I felt so lucky that morning. Soft mats spread out on the dew-ridden grass, white tent shading us from the early rays of the summer sun – it had reached 43 degrees the day before, but was forecast to be a lot kinder today. I arrived at the tent just before 6:30 am, feeling privileged to be presenting an early morning qigong workshop at the 2019 Wise Women’s Gathering. A group of four or five early birds arrived by 6:30 to begin the class, following the soft, gentle movements that typify this practice, with others gradually joining in as the session continued. With my own eyes closed for much of the time, I was pleasantly taken aback to see the class had grown to more than 20 by the workshop’s end, and could no longer fit under the tent!
Qigong (pronounced ‘chee goong’) has its roots in ancient China, where thousands of different movements and forms were developed over thousands of years. The word ‘qigong’ means to cultivate energy (literally translated as ‘energy work’). Every single thing in the universe is, at its deepest and purest level, a form of energy. This means that we ourselves are a form of energy, and that through practising qigong we can work with, or cultivate, our energy.
Some qigong practices seek to build our energy levels, while others improve the functioning of our energy – that is, how well it works and how smoothly it moves through the body. The gentle, relaxed movements of qigong help circulate energy throughout the body, breaking up any blockages or stagnant energy. These commonly occur in the joints, and in areas that hold a lot of stress and tension – such as the shoulders, neck and lower back. By helping to circulate energy through these areas, qigong can help to reduce pain and enable the body to become more supple.
The practice of qigong can also be described as meditation or mindfulness in motion. Like tai chi – which is actually a form of qigong – yoga, mindfulness and traditional meditation practices, qigong seeks to develop our present-moment awareness. That is, being solely in the ‘now’: thinking not of the past or the future, but being fully aware and mindful of the body in the present moment. The traditional names of the movements, such as Waving Hands Like Clouds, Balancing Yin-Yang, Gathering from Heaven and Earth, Sun and Moon Turning, Catching the Stars and Phoenix Rises from the Ashes, evoke a sense of meditative calmness and connection to the universal energy.
When we practise qigong mindfully and enter a state of deep relaxation, the chemistry of our bodies measurably changes. The levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, drop. At the same time, the levels of feel-good, health-giving hormones, such as serotonin and oxytocin, increase. The immune system is given a boost as the lymph fluid is pumped more efficiently around the body, and oxygen and nutrient-rich blood circulate more freely to the brain, organs and tissues. In other words, as the relaxation response kicks in, our bodies effectively begin to produce their own medicine – medicine that is tailored precisely to the individual, and that cannot be prescribed by any doctor nor purchased at any pharmacy.
The resulting health benefits of qigong, both physical and mental, form a long and impressive list, with years of scientific research now backing up what the ancient Chinese qigong masters knew millennia ago. Regular practise not only boosts the immune system, but also reduces anxiety and stress, preventing many diseases from taking hold in the first place. Just a few of the many benefits include better sleep, breathing, posture, cardiovascular health, blood pressure, circulation and balance; more flexible joints; and greater strength and vitality. It also strengthens the nervous system and the organs, promotes healing and balances the emotions. At higher levels of qigong, the body, emotions, mind and spirit can reach a state of harmony and balance, making every part of everyday life a pleasure to experience.
In my own experience, qigong – combined with its other forms, in the shape of tai chi and meditation – has improved my immune system, general health and day-to-day life enormously. I began learning these three arts through Canberra’s Tai Chi Academy almost twelve years ago, and have practised almost daily since then. Before I began to practise, I caught colds and the ‘flu as regularly as everyone else. I woke every morning with a sore back and had to stretch and roll about for five minutes before I could get out of bed. I often had little energy, suffered insomnia, had poor digestion, was easily tired and frustrated, and quickly ran out of patience with the family. After just a few weeks of daily practise, my sleeping began to improve. As time went on, the rest of my symptoms started to disappear, and have now all but evaporated – as long as I keep up with my daily practice and rest when my body tells me to. Since I began practising, I have rarely seen a doctor or had a backache, had only a handful of colds, and one or two mild cases of ‘flu.
