Qigong has now become part of your yoga teaching. Can you explain Qigong to someone who isn’t familiar? When did you start practicing it and how does it interact with yoga?
Qigong (it’s pronounced chee-gong) is a Chinese energy cultivation practice. It’s the basis of Chinese martial art forms, Chinese medicine, and Chinese meditation. For example, a kung fu practitioner would also practice qigong, as would an acupuncturist or Daoist. It is considered a healing art, and classified in China as a type of preventative medicine, or a means to help cure disease. Qi means “life force,”and gong means “to cultivate or build.” Thus qigong is the cultivation of life force, or energy. The practice addresses the body and spirit, and works to refine the qualities of these simultaneously.
I first dabbled in qigong in 1994, when I was living in China, but it didn’t last long. I was introduced to it again in 2003 by Matthew Cohen. Matthew is a highly respected yoga teacher, dancer, martial artist, and healer who lives and teaches in Venice, California. He teaches a fusion of yoga and qigong, and the combination was complementary as well as potent for me.
Speaking in quite general terms, yoga asanas tend to be more linear, focusing on stretching and extending the limbs and trunk in two directions. Think about triangle pose — how the top arm extends away from the bottom, and the spine lengthens from the tailbone back and the crown of the head forward. In qigong, there is a stronger emphasis on soft, round, circular movements that are like wind and water. Joint spaces are always relaxed, and the movements are often simple, slow and rhythmic. There is less focus on complex bodily positions, and more focus given to how the mind directs the vital energy, or qi, and intention. The intention is often on eliminating stagnant or diseased qi, and replacing it with healthy, vibrant qi. For example, one might inhale pure, healthy qi to an area of the body that feels weak, and exhale out the waste – and let it go as compost to the earth.
Also, with qigong, there is more of a focus on grounding and connecting with the earth. Active poses are often done with bent knees, allowing for the center of gravity to be closer to the ground. In yoga, unless the teacher is very conscientious to teach about the foundations and rooting through the earth, there can be a very strong upward flow of energy, or a sense of over prana-fication.
Yoga is my main love, but qigong has a steady place in my daily practice. I find it offers me a slow, movement-based practice that enables me to focus my intention in specific ways to heal and rid my body of poisons – be it thoughts or physical sensations like tension or fatigue – and increase my levels of energy and healthy prana. I also find that as a teacher, I never get cold hands anymore! That is a huge bonus to giving assists in class; I doubt anyone likes to be touched by cold, clammy hands.
Has there been any resistance to the inclusion of this different practice in your studio classes? When did you decide to bring it into your teaching?
Well, you can’t please everyone, and I have had people who just stare at me when I start teaching it, and refuse to do anything I say. I doubt those people come back to my classes. But most of the time, people seem to appreciate the different perspective it gives, and the potency of how it feels. In fact, I’d say 9 out of 10 times I teach, someone will comment about the qigong after class, or ask me where they can find a qigong teacher or learn more.
Ever since 2004, after I studied with Matthew Cohen, I’ve peppered my classes with qigong, but I think I’ve studied it in greater depth and integrated it more consistently in own practice over the last four years. Since I often teach what I practice myself, it probably finds its way into classes more regularly now.
What are you working on in your practice and teaching?
When I’m actually teaching, I’m working on being really present and not thinking. When I sit and plan classes or workshops, I often consider how to create layers of experience that give someone a rich taste of what yoga can offer, beyond just the physical asana. It’s like a complex photograph, where there are a variety of narratives happening in one frame, or a piece of music like the song Kid A by Radiohead, where the overlapping sounds, beats, samples and rhythms all have some kind of cohesive beauty and touch a place beyond words. That’s what yoga makes me feel like sometimes, and when I teach, I try my best to convey that to others. I love having the platform of asana to use to interweave mindfulness meditation practices, yogic philosophy, and healing qigong.
In my own practice, mindfulness meditation is a big focus for me – and that’s not just during my formal sitting meditation. I’m attempting to do it while eating, working, walking and throughout my basic living. I am terrible at it, though, so it’s a good practice for me.
In terms of my yoga asana practice, jumping into free-standing handstands are it for me. I love the feeling of being just on my hands and really trying to feel into my whole body once up. I have only recently started figuring them out, so I feel like there’s a whole world to understand, all while I’m on my hands and upside down. It’s incredibly humbling because I feel like I don’t know myself very well when there.
I’m also very excited to have possibly found a qigong teacher in London to study with. Watch this space for more on that!