, depression, anxiety, trauma, and more.
Body awareness exercises are fundamental practices in both disciplines. In internal and external forms of qi kung we bring awareness to the body. In the external forms, we bring our attention to specific body movements. In internal forms, the focus is on feeling energy in the body. While feeling energy can be elusive and hard for some to understand, let’s start with equating feeling energy to becoming aware of body sensations.
Some core practices in internal qi kung are to feel “energy” in the lower abdomen, chest, head, internal organs, or spine. Qi kung teachers may instruct us to feel vibration, warmth, tingling, or subtle energy as we direct our attention to our bodies. Similarly, when we cultivate body awareness we may feel sensations like tingling or warmth just by bringing attention to a place like our hands. Simply said, in both qi kung and body awareness practices we bring our attention to the body and sensations in specific areas.
In both qi kung and body awareness practices we bring our attention to the body and sensations in specific areas.
Equating “feeling qi” to feeling body sensations is useful to consider because it replaces the ambiguousness of mysticism with body sensations that can be understood neurologically and psychologically. While we can debate the existence of qi, I think we can all agree that body sensations propagated by nerves are real and that those body sensations can have psychological influences.
In somatic therapies, a key practice that I teach is to bring awareness to where one holds emotional tension in their body. Similarly, TCM and qi kung teaches that we hold emotions in different organs: worry in the digestive system or spleen, grief in the lungs, and joy in the heart. This teaching has an intuitive feel to it, although after guiding many people through somatic processes, I have found that people hold their emotional tension in different ways.
While sadness and grief may often be felt as heaviness in the chest, some people report feeling it in their hearts, while others may feel it as lumps in their throats. Similarly, worry may be felt in the abdomen or chest. If you are a therapist, ask your next ten clients who suffer from excessive worry (or any emotion) where they feel it in their bodies. Before doing that though, don’t tell them anything about how TCM theorizes about worry being held in the spleen, or how TCM views other emotions being held in the organs. If you ask many patients where they feel their worry, you will find that some report feeling it in their chests, some feel it in their abdomen, while others may report it as a feeling of wooziness in some other part of their body.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, qi kung, and somatic therapies all work with emotions being held in the body. However, while TCM and qi kung place specific emotions in different organs, somatic therapists ask patients where they feel their emotions in their body. This is a powerful tool to use in the clinic because it recognizes the unique ways in which different people internalize and feel their emotions. Additionally, having a client bring their awareness to how they hold emotions in their bodies can have several therapeutic effects. First of all, it can help to build a bridge between the mind and body, allowing them to feel their emotions somatically rather than experiencing them as intrusive, negative, repetitive thoughts. Just the act of becoming aware of how emotions are held in the body can be incredibly therapeutic, and may even be enough for some people to experience shifts, openings, and releases.
Do you remember the first time you became aware of how you hold stress and tension in your body?
When we learn to guide our clients into feeling how they uniquely hold their emotions in their bodies, it is similar to qi kung practices that bring attention to the body. However, in somatic therapies, we use a unique line of questioning that gets them to experience their emotions and feelings in an embodied sensorial way. This method also helps them to better express and communicate their feelings, not from the level of the mind, but from the level of the body. Using sensory-orientated processes to cultivate body awareness and locate areas where they are holding emotional tension is an easy-to-learn system with powerful therapeutic benefits.
Most of what I have described above has to do with fostering greater body awareness, and this is used in qi kung, yoga, somatic therapies, and other psychotherapeutic methods like DBT and MABT. In many of these systems, cultivating body awareness is the first step and also a cornerstone of the practice. Additionally, qi kung and somatic therapies also work with breath, movement, imagery, and sounds. It is my hope in this article that TCM doctors and psychotherapists can recognize the overlap between these two systems and that each can learn to better utilize the tools that each system offers.
In future articles, I will go into more detail about somatic processes and qi kung and how breath, movement, imagery, and body awareness practices are used in both systems.