I have learnt through experience that qigong practise is what keeps me together. If I miss a morning session, I can feel the difference by lunchtime and the afternoon is much harder to get through. If I miss a couple of days, I can literally feel my patience levels begin to drain away, and my stiffness and sore back returning. For me, it’s a daily energy top-up – just like refuelling the car or eating a good breakfast, if I don’t do it, I soon notice the ramifications.
To me, one of the most appealing things about qigong is that anyone can do it – regardless of age, flexibility or range of movement. The exercises can be modified to suit people with limited range of movement. For those confined to a bed or wheelchair, many movements can be done sitting or lying down, because such a big part of qigong is based on mindfulness – using the mind’s intention to direct energy to different parts of the body.
Personally, I am one of the most inflexible people I know – and I’ve even been told that by more than one yoga teacher! My shoulders have a very limited range of movement, I can’t put my arms anywhere near straight above my head, and I have never been able to touch my toes. But despite this, I could do qigong from my very first lesson, and after years of practise I am slowly developing more flexibility.
One of the beautiful things about qigong is how it combines gentle, soft, easy movements with deep, slow breathing, allowing the body and mind to completely relax. After a practise session or after teaching a class, I always feel super relaxed, and I can see by the faces of my students that they have also experienced a time of deep relaxation. There is an undefinable sense or feeling in the air just at the end of a class, as students stand in a relaxed posture, feeling tingling sensations throughout their bodies, breathing slowly and with a deep sense of peace written clearly across their faces. It’s a special moment in time – an utterly magical experience of ‘now’.
Mindful qigong movement guide
Practising qigong in the morning is a fantastic way to stimulate the body’s energy before starting the day. Here’s an easy guide to a simple, mindful qigong movement that we did in the Wise Women’s Gathering qigong workshop, and that anyone can do at home. The directions assume you are standing, but it can also be done seated.
Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, closing the eyes if you can keep your balance. Take a deep breath in through the nose, letting it out slowly through the mouth. Feel your feet where they are touching the floor, and feel the floor supporting you. Take another slow, deep breath in and out. Imagine your weight sinking slowly down your legs and into the floor, taking your knees slightly off lock and sinking slightly in the hips. Feel your spine straight and your upper body relaxed, dropping the shoulders and relaxing the arms and hands by the sides of your body. Tuck your chin in very slightly to lengthen the back of the neck, so that you feel as if the top of your head is facing the ceiling. Take one more deep breath in and let it out slowly.
Begin to bring your awareness into your body, noting any sensations you may feel. Mentally scan your body from head to toe, bringing your awareness to each part in turn, just observing and accepting how it feels, without judging it as good or bad. You can stand in this posture as long as you like, just breathing naturally and being aware of the body, feeling yourself relax and sink a little more with each out breath.
When you are ready to do the movement, let your arms float gently out to the sides and up, slightly in front of the body. Curve your arms inwards to bring your hands slightly above and in front of your head, keeping the shoulders dropped and relaxed. Bring your hands down in front of your face, palms facing the floor, and with the fingertips facing each other but not touching. Now let the hands gently and slowly come down the front of the body until they are back down by your sides again. Repeat as many times as you like, breathing in through the nose as you float the arms up, and breathing out through the mouth as you bring the hands down.
When you have finished, return your awareness again to your posture, again feeling your feet on the floor, your weight sinking down, upper body relaxed with the spine straight. Again, scan your body from head to toe. How does it feel now?
Take one more slow, deep breath in and out, and slowly open your eyes. Rub your hands together to warm them, and rub your face in circles a few times. Rub your hands in circles on your lower back, and then pat down the arms and legs. Walk around slowly for a few minutes, and then return mindfully to your day.