BODY, RELAXED MIND
Emotions that have been repressed for long periods of time are armored into specific muscular tensions and postural defects. For instance, if we tense our throat when we are unhappy, rather than releasing the pressure of sorrow with tears, this might eventually become chronic neck pain. If we depress the chest in reaction to ridicule, this could result in impaired breathing and respiratory problems. A child who stiffens the spine because of fright could develop a poor, inflexible posture.
Unfortunately, these internalized tensions tend to stay with us. As we become used to tension, it becomes part of our reality and identity. The tension and the situation that engendered it lapse into unconsciousness. This is the root of many chronic psychosomatic disorders.
Through qigong practice, we learn how to bring tense areas of the body into the light of awareness. Awareness is so powerful that it is sometimes suf-ficient to change a fixed pattern of behavior. Emotions that have been locked
the tension come more easily into consciousness. Old memories and
thaw out, released from the frozen tissue. If this does not resolve the
issue, it at least makes it available to work with, whether in one's
in-trospective process or with a psychotherapist. I know this from
with many thousands of students over the past twenty-five years and
When I began qigong, at age sixteen, the experience of relaxed abdomi-nal breathing came as a revelation. My first qigong and Taiji Quan teacher, Mr. Tom Downes, is now a close personal friend and professional colleague. Once when we were teaching a class together, a student asked Tom, "But can qigong really heal the emotions?' Tom replied affirmatively while giving me a wink and a twinkle. He remembered the sickly, insomniac, nervous teenager who came to him for Taiji Quan classes thirty years ago. When I leamed how to breathe, I felt centered and relaxed. Deep breathing put me in touch with deeper feelings. I was able to understand and feel how my childhood problems with low self-esteem and performance anxiety had af-fected me physically. In learning to breathe abdominally, I restored freedom of choice to my body and mind. I discovered that there was an option, an-other way to be. The changes I experienced through qigong practice were re-inforced with intensive work in Gestalt, Bioenergetics, and other forms of therapy. I firmly believe that qigong and psychotherapy are congruent and compatible healing modalities. Sometimes either technique is enough to solve a problem; often both are required.
The foundation of qigong is song, relaxation and tranquillity. Instead of making an effort and doing more, it may be important to do less! Through regular qigong practice, you learn how to achieve a relaxed, quiet center. It becomes easier to return to this sensation when you begin to feel over-whelmed by emotions or preoccupied with particular thoughts. Thus, your emotions are much less likely to become extreme or out of control. Sometimes all that is required is asking yourself, "Am I breathing? Am I standing on the ground?" Daoists call this psychological state Thiji, the same term used in the Taiji Quan form of qigong. Taiji means the balance point between yin and yang, the place of stillness amid change. Finding the Taiji state of mind is equivalent to finding what Thoreau called "the witness self," an aspect of the self that is untouched by life's turmoil and that can be ac-cessed during times of difficulty.
Relaxation is not as easy as it sounds. It involves physical and mental transformation. Physical rigidity always produces mental rigidity and vice versa. Obsessive patterns of thinking accompany repetitive internal tensions. Sometimes these tensions are very subtle, as with tension in the jaw, tongue, or deep connective tissue. People who are constantly thinking, who have forgotten the location of the off switch in their internal TV, are usually speaking to themselves as well. The tongue and jaw contract, release, and make extremely small, invisible movements continuously. The fact that ten-sion is often unconscious or chronic does not make it any less damaging. What you don't know can hurt you! Continuous tension, whether conscious or not, is a continuous drain on the vitality and qi. Chinese medicine con-siders these tensions to be the root of most psychological problems.
Sometimes, even when obsessive thoughts or emotional behavior have ceased, the physical rigidity continues and eventually re-creates the pathological condition. This becomes a vicious circle, a negative feedback loop. The situation can become quite complex, considering the way muscular tension also affects the functioning of the internal organs, particularly the liver. For instance, according to Chinese medicine, the liver controls tension in the muscles and ligaments and also helps spread qi through the body. (This explains the central role of the liver among the organs. Even if one gathers qi with qigong, if the liver is unhealthy, the qi cannot spread and reach the areas where it is needed.) When the body is tense, the liver is not able to function optimally. When the liver is unhealthy, the body becomes tense. Again we have a vicious circle.
Mental/Emotional Tension = Physical Tension = Liver Imbalance = Qi Stagnation
The only way out of this loop is by focusing attention. Awareness is the essential ingredient in relaxation. Once the student is aware, it is possible to feel what is wrong and to exercise some control. This is called ting jing, "lis-tening to the energy." Listening to the energy leads to dong jing, "compre-hending and controlling the energy." However, since tension and effort are the problems, awareness and relaxation, although certainly involving focus and intent, should be effortless, a process of surrendering. Can you try to re-lax? I think not. Relaxation is a matter of paying attention and not doing.
