Qigong – body awareness of a different kind

I first encountered Qigong when I was exploring anything and everything that I could find that I thought might help to restore my mental health from a point of crisis to some semblance of stability. That was over 25 years ago, and I had a long and arduous journey ahead of me. Along the way I took part occasionally in Qigong classes and workshops. It wasn’t until some years later, however, when I was struggling to push through the challenges of a demanding job – in itself part of my recovery process – that I considered a more regular commitment to the practise of Qigong.

Google searches came up with limited references to Qigong being offered locally. Luckily, one of these few was an evening class at a school just a few miles from where I was living, in Leeds.

An online Medical Dictionary notes:

Qigong (pronounced “chee-gung,” also spelled chi kung) is translated from the Chinese to mean “energy cultivation” or “working with the life energy.” Qigong is an ancient Chinese system of postures, exercises, breathing techniques, and meditations. Its techniques are designed to improve and enhance the body’s qi. According to traditional Chinese philosophy, qi is the fundamental life energy responsible for health and vitality.

The Dictionary goes on to state:

Qigong may be used as a daily routine to increase overall health and well-being, as well as for disease prevention and longevity. It can be used to increase energy and reduce stress. In China, qigong is used in conjunction with other medical therapies for many chronic conditions, including asthma, allergies, AIDS, cancer, headaches, hypertension, depression, mental illness, strokes, heart disease, and obesity.

Qigong is presently being used in Hong Kong to relieve depression and improve the overall psychological and social well-being of elderly people with chronic physical illnesses.

[Source: https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/qigong]

While I can’t claim that I commit to a daily practice – not yet anyway – I have been attending these evening classes – and some day workshops at weekends too – with the same teacher ever since. 

When the Covid lockdowns first started, Sue Dunham – the teacher – was quick off the mark with setting up Zoom classes.  Just as in the live classes, Sue’s commitment to her own practice and to sharing her knowledge and vast experience has shone through into these Zoom sessions.

Sue doesn’t just demonstrate what to do for us to follow. She talks through and builds up each movement step by step, repeating as necessary; infinitely thorough and always engaging.  Her approach is very meditative and mindful, working deep on different themes in each group of three classes.  During the height of the pandemic, focusing on the lungs could not have been more appropriate, and we’ve also recently worked on the spine and the digestive system. 

Though the movements are slow and steady, I find that I sleep really well after a class session, and wake in the morning with the sense that I’ve had a really good workout, even though it isn’t ‘exercise’ in the conventional sense.

According to Sue:

“Qigong is an extraordinary practice: it can bring you to question fundamental beliefs about mind and your life, bringing you to that in a supported, gentle way. I have found it to be accessible and yet challenging, it’s enigmatic but intriguing!”

One of my favourite Qigong movements is called ‘Healing Form’, and Qigong has certainly become an essential part of my own movement towards health and healing.

When I started to become aware of my body, as a teenager, it was on the basis of how it looked. The negative compulsive obsessions I developed were – I realise now – associated with complex psychological and emotional traumas that have taken me 50 years to unravel.

Fortunately for me, my body was and is healthy and, while I continued well into adulthood to control my life by controlling what I ate, my body served me well. Deep roots hold tight, though, and it was a long time – being ultimately faced with the choice of life or no life – before I was able to find the strength, coping mechanisms, and resolve, to push through and come out the other side.

Qigong has helped me to work at a deeper level with my body – my amazing body.

It hasn’t provided me with a miracle ‘cure’ but it has helped to shift my focus into health and wellbeing, which is where it should be.

I feel a lot ‘lighter’ these days, even though I’m 65 and probably weigh at least 4 stone more than I did when I was 15. At six-and-a-half stone and still feeling the need to lose weight, I was weighed down and locked in as a teenager.

Some of the grief, sadness and regret linger on, but less so day by day. I’m thankful for a lot of things and hope that I can continue to be so for many years to come. Qigong helps me to nurture my body, with all its intricate mechanisms for feeding and flow.

One of the wonderful things about this practice is that it takes me beyond what I ‘know’, what I can measure or evaluate, into that sense of wonder, about what I don’t know, with all the associated mysteries of those realms.

