Man on beach practicing Qigong

The Way of Qigong

Russell DiCarlo interviews Ken Cohen, a master in the art of Qigong. about the personal benefits of qigong in general and how it can be used when healing is needed. “Chi” can be defined as life energy and Qi Gong as working with chi.

DiCarlo: You are a master in the art of Qi Gong, which is rapidly gaining in popularity in the United States. Let’s define our terms first, what is Qi Gong?

Cohen: Qi Gong is literally “chi” work, or working with chi. “Chi” can be defined as life energy and it has certain measurable components. For instance, life energy is often related to air and some people speak of the life breath. It’s probably related to the electrical messages that flow through the nervous system and perhaps to the electro-magnetic field that surrounds the body.

We know that the electromagnetic field varies according to an individual’s state of health and state of mind in the same way that the Chinese say the chi field varies according to state of health and state of mind. But nobody can say exactly what the chi is. Although there are measurable components, I don’t think we should reduce it to what can be measured and nothing more.

“Qi Gong” is working on the chi. It can be defined as a way of using posture, breathing, visualization and meditation along with gentle movements to cleanse, gather and circulate the chi, or life energy. Some people have compared it to biofeedback. Like biofeedback, a person becomes aware of, and thus learns to regulate or control processes in the body, such as heart rate, that are normally beyond conscious awareness and control.

For example, if a person has poor circulation in the hands and feet, there is a way of becoming aware of that area and using gentle movements to improve the circulation. As a result, the person will actually experience greater warmth in the hands and feet. This can be used to treat a variety of metabolic disorders as well. But that’s the basic definition of Qi Gong, using breath, posture, movement, meditation and visualization to cleanse, gather and circulate the chi. Generally for improving health and strengthening the immune system.

DiCarlo: How do most people experience chi or life force?

Cohen: There are four sensations, which of course are subjective states. In Chinese, they are known as the Chi Gan, meaning chi feelings, or chi sensations. These are the four signs that chi is flowing. One of them is warmth. The second one is weight, weight in the sense of feeling very grounded or rooted. The third one is vibration. Some people express this as a kind of tingling sensation. I should qualify this: there is good and bad vibration.

Tingling that feels like greater aliveness is the good kind of vibration. If it’s tingling from poor circulation and numbness then that’s not a chi sensation. That’s a sign of illness, or that an individual is standing or holding a certain posture that is cutting off the blood supply. So we have warmth, weight and vibration. The last one is termed expansiveness, a feeling that the dimensions of the body have changed as though you are not sure where the air ends and your skin begins. Or a feeling that your feet reach into the ground, or that your head reaches up into the heavens. These are the four sensations that students often experience, sometimes even early in their Qi Gong training. Often, first or second class they will have one or all of those sensations.

DiCarlo: Is chi mentioned in any other cultures aside from Chinese?

Cohen: All over the world. This is a universal concept. What’s unusual about the Chinese is that they are unique in having developed a systematic and very sophisticated way of purifying and accumulating chi for self-healing. But the concept of chi is found all over the world. An example in the Western tradition would be the Ruach, the divine breath with which God supposedly breathed into Adam to create life. We read in genesis that God breathed over the waters. That comes at the very beginning of our myth of creation, before God says, “Let there be light.” The ancient hebrews interpreted this to mean that breath or energy is the foundation of existence.

In classical Greek, chi is referred to as “pneuma.” It is called “prana” in India. The philosophy of yoga speaks a great deal about purifying and gathering the prana. The bushmen of South Africa talk of the boiling energy known as “Num”. In a way analogous to the Chinese, they say that “num” is stored in the lower abdomen and is made to “boil,” moving throughout the whole body when a person is healing. American Indians also have similar terminology. Every ancient culture in the world knows about this life energy.

DiCarlo: Is Qi Gong easily absorbed by the Western Mind?

Cohen: There might be some difficulties in translating philosophical concepts because of the history behind Chinese literature and the different connotations of words in Chinese or English. For instance there is no single word that captures all the varied meaning of the word “chi”. But in terms of practice, I don’t see any problem whatsoever. The nature of the human body is really the same. A Westerner practicing Qi Gong healing techniques is going to get the same benefit, at the same speed as a Chinese practitioner. The practices are very easily adopted by Western society.

DiCarlo: What are some of the benefits to the person who practices Qi Gong?

