Qigong exercises to increase mobility and mindfulness

A beneficial, gentle practice to do anywhere, and whether you’re seven or 87 years old.

A beneficial, gentle practice to do anywhere, and whether you’re seven or 87 years old

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

While keeping up with an active lifestyle may feel like a challenge with so many pandemic-related safety procedures and restrictions to abide by, it can also be an opportunity to get creative about staying fit and discover new practices. There's one in particular that's gentle and easy enough to do whether you're seven or 87 years old.

The ancient Chinese practice of qigong is designed to improve mobility and well-being, combining slow body movements with focused breathing. The Mandarin term qigong (pronounced chee-kung or chee-kong) can be translated to "energy work," which is the foundation of the whole practice: enhancing the flow of energy through the body. 

The stretches that derive from qigong involve the full body. At the same time, they're very low-impact and can be modified easily depending on one's own physical limitations — making it accessible for many seniors — and space or other limitations, since no equipment is required. 

Injury prevention and improving mobility

"Ideally, we would use [qigong] for prevention … when you're doing those movements, you're maintaining that smooth flow of energy throughout the body, so there's no opportunity for stagnation," says Sue Crites, an Alberta-based online qigong instructor. A holistic nutritionist with a masters in science, Crites began exploring qigong after the practice relieved pain in her hip — pain that physiotherapy, chiropractic treatment, massage, acupuncture and diet changes did not seem to improve. "That just led me down this huge path."

Francine Tseng, an osteopathic therapist at Consensio Clinic in Canmore, Alta., recommends qigong to her clients as a way to maintain and improve their baseline mobility. "You might be surprised at how commonly people fall into a habitual way of moving — their bodies forget the ability to move fluidly and with coordination. Like if you're walking on a path and you step off a rock in an awkward way, your body might not have the coordination to react in the moment and that can cause injury." 

The simplicity of the exercises is part of what makes qigong so effective, according to Tseng. It can help retrain the body to achieve small detailed movements that may be lost over time due to a more sedentary lifestyle, previous injury or years of doing repetitive motions such as computer work or operating machinery.

Crites says she has seen significant improvements in a number of her older students, noting an example of an eldery man who started off needing the support of a chair for stability. "[After practicing qigong,] his balance completely improved, and for someone who is a senior, who lives in a place where there's snow and ice, that is very significant … it's going to prevent falls … it's going to build his confidence [and] he's going to walk more. There's so much more to it," she says.

Mindfulness and releasing tension

"The goal of qigong is unification," said Maria Theresa Gregory via email from her studio, YogAloft Wellness Retreat, in McKellar, Ont., which includes qigong instruction. "[The practice] reminds us that we are more than just a body. We are sensing, feeling, alive on so many more levels than just the physical." 

Like other mind-body practices, including yoga and tai chi, qigong may also help increase mindfulness, improve mood and release tension. "Personally, [I find] the practice is a great way to remind my body and my heart to be open," says Tseng, who describes one qigong exercise as a kind of swimming or flying motion using one's arms. "If my mind is going around in circles about something, [the motion] kind of helps give me that mental space. It [also] gives my body space because I tense up over time a lot, especially in times of stress or working at the computer. So it's just really good to remind myself that there's all this potential space [I] haven't been using the whole day."

Similar to the distinctions between yoga practices (how, for instance, hatha and ashtanga practices vary) qigong offers different styles of practice, while the basic philosophy and exercises are similar. Here are some tutorials to help get you started. As with any new form of exercise, it doesn't hurt to check with your doctor before beginning, especially if you are recovering from or may be prone to injury.

1. The eight brocades exercises

This set of movements is one of the most popular exercises in qigong and will help as a foundation for daily practice.  

2. The five animals routine

These qigong exercises, which have origins in the Shaolin martial arts, may help release tension in the body and improve balance.

3. A breathing exercise to calm the mind

A deep-breathing exercise that incorporates slow movement to help calm the body and mind.

4. A 20-minute daily routine

A quick and easy practice you can do every day to improve circulation and increase flexibility.

Janet Ho is a writer who spends her time enjoying big-city living and small-town life. Follow her at @janetthewriterhere.

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