Michael Davies on the benefits of the gentle exercise known as Jiangan – The Chinese Health Wand

Michael Davies is a senior instructor with the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain. He has been practising Chinese internal arts for over 30 years and teaching Tai Chi Chuan for 13 years. He runs a Tai Chi club with regular classes, workshops and seminars in Tai Chi, Qigong and Jiangan. He lives in Hertfordshire, UK.

Here, Michael answers some questions about his new book, Jiangan – The Chinese Health Wand.

Video: Click to see Jiangan in action!


When did you first come across the Chinese health wand?

I saw it performed by an elderly Chinese man while on holiday in Malaysia in 1982, then later read a copy of the book by Bruce L. Johnson, the man who discovered the system in Shanghai in 1945. I had only just begun learning Tai Chi, which I took up mainly for the martial and meditation aspects. So although I was intrigued by the ‘Chinese Wand’ I was not sufficiently motivated to study it at that time. It was thirty years later, after working in an office and experiencing a sedentary lifestyle for much of that time, that I become more interested in the health aspects of Asian arts. I had become a Tai Chi instructor but felt that there were areas of conditioning and fitness that even this Chinese treasure was lacking. I decided to revisit Johnson’s book and experiment with the exercises, and was so impressed that I wrote this book.

What does Jiangan mean?

In Chinese (pin-yin) ‘Jian’ means health and ‘Gan’ means pole or wand. Jiangan can therefore be translated as ‘Health Wand’. Although there is no direct mention of Jiangan in Chinese written records, such exercises have been traditionally passed down from teacher to student orally for many generations. Dr Cheng, the Chinese Grandmaster who taught Bruce Johnson, claimed that the art was as old as Yoga and Qigong. But unlike other Asian mind-body systems that developed health aspects as by-products of spiritual advancement (Yoga), martial skill (Tai Chi) or healing specific illnesses (Qigong), Jiangan was specifically devised as a daily health and fitness maintenance routine for the gentry and imperial family who had unique health problems caused by their sedentary lifestyle. So for this purpose only the exercises evolved, the less effective and less safe exercises being replaced by more potent and safer exercises through countless generations. This makes it a scientific and comprehensive daily work-out.

Did you find Jiangan easy to learn, and have you found that the practice has expanded over the years?

It is very easy to learn but deceptively so. It possesses hidden subtleties and can be as simple or as challenging as you like. People tend to start practising physically but when the body adjusts there is less need for physical exertion. Eventually you realise that it is very much an internal exercise and you focus more on the deep diagrammatic breathing and develop a meditative frame of mind which greatly enhances your practice. The book takes the reader through the exercises in great detail and suggests traditional mental imagery based on the Chinese element system which helps to link the physical movement to spiritual concepts.

What are the health benefits, and how long each day do you need to practice?

The benefits include a sense of well-being, a clear tranquil mind, deep restorative sleep, increased energy, sexual vitality and fertility, increased circulation, clear skin, more efficient metabolism and improved digestion. But in addition Jiangan stretches and strengthens the physical body and is capable of delivering body-shaping results associated with vigorous gym workouts. It is therefore a holistic internal-external exercise. Many people separate health and fitness but Jiangan regards both as the same. Although there is stretching and strengthening similar to Western exercises these are performed in the style and spirit of a Tai Chi or Qigong routine. We approach stretches in gradual stages, always returning to the beginning posture with each breath and not holding a stretch for longer than a breath. Every movement is cyclic, gradual and gentle. So physical goals can be achieved at the same time as ‘internal cultivation’ because they are both part of the holistic joining of mind and body. Perhaps the systems’ most crucial contribution to health is its capacity to improve posture and help with a whole range of back, shoulder, and neck problems.

Twenty minutes a day is adequate to avail oneself of the many health benefits.


VIDEO: Michael Davies demonstrates some Jiangan exercises.

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Is this a purely ‘health’ practice or does it, like other Chinese energetic movement forms, carry within it a deeper spiritual practice?