Cohen: On a very general level, improved health and vitality. There are some interesting studies in China which suggest Qi Gong turns the natural killer cells, the “NK cells” -which are the body’s first lines of defense against invading pathogens-into “smart missiles.” They go more quickly and accurately to anything foreign in the body. That’s one explanation they are using as to why Qi Gong seems to improve the immune system. There is also some literature from China which suggests that Qi Gong creates greater bone density, and perhaps makes bones less likely to be broken. It can possibly slow down the development of conditions such as osteoporosis.

We also know that Qi Gong causes a slowing of the brain waves, going from the usual distracted beta state, towards the greater focus and relaxation that is alpha and theta. This would be of great benefit to everyone in the west for reducing stress, or at least dealing more intelligently with stress so there is less damage to the body.

There is also a tendency towards brain wave synchronization, or coherent patterns in the brainwaves. This is an indication that the person can maintain a quiet and calm center in the midst of a storm. That, I think, would be very valuable for westerners, it might help prevent cardiovascular problems which we know are very much related to stress and lifestyle.

DiCarlo: What would you say is the ultimate goal of the practice of Qi Gong?

Cohen: Are you talking spiritually, or physically or both, or whatever impression I have?

DiCarlo: Both.

Cohen: On a physical level, I think it’s optimum health. I wouldn’t call it perfect health because that sets up the possibility of despair, or the feeling of not reaching one’s goals. I don’t believe there is such a thing as perfect health. But there is an optimum level of health for each person. That doesn’t mean total elimination of disease, although I think practicing Qi Gong helps one get over illnesses much more quickly, and gives one a much better fighting chance against many of the long term chronic and debilitating diseases that western medicine cannot cure. So the physical goal is optimum health and vitality.

On a spiritual level, it would be developing a feeling of harmony with nature, perhaps nature in both senses-one’s own inner nature, that is, self-awareness, and also the surrounding environment. A feeling of harmony and belonging. Certainly Qi Gong is an excellent cure for alienation.

One of my teachers use to say that by practicing Qi Gong and practicing some of the breathing techniques, you are taking the external world as air, into the body, and you are releasing it. You’re not treating it as a possession, but as a gift. And to the extent that one allows the easy interchange of the external environment into the body, and releasing it back into the external environment-to the extent that one can do that-one tends to feel spiritually in harmony with that environment. Changing the person’s breathing pattern, changes the person’s psychology and spirit. Whenever we feel removed or alienated, that is reflected as physical holding of the breath.

DiCarlo: How does Qi Gong relate to other American forms of exercise, such as jogging or aerobics?

Cohen: It’s compliments them. Of course it’s somewhat different. I think it is important for a person to have some form of aerobic practice and also do something to develop basic physical strength. But the Qi Gong exercises really specialize in “internal health’ and that’s where western calisthenic tradition has been lacking.

The Chinese poetically say that if you focus too much on the outside, that is, too much on muscular tone, complexion, appearance and so on, but neglect the internal health, such as one develops through the practice of Qi Gong, then “the outside becomes hard, but the inside rots.” So we need to compliment the aerobic and muscular training of western calisthenics, jogging and so forth, with the internal healing exercises of Qi Gong.

DiCarlo: How do we imbalance ourselves, or deplete the level of chi in our systems?

Cohen: This is sort of like asking me, “Why do people get ill?” I will summarize; obviously I don’t have time for a comprehensive response. First of all, the Chinese say that chi is part of a trinity of energies in the body. The lowest, or most yin form of energy is the sexual energy. The middle form is called chi, the uppermost yang form is called Shen or spirit. They say that if sexual harmony with one’s partner is lacking, the jing or sexual energy is lost, wasted and leads to illness. So this is one aspect of ill health that is not sufficiently dealt with in medical literature.

Sexual harmony is a key to health. The chi, in this model of the body, is wasted through excess, through not observing the rule of moderation, whether it’s excess eating, excess exercise-any kind of excess. Especially through excess talking. This is quite interesting. In the model of the three treasures, which I am presenting to you now, the way to conserve and accumulate chi in the body is to breathe quietly and slowly and to observe long periods of silence. That could be a very important piece of advice for many westerners, where we tend to suffer from an almost exclusive, left-brain verbal emphasis in our education.

The spiritual energy, Shen, is wasted or lost when we don’t spend enough time looking within. When we are so outward and material oriented. That’s one way of looking at why a person becomes ill.

