Fasting has been practiced in China for over 2,000 years and was referred to a “Bigu.” There is quite a difference between Western and Eastern styles of fasting as you will see from this Blog.
Chinese Bigu (避谷) for Yang Sheng
by Martin Eisen, Ph.D.
What is Bigu?
In Chinese “Bi” means to stop or avoid, and “Gu” means grain, including rice, corn or wheat. Therefore, Bigu means to avoid grain or stop eating. One of the earliest descriptions of Bigu was found in silk scrolls, from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD), discovered in tombs in Changsha, China at Mangwnagdui. The first scroll had over forty diagrams and descriptions of Dao Yin exercises. Dao Yin was an early form of Qigong, which induced, promoted and conducted Qi for health and to cure diseases. The second scroll described Bigu as “Abandoning Gu and Taking Qi”. Thus, Bigu is refraining from eating food and eating Qi instead.
In terms of degree of involvement there are two kinds of Bigu – full and partial Bigu. In Full Bigu a person drinks a small amount of water without any food. In Half Bigu there is a small intake of food like fruit, nuts, and honey – traditionally called “Fu Er Bi Gu” – fasting with a pill.
Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted for forty days. Theresa Neumann lived on one consecrated wafer a day. There are records in China and India of people who have gone without food for long periods of time.
Western fasting is different than Bigu. It cannot be continued for a long time. Eventually, the body begins to break down. In China, some people have been in a Bigu state for years. An important characteristic of the Bigu-fasting is that practitioner’s overall condition improves rather than weakens (1).
Can Bigu be explained?
Recently, western scientists have become interested in Bigu, as evidenced by over 500 participants and about 100 papers at a Bigu conference at Penn State University in 2000. However, western science cannot explain Bigu, since the body requires fat, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, vitamins, etc. found in food.
Traditional Chinese Medical theory can explain Bigu. There are different forms of Qi in the body, which have a different name depending on their function and location. Food (Gu) Qi is combined with Air (Kong) Qi to form Gathering (Zong) Qi. Under the catalytic action of Original (Yuan) Qi, Zong Qi is transformed into True (Zhen) Qi, which circulates to the internal organs and nourishes them (2). Thus, it is theoretically possible to produce Zhen Qi without or very little Gu Qi, by absorbing Qi from the universe.
More credence is given to the above theory by the experiment in (3). Results indicate that mouse hybridoma cells can survive in Dulbeco’s modified Eagles medium, without serum, or in phosphate-buffered saline buffer, without other nutrient ingredients, after Qigong master projected Qi into the cells. These results are the first evidence that a cellular equivalent of the human Bigu phenomenon can occur.
Types of Bigu
Chinese history indicates that there are many ways to achieve Bigu. Most styles of Qigong have their own method of entering a Bigu state. Many different techniques originated from the Taoist in different temples. In Taoism, the goal was to become an immortal or “Shen Xian”. Since immortals do not need to eat, the Taoist practiced Qigong to enter Bigu. Thus, another name for Bigu is Xian Tao. The Taoists believed in following nature and so ate when hungry and drank when thirsty. Thus, they did not force a Bigu state to occur.
During the Song Dynasty, some Taoists tried to use chemicals, such as mercury and lead, to become immortal. This was called “Lien Dan” “Lien” means melting or exercise. “Dan” in ancient Chinese could be interpreted as medicine for longevity. Many people died from an overdose of these chemicals. People realized that Dan is produced in the Dan Tian by Qigong practice, and not by taking chemicals and the alchemical approach ceased.
There are ancient Chinese records of herbal formulas for Bigu. Food intake was gradually curtailed and instead, herbs were taken. People achieved Bigu in ten days to a month.
Some masters recommend reducing food intake gradually. This method does not use herbs, but the person does Qigong and will be discussed in greater detail in Section 7.
The Buddhists’ ambition was to become a Buddha and they had their own form of Qigong to achieve this. The Buddhists were more forceful in using their minds. If they felt hungry in a Bigu state, they endured it until their hunger disappeared and they entered into Bigu.
Others forms of Bigu arose from Confucian, martial arts and Traditional Chinese Medicine Qigong.
