The fantastical tales of ancient alchemists seeking (and perhaps finding) immortality through the creation of magic potions, or discovering the secret of transforming lead into gold, may stem from the extraordinary exercises developed by Chinese adepts to prolong life and increase health. This system of enhancing life energy is sometimes called qigong (pronounced chee-GUNG), a word that means “working with life energy.” Qi, or ch’i, is the Chinese eqivalent of prana, the Indian term for the vital energy that flows through the human body. According to the Chinese system, the life force is absorbed into our bodies through entry portals in the skin known as acupuncture points. The subtle energy of qi then circulates along 12 pairs of invisible pathways called meridians, linking the inner organs and other parts of the body and nervous system into a unified whole. Qi flows freely in healthy individuals; any blockage or imbalance in the flow of qi results in disease and debilitation.
The aim of qigong is to allow for the free flow of energy by eliminating any blockages or imbalances that may be obstructing that flow. Structured systems of movement, breathing, and meditation have been devised over centuries to maximize the flow of qi throughout the body. These systems are known by various names, including Taijiquan (t’ai chi chuan, in the old spelling), kung-fu, and medical qigong. Blockages can also be released by the insertion of needles into the skin at one or more of the approximately 365 acupuncture points located along the meridians.
Acupuncture, which is several thousand years old, fell out of favor in China in the late 19th century, but Mao Tse-tung returned it to prominence. In the 1970s, American journalists in China gave accounts of surgery being performed there for which the only anesthetic was acupuncture. With Richard Nixon’s re-opening of ties with China, the knowledge began to flow more freely to the West., and major insurance companies such as Mutual of Omaha now accept acupuncture for pain management and other therapeutic uses.
The Chinese also developed treatments which use the application of heat to the acupuncture points to achieve similar results. In moxibustion, the heat comes from smoldering balls or sticks of compressed wormwood leaves, called moxa; in cupping, small heated jars are held in place over the acupuncture points through vacuum suction. And in acupressure, the acupuncture points are massaged by the practitioner’s fingertips.