Using the (Life) Force
The expression of energy through qigong can minimize your pain.
She stands tall, knees slightly bent, with hands by her sides. Slowly she bends forward
while taking a long, deep breath. Her hands now curved, she reaches down as if scooping up a gigantic flower. Palms up, she lifts the flower and rises, then bends her elbows and points them outward, fingertips almost touching. She slowly exhales as she extends her hands out in front of her, offering up the flower to an invisible partner.
This exotic choreography is not part of a dance, although it certainly seems dancelike. It is qigong (pronounced “chi-kung”), one of the four major branches of traditional Chinese medicine (along with acupuncture, herbology and massage). This beautiful-to-watch practice combines deep breathing and meditation with hundreds of slow, graceful postures and movements. Regular practitioners of qigong say it can zap your pain, prevent illness and improve your overall well-being.
That’s what Kathleen Cliff discovered. Nine years ago, the 58-year-old licensed massage therapist suffered neurological damage to her face after her dentist extracted a molar. After months of going for different treatments to ease the constant throbbing in her face, she tried qigong. “Within three 90-minute qigong sessions,” Cliff recalls, “the pain completely subsided, and it’s never returned.” Cliff was so impressed that she’s now a qigong instructor at the Institute of Qigong & Internal Alternative Medicine in Seattle, Washington.
Opening the Energy Flow
The word qigong comes from two Chinese characters, qi meaning “life force” and gong, or “practice.” Qi is said to be the vital energy that travels through the body from head to toe via invisible pathways called meridians, much like blood circulates through arteries.
Blocked or stagnant qi—resulting from stress, illness or injury—causes more blockage. It also can prompt joint and vital organ pain, leading to further inflammation and impairment. “Like a river that accumulates too much silt at its bends, the qi doesn’t flow as smoothly or efficiently,” says Elizabeth Marazita, LAc, licensed acupuncturist and professor of qigong at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington and the University of Washington School of Nursing, in Seattle. “Qigong opens the flow of qi, and increases the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout the body.” (The meridian system is the one that dictates where acupuncture needles are placed, again with the idea of manipulating qi.) Qigong also ups your endorphins, natural “feel-good” chemicals known to reduce pain.
Since the mid-’90s, hundreds of studies in the US and Far East have demonstrated the positive effects of qigong on painful conditions, especially when used with other healing modalities, such as physical therapy, acupuncture and yoga. People have turned to qigong for everything from premenstrual cramps and headaches to carpal tunnel syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Depending on the body’s position, the mostly standing exercises of qigong “facilitate a unique pattern of qi flow within and between certain body parts,” says Shoshanna Katzman, LAc, MS, founder/director of Red Bank Acupuncture and Wellness Center in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, and author of Qigong for Staying Young (Avery/Penguin). “Qigong exercises can work with specific areas of the body or the entire system to reduce pain wherever it may be, while restoring health in general.”
Doing qigong forces you to slow down, and right there that can begin to ease your pain. “If you’re constantly in overdrive, there’s a chronic over- excitation of the sympathetic nervous system, which results in low energy, nonrestorative sleep, anxiety, stress-related illness and pain,” says Ken Cohen, qigong master and director of The Qigong Research & Practice Center, in Nederland, Colorado, and author of The Way of Qigong (Wellspring/Ballentine).
Just breathing incorrectly can also contribute to pain. Instead of quick, shallow breaths from the chest, qigong asks for slow, deep ones from your abdomen. “By sending more oxygen to your cells and brain,” says Cohen, “qigong tends to reduce muscle spasms and opens constricted blood vessels, which are often associated with pain, particularly muscle pain and migraines.” Cohen says that qigong can also ease lower back pain, which can be caused by walking or standing with locked knees. “When your knees are locked,” he explains, “there is more wear and tear on the joints and the stress moves up to the lower back. With qigong, you keep the joint spaces open, by slightly bending the knees and elbows.”
Negative emotions can be the source of pain since such feelings only further block the movement of qi. “If your consciousness is too distracted, your energy ends up serving your mind instead of your body and the healing of your pain,” says Guan-Cheng Sun, PhD, executive director of the Institute of Qigong & Internal Alternative Medicine. “Qigong practice can help you be aware of the connection between your organs, other parts of your body and your emotions. For example, lots of people have shoulder pain, which, in many cases, is caused by their anger. The liver can handle only so much anger, and then the excess goes up into the shoulders. Qigong allows you to notice that anger.”
You also may feel more pain for a short period of time while doing qigong, particularly in the beginning of the healing process. “That’s a good sign,” Sun continues, “because the qi is moving as it’s removing the blockage. The energy flow is enhanced, thereby increasing the body’s sensitivity. When this happens, internal communication between the brain and other parts of the body improves, stimulating the brain to release enough endorphins to eliminate the pain.”
For debilitating pain or whenever your qi is too deficient, a qigong healer can use their own healing energy, through their hands but without touching you, to transmit their qi into distressed areas of the body. “Unless the person is very sick, however, I would rather they not be dependent on my energy,” says Katzman. “I believe that by opening yourself up to, and maximizing, your innate healing capabilities, you can heal yourself through your own, personal qigong practice.”
Listen to your body (and to your practitioner) and practice at your own pace. As Sun puts it, “Qigong teaches you to enhance your body’s ability and to trust the healing process. Let your body do the work to eliminate pain.”