The ‘Best Exercise’ For Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia: Laurie Hope on Qigong
Qigong is the best exercise I have found for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. Laurie Hope
What is Qi? (also chi, ch’i, ki)
Chances are if you’re on this website you have some problem with qi. Qi is the Chinese name for the life force or vital energy that flows around and through our bodies, animating our cells and keeping us healthy. It is the same thing as ‘prana’ in yoga. When properly nurtured, qi is capable of extending beyond the human body to reach throughout the universe.
What is Qigong?
“There are infinite ways to move and strengthen qi”
‘Gong’ means practice or work. Any practice that works to increase or balance the flow of qi can be called a qigong. It is said that there are 10,000 forms of qigong, which is the Chinese metaphor for infinite, so there are infinite ways to move and strengthen qi. This means that there is a qigong practice suited for everyone, even for people too ill to practice other forms of exercise. Qigong is practiced in Chinese hospitals and is an important part of traditional Chinese medicine.
There are qigong practices that require nothing more than lying down, breathing and directing the qi flow with your mind. There are specific gongs for specific illness, such as cancer, high blood pressure, or digestive problems. There are slow gongs, fast gongs, short gongs, long sequence gongs, shaking gongs and gongs that use sounds. There are spontaneous gongs where you allow your body to do whatever it feels like, trusting that the intelligence of your system will lead you to harmony. The important thing is to find those practices that work best for you.
Where Does Qi Come From?
Qi cannot circulate in an unrelaxed body so the more relaxed we are the stronger our qi will become.
We are all born with a given qi constitution inherited from our parents. This gets consumed through the course of our life and there’s not much we can do about this. But we also receive qi from food, water, air and sunlight, and it is possible for other living beings to transmit qi to us as well. Our lifestyle can add to or diminish our qi field considerably. We all know what it feels like to be energized by being in a qi-filled natural environment such as a forest or by the ocean. Qi cannot circulate in an unrelaxed body so the more relaxed we are the stronger our qi will become.
Why Qigong is the Perfect Exercise for ME/CFS/FMS
ME/CFS is a disease of qi deficiency. When there is deficient qi it cannot circulate well through the energy pathways (meridians) of the body. The inner organs depend on the flow of sufficient qi to do their jobs properly. Stagnant qi can result in pain and many other symptoms.
Specific qigong postures and movements help us release stagnant or toxic qi and there are also gongs that help us pull strengthening universal qi into our systems.
While many forms of exercise are not possible for people with ME/CFS, qigong is slow, gentle and integrative. Even just a few minutes of practice can trigger the relaxation response and lower stress levels. Many gongs focus on strengthening the kidneys/adrenals and since ME/CFS is usually accompanied by adrenal exhaustion this is very important. Practices to increase digestive ‘fire’ can also be extremely helpful.
When our bodies are chronically uncomfortable we tend to disconnect from them.
Qigong embodies the Taoist idea: “I am in the Universe. The Universe is in me.” Because illness can be isolating, qigong helps to relax any sense of separation by connecting us to the universal life force. When our bodies are chronically uncomfortable we tend to disconnect from them. Qigong invites us to connect our breath, feelings and body sensations. The more embodied and grounded we are, the more we can receive qi from the earth, and the more open and relaxed we are, the more we can receive the cosmic qi all around us.
Mind moves Qi.
“First in the mind, then in the body.”
The Taiji classics say, “First in the mind, then in the body.” Qi can be directed by intention and willpower. Even on my most brain-fogged days when exercise is impossible, I can still practice breathing into my navel area. This “dantian” is our qi storehouse, and focusing on it can help build our qi reserves. Plus it’s a good way to calm the mind as it encourages energy to flow downwards out of our heads.
Because energy follows attention, we can use our minds to clear blocked pathways, increase energy flow to specific areas and nourish ourselves physically and emotionally.
Balancing Yin and Yang
The yin/yang symbol represents the transformational processes of life. All things contain their opposite and life is a continual flow between these forces. The practice of qigong helps us to be both strong and soft, expanded and grounded, active and receptive. By opening the crown of the head to ‘Heaven’ (the cosmic qi field, or spirit) and rooting the feet in ‘Earth’ (form, matter), we are balancing and stabilizing the opposites within ourselves.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) also works with the qualities of the 5 elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) to maintain harmony of not only our bodies and organs but our emotional and mental energies as well. The TCM system is quite elegant, elaborate and exquisitely subtle, but it is not important to have a full understanding of it in order to benefit from qigong.
