The Qi Path

Blending Qigong and Massage

By Lynda McCullough

From ancient healing traditions to individual innovation, energy work takes a vast array of forms within the field of massage. With qigong massage, for example, an established heritage in China places it in a medical context and practitioners, many of whom are physicians, are trained from that perspective. In the West, however, someone wanting to learn qigong massage may have trouble finding an advanced teacher in their area, and will likely have to build their training from a variety of sources. Regardless of the path, experts say the foundation to this work requires a personal understanding of qi and how it correlates to the body’s health.

What is Qi?

Qi is pronounced “chi” in English, and is sometimes spelled chi or ch’i.According to traditional Chinese medicine, the human body has two components: the qi body (inner energy body, or yin body) and the physical body (manifestation body, or yang body). Finding balance between the two is important for prolonged health. “Chinese medicine considers the qi body to be the foundation of the yang body, and the root of health and longevity,” says Yang Jwing-Ming, founder of Yang’s Martial Arts Association (YMAA) in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and author of Chinese Qigong Massage (YMAA, 1994). “This means that yin energy is the origin of life, and it makes the growth of yang possible,” Yang says. “When yin energy weakens or suddenly increases, the change is manifested in the yang (physical) body. If the imbalance persists, physical damage, or even failure to function, will occur in the body.”

The Chinese tradition finds that the human body has 12 major channels and eight vessels through which qi circulates. The channels, says Yang, “are like rivers which distribute qi throughout the body and also connect the extremities (fingers and toes) to the internal organs.” The eight vessels function like reservoirs and regulate the distribution and circulation of qi. “When there is stagnation in any of these 12 channels or rivers, the qi which flows to the body’s extremities and to the internal organs will be abnormal, and illness may develop,” Yang says. “You should understand that every channel has its particular qi flow strength, and every channel is different. All of these different levels of qi strength are affected by your mind, the weather, the time of day, the food you have eaten, and even your mood.”

From Qi to Qigong

Yang says that the “fully formed and comprehensive science and theory of qi” from China and Taiwan can provide a model for Westerners seeking orientation in qigong massage, which uses various techniques—from vibration to deep-tissue work—to affect qi along the acupuncture meridians in the body. It is helpful to know that in China, qigong massage was developed for healing within the field of qigong. Yang says qigong, in fact, is defined as “any training or study dealing with qi that takes a long time and a lot of effort.” Qigong involves learning about the way of qi, how to remove resistance from the qi channels, and how to increase the electromotive force in the body. In China, qigong includes the study of how our bodies relate to heaven qi and earth qi, Yang says, and it consists of the fields of acupuncture, herbs, martial arts qigong, qigong massage, qigong exercises, and qigong healing, as well as religious enlightenment.

How, then, does one affect the qi in qigong massage? It starts with knowing the theory and experiencing the flow of qi in one’s own body through practice of qigong. “If anyone wishes to get a deeper understanding and training of qigong massage, he or she should first understand the theory of qigong and its scientific interpretation,” Yang says.

A Western Path to Qigong Massage

Ed Litter, a massage therapist in Loveland, Colorado, was drawn to massage and qigong by an interest in qi, which he developed as a boy growing up in New Jersey. Like many boys, he was awed by martial arts practitioners and the mysterious powers they displayed in fighting and in influencing others.

“I was fascinated by energy work,” Litter says. “Before I even took karate, I read books on it, and I read about a martial arts expert who stacked up five cinder blocks and threw a punch downward and broke only the middle block. I was amazed. This guy was focusing the force of his punch to go through and not disturb two cinder blocks, and then burst the middle one. As a young man trying to assert myself in the world, I thought all sorts of glorified thoughts—I wanted to learn martial arts and be able to throw punches around corners, read people’s minds, and liquefy people’s innards with a thought!”

“As silly as my thoughts of those martial powers sound, I think that my curiosity is what led me to study energy work as a healing modality,” Litter says. He read widely about psychological journeys, healing, the power of human beings to heal themselves, and the underlying causes of injury, illness, and emotional problems.

