I started training Qigong when I was sixteen. The year was 1996, and Melbourne had just become home to the Grand Prix. Unbeknownst to me, the first classes I was ever to attend started across the road on one fine Saturday morning, and the dulcet tones of race cars preparing for their event shepherded me into my first experience of training.
It went very well. It was a self-healing method, the classes were run by an acupuncturist who later treated me for a variety of injuries. If you’re unfamiliar, you can think of qigong as a kind of Chinese yoga: breath work, or energy exercise would be more literal translations. Sometimes training requires challenging postures and movements, sometimes simple stillness, sitting with the breath, and sometimes anything in between.
In the earlier part of the next millennium, I trained with a teacher in Coolangatta. One meditation session was situated by a lake, in sight of a mountain, and he explained that the busy freeway behind us made the setting perfect for practice. We had the water, the mountains, we were surrounded by nature, and the cars forced us to practice well. It is easy to be relaxed and calm when you are surrounded by calm. You need a little distraction if you want to train the mind to find peace amidst chaos. Finding peace when you are surrounded by peace is not so hard. Over time, you should seek out more challenging environments in which to practice.
These days, I will meditate at the gym, after weightlifting. It takes a moment to let go of feelings of self-consciousness.
People talk sometimes about balancing internal energy, harmonising your organs, synchronising the five elements and developing your chi. But it’s not magical. One of my teachers used to insist there are no miracles.
And more recently, I saw a Shaolin monk say that the goal of practice is just to have a normal body. Once I would not have considered that ambitious but oh, to have a normal body! The older I get, the more I connect with the sentiment; it's not about legendary feats of athleticism, the kinds of things you see in kung fu films, instead: to just function naturally. So many people promise radiant health and miracles of focus and concentration, it’s easy to lose touch with how great it is to feel functional, as if you possess just a base level of wellness, even if like me, you are on life-long medication of some kind.
I was drawn to Chinese Medicine because of the concept that there’s no such thing as an incurable illness. But they’re not naive about it – it’s a philosophical concept – obviously not everything can be cured. But all things in balance. And you do what you can to take care of yourself.
People promise a lot in the fitness industry. For many years, I was hopeful for miracles, and so I neglected to appreciate the everyday benefits that could be found by training your breath, by practicing flexibility and mobility exercises. As a teenager and a young man, I would automatically centre myself by focusing on my breath, so it took me a while to realise that anxiety was something I experienced, I just had automatic go-to methods to help me cope with stress. Always back to the breath.
Sometimes people tell me they can’t meditate, because they can’t quiet their mind. But that’s the process – quieting the mind isn’t a prerequisite, it’s one of many goals. Meditation isn’t something you do once you’re quiet, it’s something that can help you to find peace amidst chaos. It doesn’t fix everything, it can simply help a bit. My favourite techniques are not complicated, they are phenomenally simple. It just takes a little time, a little practice, to work it out.
So these days, simple relaxed movements, controlled stretches, some more vigorous techniques to stimulate the body. Training is straight-forward, and ultimately, should leave you feeling fresh, relaxed, energetic. It is important not to do too much, but to give yourself the opportunity for frequent practice of the things that you find helpful.