Qigong Can Help You Go With the Flow | Omega

A renowned expert of qigong and tai chi with nearly 50 years of experience, Ken Cohen reveals the key to health is learning to reduce stress and maintain your qi.

Omega: In The Way of Qigong, you talk about the concept of going with the flow. How does that idea apply to our health and self-healing?

Ken: “Going with the flow” is more than a trite cliché. There’s actually great wisdom in this concept. What’s the opposite of going with the flow? Swimming against the current, using excess force, or creating friction and stress in your life. According to modern medicine, at least 75 percent of all doctor visits are stress related. Stress, whether physical, emotional, or even environmental—such as living in a polluted or ugly environment—increases the risk of heart disease and cancer, changes the way we metabolize fats and nutrients, makes the mind cloudy, and causes premature aging.

A good reminder about how stress affects us mentally is to think of a loved one who has dementia or Alzheimer’s. I remember how my mother, during her last years, would seem to lose the little bit of memory she had left if she was worried about anything. It is a good reminder to all of us to learn to manage our reactions to stress.

After all, it is not the stressor that is the main culprit, but our reaction to the stressor and whether we have the resilience to bounce back after the traffic jam, financial loss, or argument. 

And this is where qigong, the healing exercise and meditation system from China, is so miraculous. We learn to take charge of our health. This doesn’t mean we won’t need to see the doctor. But we certainly won’t need to see the doctor as often. And very importantly, qigong develops tranquility and self-awareness, making us better observers of our mental health and of the human tendency toward preoccupation and worry. Mark Twain was famous for saying, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” 

From a traditional Chinese viewpoint, health and self-healing depend on the smooth and balanced flow of life force (called qi) in the acupuncture meridian system and throughout the body. If the energy is blocked, then like a dam in a river, there will be too much water or energy on one side of the dam (creating a tendency towards inflammation), and too little energy on the other side (creating a tendency towards depletion and weakness).

In this analogy, we can say that the water inside the dam is no longer flowing naturally. Stagnant water breeds toxic algae and is a more likely host for bacteria. Animals know this instinctively, which is why they prefer flowing water; it explains why your cat tries to drink from the kitchen faucet!

In Chinese medicine, stagnation is considered the root of disease. One of the best treatments for stagnation is qigong. The gentle exercises and meditations dissolve blockages, constriction, and tension.

Omega: What do people need to know about practicing qigong?

Ken: If there is pain, there is no gain. How can you learn if there is pain or pressure, if it is just a matter of should and should not? People feel motivated to practice qigong because it is an enjoyable—though sometimes challenging—way of learning about yourself. The techniques are also adaptable to any level of ability or disability.

The other thing that people need to know is that not all qigong is created equal. There are classical, time-honored qigong methods that produce clear, positive results. And there are others that are unproven or that are taught by immature teachers who have not had sufficient training.

There is a Chinese saying, “If you try to draw a tiger, but you have poor technique, it will look like a dog.” This means that it takes time and perseverance to achieve any skill, and qigong is no different.

Omega: Can you talk about posture? Most people have this idea that we must stand up straight. What have you learned from qigong about the way we stand and hold ourselves up?

Ken: Yes, we need to stand straight, in the sense of being on a plumb line, not leaning front or back, right or left. In this way, the bones stack one on the other and there is minimal pressure on muscles, joints, and spinal vertebrae. Here are the main elements of qigong posture, which are really the essentials of just plain healthy posture. Stand relaxed and straight but not stiff.

Imagine that you are like a tree with roots that go through your feet deep into the earth. Don’t stand on your feet; stand on the ground! Your feet are the roots of the tree. Your head is like the topmost branches, reaching for the sun. The spine is gently elongated. Keep the knees slightly bent. The knees are the body’s shock absorbers.

If you walk locking one knee after the other or if you stand at work or in line at the movies with knees locked, you are not using your shock absorbers. After years of such poor habits, a person is likely to develop joint and spinal pain.

Other important points are to keep the abdomen soft; don’t pull in your belly as that will interfere with deep breathing. Allow the shoulders to sink down, without slouching. The chest, especially the breastbone, is also relaxed, to encourage the shift from shallow thoracic respiration to deep diaphragmatic breathing. If you are breathing properly, the belly very gently expands during inhalation and releases during exhalation. This kind of breathing delivers the most oxygen and energy to your cells.

Omega: Given the pace of the modern world, does everyone need to actively cultivate their qi to maintain health and well-being?

Ken: Absolutely. Other things being equal, people who feel pressured by the clock—more and more things to do in less and less time—are more likely to develop cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and anxiety. To the extent that we cannot control the external world, we need to control the internal one.

As the pace of life quickens, it is important to learn how to stay relaxed and calm and to prevent our heart and respiratory rate from quickening. Qigong teaches these skills. It is a powerful and scientifically tested system to take control of our health. It cannot take the place of Western medicine, but how wonderful to have a practice that is self-empowering, that once learned is free for the rest of our life, and that can reduce our need to see the doctor.

© 2018 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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