Inner Smile Practice
You can listen to the Inner Smile practice on my website. This version is an adaptation of Mantak Chia’s practice which can be found in some of his excellent books on qigong.
Also, Elizabeth Reninger is an acupuncturist and TCM teacher who has some lovely simple qigong practices on her website:
Here is her version of the Inner Smile practice:
One of the most well-known of Taoist ‘neidan’ (Inner Alchemy) practices is the “Inner Smile” – in which we smile inwardly to each of the major organs of our body, activating within us the energy of loving-kindness, and waking up the Five-Element associational network. Here we will learn a variation on this classic practice, which allows us to direct the healing energy of a smile into any part of our body that we would like …
Time Required: 10 – 30 minutes, or longer if you’d like
- Sit comfortably, either on a straight-backed chair, or on the floor. The important thing is for your spine to be in an upright position, and your head arranged to allow the muscles of your neck and throat to feel relaxed.
- Take a couple of deep, slow breaths, noticing how your abdomen rises with each inhalation, then relaxes back toward your spine with each exhalation. Let go of thoughts of past or future.
- Rest the tip of your tongue gently on the roof of your mouth, somewhere behind, and close to, your upper front teeth. You’ll find the spot that feels perfect.
- Smile gently, allowing your lips to feel full and smooth as they spread to the side and lift just slightly. This smile should be kind of like the Mona Lisa smile, or how we might smile – mostly to ourselves – if we had just gotten a joke that someone told us several days ago: nothing too extreme, just the kind of thing that relaxes our entire face and head, and makes us start to feel good inside.
- Now bring your attention to the space between your eyebrows (the “Third Eye” center). As you rest your attention there, energy will begin to gather. Imagine that place to be like a pool of warm water, and as energy pools there, let your attention drift deeper into that pool – back and toward the center of your head.
- Let your attention rest now right in the center of your brain – the space equidistant between the tips of your ears. This is a place referred to in Taoism as the Crystal Palace – home to the pineal, pituitary, thalamus and hypothalamus glands. Feel the energy gathering in this powerful place.
- Allow this energy gathering in the Crystal Palace to flow forward into your eyes. Feel your eyes becoming “smiling eyes.” To enhance this, you can imagine that you’re gazing into the eyes of the person who you love the most, and they’re gazing back at you … infusing your eyes with this quality of loving-kindness and delight.
- Now, direct the energy of your smiling eyes back and down into some place in your body that would like some of this healing energy. It might be a place where you’ve recently had an injury or illness. It might be a place that just feels a little numb or “sleepy,” or simply some place you’ve not recently explored. In any case, smile down into that place within your body, and feel that place opening to receive smile-energy.
- Continue to smile into that place within your body, for as long as you’d like … letting it soak up smile-energy like a sponge soaks up water.
- When this feels complete, direct your inner gaze, with its smile-energy, into your navel center, feeling warmth and brightness gathering now in your lower belly.
- Release the tip of your tongue from the roof of your mouth, and release the smile (or keep it if it now feels natural).
- As with all neidan practices, it’s important to find a balance between effort and relaxation. If you notice a build-up of tension, relax, take a couple of deep breaths, then return to the practice. If your mind wanders, simply notice this, and come back to the practice.
- Remember to maintain the quality of a gentle, genuine smile – infused with the energy of loving-kindness and compassion – particularly when directing your “inner smile” into an injured place. If you notice frustration, anger, fear or judgment creeping in, take a couple of deep breaths, then connect again with loving-kindness and compassion – the energies that can heal us.
I hope that your interest in qigong has been piqued. While nothing beats having a personal teacher, if this is not possible I hope that you’ll check out the abundant resources now available on the web and on Youtube to find some practices that help you. My prediction is that qigong will be as popular in 20 years as yoga has become now because it is infinitely adaptable to all circumstance.
Laurie Hope uses psychology, comparative religion, Buddhist meditation, qigong, hypnotherapy and sandtray therapy to help people harness their inner resources to improve their physical, emotional and mental well-being. She is the author of the Unchosen Path: Reflections From the Inner Journey of Illness. Find her Health Rising blogs here, visit her website here. She has had ME/CFS/FM since 1982.
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