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Monday, December 08, 2003 - Page updated at 01:32 P.M.

Ancient path to energy: Chinese healing art catching on as popular exercise

By Bob Condor
Chicago Tribune

Qigong exercise teacher Gary Clyman demonstrates the "single whip" exercise. The steady movements of qigong appear gentle, almost tai chi-like, but are enough to make students work up a sweat.
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CHICAGO — By self-admission, Nate Davison was once the prototypical Angry Young Man.

"I was so angry and full of rage that I would punch walls," said Davison, 28, of Barrington, Ill.

Davison seemed a prime candidate for a martial-arts discipline. But he picked one, qigong, not known for its punching, kicking or screaming. His daily qigong practice helped him use his head rather than literally bang it into walls.

Qigong (pronounced "chee-gung") is a centuries-old Chinese healing art that is appearing on exercise-class schedules in Seattle, New York and Los Angeles.

Some might better recognize the martial art as tai chi, though there is a distinction. Qigong is a series of what appear to be simple deep-breathing exercises and subtle movements, such as flexing torso muscles.

Tai chi's gentle, flowing exercises are part of the large number of qigong movements that are prescribed by Chinese traditional medicine practices to "move" someone's "qi," or energy.

Intense and exhausting

Qigong, despite its outward similarity to sitting or standing meditation, is intense and exhausting for body and mind. Its deep-breathing component is much more than a matter of inhaling and exhaling air.

'Chee,' not 'qwee'

The word "qigong" is peculiar enough to make one wonder if this form of physical activity can become popular. It can be difficult to get enthusiastic about something you can't pronounce.

To eliminate such obstacles, here's a quick primer, compliments of all things "Q":

• "Qi" is pronounced "chee" and means energy, vital force or breath of life. It is sometimes spelled "chi."

• "Gong" is pronounced "gung" (calling it "kung" seems to be acceptable but definitely not "gong"). It translates to practice, skill or mastery. What you are practicing is self-discipline.

• To impress your friends, you can casually mention that qigong once was closely guarded from commoners by Chinese elites. It was later forbidden during the Cultural Revolution, and a recent form has been suspected as a religious cult by the current regime.

"A deep breath alone will not bring you more oxygen," said Roger Jahnke, an osteopathic physician based in Santa Barbara, Calif., and author of "The Healing Promise of Qi" (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books). "You must get yourself into a state of relaxation to benefit from deeper, more purposeful breathing."

Make no mistake. The muscular movements of qigong are demanding. Students routinely work up a river of sweat.

The mental component requires total focus, but qigong fans say the workouts result in feeling more clear and less stressed out.

The discipline creates body awareness. That makes it different from many popular forms of exercise, which allow for TV viewing, reading or socializing.

"We are definitely seeing a bigger interest in the martial arts than we have in quite a while," said Nancy Burrows, director of exercise programs at a Chicago club. "Movies like 'The Matrix' motivate people."

Frustration early on

According to the Chinese belief system, qi is naturally occurring energy or life force within the body. The act of cultivating, refining or mobilizing this life force for healing purposes is called "gong." The mind guides the body's qi.

"We incorporate qigong into a number of our martial-arts classes," said Norris Tomlinson, who supervises exercise programs for the nearly 400 Bally Total Fitness clubs across the country. "Members are more educated about knowing they need a combination of activities to be fit and well. I recommend people combine qigong with some cardiovascular and strength workouts (lifting weights, yoga or Pilates)."

Results can be dramatic. Davison started his qigong practice five years ago. Within weeks, he quit a dead-end warehouse job to pursue his lifelong love of music. He now plays regularly with blues, jazz and rock bands while teaching guitar to a steady list of clients.

On Thursday nights he teaches qigong class, where he encourages newcomers to be patient.

"It takes time to understand how the qi moves in your body," Davison said. "If you stick with it, you will feel it. Then you see the positive changes it can create."

Gary Clyman is a 51-year-old qigong teacher who tutors Davison along with thousands of others who have attended his workshops, bought his video and book or scheduled private lessons since 1983 (check out He said it is not uncommon for his students to experience a first few weeks of frustration.

As a master teacher, Clyman, who first learned qigong in 1978, sees his role as both moving energy himself in a person's body and teaching the student to do it. The goal is moving the internal energy to create internal power.

"I call it flexing the muscle of your will," Clyman said. "Learning to move energy around is about 70 percent physical and 30 percent mental."

Clyman characterizes the workout routine as much more than a way to sweat off pounds or reduce stress.

"When you practice qigong, you stop slouching off, you stop taking what's less, you stop procrastinating, you stop having bad relationships," Clyman said.

Such dividends require persistence, he said. His qigong routine, which can be performed at home in a 6-foot-square space, gradually engages students in 28 individual movements.

"We start with low repetitions, then build word by word, sentence by sentence," Clyman said.

"There are many different flavors and levels of qigong and tai chi," Clyman said. "My suggestion is you pick a simple series of exercises to get started."

"Something is happening," Clyman said. "People are going past wanting muscle strength and weight loss and a better appearance. They are looking for a new wave of anti-aging and energetics."


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