Build Your Personal Power
While exercise has a measurable effect on our physiology and improves our physical, mental and emotional health, there is another component necessary for true fitness. It’s known as “vital life force,” “qi,” “chi,” “prana,” “divine essence” and it’s what animates all living things. Though it’s invisible, it's something we feel every day. Can't wait to do something? Your chi is probably strong. Can't get out of bed? It’s probably weak. Angry, frustrated or depressed? It’s probably stuck. Our attitudes, emotions and sense of well-being are all influenced by our chi. In Oriental medicine, strong chi is synonymous with excellent health, mental clarity and physical vitality. A weakened or blocked flow of this vital essence is considered the beginning of all disease. Acupuncture is effective because it acts at this “energetic” level.
While it’s thought that we’re born with a limited amount of genetic chi, we can cultivate “acquired” chi through our lifestyle choices. The idea is to balance active and receptive energies, which we can do by getting enough rest, eating well and balancing exercise and recreational activities with those that specifically enhance chi reserves and flow. Interestingly, this vital energy isn’t necessarily enhanced by exercise. Over-exercise or exercising with poor posture or muscular imbalances can actually weaken your life force.
In this chapter I discuss this animating principle in more detail, then look at five different disciplines that can add the “chi factor” to your life. Yoga, an ancient practice enjoying Western popularity, offers seemingly unlimited styles for any shape, size or personality type. Qigong, “the grandfather of martial arts,” can build strength from the inside out, while tai chi chuan (tai chi), known as “moving meditation,” is a gentle introduction to the martial arts, and a great way to build and balance chi. Aikido, “the way of harmonizing with the infinite,” shows that self-defense can be gentle and graceful as well as efficacious. Kung Fu, the most intense way to build chi, appeals to the athletically inclined and will challenge you at every level. Any of these arts will complement your exercise program to uplift your body, mind and spirit and nourish your chi.
The ability to focus and guide chi can lead to extraordinary power and an extremely high pain threshold. A parent lifting a car off a child in an emergency is an example of strong chi (and, of course an adrenaline rush!) in action. The “flying technique” portrayed in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an example of an extreme focus of such energy. This “chi power” is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the strength of older, frail-looking martial arts masters calmly fending off two or more larger, younger opponents with barely the blink of an eye. Sometimes the force emitted from such a master is strong enough to physically knock the opponent down before he even reaches the master.
Live Naturally: Improve Your Health Today
Yoga is offered in most gyms these days, and yoga studios are popping up everywhere, even in rural communities. There are many styles (Astanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Kripalu, Yin Yoga and Viniyoga to name just a few), but all of them are forms of Hatha Yoga. This wonderful self-care system originated in India; the names of the postures are in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. “Ha” means sun; “tha” means moon. Together they express a wholeness of polarities, like the Oriental yin/yang balance. (See Chapter 5 for a more thorough discussion of the principles of yin and yang.)
Yoga postures can be used to strengthen and stretch muscles, joints and connective tissue. The emphasis on lengthening the spine in every posecombined with twisting posturesirrigates vertebrae, keeping them youthful even into old age. The poses, (called “asanas”) promote the flow of energy through the nervous system and assist in the elimination of toxins. They exert a beneficial pressure on glands and internal organs, flushing and stimulating them.
Yoga prevents, relieves or eliminates many symptoms and conditions, including hypertension, arthritis, osteoporosis and diabetes. The discipline also affords mental and emotional fitness. Most people experience a deep sense of well being after the first class, departing with a sense of relaxation and clarity of mind. Others experience emotional “cleansing,” as deeply repressed feelings are released to the surface. On a psychological level, yoga can be a profound tool, gently uncovering negative patterns and offering more comfortable, spacious ways of being with yourself and others.
For those on a spiritual path, the discipline of a regular yoga practice provides a foundation for the trek. The word yoga means “union.” For some, that means union with the divine; for others, it may be uniting hands to feet. But beyond stretching, beyond strengthening, yoga clears pathways within the body. Your natural chi energy can then flow straight through you, like a laser beam of light, illuminating the way.
The multi-dimensional benefits of yoga have been recognized in Germany, Australia and England for use in medical treatment protocols. Here in the United States, Dr. Dean Ornish has established a rehabilitative program for cardiac patients which includes yoga and meditation as pivotal factors in reversing heart disease.
Developing Chi Through Martial Arts
One of the best ways to develop chi is by practicing a martial art. There are literally hundreds to choose from; in fact, more than 300 different styles are practiced in China, where most of them originated. Interestingly, Chinese martial arts arose from the same roots as Chinese medicine. Martial artists were trained in medicine, while doctors were trained in martial arts. Priests and monks were both doctors and martial artists, and were practitioners of “energy medicine.”
Chinese martial arts are differentiated as being either external or internal. Named for their area of origin, the external arts use muscular force, speed and sheer strength to produce power. They emphasize linear movements, high impact contact, jumps, and kicks. Internal martial arts use what the Chinese call “wise force” to overcome opponents. They combine internal chi energy with muscle strength to produce power. Tai chi, Aikido and Kung Fu are internal arts. Along with fighting techniques, internal training often includes standing meditation and exercises to develop chi.
Qigong can be considered the root, or “grandfather” of not only all forms of martial arts, but also of Chinese healing systems. This ancient practice of healing, health maintenance and self-development dates back thousands of years; it involves posture, movement, self-massage, breathing techniques, and meditation. The specific practices are designed to cultivate, increase, and refine chi. Impure or stale energy is eliminated, while the flow of healthy, pure chi is enhanced. You don’t need a large space or special equipment, and it’s easy to learn.
