An article published in the Qidao magasine for the opening of Qidao School in June 2016.
When I began to learn qigong three years ago I thought I would learn the movements, know the method and it would be enough. Like some health mantras or shamanic dances that would heal me if performed often enough. I didn’t realize, then, that three years later I would still be learning the movements and making corrections.
I came to Qigong motivated by health issues that the western medicine could not solve. When I arrived in China, I had chronic digestive problems, and was subject to panic attacks that could occur any time of day and night. I was raised believing that western medicine could solve anything, so I had spent many hours consulting doctors, going through examinations and check-ups. Each time to hear that nothing they could detect was wrong. I was very anxious to find a label to my condition in order to control and fight it.
After one year in Shanghai, I had more or less given up on western medicine when a friend of mine told me about International Qigong trainings on Saturdays. “Qigong is good for health,” she said. Having practiced Yang style Taiji for two years when I was in France, I would probably find it interesting. And if it was good for health, why not. I wanted to believe that the body had the capacity to heal itself. So I registered for the class and began to learn Liuzijue (Six Healing Sounds) with Dr Sun Lei.
I quickly faced several challenges.
The first challenge was sustaining the efforts during the practice. With my digestive problems and my fear of painful body feelings, I had lost weight and muscle power. The practice of standing position felt like torture and I doubted I could possibly enjoy it one day. As frequently as I could, I would move my body to relax the pain on my shoulders, my lower back or my legs, while I was really trying to spend less time in that position. I didn’t understand its purpose or its potential benefits, and it made me feel very tired.
The second challenge was that my body didn’t seem to respond to my commands. At the beginning, and for a long time, Dr Sun would tell me to relax my shoulders. Every time he came to me, he said: “relax your shoulders”, giving a small tap to bring my attention to them. I must say that I wasn’t aware that they were tense; I didn’t know any other state for my shoulders. I had this idea that we control our body with our thoughts or with our will. But the more I attempted to will my shoulders to relax, the tenser they got and the more painful the sessions were. The more the teacher told me to relax my shoulders, the more I got upset. The only progress I made was toward tension.
The third, but not the least of these challenges, was that I thought I knew things. As westerners we often want to know or understand before we do, and qigong practice is no exception. In China, earnest practice is what leads to understanding the principles behind the movements or the method.
Many times I was tempted to quit. It was too much pressure upon my body or upon my feelings (pride was one of them) and my beliefs. The process seemed slow, and I thought I didn’t have that much time to heal myself. Dr Sun had told us many times that it could take three months to three years to have a good position for mingmen (lower back). From my point of view, it seemed that three years wouldn’t be enough for my body to get stronger. I couldn’t help but think it was just the starting point. I had a choice to make. Should I continue the practice or just quit and let my body deteriorate?
I had already made my choice of course. My motivation toward health was strong and I believed I had nowhere else to go. The teacher would say that changes would take root after three months to three years only if you were practicing every day at least for fifteen minutes. So, I decided to take thirty minutes each day for qigong. One hour seemed above my reach.
Sometimes I was proud of my practice and I thought I had understood something about what Dr Sun had told me. So I was eagerly waiting for his next comment during the next class. But class after class the comments remained the same, “relax your shoulders”, “open mingmen”, “relax your thighs”… I was desperate. If all my efforts and will were not enough to improve my practice, what was the point of continuing?
A turning point came one day as I was practicing at home. It was on a grey day, one year after I had begun the qigong training. I’d had little sleep, and felt cold. In truth, I had very little desire to practice, but I was ready to force myself to stand for the required fifteen minutes. Although, for some reason, that day I couldn’t ignore the reaction of my body. The mere idea of zhanzhuang was making me feel exhausted. Each time I tried to turn on the timer, I felt my throat getting tense. There was certainly something else to do instead of suffering the practice. My thoughts were already providing alternatives to qigong practice: read a book, sit, take a nap…
So I gave up. I accepted that I couldn’t force myself into the practice that day. I sat, feeling a bit disappointed but mostly relieved.
The burden of the practice dissipated: in a few seconds I was feeling energized, not exhausted as I first believed, and to my surprise a desire to stand emerged from my body. So I laughed. And then I stood in the room for fifteen minutes, unclouded by obligations or threats of bad health. After that, each time I was feeling tense or not in the mood for practice I reminded myself that I had the choice of not practicing, and as there was no pressure, there was also no reason not to practice. It seemed my mind and my body had finally reached an agreement.
Now, even if I had no more pressure to practice I was still going nowhere in relation to my shoulders. I still had no idea of how to lower or relax them. I wondered if I could use the same trick for relaxing the shoulders. Could I make my shoulders relax by accepting that they were not relaxed? I knew it was a delicate matter because it had to be true in my heart and not just a way to deceive my mind or my body if I wanted it to work. So day after day, as I stood in the practice room tight with sore shoulders, I kept asking myself if it was ok that they never got relaxed and still keep on going with the qigong. The thought was bitter and not easy to swallow, especially when in class Dr Sun was telling me to lower and relax my shoulders. Gradually, the question evolved into “is it ok to keep on practicing if my whole body never gets relaxed?”
