“The Energy Body,” Alister Gillies

Ainu shaman

The roots of Qigong (pronounced ‘chee gung’), according to anthropologists, can be traced back several thousand years to the shamanic practices of nomadic peoples who inhabited northern Asia and the Ural Altaic region.

The Anma arts, a form of body energy work combining acupressure, massage, manipulation and bone-setting, predate Reiki and Shiatsu by some 3000 years. Originating in China, the Anma arts spread from Korea to Japan where they became a specialised skill of retired Jujutsu practitioners. Albinos were said to be particularly gifted in its use, and it was also an integral part of a Zen monk’s medical training. Such practices are still extant today among the Sakha (Yakut), Chukchi, and Evenki peoples of Siberia.

Core shamanistic beliefs, which include body forms derived from dance, breath work, trance inducing techniques, animistic and polytheistic beliefs and myths, art, music and images and symbols were all assimilated by other major cultural and religious movements like Buddhism (India), Taoism (China) and Shinto (Japan).

Within ancient pre-literate cultures a shaman was an individual, usually someone with certain unique characteristics, who stood out from among the other members of their tribe or society. They could be left handed, epileptic or even of indeterminate gender; often shamans would be associated with particular families that passed on certain genetically inherited traits, such as a physical disability.

Shamans were identified at birth, and although they could resist the designation, it was generally understood that in time they would come to accept the responsibilities of their role within tribal society. It has been reported by some anthropologists that individuals who resisted their shamanic calling, actually intensified their suffering as a result.

Often this resistance would be accompanied by prolonged bouts of illness, which could range from mild depression, physical and psychosomatic conditions, to severe psychotic episodes. Their eventual acceptance of their shamanic role, however, was often preceded by a life transforming event or series of trials over which the individual shaman had little control.

Typically this would involve falling into a death like state or trance, undergoing transcendent or realistic ordeals, and re-emerging into the world of light where the distinction between matter and spirit no longer subsisted. The shaman, as well as being an ordinary human being, also had an existence as an energy or spirit body, and were able to pass from one realm to another at will.

The role of the shaman within any given tribe or group was that of a healer, diviner, counselor, or sorcerer, and they often acted as an intermediary with the “other world” on behalf of the tribe or individuals. The word “shaman” comes from the Manchu-Tungu (sub-family of the Altaic language family) word šaman, and is formed from the verb ša – “to know.” It means literally “one who knows.”

In his book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, internationally renowned religious historian Mircea Eliade concludes that shamanism is the foundation for all the world’s spiritual traditions. Eliade argues that there is a recurring motif of ‘centre point’ in many so-called primitive cultures, often symbolised by a tree that acts as a bridge between the different planes of existence. A shaman is one who is able to climb the ‘tree of the world’, uniting the sacred and profane, the material and spiritual.

To accomplish this, the shaman will have developed the capacity to go into a death-like state at will, from which he/she will return with renewed vigour and power as if reborn. This ability elevates the shaman above the normal run of people, as one who is able to return to the source of all life at will.

The shaman personifies the transcendent in their capacity to unite the sacred and profane within their own transformed existence. This notion of a sacred self being revealed through the extinction of a profane or worldly self is continued in Taoist, Buddhist and in the Shinto inspired belief of Morihei Ueshiba.

Japanese Shinto is pre-eminently shamanistic in its origins, and retains many shamanistic features in its rituals and fundamental beliefs. At the heart of Shinto are polytheistic beliefs in the mysterious and harmonising power (musubi) of the kami (gods or spirits), and how truthfully that is integrated in the behaviour of man (makoto).

Makoto is not a sensibility that can ordinarily be expressed in words, although it is something that can be sensed intuitively by the faithful. Intimately connected to this is the idea of middle-present (naka-ima), the view that the present moment is the very centre in the middle of all conceivable times. In order to take part fully in the eternal development of the world (tsunagari), Shintoists are required to live each moment as fully as possible.

In ethical terms, this means living in a way that is consistent with the revelation of the truthfulness of the kami in man, or magokoro, usually translated as true heart, or sincerity. It is a quality that denotes the attitude of a person doing his best in his social relations, work and personal life. The ultimate source of such a life attitude stems from man’s awareness of the divine.

