A lot of mythology has developed about chi kung (also spelled qigong). "Chi kung" literally means "energy work," and it consists of a series of exercises to calm the mind, calm the body, and focus on breathing.
Chi kung and its medical theories were developed thousands of years ago, by the same people who believed you could tell the future from the cracked shells of turtles. Despite this dubious past, and many of the dubious claims made by people who believe whole-heartedly in miraculous claims of healing related to chi kung, it remains an outstanding way to control stress and ride the ups and downs of a turbulent life.
But it's all in your mind, and it takes practice. The good news is--five minutes a day can lead to remarkable changes in your health and your relationships. It can lead to a healthier body and a more balanced life.
You Can Learn to Center Yourself
In 1988, after I had been studying and practicing chi kung for over a year under Sifu Phillip Starr in Omaha, I was working as a news producer at KMTV. A wall cloud was moving past the station, threatening to drop a tornado at any moment on the city. The storm was raging and people were running through the newsroom screaming and frantically rolling cameras outside to broadcast the wall cloud live. I sat at my desk pounding away on my typewriter. My newscast was a little over an hour away.
Suddenly, I heard someone laughing through all the noise. I turned and Jon Kelley, a sports writer, was sitting at his desk grinning at me.
"What?" I asked.
"Doctor Chill," he said. "Everyone is running around screaming and you're just sitting there getting the job done."
The comment surprised me, but it made me realize that I had been centered--literally the calm in the center of the storm--because of the chi kung practice I had been doing. It was working, and it felt good.
Over the next couple of decades, I used the principles of chi kung to center myself during tense moments at work, during times of unemployment, and to deal with difficult people at work and at home.
The ability to harness the power of chi kung is not something mystical. It doesn't rely on some invisible energy. It relies on the power of your mind, and your ability to practice simple techniques and then recapture them in times of tension and crisis.
The photos in this post can help illustrate simple ways of beginning the process.
The Dan T'ien -- Your "Center"
Your dan t'ien (pronounced "dahn tyen") is located a couple of inches below the navel and a couple of inches inside the body. You can press your fingers there to get an idea of where it is. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is where your energy (chi) gathers and begins to circulate through the body along pathways, or "meridians."
In this photo, I'm placing my hands over my dan t'ien. I'm standing in a relaxed way, knees slightly bent, and not leaning backward or forward (most of us lean backward when we stand and we don't realize it). Traditional chi kung theory says that men should put their left hand on the bottom and right hand over the left, and vice versa for women. I don't believe in those superstitions so don't worry about that sort of thing if you hear it.
My goal here is to relax and calm the mind and body. Let all the muscles of the body relax. Start with the top of the head and slowly work your way down, focusing on the total relaxation of every muscle.
At the same time, imagine when you inhale that energy is coming into your body and collecting at your dan t'ien. Visualize "chi" energy collecting there and building, growing warmer each time you inhale. Imagine as you relax your muscles that a yellow glow of energy is growing warmer at your "center" (dan t'ien).
Don't think about your To-Do list--don't think about bills--don't think about any problems--just relax your body and calm your mind. If you begin thinking of what you need to do today or any other intrusive thought, don't worry about it, just put your mind back on your breathing and focus on the energy growing warmer at your dan t'ien. And relax your body.
We don't often allow ourselves to relax like this unless we're lying in bed trying to sleep. During the day, we carry tension in our bodies that we don't even realize. Learning to calm the mind and body while doing other things isn't natural for us, and it takes practice.
This can also be done sitting. If you're on a subway, riding in a car (not driving), sitting somewhere during a boring speech--you can practice this. Just clasp your hands on your lap, calm the mind and body, and focus on energy coming in and growing warmer in your center.
The next photo shows me holding my hands in front of me, as if holding a soccer ball against my dan t'ien. I imagine the energy in my dan t'ien glowing and growing out, pressing against my hands. When I inhale, I imagine energy coming in and collecting at the dan t'ien. When I exhale, I feel the energy pushing out against my hands. This may take you several weeks, but you eventually will be able to feel it. Reminder--this doesn't necessarily mean that chi is coming out of your body. This is a mental visualization tool, but the mind is powerful and it can feel anything you want it to feel.
If you have any particular ailments, you can imagine--as you exhale--energy traveling to that area of the body. You can imagine the energy attacking and growing warmer in the area where you need healing. The mind is a powerful tool, and this certainly can't hurt you. In fact, I've had students who have used the technique to manage the pain of cancer and other problems, and they swear by it. By detaching the mind and focusing on something other than your normal thoughts, you're able to achieve interesting and beneficial results. There have been studies that show a link between the results of meditation and the results of a good rest.
After five minutes of this meditation, you can stop. You may feel as if you've just taken a nap. You should definitely feel more relaxed. If you don't the first few times you do this, keep at it. It does take practice. Eventually, you'll see your ability to calm the mind and body improve dramatically.
Using Chi Kung in Daily Life
Stress can also ruin your relationships, both at work and at home. How you react to stress can send a ripple of negativity through everything you do, like throwing a pebble into a pond.
Chi kung can help you manage stress.
The reason you are doing the chi kung exercises is this: you want to recapture the calm feeling in your mind and body when you find yourself in a stressful situation--when someone cuts you off on the highway, when your boss treats you badly, when you're handed an assignment with an impossible deadline, when your spouse or significant other approaches you in anger--even when you encounter death and tragedy.
When these things happen, calm the mind and relax the body. Put part of your mind on your dan t'ien, just as you've done during chi kung practice. Put part of your mind on the problem at hand. Rise above the tension, let it melt as you calm the mind and body. Then deal with the problem. Over time, you'll see that you can do it much more effectively than before.
This technique can be used in the dentist chair or when someone approaches you to fight. When I was in the hospital last year for heart procedures, I used it each time they jammed a needle into my arm. I centered myself, put my mind on my dan t'ien, and breathed. It certainly helped.
As you can see from reading this, chi kung is not mysterious and it's not mystical. It's a mind-body connection that you need to exercise just as you need to practice any good habit before it can become part of your life. Try to ignore the people who want this to seem like something supernatural. They have psychological needs for power that you'll never be able to solve for them. Just be aware that it's an effective technique that can ease stress and turn your body back into the incredible healing machine that it truly is. The body is designed to heal itself. Stress prevents that--or certainly can slow it down. You can help it along, but it isn't easy. It takes practice. That's why they call it "energy work."
In the end, we practice the internal arts to balance ourselves mentally and physically. Chi kung is an important part of this. Just five minutes of practice a day, and the ability to recapture the calm feelings in your mind and body during times of stress or crisis, can help you remain balanced when life wants to knock you down.