The Chinese healing practice of Qigong is thousands of years old, yet you might be more familiar with its younger cousin, Tai Chi.
The latter is more martial-arts focused and flowing, whereas Qigong moves from exercise to exercise in a stop-and-go way.
It is pronounced "chee gong," and can be translated into energy movement. Qi is energy, known to yoga practitioners as prana or life force. The gong is the movement of it. Qigong focuses on the body's Qi and opening the meridians, which are pathways in the body along which this energy flows. Qigong moves that energy through any stagnant places in the body.
Dennis Hiser and his wife, Renee Bailey, lead a Qigong class near Manitou Springs, Colo. Moving slowly and mindfully is one of the intents of the practice. Hiser doesn't consider Qigong to be an exercise class, but to be a work in healing, mindfulness and stress management. He views the movement as a way to limber the body and use it in ways that we don't normally do every day, which leads to greater health and immunity.
Hiser is a supervisor at Goodwill Industries, overseeing 120 disabled clients. He has incorporated Qigong into their monthly activities. His passion is working with those with physical ailments and helping them to overcome the illness mindset of being defeated by their incapacitated state. He encourages them to not allow their disease or ailment to take them, but to take charge of their illness and take the healing back into their own hands. Qigong gets them moving and breathing, and can be less physically challenging than yoga or Pilates.
Qigong is not only good for illness, but for those with life struggles, he said. He's seen high-risk youths thrive in one-on-one sessions. He also notes the benefits for those with weight issues.
The class began with Qi walking. Barefoot, students were instructed to slowly walk around the studio, feeling the entire foot roll onto the floor. Heel, arch, ball of foot, toes. As they did this mindful walking, they were to think happy thoughts.
He then taught breath work, showing students how to hold their hands, palms face up, near their low belly, and inhale to a count of three as they lifted them toward their face. Then they flipped their palms over and exhaled to a count of three, pressing the air to the ground.
A few minutes of slow walking combined with breath awareness led to a pleasing state of calm. Much as in yoga, the breath is crucial to the movement, to energizing and oxygenating the blood and replenishing the organs, Hiser said.
There are thousands of Qigong exercises, but Hiser teaches the eight Brocade for Health. Brocade can be considered a series. The class did eight exercises with varying repetitions. Hiser is careful to modulate the number of reps, taking into account the health of those he is leading. The practice is intended to build health and energy, not to push an ill body even further away from health. He praises Qigong for its ability to work with anybody.
The exercises were done standing, but can be easily modified into seated positions, he said. As the hour ticked by, students sat into a horse stance and moved their arms up and down slowly and twisted side to side, moving the Qi. The forward-and-back and up-and-down movements are intended to direct the flow and circulation of Qi along the 12 meridian lines of the body.
In specific exercises, students worked on strengthening lungs, spleen, stomach, kidneys, heart and brain. The class learned an exercise to help release anger. It involved taking a wide, bent-kneed horse stance, elbows into sides and then punching one fist slowly out at a time, adding a personalized vocal sound to the outward movement.
After the eight Brocade, Bailey took over and taught Shaolin Massage, a lovely, nurturing way to end the class. She had us start from the top and give ourselves a head massage. Ears were next, where a plethora of acupuncture points reside. Students rubbed and squeezed the insides and outsides of the lobes, then moved to the eyes, sinuses and jawline. Students pounded lightly on their kidneys with their fists and then turned torsos left and right, allowing arms to swing out, fists lightly hitting the same organs.
Throughout class, Hiser spoke eloquently about the pace of our current culture.
"Slow down. Don't just go from point A to point B. Stop in-between and reflect on it," he said. "Don't waste the journey."