To aid their students achieve a Bigu state, some masters project their own Qi to their students’ Dan Tian and stomach area to relieve and prevent hunger. However, this is usually a temporary measure and the students must still practice Qigong daily.
Another temporary aid is that the master charges water by projecting his Qi into it. The student relieves hunger by drinking the charged water.
Problems in Bigu Process
Unpleasant reactions, which can be dangerous, can result from Bigu. Not everyone has these reactions and other problems can arise. How to deal with hunger will be discussed in section.
(a) Lack of Confidence
If you are afraid to fast don’t do it or find a person whom you can absolutely trust to guide you. If during the fast, you become afraid that you will injure yourself, stop Bigu. You could also try Emotional Qigong to rid yourself of fear.
(b) Dizziness and Fainting
Dizziness and fainting are frequently experienced symptoms, especially from the first to the fifth week of fasting, due to the drop in blood pressure or blood sugar. Diabetics and people with low blood sugar or blood pressure are more likely to experience these effects. Diabetics may have to decrease their medication and should check their blood sugar. Later, blood sugar and pressure stabilize at optimal levels for the fasting person. However, fluctuations can occur.
These symptoms are usually not dangerous by themselves, but can result in damaging falls. Avoid sudden position changes from lying or sitting to standing. When rising, lean against something or support yourself and arise slowly. If you feel dizzy sit or lie down again. A good position is to lie down with your feet raised. Usually, you can sense that something is wrong before you pass out. Support yourself and put your head lower than your trunk. This maneuver can stop you from blacking out, which is caused by sudden outflow of blood from the brain.
If these symptoms persist you might to stop fasting. Consult a doctor and check your blood pressure and blood sugar level.
Pain can occur in any part of the body. It may last from a few seconds to a few days. Infrequently, the pain may last longer. Pain during Bigu can indicate that a body part is being repaired and restored to normal function. The longer the Bigu state the fewer pains should occur. However, after a few months in Bigu a headache can occur. This is often due to energetic changes, felt because of higher perceptual awareness and not physical changes.
After long periods of Bigu, organs and fat deposits may shrink, producing changes in muscle tone and the positions of organs. This can be felt and interpreted as pain, especially in the abdomen.
If sudden, excruciating pain appears, consult a doctor.
(d) Physical Weakness
If you feel weak you must judge whether it is due to discharge of toxins, inactivity or too much exercise. While toxins are being discharged, more rest and sleep may be required. Inactivity breeds tiredness and doing energizing types of exercise, like Yoga and Tai Chi, can be beneficial. However, weakness may be a sign of illness and medical advice is necessary. If weakness persists after three weeks of fasting, Bigu should be stopped.
If you drink too little liquids dehydration can occur. Symptoms of early or mild dehydration include: flushed face; extreme thirst, more than normal or unable to drink; dry, warm skin; cannot pass urine or reduced amounts, dark, yellow; dizziness made worse when you are standing; weakness; cramping in the arms and legs; few or no tears when crying; sleepy or irritable; unwell; headaches, and dry mouth, dry tongue with thick saliva.
Symptoms of moderate to severe dehydration include: low blood pressure; fainting; severe muscle contractions in the arms legs, stomach, and back; convulsions,; bloated stomach; heart failure; sunken, dry eyes, with few or no tears; skin loses its firmness and looks wrinkled; lack of elasticity of the skin (when a bit of skin lifted up stays folded and takes a long time to go back to its normal position; rapid and deep breathing, and a fast, weak pulse. In severe dehydration, these effects become more pronounced and the patient may develop evidence of hypovolemic shock, including: diminished consciousness, lack of urine output, cool moist extremities, a rapid and feeble pulse (the radial pulse may be undetectable), low or undetectable blood pressure, and peripheral cyanosis. Death follows soon if rehydration is not started quickly. After 15% – 20 % of the total body water is lost, you cannot be rehydrated.
(f) Nausea and Vomiting
These are signs that the body is ridding itself of toxins. This may indicate that you were not completely cured of some condition in the past or that you have an undiagnosed illness. Usually, don’t be concerned about these symptoms, since they stop after a few hours or less frequently, after a few days. However, if vomiting persists or contains bile or blood, consult a doctor.
