[Home] [Therapies]


Qigong: Chinese Energy Healing for Physical Disability

Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

With origins in Traditional Chinese Medicine, qigong is a popular alternative medicine healing tradition that has considerable relevance for individuals with physical disability, including spinal cord injury (SCI), multiple sclerosis (MS), and post polio syndrome.

qigong for spinal cord injury (SCI), multiple sclerosis (MS), post polio syndrome According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, a life-force energy called qi permeates all living things. Good health requires an ample and flowing supply of qi (also chi, pronounced “chee”). 

Depleted by the demands of daily living, qi is naturally replenished through breathing, eating, and closeness to nature; it is deliberately enhanced by meditation, qigong, tai chi, and other principles of traditional Chinese medicine, such as acupuncture.  When qi is consistently diminished, out of balance, or polluted, sickness ensues; its absence means death.

Unfortunately, in people with a physical disability, qi can stagnate and become unbalanced, increasing the likelihood of illness. Therefore, it is especially important for these individuals to stimulate qi flow.


Influenced by a variety of Eastern spiritual philosophies over its 5,000-year history, qigong (pronounced “chee gung”) evolved to include medical, martial arts, spiritual, and, recently, business applications. China’s current Communist government has been ambivalent toward qigong, sometimes encouraging it as a valuable home-grown healing tradition, and at other times viewing it as a counter-revolutionary vestige of the past. Because spiritual movements often force social change, the Chinese government recently cracked down on a form of qigong (falun gong) that stresses qigong’s spiritual components.

Qigong-related practices encompass gentle movements, breathing, and meditative practices. According to author Kenneth Cohen, qigong “means working with the life energy, learning how to control the flow and distribution of qi to improve the health and harmony of mind and body.”

It is a holistic, mind-body-spirit system of self-healing. Already one of the world’s most popular healing exercises in terms of total number of practitioners, Qigong is increasingly being embraced by health-conscious Westerners.

Most qigong practices are relatively straightforward and easily mastered. However, because many different techniques exist, this article cannot provide in-depth specifics. Readers should look at the reference books listed below.

With slight adjustments, most exercises are possible from standing, seated or prone positions, and, in the case of spinal cord dysfunction (SCD) with or without arm movement (see illustration). As such, qigong is an ideal activity for those with physical disabilities.

Key Elements:

Posture & Relaxation: Qigong’s relaxed, extended, open position enhances qi circulation. In this position, the joints are relaxed, the spine is straight and should feel long and extended, and the head feels as if it is suspended delicately over the spine. There is a sense of connection with the ground in which you feel as if your body weight is dropping or sinking through the feet.

Visualize any aspect that you can not physically do. For example, “see” a straight spine or every part of your body sinking into the wheelchair and then into the ground. Scientists have shown that thinking about a movement can cause the same neurons to fire as actually doing it. Do not force movement, but rather use intent.

Breathing Practices: Qigong stresses deep, relaxed, abdominal breathing. Although paralysis often affects respiratory muscles, when you visualize this type of breathing, the benefits of qigong will still accrue and enhance your existing breathing capability.

Gentle Movements: Qigong emphasizes gentle, relaxed movements, closely integrated with breathing. Unlike more active exercise programs that stress strength and endurance, these movements are designed to promote energy flow, stimulating one’s natural healing potential.

Self Massage: Massage stimulates qi circulation, either locally for a specific area of pain or stiffness, or at a distant location - massage of the ears, hands and feet affects the entire body.

Meditation: Meditation, deep-relaxation, and visualization processes can have profoundly beneficial effects on mental state and, in turn, physical health. According to Cohen, individuals with a physical disability should emphasize meditation.

Bob King, a 70-year old retired high-school Spanish teacher who lives in California, strongly believes that the qigong practices he learned from Cohen helped him regain function he had lost to due to post polio syndrome.

In another dramatic example, Cohen relates a poignant story about teaching a young man with a spinal cord injury a qigong meditation. Cohen states: “After ten minutes the man began to cry, exclaiming that his legs were sweating for the first time since his car accident several years earlier. He could also feel some warmth in his legs.” Cohen believes these meditations improve blood circulation and potentially repair damaged nerves.

 Dr. Roberta Trieschmann, a preeminent spinal cord injury clinical psychologist, has incorporated qigong-related elements into her practice to improve the overall health and functioning of people with a physical disability. For example, by using these practices, an incomplete quadriplegic was able reduce his devastating central cord pain; and a woman legally blind due to multiple sclerosis was able to improve her sight enough to drive and read (Disability and Rehabilitation, Vol. 21, 1999).

“Both of these individuals were massively depressed by their circumstances and had lost all hope that life could be better for them,” Dr. Treischmann says. “Yet by understanding the role of energy in their life and changing the methods of managing their energy, they have been able to produce change in their function at the physical level even though a myriad of physicians could offer no hope for any improvement in their condition.” 

Qigong Science: A Blending of East & West:

Qigong’s healing claims do not lack scientific basis. The Qigong Institute (Menlo Park, Calif.) has compiled a database of over a 1,000 scientific studies (albeit of varying scientific merit), indicating, for example, that qigong can improve blood pressure, cholesterol levels, circulation, digestion, mental health, respiration, and cancer outcomes.

