The Dance That Revived an Ancient Civilization

Around 2,200 B.C.E., the Great Flood of Gun-Yu devastated China...

Floodwaters polluted once-clean waterways with silty sediments, turning them murky and undrinkable. Raging storms destroyed communities... Food was scarce... And people were forced to flee their homes for higher ground – into the hills, mountains, and even the trees.

An ancient Chinese chronicle, Spring and Autumn Annals, claims that the floods caused so much suffering that, "people were depressed and their bones and muscles began to atrophy."

Then the animal dance was born.

According to Lee Holden, a modern-day instructor and trainer of this ancient tradition:

Ancient Chinese shamans, often wearing a bearskin with four golden eyes on the head, would dance through a village to drive out pestilence and demons. A parade of villagers, wearing masks of various animals, would follow.

This dance – called "dao yin," or "qigong" (pronounced "chee gong") as it became known in the late 1940s – required folks to move their limbs in a way that encouraged their energy and blood to flow. It also incorporated breathing techniques like huffing, grunting, and groaning, which removed the old air from their bodies and pulled in fresh air.

The belief was that one could achieve a long life by imitating the movements of a bear or a bird, as this would preserve the body and soul. The key feature of qigong is that the movements follow peaceful principles, such as raising the head slowly and stretching the body rhythmically.

Qigong has expanded from an ancient method of staying healthy into an entire philosophy that incorporates movement, breathwork, and intentional thought into a healing practice.  "Qi" means life-force energy and "gong" means work, thus qigong is intended to help your life-force energy work.

Today, more than 1,500 styles of movement centered around spiritual, martial, and health development fall under the category of qigong. One of which, you're likely familiar with...

Tai chi.

Around 1,100 B.C.E., tai chi was developed as a martial art. But these days, it's used widely as a health practice...

Tai chi is commonly referred to as "meditation in motion." It stresses the importance of balance and harmony in all things – physical and spiritual, yin and yang, two opposites working together to create something whole.

In tai chi, you practice the same movements again and again with intention, which stimulates your bones, heart, and other vital aspects of the body.

Studies show that some of the health benefits of practicing qigong and tai chi include:

  • Reducing stress, depression, and anxiety
  • Improving memory
  • Reducing fatigue
  • Improving sleep
  • Creating healthier joints
  • Improving balance and coordination
  • Managing pain

For instance, a June 2023 review, published in BMC Geriatrics, found that qigong and tai chi – when performed over both long and short periods of time – improved cognitive functions (like attention, problem solving, and memory) and physical functions (like balance, flexibility, and muscle strength) in seven studies that included more than 2,200 seniors.

If you're not familiar with qigong or tai chi, getting started on your own might seem intimidating. Check your local senior center for qigong and tai chi instruction. Since qigong isn't as common in the U.S., you're more likely to find tai chi classes.

And if you're interested in learning and practicing in the comfort of your living room, YouTube has a wealth of resources. Here are a few videos we've handpicked to help get you started:


Tai chi

Let us know if you're already practicing tai chi or how you get on if you're just starting out. And if you have more unique forms of exercise you want us to explore, send your suggestions to [email protected].

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 13, 2024