Posts Tagged ‘chi kung’

So,… There’s a dampness to the air now, not as rich in oxygen, not as energising, and the light of a morning is limping to catch up with the days whose demands of course remain the same as always, regardless of the season. This is Autumn in the already dystopic closing years of the second decade, of the twenty first century.

I take a breath, long and deep, arms rising from my sides to form an arch above my head, legs tense, then relax. Breathe out,…


My arms sink in front of me, as if compressing air, feeling for its springiness with the imagination, and as the body relaxes, there’s a rush to the brain, a moment of light-headedness, a tingle in the shoulders, the forearms, the palms. Don’t panic: it’s blood, and nerve energy, and “stuff”, and beyond this vague rationalisation, I try not to give it much thought.

Qigong is like the I Ching: you sleep better when, as Carl Jung said, you do not bother yourself, with how it works.

Repeat. Four times.

All right,  traditionally it’s eight.

Eight is a lucky number in Chinese, deep stuff, rising from mythology, from numerology. I don’t understand it, but I respect it’s contribution to the global zeitgeist, to which I admit not everyone may be attuned. Anyway, at the weekends, when time’s abundant, sure, it’s eight, but on a workaday morning at seven a.m. we’re conscious the traffic’s already backing up exponentially with respect to time, that the seconds later we are in joining it, the tens of minutes longer we spend sitting in it. Therefore, we make concessions. Four repeats. Obsession is, after all, the mother of pointlessness, while compromise is the father of mutual understanding. (No sexism implied)

Where were we?

Gathering energy from the heavens.

Okay., so,… it’s a flowery term, but then the Chinese, both ancient and modern, are like that. They are admirably fond of their flowery aphorisms. They called their first space station Tiangong – the Heavenly Palace – and why not? It’s due to burn up and crash to earth any time now, by the way. Unhelpful tangent Others, equally well named are planned.

Sorry, where we again?

Heavenly energy?

Right, it’s an opening move to most of the traditional Shaolin Qigong forms I know – or rather knew. I’ve had a long break from this stuff, distracted by the harder aspects of Kung Fu. What’s that? Where to begin? It’s how to dislocate an arm, a finger, break the calivical bone, where the critically debilitating pressure points are, what strike to use for best effect  – Panda or Phoenix Eye – how to release energy with a blow to make it really sting, how to parry, how to handle a sword. How to kill stone dead, and without compromise, or Marquess of Queensbury rules and all that.


I don’t know how I got into all of that because it’s not my scene at all. It was younger sons, I suppose, for whom Chen style Tai Chi (my first love) was not macho enough. And I enjoyed their company, enjoyed watching them grow and connect with an eclectic miscellany of men, all pretending to be Ninjas, and from there make their own paths.

Don’t get me wrong, the stretching effect of ritual Kung Fu forms upon the body are a tonic, they keep you young and limber, and I am in awe of the Kung Fu greats, but in the end the rigours were becoming too much for a maturing frame, and even in the soft sparring of my little fight club, I was beginning to fear injury.

So, I’m starting from the beginning again, with foundation Qigong forms – breathing, rhythm, visualisation. It’s different for everyone this stuff, and no one can explain how it works. You get the traditionalists all tangled up in their esotericisms and the puzzled rationalists who do it because it feels good – but look blank at the meridian diagrams. And then there are those like me who fell into the esoteric, once, nearly drowned in its nonsense, but are coming back to a point where they can at least tread water.

Qigong isn’t something you can just do, say for an hour a week at a class. That’s where you learn the basics, sure, but it has to be established as part of a daily routine as well, a ritual part of your life. It cured my tinnitus, a decade ago, but the tinnitus is creeping back as the energy fades into late middle age, and the practice has fallen away. So I’m picking up the discipline again, and as I do, the tinnitus fades once more. I’m getting older, but there’s still much to do, much life to be lived, and I have an inkling the secret is simply to keep it moving. Use it or lose it, mate.

I’m coming up to my sixties. But that’s nothing. I’m assured by those who have gone before me there are still rich decades ahead.


It looks weird, but I’ve been here before, and people no longer take the piss when I’m doing it in my PJ’s in the kitchen while the kettle boils. What’s more I no longer care if they do because I find I have more confidence in it, and in myself when I’m doing it than I once did, which is progress of a sort. What does it do? It clears a space in your head, restores calm, extends one’s magnanimity far out into the tempestuousness of the day. If you’re up against a killer like Twister, it gives you a chance. If Twister is your day, it gets you through.


It gets me to about noon before the stresses start caving me in, but what the stresses cannot do is take away the core insight that protects the soul, and Ip Man is the protector of my soul – at least when my Kung Fu is strong.

You can probably simulate this feeling with something out of a blister pack but, trust me,  it’s not the real thing. The thing out of the blister pack drugs the soul so it doesn’t mind the insult of the way we live, it doesn’t mind being flattened by the insult of Twister’s blows. Qigong provides the safe space, the stillness, in which the soul remembers itself, and can observe the life we live with a compassionate detachment. Life, as personified by the belligerent, Egoistic, taunting, daunting, Twister,  does not change, rather we remember who we are, and we do not mind the challenge so much any more. Indeed, we disregard it as irrelevant.

Okay, so we’ve gathered the heavenly stuff, so what’s next? Oh,.. right,… it’s that little twisty finger thing.

Breathe, tense the legs,… relax,..



Okay,… Not sure how long that  header clip will remain on Youtube – hope you found it entertaining. Ip Man 2 is second only to the original Ip Man as my favourite martial art’s movie.

My humble respects to Sifu, Donnie Yen (Ip Man) and Sifu Darren Majian Shahlavi, the magnificently malign whirlwind of a boxer, Twister!


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mariaTai Chi has been around for a while in the west, Yang style appearing among the Chinese diaspora in the USA as early as the 1940’s. Qigong methods, although much older in origin, appeared more recently in the West, from the 1990’s. As a health system, both are practiced with a slow, mindful intent. The breath is measured and deep. They’re supposed to work, we’re told, by manipulating “chi”.

The literature talks of “chi” as a form of subtle energy that flows around the body. If chi is abundant and free flowing we are healthy. If chi is low or blocked, we become sick. This is where acupuncture comes in, being supposedly a more direct way of intervening in the body’s energy system, unblocking chi and improving its flow by needling a network of points in the subsurface tissues. Claims for the efficacy of Chinese “energy medicine” are impressive, though the research papers thus far translated are said by Western pundits to be of a poor quality, lacking the “blinded” trials and large scale studies one would normally expect. This makes it hard to differentiate between genuine efficacy and placebo. The best we can say is the results, though interesting, are thus far inconclusive. There may be something in it, there may not.

Those researchers who are most sympathetically inclined are at their best when seeking to explain things without using the “Chi” word. They speak instead of oxygen and glucose and bio-chemical energy. These processes are well understood and fit into the more mechanistic western paradigm. From this perspective it’s all about breathing and movement. This boosts the vascular and lymphatic systems, which increases the available energy for healing, for general health, and a sense of well-being. There’s no need to bring “chi” into it. Any claimants who fail this test and insist on using the “chi” word to paper over the cracks of a more rational analysis, risk an ignominious labelling as charlatans, cranks or crackpots. This would include most self proclaimed Qigong Masters, “healers” and unaffiliated researchers of energy medicine operating today.

The problem for me, as a practitioner of Tai Chi and Qigong, as well as an interested student of its background and science, is that it feels like there’s more going on than blood and lymph circulation. It feels like the nervous system is becoming highly active when we practice, that there is an “electrical” component. There is tingling, feelings of fullness, of electricity moving through the body. These are subjective sensations and could be anything, but, as far as I know, they are unique to Qigong and Tai Chi, and I would like to understand them better. However, in my last post on this subject I described having reached the stage where I was persuaded to abandon further enquiry along these lines, having found the literature far too obtuse and contradictory to make any headway with it at all.

I was happy instead to side with the work of Douglas Kendall et al, who present an alternative and convincing body of work that rebuts the Chinese concept of “chi” altogether, exposing it as a kind of Western mistranslation, that what the Chinese actually meant was something else entirely and more closely akin to Western concepts in the first place, though predating them by a few thousand years. Yes, Qigong and Tai Chi work, but not as a result of anything spooky, says Kendall. It’s purely physiological. Adopting this position we find ourselves on safer ground, but as a practitioner it also feels like an unsatisfactory retreat.

There is another large body of work by researchers who represent a hundred year long tradition of energy medicine, this one entirely western. It proposes an electromagnetic “energy body” as a pre-requsite for life, rather than as a by-product, and claims that in maintaining the health of the energy body, we maintain the health of the physical body. This work has many correlations with the concept of “chi” and is generally supportive of the eastern energy system. It began in the early part of the twentieth century, and has rumbled on in various backwaters ever since. It’s very interesting, but delving into it as I have been doing recently doesn’t help to clarify things at all.

As far as I can make out the work has been sidelined by the mainstream because no one has been able to reproduce the key experiments under the rigour of contemporary controls. What surrounds it in fact is the odour of something a bit fishy. It lurks in the shadows rather than under the illumination of a universal revelation. Its commentators are restricted to You Tube, where they appear shoulder to shoulder with the crazy cat videos. This does little for their reputation, but neither has it stopped them from going on to brazenly market gadgets for plugging into the “energy body” – the purpose being to “boost” or “repair” it, thereby arresting the onset of sickness, old age and death. Modern, western energy medicine promises us the elixir of immortality via gadgets with flashing lights. What’s not to like about it?

Now, I’m sure there is a kernel of truth in it, that the electromagnetic field of the body is indeed an integral part of its function. Robert Becker (Body Electric) has done most to establish the foundations of it, showing us how regeneration of tissues and bones following injury are all presaged by fluctuations in the body’s electrical potentials. Injuries that are reluctant to heal can indeed be encouraged to do so by artificially boosting the electrical potentials by external means. This much has been proven and accepted by the mainstream, but it’s a long way from the claims of latter day gurus.

