Mind your Body: Qi Gong
After years of dancing and trapeze work with Joan Skinner and Robert Davidson, Seattle resident Mark Lynd was tired. He had chronic aching in his shoulders, lower back, and arms. His energy was low and his creativity was stifled. Then he discovered Qi Gong.
Qi is the Chinese word for energy or life force, similar to what Indian yogis call prana. Gong means to work, or to gain skill through practice. “It’s a method of cultivating and moving the life force throughout the body to open up the meridians and the energy centers,” says Lynd, who started studying it in 1989. “It improves your health, your awareness, and will get you in touch with the spiritual side of yourself.”
Qi Gong (also spelled QiGong, Qigong, or chi kung) has existed as part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years, along with herbs, acupuncture, and massage. It works to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit through a variety of physical postures, movement sequences, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques. Lynd, who is an ongoing student as well as a teacher at the Ling Gui International Healing Qigong School in Seattle, feels this practice can be particularly helpful to dancers, who naturally have a lot of qi.
A former STREB dancer and current teacher of Dragon’s Way Qi Gong in New York City, Christine McQuade agrees. She also had chronic pain in her muscles and joints after five years of performing STREB’s “pop action” technique, which involved running into walls and spinning upside down in gravity-defying contraptions. Now, after practicing Qi Gong for seven years, she has never felt better. “It was like I went from seeing in black and white to seeing in color,” she says.
McQuade is convinced that the entire dance world would be revolutionized if more dancers experienced Qi Gong. Not only is this ancient practice capable of healing the body, but she believes it can also serve as a source of creative inspiration.
There is no typical Qi Gong class because there are several types of Qi Gong and the practice is tailored to an individual’s needs. Someone who suffers from lethargy, for example, may be instructed to jump up and down or do vigorous breathing exercises. Someone who is hyperactive may be encouraged to sit in a chair for an hour and focus on slowing the breath. There are often opportunities for improvisation, allowing the body to move instinctively. Sessions can be taken privately or in a group.
Here are some of the ways Qi Gong can benefit dancers.
Easing Aches and Pains
Dancers are often taught to move in ways that are not intuitive or natural to the body. The result is tight muscles and joints that block the energy flow, which can eventually lead to chronic pain and fatigue. Qi Gong helps you reconnect with the way your body wants to move in order to release tension, allowing the body to heal itself.
Deepening The Breath
Certain types of Qi Gong emphasize breathing exercises more than others. But they all acknowledge the connection between a person’s quality of breath and their state of physical and mental health. Slowing down and breathing consciously, for example, relaxes the mind and body, which can be helpful when attempting to center yourself before a performance.
Since Qi Gong is all about the cultivation of energy, says McQuade, it “puts more fuel in your tank.” For those dancers who take multiple classes a day followed by a rehearsal or a performance, it would be invaluable to tap into a profound, natural source of long-lasting energy.
Lynd and McQuade both say that Qi Gong has allowed them to improvise and choreograph in more genuine ways than before. “Sometimes when you’re dancing you can fall into a rut,” says Lynd. “With Qi Gong you get to that really still place inside of yourself and then the movement flows right out of you. You’re not thinking, you’re just moving. You’re not dancing, you are being danced.”
Turning a Good Performance Into a Great Performance
Many dancers have excellent technique, but few have that extra something that draws eyes to them like a magnet. Qi Gong helps dancers integrate mind, body, and spirit so that they are completely present onstage. “Qi Gong allows dancers to trust their bodies to go beyond pure technique and tap into their inner power and beauty,” says McQuade. “Then the movements become larger than the sum of the parts of the choreography.”
McQuade warns that dancers may dismiss Qi Gong as being too simple for them at first, since many of the exercises involve moving very slowly or not at all. “I was so used to judging the value of movement by how complicated it is from the outside,” McQuade says. “But the more I started slowing down, the more I discovered all of the incredible movement that happens on the inside.”
Shayna Samuels is co-founder of the Mothership Yoga Lounge in Truth or Consequences, NM.