Tai Chi for Mind and Body
Next time you’re running through a park sweating and gasping for breath, take a look across rolling lawns and open spaces – chances are you’ll see a small group of people performing what appears to be martial arts in slow motion.
No, they’re not rehearsing for a Swan Lake role. They’re practising a centuries-old Chinese exercise with stretching and flowing movements designed to strengthen mind and body.
Described as ‘moving meditation’, Chi Kung (traditionally spelt as Qi Gong) is practised by over 60 million people in China every day for its health benefits – in fact, it is considered such a holistic form of healing that it even forms a focal component of traditional Chinese medicine.
“Three essential elements make up the art of Chi Kung,” says Brisbane-based instructor, Julie Vear. “Working on the elements of posture, mindful movement and breathing promotes relaxation benefits and increased energy, even in the first lesson.”
Perhaps it’s because Chi Kung can be incorporated into daily life – on the bus, at your desk, at a café or while watching a movie – that its popularity is growing in Australia also.
“Ten years ago I would have only one or two people in some classes,” says Julie. “But now I teach mornings, evenings, weekends, in a studio or a park, in corporate offices or in hospital beds. The beauty of Qi Gong is that anyone can do it anywhere and still achieve profound health benefits.”
While Chi Kung shares similar concepts and movements to the more well-known Tai Chi, the two regimes are not to be confused.
“Chi Kung emphasises the flow of Chi (energy) through the acupuncture meridians in a less choreographed way than Tai Chi,” says Allan Kelson, a Foundation Member of the World Academic Society of Medical Qi Gong and international judge of Tai Chi competitions.
“That’s not to say Tai Chi is physically hard or strenuous, but remembering the movements and co-ordinating the mind with the body can be challenging for some and counteract the de-stressing nature of the exercises.”
The sport of Tai Chi has been refined to such a level it was pitched to be included as a new Olympic Sport at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Unfortunately for its fans it wasn't accepted, but hundreds of tai chi masters did get to exhibit their skills at the opening ceremony.
“I estimate around one percent of Tai Chi enthusiasts take it to a competitive level, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t – you get a lot of benefit from Tai Chi and Chi Kung at all levels,” says Allan. “After years of training, you can even use it as martial art form.”
When you consider that Chi Kung needs no sports equipment, uniform, special grounds, or even a particularly good memory or fitness level, the ancient and elegant art form becomes a very attractive proposition.
“Chi Kung represents a holistic healing and de-stress technique that is easy and highly effective. Anyone can do it – even the stressed out corporate people who can’t find 10 minutes to eat lunch can find one minute to do Chi Kung at their desks,” says Allan.
“Taking time to do a one or five minute set means they can return to their work feeling as revived as if it were the start of the day.”
Allan has taught all types of people, from the Australian Tax Office staff, to Physical Education teachers, to women going through menopause, to professional footballers, to hip-hop street performers, to patients recovering from cancer.
“Even Frida from Abba flew me to Sweden to coach her for a month!” he says. “She really needed to relax and found that Chi Kung worked the best for her.”
The flow of Chi along the meridians in the body is believed to assist many health problems including stress, high blood pressure, poor posture, menopause, chronic fatigue and injuries such as whiplash or back pain.
Jin-Song Han, the founder of the Tai Chi Australia School in Victoria and Tasmania, reports Chi Kung can even reverse the growth of cancerous cells.
“There is a lot of research that shows Chi Kung helps cancer patients in their recovery,” he says. “It all comes back to the Chinese belief that allowing Chi to flow through the meridians and internal organs will release blocked Chi in the body. It is the blocked Chi that causes illness.”
It also helps slow the ageing process, a claim that Song supports himself. “I’m 46 but feel like I’m in my mid-twenties. As for looking younger, well, you can judge my photo on the website to see how old I actually appear!”
One of Julie’s students is a retired academic who was left unable to speak, read, write or think when debilitated by a stroke in 1998. Jeff Pittam discovered that Chi Kung helped him to concentrate on things other than his stroke, helped him relax, increased his motivation and aided his concentration and focus through the complexity of the forms.
“It also helps my balance,” he says. “Even before the stroke my balance wasn’t wonderful, but now it is so much better.”
But it’s not just the injured and infirm who benefit. Queenslander Geoff Osborn is a 33-year-old IT professional with a passion for rock climbing, swimming, martial arts, hockey and swimming. He turned to Chi Kung to achieve more endurance and balance in his life – both at work and in sport.
“I can recognise differences between movements I think I'm doing, and what I'm actually doing. Mostly we move from habit, and the Qi Gong helps me focus on the now-ness of movement,” he says.
The more relaxed approach to work and sport means Geoff is able to enjoy his activities for longer periods of time, without getting too wound up in day-to-day stuff.
“I found I got the most sense of health, wholeness and calmness from Qi Gong rather than sweating it out in a gym,” he says.
This is a concept that Julie reinforces in her teachings.
“Western fitness principles tend to focus on sweat, pain and muscle definition,” she says. “But this style of exercise is usually very linear and tends to view the body as a machine.”
It transpires that though people might think they’re getting a good workout on the treadmill while watching television, they’re actually disconnecting mind from body.
“Qi Gong practice emphasises mind/body integration and movements which massage and energise the internal organs as well as joints, muscle and bone health,” says Julie. “The brain loves patterns of movement and many Qi Gong forms help to balance the two hemispheres which enriches the neuro-muscular system.”
This, according to Julie, is vital to our well-being.
“The movements lead the Qi through the meridian system to every cell in the body making Qi Gong a powerful self-healing method,” she adds.
“It turns the flight/fight instinct into a deep state of relaxation, which in turn promotes the flow of Qi. Everything should be about balance – flexibility and strength; relaxation and activity; yin and yang. Working with the body and breath leads us to present moment awareness and a kinaesthetic awareness of ourselves. And thus it gives us a sense of balance and harmony in our world.”
Tai Chi 24 Form
Do-it-Yourself Tai Chi for Home or Office
Here are two simple exercises that can be done at your desk. If you have pre-existing medical conditions, consult your doctor prior to attempting any unsupervised Chi Kung.
“These sets are great for opening the lungs and getting some blood and Qi flow going through the body,” says Julie. “Remember, keep your movements slow and put emphasis on posture and breathing – keep it in rhythmic harmony with your body movements.”
Opening the wings
Inhale: float the arms up to shoulder level
Exhale: open arms out to sides (as if you were expanding around a large beach ball)
Inhale: slowly close arms (palms facing each other) as if compressing a ball
Exhale: when hands are about the size of a basketball in front of chest, lower to sides
Repeat 3 times
Gathering the energy of heaven and earth
Inhale: turn palms to face outwards, reach outwards to the sides, then over the head (palms turn down to face the crown)
Exhale: lower hands down centre line of body (fingertips a few centimetres apart)
Repeat 3 times