The Immortal Soul of the Taoist Adept
Daoism,  Neigong

What is the difference between Qigong 气功, Neigong 内功, and Neidan 内丹?


We should be wary of narrow definitions of these terms applied broadly as they can refer to many things and can often overlap or be interchangeable in many contexts. “Neigong” and “Qigong” are basically synonymous and are umbrella terms for a wide range of energetic practices that cultivate the “post-heaven” qi 氣 (houtian zhi qi 后天之气) of the body. From what I have seen, these two terms seem to be treated synonymously in many, if not most, Chinese internal arts circles, although Western internal arts circles are increasingly distinguishing them in specific ways.

Neidan differs in that it is a specific (yet still vast) genre of practice that seeks to “alchemically” transform the practitioner, ultimately aiming at spiritual immortality, i.e. a state of purity and perfection that is an expression of the Dao itself. It does this through practices that aim to work with “pre-heaven” qi 炁 (xiantian zhi qi 先天之气) as opposed to post-heaven qi 氣, and therefore necessarily involves deep states of stillness (靜) most realistically attainable in lengthy sessions of seated meditation practice.

What is the difference between Qigong, Neigong, and Neidan? This is a common question because all three terms can refer to a wide range of practices associated with the Chinese internal arts and with plenty of overlap. This can include many things, from various dynamic practices such as daoyin, to breathwork, standing meditation, seated meditation, or lying meditation practices among other things. 

First off, it is important to note that all three of these terms can be fairly broad and will vary depending on the context (perhaps neidan being the most narrowly defined of the three). So I would caution against making overly specific definitions for any of these terms appear as a sweeping generalization that should apply across the board as this will almost alway be proven to be wrong in many circumstances. The increasing tendency to distinguish “neigong” from “qigong” in the West may have some usefulness, but it could also create a disconnect with the way the terms are used by the practitioners and masters in China from which these traditions came. 

Neigong (内功): the term “neigong” is an older term than “qigong” and is a very broad term. It might be translated as “inner work,” “inner skill,” “inner practice,” or “inner power.” Its early usage was probably in a martial context, defined to contrast with the opposing term waigong (外功), meaning “external” skill or practice. Waigong would refer to the more “physical” modes of training the body, i.e. training the fascia, tendons, muscles, bones, etc. On the other hand, neigong would involve practices geared more towards energetic cultivation and meditation, with greater emphasis on the breath, mental focus/concentration, qi circulation, etc. Another way “neigong”  may be used, since “nei” means “inner” or “interior” would be as a term to refer to “indoor practices,” i.e. the more closely-guarded practices that only “indoor” students of a lineage are taught. 

Generally speaking, neigong can involve any variety of static or dynamic practices focused on the development of the body’s energetic system, each of the three dantian (“elixir fields”), and/or the meridian systems (especially the Ren and Du meridians that form the Microcosmic Orbit), but may also include practices geared towards the more subtle aspects of one’s being such as shen (神)/consciousness via practices which are more conductive to deeper levels of stillness (静). Of the more physically involved practices, special note might be given to those that work directly to enhance a dantian or the meridian systems by way of compression techniques (e.g. reverse breathing) or by working the physical correlate of the meridian system: the connective tissues (“tendons”) of the body, as in Yijinjing-style practices. These are some common features, but not meant to be exhaustive.  

Qigong (气功): the term “qigong” is a newer term that really only came into widespread use during and after the 1980’s “Qigong Fever” in China. It generally translates as “qi work” or “qi skill” and can refer both to practices themselves or the results of practice, i.e. you can both “practice qigong” and “have qigong.” Qigong can be described in basically the same way as neigong (above) as it is just another umbrella term for a wide variety of energetic practices which work on developing oneself by working with qi via the meridians and dantians as well as other aspects of the body-mind. The main difference between “qigong” and “neigong” is in connotation and cultural context, despite more recent attempts to distinguish the terms in the West, more on that below. 

Neidan (内丹): the term “neidan” means “inner alchemy” or “inner elixir” and was defined as a contrasting term to “waidan” (外丹) which referred to the older tradition of “outer alchemy” that involved the actual concoction of various substances (sometimes toxic) to create a literal pill that could be consumed in the pursuit of immortality.

It’s important to note that there are many different neidan lineages and neidan also evolved significantly throughout history, so it is impossible to make a brief statement that encapsulates all of neidan, however, an attempt will be made here at some generalizations to distinguish it from the other two terms.  

