These constant variables in the weather are really throwing my body “off” this Spring. One minute its hot enough for shorts, the next it feels as though we have wound right to back a whole other season and I’m back into jumpers and thick socks. Sometimes, it feels like two seasons in one night; take last night, when it felt so hot and airless in our bedroom I had to open the windows wider in the night, only to wake up as stiff as a board from the cold. To be honest, I also overdid it a bit, over the weekend, getting a job done in a hurry that I was really eager to finish so I’m paying the price a bit this week. In my typical yo-yo fashion, I’m generally all one way or the other and extreme body vagaries are my normal.
But fear not, I limped off to do my qigong as per usual and, well within the allotted half hour, I felt like I was inhabiting a completely different body, a rescue mission that has occurred more times than I can count this year!
Much more so than yoga, which I’ve practiced daily for pushing a decade (and I still do a short routine each day to stretch out the body), qigong can easily be done, and without risk, even on my most rigidly painful days and never feels like I’m overdoing it. Not even when nerves are hot and aggravated, my skin on fire; even when I’m dizzy-headed and blood pools straight to my feet as I stand there, and on those days I feel almost too fatigued to stand (you can adapt much of it to a seated position…the only important thing is to be doing it). Also, don’t be deceived because, although it looks facile, its far more powerful than it seems!
More so than yoga, it transforms me, both inside and out, almost without effort. If I were to struggle on through my yoga routine, inspite of pain or nagging fatigue, especially if I am hypermobile, or compensatorily rigid, that day the movements would remain self-conscious and guarded throughout, because of feeling all-too aware of my limitations and the likelihood of making something worse…whereas qigong carries me off, beyond the body and into a far better, more comfortable place, without the same risk of overdoing it. Of course, there is always a risk of overdoing anything, but the odds are much slighter as you stay far more present with your sensations during qigong, and the pace is slow and mindful at all times (without overstretching or sustaining a position; a risky factor of yin yoga, I have found). There’s a degree of lightness and stillness that floods in as I’m doing it that is impossible to describe and which, to someone painfully aware of their body most to the time, is like finding the holy grail!
I started my daily qigong practice, as I have mentioned a few times before, back in January. For a long time, I had been meaning to “give it a go” and, in fact, I attended a class for a couple of months back in 2018 but it was geared for its age-group, mostly retired and some very elderly and frail, and I just didn’t get as much out of it as the online classes I now do (nor did it help my morale to equate myself with this peer group as by far the youngest by more than a couple of decades). The people were lovely but I lost interest in the class and its lack of variance.
Yet it had piqued my interest enough to sign up for an online workshop with Steven Washington back in 2020, a class which sat there, unused, along with the monthly qigong classes Steven also offers as part of his husband Lee Harris’ “Portal” subscription (link below); all of these qigong sessions sat there in my playlist, metaphorically gathering dust.
Maybe it was one of those January things but I finally got around to sampling them in early January and was so instantly taken by qigong and Steven’s delivery, plus the effect it was having on me pretty-much from day one (though I can now vouch for it accumulating with time) that I decided to subscribe to his Core Qigong monthly subscription. If you want to sample Steven’s style, there are also videos on his YouTube channel but then I do recommend his modest monthly subscription to take this practice deeper.
Since then, I haven’t looked back, doing the half hour qigong portion of the 75-min long weekly lessons he uploads (which include dance and pilates, which I attempt when I feel up to them but no pressure and I mostly don’t do these longer sessions yet). The half hour or so qigong portion which incorporates gentle movement and a meditative moment at the end, is ideal for my capabilities and I’ve done one of these classes pretty much every morning since January, even when I’ve been away overnight. As I have access to over two years’ worth of weekly classes, I can choose a completely different session each morning and this very-much suits my need for variety to keep me engaged.
Its just so easy to take these classes with you, anywhere, since all I need is my phone and a shelf to put it on, enough room to move my arms and somewhere to stand (no mat, as with yoga). In fact doing these classes with a backdrop of mountains or hills, a countryside view, can add to the effect…but absolutely not necessary as, at home, the backdrop is so often the vague outline of my neighbour cleaning his teeth, and other stuff (!) through his ensuite window; it matters not. I plan to occassionally take my practice outside under the tree as soon as the weather is warm enough, with bare feet on the ground.
Qigong does many things that should be of interest to someone with chronic illness of any kind (whether that involves pain, immobility or fatigue) and also for people like me with additional hypermobility, which can make exercise tricky and fraught with extreme vagaries (rag-doll elastic one minute, robotic the next). Its very hard to overdo it with qigong, all the moves can be modified to an achievable level, whereas I have overstretched or over-sustained the assana and thus bitterly rued the day, many times, in yoga and can’t go anywhere near “yin” as I’ve shared before!
With all chronic illnesses, maintaining movement is absolutely essential, without which the body quickly becomes deconditioned. Crucial supportive tissues such as facia can become badly distorted and corset-like, referring pain widely around the body; ligaments and muscles grow weak, over-rigid or lose resiliency from lack of use; fluids and vital energy become stuck and stagnant, all of which effects feed right back into the chronic health condition itself, making it even more chronic. Lymphatic movement, being the waste disposal system of the body, can become terribly stagnant and create its own gamut of problems but we are also talking about stagnation of the essential energy of life here; our very life force itself can get stuck in a toxic groove!
