The spelling of Qigong belies its simplicity. It can be ‘googled’ and you will find Qigong, Qi Gong, Chi Gong and Qi Kung (the list continues!). The correct way of spelling the name of this gentle, yet often challenging, movement system remains a mystery; however the effects on our health and wellbeing are backed by a growing body of evidence. They are also attracting mainstream interest from public health bodies, private companies and social care organisations.
The BBC programme ‘Trust Me I’m a Doctor’ (Series 2; 19th October 2018) compared Tai Chi to Zumba as a form of aerobic exercise by measuring flexibility of capillaries (they became more subtle and elastic so Tai Chi has a positive effect on blood pressure), chemical markers of inflammation (these increased in line with other forms of aerobic exercise – antioxidants also increased) and heart rate (this doubled so reached the same rate as the people doing Zumba). This is backed up by a paper published in the BMJ 24th March 2018 which compared Tai Chi to aerobic exercise. Similar physiological results were found and in addition, class attendance and adherence to home exercise was higher than in standardly prescribed exercise (patients found Qigong/Tai Chi more enjoyable and less painful) and physiologically had similar or greater benefits. Tai Chi and Qigong are so similar that the research can be applied to either.
Qigong is my daily practice of choice and I learnt it when I was training to be a Shiatsu practitioner. We were taught Qigong to maintain our own energy levels whilst treating others. Qigong is translated as Qi Harvesting (the Chinese character for Qi translates as air or space and so ‘breath working’ is another translation), it is far simpler to learn than its better known ‘sister’ Tai Chi and very adaptable. This makes it ideal for settings such as rehabilitation and palliative care.
As a teacher, I have taken my Qigong practice into many settings over the past 20 years; an NHS pain management and rehabilitation department, companies, schools and community settings. I run annual retreats and specialise in designing personal Qigong forms so that individuals can target specific health, emotional, spiritual or psychological needs. I have also facilitated Qigong groups in a hospice setting.
End of Life Qigong
St Christopher’s hospice is a flagship palliative care venue in South London. Known for its passionate commitment to making the end of life creative, fulfilling and of course, as pain-free as possible, I was invited to run Qigong classes there twice a week. I joined the Complementary Therapy team in 2016 and stayed for a busy year. The commute from North to South London finally wore me down despite practicing Qigong every morning on Waterloo East station! I sadly resigned at the beginning of 2018.
The classes were well attended and those who practiced even once a week gained great benefit.
‘I was sceptical, but I now use some of the movements on a daily basis to control my symptoms.’
‘I was surprised that my arm moved so much more easily after the class.’
‘It felt as if I wasn’t doing anything and yet I feel like I have exercised well.’
There are many forms of Qigong, the one I taught at St Christopher’s Hospice is called A Fragrant Buddha and it can be viewed here.
The Power of Images
Integral imaging is a technique now used by top sports coaches to improve performance. Imagining a ‘move’, for example, a tennis serve, before acting, increases accuracy, focus and so is efficient energetically. And it is the same in Qigong – the titles of the movements ‘White Crane Salutes’, ‘Parting the Clouds’ are suggestive in themselves, sending messages of beauty, as opposed to pain, through the nervous system and lessening the ‘flight or fight response’ so often alerted in this cohort of patients. When the bodily systems are soothed in this way, other ‘messages’ such as ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘ that will be too painful’ are overridden so that the physical body can do what it is capable of doing rather than be restricted by negative belief.
The Fragrant Buddha form has a simple story attached to it – one travels through a landscape whilst moving in time with the natural breath, the suggestion is of sunlight on water, fish swimming slowly, bowls of delicious fruit and so on. The sensory awareness that is so often lacking in hospital and hospice environment is made available internally and again, the nervous system is soothed.
The Change factor – Mindfulness
Moving with the breath gives the same sense of peace as the time tested Buddhist practice of observing the breath, however, for people who are worried by their diagnosis and usually in pain, the addition of small movements and sensory images add an extra diversion for the distracted mind.
Do what you can Do!
Often people at the end of life believe this is the end of their journey – in tune with St Christopher’s philosophy, the practice of Qigong encourages adaptability and continued exploration and richness found in what you CAN do, not what you cannot. All patients expressed surprise at their progress and increased flexibility even though it felt like they were making very little physical effort during class.
The Loving Circle
Qigong has a ‘calling in’ feel to it. I concur with the speculation that Qigong originated in the movements and dances of shamanic priests calling in beneficial weather, spirits or resources on behalf of their communities. Qigong is rooted in the belief that we are magnetic to Qi, it is there for us, just waiting to be called. A favourite way of starting the session would be to sit like satellite dishes attracting love, peace, clarity, and to acknowledge that we were X (X = Number of people in the circle) times stronger than if we were alone.
Resources and References
St Christopher’s Hospice www.stchrispophers.org.uk
Open Age – lots of London venues offering Qigong very cheaply www.openage.org.uk
Sally Ibbotson www.willesdenbodywise.co.uk
Comparative study Tai Chi and standard aerobic exercise Wang C, Schmidt CH, Fielding RA, et al
NHS Networks – website for Tai Chi and Qigong practitioners working in the NHS www.networks.nhs.uk/nhs-networks/yai-chi-chi-kung-for…/news
Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation Vol 19 No.3 pp. 172-182 ‘Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong: Physical and Mental Practice for Functional Mobility@ Bill Gallagher MS PT CMT CYT
Support Care Cancer (2012) ‘A Systematic review of the effectiveness of qigong exercise in supportive cancer care’ Cecelia L.W. Chang RTH et al.
The Journal of Rheumatology 2003; 30; 2257-2262 ‘The efficacy…of Qigong movement in the treatment of fibromyalgia’ a randomized controlled trial. J.A. Astin Ph.D.