Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Keeping Depression at Bay with an Ancient Chinese Practice

Stories are everywhere. We carry stories in our bodies and unknowingly radiate them into our world -- just as we absorb the stories of other people and places we pass through daily. We have the power to amplify, neutralize, or change those stories.

Qigong is an ancient meditation practice that can help us re-story (and restore) our lives.

I have suffered from depression in the past and in times of high stress I'm still vulnerable to it and its horrible companion, anxiety. In my own case, at least, I've come to understand these two conditions as symptoms of depleted or blocked chi, the life force that flows through all living things. Stress, of course, is a factor in depleting chi. But so are the stories I'm telling myself, even unknowingly, and how I'm caring for my body. As a writer first and foremost, I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer -- an energy vampire if ever there was one.

I work out a gym, and while the eliptical cross-trainer, treadmill, weights, and zumba get my blood flowing and strengthen my muscles, they don't necessarily stop the spinning stories. Nor do they align mind and body. When anxiety is in the neighborhood, I'm unable to sit still long enough to experience a meaningful meditation practice. This is why my Qigong practice is so crucial to my well-being. It synchronizes imagination, emotion, and movement into an unfolding Now, in which the cool stream of life force flows freely. After just a few minutes of practice, I can feel the hum of chi throughout my body and rest within the spaciousness in my brain.

I've heard it said that to get from here to there, we first need to be fully here. Qigong gets us fully into Here. 

One drizzly spring night, after my weekly Qigong class, I flowed along 17th Street to Union Square in Manhattan, where I caught the crowded late night N train to Astoria. It was a typical week night on the MTA, wheels screeching, fellow passengers scowling, jammed, and bouncing miserably against each other as the train snaked through the tunnels beneath Manhattan.

Yet I was happy, peaceful, and in love with everyone -- jiggling along with my eyes closed, smiling cosmically, and filled with a warm hum, a pleasant current of energy that made my insides feel too huge for the small container of my body. The poet James Wright ends his poem “The Blessing” with the line: “I knew that if I could step out of my body I would break into blossom.” Squished in the New York City subway, I felt like that. I was in what my teacher Sharon Smith calls the "Qigong state" -- a truly natural high!

Five thousand years ago, China’s Shaolin and Wudang Mountain monks developed a system of energy manipulation that cultivated Qi, or chi -- the life force that permeates every part of the cosmos, and every living being, plant, stone, and body of water in it.

Observing how nature continually destroyed and repaired itself, the monks developed short dance forms – moving stories really – that imitated and activated the energies of nature. These stories emerged through gentle and repetitive circular motions, in which body, breath, and imagination were aligned, creating a form of moving meditation. Depending on the purpose – whether healing or self-defense -- these dances were performed to evoke the flowing of water, the stability of mountains, creativity of fire, detachment and mutability of wind, nobility of trees, the soaring flight of a crane, lightness of clouds floating across the face of a mountain, lightning flash of a dragon, fountains of chi rising up from the earth and falling again like cleansing rain.

Qigong has a lot in common with the medicine of healing story, which uses plot to hold the attention of listeners while the images, sounds, characters, and language activate specific energies to heal a wounded place in the body or soul of a suffering person.

In the medicine of Qigong, the practitioner focuses on the breath, the images of nature, and correct form, while the movements circulate the chi to where it is needed -- detoxifying blood and internal organs; pumping the immune system; clearing the lungs; strengthening the heart, back, and legs; settling the mind; lifting the spirits; and connecting the dancer’s inner world with their external space.

One of the most powerful forms I’ve learned from Sharon is Taiji Shen Gong, an original form of Tai Chi. Sharon learned this from her teacher Li Jun Feng, one of the primary Qigong masters and martial artists of our time. You can see a version of this beautiful form performed by Li Jun, Teacher Li's daughter, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2Nubdl3M2w.

This form tells the story of creation: Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. It is composed of nine movements: the first two tell the creation story of heaven and earth. The next seven replicate the creation of a fully conscious human being, from awe at awakening to the universe, to gathering its energy, playing with it, stabilizing it, and finally standing firm and flexible as a tree rooted deeply in earth and reaching high into the heavens. Every time I do this form – whether in my small apartment, on the banks of the East River, or in the middle of my noisy gym with hip hop blaring and free weights crashing, I feel serene in the midst of the ten thousand things, and much better able to handle the demands and stresses of life.

Sharon Smith, at Wudang Mountain, China
If you live in the New York City area and want to study with a gifted teacher who has nearly 30 years’ experience in ancient Chinese healing practices, visit http://www.taosharon.com for a full schedule of classes.

Qigong, as all of Taoism, tells the cosmic story, the endless drama of change in which we're each a tiny fractal, carrying within us the same energies that propel planets. We can learn to channel these energies to bring healing and renewal to our own lives, the lives of others, and the life of the earth.

Recommended DVD and book:
Wuji Yuan Gong: A Return to Oneness, the Qigong of Unconditional Love, with Teacher Li Jun Feng. http://www.shengzhen.org/bookstore.htm.

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