When I’m practising Qigong, under Sue’s infinitely patient and painstaking instruction, I feel as graceful as a dancer, and that – for me – is something of a miracle.

The Covid pandemic has shown us just how vulnerable any of us can be, at any age, but also how those vulnerability factors can increase as we get older. The more we can do ourselves to mitigate those factors, the more likely we are to be able to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives for longer.  That’s my plan, anyway, and I’m sticking to it!

If you want to know more about Qigong, you can visit Sue’s website and Facebook pages via the following links:  https://www.facebook.com/suedunhamqigong and this https://sites.google.com/view/qigongwithsue/home.

Additional references:

Image: Physical exercise, yin yang transparent background PNG clipart | HiClipart

Walking

The predicted weather was cold, with possible snow and hail.  Even so, we set off, determined to make the most of the chance to meet up outside and walk with others, following the ‘Rule of Six’.

Although it did turn out to be cold, there was no sign of snow or hail. We walked through glorious countryside in bright sunshine and completed an 8-mile circuit. Not bad considering the effects of ‘lockdown winter’ with gyms closed and the impetus to exercise at home starting to dwindle.  We needed those hills, that fresh air, that blast to the senses.

With 38 years between the youngest of the group, at 27, and me, at 65, our walking speeds were variable. Our younger friends waited patiently at regular intervals for us to catch up – me and my partner plodding along at a steady 2 miles an hour.  We’re not going to break any records but we’re not aiming to.  What we do want to do, however, is maintain reasonable levels of fitness as we progress through our sixties and beyond.

We’ve both struggled with long-term depression but also both never given up on pushing ourselves – and now, sometimes, each other – to keep making that effort – massive though it is – to maintain an exercise regime, in one form or another.

For me it’s tended to be a bit ad hoc – I find routine difficult – although for years I did cycle to work regularly. It wasn’t a long distance but there was quite a lot of uphill on the way back. I often cursed at the end of the day when I wished – how I wished – that I’d driven there in the car.  But I’m sure it’s helped me a lot and I’m glad of it now. Glad to have kept going, pushing those pedals.

[https://wordpress.com/post/gladabout.life/220]

Every so often I used to try jogging.  I found it hard to psyche myself up, sometimes got into a bit of a ‘stride’, and even completed a 10K run once.  Jogging wasn’t for me though, long term. My knees complained and I had to call it a day on that one.

There were times in my life when I simply set off from home and walked until my heels bled. Not recommended but at least it got me out and active.

In later years I did volunteering involving hard labour with a sledge hammer (and called it a holiday!). For that, I set myself training targets, carrying a back-pack loaded up to 50lb in weight with books, tins of beans and bags of flour.  A good friend used to come with me on some of these training walks, to make sure that I didn’t fall backwards off the hillside – with that load I would never have stopped until I landed at the bottom!

Now, I enjoy our leisure walks – sometimes with friends, sometimes just the two of us.  We’re planning to do Helvellyn later this year. Must get into training again soon.

Being 65

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

In one sense, this post should just be entitled ‘Being’, because age is irrelevant.

I interact with the world essentially as a being, and don’t need a label.

On the other hand, I do have history, and the ways that I have worked through that history impact on the way that I interact with the world – and other beings in it – on a daily basis.

It isn’t always easy to put the past behind us, especially when heavily loaded with emotions associated with trauma and grief.

Accepting things that I cannot change has been a hard life lesson to learn for me, helped by meditation, affirmations, and Buddhist teachings (including one in particular by Gen Togden of the Kadampa tradition).

Not having had children is a major regret. Raising this as an issue with a therapist recently, still needing to work it through, I was met with a profoundly uncompassionate response: “So you decided not to have them then, did you?”

At one level, she was right. I made choices – decisions – that led to me being in a state of extreme mental and emotional turmoil in my late 30s and 40s. Decisions that I made as a struggling, vulnerable young woman in my 20s were mine, and I was an adult. But should I really have had to pay such a high price in later life?

Shit does happen though, and doesn’t discriminate. Thankfully, I have had previous experiences with other counsellors/therapists who’ve approached my distress with humanity and empathy.

