This post is Part Four of a series that addresses healing from serious chronic and acute illness, including but not limited to Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, Depression, Anxiety, and Cancer. Click here to access all articles about using Tai Chi and Qigong for health recovery.
In Part Three of this series, I wrote about the ways you can maximize the effectiveness of your Tai Chi and Qigong practice: specifically, making the movements bigger than you're inclined to, and relaxing completely. For most adults, this is good advice. Even if you're not sick, generally speaking most people over the age of twelve are suffering from some kind of contraction throughout the spinal column. Those years of sitting in desks at school, studying / spending time on the couch and in front of the computer at home, and working a desk job or even a physically demanding job that's repetitive in nature can bind you up like nobody's business.
When you perform Tai Chi and Qigong moves, you're restoring range of motion throughout the body, but you are also moving in ways that increase the flow of chi or vital energy throughout the meridians or energy channels of the body. This is great for you and it is exactly what you need no matter what you're doing, but especially when you are facing serious chronic or acute illness.
I've also written recently about how much Tai Chi and / or Qigong you need to do if you are working actively on health recovery. (Answer: what will probably seem at first like a completely insane amount. Basically, welcome to your new part-time job that will feel like a full-time job with ridiculous overtime.) There will be times when that feels impossible, or when it is impossible. I strongly suggest that you try to do the whole amount of time you've set out for yourself. Chances are, when you've completed the workout, you're going to feel a whole lot better than you did when you started.
Confession time: after more than twenty years of practice, I still often don't feel like I want to start a workout. I will put off starting, or just drag myself into my practice space. Once I get going, I always think, "Darn it...I've only got an hour here. I wish I had more time." It's like a switch flips and I remember why I love doing Tai Chi and Qigong. "Oh yeah! This stuff feels good!" I get not wanting to work out. I do.
So before I go any further with this post, let me just say that it is a very good thing to commit a block of time to your practice, and get into your workout clothes, clear away your coffee table, or do whatever you need to do in order to get into the mindset of your practice session.
I recommend doing this even, and maybe especially on those days when you really feel like you can't. When you are just completely spent, those are the days when even a few minutes of movement are going to have a big impact.
Here's what you do: set aside the time, get into the practice room, and do what you can. When you hit an absolute wall that will not allow you to do any more movement, don't quit. There are options. These are some of your options.
If performing the full extent of the movements is taxing you too much, take it easy, and perform a smaller range of motion. This is no excuse to lapse into bad form - just take it down a notch. Walking through a Tai Chi set is better than doing no Tai Chi at all. Whatever you do, ensure that you are not creating internal strain.
Sit Down, Keep Training
When I was in year six or seven of my training, one of my good friends had to have knee surgery, and could not do Tai Chi standing for a few months. Our teacher put us all in chairs so we could all learn how to perform Tai Chi while not standing.
This is the option for you if you are not completely wiped out, but you have a specific problem or issue that is keeping you from practicing, like an injury or muscle strain to the lower body. If you have back pain, prick up your ears: this is the option for you. Sitting in a chair will keep your low spine anchored and allow you to move the rest of your spine safely without overdoing it.
There are a couple of particular things you'll want to know about chair training before you start. If you're in a class, ask your instructor for help with training in a chair. The last thing you want is for your form to go out the window. I'll try to post about this in more detail, but for now I'll just say that this is still a whole-body practice. When you're in the chair, you still need to push from your feet to accomplish the movements. More about this later.
Visualizing the Movements
This is for when you must sit or lie down and the thought of moving another muscle sounds like murder, but you still have half an hour on your practice session, and you still want to move chi. Use your mind!
Closing your eyes, imagine yourself performing the movements of the Tai Chi set, or the Qigong exercises of your choice. Really try to see and feel your way into the movements, exactly as if you're performing them with your body.
The beauty of this kind of practice is that you can often feel your way into a better version of the movement than you might be able to do physically. I've gained many insights into where a particularly stiff joint or tight muscle was limiting my movement when I visualized myself performing the movement and magically, it seemed to flow much better. This is also a wonderful trick to use when you're lying in bed at night and you can't fall asleep. Practicing Tai Chi or Qigong in your mind will help you drift off to sleep not just because it takes your mind off of all the other stuff you're worried about. It also moves your chi. Sometimes stuck chi is the reason we can't fall asleep in the first place.
It needs to be said that merely visualizing the movements is no substitute for doing them with your physical body, but it is better than giving up before your workout is done.
Sitting Qigong Meditation
This is a mega powerhouse of a practice. I honestly can't say enough about how amazing and magical sitting Qigong is, and yet, it seems to be a less popular practice than Tai Chi or Qigong exercise. There are many guides online that will tell you a complicated story about what's involved in sitting Qigong, but my training followed the KISS principle. You know what that stands for. You sit on the floor or in a chair, spine straight. Mental focus is a few feet in front of your face. Everything relaxes. Hold for as long as is comfortable. When you feel like you're done, release the posture. Sit for a few minutes to allow your energy to return to normal before you stand up again.
There's a bit more to it than that. I teach sitting Qigong as part of my classes the first Friday and Saturday of each month, and at occasional workshops. I don't recommend doing this if you don't have access to an instructor. Things get weird when you sit meditation, and you pretty much need a teacher to help you. Whatever you do if you don't have regular instruction, make sure your spine is straight and that you're not getting too weird with your breathing. Relax means relax everything.
For my money the fancier methodologies and theories all seem to have grown out of individual instructors' attempts to help their students deal with the total simplicity of meditation. It is simple but not easy. That last sentence describes almost everything that's worthwhile, don't you think?
Six Healing Sounds
There are several different versions of the Six Healing Sounds, but I was taught and prefer Mantak Chia's. This practice combines natural breathing with shaped exhalations to produce sounds. You can perform the six sounds on their own without movements, or with the movements Mantak Chia describes, depending on how you're feeling. Combined with his "inner smile" technique, these exercises have the potential to radically transform stale energies. You can also use the Six Healing Sounds with any Qigong set to enhance the movements, so long as you line up each sound with the correct elemental movement.