In the hunt for the common ancestor of yoga and qigong, one discovers that unlike its progenies, it existed in a form that has long vanished in the sands of time and remains buried beneath layers of foreign invasions. I know the disciplines of yoga and qigong quite well, yet nonetheless the search for their common ancestor drives me deep into ancient texts, old forgotten sutras and temple dancing figures, all of which are relics derived from this single source. Over days, months and years I continue to pursue this form -- these sacred movements and postures -- no longer found within any living tradition.
What is the origin of yoga, or more specifically of hatha yoga, the physical/mental cultivation of the spiritual path of yoga? The root of yoga is the Sanskrit word yuj, which suggests a discipline of binding -- to "yoke" one's habitual conditioning in order to liberate the practitioner from the bondage of greed, fear, obsession and indolence. The core of Indian spirituality is propelled by four dynamic concepts: karma (causality), maya (illusory existence), nirvana (liberation), and yoga (cultivation). It is at this juncture that we face a real danger of getting lost on our way down this dark, ancient, subterranean passageway of Indian culture and religion. For this exploration, it suffices to know that yoga is one of the four pillars of Indian spirituality, the concrete cultivation and practice that can lead one toward nirvana, liberation and spiritual enlightenment.
At this point, we must cross over a continent into yet another antiquity, China circa 500 AD during the Tang dynasty. A traveler would have been impressed and overwhelm by China's civilization with its great cultural refinements, the flowering of all aspects of scientific, social and economic development. One can surmise that the Buddhist mendicant monk, Bodhidharma, must have felt a sense of utter bewilderment, as he came from the relatively rural society of ancient India. Bodhidharma had a vision that he would be the one to bring Buddhism into China, the Middle Kingdom. Bodhidharma was like most well-educated upper-class Indians and he was also a prince of a small neighborhood kingdom; thus, we can deduce that he was probably educated in the four basic pillars of yoga. According to unofficial anecdotes, by virtue of his yogic accomplishment he was able to cross the Yellow River by treading on a single reed stalk. Furthermore, according to the same legend, when this Indian monk arrived at the Shaolin monastery, he was shocked by the state of decline and the weakened physical state of the monastic brotherhood as most of them fell asleep during his sermon on the transcendental heart-to-heart instantaneous enlightenment of the Ch'an Buddhist teaching. Thus, Bodhidharma decided to teach yoga to the monks in order to strengthen and develop the vitality necessary for their spiritual cultivation. Within the next century, his yoga was then absorbed and integrated into the Chinese indigenous form of physical/mental practice, qigong.
Yogic asana Spinal Twist, contrasted with the qigong posture Tiger Gazing Back: Notice that in both these postures there is a common spinal twist. Hence, both have a strengthening effect upon the core muscle group of the spinal column and would improve one's core strength.
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