WHEN I was growing up, my grandfather, who was from Hong Kong, did qigong every morning in the driveway while visiting us in the Chicago suburbs. Our neighbors were mystified; so was I. I never asked what he was doing out there. He looked focused; I stayed away.
Taking a qigong class at the International Wudang Internal Martial Arts Academy in the Chinatown International District felt like a chance to figure out what he was up to all those years ago.
I knew qigong was connected to “qi,” translated from Chinese as vital energy. It is the father martial art to some more familiar offshoots, such as tai chi. Focusing on my internal energy sounded especially appealing to ease the strain of the upcoming busy holidays.
Our teacher, Dr. Mei-Hui Lu, is a wealth of knowledge about the art — from the physical and meditation practices to how it works with traditional Chinese medicine. Tai chi tends to be more vigorous while qigong includes meditation, which could be practiced seated or lying down, in addition to discussion and the moving practice I witnessed growing up.
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We started class with some standing warm-ups to connect to our energy and get our qi moving. Lu spoke to the “dantian,” the center of energy below the navel, and then had us bounce in place, slowly at first, then more vigorously as we turned side to side. Her cues were specific and clear, and she kept reminding us to look at the wall in front of us to keep our qi from settling down to the earth as she moved around the room adjusting form.
I felt more settled after that. Then we moved into a seat for meditation. She explained a simple mudra, or hand gesture, resting one palm in the other to balance our yin and yang energy. We sat for five minutes, then plugged our ears with our fingers. It was much easier to hear my own breath and keep focused.
After meditation, Lu took us through a fairly lengthy lecture about different kinds of qi. It was far more detail than I could totally absorb, yet it was a fascinating lesson in the history and study of energy in the body.
That took awhile, and I wondered if we would get to the active qigong part. I should have had faith.
Lu, who has remarkable flexibility in her 60s, started with some deep stretches in the hips. Then we got into the movement qigong.
Most of the students were familiar with the routine as we moved slowly and with control, clenching our fists, pressing our palms into energy channels in our legs, arms and torso. It wasn’t hard to follow, but I could tell I was missing some subtleties of energy reading as I tried to keep my balance and move in sync with the class. We stretched from one direction to the other, and Lu kept our focus on our breath as we moved, Chinese instrumental music playing in the background.
There are lots of ways to practice qigong but at Wudang, it’s considered so important that all tai chi students are required to study it.
With more time, I could tell I’d be able to connect in a new way to my own energy; and even with just one class, I felt reconnected to me. I also could tell I barely brushed the surface of an ancient art that is clearly a lifelong practice.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.