In Taoism, Buddhism, Shinto and Shamanism, the idea of unification with the ‘generative principle’ that governs the universe, seems to be a fundamental belief they hold in common. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, described his life mission and the purpose of Aikido in the following terms:

“Aikido is the way of misogi (purification) itself, the way to become Sarutahiko-no-O-Kami (generative principle) and stand on the Ame- no-Ukihashi (the bridge between heaven and earth). In other words, the skills of misogi are Aiki, the way of uniting heaven and earth, the way of world peace, the way of trying to perfect humanity, the way of the Kami, the way of the universe.”

For Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido was patently much more than a martial art. It was a way of purification and personal transformation, in accord with the highest aspirations of other major East Asian belief systems. It was a way of realising one’s connection with the divine through the practice of Budo. A precondition for realising this connection is the experience of one’s true nature as being not other than the universe, the realisation that:

“The divine is not something high above us. It is in heaven, it is in earth, it is inside us.” Morihei Ueshiba

The shaman, both ancient and modern, informs us of man’s spiritual connection to the universe around us. The naka-ima is the shamanic centre point from which heaven and earth can be bridged; the past and future are contained within this point. We can investigate this for ourselves should we decide to take that step. As Morihei Ueshiba reminds us:

“Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow. You are here to realize your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment.”

Nowadays, large corporations include stress busting techniques derived from ancient systems as part of everyday stress management practice, confidence building and interpersonal skills training. While the rattles, totems and drums of the traditional shaman may be an anachronism today, many of the characteristics and skills of the shaman are still very much in demand.

From the charismatic motivational speaker at corporate events, to the Feng Shui consultant helping to construct a modern office block, ancient beliefs still influence the modern world. In contemporary Japan, and in North America, Shinto priests provide rituals of purification and blessing on the opening of a new building and many other significant social and life events. The ancient is still very much with us in the present, though continually changing its form.

Chi (Ki in Japanese), according to the Yi Jing (Book of Changes 1122 B.C.) is the life force that enables all life in the universe to function. The ‘gong’ element of Qigong is simply the practical skills and knowledge developed by practitioners over time and passed from master to student down through the ages.

Qigong is used to gather and store Chi to promote health, to channel and direct energy for the purpose of healing, and promote spiritual growth and enlightenment for the individual practitioner. Qigong is also an effective martial art.

The movement of Buddhism from India to China around 206 B.C. during the formative period of the Han Dynasty, helped lay the ethical groundwork for many spiritually oriented arts in China. This foundation was further reinforced by the Indian monk Bodhidarma (‘Da Mo’ in Chinese, 502-557 A.D.), who instituted a disciplined training regime at the now famous Shaolin Temple, located in East China on Mount Sung, in Honan Province. From there, this new style and approach spread to influence other martial arts throughout China and beyond.

While there are those who distinguish between Buddhist and Taoist influences in Qigong, viewing the latter as predating Buddhism, ultimately there proved to be more similarities than differences between the two religions. This resulted in a merging of the two that became known as Chan Buddhism in China, or Zen Buddhism in Japan and the West.

Zen was to go on to have a major influence on Japanese martial arts, complimenting earlier Japanese assimilations of Confucian ethics and Chinese classics and customs. In many ways, Japan’s cultural relationship with China resembles European culture’s relationship with classical Greece and Rome as the fountainhead of ideas and knowledge – Confucius was to the East what Aristotle was to the West.

Qigong is part of traditional Chinese medicine and incorporates Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, martial arts and medical traditions. Within these traditions there are some 3,000 varieties. These break down into ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ types of Qigong. Soft Qigong is described as an “inner” variety, and ‘hard’ Qigong as an “outer” form, corresponding to the Taoist Yin Yang cosmological principle (In and Yo in Japanese).

As previously mentioned, the Asian martial arts present a view of mankind in which man is seen as a micro-version of the larger universe. Mankind is composed of five ‘essential’ elements (metal, water, fire, wood and earth). When these elements are in smooth interaction, and the relationship between Yin and Yang energy is balanced, then man is regarded as being in an optimum condition of physical and spiritual health.

Qigong consists of a series, or sets, of exercises emphasising posture, movement, breathing and visualisation carried out in a meditative and relaxed manner. The movements are slow and graceful and take considerable practice to perfect. They are exercises specifically designed to help develop the energy body.

One exercise, from the Eight Sections of Brocade (silk) series of movements that has particular affinities with the Tenchi Nage (heaven and earth throw) technique from the Aiki arts of Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu and Aikdo, is called Uniting Heaven and Earth. While not a throw, it nevertheless helps develop familiarity with whole body movement, energy cultivation and extension that underpins more martial applications.

