From time to time during our winter monastic retreat, as in most of the retreats I teach for the general public, I hold Qi Gong sessions, for up to an hour. I don’t really think of myself as a Qi Gong teacher, because I have no diploma, and I haven’t been through a course at an accredited school. However I have been shown and instructed in Qi Gong by a few teachers, I’ve absorbed some books, and so I demonstrate what I do. And, realizing that I’ve been practising Qi Gong for twenty years, I reckon it’s time to come out.
The initial condition for picking up Qi Gong was a teacher and friend of the monastery. He lived a few miles away, but offered to cycle in on weekdays for our pre-dawn meditation session (amazing friends we have…) to take us through some moves. He thought it would help our energy. He made this wonderful offering for, I think, one or two months. So he’d sit with us in meditation for forty-five minutes, then we’d have a half-hour of Qi Gong, and then return to meditation for another fifteen minutes or so. The Qi Gong we did was a simple form of eight moves (‘The Silk Brocade’) followed by a still standing form called ‘Standing Like A Tree’. The moves felt like nothing special, but the standing, for up to ten minutes with the arms held in one position, was quite taxing. Yet the results were a sense of bodily ease, and of ‘being held’ that made the mind feel calm and grounded. Energy felt balanced. It was a good way to come out of meditation: it firmed up the centredness of being in the body as the sense-doors opened and the world came flooding in. And after a while it also felt like a good way to enter meditation; it provided a strong connection to the body that helped to draw the mind away from thinking.
I have practised hatha yoga since my late teens; in fact the shifts that that brought about were what initiated me into a spiritual path and meditation. The realization was that being in the body changes the mind in terms of increased calm and depth. However, a life in robes, sans spandex, has kept my yoga routine down to a minimal fifteen to twenty minutes, often at the end of a day. Then there was also pranayama, the yoga of breathing. I was introduced to this at the age of ten by the teacher of my Physics class at school who was obviously as bored as we were with trying to inculcate the wonders of Boyle’s Law to a group of restless boys. Although I never took to pranayāma in a committed way, the calming and enriching effect of breath-work did register. But maybe pranayāma was a bit too full-on. Qi Gong was more portable than yoga āsanas, and at least at the level I was doing it, less demanding. Even fifteen minutes of standing around doing nothing much was adequate. And although it seemingly had nothing to do with breathing, when I sat down at the end of a half-hour session, the breathing came to the fore unprompted. It was a fuller kind of breathing: the experience was one of a steady energy tide that was associated with breathing, but wasn’t a matter of sensations – either that of the air brushing the nostrils, or of the push and pull of the diaphragm. It was a quiet steady energy that felt like it was breathing me. This 'Qi’ energy wrapped gently and firmly around the mind and smoothed it out. Moreover as Qi, the breathing remained evident even when the sensations of breathing faded away (as they tend to when the mind calms down).
I reckoned that the Buddha, the embodied spiritual voyager par excellence, surely must have experienced this. But where did he mention it? Looking through the Ānāpānasati sutta (M119), I paused over the term ‘bodily formation’ (kāyasankhāra). I always wondered what that meant. It is explained as ‘kāyasankhāra is in- and out-breathing' (M.44.14) – but that doesn't go far: what aspect of breathing? Air? Sensation? Or what?
Sankhāra, one of the puzzle words of the Canon, crops up in many places, and is of crucial significance. As in the Buddha’s last words: ‘All sankhārā are impermanent, strive on with diligence’. And even more directly: ‘He turns his mind away from those states, and directs it towards the deathless element thus: “This is the peaceful, this is the sublime, that is, the stilling of all sankhārā, the relinquishment of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana.”’ (M.64.9) Sankhāra is often translated as ‘formation’ or ‘fabrication’; but if sankhārā are ‘stilled’, they must be energetic. So how about rendering kāyasankhāra as ‘bodily energy’? In terms of direct experience that fits. The ‘bodily formation’ then is that bodily sense that one has when the eyes are closed and one isn’t focusing on external touch; it’s the internal sense that gives the impression of being in the body. Yes, that ‘forming’ is an ongoing activity (another way of rendering ‘sankhāra'); it is a process whereby moment by moment, and centred on breathing, the body comes into awareness. Its energy is constantly fluctuating. And when you tune into it, it’s pleasant, and supports the ease and joy of absorption because it also regulates the mind’s energy. This bodily formation smoothes and brightens the mind through the bog of the hindrances. And as concentration deepens, you can feel that bodily formation change shape and texture. The body gets to feel light and like plasma, and of one texture rather than broken up into sections and twinges.
The Asian traditions have always understood breath to be much more than a respiratory matter: ‘prana’ - which must be some Sanskrit form of the ‘pāna’ of ānāpānasati - is the life-force which can be steered up the spine and through the entire body. So is Qi. In a similar vein, the Buddha describes the air element as ‘passing through the limbs’, something that respiration doesn’t do. So to the Buddha, breath is not just a lung and nose thing. And although my scholarship is rudimentary, experience affirms that. As the Ānāpānāsati sutta has it: ‘Thoroughly sensitive to the entire body, one breathes in and breathes out.’ Yes. ‘Calming the ‘bodily formation one breathes in and breathes out.’ Yes. Moreover, holding ‘energy’ as one aspect of what is meant by sankhāra also opens up a few other areas. If sankhāra entails energy, then ceasing isn’t annihilation of a thing, but the turning down of energy to a rest state. That makes nibbāna a little more accessible (at least conceptually). Just noticing that, as the body and mental energies quieten, the sense of wordless clarity and presence increases: that makes it more likely that nibbāna is a wiping clean, a voiding of differentiation, not a wipe-out of presence. And on a more rudimentary level, having a source of subtle and sustaining pleasure that is associated with calm and introspection helps to steer the mind away from external delights.
