Once just a shadowy suspect in ill-health, stress has now become public enemy No. 1. It’s a major risk factor in cardiac disease, hypertension and cancer, and according to the National Center for Health Statistics, stress contributes to all five leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease and accidents.
As surveys across job markets show stress levels worsening and as the aftermath of September 11th is still sinking in, stress has even spawned yet another newly diagnosed malady — Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). Scary stuff.
Stress is something that happens to us, but it is also something we do to ourselves. Surrounded by email, instant messaging, cell phones and social media, we live in a 24/7 consumer culture obsessed with instant gratification. It’s a world where it sometimes seems that everyone is screaming like Veruca Salt to Willy Wonka: “I want it all, and I want it NOW!”
It’s mindsets like that that drive many to go in search of antidotes like Qi Gong. And for most, Qi Gong delivers — fast relief from stress and anxiety, and often a great deal more.
That was the case for John Du Cane, a Cambridge-educated Englishman who has been practicing and teaching Qi Gong for decades. Although Du Cane was originally drawn to the 2,000-year-old Chinese art for its spiritual and meditative aspects, he says that as soon as he began practicing Qi Gong (pronounced “chee gong,”) he knew he had found a tool for self-healing — something that would change his life forever.
That was 25 years ago. Today, Du Cane makes his home in the U.S., and is one of the nation’s leading Qi Gong experts. He teaches Qi Gong and also runs a publishing company that produces a variety of health, fitness and martial-arts materials, including a whole line of Qi Gong books and videos. According to Du Cane, interest in this serene and calming art has been steadily climbing over the past decade, both here and abroad. Why? “In my 25 years of looking,” says DuCane, “it’s the most powerful antidote to stress I’ve ever encountered.”
Into the Limelight
Qi Gong got its first round of U.S. publicity in 1993 when Bill Moyers presented it as part of the PBS television series Healing and the Mind. Then, in 1998, the practice got an even bigger publicity boost when the conservative Chinese government attempted to shut down Falun Gong, a highly popular Qi Gong sect, fearing it might pose a populist threat. After the incident was featured in the U.S. news, Western interest in Qi Gong exploded. Apparently a lot of people figured — rightly — that any mind-body practice spectacular enough to raise political ire had to be worth checking out.
In recent years Qi Gong and Tai Chi (one form of Qi Gong) have become increasingly popular with all kinds of mainstream consumers, especially fitness-oriented baby-boomers and stressed-out executives. Worldwide, it’s estimated that Qi Gong is practiced by more than 100 million people.
Part of Qi Gong’s popularity is that it can be practiced by virtually anyone, at any age and in any physical condition. The motions of Qi Gong mostly involve slow, fluid gestures matched with visualizations, breathing patterns and subtle shifts of weight. It’s a pleasant, serene experience, and a marked departure from the harder, faster pace of many traditional fitness efforts. According to Du Cane, nearly everyone who practices regularly can expect to derive significant health benefits — stress-relief not least among them.
The Chinese believe that physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellness all depend on cultivating the healthy movement of Qi, a universal energy force that flows constantly within and around us. According to Chinese medicine and philosophy, any disruption or imbalance in the flow of Qi causes disharmony in the mind, body and spirit, leading to disorder and illness. Qi Gong removes blockages and redistributes Qi, causing it to flow more evenly and freely.
Qi Gong also facilitates blood and lymph circulation by combining a series of fluid movements — each designed to massage and stimulate specific areas of the body — with simple, but highly effective, breathing techniques.
Free and Easy
“When you learn Qi Gong,” explains Du Cane, “you relearn a childlike manner of abdominal breathing.” By employing this deep-belly breathing instead of the more shallow chest breathing to which we’ve become habituated, Du Cane asserts, we release tension and rebalance the energy centers in our stomach, heart and head while oxygenating our tissues and enlivening our senses. Both mentally and physically, the result is a restorative one.
In addition to helping the individual balance his or her own system, Qi Gong also seeks to strengthen and balance the individual’s connection with nature. In fact, many Qi Gong techniques take their inspiration from plants and animals. One group of Qi Gong exercises, called the Five Animal Frolics, is a series of techniques that incorporate visualizations and movements based on the crane, monkey, tiger, deer and bear. “The Five Animal Frolics are wonderful because they bring a lot of ease and playfulness into the practice,” says Nancy Herzberg, an Oregon-based Qi Gong, Tai Chi and yoga instructor, who has been doing Qi Gong for more than 20 years. She learned the Animal Frolics while studying with Du Cane years ago, and now enjoys teaching them to others. “It is fun to stop being human and act like an animal for a while.”
Fun and frolics aside, though, Qi Gong is serious medicine for stress, which studies have shown can inhibit both wound healing and immune response. In the presence of stress, hormone levels shift, breathing becomes constricted, joints stiffen, muscles tighten, colds and flus become more common. Psychologically, stress sets up a vicious cycle of addiction to the excitement and euphoria of the “adrenaline rush.”
Although some people are inspired to perform at their best under stressful conditions, they can also become so dependent on those highs and lows that breaking free requires not just relaxation, but a deliberate relaxation strategy.