It is an exercise that goes back, in various forms, to the Shaolin Lohan Qigong (the art of the breath of the enlightened ones) introduced by Bodhidarma. It is an exercise, like many ‘internal’ Qigong forms, that is designed for the cultivation of the ‘three treasures’ of jing (essence), qi (vital energy), and shen (spirit). Students of Aikido may recognise this exercise, albeit in a slightly different form, from exercises performed at the beginning and end of a typical Aikido class.

Uniting Heaven and Earth

The starting posture, wu ji (grand emptiness), consists of standing upright with the feet comfortably apart – neither too wide, nor too close together. The knees are ‘soft’ with the legs slightly bent, and never straight. The sacrum (tail bone) is slightly forward, pointing between the feet. The shoulders are kept relaxed and down. The head is balanced gently on the neck, with the chin drawn in slightly. The eyes are kept open, but gazing in an unfocussed way towards the distant horizon (kan in Japanese).

Breathing is carried out through the diaphragm (abdominal breathing), with the thoracic cage kept as still as possible. Inhalation is through the nose, and exhalation can be done with the mouth slightly open or closed. The arms are held loosely by the sides with the palms resting against the thighs.

Beginning with the hands, allow the palms to open to the front and let them drift lightly to the rear, while inhaling slowly through the nose. Visualise energy being drawn up through the feet, legs and into the perineum, then up into the spinal column to the front of the forehead. Next, beginning again with the hands, gently rotate the wrists to allow the hands to drift back to their starting point and rest against the thighs. At the same time visualise the breath as energy moving down the front of the body and settling in the dan tien (tanden in Japanese), an area just below the navel.

This opening and closing movement should be accomplished in one cycle of inhalation and exhalation. In order to coordinate concentration, posture and breathing with the movement of the hands, it will take several repetitions to develop a smooth, cyclical feeling of effortless movement. Once comfortable with the movement, then it is advisable to dispense with visualising energy. In sitting meditation, one soon becomes accustomed to the feeling of energy and composure after a few short breaths; it is the same in Qigong.

This first stage is about gathering the vital energy. The next stage involves raising the arms from the thighs, up the front of the body to just below the level of the shoulders. It is important that the arms are neither too far away from the body, nor too close – both extremes will result in an uncomfortable feeling of strain in the upper body, especially in the shoulder, deltoid and neck areas.

Starting from the hands, as in the first stage, paying attention to breathing and visualisation, allow the arms to gently rise with the palms facing upwards until the hands are just below the level of the shoulders. This should be done in one inhalation. Some people find it helpful to visualise raising a large ball of light (Chi ball), but should not be necessary if the first stage is practiced sufficiently.

On exhaling, rotate the wrists gently so that the palms are facing down and begin to slowly lower the arms. As the arms lower the hands will naturally begin to converge towards the centre of the body, coming to rest around the area of the solar plexus. Again it is important to use visualisation as in the first stage, imagining that the energy is moving down to the tanden. This movement should be completed in one exhalation.

As the hands come together just below the sternum, the right hand separates from the left and continues downwards (earth) to come to rest in the starting position. Simultaneously, the left hand begins to move upwards, rotating slightly so that the palm is facing upwards (heaven), accompanied by a fresh inhalation. The exercise is repeated, alternating left and right hands.

While performing these hand movements it is essential that the practitioner does not fixate on one hand or the other. Rather it is the feeling of contraction and expansion that occurs between the hands and around the body that is important. One useful image is to imagine that one is stretching an elastic (silk reeling) material that elongates or shrinks with the movement of the hands.

This movement can take considerable practice to perfect. Eventually, with practice, the movement of the arms becomes very light as if moving of their own volition with only the slightest intent on the part of the practitioner. A powerful feeling of energised relaxation, health and calmness comes from this exercise.

In order to understand the nature of our energy body the first step is the cultivation of mind body unification – unifying heaven and earth. The movements of Qigong and the kata of the Aiki arts can help to facilitate that process, as indeed can sitting meditation.

Without the sense of wholeness that comes from mind body unification, the movements of Qigong and the kata of the Aiki arts would be little more than choreographed movements, or techniques of manipulation involving physical strength. Learning to unite heaven and earth, as a practical application of an underlying spiritual principle, can provide the key to unlocking a resource of vitalising and powerful energy.