(g) Weight Loss and Emaciation
Obese people usually lose more weight than thin people. However, your weight should stabilize, sometimes after a few days. The amount and rate of weight loss varies individually. Well nourished people have fasted up to seven weeks without harming their bodies. After that time, the body cannot rebuild itself and you become emaciated. Thus, if after a month, you have little energy, end Bigu, since you have not succeeded in using Qi for nutrition and try again later.
Anorexic people think they are too fat even though they are thin and should not practice Bigu until they are cured of their disease.
(h) Swelling Joints
Joints may swell, without any pain, during the first two months of Bigu. This can indicates that the joint is being repaired. The swelling usually goes down after 3 to 12 days by itself.
Another cause of swelling is drinking too much water or liquids with salt during Bigu.
(i) Emotional Instability
During Bigu pleasant and unpleasant emotions, which can be accompanied by inappropriate reactions, can appear. One reason is that Bigu not only repairs the body, but also repairs and cleanses the mind. Another reason is that the mind becomes more sensitive to stimuli. For example, a previously pleasant sound becomes annoyingly loud.
The person may feel that they have discovered the true meaning of life or that life is meaningless. These feelings may last for a long time after stopping Bigu. Emotional Qigong exercises may help.
(j) Paranormal Occurrences
Some people, especially after long periods of Bigu, receive information from higher dimensions. If they are unprepared, they can think they are mentally ill. Depending on their behavior, others can think these fasting people are mentally ill, especially if they are unfamiliar with Bigu. These abilities can persist for a long time. Affected people should familiarize themselves with the Qigong interpretation and handling of these phenomena, instead of seeking drugs and psychiatric help.
Some religions or philosophies believe in the existence of gods, spirits, ghosts, etc. People from such cultures are more prone to being possessed by, seeing, or talking to non-material beings during Bigu. These may be hallucinations resulting from toxins being eliminated from the body and will stop by themselves. However, if they are too intense, stop Bigu and try a shorter period of fasting. Sometimes the increase in paranormal abilities allows some people to see non-material beings, higher dimensions, and past and future times. Such visions may not be able to be cured. Consult an expert, who can distinguish between these two types of occurrences.
(k) Skin Changes
Skin problems are common during Bigu. These can result from past or current skin diseases or from or a new disease coinciding with Bigu, since many toxins are eliminated from the skin. Generally, these problems disappear with continued Bigu. However, if Bigu is continued when emaciation is pronounced, skin problems can indicate a disease that the immune system is too weak to handle and Bigu should be stopped.
(l) Feeling Cold
Many people feel cold even if it is warm and they are wearing warm clothes or covered by blankets. Drinking hot drinks creates a warm feeling only while you are drinking and shortly afterwards. Too many hot drinks can be a strain on your elimination system. Better approaches are energizing exercises and alternating hot and cold showers.
Feeling cold is caused by poor energy flow. Imagine breathing in white energy through every pore in your body. When you exhale the white energy cloud goes to your lower Dan Tian., where a small fire is burning, which gets brighter and warmer. Imagine the heat spreading to your body and limbs. Practicing this visualization can make you warmer.
Fever occurs when the body is fighting bacteria, viruses, etc. Drink only warm water, rest and sleep. The fever should abate after a few hours or days. For sudden, high fever consult a doctor.
(n) Hair Loss
If a thin person begins to lose hair, after a month and a half, the body might be emaciated and so Bigu should be stopped. An obese person need not worry about moderate hair loss. It usually grows back. Women are more likely to lose hair than men.
(o) Loose Teeth
During days 3 to 12 of Bigu your teeth may feel loose and the gums may ooze. This results of the body detoxifying itself. After the detoxification period, the teeth usually become tight again and even stronger than before. However, if you had gum problems, caries, or a broken filling, consult a dentist.
(p) Different World View
After a few weeks of Bigu, you may see the world differently. Things which were important before seem unimportant and vice versa. Tasks which you could do automatically before seem difficult, as if you were first learning – for example driving. Other tasks, previously difficult, seem easy. You may think that you are mentally disturbed and your friends may comment on your strange behavior. This state may last for some time, depending on the individual. Don’t worry unless you are emaciated. Use your altered view to learn.
