‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.’
My first step towards developing an internal energy practice was a stumble off a steep curb six years ago, when I was in my mid-50s. The resulting badly-sprained ankle and frozen shoulder generated visions of a future me shuffling along with a walker, crippled and unsteady from repeated falls and fractures. Motivated by this extreme negative outlook and inspired by the example of my sister, who clearly was seeing positive changes from regular taijiquan practice, I enrolled in a year of taiji and qigong classes. My goals were modest—improve my balance and learn to age gracefully.
Over the last six years, I have certainly benefitted from those classes—improving my physical health and abilities, learning to relax, adopting a healthy, plant-based diet, and living more mindfully. However, although I spent six or more hours in class each week and occasionally practised at home, I didn’t feel I had a cohesive approach to achieving qigong mastery. I was practising taiji and qigong exercises, but did not feel I was learning systematically and experientially how to cultivate and direct my internal energy and integrate that practice with the rest of my life. Taiji and qigong were something I did a few hours a week—separate and apart from home, work, family, and creative pursuits.
The fact that I was missing something came home to me while travelling in China with my taiji teacher and a few other students from our school. While waiting in a train station, after spending some time in the Wudang mountains, we struck up a conversation with members of a Chinese team, who were heading home after participating in a taiji sword competition. We prevailed on one rather quiet, humble woman to demonstrate her sword form for us. As soon as she picked up the jian, she was transformed, and proceeded to give a demonstration I will remember for the rest of my life. She and her energy completely filled and merged with the large cavernous hall. (The only time I’ve seen an empty train station in China; it must have been waiting for this moment). She was one with the jian and, at once, I understood the meaning of connecting with and serving as a conduit for the energies of heaven and earth.
When my classmates and I expressed our interest in someday attaining this level of skill, our teacher explained that the woman demonstrating the sword form got to that level by ‘living a complete taiji life.’ I wasn’t sure what this entailed—but was intrigued—and wondered if that type of life could be accessible to someone like me. I now think what he was referring to was someone who had succeeded in adopting a complete Daoist way of life. In A Complete Guide to Chi-Gung, Daniel Reid describes this comprehensive system of thought and practice as bringing ‘the human body, energy and mind into balanced synchronicity and harmonic resonance with the primordial forces of heaven and the temporal elements of earth.’ I wasn’t sure how to get there, but the image of the ‘Daoist swordswoman,’ effortlessly directing and merging her energy with that of the world around her, became the new positive motivator for my practice, replacing the former fear-based image of an elderly woman with a broken hip.
As luck would have it, not long after this trip to China, I came across a link to The Scholar Sage and began reading the archived articles and Damo Mitchell’s books. I then noticed the announcement for Lotus Nei Gong’s American qigong certificate programme and rather impulsively signed up, hoping this programme would provide me with the proper structure, instruction and encouragement to delve deeper into the internal energy arts. I now have a path to follow and the resources to draw on to take my practice to the next level and keep growing and developing as I learn more.
I do feel very much like I am learning a brand new language and a foreign culture. Much of the philosophy of Daoism and, in particular, its alchemical practices are beyond my understanding at this point. For the moment, I am focused on establishing and maintaining a regular daily practice and noting the changes resulting from that experience. I am also reading widely—and rereading the same books over and over again—and hoping to eventually absorb and understand more of the philosophy behind the various levels of internal-art cultivation.
To date, the Lotus Nei Gong training has provided me with a clear framework for practice. I am also realising that many of the principles and fundamental practices are the same as or compatible with what I have been learning over the last six years in my taiji school. Some of the key principles that I have learned to identify are:
Practise – This may seem obvious, but mastering the development and utilisation of internal energy requires consistent practice over an extended period of time. Awakening, cultivating and transforming internal energy is a developmental process which unfolds in stages and requires hours of daily practice, sustained over weeks, months and years. Practice should become a daily habit involving a combination of hard work, a relaxed and playful attitude, and mindful attention.
Condition the body – I always wondered why my taijiquan teacher spent up to half of each class on body conditioning exercises vs. teaching the form. Now I realise that focusing on body mechanics and creating the proper body structure are key to developing the information pathways necessary to optimise qi Some important bodywork principles include adopting the correct posture and alignments, learning to relax the muscles and let them hang off the bones, releasing tension from and opening the joints, lengthening the fascia network, and strengthening the core.
