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Ki Gong history can be roughly divided into five periods. Throughout Ki Gong history there have been several constants. There is an emphasis on meditation, respiration and movement in order to achieve higher levels of health and well-being.

Ancient History

The first period had very little written documentation and therefore historical review is a bit speculative. It is possible that Ki principles were practiced during this time because some historical records have indicated that conscious body movement and breathing exercises were practiced to cure diseases. It is unknown if these practices were related to Ki philosophy or if they were just practiced because of the de facto realization of increased health.

There is documentation of body movement and breath control practice in ancient history. The first written record of anything resembling Ki Gong principles was 4000 years ago in a book titled, The Spring and Autumn Chronicles by Lu. In this book Lu states that a long time ago people became ill due to stasis of body fluids which caused diseases similar to the modern condition known as rheumatism. Afflicted individuals were prescribed a series of dance like movements that were intended to relieve stagnation.

Heaven, Earth and Man

The second period is marked by the introduction of a book known as Yi Jing (Book of Changes) sometime before 1122 BC. This book was the first known to discuss the relationship of energy and thus relates to the development of Ki Gong. In the Yi Jing three natural energies were proposed: Tian (Heaven), Di (Earth) and Ren (Man). Importantly it was the study of the relationship between the three energies that sponsored the ideas of Ki Gong practice. Each energy was considered a power and the cultivation of the three individual powers depended on the relationship of one to another.

During the Zhou dynasty (1122-934 BC), the famous philosopher Lao Tzu wrote Tao Te Ching in which he stated that the way to achieve health was to concentrate on Ki and achieve softness. There was also a great deal of discussion about proper breathing and respiratory techniques. Several other books came out during this time that discussed the importance of conscious breathing techniques for the cultivation of Ki and subsequently increased vitality.

Two types of Ki Gong training were developed during this period: Religious Ki Gong which was practiced primarily by Taoist and Confucian scholars, and Medicinal Ki Gong which was practiced to prevent or cure illness. Interestingly both Religious and Medicinal Ki Gong was practiced for the sake of increasing health. Both types of training focused on the natural way of optimum health potential. It was thought that it was impossible to counter the effects of nature. Instead the powers of nature were used to fortify energy in the individual Ki Gong practitioner.

Religious Ki Gong

It was during the Han Dynasty (206-502 AD) that Ki Gong began its third period in which it experienced multicultural dimensions. Han emperors were intelligent and kind. As a result the peaceful exchange of cultural information was encouraged. The spread of Buddhism in China was allowed to occur and as such Indian meditation and movement techniques were accepted in some factions of Chinese culture. This allowed cultural and practical comparison of Ki Gong techniques that led to more interest in the effect of Ki Gong on increasing Ki circulation.

There was a great deal of interest in the various religious Ki Gong practices. Three schools of religious Ki Gong dominated the period: Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Taoism. The covert exchange between the different practices created an opportunity to more deeply examine the theory of Ki circulation. Generally speaking most religious sects attempted to keep their practice secret but traditional scholars continued their research and made great contributions to Ki Gong theory.

A set of Ki Kong movements known as “The Frolic of the Five Animals” was developed by the famous doctor Hua Tuo. These exercises were based on animal movements and were supposed to increase Ki circulation. Those that wished to maintain a youthful disposition practiced this classic Ki Gong set.

Martial Ki Gong

The Liang Dynasty (502-557 AD) began the fourth period of Ki Gong history. Prior to this time there was very little influence of Ki Gong in the martial arts. Around the beginning of the 6th century the emperor invited a Buddhist monk named Boddhidharma to visit China from India. The emperor was interested in Boddhidharma’s style of Buddhism, known as Chan Buddhism. When the emperor became tired of Boddhidharma’s theory he exiled him. Boddhidharma traveled throughout China and eventually found himself in the Shaolin Monastery. He fell in love with the area around the Temple and began to teach Chan Buddhism to the monks. Because he chose not to teach from books he was asked to leave the monastery by the Abbott.

During his time away he meditated in a cave near the monastery. He was fully supported by the Shaolin monks and therefore was able to sit facing a wall and meditate everyday for many hours . His dedication to enlightenment did not go unnoticed and after 9 years of meditation he was asked back into the Shaolin monastery.

Upon his return he noticed the poor physical condition of the monks and set out to teach health principles through movement and meditation. Boddhidharma believed that the body and mind were one and as such, in order to achieve enlightenment one must train both. The mind would support the body and the body would support the mind. Much of his teaching was influenced by Indian Yoga principles.

Boddhidharma taught two types of exercises to the monks. The first type was a set of 12 Ki Gong exercises called, Yi Jin Jing (Muscle Tendon Changing). These exercises were aimed at strength and agility. There were two applications of Yi Jin Jing. Depending on the student’s level of study they would either study the outer strength (Wae Gong) principles or the inner strength principles (Nae Gong) related to the exercise sets. The advanced students were taught inner strength applications as they were considered a higher level application. In the inner application the student was encouraged to let the movements occur without the strength of the body. Initiation of movement came from the energy inside of the body. The outer strength principles were taught as a physical exercise.

The second set of exercises was known as Xi Sui Jing (Bone Marrow Washing). Unlike the Yi Jin Jing exercises, Xi Sui Jing was completely involved with the development of Ki energy through meditation and body postures. These Ki Gong sets were not taught publicly but rather were kept secret and reserved for high level, advanced students. They were harder to learn and required intense dedication.

Following Boddhidharma’s death in 536 AD the exercises that he taught continued to be practiced. Taoist priests expanded upon the health theories. Probably because of the Shaolin influence, Ki Gong sets were eventually adapted in the study of martial arts. Prior to this time martial arts did not consider Ki an important part of warrior activity. Over the course of the next 500 years many of the original Ki Gong movements became an important part of martial training movements. In fact, the Yi Yin Jing became the Shi Ba Luo Han Shou, which means “the 18 hands of students of Buddha.” This new adaptation of the original movements was considered training for martial fighting techniques although it remained consistent with Ki cultivation.

During the Song Dynasty (1127- 1279) Ki Gong continued its development. Marshal Yue Fe introduced a popular Ki Gong set called Ba Duan Jin (the 8 Pieces of Brocade). His intention was to help increase the health of his soldiers. From the Song Dynasty up until the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911 AD), many different styles of Ki Gong were introduced and taught to the general public. Around this time many different cultures became interested in health through Ki Gong practice and developed Ki Gong sets that reflected their lifestyle and culture. The development of martial arts in different parts of the world helped to develop culturally specific Ki Gong exercises.

Modern Ki Gong

Ki Gong enthusiasts have always enjoyed the benefits of Ki Gong practice. The modern approach to Ki Gong practice has become a quest for scientific validation. This is a result of the difference in the way that Ki Gong is taught. In the past the tradition was to have a Master select a student and teach on a one to one basis. The period commencing in the 1980s’ saw a more open public method of teaching in the Western world . This in addition to the development of modern communication and research methodology has led to an exciting new era in Ki Gong practice. It is important to examine the effects of Ki Gong practice on the health of individuals so that perhaps there will be a positive effect on the health of our society in general. Although modern study techniques may facilitate our understanding of Ki circulation, it is important to continue to consider the historical elements of Ki Gong science, art and philosophy.

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