"His forearms would have made Popeye jealous. At sixty, his skin was taut. His shaven head had multiple scars. Above and beyond his apparent physical strength, this man possessed an aura of confidence and calm defiance -- Buddhist Monk and man of steel combined. He looked as though he could meditate peacefully for hours after eating a box of nails."

-- From "Encounters with Qi: Exploring Chinese Medicine" By David Eisenberg, M.D. with Thomas Wright

Meet a modern day Qi Gong (pronounced "chee gong") Master. If he sounds like a cross between Star Wars guru Obi Wan-Kenobi and a character out of the old Kung Fu television series, that's appropriate. This real-life adherent of an ancient martial arts technique purports to have mental control over numerous internal bodily systems -- the immune system, for one -- that he says helps him fight various diseases, including cancer.

Moreover, there's enough anecdotal evidence that Qi Gong can help its practitioners combat illness to intrigue sophisticated Western medical scientists, like Harvard University's Dr. Herbert Benson, to begin investigating the martial art as an alternative form of medical care.

At 3,000 years of age, Qi Gong is the oldest martial art, predating such other techniques as Tai Ji Quan, Kung Fu (or Wu Shu) and Tai Kwan Do. The philosopher Confucious is just one of the many people said to have practiced Qi Gong.

The literal translation of Qi Gong is "breathing skill," explains Dr. David Eisenberg, a medical fellow in Benson's lab who is co-author of a new book on Qi Gong called "Encounters with Qi: Exploring Chinese Medicine." (W.W. Norton & Co.; $16.95). Thus, in addition to practicing flowing physical movements, students of this ancient discipline learn complicated rhythmic breathing patterns that require control from the diaphragm, chest wall, throat, tongue and nasal passages.

The premise of Qi Gong relates to something very simple: "Qi" is a life force that the Chinese believe courses through all of us.

"Qi . . . differentiates life from death, animate from inanimate. To live is to have Qi in every part of your body. To die is to be a body without Qi. For health to be maintained there must be a balance of Qi, neither too much, nor too little. There are three origins of Qi. There is the 'originial Qi' that portion of Qi transmitted from your parents to you. This Qi is unique, yours from the moment of conception. But, it is finite, and over time is used up little by little. The second source of Qi is 'nutritional' meaning Qi extracted from the food you eat. It is constantly being utilized and replenished. The third is 'air Qi,' the Qi extracted from the air you breath. It too is used and replenished."

Encounters with Qi

When Qi Gong students have mastered the art of breathing and the circular flowing physical movements, they are taught to focus their Qi "life force" at a spot near the center of the body.

"This point, located roughly two inches below the naval and deep within the pelvis, is named the dan tian, or vital center," Eisenberg explains. As students become more skilled, they should feel warmth at the vital center. This is supposedly the Qi. Further practice purportedly perfects the practioner's ability to direct Qi to other parts of the body. The entire process takes about one to three months to learn.

Chinese scientists began investigating some of the professed healing qualities of Qi Gong in the early 1950's, Eisenberg says. But during the cultural revolution, this ancient technique fell from favor and has only really re-emerged in the last five years.

Today interest in Qi Gong is exploding. Some 10 million Chinese practice this martial art daily at dawn for such diverse reasons as preventive medicine to treating various maladies including asthma, peptic ulcer disease, arthritis, neurological disorders, high blood pressure and even fatal cancers.

The idea of Qi Gong encompasses both acupuncture and herbal medicine. Chinese acupuncturists seek to unblock the Qi, which results in healing. Herbalists prepare potions tailor-made to help regulate a patient's Qi since, they believe that Qi sometimes can flow too strongly and must be controlled.

Other mainstays of the Qi style of medicine include taking pulses from six different points on the wrist, rather than the traditional single point used in the United States. Chinese doctors also pay careful attention to the appearance of the tongue -- an important organ in the body often overlooked in the West, yet one involved with the immune system. Finally, there is acupressure -- a type of massage that uses the same pressure points as acupuncture.

"Imagine how the doctor-patient relationship would improve if Western internists and pediatricians gave their patients a therapeutic massage along with a physical examination," proposes Eisenberg in his book.

Personal practice of Qi Gong, itself, includes aerobic, isometric and isotonic exercise. It also uses the relaxation response, meditation, guided imagery and even, says Eisenberg, "several other behavioral techniques, as yet undiscovered by Western medicine."

Which brings us back to the Qi Gong Masters. These mystical characters study Qi Gong for years, perfecting their control over various muscles. There's no question that they can perform some fairly amazing physical feats, including breaking open rocks with their skulls.

Eisenberg describes how he watched one Qi Gong master swallow two iron balls, each about two and half inches in diameter and weighing about one and half pounds. After feeling for the balls in the Qi Gong Master's stomach, Eisenberg watched as the man brought the balls back up against gravity and spit them at his feet.

The Yin and Yang philosophy says that everything in the universe, including man, consists of five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water . . . According to Chinese Medicine, a balance of Yin and Yang results in health; an imbalance leads to disease."

Encounters with Qi

Even the investigation of Qi Gong plays out a kind of yin and yang of the modern world. There's the skeptical western scientist who insists on seeing cold, hard data before believing anything versus the traditional far eastern scientist who takes Qi Gong as a given based on a 3,000 year track record.

But the two groups are also meeting halfway. In the United States various teams of medical investigators are busy dissecting the mind-body interconnection and the role it plays in disease. Known by the unwieldy titles of psychoneuroimmunology and neuroimmunodulation, these new fields are bringing together multiple disciplines to study such things as how stress affects disease and what role emotions might play in treating illness.

These new investigations resemble Qi Gong tenets which Eisenberg says have long claimed that "the human psyche influences susceptibility to disease and the natural course of illness."

One western scientist currently studying Qi Gong is Dr. Herbert Benson, director of the Boston Beth Israel Hospital's Division of Behavioral Medicine and author of "The Relaxation Response," a book that has become a Bible for physicians and patients interested in controlling the stress that often worsens illness.

"Without question this is worth exploring," says Benson who traveled to China to observe Qi Gong practitioners.

Benson believes that this ancient martial arts technique is one of many practices (including meditation and prayer) which produce the relaxation response. Among the physical changes associated with these practices: slower breathing, reduced heart rate, and lowered blood pressure.

But whether Qi Gong will be the answer, as the Chinese believe, to a multitude of diseases is still not clear. "This alleged bodily force has not been proven by Western medical science," Benson cautions. "That type of work has yet to be verified."

"In a balanced lifestyle . . . the mind, the body and the external environment are constantly influencing one another. By neglecting one, you neglect all."

Encounters with Qi

What happens if rigorous western scientific investigation -- meaning controlled studies -- can show that the practice of Qi Gong stands up to scrutiny? What if it can decrease symptoms and disease and help practitioners live longer? In that case, Eisenberg says, western investigators are going to want to know how it works.

"Is it the belief in the practice of Qi Gong -- what we in the West would call the placebo effect -- or is it the practice itself that directly alters health status?" he asks. "If it is the practice of Qi Gong directly, the next question will be which elements of this practice play a crucial role."

It may be Qi Gong's combination of all these behavioral techniques -- such as breathing, relaxation, guided imagery, exercise -- which could be health promoting. Perhaps together, they can alter the body's physiology -- especially Eisenberg proposes -- the important immune system and thus "influence the natural course of illness."

"The art of healing is thousands of years old. The science of healing is still in the process of being born."