Becker’s work seems not to have led anywhere in more recent times, except as footnotes in a greater mythology whose adherents are to be found quoting and misquoting him. Sadly, I’m unable to find any evidence of reliable science built upon the foundations of his work, and all the contemporary pundits are after is simply selling us stuff.

Energy medicine is not taught at “respectable” universities. Medical students do not emerge with a vocabulary that includes “energy bodies”, “the etheric” or “auras”. They do not talk of the electro magnetic elixirs of immortality. Progress in coming to any firm conclusions about all this stuff therefore is slow, and the answers seem as far away as ever. Is this because researchers are held back for want of funds and fear of ridicule? or is it because the research has already adequately established there is nothing in it but quackery?

So, amidst all this fog where does that leave the humble and more rational practitioners of Qigong, and Tai Chi? Well, in terms of the “energy body”, we’re going to be on shaky ground for a long time to come and must be circumspect in all our dealings with it. We must recognise that whenever we speak of bioelectricity as a more western friendly correlate of “chi” we are still entering a controversial field. We risk deluding ourselves and misleading others when we speak of it, so we’re better holding our tongues. That said, I do find it useful to think of an energy body when practising. Indeed any sensation of the body registered by the mind is the result of processes going on in the nervous system and therefore “energetic” in nature. But to develop a more acute awareness of it is one thing, to extrapolate from it all manner of dubious claims is quite another.

More about Tai Chi and Qigong, in practise, next time.

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meridian systemPeople have been asking me about my practice of Tai Chi recently and, naturally enough, they also want to talk about Chi. What is it? they ask, or more likely: Does it even exist?

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the concept of Chi, at least in so far as it is presented in many books on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Martial Arts – i.e. as a form of “subtle energy” moving about a pathway of invisible meridians. I am more easily accepting of it as an amalgam of effects produced by normal physiological processes – improved blood and lymph circulation, oxygenation, also a psychological component that works to induce a relaxation response. This is fine, it is within the realms of my experience.

But the sensations induced by practice – tingling, numbness, fullness – also suggest a bioelectrical component, that the nervous system is becoming activated when we practise, and in ways no other physical exercise can duplicate. This is where the going gets tough. The more one reads about it, the more confused one becomes, especially when seeking a coherent explanation in those books that deal with the so called “meridian theory”. Here, the texts, be they written by Chinese or Western “practitioners” talk of the flow, the storage and even the projection of chi. But they vary so widely in their explanations, to the extent that the principles each book appears to be describing are more the author’s personal interpretation of a myth to which the reader is invited to subscribe entirely on trust.

This is not a reliable basis on which to deepen one’s understanding, nor less for explaining it to someone else, or one risks merely perpetuating the myth while most likely also adding something of one’s own equally groundless twists to it.

My actual experience of Tai Chi and other mind-body techniques like Qigong, is that these methods do have a positive effect, both mentally and physically. I’ve used them to successfully tackle back injury and tinnitus. They are also deeply relaxing, so I do not suggest a decade of practise is now exposed as a monumental delusion – only that attempting to pursue a deeper understanding of them through meridian theory is perhaps not a good idea.

More recently my investigations have led me to the writings of western medical professionals and to a persuasive argument that suggests the “meridian system” is a myth, and a surprising one at that, being actually a Western, rather than a Chinese invention, a product of the “new age” rather than deepest antiquity.

Western medicine is often accused by the more holistically inclined (myself included) of being a bastion of wooden minded materialism at the beck and call of Big Pharma, but among its more open minded practitioners there is also an increasing willingness to look at the results of TCM techniques, like acupuncture, and to ask intelligent questions, no longer in order to merely debunk it as has been the case in the past, but, where it works, to document its efficacy, and to attempt an explanation of it in less mystical terms.

On the physical level, the health benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong are derived from improved circulation of the blood and lymph, also increased levels of blood oxygenation induced by means of deep, abdominal breathing that is an integral part of practise. But anyone who has read up on the subject is also inevitably beguiled by this dense mystical heritage of “meridian theory” and the idea of an all pervading “subtle energy” somehow superimposed upon the physical body. Consequently, I have always felt that to deepen my knowledge and my experience, I would have to understand it from this esoteric, traditional perspective. It’s ironic then that my efforts to pay homage to it in this way have had the opposite effect, only grinding my progress to a halt.

But what if the notion of chi as a subtle energy were an invention, not born of ancient Chinese superstition, but of fairly modern western adepts reacting against the materialism of their own times, and simply mistranslating the original texts? It sounds flimsy, but the evidence presented by Donald Kendall in his book “The Dao of Traditional Chinese Medicine” is very persuasive, that indeed since the dawn of the twentieth century we have been perpetuating a myth born out of a popular need for the magical and the unknown – a need that continues to this day, and to which I am also prone.

Nearly all “energy work” titles quote among their primary sources the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook, a Chinese medical treatise compiled around the first century BCE. But what’s puzzling is that if we do indeed refer back to this book, we find no mention of the meridian system as it’s depicted today, nor any reference to chi as a form of energy. This is surprising because I have always surmised that it did. However, as Kendall points out, it reads more like a conventional medical textbook with sections on anatomy and pathology.

What the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook says is that the lungs extract “something” from air that is vital to life – what we’d now call oxygen – which is then carried around the body by the blood. This does not read like a witches cookbook of pre rational beliefs, but rather an early and highly competent description of how the body works. If this book is the true basis of TCM then something significant was lost in the translation, to say nothing of the fact that something was added that was highly misleading.

The Yellow Emperor’s handbook was translated by several westerners, most notably Georges Soulie De Morant, whose 1939 version is still in print, still influential, but also controversial in that the mystery of chi arises first here with a critical mistranslation of the word as “energy” when a better translation would be simply “air”. The Yellow Emperor’s handbook also details points on the body which we would recognise now as acupuncture points and elucidates upon the theory that needling or stimulating these points produces therapeutic effects. De Morant made copies of the diagrams, then added his own interlinking lines and, so the argument goes, invented the meridian system. Acupuncture points do exist. We now understand them to be areas particularly dense in fine blood vessels and nerves. Stimulating them does produce effects in the body – reducing inflammation, pain, and restoring the body’s balance, but the medium of transmission here would appear to be more accurately the nervous system, not De Morant’s meridians.

The Yellow Emperor’s handbook does not describe chi moving along meridians, but rather some essence of air moving along blood vessels. So, what we think of as a uniquely Chinese system of medicine involving a mysterious energy called Chi, is in fact a western invention, and a fairly recent one at that. What the ancient Chinese actually developed in the first millennium BCE was an understanding of the body’s functioning that the west did not catch up with until the seventeenth century. But if any of this is true, and I’m persuaded that it is, what’s equally remarkable is how so many Chinese scholars since then have themselves adopted and helped perpetuate the essentially meaningless “western” myth of the meridian system.

Contemporary western medicine is looking more into the therapeutic effects of acupuncture, with many medical professionals performing acupuncture themselves. It is available as a treatment for certain conditions on the NHS and for which there is good evidence to support its reported efficacy. But further acceptance of the technique, and progress with an explanation for how it works has been slow in coming, held up in part I think by the obfuscating myth of the so-called meridian system. Only by dispensing with it can progress be made in truly integrating Traditional Chinese Medicine into the west, and also, perhaps ironically, of deepening one’s own practice of Tai Chi and Qigong.

Be aware then that to get hung up on the nature of chi is to risk becoming lost in the labyrinth of a bewildering myth, and if a man would make progress it is always better to keep both feet on the ground than to flap one’s arms uselessly as if they were wings that would take flight in thin air.


Kendall, Donald, The Dao of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Kendall, Donald, Energy – meridian misconceptions of Chinese medicine (article)

Kresser, Chris, Acupuncture (blog)

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The_ScreamCome Friday my flexi-time balance is usually in credit, so I finish at lunch-time, then head up to Rivington Barn for an egg and bacon butty. It’s a popular spot, and you’ll probably have to queue. I was there last Friday, and I was about half way down that queue before realising what I was doing would once have been impossible. When was that? Ten, fifteen years ago? It wasn’t just queues either – the cinema was out of bounds too, and music concerts, and the theatre – anywhere with lots of people in a captive environment, so to speak. Some things you can avoid, of course, while some you can’t, and the ones you can’t are a nightmare. You live in dread of them.

We do not always realise the distance we have travelled; nowadays, I’m pretty much functioning with a level(ish) head, and grateful for it because living like that was awkward. Panic and anxiety, these are manifestations of the psyche, a storm of sorts, and therefore a reaction to living in a way we find somehow threatening. But when we watch the news bulletins, we see so many have died now on the long migration routes to the west, gambolling their lives on a chance at sharing even a little bit of what I take for granted, it seems immoral I should even question it. After all, mine is an ordinary life, secure in the bosom of the west, and it’s irrational to panic, when my life is clearly not threatened. But I never said it was my life I felt was threatened, more my sense of being.

I worry now if even writing about it will open a door on the past, that the next time I stand in a queue, I will have cause to regret it. A panic attic is like being turned inside out. We focus obsessively on our own mental noise and we imagine the eyes of others upon us, imagine ourselves seen through their eyes, this person, wobbling, perhaps looking strange, perhaps about to faint. The fear feeds upon itself, reaches a terrifying resonance in which we simply must flee the scene. Anyone who has suffered this will tell you it’s deadly serious. It’s also becoming commoner in the general population.