The Qi Gong philosophy is very much in harmony with the philosophy presented by most holistic health practitioners. Lifestyle has a great deal to do with health or illness. Diet is extremely important also. In Chinese medicine, it is advised that one eat foods that are very high in energy but that do not take a lot of energy to digest. In other words, there is a recommendation to balance various food types but to avoid foods that are deep fried or cooked in heavy sauces or a great deal of oil because that would be difficult to digest and thus take energy away from bodily processes.

Lifestyle, diet, sexual and emotional relationships, getting a proper balance of exercise and rest-these are all important. Also, too much Qi Gong is probably worse than not doing enough. I’ve seen people who have developed Qi Gong diseases from going to extremes. There’s an unfortunate tendency in the west to think that if a little bit is good for you, then more must be even better.

Imagine if you applied that philosophy to medications or antibiotics. It’s not true. There is an optimal dose. As with any medication, you have to tailor the dose to the patient. So it’s important when a person practices Qi Gong that they find out what is the amount that helps them to improve their health and state of mind, and not assume that more of that is necessarily going to be even better. Again, moderation is seen as one of the keys to good health.

DiCarlo: In his book Encounters with Qi Harvard Professor Dr. David Eisenberg describes some extraordinary experiences with Qi masters, such as moving lanterns with Qi, lighting up a fluorescent bulb, even frying a pork chop. Do you have any similar stories?

Cohen: A few, but I must say that even in spite of the experiences I have personally had, I tend to be extremely skeptical of many of those stories. The Chinese have had a tendency since the third century BC-and probably even earlier than that-to exaggerate certain things in order to make a point. As an example, there are many anecdotes concerning the Buddha or concerning the early Taoist saints that are not meant to be taken literally, but which simply illustrate that the world is not as we conceive it. I tend to interpret the Qi Gong stories in that light.

Also, the Chinese often do not have the strictest protocols and controls in their science There is certainly some excellent Chinese science, but there is also some fakery, such as a master using his breath creating a fine stream of air to move an object which he is supposedly moving with his hand. So I need to know under what circumstances some of these fantastic events were demonstrated. I am not saying that they are impossible, I just have a healthy skepticism.

Nevertheless, I have experienced some things…I’ll give you one example. In 1971 I was in an advanced private, martial arts class with a famous T’ai Chi master. We both had boxing gloves on, and we were applying the principles of T’ai Chi in full speed combat. It was a cold winter day. The studio where I was studying had solid concrete floors and I had worn my hiking boots to the school. I had forgotten to bring some lightweight tennis shoes, which is what we normally wore when we sparred.

Naturally, I didn’t want to wear these hiking boots because they had a steel-reinforced toe. I was worried that if I accidentally hit my teacher, which had never happened, that of course this could injure him. So I was taking off my boots, and my teacher said, “What are you doing?” I replied, “I’ll just fight barefoot.” He said, “No, no no. Floor is cold. You probably not hit me anyway. Let’s just spar.” So I kept these steel-reinforced hiking boots on. Well, like anyone, even a T’ai Chi master can have an off day.

I suppose he was a little bit tired. We had an early morning class and he was up late the evening before. At one point I raised my left knee as though I was going to extend my left foot to kick him. He started bending down to block what he thought would be a left front kick, and I was already jumping in the air and couldn’t stop myself at that point. His head was moving straight down towards a flying front kick with my right foot. I hit him in the face with my steel reinforced toe full-force as his head was coming down. There was no way to stop it because his head was moving towards my foot.

I must have looked as though I was going to pass out. My face was totally white. Here was my teacher, a respected master and one of the gentlest, kindest people I had known and I thought that I had broken all of his teeth. So I stopped and he looked at me. He said, “We are timing this. We are sparring for three minutes. Time not up.” We continued sparring. Three minutes later we stopped, and I looked at him and said, “Are you OK?” He showed me his teeth and said, “At times like this, the chi helps.”

Meanwhile, the big toe, of my right foot-inside of a steel-reinforced hiking boot- swelled up so much that I still remember limping out of his studio. While the toe wasn’t broken, there was clearly a reversal of power. There was absolutely no damage to the teacher’s face. This is one of the extraordinary things I have seen in the use of chi for martial arts training.

