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August 13, 2018

I practiced Qigong for two months. Here are eight things I learned.

My introduction to Qigong

My practice began in the classroom where we were asked to establish a daily practice and jot down our reactions in a journal. Initially, I had no intention to share these written reflections, but the idea of incorporating these into this blog post popped into my head about midway through the assignment. At first, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. As you’ll read shortly, I found it tough to simultaneously cultivate a meditation practice and blog about it. But the truth is, Qigong surprised me in more ways than one and I’m excited to share what I discovered.

A brief disclaimer: The perils of writing for public review

In the beginning, I’d find myself midway through a sequence trying to relax, while at the same time super restless to scribble down passing thoughts. I fretted about capturing the essence of exactly what I felt in that moment and worried that I’d forget to write about it later. The benefits of my practice started to erode and finding that quiet space in my mind became more and more elusive. Not ideal. So I made my peace with the fact that not every single important thought would get written down. Some days I even decided to forgo journaling for the sake of being able to practice without distractions. But, I did do my best to capture my most candid reactions, and I’ve listed them here as the eight things I learned about practicing Qigong.

1. It doesn’t have to be perfect

Like any practice, Qigong takes time to refine. Synchronizing movement and breath takes repetition and quite a bit of patience. When I first started practicing, one of my biggest challenges was constant self-criticism. I’d knit-pick my postures and alignment and end up forgetting to breathe. This undercut the most important part of my practice because paying attention to breath enables relaxation of the mind and where the mind goes, qi follows.1 I discovered that the more I quit obsessing about each movement, the more “right” the practice started to feel. As we cultivate our Qigong practice, we may even discover that being self-critical is the greatest flaw of all.

Usually, I do Qigong outside or inside somewhere with my eyes closed, but the house I’m staying at has two large mirrors in the master bedroom and while I practiced today, I caught a glimpse of myself. I was taken aback. It really wasn’t the trainwreck I thought it would be; all in all the movements I saw in the mirror were decent, maybe even pretty, and yet when I’m practicing I find myself saying, “Oh that movement was disjointed” or “you missed a breath”. Our brains are so wired to be on high alert for our shortcomings. In fact, they’re even quite good at conjuring up flaws that don’t even exist.

2. It’s okay to feel self-conscious

To the average person, Qigong is probably pretty weird and intense-looking. You might even be lukewarm about trying it because none of your friends are doing it, and let’s face it, it hasn’t quite hit the mainstream yet. I know that when I first started practicing I made sure I was tucked away in a room with the door closed or in the privacy of my own backyard. While I may have felt a little self conscious about furiously slapping at my limbs in public (The tapping bit of Qigong is one of my favorite parts of the practice; it’s a great way to activate your lymphatic system),2,3

I did learn to venture out beyond the privacy of my home, affording me the ability to practice in some of my favorite spots, namely nature.

An early morning Qigong practice in the Marin Headlands.

I found some motivation to get up early today to hike. When I got to the top of one of the big hills, I figured this would be the perfect spot to do my Qigong assignment. Before settling into wuji posture I quickly threw a look over each shoulder to see if anyone was around.4 I thought about how mortified I’d be if I opened my eyes to find someone walking by or watching. Closing my eyes I turned to face the ocean. It felt silly and a bit dramatic at first, to be participating in an awkward dance up on a ridge overlooking the sea. After a little bit of awkward movement, I finally sunk in. It must have lasted like this for a while because for a minute, I forgot where I was. As my eyes fluttered open I was smacked with this incredibly wild, vast view. Dumbfounded, I tried to fathom what I was seeing- take it all in. It’s as if I’d forgot just how expansive it all is.