The cure? Well, obviously there is a cure, or I could not have waited the five minutes for my bacon butty, and received it in the same calm mental state as when I had joined that queue, nor even sat and enjoyed it. Medication? No, I don’t take medication. I have nothing against it these days, though I’ve been guilty of an anti-med zealotry in the past. Medication can save lives, so I accept it has its role to play. But medication is never without risk or side effect, and it’s true to say I have also felt uncomfortable with the psyche that remains, after medication, a psyche that is, in a way, still imprisoned, and prevented its desired freedoms, only this time, apparently, for its own good.

But for all the cherished values of the west, the way we live is the cause. If you want to get philosophical about it, it’s the feeling that in our guts we are more than the material world gives us credit for, that we are not machines, yet are being squeezed at every turn so we might fit into a machine-like world, a machine driven in such a way that even a dollar profit will outweigh the most basic, uncosted, intangible human need.

Happiness? Who needs it? Purpose? So what? Love? Buy it. A sense that things can never be any better than this, that we have killed God, and even the priesthood seems not to have noticed? Who cares? Well, we all care, but we feel powerless to bring about change, so we do nothing. And some of us panic.

But standing in that queue, I was no longer aware of my own mental noise. My thoughts were few, my head was quiet. I was aware of my body, my breath, and I was aware of others, but not in the sense of morbidly and self consciously wondering how they saw me. I was more the observer, observing them – snippets of conversation, body language, their choices, demeanours. I had become the watcher, rather than the watched, but not in the sense of judging others – just watching, and I was no longer inside-out of myself. I was simply more my self. It is a state that allows one to become quietly curious of the world and all that’s in it. We become more grounded.

But one should never take these things for granted, hence my abiding interest in the secrets of the psyche, and its various palliatives. Meditation is perhaps the most powerful of these, but also methods that reconnect the mind with the sensations of the physical body, both in motion and at rest – things like Tai Chi and Qigong. Notably these are not western techniques, but things we borrow from the east.

As I sit now, I am aware of my energy body. This will already sound unpalatable to many who are steeped in the materialist tradition. But there’s nothing spooky about the term “energy body”. If you close your eyes, how do you know your hands are still there? Obviously, you can feel them, but what you are feeling is the mind created sense of your physical being, the energy body, for want of another term. If you wiggle your fingers you can feel it more strongly. If you take an inward breath, and let it out slowly, the feeling becomes stronger. You can play with it.

Once you show the mind a way back inside the body, it will crave a deeper exploration: arms, legs, chest; there is no part of the body that cannot be felt this way, and in feeling it we ground ourselves, root ourselves back in our selves, and in the world. The feeling is one of great calmness, and allows an alert resting awareness in which the world seems all the more alive for the undivided attention we can now give it.

There is no single reliable method of attaining this state. You have to experiment and find the one that works for you. This is part of the journey into the inside of yourself and worth undertaking. Although it takes years to de-program the stress response entirely, meaningful results should come within months or even just weeks of daily practise. That said, I find having been once been prone to panic and anxiety, it is something one needs to keep working at.

I have not suffered much hardship in my life, but it’s an unfortunate fact that the mind can create hardship where there is none. Our quiet backwaters then become personal warzones, and the most innocuous activity fraught with imagined danger. Returning to our selves then, we are also reminded that, compared with the actual physical suffering of so many others in the world today, how lucky we really are.

And yes, that egg and bacon butty was well worth the wait.

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The way of the soul is not a straight line. It’s more of a spiral whose focus is centred very much in the core of the mysterious completeness of our being. We find a reference in a book and it fascinates us for a while, but our monkey mind moves us on before we’ve got to the bottom of things. Then we find ourselves, years later, turning up that same reference, that same idea once more, as if it were again the most precious thing, and we have made no progress in the intervening time at all. But if we think about it, we’ll realise, this time around, we are a little more receptive, we make a little more headway, move a little deeper in. Perhaps we weren’t ready before; it was just a passing glimpse, something interesting, or even useful for a time, but ultimately beyond our grasp – until now when we come full circling back. Again.

Seeking the soul in our selves requires a degree of stillness. Attaining stillness we are able to observe life from a detached perspective and make more considered judgements without the anxiety of being bound up in the seemingly ruthless flow of time. If we have attained stillness, we can extract ourselves, even in the midst of crisis, and see things unfolding that we might otherwise miss, so when we are brought to act we do so more skilfully. And it is through stillness the soul speaks most clearly to us, through stillness, her wisdom is more readily integrated into the pattern of our thoughts and our lives so that at times we act spontaneously, in ways we do not understand, but which we know are right.

The meditative arts all seek to attain this prize of inner stillness. The mind becomes calm, the obscuring sediment of our thoughts settle out, and we regain clarity. Clarity feels calm. It feels like an hour plucked out of the split second, allowing us to observe the world with a mindful detachment even as we are carried along with it. But finding stillness isn’t easy, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Chinese art of Zhan Zhuang.

Attaining stillness through Zhan Zhuang is one of those ideas I encountered some years ago, and to which I now find myself full circling back in search of a greater familiarity and depth. Zhan Zuang, or standing like a tree, is a unique form of qigong, taught for thousands of years. The tree stands still, rooted in the earth, unmoving, yet by imperceptible degrees it grows strong. The method was brought to the west by Lam Kam Chuen, whose book “The Way of Energy” has been a long time resident of my little library. I touched upon it briefly, once, extracted some knowledge from it to incorporate in my own varied and somewhat half-assed practice. Now though, via a chain of serendipitous events, I find myself exploring Zhan Zhuang anew.

What better way to attain stillness than by literally standing still?

Why would we do this? What use is stillness in a fast moving world? What use is it to retreat into the mindful moment when to truly engage with the roller coaster of human affairs can be so exhilarating? Well, there are times when that roller coaster makes us ill, and then it’s wise to step aside from it for a while. But the roots of stillness go much deeper.

Although we are each of us a unique individual, filled with our own promise, there is another side to us, more primitive, one that is less thinking and feeling. This is no more apparent than when we enter the noisy crowd of our fellow man and become once more a pack animal surfing the psychological tides of the collective will. The violence of crowds is well known, that the shadow of man is more easily provoked when we run in large numbers. In such situations, we can find ourselves doing and saying things that would be unthinkable were we in that slower time of solitude. We can become spiteful, violent, racist, bigoted,… a crowd can even commit murder, and feel itself justified.

But to develop stillness is to install a safety fuse, a thing that blows of its own accord, allowing us to distance ourselves from the unskilful excesses of the instinct driven-crowd. It gives us back to ourselves, it teaches us to recognise again our own face in the midst of noise, that we are the awareness behind the chatter of our thoughts, that we are the stillness upon whose shoulder sits the monkey mind. We are in short the voice that takes us out of the crowd when the crowd is moving in the wrong direction.

During Zhan Zhuang, the monkey mind is forced into a more intimate awareness of the sensations of the body and of the breath, leaving it little opportunity for flitting through the treetops, swinging on the vines of one associative thought after the other. To stand still for thirty minutes – as still as a tree – is a thing I have yet to manage. Indeed it takes great determination, more determination than I as yet possess. But even in much smaller doses, it’s one of the most powerfully energising forms of qigong I know.

Noise and movement come easily to us. Indeed they seem so integral to our way of life, the vacuum of stillness is disturbing to us now. Attaining stillness is hard, and finding it in the modern world is vanishingly rare, but it’s important we don’t lose touch with it because it’s thorough stillness we realise more accurately the way of the soul, and become, in the same breath, more essentially human.

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I’m going to write this down before I forget it. I’ve just spent five hours doing a refresher course on the Yi Jin Jing, Damo’s legendary sixth century Shaolin Buddhist Qigong set, and I’m feeling very relaxed and qi-tingly as a result, but I’m also confused. This is normal for my qigong practice of course. The difference now though  is that I see a reason for my confusion and it’s this: there are two schools of Qigong: Physiological and Spiritual. For the past three years, I’ve been aspiring towards a greater understanding of the spiritual, while practicing what is essentially the physiological.

No wonder I’m confused!

The spiritual approach is characterised by its Taoist influence and is the one we’ve all come across in popular books, the one that talks about an “energy body”. Its proponents describe qi as a derivative of the Tao, a universal unknown, a fundamental energy which can be harvested by physical and psychological methods in order to produce effects within the gross body. These effects range from a sense of general well being, improved health, the healing of chronic ailments in both oneself and others,  the ability to sense, manipulate and project qi, right through to the acquisition of paranormal  abilities, including astral travel. Phew!

Taking the Taoist system to its extremes, practitioners work towards refining their energy body through internal alchemical methods, to such an extent they are able to achieve feats of super-human ability, as well as spiritual immortality. Those of us who do not practice such methods, it is said, will be unable to carrying our personality forwards upon death – we just fizzle out, unable to maintain our self-awareness on the energy plane – or so the theory goes.  Proper Taoist immortals are rare, and possibly mythological characters.

The important thing in this school is the acceptance of, or the belief in the human energy body and this mysterious stuff called qi.

The physiological school, on the other hand, which is the one I’m familiar with, on a working level, doesn’t talk about an energy body and it doesn’t mention qi either, except in very guarded terminology that wouldn’t offend a western physician. Significantly, on the course I’ve just done, qi wasn’t mentioned at all. Instead, the emphasis was on “energy” in terms of vascular and lymphatic kinetics – basically movement of the blood and lymph.

And that’s it.

The blood gets the good stuff into the body – the oxygen – and qigong sends the oxygen deep into the tissues, where it’s needed for regeneration, repair, or day to day function. Meanwhile the lymph gets the bad stuff out, the waste, the pathogens, the poison, all the stuff that’ll do us harm if it’s given the chance to settle in. Qigong methods stimulate the flow of the lymph by a mixture of deep breathing and movement. I know this. I’ve known it for a long time. I’ve even written about it – so why is it suddenly a revelation to me?