Another radical effect of Qi Gong has been in terms of my bodily structure. Before I started practising it, I had been experiencing problems with my back for more than a decade. It grew painful after about half an hour of sitting. From time to time, it would go out, seize up and make movement painful to the point when I’d be laid up for a few days and have to undertake a few visits to an osteopath to get the vertebrae reset. I had taken to sitting in a frame, basically a chair with the arms and legs cut off, to give support. My standing posture was sway-backed, leaning back from the hips. Standing Like A Tree steadily realigned all that. The ‘empty’ position of Standing, which is the central and abiding reference for all the Qi Gong that I did, means standing with the buttocks relaxed, the tail turned under, and the knees very slightly flexed and positioned over the centre of the feet, which are held in parallel. It felt odd and unbalanced (my body had learnt the unbalanced posture as the norm). It meant widening attention over the feet and (for me) inclining back towards the heels; then relaxing the lower belly as if about to sit down, and simply standing, bringing the arms slightly away from the sides of the body ‘enough to hold a blackbird’s egg in each armpit’ as my teacher put it. This posture steadily rearranged the structural muscles in my back. As I’ve subsequently explored, in this position, the long muscles that run up the back between the pelvis and the ribs on either side of the spine get gently activated. It’s a strange business for the muscles, because they are emphatically not active, but ‘activated’ – that is, energy runs through them. I think it’s because while the muscles have to be relaxed, the positions cause the tendons and the connective tissues to do some work. And whereas muscles contract and tighten when they work, tendons slowly lengthen. This generates energy, or allows it to move through the muscles (which have to be relaxed in order to allow that to happen). In this way, the body can release it's cramps and malalignments. The musculature self-adjusts.
The first of the Standing Like A Tree positions entails drawing the arms around to sustain a position in front of the body with the hands open and the palms facing your abdomen. The sense is as if you are holding, or being held by, a large inflatable ball in the ocean. You just hang there, letting the ball hold you up; relaxing the shoulders and arm muscles – for three minutes…five minutes…ten minutes – progressively, over a month or so. That progressive sense allows the connective tissues to slowly stretch and strengthen. And as they do so, energy runs through them (as the air element through the limbs) and fills the entire bodily formation. After a while, it feels like ‘it’ – the ball, the Qi – is holding you. Even when you relax the posture, the arms still hang there for a while as if they remember the ball. Suffice it to say that I now sit for hours in lotus with no support; and I teach standing meditation.
‘It is holding you.’ Psychologically, that’s quite a statement. How much time, energy and willpower does it take to get hold of a meditation object? Trying to keep hold of the breath can be a frustrating business; and even when it succeeds, it can give rise to the attitude of being the controller, on guard against distracting influences. For the average person this adds stress to the already existing stress – and the best achievement seems to be one of perching at the top of a slippery pole for a while. Isn’t that the life story of the ‘successful’ person? The wiser approach, which meditation masters accomplish, is to be held by the meditation object and let go of the controller. But to get to that point takes some doing. It amounts to a breakthrough in attitude, approach and practice to turn to the body’s own energy formations to do that. Maybe this is why the Buddha taught mindfulness of breathing – it can attune us to an intelligence that can oversee body and mind.
Body has intelligence, and gets educated rightly, wrongly and sometimes in patchy ways. Mindfulness of breathing is one way whereby that intelligence is accessed and clarified. As far as that goes, Qi Gong is just a method of entry, but a useful one as much of the problem with ānāpānasati is because people’s bodies are so energetically unbalanced that their minds have to try to do what a balanced body will do for them. Modern life is backless (use a chair) legless (use wheels) and segmented (we live in the upper ten percent of our bodies most of the time). Most people don’t experience a whole balanced body. The body that they experience is formed day after day by the impact of images from screens or the shock effect of stress. That needs to be addressed and undone, and I don't think you can do that through the mind, the will or devotion.
Also there are developmental issues in how the body grows that have their effects. Recently I came across ‘Bodydynamics’(http://www.bodynamicusa.com) – a system based on the work of Lisbeth Marcher. Over years of experience working with people with trauma, Lisbeth developed a map of how various muscles learn (or don’t learn) to support psychological functions, and she developed a way of healing. So I investigated how Standing Like A Tree fitted in with that. The results were affirmative. Obviously the Qi Gong posture energizes ankles and legs in a way that is associated with the ability to meet the world and yet stand one's own ground. The extended arm positions energize muscles that are to do with both holding one 's personal boundaries, and allowing oneself to be supported by others. (As opposed to being impacted by the world, reaching out into it or defending oneself against it.) That's a significant shift: it brings around the sense of 'being supported'. But there were also surprising details, such as that the muscles of the inner thighs are to do with containment (the ability to encompass a wide range of emotional and psychological impact) and collecting oneself. Those muscles, rarely used in conventional methods of walking and standing, are specifically energized by the slight straddle that standing with the knees positioned over the centre (rather than the inner edge) of the feet.
I may sound like a Qi Gong fanatic, but actually outside of retreats and teaching others, I might do only about fifteen minutes on the occasional day – much less time than I spend in chanting, and a tiny percentage of the time that I put into mindfulness of breathing. One can do a lot with Qi Gong as a martial art, but that's not my aim. Apart from the physical realignment (the spine is still damaged, but amazingly causes no pain), the insight that 'it comes to you, let it support you' is the major way in which Qi Gong has integrated into my meditation. Developing a practice around that is quite an awakening, and fine work too. Just as standing fully entails doing what it takes to connect to the planet that supports us, breathing mindfully connects to the support of Dhamma. Knowing that in one's body and heart is well worth growing some roots for!