The unique esoteric aspects of the art are based on Chinese traditional medicine and more obscure ancient practices, particularly involving the Gan itself. I discovered that the length that Johnson and Grandmaster Cheng specified for the Gan is approximately a ‘Golden Ratio’ longer than the length of an average person’s arm, which is probably the basis of the intriguing esoteric principles surrounding the Gan (‘Wand’ is an apt, rather magical term). Holding the Gan at each end – one hand considered ‘Yin’ and the other ‘Yang’ respectively – may relate back to the Healing Rods of ancient Egypt. Continuing with the Egyptian theme, this wide grip creates a symbolic pyramid shape with the body. As we continually circulate Qi around this ‘pyramid’ its vertex or tip repeatedly focusses on and stimulates the body’s two ‘polarity points’; the Yang (Baihui) on the crown of the head and the Yin (Huiyin) at base of the spine. This process relates to the important Chakra centres of Yoga and can also be seen as a simplified way to perform the ‘Microcosmic Orbit Meditation’ of Taoist alchemy. The ‘Yin-Yang’ concept is also an important influence on body mechanics. In most exercises the Gan acts as a fulcrum or lever. In many of the exercises, one part of the body is motionless (Yin) while another part is in motion (Yang). This creates a resistance that causes beneficial stretches and also massages internal organs. It is a methodology in stark contrast to Tai Chi where all the body moves as one unit.

Why do you think it is not very well known?

Bruce Johnson said that Dr Cheng was the last Chinese Grandmaster. When he introduced it to the West in the 1950’s there was little enthusiasm for Asian arts. By the time Tai Chi and Qigong became popular Johnson had given up teaching for religious reasons. The art was left behind. Though a few people kept it alive using Johnson’s out-of-print book as a reference point. But the internal, philosophical side of the art was not being taught. In recent years it seems to have been relegated to the role of a ‘quirky physical exercise with a stick’.

Using my experience in Chinese internal arts I wanted to rediscover the internal philosophy and present the art as originally intended so that a new generation can reap the health benefits. In fact, it was the way Jiangan effects the physical body that was the catalyst for writing the book. Even though I had been practising Tai Chi for over thirty years, like many men my age I had developed a middle-aged spread. There seems to be a consensus amongst Tai Chi and Qigong practitioners that it is possible to have a middle-age spread and still be healthy and to regard exercises that focus on physical improvement as somehow inferior and cosmetic. But an expanding waistband is often a sign that visceral fat – the fat that sits around the major organs and linked to diabetes and heart disease – is accumulating in the body. After practising Jiangan for several weeks my middle-ages spread was gone and I felt fitter, leaner and stronger, more supple than I had for years. I hope that my book will be particularly useful to people attracted to internal Chinese health but who also need to reduce weight and keep fit.

How does this practice fit within the Chinese martial arts tradition, and how might you integrate it with martial arts practice?

Jiangan is not a martial art and there is no evidence that it evolved from martial techniques. However, the dimensions of the Gan itself is approximately the same as the Chinese short staff (sometimes called the ‘Gun’ or ‘whip staff”) used for some martial forms.

It is a complete and integrated warm-up, a stretching, strengthening and Qigong-energy type practice that can be utilised to support any martial art training. It enriches training sessions and makes them more effective.

Now that the book is published, what is your next challenge?

I would like the art to become better known and more widely practised – particularly in the areas where it’s unique qualities can make a significant contribution, such as tackling obesity and weight-loss – especially in seniors and helping sedentary people overcome problems associated with their lifestyles. As it is simple to learn there is great opportunity for a wide range of people to teach themselves without long-term commitment to lessons or classes. Johnson wanted his own book to be in every nursing home, every hospital, every physical therapy room, every doctor’s office. I would like to see Jiangan practised by workers in offices and factories to increase productivity and the health of the workforce. I would also like to see it practised in schools and colleges, where it could not only help maintain student’s physical fitness but also be an accessible introduction to Chinese internal arts.

Copyright © Singing Dragon 2011.