All of the health benefits of practising Qigong (or Tai Chi) from the physiological perspective then, are the result of preventing the stagnation of blood and lymph. There’s nothing spiritual or philosophical involved here, and all it boils down to is that if you want a healthy body you have to keep it moving. In other words it’s a purely biological thing, and for anyone looking for something more mysterious behind that qi-tingly feeling, it can be a bit of a let-down, like being told there’s no such thing as Father Christmas.

This is all very interesting, but while I apparently practice the the physiological style of Qigong, and its rather prosaic explanations do answer many of my questions regarding my experiences of it –  it doesn’t explain everything.

Even in the western-friendly physiological qigong school, we are taught an awareness of the meridian system and the vessels, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, derived from the Taoist tradition. We are taught to imagine the flow of “stuff” along specific channels while performing particular movements of a Qigong set. In the Yi Jin Jing, for example, when Weituo presents the first part of this pestle, he’s opening up his heart channel, and my understanding is that in physiological terms this works to the benefit of that particular organ. But when Weituo presents the second part of his pestle, it opens up his triple burner. Now, the triple burner  doesn’t exist as a physical entity within the body at all – more as a concept – more a part of that imaginary “energy body” of the Taoists, so what the blood and lymph’s doing when we open up the triple burner channel, where it’s flowing to or from in physiological terms, I’ve no idea.

I’m really not getting the whole story here! All of this is very confusing of course and of no interest whatsoever to anyone else, so I think we’ll end it there.

Just one more thing! (thank you uncle)

At a practical level, it doesn’t matter what your understanding of this process is, physiological or spiritual; you simply do the moves and you feel the results.

You feel great!

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Why standing still is sometimes the only way to make progress.

It’s strange – I’ve learned such a great deal from books : science, maths, engineering, gardening, keeping goldfish, house repairs, analytical psychology, all sorts of stuff really from the sublime to the ridiculous, but when it comes to qigong, I seem to be struggling. The thing is this: if I want to learn about the structure of the atom, I can pick up any science book and expect there to be a decent amount of agreement. I mean the information ought to be the same because facts are facts aren’t they? The only difference between one book and the next should be in the style of presentation.

This isn’t the case with qigong. Indeed, with qigong there seems to be very little cross-correlation at all. I’m finding the terms used by one author are completely different to those used by another – the impression being that qigong is whatever each author wants it to be. I know there are many different styles of qigong, and different ways of translating the terminology from the original Chinese, but they’re all working with the same basic stuff (this mysterious qi stuff) aren’t they? And they’re applying it to the same basic thing (a human body). But how does it get in? How does it move? Where does it go? Where does it come from? Does it come in through your feet and out through your hands? Up your perineum and out the top of your head? Or does it come in at all points at the same time? Does it come in at all?  You’d think one of those books would have made it clear by now, but they haven’t and I’m getting myself in to a right muddle.

This leads me to suspect either all these qigong authors have a great deal of genuine knowledge but are incapable of expressing it – or they actually know nothing at all of any real substance and are simply pedalling myths. Of the many qigong books I own, all purchased after reading the glowing reviews on Amazon, very few can hold my attention and I generally end up tossing them aside with the feeling that I’ve been conned. One or two have even found their way into the recycling bin.

But hold on: I practice qigong, don’t I? Well, yes, but the qigong I do bears no resemblance to the stuff in the books with all the fancy titles. These titles sound so seductive it makes me wonder if I’m really doing qigong at all. But that’s the trick I suppose – you make the programme sound special, you hint at  “secret” teachings, and you claim to have been taught by a wise old man whose name you mention in reverential tones. You call yourself his deciple. You talk of his lineage like he’s some kind of royalty.

And you sell books.

And credulous idiots like me buy them.

It all seems so complicated though, and I’m struggling with this because I have it in my head that all true things usually turn out to be very simple. I also have it my head that qigong is an important life-skill, like swimming or riding a bike, and none of these shysters will deflect me from that belief. We should all have a working knowledge of it. Understanding what qigong is and how it works has become something of a personal quest, but although I practice it diligently I’m nowhere nearer an understanding of it than I was when I began, some three years ago.

I do the Eight Brocades and a thing called Zhan Zhuang (pronounced Jam Jong), which is also known as post standing or standing meditation. I do this every day – well most days. Sometimes I fancy a change and I do a set called the Shibashi instead, or sometimes another one called the Yi Jin Ching, but the latter two aren’t as easy to remember, so mostly I stick with the Eight Brocades, and Zhan Zhuang. I learned these at my local Tai Chi class,  where the word Chi, incidentally, is rarely mentioned, and where we call our instructor by his first name, rather than Sifu or Sensei, like they do in fancier places that charge the earth and make you dress up in silk pyjamas.

So,… yes,… it seems I know a bit about qigong after all – perhaps more the doing of it than the understanding, but still,… at least I know something, don’t I?

Has it changed my life though? Has it made me psychic? Have I ever gone off on a mind blowing astral journey? Can I project Chi out of my hands and knock people over with it?  Do I possess super-human strength? Can I launch someone across the room by the slightest touch of my hand? Can I set fire to balls of newspaper, hurl pins through glass plate, push chopsticks through tables or bend a spear with its point to my throat?…

Erm,… don’t be stupid

Why do you persist with it then? You’re clearly wasting your time. Well, I do it because I feel  better when I’ve done it. It’s that simple. And I feel good enough to want to do it again, tomorrow.

Oh,… I don’t know. The universe is an infinitely big place, and our minds seem to want to expand to encompass the whole complex mess of it – whilst actually being tethered by a very mundane reality that we’ve invented along the way: decades of commuting, day-job, supermarkets, leaking gutters, mowing grass, getting the car serviced and MOT’d, dealing with computer viruses, computer crashes, chocolate stains on the sofa, cup rings on the hearth,… blah di blah di blah.

This leads to tension – all of it self inflicted because if  we could maybe throttle back and dissolve both ends of this polarity of attachment we could simply enjoy living a bit more. You can’t throttle back? The world feels like sandpaper against your skin all the time? Sure, you’re in a bad way, but then aren’t we all? It feels like there’s something missing? Yes,… I think there’s a name for this condition: it’s called being human.

So maybe you turn to alcohol, drugs, sex,… whatever lightens the load for a more than a millisecond. If you’re lucky you turn to mind-body techniques – like  meditation, before the other three have had the chance to get a hold on you and ruin your life. And sure enough meditation works well. Slowly you start to see the world differently – you achieve a kind of detachment – but sometimes you don’t have the time or the privacy to meditate because unless you choose to live like a hermit you’re always going to be disturbed by someone.

So then you discover qigong. You can do it anywhere, if you don’t mind the funny looks or the wisecracks from your family. But qigong doesn’t need a zen like calmness to get going with it. You just do the moves, get into the feeling of them, and the Zen-like calmness comes on its own. It’s easy. And it works every time. You sit down afterwards and you feel a tingly kind of calm, a tingly kind of warmth suffusing your entire being, and the drip-drip-drip of that leaking gutter suddenly seems so trivial you wonder why you were ever bothered about it. And the most important thing is sitting quietly while you enjoy this feeling. And sometimes, just for a moment, you catch a glimpse of something moving shadow-like through the back of your mind,…

That’s yourself. Remember that person?

The Eight Brocades is just a set of moves, coupled with a kind of synchronised breathing, and the Zhan Zhuang? Well that’s literally standing still with your arms curved up in front of you as if you were holding a giant ball. You breathe deeply while you’re doing it, breathe down into the Dantien. I still can’t do this for more than ten minutes, though I’m supposed to be aiming for twenty. At the end of it you feel warm and calm and tingly. You feel like you’ve gone from being a lump of stone to a soft cushion and you can sink down into yourself for a while instead of ricocheting off like before.

So is that it then? Well, I think so. It’s good enough for me anyway. I guess you don’t have to understand a thing in order to simply use it. Sometime the google box draws me over to the qigong forums and I read all the stuff these kids are talking about, like how it would be “kewl  to nok sumon over with chi”, and you want to say oh, for heaven’s sake young-un, grow up. I’m going to forget all the fancy qigong books with all the fancy titles for a bit, maybe even sling a few more of them into the recycling bin, because they’re leading me on a merry dance, while explaining nothing at all – and I’m going to do the simple stuff – the eight brocades and the standing meditation.

If in doubt – if the world seems to be moving too fast and, it’s making no sense, just stand still for a bit and everything will be all right again.

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Tinnitus is a fairly common problem in which the sufferer’s ears can “hear” sounds that aren’t really there. We all get this occasionally, say when we have a cold or sometimes when we’ve been swimming – our ears ring. It usually clears up after a short time, but sometimes it doesn’t. With Tinnitus, the sounds can be very loud – like standing next to a jet engine, or they can be soft, like air leaking from a pipe. They can be steady, constant in pitch, high or low, or they can vary, like a cricket chirruping. Tinnitus can also beat in tune with one’s pulse, like a slow drum-beat.

Because of the constant nature of it, it can colour your world a sort of miserable grey and, not surprisingly, it can also trigger dark emotional responses like depression, anxiety, or just all round grumpiness. According to western medicine there is no cure for it and the best that can be done is simply help the sufferer come to terms with it, or to mask it with other, less irritating sounds.

The reason I’m writing about it is partly to record my own experience of tinnitus, and also to describe some of the interesting avenues I’ve explored in overcoming it. While I still get the odd bout of tinnitus, it no longer troubles me on a daily basis so I feel that to a large extent I have been successful in tackling it. I therefore want to pass on my experience for the benefit of those who might be struggling with it and looking for some advice.