“Qi Gong gets you off that addictive roller coaster,” Du Cane asserts.
Practice Makes Perfect
Although on the surface, Qi Gong looks incredibly simple, when you first try it, you may be surprised to find yourself challenged in unfamiliar ways. Simultaneously focusing on breath, balance, posture, gesture, visualization and intent requires intense concentration, and yet the whole purpose is to maintain utterly at relaxed and ease. For many Americans, this proves tough, but weirdly pleasing at the same time. “When you practice Qi Gong,” explains Du Cane, “you reach a place that is at the same time comfortable and stimulating, like looking into a lover’s eyes or slipping into a warm bath.”
Happily, it’s not just while you are practicing Qi Gong that you get to reap its benefits. “Once you have established the feeling of balance and harmony, your body begins to integrate and remember it,” DuCane notes. “Then, when stress occurs, rather than automatically accepting and falling into the old patterns of ‘dis-ease,’ your system recognizes the imbalance as unnatural, and wants to return instead to that healthier, more comfortable feeling.”
Qi Gong is not a magic pill or a one-time shot. Achieving balance in mind, body and breath takes both will and desire, and staying in balance requires discipline.
Although you can learn the basics of Qi Gong from a book or video, the best way to get started is to simply sign up for a class and start doing the techniques. You can start with a few minutes a day, and work your way up to whatever practice feels best.
A daily Qi Gong practice is ideal, Du Cane asserts, because stress is daily too, and it just keeps on coming. “Like dust on a mirror,” he notes, “you need to keep wiping it away.”
Medicinal Purposes of Qi Gong
Wayne English, D.O., has been practicing sports medicine in Texas for more than 30 years. About 10 years ago, while looking for ways to help his patients stay healthier and enjoy life more, he began integrating Qi Gong principles into his medical practice.
Qi Gong medical philosophies and osteopathic sports-medicine principles are closely aligned, says English, in that both assume that proper energy flow is essential to wellness.
“It just makes sense to holistically incorporate the whole body in maintaining energy and function,” says Dr. English. “We are built to be in motion. The Qi is always in motion, and Qi Gong optimizes that.”
Dr. English’s son, Jeff, a Tai Chi instructor and tennis pro, now regularly integrates Qi Gong methods into his tennis lessons. Because it helps players learn to generate power at the core of the body instead of the arm, he says, the technique is proving highly successful.
Dr. English says that he, too, has found the results to be excellent. “There are four major benefits of Qi Gong,” English explains. “One, it makes possible the integration of mind, body and spiritual healing. Two, it bridges the gap between passive healing procedures and progressive, resistive exercise. Three, it teaches focus, balance and movement of energy through the body. And four, it helps prevent long-term pain and disability.”
Qi Gong is reputed to lower stress hormones, enhance toxin clearance, improve healing rates and immune function while countering many aging-related health challenges. For example, Qi Gong proponents say the practice can help you …
- Boost metabolism
- Lower blood pressure
- Flush lymph system
- Support nervous system
- Improve balance and fluidity of movement
- Massage organs and glands
- Lubricate muscles and joints
- Oxygenate tissues
- Increase energy and vitality
- Improve mental clarity
- Increase peace of mind
Some experts suggest that part of the reason Qi Gong proves so effective for so many purposes is that it may help to rewire our neurological system — away from our overused sympathetic nervous system (responsible for regulating our “flight or fight” responses) and toward the parasympathetic nervous system, which is more attuned to feelings of pleasure, relaxation and harmony.
Magical Mystery Tour
Qi Gong has many schools, many forms and many uses — from medical sciences to mystical spiritual practices and even lethal fighting arts. Generally though, Qi Gong can be thought of as any set of breathing, meditative and circulation-enhancing techniques that are capable of improving health, preventing illness and strengthening the body. At once practical and esoteric, simple and endlessly complex, this ancient Chinese art invites us to examine and cultivate our own intimate relationship with the natural, universal energy force called Qi.
In Qigong Empowerment: A Guide to Medical Taoist Buddhist Wushu Energy Cultivation, Master Shou-Yu Liang and Wen-Ching Wu describe Qi as “the intrinsic substance or vital force behind all things in the universe,” — “the medium between and within all material substances.” The term gong, they say, “refers to the power to produce an effect, an attainment of, or an accomplishment that is achieved with steady practice.” Loosely, they say, Qi Gong can be translated as “the attainment of qi.”
The basic idea is, if you are seeking self-mastery or attainment in any area of your life — from health to career to spiritual development — then you need to get your Qi in gear. And depending on your objectives, there are probably one or more forms of Qi Gong that can help you do that, from self-healing massage and meditative practices, to challenging physical training sessions.
While the views and training approaches of the various forms of Qi Gong are diverse, say Liang and Wu, “all bring to mind the importance of self-awareness, self-reliance and being responsible for our own physical and spiritual well-being.”
Steven Karageanes is a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich. He is a team physician for the Detroit Tigers, a consultant for USA Gymnastics, and a fellow of the American Osteopathic Academy of Sports Medicine. He is also a freelance journalist.