Even so, some things take a long time to work through. Some ‘stuff’ from the past has just come up that I thought I’d put behind me, or at least wanted to. It doesn’t always work like that though, and I’m sure my brain dredged it up now because I hadn’t properly dealt with it previously.

Now I’m in a much better place than I have ever been before, living with a kind, loving, supportive, funny partner. Being 65 is a starting point for me, and it’s never too late.

If I can send out a message to anyone who’s going through personal difficulties – whether recently experienced or long-term endured – it is to say: “Don’t give up.”

We don’t always know what we’re made of until our backs are to the wall, especially if we’ve oriented towards ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ in early years.

Fighting for survival is a primary motivator and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you can’t see it for yourself, let someone else – a friend – see it and hold it for you until you can.

I’m only 65, and I’ve got all my life ahead of me. So have you.

Sleeping

Ironically, I’ve recently been feeling too tired to write about what I have wanted to write about: sleep. Until today.

Breaking the cycle of inactivity is massively difficult during a period of depression. It feels impossible to know what to do or where to start that will make any difference in any meaningful and lasting way. And then sleeplessness takes hold and so it goes on.

I still have variable experiences of being able to get to sleep, and sleep long and deep enough to feel rested. However, any current difficulties I have are nothing compared to what it was like for me, years ago, when I became addicted to sleeping pills (Triazepam).

In the end, to detox, I took myself to Turkey in the hot season, walked and sweated for miles and eventually screamed myself off them.

The process of detox itself, especially in unsupported circumstances, is very dangerous, and, to anyone contemplating taking tranquilizers of any kind, I would say, “Don’t!”.

It might be easy for me to say that now, as I did take them then and felt that I needed to – desperately – at the time. Maybe I did. But that was before I had explored all the other options and possibilities, mainly because I didn’t know about them.

There is much more awareness and access to mental health coping strategies than there used to be over twenty years ago when I was going through some extreme experiences. Meditation courses and apps, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, affirmations (I use these a lot), talking therapies, the benefits of exercise and so on. Even so, despite drawing on these approaches and applying them in my day-to-day life as best as I can, I don’t always sleep well.

Now, though, I’m much more able to sit or lie with the lack of sleep and rest into it, be patient with it, rather than going for a quick fix with all the associated draw backs. If I’m really struggling to settle I might get up, watch a bit of telly (reading is usually out of the question at these times, such is the impact of depression on my capacity to concentrate), make a cup of tea or – even better – hot chocolate. I also occasionally indulge in a glass or two of wine or a gin and tonic. (I’m conscious of the drawbacks and addictive aspects of alcohol reliance but it does sometimes do the trick; a couple of paracetamols – again as a very occasional alternative and never at the same time as alcohol – also eventually send me off.)

I’m gradually working towards having a kinder and more balanced relationship with myself, doing what I can to be good to my body and my brain. I work on being thankful, get my brain into ‘glad’ mode and accept that I am getting “there”, which is “here”, with every day a blessing.

It is much easier for the me that I am now, than the me that I was twenty years ago, to not fall back on the quick fixes, partly because I have worked hard to find out about and put self-management strategies into practice and partly because I am in a much better place on a personal level. It is much easier to get to sleep on an evening, knowing that in the morning I will wake up in my partner’s loving arms.

Maybe there was a time when I did shoot the Albatross, and paid the price. But sleep is a very gentle thing, and doing my best to let sleep slide into my soul is part of an essential process of healing.

Poetry Rule No. 9b Keep recycling to a minimum until you’ve got your other priorities right

Cover

Don't judge a book by its cover
don't even begin to think that you know
what lies underneath
when every belief
that is written in time comes and goes

Don't judge a book by its cover
for the pages are those that can lie and deceive
the wisdom of years
may appear as true fears
and the rest will come in as you weave

Don't judge a book by its cover
when the story has not yet begun
Yet the time is right now
and in some way, some how
what needs to be said will be done

Don't judge a book by its cover
it's only a matter of time and again
tattered and torn may be weary and worn
but it's all the same in the end

Don't judge a book by its cover
don't even begin to think that you know
for it's all in a muddle
and inside the middle
is a tale that is waiting to grow
so it will

2014

I’m Glad

It’s not my real name, but ‘Glad’ is better than sad, and I’ve worked hard in my life to be Glad, not sad.