Over the course of our lives, we can become very disconnected from our bodies, although we may work out regularly. Our modern lifestyles tend to be very sedentary and stress filled and even our exercise routines often result in increased tension and depleted energy. Many of the beginning taiji students I work with have significant physical limitations including poor posture, unsteady balance, and lack of coordination. Some have such poor body awareness they are not able to follow a teacher’s example to copy simple body movements. Fortunately, this is reversible with proper stretching and conditioning techniques, learning to direct the mind within the body and regular practice.
Overall health is also very important for sustaining a regular qigong practice and there is a lot of information available about diet and health practices that promote qi development and help balance the energies of the body. I have found Paul Pitchford’s Healing with Whole Foods to be a great resource, with a wealth of information on achieving optimal health through a whole-food diet, with a basis in Chinese medicine and a focus on ‘practices that clear and energise the body so the spirit can flourish.’ I found it interesting that his ‘food pyramid’ has ‘awareness’ as its base, which he defines as practices that calm the mind and nurture the spirit. The second level is daily exercise including practices such as yoga, taiji and qigong. Only then does he turn to the various food groups more typically found in dietary guidelines. In addition to following a whole-food, plant-based diet, he also advises eating simple food combinations, avoiding overeating, limiting stimulants like alcohol and caffeine, and eating seasonally in harmony with the five-element system of Chinese medicine.
Regulate the breath – Learning and practising natural breathing can help relax the body and calm the emotions, serving as a bridge to both the physical body and our emotional energy. By breathing slowly and deeply from the abdomen, you can take in more oxygen, which improves the health of the internal organs. This technique also helps you to consciously release tensions or blockages from the meridian system, therefore helping qi flow throughout the body.
Sung breathing, as explained by Mitchell in Daoist Nei Gong, is a technique to energetically transform and release tension from the physical, energetic and consciousness bodies. This process takes place over time through various stages, allowing you to access and release ever-deeper layers of tension. Eventually, the goal is to achieve a level of relaxation and emptiness that facilitates our connection with the vibrations of heaven and earth through the yongquan point on the bottom of the foot and the baihui point on the top of the head.
Regulating the breathing in this way is often used as an initial technique when learning sitting meditation to help the body adjust to the sitting posture, give the mind something to focus on and help deal with emotional releases that may occur. The breath can also be used to help place the mind inside the body and direct the qi in specific ways. In qigong and taiji practice, physical movements often follow the breath, with the inhale most frequently initiating an upward or expanding movement and the exhale initiating a sinking movement.
Quiet the mind – Much has been written about the ‘monkey’ nature of our acquired mind, which serves to keep us distracted, entertained or obsessed and, therefore, disconnected from our true nature. This is particularly a concern today with all of the distractions of the information age in which we live. We are bombarded constantly with information and energetic vibrations from myriad sources. It can be very healthy and helpful to detox the mind by limiting exposure to computers, cell phones, social media, news media, television and information overload of all types.
Calming the mind, finding inner stillness and choosing where to put our awareness can help us shed harmful habits and beliefs and learn to live in harmony with the universe. Developing a practice of regular sitting meditation can help us learn to eliminate extraneous information and find that still point within. This can be a challenging process as we work through stray thoughts, boredom and discomfort. Like other internal work, it is something that can be achieved over time with proper technique and regular practice. Taiji and qigong, too, should be practised with focused awareness and intention, keeping stray thoughts at bay and the mind largely directed internally.
In summary, I feel the Lotus Nei Gong training is helping me progress on my energetic and spiritual journey. The initial stage, which will take place over several years, consists of developing a foundation of a healthy, conditioned body and a calm mind as well as learning to awaken the energy body. This is accomplished through developing a regular, consistent practice, progressing step by step through the training sequence and understanding and incorporating key Daoist principles.
As a newcomer to this training, my understanding is that it can lead to learning to connect with and balance the ever-shifting yin forces of earth and the yang forces of heaven and achieve an optimal state of health and well being. As humans, we are positioned between earth and heaven and therefore can draw energy from both sources. We draw the earth energy up from our feet and pull the energy of heaven down from the crowns of our heads, integrating body, mind and breath. Eventually, a balanced energy system will result, with the microcosm of our bodies coming into harmony with the macrocosm of the universe – positioning us to travel further along the path of dao. It is a journey I intend to continue, seeing where it takes me and enjoying my travels along the way.