Conventional Western Medicine was unable to offer me any hope of a resolution at all, so, desperate for a cure, I was forced to explore a very dodgy path of alternative treatments. Sceptics warned me that I was wasting my time, that I was simply in denial, and should just get used to the fact that I had tinnitus and get on with my life. This was not helpful. Anyway, after a broad study of what the alternative treatments were, I decided to try Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

I used a combination of acupuncture, Tai Chi and Qigong. The acupuncture was an expensive and lengthy business, but it did have a significant effect. It did not provide a miracle overnight cure, but rather a gradual easing of the condition over time. The Tai Chi and Qigong were less expensive and involved attending a weekly class, plus daily practice on my own. Qigong can be picked up to some extent from books, or off the web, but Tai Chi cannot – and you really do need to attend a class if you can find one.

I used Tai Chi and Qigong as a means of taking over from the acupuncture, and the techniques proved to be effective, enabling me to sustain a slow but steady recovery to the point where the tinnitus rarely troubles me now. I also feel much more energetic and relaxed. To be clear, I do still get the occasional “bad ear” day, but such occasions are rare now. When they do occur, I see them as a sign that I’m out of balance in other areas, usually tired and in need of some rest. That’s fine by me, because at its worst every day was a bad ear day.

The sceptics now tell me that my ear was obviously going to get better on its own anyway and that the TCM was still a waste of time (and money). I have no answer for them except to say that apart from easing my tinnitus, the TCM techniques I have learned have provided other benefits as well: boosting my sense of well being, making me more relaxed and energetic. Perhaps such a rejuvenation is common in one’s middle years?

I’ve been fortunate that for most of my life I’ve never felt the need to trouble the local doctor from one year to the next. On the rare occasions when I have visited his surgery, the impression I’ve come away with is of a man severely pressed for time and with a long queue of sick people backed out of the waiting room. Perhaps I have trouble expressing myself but under these circumstances I have found that doctors struggle to address any problems that I cannot point to, such as a swollen eye, or a nasty rash. Anything else, anything mysterious, anything that does not show changes in blood pressure or in blood and urine samples leaves them stumped. Tinnitus is a good example of this, but there are many other things I can think of: fatigue, lethargy, a whole raft of emotional problems, stress, anxiety,…

On the other hand, my experience with TCM has been mostly positive and in the future, while I’ll probably return to my overworked doctor with the straight forward problems I can point to, I will not hesitate to seek the advice of TCM for the other stuff.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Skepticism

TCM grew out of the philosophical aspects of Taoism, and can trace its development back some three thousand years to the “Yellow Emperor’s Handbook”. This book was the first to describe the Chinese concept of “Energy” or “Chi” and how it moves around the human body. I was introduced to the Chinese world view several years ago now, through my interest in the Book of Changes, or I Ching. However, in spite of my great respect for the Oriental take on life, I feel I was always guilty of viewing TCM as somewhat primitive and superstitious – at best a cheap, low tech placebo for the rural poor, while the urban rich, who could afford it, went to see a proper medical doctor. As for Qigong, or Chi Kung (same thing – different spelling), like many of us in the west, I had real problems with it on account of the dreaded “C” word (Chi or Qi). Qigong doesn’t make sense without accepting the existence of Chi, and the merest hint of that word has sceptics seeing red, because they say it cannot be measured, detected or, by any means other than imaginary, be said to exist at all.

Having poked around the subject for a while though, I’m persuaded that the problem with Chi lies in its historical associations – not so much with traditional Chinese thought, but with the relatively modern, Western, new-age spiritual movement that latched on to its supposed “mystical” properties and have since used it to support a belief in all manner of dubious paranormal phenomenon. But we western hippy types are not alone in giving Chi a bad reputation. Another problem with it, is its association with so called “Masters”, both Eastern and Western, who perform demonstrations of paranormal ability due to their apparent “mastery” of Chi. While these feats are undoubtedly impressive, and for all I know may even be genuine, they fall foul of the rational, skeptical mindset that’s always on the lookout for the trick – and I’m sure all of the demonstrations I’ve seen on film (see You Tube “Chi Demonstrations”), could be performed just as well by a competent illusionist. The problem here is not so much the truth of the matter then, as the perception. We might be dismissing Chi simply because of it’s bad reputation, not because it does not exist.

So, what is the truth concerning the “C” word? I can only speak from personal experience, and recently I have to admit I’ve come round to an acceptance of its existence. However, I see it more as a natural, though as yet poorly understood phenomenon, rather than a mystical super-power. One of the reasons for my “conversion” is that I’ve come to know some otherwise down to earth people who practice with and apparently “manipulate” Chi, internally, but who prefer not to call it by that name. They talk instead about a kind of electricity or energy that exists freely in the natural environment, and also in our bodies. Whatever its nature, they explained to me that if I did certain exercises I would begin to feel certain things – and feel them I did.

Swapping the word Chi for “electricity” might seem like a case of slippery political correctness, but it is an apt phrase, and I base that statement upon my practice with the range of mind-body exercises known collectively as Qigong. The sensations we experience in our body are highly subjective of course – sometimes real, sometimes imagined, and what to one person might be evidence of a physical manifestation of Chi, might to another simply be a case of pins and needles. By performing Qigong exercises, or by having acupuncture, we do experience some odd sensations: tingling, coolness, a spontateous flowing of “something” from our fingertips down our arms. We also experience an incredible internal heat that pumps the sweat out of us even though we’re doing nothing but standing still. Whether these sensations are real or imaginary is irrelevant though and what we have to ask ourselves is this: do these mind-body exercises bring about the stated physiological and psychological responses in a human body?

And in my experience they do.

Has the existence of Chi been scientifically demonstrated?

Skeptics will say no, absolutely not, but as is often the case, the fact of the matter is less clear. We may have known about Chi in the west for a long time, but we call it something else. A good book on this subject is “The Body Electric” by Dr Robert Becker who mapped out the human electromagnetic field in the 1970’s. There are no wires in the body for the passing of electrical current, more, as I understand it, a series of low resistance pathways, mostly in the sub-surface tissues, along which electrical energy finds it easier to travel. Resistance measurements suggest these pathways coincide with the acupuncture channels. Therefore, for a skeptic to say there is no basis for the ideas of Traditional Chinese Medicine in scientific fact and that “Chi” is unfounded fancy is actually not correct at all. Whatever we choose to call it, it seems there are more scientific grounds for taking it seriously and investigating it further, than for rejecting it as preposterous, as the sceptics would have us do.

I think back to my overcrowded doctor’s surgery and then to the queue outside the dispensing chemist of people getting their prescription drugs and I wonder how much money might be saved if those people could be allowed instead to spend half an hour lying comfortably on a couch with some pins stuck in them. Not everyone could be helped this way of course, and the idea of allowing ordinary people some time to relax perhaps goes against the grain of Western culture, but many could be helped and indeed are in other parts of the world.

Returning to Qigong, and having established that there might be something we can loosely term bioelectricity at work, we must now stretch our imaginations a little further and accept the possibility that one can influence the flow of this energy using the intention of the mind, and that we can also increase the amount of bioelectrical potential that we can store within the body. How might this work then? Well, in the conventional view we convert the food we eat into energy, and that’s all the energy we need. Then, if pressed, the western scientist will allow that the body has a natural electrical field that can be measured but, in the conventional view, this field is considered to be nothing more than a by-product of the body’s function. In the traditional Chinese view, however, the body’s electromagnetic field is more, and the form it takes is believed to actually influence the well being of the body itself.

Electrical energy is not just generated by the body, it is also channelled into the body from the environment. Under normal conditions the energy flows along the acupuncture meridians which emerge from the body at its extremities – tips of fingers, toes, top of the head and the perineum. If the energy field is undistorted, then it acts as a kind of blueprint that the body’s natural regenerative functions can use as a reference in repairing physical damage or fighting infection. If the blueprint is lost or distorted though, the body is thrown back upon itself and can go a little haywire – we become sick.

Through poor posture, poor diet, negative thinking, or years of nervous tension we can unconsciously impede the natural flow of energy through the acupuncture channels – just as if we sit awkwardly, we can impede the flow of blood and cause our legs to go to sleep. This has the effect of distorting our natural electromagnetic field and if these distortions become habitual and long term, things can start to break down. The other way of distorting the field has to do with external electromagnetic interference. There is no clear cut boundary to the human electromagnetic. In effect, it merges by imperceptible degrees into the electromagnetic field of the earth. Therefore the concern is that any strong local interference, such as from power lines, transformers or radio transmitters, could disrupt the body’s natural field, again messing up the reference blueprint that our natural defences use for self repair.

Or so the theory goes.

But what about my tinnitus? Could the manipulation of Chi get rid of what a western medical doctor had told me was incurable?

Well, as I’ve already said, the answer appears to be yes.

TCM and Tinnitus

TCM is not a miracle cure for everything. It aims to put the body’s natural electromagnetic field back into balance so the body knows how to repair itself. But there are some forms of damage that cannot be repaired. If we are unfortunate enough to lose a limb for example, no amount of acupuncture or qigong will make it grow back.

Our ears are delicate devices and tinnitus can be brought on by physical damage: by exposure to loud noise, by being too close to an explosion, by habitual exposure to dangerous industrial or recreational noise. It can also be brought on by poking around in the ear with a Q-tip, or through an infection introduced by a dirty finger-nail. With a damaged ear, as I understand it, TCM is as helpless as Western medicine. However, if you cannot pinpoint any such cause, if it came on suddenly and mysteriously then your tinnitus is probably the result of fatigue – in bioelectrical terms, your batteries are running down.

The body’s electromagnetic field is not a straightforward phenomenon. It divides itself into different channels, each of which provides energy for a particular bodily function. Each channel then feeds a store of energy that serves the body in different ways. One of these channels comes up from the feet and is loosely associated with the kidneys. As we age this energy can become depleted, and one of the side effects, as well as a general feeling of lethargy and exhaustion, is tinnitus.

