To make use of movement practices as a means to reflect upon, experience, and apply Daoist philosophical thought is so much more meaningful and deeper than restricting them to fitness or health exercises on a merely physical level.
With all the political authoritarian tendencies on the rise worldwide and their language manipulations, it therefore becomes an increasingly important task to rigorously call out language “games”, if you see them. Qigong is gaming the system on an even more profound level than the term 武術 Wushu has been. This is one of the reasons why I have recently become more reluctant to use the term Qigong in describing my own practice or when referring to traditional methods of Daoist and Buddhist movement practices in general.
The promotion of the term Qigong started in the 1950s under a communist Chinese government intent on doing everything possible to get rid of the Chinese cultural heritage, particularly the spiritual and the philosophical roots. We should therefore be fully aware that Qigong does not represent Chinese traditions of profound movement practices. Qigong represents a „re“-creation of an important part of Chinese culture strictly following the autocratic ideology of the communist party of China, and being under close and permanent surveillance by the communist Chinese government. In this framework, they thought that elements of the traditions could be employed as a promotional tool within communist propaganda, so they simply stripped these traditions off their philosophical and spiritual roots, perspectives, and broader applications as were integral to Daoist and Buddhist movement practices.
By no means do I want to dispute health benefits of modern Qigong methods. However, the effects unfortunately are, by design, unnecessarily limited in scope because of the authoritarian political reasoning shaping Qigong.
All of the increasing authoritarian political developments in China in recent years have therefore made me rethink my own usage of terms in talking about traditional forms of Chinese movement practices and Daoist philosophy—and my own work with them. I therefore now prefer the term Nei-kung, referring to so-called forms of internal movement practices, that I encountered during my studies in Taiwan, because it is not a political term. Qigong, however, clearly is.
Therefore again: the Chinese government authorized Qigong does not represent tradition, or a natural continuation of Chinese traditions of movement practices. It is a reconstruction of practices partly using movement elements of various old traditions under the strict supervision and control of the communist party of China in order to blur the differences with tradition, and to gain total control over this section of Chinese cultural wisdom and potential. The Communist party basically succeeded, because now, the term usually gets indiscriminately used for traditional as well as Communist party created and controlled movement methods.
Freely applying the thought of the Laozi (= Daodejing) in movement practices, on the other hand, allows us to experience an incredibly open and nurturing worldview. It is focused on the general well-being of all things, on sustainable networks. It is a systems thinking very critical of authoritarian patterns. The thought of the Laozi which seems so undeniably rooted in indigenous thinking, is not focused on merely individual achievements, or achievements of individual groups.
How would an authoritarian regime so fearful of any dissent truly embrace the concept of self-organization in the Laozi (自然、自化、無為), and disseminate it (widely)? Self-organization is one of the core concepts of Daoist philosophy. Actions and processes are not centrally directed, but input comes from everywhere and is answered with coordinated wide-spread autonomous responses. For this, free flows are essential (通 of information | energy | movement impulses | waves | …). The orientation for this are autonomous, highly adaptive processes and patterns in the natural world.
Party sanctioned Qigong, however, is formalistic by (political) design. Daoist philosophy, on the other hand, is critical of a rigid focus on form– therefore the importance given to formlessness (無形). With Daoist philosophy you are exploring „the inside“ in search for your individual potential in doing movement practices within given forms.
With authoritarian didactics you are instead told what you have to feel. There you are not supported in openly exploring the form as is the case with Daoist philosophy. With authoritarian didactics you are told to strictly follow the form. With Daoist philosophy you are encouraged to think for yourself, to adapt your experiences with the form, and draw wide analogies to all spheres of life. With authoritarian didactics (of any kind) you are neither allowed to stray from the form, nor are you encouraged to explore individual adaptations and openly discuss and explore them in wider social circles.
Below I will give examples of working with form in movement practices I personally work with: Wing Chun (詠春拳 | 永春拳), the Shaolin method of transforming the tendons (少林易筋經), the Yin Yang method and the Five Elements method (陰陽五行功). When you coordinate for instance the movements of hands and feet, the interaction of the Baihui acupuncture field (百匯穴) and the Huiyin acupuncture field (會陰穴) and all the energetic fields you are working with, with each other, the form is simply the playing field or rough map for your explorations. It is not supposed to be limiting. It was developed to give support on the path. Dealing with a concrete movement principle like 腳趾著地 jiaozhi zhuodi, the toes taking hold in the ground, you can work with the idea of roots (根 gen) and the Daoist observations of plants, particularly trees. And in 提肛斂腹 tigang lianfu, the taking in of the abdomen and lifting the anus helps you to better connect the upper part with the lower part of the body, making it easier for movement dynamics to flow through the whole body, but also making it easier for these flows to connect with the spheres below, above and on a horizontal level, 天地人 tiandiren, heaven – earth – human sphere.
Consciousness and will definitely play a role in movement practices grounded in Daoist philosophy, but not a central role, and of course, not in working with the forms. They have more of an advisory role. They give input, then closely listen to all of the complex feedback arising from a movement, and help fit in the multitude of voices that arise.
There simply are no autocratic arrangements. When forms are explored within the framework of Daoist philosophy they serve as reference points, as kind of coordinate systems that offer support in exploring coordination and integration. Coordination and integration (抱一) are important guidelines. Peripheral areas, and important linking areas of the body (hands, feet, fingertips, toes, head, shoulders, lower part of the spine, pelvis) get coordinated and integrated on ever deeper levels. Movements | waves | vibrations run through the whole body into and through the periphery of the body. These same movements | waves | vibrations also explore every white spot in the interior of the body. The movements | waves | vibrations interact with the ground. The feedback from the ground unfolds in the body, and by flowing through and out of the body again, widens the sphere of the body creating a better connection and integration with the environment of the body. The body can clearly be felt and experienced in increasingly complex ways as part of a complex “web”. None of these processes follows any authoritarian pattern. Just the opposite, you unmistakably experience with your own body how many, and what kind of problems authoritarian patterns actually create, might have created, in your existence, and how limiting they are for the unfolding of you as a person.
You physically and emotionally feel and experience how meaningful such a holistic Daoist approach is, and how important it therefore also is to not restrict the practice to only a physical one, but to extend it to all spheres of life—also the political sphere.
Depending on the talents of a person, the experiences described above can be integrated into the activities of (daily) life on profound, or less profound levels. From the perspective of Daoist philosophy these experiences are supposed to also be applied on a societal level as well.
Movement methods based upon and working with the thought of the Laozi apply its knowledge on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level to establish a broader basis for application in all areas of human life. They are always focused on integration.
With regards to overall movement coordination, movement dynamics, and energy flows, movement practices based on the thought of the Laozi will have an orientation towards self-directed networks, towards nurturing relationships (between individual energetic centers) and the common good. All these experiences serve as analogies that can be, and are supposed to be applied to other aspects of life, to societies, and to the interaction with non-human life and existence.