Uses of Bigu
In ancient China, Bigu was used mainly for religious purposes and by martial artists, who went into seclusion to perfect their art and discover new methods. Food was scarce and they did not want to waste time foraging. Hence, they probably practiced Bigu. Perhaps the most famous was Bodhidharma, the patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China and the founder of Shaolin Kung Fu. He meditated for 9 years facing a wall in a cave near the Shaolin Temple in He Nan Province.
Bigu was also used by Taoism practitioners (what we called Qigong today) to preserve life energy for longevity, and to reach higher level of cultivation rapidly.
There is no record of Bigu being used to combat starvation. Teaching Bigu in third world countries, where famine exists, could save many lives.
Bigu could also be used to survive temporary food shortages. For example, land or space explorers could become lost. Soldiers could be trapped behind enemy lines or in a desert. Sailors or airmen could be lost at sea.
There is no history of Bigu being used for weight loss in ancient China. The reason might be that there were not as large a percentage obese people as in modern times. People did more physical work and ate less fattening food. Further, being overweight was considered a sign of wealth. Recently, Bigu has become popular for weight loss (4), (5); (6). You don’t have to worry about counting calories, choosing and preparing food or do strenuous exercise.
Next I will discuss some medical applications of Bigu. There are differences of opinion on its application. Some practitioners believe that Bigu should not be used for children, because they are in a period of intense growth and any shortage of nutrients may be detrimental. Adults with a weak constitution are also excluded (1) and other methods of Chinese medicine are used. Others apply Bigu for treating cancer even though such patients usually have a weakened constitution, since some improvements in their physiological state occurs during Bigu. However, Qigong and other methods are used to improve their health before Bigu.
Bigu should be investigated as a possible treatment for diabetes. One participant, described in (6), was in Bigu for forty days. She was able to decrease the amount of insulin as well as the number of injections per day. Some days she was down to one injection while teaching, performing ballet, coaching gymnastics and swimming.
Dean Ornish”s program for reversing heart disease consists of diet, stress reduction, and exercise. The diet for reversing coronary artery disease is a vegetarian diet high in complex carbohydrates, low in simple carbohydrates (e.g. sugar, concentrated sweeteners, alcohol, white flour), and very low in fat (approximately 10% of calories). Yoga (meditation, breathing and stretching) is done for stress reduction. Participants exercised aerobically a minimum of 30 minutes a day or for an hour every other day for a total of three to five hours of aerobic exercise per week. Clinical trials have shown that this program is successful (7). Although there have not been large scale, clinical trials, it seems logical that Bigu and Qigong would work, since the dietary guidelines would obviously be followed.
Preliminary results indicate that Dean Ornish’s program is also effective for treating prostate cancer (8). Hence, Bigu should also be effective. This hypothesis is reinforced by the result cited in (9). A male, aged 58, had a PSA of 11. It went up to 12 after his mother died. His urologist suspected cancer and suggested a biopsy. After practicing Bigu, his PSA was 4, which is within normal limits, and the biopsy was negative. His doctor had no western medical explanation of this result.
During the intensive qigong seminar (9), which included Bigu, the patient also lost 35 pounds and his blood pressure dropped from 220/110 with medication to 120/75 without medication (this occurred within 2 weeks). His resting pulse rate dropped from 88 beats per minute (bpm) to 68 bpm in the mornings and 55 bpm in the evening after his regular work (seeing patients) continuing throughout the evening. The edema in his legs went away. His allergy and asthma remitted even though the workshop was in the Spring—the worst time of the year for an allergy patient. These results in suggest that Bigu should be tried for hypertension, cardiovascular problems, allergy and asthma especially, since simultaneous recovery from multiple “incurable” conditions cannot be explained by any known medical theories.
Taoists thought that not having to eat was one of the steps to immortality. Some people after Bigu appear younger – their hair darkens, scars are less noticeable and their skin is softer and smoother. This not just their imagination, but Qigong and Bigu enhance the free flow of Qi or bioelectricity which improves their metabolism.