The lesson here for the tinnitus sufferer is that although this energy can be restored, it will be lost again if we cannot identify our energy hungry habits and put an end to them. There are several reports of acupuncture having a short term effect on tinnitus: it helps, but once you stop the acupuncture, it comes back. Mine didn’t however – it continued to improve, but I was careful not to go back to my old ways, and I adopted a healthy exercise regime that seems to have kept my energy levels topped up.

In TCM, the most likely culprits in the onset of tinnitus are insufficient sleep, and, for men, sexual excess (sorry guys). Now none of this will be of much comfort if you’re a celibate teenager, and get ten hours sleep a night. But if you’re older, say past forty and sexually active (with or without a partner) this is definitely something you need to take seriously.

I was forty five, and energy hungry, working long hours with two jobs – one that paid, the other that didn’t, and I wasn’t getting anywhere near enough sleep. Acupuncture, Qigong and Tai Chi were very effective in getting rid of it, but it was a long haul. The whole process took over a year and I still practice Tai Chi and Qigong every day.

What follows is an account of my story in more detail. For those of you suffering with tinnitus, there may be something in it that can help. If, however, you’ve never heard of tinnitus then I’m just going to sound like a whingeing hypochondriac.


My tinnitus came on suddenly in the Spring of 2006. It was mainly in my left ear, and was like the hissing of air from a leaky pipe, or like the static hiss you get when you tune a radio in between stations. Sometimes we get these odd noises when we’re tired or we have a head cold, but we don’t pay them much attention and they usually go away, but this didn’t. Over the next few months the noise came and went a bit, but finally settled in until it was there pretty much all the time.

Some days I could only hear it in a very quiet room, or when I lay in bed at night – other days I could hear it over most of the everyday sounds, like watching TV or when driving. There seemed to be no clear pattern to the good days and the bad days, no obvious trigger, except that exposure to very loud noises like a washing machine suddenly kicking into its spin cycle, or using my petrol mower would turn a good day instantly into a bad one.

I waited until the late Summer before going to see the local GP. A quick examination revealed a plug of wax in the offending ear and I was hopeful that after washing it out, the noise would go, but it didn’t. I was stuffed: it seemed there was nothing more that could be done. The GP shrugged and diagnosed “tinnitus”. He said he could refer me to a specialist but that in his experience it wasn’t really worth it, that I’d be better off just getting used to it.

The real nature of the problem

On the up-side, it wasn’t life-threatening – just annoying – but I refused to believe that such an apparently common thing could not be cured. However, the internet revealed the situation to be (almost) hopeless. What particularly upset me were the “miracle cures”. When you see these – all sorts of weird devices and sounds on CD’s – all at exorbitant prices, you know you’ve tapped into one of those grey “snake-oil” areas. Look up “baldness” and you’ll get a similar crop of “miracle cures”. Well, I could live with being bald, I thought, but tinnitus: well that was a different matter altogether!

The condition seemed to worsen throughout the summer and winter of 2006. The noise wasn’t so loud that I couldn’t hear anything else, but it was noticeable over most of the sounds I encountered during a normal day, and my main worry was that it was going to get worse and worse. Then, strangely, I’d get a good day when I could barely hear the tinnitus, and I’d think I was getting better, but the following day it would be back again, seemingly louder than before.

Western medicine will glibly blame exposure to noise. The doctor jokingly suggested that I’d probably been to too many rock concerts in my youth. Well – at the risk of sounding like a bit of a bore, this wasn’t true – I’d always been keen to heed the warnings, because I didn’t want to develop tinnitus in later life. Ha! But anyway, I still wondered about noise. My day job involved working in a lab where there was a fairly constant buzz and rumble of extractors and cooling fans. These sounds were occasionally irritating, more so now that I was looking to blame them for causing the tinnitus. So I went through a phase of sitting in the lab with ear defenders on – but it didn’t make any difference, and the Health and Safety guys looked at me as if I’d gone mad when they came to measure the noise levels, because they barely registered on the equipment. So, in my case, noise didn’t look like being the primary cause then. Granted, once you’ve got tinnitus, exposure to loud noises will irritate it, but the real cause lies elsewhere. The real cause is fatigue.
I worked a fairly standard forty hour week, and I’d journey home each evening to take up my unpaid “real” job of writing. I’d work late into the night, most nights, and I’d usually unwind, as I wrote, to the accompaniment of a glass of wine, so when I did retire I’d only get a few hours kip before (if you’ll pardon me) having to empty my bladder. I didn’t have a stressful lifestyle, or a stressful job, but even from an early age I’ve been prone to nervous tension, the occasional bout of irrational anxiety in situations most of you will find innocuous, and not surprisingly I was pretty tired all of the time.

I won’t go into the sex bit in any personal detail and shall leave it to your imagination – except to say I don’t think it was a major factor in my own case. Anyway, the theory goes that sperm takes a lot of the available energy in a man’s body. If sperm is lost (during sex) the body immediately sets about making some more, consuming vast amounts of energy in the process. To a young man this is neither here nor there and he can have as much sex as his circumstances and good fortune allow, but to an older man it’s different and he needs to ration himself a bit more. In TCM there’s actually a chart that indicates the maximum number of ejaculations a man should have in a given period, depending on his age – if you’re over forty it’s about once a week or every ten days. This might seem a bit over the top but it’s something you do need to be aware of.

Measuring the tinnitus

I began a study of the tinnitus and came up with a measurement system, so I could tell how bad a day it had been. I defined three simple levels:

Level 3, I represented with a smiley face and this scored a 25, because I reckoned I only noticed it about a quarter, or 25%, of the time. Level 3 was fine – I could live my whole life at level three and not complain about it.

Level 2 was a straight faced “smiley”, and this scored 50% because I reckoned I’d been aware of it about half the time. Occasionally irritating, level 2 is not a good place to be, but it doesn’t make you feel ill, make you consider giving up your job, or cause you to fear for your sanity.

Then came level 1, which was a “bad ear day”, a miserable frowning “smiley” which scored a 75%. Level 1 was maddening. Level one was enough to have me going to bed in the early evening so I could cut the day short and escape the infernal racket. Level 1 I could not live with for very long at all and it made me adamant that I was going to find a way to cure it.

Thus began a daily chart on which I logged my scores, to see if the condition was getting worse or if it was stable. Every month I’d take an average and to my relief, the condition seemed to be fairly stable – between 55 and 60%.

I’ve read that it’s not a good idea to keep a log of your tinnitus because it makes you concentrate on it, and that in turn can make it seem worse than it really is. While I agree with this to a certain extent, I should emphasise that my log was just a quick assessment, usually in the morning – asking myself how good or bad the previous day had been. Then the book was closed and I just got with my day. Later on, I was glad of the record because, as things improved, it was easier to see the results on paper and this in itself boosted my morale and maintained my resolve to carry on with the “cure”.

At the time of writing, after some eighteen months since beginning to tackle it, I’m now down to around 35%, which means my life consists of mostly good days instead of mostly bad.

The TCM Sessions

Of all the nonsense I’d read on the internet the “nonsense” of TCM seemed the most plausible, and least expensive option, so I contacted a local practitioner. He was a Chinese doctor, trained in western medicine, but who specialised in TCM. The sessions were weekly, lasted between thirty and forty minutes and they cost me £25.00 a time. I went regularly for seven months. Now, you’re thinking to yourself that that’s a lot of money – nearly enough to buy one of those weird tinnitus-cure gadgets you see advertised on the internet, and you’re right. The difference is though, you’re only paying a little at a time, and if you decide it’s not working, you can cut your losses and stop going long before it’s cost you a fortune.

My first consultation was in February 2007. The TCM doctor checked my pulse on both wrists, examined my tongue and generally weighed me up, apparently by the look, feel and the “smell” of me. He went into some detail about family history, explored other issues of lifestyle that I didn’t think were related, and then began to suggest symptoms I’d forgotten to mention such as an embarrassing habit of breaking out into a drenching sweat for no apparent reason. I was given herbal remedies, a vigorous massage of my back and neck, and a form of acupressure on the sides of my head. The herbs were Er Long Zuo Chi Wan and Long Dan Zie Gan Wan. I kept this up for about 3 weeks but without any noticeable benefit. Then the doctor said we should try acupuncture.

If you’ve not had acupuncture [as I hadn’t] you might be nervous about it [as I was]. I discovered the pins used are not really pins at all – they are more like fine wires – and the doctor explained they are not pushed in very far – from 1 to 3 mm, depending on the location. There was a slight pricking sensation as they went in, but so long as you can relax this is hardly noticeable. Once the pins are in the sensation is more like the gentle pressure of a finger or some other blunt instrument held against the skin.

In my case the “pins” were applied to my shins, the backs of my hands, sides of the neck, the mandibles, and the top of my head. I had no knowledge of the so called meridian system at that time and therefore no idea of the reasoning behind the doctor’s choice in these locations. The combined sensation was really peculiar, but not unpleasant – in fact, after a while, I looked forward to my sessions because of their relaxing effect. The pins were left in place for about 20 minutes, while I lay comfortably on my back. The only clothes I had to take off were my shoes. The doctor was a pleasant, chatty gentleman, not long in the UK and he spoke in very broken English, a language he was studying. He was the first doctor I’ve ever met who did not treat me like a lump of meat.