The ultimate goal is to fully develop your body, mind and spirit. With training and experience, you can use qigong for self-healing. When it’s used to heal others, the practice is known as medical qigong. There may be thousands of different “schools,” and the many styles are based on some common principles and practices. Qigong teachers often come from a long lineage of a particular style. (1)
Tai Chi Chuan (Tai Chi)
If you’re looking for a non-impact workout, tai chi chuan (known also as tai chi) may be the perfect choice. Some say it’s the oldest of the martial arts; it’s been practiced in China for centuries and is popular in both rural and industrial areas there today. Originally, tai chi was a fighting form that emphasized strength, balance, flexibility, and speed. Adversarial energy was redirected back to the sender so that an opponent could experience his or her own negative intentions. Today, this art is almost exclusively practiced as therapeutic exercise and meditation, characterized by slow, gentle movements.
Based on the principle of yin and yang, in which opposing but complementary forces combine to create harmony, tai chi developed into a movement and breathing system that exercised all the joints and major muscle groups while circulating internal energy. It is this circulation of chi that prevents or mitigates disease and promotes health. Tai chi increases strength, stamina, and flexibility, and is easy on joints. It cultivates the link between mind and body, enhancing balance and coordination. It also reduces blood pressure, improves oxygen utilization and immune function, increases bone density, and reduces stress hormone levels. Many of these effects have been documented in elderly beginners practicing an abbreviated form for only a few months. If tai chi can have this effect on geriatric beginners, think of what it can do for someone who starts decades sooner!
As with other martial arts, there are many styles and forms. Fundamental to all forms, however, is finding our center, called the “tan tien,” or “reservoir.” We tap into this source of energy deep inside and practice moving it throughout our bodies to heal and nourish the internal organs, and to balance the immune and endocrine systems. When we consciously direct our movements, we can consciously direct our energy. Some people become so adept at this that they can consciously move chi through the subtle channels known as acupuncture meridians.
Tai chi emphasizes continuous, flowing movement. There's no over-extension or wasted effortthe whole body moves in unison, each part balanced by another-gently rotating and transforming into the next movement. Unlike other forms of exercise, Tai chi doesn’t cause panting or breathlessness; breathing deepens as tension is released.
Aikido is a relatively new self-defense art. It was founded in Japan by Professor Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969). As a youth, Ueshiba spent years of intense training in budo, a Japanese martial arts. He was a master of Jiu-jitsu, and was considered unbeatable. As he learned some of the most sophisticated and devastating fighting techniques of Japan, he questioned their intense aggression and the need to defeat others. Inspired by Zen Buddhism and Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion based on love and harmony with nature, Ueshiba sought a more peaceful martial art. He realized that true self-defense was not winning over others, but winning over the discord within oneself. He developed Aikido, which means “the way of harmonizing with the spirit of the universe.” The study of Aikido involves positive character-building ideals along with self-defense techniques.
Although many Aikido moves resemble the techniques and throws of Jiu Jutsu and Judo, this art focuses on controlling the vital energy centered in the abdominal region in order to subdue an opponent. While Judo's main techniques are throwing, grappling, and attacking vital points, Aikido techniques deflect blows and check offensive attacks by meeting rather than blocking blows. Aikido emphasizes nerve points that, when pressed, can bring down an adversary without risk of maiming or killing. The focus is on freeing yourself from grips, throwing an opponent to the ground by exerting precise leverage maneuvers, then immobilizing the adversary by placing pressure on the joints. Students practice forms by alternatively taking the roles of attacker and defender. There is no competition in Aikido; however, ranks are attained in a process similar to judo, and are awarded at formal demonstrations. Some forms include a long staff (called a bo) or a rubber knife.
During practice, students match their movements to those of others, avoiding collisions and conflicts. They discover their own strengths and weaknesses, mastering themselves as they master the art. Aikido is more than a system of self-defense; it promotes peace and harmony among people. It is a spiritual as well as a physical discipline, and is extremely popular around the world, since it does not require great physical strength and can be practiced effectively by women and the elderly.
Kung Fu (Chinese boxing) shares, along with Karate, the distinction of being one of the two most popular martial arts. It employs kicks, crouches, strikes, throws, body turns, dodges, holds, leaps and falls, handsprings and somersaults. This style of martial arts (especially Shaolin Kung Fu) is one of the fiercest and most revered. “Black belts” can harness the focus and control to break a solid brick with a bare hand.
Whereas Karate moves are deliberate, forceful and distinct (punches are linear, kicks are in a straight line, and the body is held rigidly), Kung Fu is smooth and fluidmovements meld imperceptibly into one long, graceful action. Properly coordinated chi creates the fluidity associated with Kung Fu. This martial art requires a strict code of physical and mental discipline unparalleled in Western sports. Kung Fu priests of ancient times were adept in art, medicine, music, religions, animal husbandry, cartography, languages, history, the making of weapons and fighting techniques. The artist had to be more than a fighting machinehe had to know how, where and when to enter a fight, and more importantly, how to avoid conflict. Ironically, only with unbeatable ability was he secure enough not to need to fight.
The self mastery gained from the study and practice of Kung Fu can become an asset you can use in personal, professional, academic and social situations. The skills learned become part of you, a way of being in the world.
Developing Chi Is Worth The Effort
Though it takes patience and perseverance, cultivating chi energy will be an investment you’ll reap rewards from for the rest of your life. It is, after all, what animates all living things. From a single-celled amoeba to the farthest galaxy, chi is behind the scenes creating all the action. Since there is no how to manual for life, enjoy your exploration of this mysterious, yet tangible force, and build your own personal power.
>>> Continue to Chapter 10: Natural Medicine
1 From The Way of chigong, the Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing, Kenneth S. Cohen.