The stress of the pandemic is still very much with us. We may not feel as stressed about passing someone in the grocery aisle anymore, but there are new stressors: going back to the office, for example, or lasting financial implications that come with losing work. These stressors don’t even account for the people who are dealing with the symptoms of long Covid or have lost someone recently.
You may be looking for a way to relieve stress (who isn’t?) — to step away from it for a moment so you come back better equipped to handle it. The answer may lie in the ancient Chinese practice of Qigong (pronounced chee-gung) that is getting more and more popular.
What is Qigong?
Qigong is a meditative art. “It combines slow postures, stretches and movements with deliberate breathwork to achieve physical, mental and spiritual balance,” Bryon Abrams, a certified Qigong instructor at Mohonk Mountain House in Hudson Valley, New York tells me. By breathing intentionally, you can come into the present moment (and it’s much easier to avoid anxiety if you’re not thinking about the past or the future), and the simple practice has far-reaching benefits for both mental and physical health.
Henderson Smith, Qigong teacher and CEO of Living Well Therapies, explains it like this: “If you live on this planet, you got here in a body and you have a mind that has the ability to control that body. You have to breathe in order for the mind and the body to function. Qigong gives you practice in becoming aware of and learning to better control your body, breath, and mind, and that becomes the habit that guides your life.”
At one point in my first phone call, Henderson led me through a quick series of Qigong breathing exercises; I took deep, slow breathes and imagined the breath flowing into the areas of my body that held tension (for me it’s my neck and shoulders). Henderson had me describe how the simple act of breathing transitioned the feeling in my body, and it felt almost like a warm liquid loosening my tightness. It is so rare that I take time to consciously breathe that even while on the phone with a relative stranger I instantly felt calmer and more relaxed.
That calm feeling lasted after we hung up… until I looked down at my recording device on my laptop and noticed I hadn’t turned it on. The whole interview was lost. My Fitbit showed an elevated heart rate, I started nervous sweating and I was mad at myself for making such a preventable mistake.
But then I thought about what Henderson had just taught me. If there was ever a time for Qigong, it was now, with my heart racing and negative thoughts swirling in my head. I took some breaths, slowly and intentionally. Instead of freaking out, I could be solution-oriented in my approach. I told Henderson what happened and he graciously agreed to do the interview again the next day.
When I ask how Qigong differs from meditation, he explains how there are many types of meditation; specifically, he mentions mindfulness, when you become aware of yourself and of your breath, concentration meditation wherein you turn your mind onto a single thing whether that’s the breath, or a mantra or a single word. Then there’s expressive meditation where you move your body in correlation with your breath. “What makes Qigong and Tai Chi so valuable is that it incorporates all three types of meditation. It is a meditation. It is a movement practice. It is an exercise. It is a martial art.”
Henderson tells me that while the two have similar benefits, all Tai Chi is Qigong, but not all Qigong is Tai Chi (this seems tricky to grasp at first but you can think of it sort of like how all humans are mammals but not all mammals are human; Qigong is the more umbrella term). You can check different practices on his video learning platform MeTime 24/7 that is offering Qigong, meditation, and Tai Chi lessons.
What are the benefits of Qigong?
Henderson, who worked in the insurance industry for 14 years before pivoting to mind-body medicine, has seen, through the insurance claims that passed his desk, how stress can physically impact the body and lead to a need for more and more medication which may fix the symptoms but not address the root issue. On our call, he has me envision my stress as a twenty-pound weight that I’m carrying around. At first, it may not seem that heavy, but if I never get a break, over time it’s going to slowly exhaust me. The practice of Qigong gives your mind and body a break from the space, it allows you to put down the twenty-pound weight so when you return to it, you are calm, rested, and better equipped to hold it. The goal of Qigong is not to live a stressfree-life (a nice, but rather an unattainable aspiration) but instead to find ways to manage stress so that the stress does not turn into illness, fatigue, or poor productivity.
There have been many studies on both the psychological and physiological benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi. A 2011 report that summarized the findings of many Qigong studies found that practice to have significant improvement in anxiety, depression, stress, mood, and self-esteem as a result of Qigong. Physiologically, Qigong and Tai Chi have also been shown to improve balance, immune function, reduce chronic fatigue, and more.
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The study noted that there were no adverse effects reported (unlike with medication where benefits come with side effects). “The substantial potential for achieving health benefits, the minimal cost incurred by this form of self-care, and the apparent safety of implementation across populations, points to the importance of wider implementation and dissemination [of Qigong and Tai Chi]”, the researchers noted.
And you can feel short-term effects instantly. “Qigong leaves you peaceful and connected to your body. The combination of mindfulness, breathwork, and stretching clears out toxins in the body, and leaves your mind feeling clear and more relaxed,” explains Giselle Wasfie, a Chinese-medicine practitioner, doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine and board-certified herbalist.
Additionally, Bryon tells me that there are long-term benefits such as better quality of sleep, improved cognitive awareness, and even lowered blood pressure. “Many of the participants tell us that Mohonk’s classes have helped relieve their neck and back tension, and many long-time guests say that Qigong has helped prevent future strain on their joints and strengthen their bodies,” he says.
Can anyone practice Qigong?
One of the most enticing things, to me at least, about Qigong, is that it can be practiced anywhere by anyone; you can turn to your breathing in traffic or at a particularly stressful moment in the workweek. “You’ll need a guide when starting out to know what you’re doing, [but then] it can definitely be a solitary practice or you can practice Qigong with a friend,” Giselle tells me. She recommends the videos of Master Mantak Chia to start.
You don’t need a ton of time either; some of the guided videos of Qigong are as little as five minutes long. And don’t let the feeling of being a beginner be a barrier to entry. Giselle adds that Westerners can be, “mindful and respectful of Qigong’s origins by following the great history and teachings of its practice, as well as sharing its history, teaching and origins with others.”
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“It’s better to do Qigong wrong than not to do it at all,” Henderson reassures me. “In other words, do something that causes you to breathe more deeply, move more often, pay more attention to yourself and it will serve you no matter what it is that you choose to do.” He laughs, then says, “So that in the event your recording device doesn’t work, you have the ability to take a breath and manage your response.”