On the first occasion I think I’d been expecting a miracle, but the ears were still ringing when the pins came out and I was disappointed, thinking they’d had no effect at all. However, on the way home, after that first session, I began to feel really strange – very tired, and like I’d had an electric shock. I arrived home stunned, and feeling “heavy”. The closest thing I could liken it to was, years before, when I’d been in a car accident – a sudden jarring smash that I’d walked away from apparently unscathed – but the day after I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. Then there was an occasion in my foolish youth when I’d nearly killed myself buggering about with mains electricity – I’d got away with just a warning jolt but I remembered the sensation of an electrically triggered muscular spasm. That evening I was in bed at nine and I slept like I’d been drugged, but I woke up next morning feeling fresher than I’d done in years. Unfortunately the ear was still ringing.
Perhaps understandably then I approached my next session with some trepidation. The doctor explained that my reaction had been normal – being plugged into the mains, he said, was not a bad analogy. My body wasn’t used to it, but it wouldn’t react so dramatically next time. This was indeed the case, and the following sessions were quite straight forward. After each session thereafter, I always felt deeply relaxed and refreshed.

With few exceptions, the TCM sessions stuck to a regular format: After a quick examination of tongue and pulse, I would have twenty minutes of acupuncture, twenty minutes of massage around the back and neck, then the usual herbs and I’d be on my way. The few exceptions involved a process called candling – sticking a lighted, hollow candle in my ear. Though again I found the candling to be relaxing, I could not say it had any effect on my tinnitus.

I kept all of this up for 7 months, which cost around £700 in the end – a lot of money? Well, all things are relative, and it depends how much you’re earning. It was about the price of a holiday, or a decent computer. But the important thing is: did it work?

And the answer is Yes.

According to the chart I kept the effect was immediate, though slight. Consecutive months showed a steady improvement until after six months of treatment I was down to around the 40% mark. But the improvement in the tinnitus was not the only thing I noticed. Throughout the Summer of 2007, I felt incredibly more energetic, and about a decade younger.

But I had to pack it in. It came down to money really, plus the abiding scepticism of my good lady who insisted it was all in the mind anyway, and that £100 a month could be better spent elsewhere. Admittedly, I had hoped for faster cure. I was growing increasingly frustrated by the routine nature of my TCM sessions and the slow progress. Sure, I was improving slightly, but at this rate I was going to be broke before I got close to being free of tinnitus. If I could have afforded to keep going, then I would have done so. The difference it made to my sense of well being was profound, but in the real world, as the tinnitus subsided, the TCM sessions began to feel more like a delicious luxury than a necessity.

I asked the doctor’s advice and he said that tinnitus was a stubborn thing to shift, but that we were heading in the right direction, and why didn’t I consider taking up Tai Chi as well – that regular practice might speed things up. The doctor practised it himself and looked very well off it. I found a local class and enrolled in August 2007. They taught the traditional Chen style, beginning with a fourteen week introductory course, and I was hooked from the beginning.

Tai Chi for Health

Like Yoga, to some extent it is possible to gain benefit from Tai Chi without considering or “believing in” the “internal” energies involved, but without them Tai Chi is just a form of dancing. We’re talking about Chi again, though at the class I attended, “Chi” was rarely mentioned. Instead, it was glossed over or loosely defined as a kind of “electricity” or “energy” and we were taught that whatever “it” was, it was important to have it circulating correctly, just as it was important to have good circulation of the blood and the lymph.
The Tai Chi moves, or “form”, encourage this circulation as well as developing a heightened sense of balance and improving one’s flexibility or suppleness. The “energy aspects” are also specifically targeted or boosted by special exercises known collectively as Qigong. Qigong and Tai Chi are usually taught together as one coherent system. Tai Chi was developed during a troubled period of China’s history when isolated agricultural communities were vulnerable to hoards of raiding bandits. It was a highly effective means of self defence, and each of the individual moves has an application in protecting oneself from a would be attacker. In their original form, these moves are rather uncompromising and designed to inflict severe injury. In short Tai Chi breaks bones and smashes heads. It’s therefore not the ideal sport for full contact sparring, except the highly specific form known as push hands.

The elements of posture, energy and physique one develops from practising these moves renders them beneficial either from the fighting angle, or from the health angle. Most of us in the west, practice for our health. We carry out the moves slowly and with a mind for their correctness. When, as beginners, we hit upon the correct way of moving, the correct posture or whatever, we are rewarded with a physical sensation that is unlike any other I have ever experienced.

There are thousands of Qigong forms, and to the uninitiated, it’s difficult to know where to start, but they all combine the breath with gentle movement, or static postures, and an inner sense of “energy” flow. Qigong aims at increasing a practitioner’s internal energy.

The Qigong styles I was introduced to through my Tai Chi classes were the 18 form Shibashi, and the 8 Piece Brocade. I attended a seminar on the 8 Piece Brocade in October 2007, and of the two, it was this one that I personally found much easier to get into the “feel” of. It’s also easier to remember a sequence of 8 postures than 18. It was while carrying out this sequence of simple moves that I began to feel something of my own electricity – either imagined or otherwise.

Another static Qigong posture that was taught was “standing like a tree”, a position I found incredibly difficult to hold for more than a few minutes without breaking into a sweat, but which again I found to be ultimately very beneficial indeed.

Interestingly the TCM doctor did not entirely approve of Qigong, warning me that it produced too much “heat” – in the TCM sense, and that this could make things worse for me in the short term. I was puzzled by this, as I’d been sure the acupuncture and the herbs he’d been prescribing had been aimed at increasing my own internal energy – that my flagging reserves were the cause of the tinnitus. So what was wrong with an exercise designed to do the same thing? Unfortunately, he was right though, and immediately upon beginning to practice Qigong, I recorded a slight worsening of the tinnitus. Anyway, for good or ill, the time had come for me to part company with the doctor. This was a difficult thing to do as I’d come to know him quite well by this time, and enjoyed our conversations, enjoyed also walking out of his clinic and feeling like I was floating – but my good lady had by now already issued various ultimatums, and I simply couldn’t keep it up. To be fair, 7 months had been a long time – a fair shot at it, I thought, and with some success.
I kept up the Tai Chi (Qigong and all), acting on instinct, and feeling that this was something my body wanted or needed me to do. So, I ended the TCM in September 2007 and for the next few months the tinnitus stabilised a few points up at around 42%. Then I began to practice the Tai Chi and Qigong very seriously. I attended class once a week, but practice at home for at least thirty minutes a day, every day, without fail. The Tai Chi I was learning was a relatively modern short form designed for beginners by Master Liming Yue of the Manchester based Tai Chi Centre – just 11 moves, and I picked these up slowly over the autumn and winter of 2007/2008. In the main though, my private practice consisted of Qigong.

I would begin each session with the warm-up routines I’d learned for the Tai Chi form, then do the 8 piece Brocade, usually followed by a session of standing like a tree for as long as I could. Alternatively, I would perform a set of moving exercises, also part of the Chen Style repertoire, called “Silk Reeling” . Finally if I felt like it, I’d finish off with a bit of revision on the Tai Chi form, then do the warm down exercises, another form of Qigong that supposedly settles the imaginary “electricity” to the Dan Tien – a point (imaginary or otherwise) a couple of inches below the belly button.

In Tai Chi we try to think of the Dan Tien as our energy source, a bit like a rechargeable battery, also as our centre of gravity and that any moves we make are driven by a twisting or a spiralling of energy that begins in the Dan Tien. Under normal conditions it draws charge from the food we eat and from the environment, passing it along the acupuncture channels but if these become blocked, the flow of energy is impeded. Practising the 8 piece brocade aims to relax and free up these channels, lowering the resistance, and improving the charge going to the Dan Tien.

One possible problem with Qigong practice is that to the western mind, an exercise set implies sweating and straining. This is exactly the opposite of what we want though. In practising the 8 piece brocade, we might begin to sweat, because it does raise a tremendous heat apparently from nowhere, but putting strain or “effort” into the moves is wrong – we need to relax as much as possible. Breath and intention are central to any Qigong practice. The theory tells us that energy follows the mind’s intention and its movement or flow is encouraged by the breath. One’s focus then is naturally upon the Dan Tien, which we try to develop an imaginary feel for, and this comes with practice. As we perform the movements, we synchronise them to the natural flow of our breath, tending to push as we breathe out, and pull as we breath in. Breathing is slow and relaxed, tending to be deep, the diaphragm extending down as we breathe in – the belly pushing out, and relaxing to normal as we breathe out.

In tree standing, the focus again is on the Dan Tien and the breath. The postures in tree standing vary but the style I was taught simply involve holding the arms out in front of the body, or above the head. When beginning it seems impossible that anyone can hold these postures for 10 or 20 minutes – but with patience and practice it is possible. The point of all this escaped me at first and it seemed little more than a sort of sadomasochism. It was excruciating holding my arms up even for five minutes, but after a while, incredible though it may sound, the weight of one’s arms eventually seems to disappear and it is as if they are suspended by invisible threads. But the more interesting thing, obviously, for me, was that after a few months of regular practice, the tinnitus began to improve again. As with the acupuncture, the improvement was a gradual thing, but taken over a period of six months, it was significant to the point where I can say that, in the main, it simply doesn’t bother me any more.

By March of 2008 my tinnitus levels were down to about 35% – based on my rough smiley chart. Bad ear days still occurred – but only about once a fortnight, as opposed to several times a week, when I set out in 2006. I also felt much brighter, more positive in my outlook and significantly more energetic. Needless to say, my view of TCM has changed completely from early scepticism (but what the hell I’ve nothing to lose) to one of respect.

It will not cure everything. Sometimes our bodies get themselves into such a mess we need the drastic intervention of powerful pharmaceuticals, antibiotics or urgent surgery. But there are also a lot of conditions western medicine seems to shrug its shoulders at because they’re not life threatening – “merely” irritating to the sufferer. These conditions can be both physical and emotional and in my view are symptomatic of a deeper malaise, one that western medicine will never get at because it’s too focussed on attacking the symptoms with pharmaceuticals, rather than understanding the underlying cause. With TCM things work the other way around. If the nature of the imbalance can be identified and addressed, the symptoms will disappear on their own. Even, it seems, the apparently incurable ones like tinnitus.