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13 Responses

  1. Sue July 26, 2011 / 3:17 pm

    Very interesting, and some moves quite similar to some stick exercises we sometimes do in class. My folk would not all able to do the more difficult ones of your set though, and also because of where the class is held the floor based moves would be out. Would it be feasible to cherry pick the exercises that the class would be able to learn,even though this obviously wouldn’t be a complete workout? It might be interesting to add some of these to the ones sometimes do already.

  2. Michael August 11, 2011 / 6:07 am

    Thanks for you comments and interest.

    With the more difficult exercises, the graduated stages method in most cases enables the elderly, infirm or obese to practice safely, even if many of them will only be able to the first stage or simply assume the start position with the breathing.

    However, if someone has problems getting into even the starting posture of some postures- particularly the floor exercises – I recommend going through the first 5 exercises of the routine – in the correct order. These 5 standing exercises give a good general range-of-motion and breathing workout.

    Where possible, everyone else should practice the 17 exercises in the correct order to get the best effects, as the accumulative effect of the routine is greater than the `sum of its parts’.

    Regards,

    Michael

  3. Gill Myer January 7, 2012 / 11:35 am

    Thank you for sharing this video, This looks beautiful and gentle and I would like to find a teacher/practitioner in the exeter or devon/somerset area in the UK. Do you know of anyone who is teaching this in this area ? or do you have or know of an instructional dvd ?

    Also I loved the music in your video so meditative and soothing – is it possible to find a dvd with this music on or can you direct me to a website with similar music ?

    I would be most grateful for any information or advice about this

    kind regards

    Gill

  4. Michael Davies April 10, 2012 / 12:52 pm

    Dear Gill,
    thank you for you remarks,

    The music on the video is part of an album called “Music for Moving Meditation” which I wrote especially for these exercises. It is available on Amazon as a download but unfortunately not an audio CD. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0036JHIMU. If you require more information on new age music please check my website http://michaeldavies.org.uk

    I do intend to produce a DVD some time this year (2012) and I am encouraging groups to practice this routine all the time. There is nobody in your area at present but please check the website regularity for updates on this, and register for newsletter if you can (http://Jiangan.org).
    Regards,
    Michael

  5. Maria March 1, 2013 / 12:46 am

    Hi Michael
    I picked up a copy of your book just a few days ago and have been working my way up the exercises (just at exercise 8 actually!). I fall into a deep sleep everynight! Writing to ask if the DVD is available?

    Cheers

  6. coffee April 9, 2013 / 12:12 pm

    Hi, thanks for sharing.

  7. Harry Westcott June 5, 2013 / 4:34 pm

    This site has been an eye-opener for me. For five years I’ve been participating in Chinese Wand and last winter i filled in as a leader in Wand sessions, 40 minutes, three times a week. After seeing this web site, I became aware that it would be more beneficial to do 20-30 minutes daily. Also, I approached it more like a drill sergeant leading calesthentics than the more mystical, contempative session with controlled breathing. I need to rethink my approach. Thanks for the insight. Harry

  8. Kevin Garwood September 20, 2013 / 1:50 pm

    Hi, Could l ask about courses you hopefully run on the chinese wand exercises,if you do have some arranged could l please have dates,cost,times and venues,thank you. Kevin Garwood

  9. John C. Smith November 23, 2014 / 8:52 pm

    HI Michael
    I’m an Englishman living in California for the past twenty years. I have studied many forms of Qigong but Your wand system is now my choice of exercise. I want to congratulate you on bringing this to the publics attention. Your humility and compassion is something we should all strive for as teachers. Thank you for everything you do. I would like to share your work with people here. I’m interested like you to do everything I can to make helpful systems such as the Chinese Wands available to the public not for personal gain but because this planet is in need of healing. I’m very grateful to you and the great integrity you show in teaching this wonderful system.

  10. Christine Bucher June 28, 2015 / 2:40 pm

    Dear Michael, thank you for picking up and carrying the torch of Chinese wand exercises. It seems to me that the description of Twisting the Snake in Bruce L Johnston’s book describes rotation in a single direction only, whereas the description in your book describes rotation in both directions. Is there a reason for this?

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