I saw a wonderful clinical example of the power of relaxation very early in my teaching career. A mate psychiatric nurse, M., requested a series of pri-vate Taiji Quan classes. M. was a large, brawny man, approximately forty years old with no physical complaints or noticeable disabilities. M. had enormous difficulties trying to master even the most basic movements. As soon as he tried to perform the exercise, he became tense, dyslexic, and confused. If I asked him to shift to his right leg, he would shift to his left. If I asked him to stand with a straight spine, his left arm raised, he would lean to one side with both arms dangling. Yet he thoroughly believed that he was following in-structions, until I very slowly and carefully pointed out to him the difference between what he was doing and what he thought he was doing. It seemed that he had a neurological or cognitive problem that only became visible in the context of slow, choreographed movement. After several months of practice, he had memorized as many techniques as an average student could team in the first few classes. I nevertheless demonstrated the entire Taiji Quan sequence for him at the end of each class.
One day I had a sudden inspiration. I took out a set of boxing gloves and asked M. to put them on. He pulled them over his large hands and looked at me strangely, perhaps somewhat nervously, as he knew that I had advanced training in the Chinese martial arts. I put my hands behind my back and told M., "Hit me." "I can't do that, Ken. You're my teacher, and I consider you a friend." I explained that this was a coordination exercise. I would dance out of the way, keeping my hands behind me. I wouldn't hit back. He had to keep trying to hit me until he scored three punches on my face or torso.
At first M. was hesitant, punching slowly and haphazardly. After five minutes, he began to pick up speed and to show a glimmer of the coordina-tion he had lacked for all these months. A few minutes later, M.'s face and body were drenched in sweat. He stopped and asked, "Can I stop now, I'm exhausted." 'Not yet, you've only scored once. We can't stop until you've hit me three times, even if it takes all night!" We continued another ten min-utes, until M. was near the point of complete exhaustion. I then allowed M. to take off the gloves. Before he could collapse on a chair, I asked him, "Would you please do the Taiji Quan exercise?" He said, "But I only learned the first five movements." 'Never mind, just do what you can." M. began the Taiji Quan form. To my absolute amazement, he performed the entire sequence almost perfectly. At some unconscious level he had been learning Taiji Quan, even when his conscious mind denied it.
Taiji Quan is an extremely complex choreographed exercise. It would be a near-impossible feat for even an experienced dancer to learn it from obser-vation. Yet here was M. performing an exquisite qigong routine. When he finished, he didn't quite realize what had occurred and asked me, "Was that all right?" Then it hit him. He exclaimed, "Well, I'll be! I wasn't even trying! I wasn't even trying!" Perhaps trying had been his problem all along. He needed to be brought to a state where he was so utterly exhausted that trying was impossible. At this point, "Man's extremity is God's opportunity." Qigong just happened!
This experience was a breakthrough for M., a kind of satori, "sudden en-lightenment," as they say in Zen Buddhism. From that day on, M. was able to learn Taiji Quan techniques as easily as a normal student. The most interest-ing aspect of the experience was what I teamed from M.'s coworkers. After his breakthrough, M., who had been considered antisocial, began making friends with the other nurses. He also revealed that learning how to relax had cured both his insomnia and his drinking problem.
These effects lasted during the several months that M. continued study-ing with me and were still evident when I checked with him a year later. M. once told me that I taught him "many important lessons about life." I know that he taught me just as many.
Mastery of relaxation is an ongoing challenge at every stage of qigong training. There always seems to be a deeper level of relaxation we can attain, further places where we can let go and do less. The shift from tension to re-laxation parallels a shift from distraction and lack of focus to silent aware-ness. The brain waves slow down, moving from quick beta waves, which characterize the use of language and intellect, to the slow alpha and theta, demonstrating a focused, aware, and intuitive state. The strong presence of slow alpha and theta waves, commonly seen in the EEGs of qigong practi-tioners, also suggests that repressed images and feelings can rise more easily to the surface of consciousness.
Thus, we can look at how relaxation can encourage the release and reso-lution of emotional issues from two complementary perspectives. On the one hand, as tension is released, the emotions locked into tense muscles are also released. On the other hand, physical relaxation creates a slower metabo-lism, slower pulse, slower and more relaxed respiration, and slower brain waves. The slow brain waves correspond to the opening of rigid boundaries between the unconscious and conscious mind, so that, again, we can become aware of repressed and inhibited emotions and, hopefully, express and release them in an appropriate way.
Relaxation, although the foundation of qigong training, is not the only principle with psychological implications.
Note: The Yogic concept of Prana and the East Asian concept of Chi or Qi are identical.<> >