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Season of Chi-r

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Cultivate more energy and vitality, even in the darkest months of the year

nol-dec07_medres_page_14_image_0001.jpgAs the winter solstice approaches each December, we enter the proverbial “season of cheer,” which also happens to be the season of the shortest and darkest days of the year. Even if you’ve never suffered the winter blues, it can be hard to be particularly cheery about the sun’s going down every afternoon at 4:30. Deprived of the sun’s vitalizing energy during winter’s long nights and early evenings, we often find ourselves lacking much-needed energy, which is why this is an excellent time of year to investigate practices designed to work with and strengthen the flow of energy in the body. Thankfully, with the increased popularity of Eastern mind-body practices, energy work methodologies are becoming more accessible and mainstream than ever before. Many Westerners are already familiar with yoga and may even attend yoga asana classes regularly, but far fewer have been exposed to the ancient Chinese practices of qigong and t’ai chi, both of which are based on the concept of qi, which in the West we term “chi.”

In Chinese, “chi” means energy, that vital life force that flows through every living thing. Traditional Chinese medicinal theory contends that chi flows through the body in a system of meridians, or energy channels, in the same way that blood flows through our veins. In this school of thought, illness and disease of the body, mind and spirit are believed to result from disturbance, weakness or blockage in our flow of chi. Thus, various integrative physical and mental practices have been developed for the purpose of encouraging the flow of chi throughout the body. Qigong and t’ai chi are two of the most widely practiced of these invigorating moving meditations.

The name for the practice of qigong (pronounced “chee gung”) is derived from the words “qi” and “gong,” which mean skill cultivated through practice or work. Thus, “qigong” is the practice or skill of attracting, maintaining and strengthening or increasing our vital energy, or chi. This 5,000-year-old health care system and self-healing art is still used in the treatment of illnesses—terminal cancer patients who have undergone qigong therapy and continued personal qigong practice have been known to live decades beyond their original prognoses—and is now officially recognized and promulgated by China’s government as an effective and important method of treatment and prevention Season of Chi-r By Daisy Dodge integral to serving the growing health care needs of its burgeoning population.

Qigong is also highly effective as a daily or regular practice that combines gentle, rhythmic physical movement, slow, deep breathing and focused mental attention. The qigong system is designed to promote health and longevity, cultivate the spirit and vitalize life force energy, and the resultant benefits of practice can be myriad. In addition to vitalizing the chi, qigong can help reduce stress, decrease high blood pressure and reduce both emotional and physical discomfort; it is also known to help speed recovery from illness, enhance the immune system, build stamina, improve quality of sleep, develop mental energy and acuity, while calming the mind and help heighten awareness of the connection between mind, body and soul.

While qigong is still practiced as its own discipline, it has given birth to many forms over the past five millennia. The most widely known of these forms is t’ai chi, which means “great ultimate” and is also known as t’ai chi chuan, “great ultimate fist.” While this newer practice has roots in the martial arts and was originally created for self-defense, t’ai chi is practiced as a noncompetitive, soft-style martial art form. Like qigong, t’ai chi is a system of slow, graceful movements designed to promote health and longevity. However, the systems differ in that t’ai chi movements are practiced in set sequences, whereas qigong movements are practiced in random order, in harmony with the spontaneous and chaotic nature of the chi. The benefits of practicing t’ai chi are as wide-ranging as—and often overlap with—those of qigong practice: t’ai chi, too, has been known to help reduce stress and high blood pressure, increase energy, relieve feelings of anxiety and depression as well as chronic physical pain, while encouraging feelings of well-being, improving sleep quality and fostering a deeper connection of the body, mind, and spirit. In addition, t’ai chi practice can result in improved flexibility, agility, cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength and definition.

So, how do you know which of these mind-body practices might be right for you? You won’t, until you try them, which is now easier than ever before with the current proliferation of books, DVDs (try Gaiam’s T’ai Chi Beginning Practice and Qi Gong Beginning Practice, available at www.gaiam.com), and Webcasts, which offer ample instruction in these transformative, holistic practices. Still, there’s no substitute for instruction in person, under the guidance of a seasoned master. To find your chi in the Crescent City, check out Liu Institute International (2708 Jefferson Hwy., 835- 1877, www.shaolin-world.net), which offers curriculum in qigong, t’ai chi and Shaolin kung fu; Shaolin-Do (4210 St. Claude Ave., 944-1880, www.nolashaolin.com) for Shaolin kung fu and t’ai chi, and Master King Lam’s Chen Style T’ai Chi and Tamashii Karate Center (8132 Willow St., 866-2241, www.kinglamtaichi-karate.com), with instruction in t’ai chi and Shotokan karate.