Although historically dismissing Eastern-healing perspectives, many scientists are beginning to explain them through an emerging mind-body discipline called psychoneuroimmunology. This is a long word for a simple idea; basically, your emotions and psychological states affect your physical health. From a psychoneuroimmunology perspective, the qigong-induced mental states result in the release of beneficial neurological agents and hormones that strengthen one’s immune system, which, in turn, fosters physical health. For example, qigong practice stimulates endorphin release, which is associated with moods of well being or euphoria (e.g., the “runners high”); and increases levels of DHEA, a steroid hormone associated with health and youthfulness.

Although the true nature of qi can only be speculated, scientists have shown that qigong-related practices can, indeed, generate a considerable amount of electromagnetic energy. Some believe that the qigong-associated energy induces hormonal shifts, by influencing the subtle electromagnetic fields that surround humans. These fields, in turn, affect the brain’s all-important pituitary and pineal glands, which secrete key hormones that regulate the entire body. These master glands have been shown to be sensitive to electromagnetic field fluctuations.

Interestingly, a clustering of magnetic substances (called magnetite) have been found near these glands in an area corresponding to what is called the “Third Eye” in Eastern healing and spiritual traditions. These traditions believe that this “Eye” is one of the body’s most powerful energy centers – one that can be developed through qigong practice.

Consistent with ancient healing traditions’ beliefs that Earth has a special, life-sustaining relationship with man, Cohen feels that qigong exerts a healing effect by facilitating synchrony with the Earth’s resonant, electromagnetic frequency. Cohen believes that such synchrony helps mitigate modern society’s unhealthy, electromagnetic pollution (e.g., computer screens, high-power lines, cellular phones, etc.).

Due to its gentle nature, anyone can practice qigong. Because disability inherently compromises qi flow, people with physical disabilities potentially can obtain more benefit from qigong practice than able-bodied individuals.

According to Cohen, “wisdom and wellness go together.”  He adds “One cannot always expect a cure from qigong, but one can always expect some healing,” defining a cure as a “measurable physiological change and healing as improved quality of life, happiness, and self-understanding.” With this perspective, although physiological changes may be modest, improvements to quality of life may be profound.Kenneth Cohen

Meditations & Visualizations for Spinal Cord Injury and Dysfunction:

Studies show that meditation can have beneficial effects on health. For example, meditators visit doctors half as much; have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and substance abuse; and age more slowly. Many meditations involve some sort of visualization process. Qigong master Kenneth Cohen suggests that individuals with spinal cord injury or dysfunction incorporate the following spinal cord visualizations into their meditations (consult the referenced books for a more thorough overview of the meditative process):

After assuming a comfortable position, close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and feel your muscles relaxing.

Meditation 1: Visualize a small ball of luminescent, white, healing light at your lower spine. Visualize this ball cutting through from this spot to your naval.  From your naval, the ball rises up the front of your body and then goes over your head and down the back of your neck to about the C-7 cervical level.  At this level, the ball of light cuts through to the front of your body. It then loops over head again and goes down to next, lower vertebrate.  Once again, the ball of light emerges through to the front of the body and loops over the head to the next vertebrate. The cycle is repeated until the tailbone is reached.

Meditation 2: Starting at the tailbone, visualize the ball of light traveling up your back on the outside surface of your spine.  When it reaches the base of your skull, it enters the skull, circling up the inside surface of the back of your skull, around the top inside skull surface, and down the front inside surface behind your face. It then cuts over to your spine again, where it travels down the front of your spine to its bottom. At this point, visualize your spinal cord as a “hollow tube” in which the ball of light enters. The ball then travels up the back or rear of this spinal tube, and, in turn, proceeds around the inside of the skull as before. After entering the spinal cord again, the ball of light then travels down the front inside surface of the spinal tube. This represents one repetition. Do nine repetitions.


Whether explained through ancient Eastern philosophies or modern Western psychoneuroimmunology mechanisms, qigong enhances health.  In spite of different origins, Eastern and Western medicine should complement each other. They are both part of a healing spectrum, in which each element provides valid, synergistic insights. Embracing qigong or any other complementary therapy does not mean rejecting Western allopathic medicine but availing oneself of an expanded healing armamentarium.

Such integration can only benefit individuals with physical disabilities. Qi whiz!

Acknowledgments & Resources: Special thanks are given to Kenneth Cohen for assistance. For further information, consult The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing, Kenneth Cohen (Ballantine Books, 1997);  The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques to Release Your Body’s Own Medicine, Roger Jahnke (Harper San Francisco, 1997); and The magazine Qi: The Journal of Traditional Eastern Healing and Fitness (www.qi-journal.com) (lists practitioners in various areas). For further information on Kenneth Cohen’s qigong programs and video and audio tapes, call 888/373-4221 or see his web site www.qigonghealing.com.

Adapted from article appearing in Paraplegia News, January and February, 2000 (For subscriptions, contact www.pn-magazine.com).

Keep posted on new therapies, treatments, potential cures, and developments!

Sign up for Newsletter!