In terms of chi in healing, I have also seen some extraordinary things. I do think there are physical explanations. There is a specialized aspect of Qi Gong called “external chi healing.” A practitioner projects chi to a client who is ill. Of course he would first diagnose the state of the person’s chi or life energy to find the places of imbalance. He would also take a case history and find out the symptoms that were present. After doing all of this, he would project specific types of healing chi directly into the patients body.

As a practitioner, I have personally witnessed some extraordinary results. I’ll give you one example. Though it’s not a healing, it stands out in my mind as a shining example of what chi can do. I was in Toronto in the early 80s giving a T’ai Chi workshop. One of my students asked if I would consider doing an external chi healing on a friend of his, a Chinese woman in her 30s who was very ill with cancer. The cancer had already spread throughout her body. It was in the lymph, it was in the liver, it was in the lungs. She had gone through the required rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

At that time she was home, basically waiting to die. Her physician had told the family that she would not live the rest of the week. She was in absolutely extreme, excruciating pain. No matter what medications or morphines were given to her, it didn’t seem to reduce the pain. My friend asked me to consider working for her for several reasons. Not to cure her. They did not expect that to happen; nor did I, and that certainly wasn’t the result. But rather to help her reduce the pain, to help her experience a decent quality of life in the short time she had left and perhaps to lengthen the amount of time she had left. And also to help her pass on with more dignity and more ease.

We need to remember with all healing systems, including Qi Gong, that the healing occurs more often on the psychological, social and spiritual levels than on the physical condition. There is no healing system in the world, including traditional western medicine, that can claim to heal all conditions. But at the very least, external Qi Gong can enhance the quality of life. So with this woman, I administered about twenty minutes of external chi. When I started working with her, her respiratory rate was a quick pant, her resting heart beat was at about 110.

When I finished the twenty minute treatment, her breathing was normal, her heart rate was eighty and she began to cry. She said this was the first time that she was totally without pain in at least three or four months. She remained without pain for the next two weeks, up until the time she died. She passed over very peacefully and calmly. Even though she wasn’t physically cured, I consider this a profound example of what chi can do.

DiCarlo: How does this practice of projecting chi to another individual in Qi Gong relate to therapeutic touch or magnetic healing?

Cohen: There’s a very close connection. Many people have classified external chi healing as non-contact therapeutic touch. It’s very similar to the technique that Dolores Kreiger has developed and made popular with, an important difference: The external chi healer has a systematic way to train the purification and gathering of his or her own chi. The healer can increase the effectiveness of treatment based on an internal practice. I think that’s a tremendous advantage that external chi healing has over therapeutic touch. Also, external chi healing utilizes a specific system of health assessment (diagnosis). Furthermore, rather than relying almost exclusively on intuition in treatment, there are specific guidelines for how to create certain types of healing energy needed by the client.

DiCarlo: What researchers have produced the most compelling evidence of external chi healing?

Cohen: One published study at the National Research Institute of Sports Medicine involved sixteen rabbits whose left forearm bone were broken with a gap of three millimeters. There was a treated and untreated group studied. The researchers were measuring the rate of healing of the broken bones. They measured the bone density and they used other parameters as well to measure the rate of healing. They found that the group treated with external chi healed much more quickly.

There was also a study which demonstrated brain-wave synchronicity between a healer and a group of patients. Every time the healer went to a characteristic Qi Gong state-noted by high amplitude alpha waves with background theta waves-the same brainwave change would occur in the patients. I found that to be a very eloquent study.

Another good study took place at the Shanghai College of Traditional Chinese medicine, where mice were inoculated intravenously with B-16 melanoma cells. Those are cancer cells. They seemed to have been protected by external chi treatment, and I’ll read this for you, “as manifested by reduction of the number of metastatic nodules over the lung surface, significantly as compared to the untreated group.”

Researchers have also tested the pain-reducing effects of chi on animals. These animal experiments are very significant, because if they work on animals, then it dismisses the claim that some physicians have made in the past, namely that external chi healing is just the placebo effect and related to a person’s expectation and belief that they might get well. We assume that the animals in the studies don’t believe in the efficacy of chi healing!

There have been quite a number of experiments, including about 800 abstracts in English. There have been studies on tissue cultures, studies on the effect of external chi on human lymphocytes, and tumor cells from the same individuals. They have found that the chi stimulates the activity of the lymphcytes but destroys the tumor tissue.

DiCarlo: Could you comment on the work of people such as Valerie Hunt, Motayama and others who are attempting to come up with physical correlates of the human energy field?