I had begun to go to classes during the week and part of the solution for my shoulders came from one sentence Claire Zmiro said to me. During the Liuzijue class she had opened, she often said that when you stand, you want to feel your arms have the weight of a sleeping baby. One day, as she asked me to relax my arm into her hand so that she could feel that weight, I was forced to realize I was totally unable to let go of my arms in her hand. Even when I didn’t raise my arms in the standing posture, I was still holding them up tightly. Even when I put my hands on the dining table, my shoulders would never rest, holding my arms so that they wouldn’t weight on the table. That was too much consideration for the objects around me.
I looked for different ways to feel that weight of my arms. How could I make them weigh naturally with the gravity instead of using strength and pushing down? I had noticed I couldn’t delude the teachers into taking muscle strength for relaxation. So I observed other people and began to play. If I couldn’t command my body to relax, maybe it would relax if I could allow it to do so in a more natural way. Going back to the natural state was a recurring theme during the Saturday qigong training, and the idea was calling me. And after one year and a few months of qigong practice I was beginning to understand that it was a slow process.
In between theoretical training and formal practice, the students often play two by two or with groups to check their progresses or share experiences and advices. There is one exercise that we can play by two that I particularly like because we can experience so many different aspects of the practice with another person. During one week-end, I was looking at two students holding each other’s wrists and using the weight of the other person to support their own body. The key element of that exercise is to relax your shoulders and arms so that a natural balance occurs between the two bodies and both persons can squat down in a relaxed way. If one person’s back or shoulders get tense then the other would be pulled forward and most certainly lose their stability. I observed a few minutes and asked the person I thought had the best roots to play with me.
I almost regretted it because he used tricks to force me to relax and let go of my tightness. I’m glad he had very good roots because as he shifted his body weight to make me lose my balance, he was also able to catch me back so that I do not fall. And supported by the feeling that he could help my body understand something, I kept on playing the weight game. After a few minutes of that treatment I was exhausted and a bit shaken. But I had felt things that seemed promising. The first thing I did when I got back home was find a heavy furniture that I could use as a counterweight to help me play the game alone. Something that I could grab and use to feel that weight. My choice settled on the handle of a strong balcony. It was not too high and not too low. I could use it to go down and get up. I even had the idea to use it as I was doing zhanzhuang so that I didn’t have to use my shoulders to lift up my arms.
The most important thing that happened to me at that time was not that I found the right exercise or the right movement. It was not even that my shoulders got relaxed or not. It was more a progressive change of attitude toward my body, my mind and the practice of qigong. My motivations had begun to change from necessity to playfulness. I had stopped analyzing, trying to find a way to a means, or to understand everything. I was no more practicing qigong because I had to heal or to know, but I was practicing because qigong had become part of my life.
Later that year, I fell ill from the flu, and got out of it completely drained. Since I arrived in China my body would often react more strongly to diseases. So, I had to rest more often and my body didn’t seem to get stronger even with qigong practice. I asked advice to my teacher, Dr Sun, who advised me to see a Chinese doctor at the Nanchanglu TCM clinic. It was my first contact with Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Dr Shen explained to me what he had noticed with my pulse and how my qi was weak and that, among other things, I needed to reinforce the kidney qi. He prescribed me some Chinese herbs and the clinic prepared one week of potion for me. All I had to do was to warm up the individual doses and drink twice a day. After two days, I had more energy than I could use. I almost stopped taking the medication but decided to go through with it. It was a more direct experience of what we had learned during the TCM class of the International training.
I came to the clinic regularly afterward and began to make connections between theory and practice, between TCM and Qigong. Soon after, my body began to get stronger. My sleep improved. The emotions and the thoughts became easier to appease through meditation. It was a virtuous circle that helped me through my three main challenges. As I practiced and changed my attitude, I could relax my mind and my body. As I was more relaxed, the less effort I had to make during practice. I had relaxed my need to know intellectually and my expectations of results, allowing a more natural process to take place.
When Dr Sun stopped telling me so often to relax my shoulders I knew that I was on the right path.
When after the second year of practice he asked me to perform the Six Healing Sounds with him and Claire at the Qigong Symposium, I wondered if I was ready. I doubted I was ready.
But it didn’t matter as much as it would have before, and I chose to take the path opening in front of me.
It was, after all, simply an occasion to share the practice, and yes, do the movements and make corrections, and remind myself to keep on letting go of my judgements expectations about myself.
And to keep on relaxing my shoulders.