Researchers have verified many times on many different animals that calorie-restriction produces youthfulness. In 1935, Professor Clive McCay, a nutritionist at Cornell, fed laboratory rats about two-thirds of the food they would have freely chosen to eat. He discovered their life spans increased by 40 percent to 50 percent. A Russian biologist stopped feeding 1000 old hens for one week and then resumed feeding them. After a month, they began to grow new feathers and some began laying eggs again. The calorie-restricted hens lived three times longer than the fed, control group of hens (6). A diabetes researcher at the University of Maryland, Barbara Hansen, has spent 20 years investigating the effects of calorie restriction on rhesus monkeys. The old calorie-restricted monkeys did not have heart disease, diabetes, or hypertension, and their cholesterol was lower. They were healthier than the old monkeys that ate what they wanted. Researchers think that semi-starvation may make metabolic processes more efficient, producing fewer free radicals and also perhaps boosting cells’ DNA repair systems.
Besides research, Okinawans are living proof of the benefits of a calorie restricted diet. They eat 40% fewer calories than Americans and 17% fewer calories than the Japanese average, but they still maintain adequate nutrition. Okinawans also have the longest average lifespan in the world and the highest percentage of centenarians. Compared to American elders, Okinawan elders are: 75% more likely to retain cognitive ability, 80% less likely to develop breast and prostate cancer, 50% less likely to develop ovarian and colon cancers, 50% less likely to experience a hip fracture, and 80% less likely to suffer from a heart attack.
Thus, it seems plausible that Bigu will also produce youthfulness in clinical trials. It is also reported that Bigu could be used as a supplementary therapy in restraining cancer growth and build up immune system (10). However, there is generally a lack of study and evidence in this area for a clinical application. I would not recommend anyone to do Bigu on his/her own without the guidance of a professional and experienced instructor.
A Bigu conference was held in Sept. 2000. The conference report can be found in (11) and the program and papers in (12). More research on the mechanisms and the reliable medical applications of Bigu technique are warranted.
A westernized form of Bigu is practiced by Breatharians. This is described in (13) which also contains a detailed, downloadable e-book.
Wang JJ. Thorough Clinical Experiment on Bigu-fasting, http://hanlin.hit.bg/bigu_eng.htm.
Giovanni, M. Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists, Churchill Livingstone, 1997.
Yan, X., Traynor-Kaplan, A., Li, H., Wang, J., Shen, H.; Xia, Z. Studies on the Fundamental Theory of Bigu (Food Abstinence)—Preliminary Experimental Observations of Cellular Bigu, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 22 (5), 392-396 (2002).
Gao, G. Utilizing the Innate Self-regulatory and Self-healing Capacity on Weight Management, 1999 ISSSEEM Conference in Boulder, Co, 1999.
Gao, G. Bigu and Weight Loss: Qi as a Food Source, Second World Congress on Qigong, San Francisco, CA, November 1997, and Kung Fu/Qigong Magazine, November 1998.
Tam, T. Pi Gu – The Way of Qigong Fasting, Oriental Culture Institute Press, 1998.
Ornish, D. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease: The Only System Scientifically Proven to Reverse Heart Disease without Drugs or Surgery, Ivy Books, 1995.
Ornish, D. et al. Intensive lifestyle changes may affect the progression of prostate cancer, J. of Urology, vol. 174, 1006- 1070, 2006.
Chen, K. and Turner, F. A case study of simultaneous recovery from multiple physical symptoms with medical qigonq therapy, J. Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol. 10, 2004.
He B. and Chen K. Integrative tumor board: advanced breast cancer — Qigong analysis, Integrative Cancer Care, 1(2): 200-202.
Werdin, J.M. http://breatharian.info/
Dr. Eisen is a retired scientist, who constructed mathematical models in medicine. He has studied and taught Judo, Shotokan Karate, Aikido, Qigong, Praying Mantis Kung Fu, and Tai Chi in different places. He took correspondence courses in Chinese herbology and studied other branches of Chinese medicine with a traditional Chinese medical doctor. He was the Director of Education of the Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Institute in Upper Darby, P.A.