Advice to Tinnitus Sufferers

My advice, if you’re suffering from tinnitus is first of all see your local GP, if you haven’t already done so, if only to check for damage and to have the condition confirmed. If you’re lucky (or unlucky – depending on your point of view) you may be referred to a specialist at the hospital. From then on you can expect a lot of appointments, a lot of poking about in your ear, a lot of literature on tinnitus support groups, but no cure. It’s up to you whether you want to venture down this path or not – depends if you like hospital waiting rooms, I suppose.

Alternatively, consult a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine to see what their diagnosis is, and to ask about herbs, massage and acupuncture – or whatever they recommend to re-balance your system. One thing I didn’t do, and which I recommend, is to ask up front how long they think the treatment will take – so you know what you’re in for. It sounds stupid but I was too polite to ask.
At the same time, consider taking up Tai Chi, as well as the 8 Brocades Qigong, and Tree standing, also known as Zhan Zhuang (pronounced jam jong). Although the practitioner I saw was wary about Qigong, and the practice did at first seem to be working against the acupuncture, continued practice did eventually yield significant results (and for a fraction of the cost).

The other things you can do for yourself are:

1) Record the levels of tinnitus so you have a baseline against which to measure subsequent improvements.

2) Remember you’re not suffering from tinnitus – that’s just a symptom. What you’re most likely suffering from is fatigue, so make sure you get plenty of sleep – at least eight hours – more if you can manage it.

3) Avoid large drinks late at night – alcoholic or otherwise – or anything that’s going to get you up in the small hours to relieve your bladder and disturb your sleep.

4) And gentlemen, if you’re over forty, you really have to limit your ejaculations, assisted or DIY, to no more than once a week. Read Mantak Chia’s “Multi Orgasmic Man” for further information and some very interesting alternatives.

(Obviously, Ladies don’t need to worry about this aspect.)

5) Take up Tai Chi and Qigong – I had good results with the 8 Brocades, Tree Standing and Chen Style Silk Reeling. But you need to persevere – it will take you a year at least, so be prepared.

Tinnitus is a worrying condition because it throws us back on ourselves a bit. No one else is going to sort this out for you, so you have to take responsibility for improving the condition of your own body, its balance and its well-being. Tai Chi and Qigong are the tools that enabled me to do just that.

I highly recommend them.

Books and DVD’s on Tai Chi and Qigong

There are of course many books on the subject of Qigong, and Tai Chi – search Amazon and you’ll see what I mean – but in my experience there are very few good ones – I know because I’ve ended up buying a good many of them. Western authors tend to get hung up too quickly on the mystical or the paranormal side of it – and though I admit I’m a bit of a mystic myself, when it comes to what ails you I think you need to be a bit more down to earth. Forget “astral travel” and just give me something that can help me pass my day with more of a spring in my step!

Qigong forms tend to involve static postures that you hold while focusing on the breath and to some extent you might be successful in picking these up from illustrated books, DVDs or off the Internet. But by far the best way is to attend a class. Having said this, quite late on in my practice, I became aware of a book called “The Way of Energy” by Lam Kam Chuen. By strange coincidence, this book covered both the 8 Brocade and Tree Standing that I’d been learning in class. I thought this book was very well written, beautifully and appropriately illustrated and above all informative. This is a very rare exception, and learning from this book is possibly even better than attending a class with an instructor who isn’t as well informed.
As for Tai Chi, its forms involve complex and highly dynamic moves which you simply cannot learn from a book, or an instructional DVD. You need to follow a real live person, preferably one who knows what they’re doing. The books and DVD’s can then help you with your home practice and background studies. My advice in the first place then is to find a Tai Chi class and give it a try. Inquire first of all to make sure that Qigong is integral to the practice – not all instructors teach it, but in my opinion, without it, Tai Chi is simply a form of dancing. The 8 Brocades and Tree Standing are common to all styles of Tai Chi, though there may be subtle differences in the way they’re taught – this doesn’t matter. I’m learning Chen Style, which is not as common in the UK as other styles – you’re more likely to encounter Yang Style, but don’t get hung up on the names – they’re all highly respected as health systems.

A final word on the mystical side: Many forms of Qigong are banned in China as the authorities tighten up on anything that has even the faintest whiff of “cultishness” or “witchcraft” about it. The Falun Gong system is perhaps the most well known of the proscribed forms, but there are others. The only forms of Qigong that have gained the approval of the authorities are those that have proven health benefits. The 8 Brocades, the 18 form Shibashi and Tree Standing are considered such, and all are widely and openly practice in China, so there’s no need to worry about the spiritual stuff if you’re a sceptical westerner – just try if for a bit and see what happens.

I think you’ll be impressed!

Michael Graeme


The Body Electric – Dr Robert Becker

The Way of Energy – Lam Kam Chuen

The Multi-Orgasmic Man – Mantak Chia

*** updated February 2014 ***

Master Lam has now put up an excellent set of instructional videos on You Tube detailing a ten day course to get you going with Zhan Zhuang.  Episode one is here:

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I’ve written elsewhere in some detail about the reasons I came to get involved with Tai Chi, but to summarise, I was advised to take it up by a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine as a means of augmenting a course of acupuncture. That was some eighteen months ago, now, and though my ailment has largely cleared up, and I no longer bother with the acupuncture, I still  practice Tai Chi most days.

When I began learning, I followed the movements, as demonstrated by my instructor, in a fairly mechanical way. It reminded me a little of dancing – the music was different, the rhythms somewhat unfamiliar but you were still moving your arms and your legs in a set sequence.  I always felt very relaxed after an hour of practice – even if all I’d been doing was repeating the same few moves over and over again. It was interesting that I’d spent the whole of the nineteen eighties and most of the nineties learning ball-room dancing. My lessons had often left me sweating and breathless, but never infused with a warm sense of well being, as Tai Chi did – so there had to be more to it than the normal side effects of vigorous exercise.

Apart from that  warm sense of well being, however, I felt nothing “internally”, while the musings of other practitioners I read had led me to expects all sorts of feelings, and I began to wonder if talk of Chi and meridians and energy flow was just a load of clap-trap. Looking back, I’d missed the point, and that warm sense of well being is exactly what Chi can sometimes feel like.  But eventually, as I continued with the practice, I began to feel other things that finally convinced me there was something very unusual going on.

I was learning a set of eleven movements, part of a fairly modern frame, devised by Liming Yue of the Manchester Tai Chi Centre. Among other practices like Silk Reeling and Push Hands, this “eleven form” took me six months to complete. Other courses were offered in various Qigong techniques, and I now have a working knowledge of The Ba Dua Yin, the Yi Jing Ching, and the Shibashi. My personal favourite is the Ba Dua Yin, and I practice this most days.

After the first six months of practice, I began to develop an unusual  sensation in my arms, hands and fingers. It was noticeable particularly during the Qigong practice, but also during the Tai Chi form when my posture happened to fall into the correct alignment. The feeling was like a “tension” or a slight “numbness” that ran from the fingertips, along the arms, and across the shoulders – literally like an unbroken string being drawn firm. Stand normally, move normally, and it isn’t there. Drop into a Tai Chi position, and move through a little of the form, or do some Qigong, and there it is again. Being largely ignorant of human anatomy, on account of my squeamishness, I wondered at first if this “tension” was simply a tightening of the tendons that connect the bones to the muscles, but there are many discrete tendons between the fingertips and the shoulder – definitely not one long one, as the sensation seemed to suggest.

The daily practice of Qigong also began to yield its own range of odd sensations – one in particular, for a while, was an apparent rushing of “something” up my spine, to the top of my head, resulting in a mild dizziness – when all I’d done was move my arms in a particular way.

Perhaps the most obvious weirdness though was simply the heat the practice of both Tai Chi and Qigong generates. Before beginning Tai Chi, I had imagined the practice halls would all be like little pieces of old China, transplanted into an English setting. However, the truth is somewhat different and the practice halls are more likely to be pretty run down, and typically English – musty old church halls, rotten scout huts and the gutted remains of old mills. Where I currently practice, there’s no heating, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem. The winters here are usually pretty mild but cold snaps can take easily take temperatures down to around minus 5C. On such occasions, the temperature in the practise hall barely hovers above freezing, so we generally begin our warm-ups wearing fleece tops and cardigans. After twenty minutes though, the  fleece has been discarded and my tee shirt is usually beginning to show damp patches. Had I been doing something obviously energetic, this would not have surprised me, but in those twenty minutes we might only have done a gentle ten minute warm up routine, no more energetic than walking really, followed by a qigong posture that involves nothing more energetic than standing still. You can imagine then that in the summer, when temperatures get up above 20C, I usually have need of a towel. At first I was sure there was something wrong with me, that I was incredibly unfit, or ill,  but I’ve been assured time and again that I’m simply doing it right and that this is just another example of what Chi feels like.

Inevitably the practice of Tai Chi begins to have effects that are felt in daily life. Apart from the generally relaxed outlook, and the physical sensations, I suddenly found I could beat my son at arm-wrestling – all right, I know this is childish – but  I found if I could bring my thoughts to focus upon my arm, and swell what few paltry muscles I’ve got with my mind, so to speak, I could make it immovable and my son would tire himself out straining against it. Also, on one occasion, when trying to uproot a tree, frankly to the point of exhaustion, I was able to finally snap off the last of its tenacious roots, by winding up the energy from my dan tien and applying a martial release. It worked and the combined effects of the energy, and my surprise, had me falling over backwards, bringing down on top of me a shower of uprooted tree and soil. I’m not making any claims for super normal strength here – indeed I suspect this energy is nothing more than the normal condition of the human body, but applied in a way that’s more efficient than normal. It’s curious though, and  I find that, after only eighteen months of practise, I now believe that much of what has been written about Tai Chi and Qigong, isn’t quite as preposterous as it sounds.

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