Qigong—Mind/Body Medicine, or All in My Head?
“Balance your weight equally on your feet. Keep your arms curved in an arc at chest level, fingers a few inches apart, pointing at one another. Relax your shoulders, tuck your tailbone and straighten your spine. Your head should press heaven, as though it’s suspended from above by a string, which lengthens your backbone and creates space between the vertebrae.
“Touch your tongue lightly against the roof of your mouth. Expand your belly and the small of your back as you breathe, and open and close the huiyin cavity between your genitals and anus at the same time. Okay, good…now relax.”
Rami, my meditation teacher, recited the familiar list of instructions for the standing post meditation known as Embracing the Tree. I’d practiced it almost every day since I’d met him, and could maintain the position for one hour without lowering my arms.
That seemed like a major accomplishment: when we first began our private lessons six months earlier, pain from the tumor in my right shoulder prevented me from even lifting my right arm to chest level, never mind holding it there. Since then I’d undergone months of preliminary chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer and prepare for the bone-marrow transplant designed to ‘cure’ the disease forever. I’d practiced the art of qigong—which means “energy study” in Chinese—every day to keep my mind and body strong.
Qigong has been practiced and developed by the Chinese people for over 5,000 years. The exercises and meditations are designed to integrate the mind and body to stimulate the unimpeded flow of chi, or bio-electricity, through meridians and channels in the body. The Chinese feel that this vital energy permeates the universe and can be controlled in the human body through various means such as meditation, herbal medicines, diet and acupuncture. When this chi flows properly, good health is maintained.
Bio-electricity? No one has ever proved that it flows throughout the body. But the brain operates by a combination of electrical and chemical means, as does the heart. Why not the entire body?
Acupuncture—inserting needles at various points to stimulate this bio-electric flow—has been shown to work. Chinese doctors have used it successfully to treat patients for many diseases. They’ve even used it in the place of anesthesia during major operations.
Many Western experts scoff at the notion of regulating this energy flowing throughout the human body. They feel that acupuncture, for example, works because of the power of suggestion: the Chinese expect it to work, so it does. But Asian veterinarians use it as anesthesia before operating on pets. Those Chinese sure have gullible dogs!
Other experts say that the existence of chi can’t be proven under laboratory conditions, hence it doesn’t exist. But what about the force known as gravity? No one denies its existence, yet no one ever has seen gravity or captured it in a test tube or beaker. But we measure its effects every time we walk across the lawn without being sucked up into the atmosphere, weightless.
When it comes to this energy known as chi, experience is the best teacher—you have to feel it operate in your own body. You have to see the puzzled looks on the doctors’ faces when you and your immune system should be as dead as the Hittites, yet both of you are doing okay.
If it could be talked about, everyone would’ve told his brother.
My meditation instructor, Rami Rones, had studied qigong, tai chi chuan, and various forms of martial arts for over twenty years under the tutelage of Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, the leader of the worldwide Yang’s Martial Art Association (YMAA) headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts.
Rami had won gold medals in international competitions in the United States and China. After competing for many years and winning, he was looking for new challenges. Dr. Yang suggested he take on one of the biggest challenges: trying to help people with cancer recover by using qigong to complement Western medicine. Through private lessons, he was working with me and several other people to use these ancient techniques to help defeat our cancers and keep our immune systems strong against the onslaught of chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
Rami did not mention the concept of chi the first few times we met. Instead, he focused on the importance of breathing deeply from the bottom of the lungs to oxygenate the blood. He discussed how stretching and slow qigong exercises, coordinated with the breath, could stimulate and nourish the body’s internal organs so that they would function at a higher level.
This was a new concept to me. I’d always thought of exercise as stimulating muscle growth and increasing heart/lung capacity, period. But stimulating the liver and spleen to operate more efficiently? Stretching to massage the kidneys and the adrenal glands to promote better endocrine function? Breathing deeply to pull energy into the bone marrow to bolster the immune system?
People from the East exercise from the inside out, coordinating the mind, body and breathing. They feel that a strong body starts with the torso, as most people eventually will die from organ malfunction, not from a problem with the arms or legs.
People from the West exercise from the outside in, using the mind and breathing in a rudimentary way, if at all. You get bigger muscles, but they don’t help much in fighting disease. I always thought exercise—weightlifting, running, etc.—was mainly to have a better-looking body. I never even considered my internal organs and bodily processes. Facing my third bout with cancer, it was time I did.