Are you looking for Relaxation or Transformation?

It is understandable that we might choose a class of meditative movement, such as Qigong or tai chi, for relaxation and soothing sanctuary from busy lives. Being able to switch off for 1-2 hours a week provides an oasis of calm in a stormy world.  It seems that, in modern society, giving ourselves permission to ‘do nothing’ is one luxury we don’t have.

Relaxing in a class has great value. Relaxation instigates beneficial changes in both body and mind BUT, for many of us, we need more than 1-2 hours/week to change chronic health conditions or unhelpful habits.   Long-term health improvement requires long-term health management. In other words, many of us need improvements in well-being not only during the weekly class but also when we are NOT in class—we need to feel well outside of class.

To achieve long-term improvement, we need to be working on some kind of change or transformation.  A certain type of physical transformation can come from any fitness regime of exercise. A different type of transformation is achieved via mindful movement in which mental and emotional states are included as part of the process. But our choice is not one of sweaty effort vs soothing relaxation. Mindful bodywork can be sweaty too and is not always relaxing.

Even the gentle mindful movements of Qigong, tai chi, or yoga sometimes require uncomfortable and challenging work during class. We may be challenged to move our body in a new way, or to think in a different way.  We may have to notice how we respond emotionally to some of the movements. Some of us may perceive the teacher’s adjustment of our deepest habits as a personal affront. Change is often resisted. The class itself might not be relaxing or soothing. It might be tiring or cause a flare up of an old symptom. However, the tools and techniques we learn about our body and mind can be applied outside of class at any time, in any place, making the time between classes gradually better. The more we practice, and the longer we commit to our transformation, the better our results will be.

Can we continue to do the same thing but expect different results?

Change is rarely comfortable. Most of us (myself included) would like to become healthier and happier without changing anything about ourselves. Unfortunately, it does not seem to work like that. Since having a mental and physical breakdown in 1992 I have had to work consistently and fearlessly at optimizing body and mind given numerous limitations. During the early years, when looking for helpful classes, I found some offered pleasant sanctuary while others offered rather more difficult transformation. I dipped in and out of both, according to the strength I had at the time, but eventually committed to a transformative process as it delivered the long-term changes I needed.

Transformative bodywork classes may or may not be relaxing. The primary aim is not so much for us to feel good in class but for us to feel as good as we can for the rest of our lives.

 

Putting the gong into Qigong

 

Gong is the skill one develops through cultivation, practice, and embodied change over time.

A craftsman has gong. A musician has gong.

In Qigong we learn many techniques for developing Qi gong but only through mindful practice do we attain gong. Learning a set of forms is not attaining Qigong. Practising the techniques you are taught will help you develop gong/skill. These skills amount to much more than simply feeling Qi for although Qi sensitivity is important it alone does not help us manage our health in any way.

Belly breathing—to take a very simple example—is a technique for calming the mind and switching the autonomic nervous system from high arousal Fight-or-Flight to low arousal Rest-and-Repair mode.

You do it a few times. You understand the technique. You get it. You don’t bother to continue practising because you are confident that you ‘have’ it. You have understood it.  Anyway, how can something as simple as belly breathing be important? You continue to breathe as you always have and there is no change. You have learnt a technique (Fa) but because you do not practice it you are not developing skill (gong).

To develop gong (of any kind) we need to practice; not just mindless repetitions but with attention monitoring our technique, honing change. Skill is not merely learning. Skill is physically embedded. The skill of a craftsman is enabled by physical changes that occur through repeated practice. These changes are brought about by the natural plasticity of the body.  The thickening of skin on one finger, a line of tensile strength through the body which is needed for the craft, and the habitual mental focus required to perform the craft. The muscular and neuronal connections (the routes) used for the craft are biochemically enhanced through practice and our craft therefore improves. Our body changes as we develop skill.

Gong is embodied. Skill is embodied.

In belly breathing practice, our diaphragm loosens and lengthens with the daily expansion which means we develop deeper longer breaths. Our nervous system adapts to the change in breathing and no longer automatically stimulates those high chest (anxiety) muscles for breathing. In other words, our breathing software is re-written and our choice of default breathing options increase. In the absence of regular practice our nervous system will not change and we will continue to breath the same way we always have.

Due to diaphragmatic stimulation of the vagus nerve in our daily belly breathing practice, our body gets a period of ‘rest & repair’ every day. Digestion and immune activity are switched to ‘max’. Many physiological improvements result. Our blood acidity changes due to improved exhalation of waste carbon dioxide. Less acidity leads to improvements in many aspects of chronic ill health such as pain and muscular tension. Physiological change from a daily breathing practice.

As Fight or Flight mode is switched off, our mind settles for a few minutes each day. We develop an ability to experience mental quietude which will be important in other aspects of our Qigong. Mental change from a daily breathing practice.

As belly breathing skill develops, we find we are able to control our level of arousal/relaxation. This is not possible just by understanding the technique.  Our body needs to experience and connect the nervous system routes for self-calming so that it can be used when necessary. Gradually, we develop gong, in that, we can modulate our level of arousal, mental quietude, and physiology.

This example, illustrating how one technique can be transformed into Qigong is only the first step towards developing a more advanced gong called ‘Sung’. Sung cannot be achieved by conceptual understanding.

In short, we should not confuse the techniques we are taught for Qigong.

A good Qigong teacher will teach us techniques but only through practice can we develop gong.

Silence for Health

Silence is under-rated in our stimulation-rich, things-to-do, must-never-get-bored, society. The ceaseless attentional demands of modern life put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where we organise thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. Over time, of course, our attentional resources become depleted. As a result, we become mentally fatigued, and may struggle to focus, solve problems or come up with new ideas.

But the brain can restore its cognitive resources when we have lower levels of sensory input than usual—in silence, for instance.

Silence can also regenerate brain tissue. Researchers have found that only two hours of silence a day can lead to new cells in the hippocampus, a key brain region associated with learning, memory and emotion. These findings suggest that silence could be therapeutic for conditions like depression and Alzheimer’s, which are associated with decreased rates of neuron regeneration in the hippocampus.

Silence does something tangible to our sense of self. When there is little input to process from outside, we have an opportunity to process inside. This is often one reason why some of us avoid silence; it prevents any observation of our inner lives. But silence allows access to more than our internal processes. It allows us access to something deeper, bigger, wiser.

When I was in the Sinai desert, doing Qigong (as you do) the silence created by a vast expanse of emptiness was the most unexpected part of my experience. It was as if, in the silence (where there were not even plants to rustle in the wind or distant activity from far off people) my senses expanded in all directions to find something. This silence was, quite tangibly, expansive. It became obvious why so many spiritual retreats take place in deserts (Didn’t Jesus spend time mooching about in a desert?).

So give yourself a full day of silence at one of our regular mini retreats. There will be guidance (it is not a day of sitting in silence wondering what to do or what to think about) and opportunities for brief discussions of feedback but the day will generally be silent.

Rumi—

Speech is a river, Silence is an ocean.