In ancient Taoism the relationship between the three treasures of man, jing, chi, and shen, was analogous to an alchemical process. Within this process an inner and outer alchemy were distinguished. While the outer form dealt with body movements and dietary preparations, the inner one was concerned with meditation and the cultivation of the energy body (chi). Although different, both forms were usually used in combination.

Jing is the primordial essence given to us at birth, sometimes described as the original chi. Chi is the universal life force, and shen is our spiritual self. In order to realise our true nature as a spiritual or energy body and transcend the cycle of birth and death, a continual refinement or development of the three energies was required.

To help us to achieve this, the ancient Taoists prescribed a formula that entailed using chi to nourish our jing energy, transforming the jing into refined chi, and using the refined chi to strengthen the shen. The ultimate purpose, of course, was the unification of shen (spirit) with the Tao.

Traditionally, there were a number of stages that a trainee would go through in order to achieve realisation. This varied from school to school, but broadly speaking they can be broken down into the following four parts.

Firstly, nourishing jing with chi involved carrying out exercises designed to cultivate chi energy, while at the same time living in a way that would reduce unnecessary energy expenditure. In practice this meant meditation to quiet the mind and passions, a healthy diet and moderate exercise or work.

Secondly, transforming the nourished jing energy into chi is a process of refining the jing energy so that it can be stored for use at a later time. At this stage it is much lighter and more accessible. Morihei Ueshiba, commenting on the nature of Ki (chi) in relation to Aikido, alludes to the distinction between unrefined and refined Ki:

“There are two types of Ki: ordinary Ki and true Ki. Ordinary Ki is coarse and heavy; true Ki is light and versatile. In order to perform well, you have to liberate yourself from ordinary Ki and permeate your organs with true Ki. That is the basis of powerful technique.”

This second stage is often referred to as the ‘water and fire’ stage and implies an intensification of training in meditation. Water is our passions and sexual energy; fire is the intensity of our heart or intention (spiritual energy), which is contained in the cauldron of the dantien (tanden in Japanese).

As the imagery suggests, when water is above fire it will begin to boil and steam. As steam is light it begins to rise to the head. This same process can be found in the awakening method of Indian Kundalini Yoga. The Japanese ideogram for Ki is “steaming rice.”

In Taoism the practice is to bring the steam back down into the dantien. Like a cloud containing condensed water vapour, rain descends into the dantien (elixir farm in Chinese) where the heavenly chi and the earthly chi interact and mix. The environment that is created in the dantien through meditation practice is called the “Reunion of Heaven and Earth.” The product of this union is the spiritual or energy body.

The third stage is likened to bringing up a child, and implies a period of extended education and protection of the spirit body until it reaches maturity. The fourth stage is returning to the Tao. In Buddhism this is equivalent to returning to the source.

Each belief system, from early shamanism to modern day internet taught Buddhism, has its own particular language, images, symbols, and mode of practice. The way of teaching may differ, but the subject matter remains the same. The energy body or spirit exists in the naka-ima, in this present moment, in the exact centre of all possible times. It transcends the duality of past and future. It is eternal in its nature and quality. And we all have it.


  1. Alister,
    Thanks for a great article!

  2. Tom Collings says:

    About 15 years ago a Thai monk who spoke almost no English taught me some Qigong exercises.
    All he could say in English was “you do this, no get old.” I did not believe him but I kept on practicing, and I am still waiting to get older.

    This tremendously valuable mind-body practice is largely unfamiliar to most aikido students although it is the basis for some of our best aikido “warmups.” Mr.Gillies article should generate considerable interest in the practice of Qigong because of his beautifully descriptive yet scholarly discussion. To place this mysterious, subtle, yet highly practical form of training in a clear historical and cultural content makes it more accessible to those who may be considering the practice. His article is concise, historically accurate, yet reflective of clear practice knowledge.

    I find it fascinating that of the multitude of Chinese practices Mr.Gillies refers to several of the very same ones which I have found so valuable, namely: Silk Reeling, 8 Pieces of Brocade, and the exercises of Shaolin Qigong. These mind-body exercises are a wonderful link between the deep stillness of sitting meditation and the dynamic movement of aikido. I strongly recommend using this excellent article as a jumping off point to encorporate Qigong training into your daily preparation for aiki practice.

  3. This article is very informative, thank you for sharing. Qigong is a subject that interests me deeply and you have given me much to think about.

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