3. It can be as simple as breathing

You’ll benefit from a richer practice if you establish a Qigong routine that incorporates a string of postures, but if you find you’re short on time or can’t fully engage in a practice (e.g. stop lights) you can cut the frills and literally just breathe. Conscious breathing is the foundation of Qigong and constitutes the basic form of the practice. If you’re interested, this article by L.Ac. Lee Holden provides a nice crash course on deep abdominal breathing.5 I also love this video tutorial from the Chanwuyi Foundation.6

It’s around 3 pm, and classroom E is stuffy and hot. My hands are sticking to the pages of the reader, and we’re about somewhere midway through the skull bones. Gary is pacing around the front of the classroom telling us about an amoeba that swims up your nose and turns your brain into swiss cheese. I suddenly feel kind of ill. I glance down at my reader, which is a couple of inches deep. The smallest of our textbooks. I think about the two hours of class following and the next three years of school. It’s suddenly all pretty overwhelming. So I start to breathe deeply. Down into the belly, just like we learned in Qigong class. I can feel the stomach knots starting to loosen a little bit. I’m reminded to take it one day, one minute, at a time.

4. It can tame a neurotic mind

Having our minds obsessing and being hung up on unimportant details is frankly exhausting. I’ve realized that I should probably just stop vacuuming my car because there will always be sesame seeds accumulating in the crevices of the driver’s seat from my favorite cookies. The joy of having a few cookies on my drive home will always trump having a crumb-free car. On a more serious note, a neurotic mind can substantially impact our lives by generating distorted perceptions of how things must be that leave us feeling chronically drained and agitated. But there’s great news: Qigong works wonders with a roily mind. It does so by activating our parasympathetic nervous system or our relaxation response, helping us silence the chatter of our mind, which allows us greater clarity on where our energy should (or shouldn’t) be spent.3

Today slipped through my fingers. I’d had grand plans: A long study session, job apps. All this went by the wayside after getting sucked into the vortex of my smartphone. I’d woken up today feeling panicky that my summer was wasting away so I sat on the couch in the mid-day summer heat scrolling, hoping to find a premiere camping spot at Mammoth Lakes. About an hour or two later, feeling drained, I forfeited my search and started doing Qigong. As I began to practice, I felt myself softening at the edges; that campsite didn’t need to be booked today, and it really makes no difference whether I apply for a job tonight or tomorrow or in a week. It’s funny how a flustered mind can create a burning sense of urgency despite unimportant and empty demands. Qigong counterbalances this. It’s really grounding for me.

To be continued…

Next I’ll be posting about Qigong and what I learned about sharing it with others, my own habits, being “present” and some much-needed letting go.

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Erin Stewart
I found my way to the profession of Traditional Chinese Medicine out of a desire to provide clinical care that is integrative, affordable and rooted in prevention. This medicine has been deeply influential in supporting my own health and vitality, and I’m thrilled to be taking the next steps to be able to share this medicine with my community. I’m currently a candidate for a Master’s in Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture at the Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, California. When I’m not studying acupuncture, I find great joy in waking up in a tent, Farmer’s Market “retail therapy” and a good powder day up in the mountains.


References

1. Zhang YH, Rose K. A Brief History of Qi. Boston: Paradigm Publications; 2003.
2. LingGuiQigong. Activating your lymphatic system [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR_mzAkqARk. Published August 5, 2014. Accessed July 27, 2018.
3. Jahnke R. Physiological Effects of Qigong. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/fadc/a1b560a22d87c7ee8b071c986d37311e0acb.pdf.
4. Qigong Breath Work: Wuji Posture. China Hand Kung Fu. http://www.chinahand.com/chikung/chikung2.htm. Accessed July 27, 2018.
5. Holden L. Dan Tian Breathing: Connecting to the Center. Acufinder.com . https://www.acufinder.com/Acupuncture+Information/Detail/Dan+Tian+Breathing+Connecting+to+the+Center. Accessed July 27, 2018.
6. 禪武醫學會. Natural Dan Tian Breathing [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3K-0JpiJu-o. Published October 17, 2013. Accessed July 27, 2018.
7. Mimi Kuo-Deemer. 8 Brocades Qigong practice [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3K-0JpiJu-o. Published October 19, 2014. Accessed July 27, 2018.

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