Cohen: The work of those scientists is extremely significant. Motayama of course was one of the real pioneers, especially in looking at differences in skin conductivity, in looking at the end points of some of the energy channels, and also in looking at other physiological correlates of chi.

Unfortunately, the way the health care system is in the United States, unless we can produce some hard data and show measurable aspects of chi or chi healing, it’s going to be difficult to change both the insurance coverage for alternative health care providers and even more importantly, to change medical school education. I think that’s where a lot of the focus should be. The problem as I see it, is not so much at the highest levels of research or government.

I have met people with high positions at the National Institutes of Health. I’ve had students from various levels of government come into my workshops and they seem to be quite aware of the benefits of alternative medicine. At one healing conference I met with the former commanding general of the United States Army, Intelligence and Security. He came into one of my Qi Gong workshops. Although he is now retired, and is not officially representing the United States army in any capacity, the fact that someone from that high a military background should be very actively involved in complimentary medicine is extraordinary.

I think the real difficulty is the rigidity of mainstream, average physicians who never learned about these things in medical school. I am in strong support of research. I think we need a lot more of it, and to do that we need funding.

DiCarlo: How would you define the emerging field of energy medicine?

Cohen: “The effects of energy and energetic fields to enhance or perturb health.” This could include the effect of one human field on another, as in the external chi healing we spoke about. It could include the harmful effects of electromagnetism, or for that matter the healing effects of the earth’s natural electromagnetic field on your body.

Energy medicine is an apt description of where this new paradigm of medicine is going. We’re looking much more at the interaction between energetic fields, rather than on what we previously considered measurable phenomena-the discrete particles of biology and chemistry that could be seen under the microscope.

I think Dr. Elmer Green is correct when he suggests that, when you consider the ecological state of the world today and the difficulty or slowness of changing governmental environmental policies, it becomes all the more imperative for an individual to gain some control over their internal environment in order to dampen the harmful effects of pollution, electromagnetism and stress. So one of the promises of energy medicine is learning more about self-regulation techniques-ways of becoming aware of and regulating inner metabolic processes to improve health or to prevent harmful external influences from causing illness.

DiCarlo: In your view, what are the implications of all that we’ve discussed in terms of improving quality of life and also of human potential?

Cohen: The native Americans have this wonderful term for health, it’s “all my relations.” What they mean when they say that, is that we should learn to live in such a way that we feel at home in our environment. That we feel a sense of kinship, not only with our human relations, but with the earth itself, with plants, animals. I see that as very much a goal in Qi Gong healing, achieving that same state of mind.

Qi Gong and the study of energetic interactions can restore community. And I am using community in a very broad sense. Community not only among humans, but between humans and their natural environment. There are so many hidden things in our technological society that tend to disturb that harmony. It’s not enough to simply practice Qi Gong and think that is going to do the whole trick. Know about the effects of high tension wires, the effects of geomagnetic or sunspot activity on states of mind.

The journal Subtle Energies a couple of years ago had an article on a measurable connection between geomagnetic activity and crime. So there are many hidden variables in our environment and in our technology that can disturb the functioning of a healthy community. We need to learn about these things, know how to protect ourselves against harmful pathogenic influences, how to create change in our society towards health, community and caring,and we need to, of course, work on ourselves with practices like Qi Gong.

Excerpted from the book Towards A New World View: Conversations At The Leading Edge with Russell E. DiCarlo. The 377-page book features new and inspiring interviews with 27 paradigm pioneers in the fields of medicine, psychology, economics, business, religion, science, education and human potential. Featuring: Willis Harman, Matthew Fox, Joan Boysenko, George Leonard, Gary Zukav, Robert Monroe, Hazel Henderson, Fred Alan Wolf, Peter Senge, Jacquelyn Small, Elmer Green, Larry Dossey, Carolyn Myss, Stan Grof, Rich Tarnas, Marilyn Ferguson, Marsha Sinetar, Dr. Raymond Moody, Stephen Covey and Peter Russell.

Russell E. DiCarlo is a medical writer, author, lecturer and workshop leader who’s focus is on personal transformation, consciousness research and the fields of energy and anti-aging medicine. His forthcoming book is entitled “The Definitive Guide To Anti-Aging Medicine” (1998, Future Medicine Publishing). DiCarlo resides in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Copyright 1996. Epic Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

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Written by Russell E. DiCarlo

Explore Wellness in 2021