Neidan can be seen as a genre of meditative and auxiliary practices that serve as an important tool within the greater context of Daoist cultivation. Whereas neigong and qigong tend to be more associated with health, longevity, and the development of various physical states and abilities, neidan goes deeper and gets into what might be called a more spiritual territory. For this reason, it becomes increasingly important for a practitioner to work on the development of positive moral qualities and the cultivation of virtue (de 德) as a foundation and prerequisite before attaining to higher levels neidan of practice. 

Neidan makes use of various Chinese philosophical concepts such as yin and yang, the trigrams and hexagrams of the Book of Changes (Yijing 易經), the Five Phases (Wu Xing 五行), correlative cosmology, and more to arrive at a system that takes the literal process of the alchemical transmutation of minerals and metals from the practices of waidan in a symbolic way, applied to energetic processes within the practitioner’s body-mind to progress through a stage-based process that ultimately transmutes and transforms one’s very being into a state that transcends mundane reality. Described in many ways throughout Daoist literature, the practitioner ultimately aims at attaining a state of spiritual immortality in which they exist as a perfected expression of the Dao itself, transcending the karmic chains of cause and effect that bound them to cyclic rebirth. Put another way, the practitioner aims at cultivating a body-mind that is Pure Yang, purely celestial, and has no linkages to desire, no attachments to the senses. The culmination of neidan can be described as a “reversion to the origin” huanyuan 還元 allowing adepts to transcend all modes of space and time. Especially as Daoism merged with Buddhism and Confucianism in more recent historical periods, this end goal of Daoist cultivation could be likened to certain conceptions of Buddhist enlightenment.

Another way of looking at the difference between neidan and neigong/qigong is that the neidan practitioner aims at developing a different kind of qi (), a more primordial or “pre-heaven” type of qi that is more rarefied, subtle, pure, and closer to the actual Dao itself. Whereas, loosely speaking, neigong/qigong is mostly working with “post-heaven” qi (), the more coarse qi circulating in our physical bodies, which can lead us to greater vitality, health, and stability. Practically speaking, the way that neidan practice connects with this pre-heaven qi is through the attainment of deep states of stillness (靜), which then leads to clarity (清). The type of stillness required here pretty much necessitates long sessions of seated practice, as it is simply too difficult to attain in the standing or moving practices that often are associated with neigong/qigong. So the core of neidan practice is often associated more so with seated practice, although other types of supplementary practices are sometimes lumped in, especially if they directly support the objectives of the neidan practice as a whole. 

Usage of the terms in China

Strictly speaking, neigong and qigong can be considered synonyms. The term neigong can be broad enough to include neidan within it, but I haven’t seen it used that way often. This doesn’t mean that certain groups and lineages may not define the various terms differently and in more specific ways. So far though, I can’t think of a single Chinese neigong/qigong master that I have met (or even know of for that matter) that doesn’t more or less use the terms “neigong” and “qigong” interchangeably. On the other hand, in the Chinese internal arts circles, what I have often seen is the distinction between “qigong” and “neidan” being made, usually by groups of neidan practitioners, as a common misconception is that qigong practices can lead to the deep states of spiritual development achievable via neidan. 

Usage of the terms in the West

In the West there has been an increasing tendency to distinguish “qigong” from “neigong,” and not a whole lot of exposure to or understanding of neidan. Loosely speaking, in the West neigong is starting to be defined as a sort of “more serious” qigong. As far as I can tell, this is because qigong, has become quite mainstream, and so not surprisingly there are many watered-down versions of it. So the term “neigong” is now getting co-opted to distinguish the more “legit” and powerful practices that have tended to be more closely guarded as “indoor” to certain lineages. These would be the practices that make use of the Yijinjing principles which deeply develop every inch of the body-mind complex, compressing loads of qi into the lower dantian, enlarging the meridians, and leading to the attainment of abilities that might be described as “powers.” Qigong is then reserved for the “lighter stuff” that is just moving qi around, harmonizing the body’s energetic system, and promoting a state of energetic free-flow that leads to a base state of health and well-being. 

To the extent that this evolution in terminology can be useful, perhaps it is a welcome development. I only caution that we should be mindful that in reality these terms have always been complex, broad, and overlapping, and that I have yet to see this distinction between “neigong” and “qigong” expounded by any of the neigong/qigong masters in China through which these traditions came. So, perhaps this use of the terms is here to stay in our Western circles, but we should be mindful when interacting with other groups, especially in China, and know that if we were to one day insist to someone that “No, I don’t practice qigong, I practice neigong!” that we might be met with a confused gaze.