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Spirituality & Health Magazine, Sept-Oct, 2004

Qigong: Finding a Teacher, Developing a Practice

Byline: Ronnie Shushan

Ronnie Shushan, manager of the art and production team at S&H, admits to having gathered an excessive number of books and videos on this Chinese healing practice as she explored ways to illustrate two features for the magazine. Realizing that she couldn't learn Qigong from a book, she had her antennae out for a good teacher. Then, last fall, she received an email from a yoga teacher in her hometown of Woodstock, New York, announcing a weekend intensive with a visiting Qigong teacher named Pragata. She checked out Pragata's website and immediately signed up. Afterward, she filed this report.

About 20 of us, ranging in age from 14 to mid-seventies, gather on Friday evening for the first of four sessions. The big open space -- the second story of a 150-year-old converted barn -- is familiar to those of us who have been to yoga classes there. The warmth and vitality I had sensed in Pragata's website photo is even more compelling when I meet him in person.

He begins with a brief background on a sequence of postures called the Eighteen Lohan Hands, six of which we will learn during the weekend. He explains that they were taught by the great Bodhidharma in 527 B.C.E. to monks at the Shaolin Monastery in China, as an antidote to sleepiness during meditation. Shaolin Qigong can be practiced on three different levels: the level of Form (or physical exercise); the level of Energy (making a conscious effort to increase energy and clear blockages); and the level of Mind (where a heightened state of consciousness enables the practitioner to manipulate energy to effect healing).

Pragata's stories of his own healing experiences with Qigong are amazing. At 14, a skiing accident in his native France damaged his spine, so that by 40 he was bent over and in constant pain. ("You are the age of your spine," he tells us.) After many years in the East studying with masters of various healing and meditation techniques, he received his initiation into Qigong 10 years ago in China. Now close to 60, he moves with remarkable flexibility and ease, and has reclaimed a level of activity -- including climbing the Himalayas -- that he had never dreamed possible.

Inspired by Pragata's experience and motivated by his energy, we clear the floor and stand, ready to learn the first form -- each of the 18 exercises is called a form, as is the whole series. The work, he tells us, will enable us to be focused and relaxed at the same time. We stand with feet parallel, close together but not touching, knees slightly bent. We are instructed to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, taking in the energy of the cosmos on the inhalation, and releasing blockages, toxins, and negativity on the exhalation. If we exhale with the mouth closed, the negative energy just stays inside. Our weight is to be evenly centered on both feet, but toward the ball of the foot; if your weight is in the heels, the energy gets stuck. It is all about energy, he says, and how to enhance its flow through the body.

Pragata demonstrates the movement Lifting the Sky, and we follow. It is a simple lifting of the arms on the inhalation, a slight pause, a push upwards, and then lowering the arms on the exhalation, then another pause before repeating. The wrists are cocked in a way that is painful for me (having carpal tunnel problems from all those hours at the computer). When I report this during the discussion, Pragata advises us to work just a little past our limits, to a point of comfortable pain, but not beyond. In this way you gradually increase your limit, but without injury.

After 15 or 20 repetitions of Lifting the Sky, we stand and move in a free-form fashion called Wu-Wei. Pragata describes this as action without intent, or effortless effort. The idea is to feel the energy in your body, move with it and let it move through you. It is, he says, the most important part of the practice, and a good time to focus healing intentions, directing the energy to specific areas of the body.

After Wu-Wei we learn a delightful self-massage of the face, stimulating specific acupuncture points. Then we take a moment to feel what Pragata calls the smile of the heart, sending that smile to every cell of the body, then to all those we love, and to all beings. Finally, we stand with hands in gratitude -- for our teachers, and for life as our teacher. I find that gratitude deepens the smile in my heart.

Over the next two days -- two three-hour sessions on Saturday and a four-hour session on Sunday -- Pragata teaches us the other five forms. The ones we are learning are six that his Sifu (as the master teacher is called) believes form a complete whole in themselves, a very efficient way of massaging all the organs and glands, energizing the body, and focusing the mind. Pragata's teaching style is to have us repeat the forms we have learned, then demonstrate a new one for us to practice, then the Wu-Wei and self-massage and sharing of energy, then what he calls "dynamic walking" around the room, then discussion. Most of the forms have suggestively metaphorical names: After Lifting the Sky (the one to do if we only have time for one), there is Pushing Mountains (for internal force and mental freshness), Carrying the Moon (to improve the nervous system), Nourishing Kidneys (to enhance intellectual and general vitality as well as sexual energy), Separating Waters (for the heart and lungs), and finally Merry-Go-Round (the Qigong version of a pep pill, which also works the digestive organs).

The discussions reveal very different reactions. One person reports the disappearance of pain from a recent injury. Another reports anger one day, tears the next. Nausea, hoarseness, dreams resolving old parental issues -- the tendency is to attribute everything to this intense period of practicing. Pragata takes in our observations and reminds us that, whatever we are feeling, it is just energy. As is taught in so many traditions, we should observe it without judgment or attachment.

My own experience is one of sustained stamina. There is not a time in the 12 hours we work together when I do not feel awake, focused, totally present. Toward the end of the day on Saturday, however, a nerve problem in my left foot flares up. What I learn in this work is the ability to reframe my identification with a condition ("I have a Morton's neuroma") to the possibility of what Pragata calls inner surgery -- that scar tissue is breaking up. If nothing else, the experience of the moment changes my view of myself as injured to seeing myself having the potential to heal.

When we have learned all the forms, Pragata leads us in the set of six at the pace of his own usual practice. Including the free-form energy movement and the self-massage at the end, the routine takes about 20 minutes. In our last discussion before closing, there's a desire to linger. We are worried that we won't remember the movements. Pragata assures us that we will remember as much as we need to. That perfection is not important. That subtle refinements can come later. For me, this proves to be true. In the months since the workshop, I have continued to do the forms most mornings, with lapses of a few weeks here and there. It is truly a meditation in motion, a practice that works not only with energy, but also with mindfulness, lovingkindness, gratitude, and compassion.

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