If Lao Tzu were traveling the Hangu Pass today, he’d no doubt be strip-searched by security.
Watching my Friday morning Qi Gong students, I see them reach for the qi, eyes closed, bodies rocking slightly as they finish the session with Bamboo Sways In The Wind. Many stand but some, tired by the thirty minute session, sit, backs upright in their folding chairs. None had heard of Qi Gong before. None is younger than 75.
Some had tried the Senior Center Tai Chi class but found it too tiring, too strenuous, too demanding of arthritic hands, artificial knees, and spinal stenosis to continue. But in Qi Gong, they have found a combination of movement and stillness within their sometimes restricted reach. I may have to remind them to keep breathing deeply, nudge them away from trying to do more than they are comfortable with–it’s not easy to “relax” and “move like water” when you’ve done the opposite for seven decades–but after we finish, they laugh about being ready for a nap and there are always questions: Can you show us those acupressure points for headaches again? Is this why my granddaughters always want me to rub their feet? I don’t want to wear the back brace I bought so my posture improves so can Qi Gong help me do this on my own?
We don’t talk about religion or spirituality, but I gather from their comments that most are Christian and good churchgoers. They aren’t seeking an alternative to their monotheism, yet remain open to the idea of meditation and visualization. Not the “hippie transcendence seekers” of the 60’s, these are women who quite simply don’t want their necks to ache, who want to shop for groceries when they’re 80, who might wear sensible shoes but also rock their scarves and rings and joke about their next career as a runway model. While they follow their doctor’s orders, they’re ready to try other modalities. Health is health for them, whether the “fix what’s broken” mechanic’s approach of Western medicine to the “tend to the healthy” gardener’s view of Eastern.
While in Asia the traditions or Taoist and Qi healing go back thousands of years, from the Dao Yin of the Yellow Emporer to the bringing of Zen to China by Bodhidharma, becoming locked into the rigidity long tradition encourages, in America, lack of tradition engenders freedom of approach. My students don’t know The Eight Brocades or The Animal Frolics so aren’t insulted if I don’t teach them but would learn them happily, as well. In America, where we go to Yogalates, Spin Qi and other blended East/West workout classes, “pure” Qi Gong, with its emphasis of strength and suppleness, thousands of forms, and mix of healing, spiritual and martial arts styles steps naturally into our let’s-try-it-all culture. And for those who’ve avoided fitness because of their weight, their bad knees and backs, their lack of flexibility or balance, Qi Gong’s precept that one can and should only do what is comfortable, feels approachable in ways that Zumba, P90X or even Tai Chi doesn’t.
And seniors are not the only group that can benefit from and appreciate the teachings of Qi Gong. Stress-related doctor visits constitute the highest percentage of all appointments; insomnia has been linked to weight gain and high blood pressure; by 2030, statistics project 50% of all Americans will be overweight or obese, many suffering from metabolic syndrome. Qi Gong’s movement, mindfulness, and stress reduction with little space and no special clothing needed could be practiced in offices, homes, parks, even museums and churches, the ideal complement to Western medicine and an antidote to Western lifestyle.
Wolves howl with their pack: Hey, did you see the dead possum over there? Who’s got cub duty tonight? Anyone looking for a good time? Man, that full moon’s so bright we’ll never sneak up on a deer!
Lone wolves howl for themselves: How come I can’t seem to find a date? Why does it seem like I’m the only one who didn’t get that joke the guy on TV just told? What a beautiful full moon; so glad I can appreciate it–by myself, no one to interrupt my reverie.
Not that lone wolves are hermits, spending their lives in caves, contemplating navels. Well, one navel: their own. They do the grocery shopping, work in people-packed cubicles, commute on subways, even go to parties or out to movies with friends. But lone wolves never quite “connect.” In a perfect, or imperfect, world, they would be happy to spend an evening curled up with a cat or three, reading Jane Austen and drinking Gunpowder green tea. That’s the lone wolf’s “comfort zone.”
And yet, not the zone they would always prefer. When they see others schmoozing at the office party or hugging with genuine affection the members of the book club or being the one people go to for everything from comfort in hard times to fun in good, lone wolves don’t feel superior; they feel–lone. In a world that values human connection, lifelong friends and deep bonding with loved ones, the lone wolf will never be fully accepting of being the “odd wolf out.” They will wonder, if not every day, then at times, “Why am I not able to be part of the pack?”
Just as the pack wolf will sometimes tire of having his nose stepped on by another pack member when he’s trying to sleep, the lone wolf will sometimes wish someone would step on her nose.
That’s getting to be so natural that I’m tempted to just go with it for another week before trying another mindfulness exercise but that seems like cheating.
This week, then: Take 3 breaths.
Yup, that’s it. Whenever during the day you think of it, sit back, try to let your shoulders relax and take three deep breaths, inhaling into your abdomen, exhaling so your abdomen relaxes back toward your spine. Consider each 3 breath break as a mini-meditation, so much more doable than trying to set
3 breaths. Deep, slow. Let that Buddha-belly hang out. Let your mind wander–or not. No goals, no wrong or right. Just 3 breaths.
Not that great!! I actually could figure out eating pretty
well–which I’m sure says more about my love of food than being mindful. But
other tasks were nigh unto impossible, especially brushing my teeth. Despite
using an electric toothbrush. Now, that’s pitiful. But I’m still doing one
activity a day left-handed, even if it’s just holding the steering wheel with
that hand instead of the right (cheating because I always used to do that when I
This week, my mindfulness activity is to pick a room in the
house–bedroom or bathroom, kitchen or study, whatever–and follow the mantra
“leave no trace.” To do this, pick your room (you could challenge yourself and
pick more than one) and leave it looking as it did when you entered it or
better. Now, don’t choose your teenage daughter’s bedroom, figuring that it’s
such a mess, you couldn’t possibly leave it looking messier.
finish a meal, if the kitchen is your choice, be sure the dishes are either put
in the washer or that they’ve been washed, dried and put away.
The counter wiped down. The salt and pepper shaker put back. The stray edamame
pods picked up off the floor–ok, maybe that’s just me.
teachings, this “leaving no trace” is associated with the turtle which swishes
its tail back and forth across the sand as it moves, wiping away its footprints.
While you may not be worried about being tracked by predators, the action of
“leaving no trace” still brings your mind to the present and to the moment of
“here and now” in this room, making you appreciate the space you are in, rather
than treating it like a quick stop on a metro platform.
Jan Chozen Bays,
whose book these exercises come from, says that a good reminder to yourself is,
for this week, to tape a little drawing or photo of a turtle to something in the
room. Since I’m choosing the kitchen for my room, my little wooden turtle will
be moved from the living room to the kitchen counter as my reminder.
your “leaving no trace” might spread. I made the bed this morning without even
realizing that I was doing a small “turtle swishing sand” that I don’t usually
bother to do. My “inner smile” was pleased.