“I had this vague awareness that there are forces on the planet that we don’t understand,” Litter says. “And these ideas, as well as this love of rubbing people’s muscles and getting them to feel good, came together, and it dawned on me that those were all incorporated into the field of massage.” Acting on his epiphany, Litter enrolled in the Boulder College of Massage Therapy and found that half of its curriculum was energy work. “I loved it,” he says. “I literally went to massage school to learn about energy work, and I learned about muscle massage, too.”

Litter graduated from massage school in 1998, and dabbled in aikido before discovering qigong master Yap Soon-Yeong from Malaysia and his work, Chaoyi Fanhuan Qigong (CFQ), which translates to Cosmic Freedom Qigong. Litter studied intensively with Yap and took courses from him at McKee Medical Center in Loveland, before developing his own qigong practice. Over time, Litter says he integrated what he learned from Yap into his massage work. Every year or so, he travels to Malaysia or Canada to study with Yap and continue to deepen his practice.

For Randy Burgess, a practitioner trained in acupuncture and tui na at the Southwest Acupuncture College of Boulder, Colorado, energy has been part of his life from a very early age.

“I’ve always been really sensitive to other people’s energy, and even at a young age, I could use my own breath and my own mind to overcome illness or pain or sometimes heal myself.”

From childhood on, Burgess says he could tune in to people and get a sense of what was going on with them. Though this sensitivity helped him deal with his own physical symptoms, it was difficult for him to manage around other people until he studied reiki in acupuncture school and learned how to separate his own energy from that of others. Burgess eventually became a Reiki Master, and he also found that he liked the shiatsu, qigong, and hara work (abdominal massage) he learned in acupuncture school.

“I tried to incorporate the bodywork into my acupuncture treatments,” Burgess says. “I sometimes did more bodywork than needles, and I felt that it was just as good and sometimes more effective than the needles, for me.”

Working with Qigong

Both Burgess and Litter wove qigong, bodywork, and their observations of energy and structural change together as they developed their techniques over the years. They have also learned they need to meet people where they are. They say some clients are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the terms qi, energy, and acupressure, and respond better to language such as blood, circulation, muscle, and nervous system.

Over time, the sensitivity and effectiveness of these practitioners have increased. Litter’s massage work, in particular, has been influenced in subtle and sometimes profound ways by his qigong practice. As he deepens his qigong practice, he’s found corresponding shifts in his massage work.

“I’ve noticed over the years that my deep-tissue work is not as precise anymore, because I can get the same results by relaxing into the energy,” Litter says. “I’ll find a tension area that I feel is the root of the problem, and I’ll just relax into it, and my fingers will just play, arbitrarily, like I’m kneading clay, just trying to warm up clay, and the muscle will open right up, and I know that’s energy.”

The understanding of qi has also given Litter a better ability to “read” his clients. “I’ll take someone’s arm and start moving it in the normal planes of movement, and I’ll read so much information in that. I’ll feel where the tightness is … then I’ll put my fingers there and feel around and I’ll know it is the focal point where the tension is coming from. It may not be that muscle, but I’ll start relaxing it, playing with it, and then I’ll find another point somewhere further down the body to connect my other hand, and I’ll do it intuitively. Then the energy flows and the muscle loosens up. Or, I’ll feel the muscle loosen up, and it doesn’t matter whether I feel the energy flow—I know it is flowing.”

Litter finds there is a profound overlap between his practice of qigong and his ability to perform massage. “The qigong is opening me, opening the energy channels, allowing me to have an influence over other people’s energy. The deeper that I get into the qigong, the more I realize that I’m doing what I call spot healings. I call it orthopedic energy work, because I’m still working from the structure of ‘I want your neck to move better, I want your shoulders to move better, I want to address your pain,’ so I still have a structure of massage work, but I’m using energy work to achieve that, whereas in a true [energy] healing session, I’d be able to work more directly with energy.”

