In Stephen’s words…
While I was in China studying acupuncture in 1983, I encountered Chigong, which is a Chinese word for breath work. The practice encompasses all manner of non-strenuous exercises, including Taichi. In China I learned that healing wasn’t just about using needles. People were doing much more with physical fitness. Referred to as cultivating chi, or health, it’s a model of growing plants that’s inherent in Taoism, an indigenous religion from China. In fact, Buddhism and Taoism cross-fertilized, but Taoism predates Buddhism.
The Chinese healing arts–the internal arts as they call them–became an important part of my healing practice along with acupuncture. It correlated with my belief that healing has to come from within. The idea that I would do something to fix someone never resonated with me. Of course, the more acute or traumatic the situation is, the more help people need to get back on their feet. But, by and large, health is something one must maintain oneself. That was my conviction all the way through, and I have continued these health practices for thirty-years now.
I also studied yoga around the same time I discovered Chigong. They are both brilliant systems for cultivating health, and I enjoy the practice of both. The difference between Chigong and yoga is that yoga–at least the Hatha yoga I learned–tends to stretch your limits and your range of motion, even in flow poses. It’s about awareness and control, whereas Chigong, is more about awareness and letting out. When you go through a motion you want to flow like water, swim in air. The movement is more curved and spinning, more rounded. A circle versus a square.
Think about nature. How many squares do you see in nature? So, I look for how the body spins and turns and curves. Our mind tends to think in straight lines and that’s fine. It is the shortest point between A and B. We know that. But, is that how the body or relationships really happen? No, it’s spirals! We spin around each other. The Earth, everything, is turning and curving. So, in my class, it’s all about circles, turning and feeling what’s inside and bringing it outside, however you express it.
I want you to feel rooted, too. The first image I bring to you is a tree. Every tree is doing perfect Chigong. It’s firmly rooted in the Earth and anything that is too stiff and rigid is broken off in the wind. Everything is learning to be flexible. Near the core it is strong; near the periphery it is very flexible and sensitive. Every tree and bush is a perfect teacher. In a way, it’s reclaiming our nature. We all have a plant nature. And yet we imagine we are some kind of machine.
But, we have a body, we have feelings, thoughts, and more. We have stress and emotional issues, which can lead to physical problems. In Chigong, you’re asked to let go of your story for awhile and feel your heart and your breath. Come in to the body and feel the sensations of what’s going on, and then move with that. Of course, you’re still going to have your issues, but instead of the tyranny of the mind forcing its way on the body, you can put it on hold for awhile and put your attention to what’s going on right now, with no stories. Heart. Breath. Feelings. Sensations. This puts you in the realm of the body. And from that place, your natural energy starts to come up, and your mind can clear.
People think the mind is the brain, but the whole body is an intelligent system, and the brain is just the top layer. It seems like we just push the top a lot, but if we can come in to the heart, which is the balance point between the physical and mental, it always asks us to pay attention to what’s in the moment. This is clarity. You’re in the moment and you do what needs to be done. And then the next thing happens. You’re not trying to second guess or worry about the past. Clarity comes when you’re able to let go of story and get into the living energy of your body and move forward. It’s very simple actually, but it takes practice.
Chigong and yoga provide a framework where you can practice going inward to your heart center and then downward into your body. That’s the only way you can leave your mind and become less attached to the stories. With time and dedication, you can acquire more space between a compulsive thought, a fearful thought, or self-critical thought. Your nature, our nature, is free of judgment. And, your sense of compassion grows too because you lose the need to be very good or very special.
Some people believe by doing a practice like yoga or Chigong you can shield yourself from all negativity or become powerful. But it’s not that way. You become more humble and willing to put down your stories. Chigong is very earthbound, and yet the philosophy of Taoism has many dimensions. It recognizes that Earth and air are fused with one another, and we are fused to both dimensions. We are not separate, and that’s the first thing to really understand. Once you get that, the idea of transcending the body or trying to leave this place for other planes of existence becomes less important. There is no separate self to be saved, transmuted or transformed in order to become something better.
In a sense, I think it’s what the new Earth is going to need. People that are deeply committed to the Earth because we are the Earth. We are this thin film over the Earth and we need each other. There’s no other place to go. Of course, I know I’ll leave this Earth eventually, but until I leave, I want to live an embodied life. So, the higher dimensions are initially discouraged in Chigong. Yet, a deeper feeling is encouraged. I think of it as super natural, not supernatural. Not above and beyond nature, but deep within nature.
And, you can utilize the rhythms of nature as a conduit to health and vitality. I teach a series of workshops with Yin Yoga teacher Leah Adams timed with the start of each season. We work on developing practices that support balancing the dynamic flow of Chi energy within meridian pathways. The next workshop, on January 9th, is on how to be in winter. What is nature like in winter? How could you be in the winter more naturally? If I could, I would hold all of my classes outdoors, but I do love the space and openness of Dayaalu. I love the community and how they are about the heart first, and then providing practices that support the heart and the community.
Starting in February, at the Chinese New Year, I’ll be inviting students to followChigong Year, a text on East Asian cosmology. It’s not just about the Chinese zodiac. It includes a way to think about life, yin and yang, and the five phases. I’ll explain the cosmology for 15 minutes or so at the start of each class and then go to the movement. I’m excited to carry the energy of seasonal workshops into my regular classes and have a year round conversation.