Breathe easy: Qigong is a hit among actors in the West
Could the Chinese relaxation therapy help comedian Rebecca Front? Low-impact and relaxing: Rebecca Front runs through her Qigong exercises A winter Monday and the sky is the colour of discarded chewing gum. I have a cold and a hacking cough. If anyone’s chi needs re-balancing, it’s mine. If only I knew what that meant. Fortunately, I am going to the right place. Qigong, a Chinese discipline of movement, breathing and meditation, has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity in the West, a fact which had, I confess, passed me by. I’ve nothing against alternative therapies. I’ve even tried acupuncture, though I barely scratched its surface and was relieved to discover it barely scratched mine. But I have an innate resistance to anything that smacks of New Age-yness. I’ve never been one of those people who thinks, “Ooh, ear-candling. That’s the thing for me”. I’m more of an aspirin-and-hot-bath kind of a girl. There were two reasons why I was curious about Qigong (pronounced chee-gung, and popularly referred to as “Chinese yoga”). The first is that it’s proving to be a bit of a hit with actors, many saying that it helps them both physically in the prevention and treatment of injuries, and mentally through relaxation. The second is that, as someone who has experienced phobias and the odd panic attack, I recently became involved with the charity Anxiety UK, which aims to help people whose lives are blighted by mental discomfort. Relaxation techniques form a major part of treatment for such conditions and here, too, Qigong is proving popular. I decided to give it a try.
Chris Ray Chappell (realtaoism.com), my instructor, was a dancer for 15 years. Since discovering Tai Chi – the martial art closely allied to the principles of Qigong –he has taught Taoist Life Arts programmes in such diverse settings as the Bethlehem Maudsley Hospital and several drama schools, including Webber Douglas, my old college. He begins by asking me to relax and stand up straight. Now I should point out that I’m rather proud of my posture. Being a tad on the short side, I’ve learnt to walk as tall as I can and rarely slouch. So it was somewhat dispiriting to hear Chris’s assessment of my gait. “You’re twisted. It’s like you’ve just slipped on a banana skin.” I might have taken him to task for this, had he not then pointed out all the areas of weakness that this “twistedness” would lead to; they were exactly the places – lower back and neck in particular – where I’ve had minor problems in recent years. He then proceeds to “correct” me, centring my weight on both feet, straightening out the arch in my back. “Now you’re straight,” he says, and I stand there unsteadily as if on the deck of a storm-wracked ship looking at what appears to be a lilting horizon. “Really?” I ask. “This is what the world should look like?” Chris seems confident, so we begin some gentle exercises, and to my surprise, I start to feel more relaxed, flexible and mobile in this new posture than I had when I arrived. It’s a bit like buying a well-fitting pair of jeans and wondering why you’ve been wearing the wrong size for so long. The exercises are a bit like Tai Chi, very slow and painstaking, with the emphasis on using each part of the body correctly rather than vigorously. Chris feels that for a lot of dancers and athletes, training is ego-driven. The need to prove themselves can result in over-training and injury. Qigong, by contrast, is low-impact and relaxed. Another benefit is that Qigong “doesn’t imprint a pattern of movement on actors. There is no style”. I know what he means by that. I’ve met actors who have had extensive dance training and move beautifully. In many ways that’s a boon, but it’s important to be able to move like your character would, not like an actor – or dancer.
One aspect of Qigong many actors will already be familiar with is diaphragmatic breathing; broadly speaking, breathing into the abdomen rather than chest. This is widely regarded as an excellent technique, not just for voice production, but for reducing anxiety. I can see how this, when combined with the concentration needed to perform the moves, might be of real benefit to people suffering from stress disorders.
The idea is that you focus very much on the present moment, rather than dwelling on your past or future worries. In this moment, you spend your time acknowledging –and drawing ‘energy’ from – the solidity of the earth beneath your feet and the openness of the sky above your head. Like many sceptical of alternative medicine, I worry when I hear of people with serious health conditions being lured towards something with no scientific basis. I know when people are vulnerable they should do whatever helps them to feel better, but not, in my view, at the expense of taking the drugs that might cure them. So I had a niggling anxiety about the term “medical Qigong”. I was relieved when Chris presented it as a complement to, not a replacement for, conventional medicine. “It can definitely help with mobility after surgery,” he says, “and any exercise will help to boost the immune system, stimulating oxygenation of the blood.”
I can’t confirm any of the benefits of Qigong having practised it for no more than an hour, but I can say that I felt relaxed and energised. I felt as though I’d worked out, but there was no feeling of strain. And I didn’t once need the inhaler that I’ve been using to deal with my persistent cough. I’m sure, like many people, I could benefit from a little of that stillness and control. And I’m equally sure I’ll never make the time for it. I shall continue to live my life mentally, if not physically, as if I’ve just slipped on a banana skin.