Burgess found himself drawn strongly to qigong. “What I mostly use the qigong for is trying to figure out what clients need,” Burgess says. “I often tell people I’m just the monkey doing the pushing; I’m the channel. I have to think about muscle groups, the origin and insertion on the muscles, how the joint works, and what bone this is. But I try not to let my ego get caught up in that. I try to use the energy, the qi, to figure out what your body is really telling me, what is going on, what do I feel?”

He asks himself a variety of questions in the process: Where is the stagnation? Where is the excess? Where is the deficiency? What needs to be worked on? “When you look at all the diagnosing patterns we use in Chinese medicine (qi stagnation, liver-blood deficiency, or spleen dampness, etc.), and when you break them all down to their smallest point, it becomes an issue of qi,” Burgess says. “Is there not enough? Is the qi moving? Is it not moving? Is it moving too much? Is it going to the wrong place? What do we need to do with the qi?”

Understanding Energy and Healing

Burgess notes that what qi is “is a hotly debated topic, because there’s no direct translation in the English language.” The way he has come to understand it and explain it to clients is to use the analogy of a boat. He describes a boat in the water and says, “The wind reaches the sail, the sail expands and applies pressure to the mast, and the pressure to the mast moves the boat through the water. The wind isn’t qi, the sail isn’t qi, the mast isn’t, the boat isn’t, the water isn’t. The qi is where the wind meets the sail, where the sail applies pressure to the mast, where the mast applies pressure to the boat, where the boat slips through the water. If there are holes in the sail, you’re going to have qi deficiency; if the mast is weak and moves, it will move the boat forward, but there is deficiency; if there are barnacles on the hull of the boat, it’s not going to slip through the water efficiently, and there is deficiency.”

Burgess tells clients, “If we’re deficient somewhere, there is too much somewhere else; if we’re hot somewhere, we’re going to be cold somewhere else.” His goal with clients is to free, balance, and distribute the qi.

Litter, now a qigong teacher himself, says the goal of qigong massage is to flush energy. “The underlying principle,” he says, “is that energy is tight, congested, or blocked. Healthy energy your body needs is held up.”

All problems—physical, emotional, and mental—have an energetic root to them, Litter says. “Qigong work says let go of the blockages. Let them soften, clear them, get rid of them. Then two things happen: a physical or emotional problem goes away, and then the whole body is more open because the natural energy of the body is flowing better, and the body then functions better. We want to encourage the flushing out of the energy.”

Litter says theoretically, “the energy is supposed to come down through your body from head to toe, travel into you from the top, travel through your body, then go into the ground. Blockages and problems and excessive thinking cause us to hold onto that energy, so it’s coming down through our head, and we’re not letting it leave and go into the ground. So the goal of qigong is to get it to shift and go downward.”

Yang says within Chinese qigong massage, therapists work from top to bottom and from the center to the sides, in an effort to lead excess qi out of the client’s body. In order to do this, you must know all of the qi gates and junctions and how to stimulate them in sequence along the channels, he says.

“If your qi is in correspondence with your client’s, they will be able to use their own mind to lead their qi in synchronization with your movements to smooth their own qi,” Yang says. “This skin-to-skin contact also allows the qi to pass between you and your client so you can nourish each other.”

Ultimately, Yang says, “Massage is a meditation. It does not matter if you massage someone or are massaged, you should coordinate with your breathing and develop the deep feeling. If you do it correctly, [qigong] massage will be a very high level of qi exchange between giver and receiver.”

East and West Integrate

Yang expects to see qigong and qigong massage become even more popular in the West. “Since Chinese acupuncture and medical concepts have rapidly influenced Western medicine in the last two decades, eventually qigong and qigong massage will become part of Western treatment,” he says. “This can be seen in famous medical institutions such as Harvard University, Tufts University, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which have already gotten involved in qigong treatment for patients.”


Lynda McCullough is a Colorado freelance health writer and yoga instructor. Passionate about bodywork and the movement arts, she enjoys teaching and writing about them whenever the opportunity arises. Contact her at