Qigong enables you to move the body in multiple ways, addressing all parts of the body equally, no meridian or organ left out (many of them wrung out, like giving them an encouraging, cleansing, squeeze!) yet all conducted in the warm and dry of your own home. You find yourself surprised at just how different you feel at the end of these gentle, easy movements and the effect is, quite literally, one of “emptying out your cup”, to quote something I shared the other day, which Steven often reads out in the meditative moment at the end of the sessions:
“The best things in life are qi. Qi is everywhere and its free. There is an unlimited abundance of energy in nature and in the universe. Qi animates your body and ignites your mind. Breathe it in to be inspired. Let go, relax, empty your cup to allow the boundless life-force energy to pour though you, let it flow”.Lee Holden
To reiterate, when your cup is emptied out…and only then…is it possible for all the vast energetic abundance of the universe to flood in. Otherwise, things “get stuck” and poor health ensues. Empty your cup and start again every day and, suddenly, you are onto another track…and the effect compounds as your body becomes more accustomed to the effect of refreshing itself at the start of every day, rather than the sense of chronic perpetuation that became ingrained as an unhealthy pattern before. Its like flushing away all the rubbish and then standing there in an energetic shower, over and over again until your body calls on its innate neuroplasticity to learn a new and far more healthy pattern of behaviour. This goes beyond brain retraining…and into the realms of body (or nervous system) retraining, and its powerful for getting to the root source of illness, not to analyse it but to let it go.
Five months later, I’m still fully committed to my routine and that, for me, is the test since I flit and flee from one interest to another (in my ADHD way) if my interest isn’t fully engaged. Only if I am engaged, and/or feel that something is doing me significant good and feeding into tangibly positive progression, do I ever continue with anything for this long!
What I’ve learned is that qigong has other subtle but quite indisputable benefits when it comes to improving balance and switching on proprioceptive receptors in the body, both of which can be my weak spots physically-speaking as someone with neurodivergent “wiring”. Whether you are neurodiverse like me or not, the simple fact of having been chronically ill for a long time, perhaps even bedridden, can do this to you, rendering your body uncertain when you are on your feet and moving around. Even if you have spent too many years in a desk-job or otherwise sedentary life, I would say this is so important to address, for the sake of your longterm wellbeing and before you can reclaim your best health. Reconditioning your sense of balance and proprioceptive awareness is just so important I can’t emphasise it enough, especially if you are prone to PoTS or any other version of dysautonomia.
Vestibular movements, as in, those that vary the position of your body and especially your head “in space”, are just so important when it comes to addressing dizziness, clumsiness and even a defensive nervous system, as I discovered on reading Sharon Heller’s book “Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What To Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World”. We have crystals in our ears that act as sensors for telling the brain where we are positioned relative to gravity and these can start to malfunction when we don’t vary our positions enough, leading to a subtle (or overt!) sense of panic, spaceyness, clumsiness or dizziness when we move around. Vestibular rehabilitation exercises are recommended in such cases but I have also noticed how the sweeping movements of qigong can vastly help with reconditioning this inbuilt sense of balance and spacial awareness, which includes our appropriate awareness of the environment and people all around us (which can become over-guarded and easily alarmed when our proprioceptive and vestibular senses are weakened), helping to rebuild our physical resilience and also our confidence as we start to venture back into our healthier lives.
Heller outright recommends qigong for anyone with sensory defensiveness (sensory defensive disorder), a much under-mentioned condition which, I suspect, underlies many chronic health conditions, see my earlier post on this. As she points out: “Daily practice lowers blood pressure, pulse rate, metabolic rate and oxygen need. The basic postures are easy to learn and suitable for anyone, including the aged and infirm. Many can be performed anywhere, even in a wheelchair or bed”.
I have a friend whose extreme sensory sensitivity has mostly affected her vision, rendering her too sensitive for daylight, thus her life has become very insular and limited. She once learned qigong and I am urging her to return to whatever movements she can remember from those days, or even to listen-along to an online class such as Steven Washington’s (as the instructions are pretty explicit; I can do them with eyes closes) because I am convinced that the stagnant energy of sitting around all the time with dark glasses on is only perpetuating her issues.
If only I could convince everyone that spends their days tied to a sofa or bed or who feels trapped by ever-worsening symptoms of some chronic illness, or state of overwhelmment, or other to give this a go…because I would dearly love them to reap all the benefits that I have this year!!
Yes, I can “do more” and sustain more physically since starting this and the regular PoTs symptoms that were nigh on overwhelming me in the months prior to starting have largely abated, but the biggest change is in how I get to feel inside myself, every day, starting with this morning practice. I simply don’t like the feeling of days when I skip the routine, by contrast, so I seldom do that without very good reason; its like winding back to something I would rather leave far behind.