I’ve recently started decorating my house – our house. This may not seem like an amazing revelation or achievement, but it is for me. I’m 64 years old and have had a long struggle to be able to enjoy doing the everyday things that I can focus on now.

It’s taken about fifty years of unlearning and then re-learning how to be me. Poetry hasn’t been the only vehicle I’ve used for recovery and discovery, but it has been a regular companion along the way.

As a teenager – like many teenagers since and still – I developed a very negative self-image of myself, inside and out.

Out
Out, out into the world
That’s where I wanted to go
What I wanted to do
When I was young
But when I looked in the mirror
All I could see
Was an ugly, unattractive body
Looking back at me

I went on a diet from the age of about 15 that lasted for the next 30 years or so, and affected every aspect of my life (or more accurately non-life that it had become). I didn’t think I had anything to offer as a person, didn’t know how to form relationships, and put all my energy into losing weight. At least if I was thin, that would be something. Except it led to nothing, because it wasn’t solid ground on which to build a life. It was the best I could do at the time, but I did eventually realise, after I’d had a major breakdown in my late thirties, and was trying to get myself going again in my forties, that I needed to eat, to give me energy, to be able to live. I had to finally, eventually, push through that awful sense of self-loathing that I associated with putting on weight in order to emerge as a (literally as well as generally) well-rounded person with an appetite for life.

I still have to work at it, still take anti-depressants, can’t use shop changing rooms or look at myself naked in a mirror, but on the whole this does not affect my ability to enjoy my life – with my partner – and try to make the most of every day.

I can still very easily cut myself off, go into ‘zombie’ mode, more readily associate with entropy than energy, so decorating my house – however long it takes – and writing this blog – wherever it takes me – are positive signs of engagement; action rather than inaction.

I hope my poems and other musings may resonate with anyone who has struggled to find their own identity and path through life. I know now that there are endless possibilities and I hope that the following poem (in six parts) helps to show how important it is for each of us to find our fighting spirit:

Jacket 1
It’s there, on the chair
The red fleece jacket
With hood and drawstring waist
That I don’t want to wear
Don’t want to keep

It’s warm and soft when I put it on
But far too big for me
Drowned in a red sea
Shapeless, I feel
A baggy, saggy, faceless entity

I look at the jacket
On the chair
In limp, loose folds of red, and seams
This isn’t the jacket of my dreams

It’s theirs to wear
Not mine to keep
Their tears to cry
Not mine to weep

It’s there, on the chair
The red fleece jacket
With hood and drawstring waist
That I don’t want to wear
Don’t want to keep
So I’ve put a price on its head
To let it go free
To someone who wants it
But when will that be?

Jacket 2
It’s there, on the chair
The red fleece jacket
With hood and drawstring waist
That I don’t want to wear
Don’t want to keep

It’s warm and soft when I put it on
But far too big for me
Drowned in a red sea
Shapeless, I feel
A baggy, saggy, faceless entity

I look at the jacket
On the chair
In limp, loose folds of red, and seams
This isn’t the jacket of my dreams

It’s not my layer
These aren’t my lies
With drawstring waist
And nylon ties

It’s not my jacket
They’re not my dreams
These aren’t my ties
They’re not my seams

So I leave the jacket
On the chair
To go my way
While they go theirs

Jacket 3
Now it hangs upon the door
That red fleece jacket
That I didn’t want to wear
Didn’t want to keep

It’s warm and soft when I put it on
And not too big for me
Warmed in a red sea
Shapeless no more
No baggy, saggy faceless entity

I look at the jacket
On the door
In limp, loose folds of red, and seams
It’s not the jacket of my dreams
But just a layer to keep me warm
From frozen looks
And glares of scorn

It is my jacket
With hood and waist
To wear a while
From place to place

Jacket 4
What next?

Jacket 5
Jacket in?

Jacket 6
No!