When you have chronic illness, your days turn into a long series of many mountains you feel like you have to climb, or an endless sequence of small conquests you feel like you must rally the stamina to aim for (though I balk at using the language of conflict…but its true that you feel like you have to tackle each new morning as though you have a complex military campaign ahead of you). Some days you “win” and some days you feel as though it was nothing but struggle and setback all the way. With qigong in my arsenal, I seem to triumph more often than not, even before I start, because it clears the way for a better day. Some days, I step into the practice feeling full-up of stagnant energy, expressed as intensely uncomfortable feelings and pain that (if I allowed myself to think about it all) would floor me utterly but, the beauty is, I don’t have to think about it at all…I can just let go, into the practice, into the routine of putting on the video and letting the instructions carry me through to a point where I feel I can start all over again.
I come downstairs, afterwards, feeling like I have a blank slate instead of an ongoing problem to deal with. More days than not, I now feel as though the world is my oyster, not my headache. I’m starting to think more like “what do I want to do today?” rather than “how do I pick up from yesterday’s mess?” and this makes all the difference. Some days, I realise I have just become far better at letting go and not expecting anything of myself today, whereas before I would push though or use hyperfocus as a distraction from overwhelm and pain. I am starting to feel more comfortable in my own stillness, because it reminds me of how I feel during qigong. I have sought this comfortable familiarity with stillness for years, using meditation, but the integration with body movements is crucial for me, since I am unlearning uncomfortable, traumatic memories long-held in the body’s tissues and so I need to unwind and release those through actual physical movement, not just sitting there hoping for transformation to appear.
In stillness, I listen to myself far more often, I remain aware of what I most need, I snap out of the trance of toxic thinking or addictive, distractionary behaviours, I make time to just “be” in a compelling world of far too much going on that seems to demand my urgent attention…and yet nothing is so important that it can’t wait for me to take the time to practice being in mental stillness paired with energetic flow, which brings my system back into sync with the universe.
I love that I don’t have to think about qigong, at all; I just follow along and it carries me. Having spent a year doing the brain retraining practices of the Gupta Program, which were transformative (I have no doubt) but they also demanded a lot of engagement from me during my morning brain retraining routines, the ability to just step into my morning practice and go with its flow is just what I need at this stage of my recovery process. The thing is, I don’t see “recovery” as the finite thing that it used to seem like, before, where I envisioned some sort of endpoint of being “recovered”. What I now see is a lifelong process of dealing with “what is” in the most effective ways that I can, avoiding stagnation of either body or thoughts by keeping things flowing in a mindful way, even when they feel less than ideal; not avoiding what is unpleasant but looking it straight in the eye, without fuelling whatever is with too much attention. Qigong will support me in that, all the rest of my life, I have no doubt.
My husband has also been very impressed with the effects qigong has had on my life so he has recently taken up tai chi, which is the martial arts version of the same discipline, qigong having been designed expressly as a healing art. In his typical way, he has sought out a class and is uber keen to learn all the traditions, the proper names of the movements, the full-flowing sequences that take years to master, and so on. This makes me smile as its exactly how he took to yoga when I first started it for my health; he started it too, went to classes and eventually trained as a yoga teacher, relishing all the knowledge he could gather to take his practice deeper. I smile, yet also know that even thinking about all that mystique and mastery can put some people off from trying out a new practice (especially chronically fatigued people), right from the start. I can assure you, there is no need for all those bells and whistles since you can reap the full benefits of qigong by following an easy daily routine and anyone can do it!
So, whether your approach to a new discipline is more left-brained like his or more right-brained like mine, whereby I do something simply because I love the feeling of it and simply don’t need to know all about its traditions and history, or to get my moves “just right”, qigong offers what you crave. Its more than possible to follow a class such as Steve Washington’s, which I highly recommend because it is gentle and accessible, with a solid following of people that have health conditions, and you can participate purely for the enjoyment of the sensations you take away from it. I don’t join the weekly live classes (although you can, of course) but there is a forum for asking questions and a community to talk to if I want it, or I can follow the sessions in my own quiet way. This choice really works for me and I’m just so very grateful I took the plunge to try it out…just as am so grateful for each and every day that I walk down those stairs feeling like a new person, ready to start my day in a different way; rebooted, still inside and newly aware of how effortlessly energy flows both in and out of me, directed by my simplest movements and attitudes. Nothing has to stick around, or stagnate, that I don’t want to hang around and this is a key part of the transformation of my life into something far more thriving.
The Steven Washington Experience – Core Qigong
Lee Harris – The Portal membership, monthly energetic support (included a qigong class with Steven Washington)
Sharon Heller – “Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What To Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World” 2014.
Disclaimer: This blog, it’s content and any material linked to it are presented for autobiographical, general interest and anecdotal purposes only. They are not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or prescribing. This article does not constitute a recommendation or lifestyle advice, nor do I profess to have medical knowlege or training. Opinions are my own based on personal experience. Please seek medical advice from a professional if you are experiencing any symptoms or before you change your diet, your nutrients, your supplements, your habits or anything else.