Saturday, September 29, 2012

Qigong Shown to Help Symptoms of Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain and fatigue. The cause of fibromyalgia is not clear, but it appears that the condition amplifies pain signals by affecting how the brain processes signals. There are some western medicines and therapies that may help with the symptoms, but many people with the condition claim that they are receiving no benefit and have to live with the pain.

There was a recent study published that a particular type of qigong could help alleviate the symptoms of fibromyalgia. In the study, 100 participants were randomly assigned to either the study group or the control group. For the study group, qigong training was given over 3 days and was followed by weekly follow-up sessions for 8 weeks. The participants were asked to practice for 45 to 60 minutes per day during the study.

Participants reported improvement in all measured outcomes: pain, impact, sleep, physical function, and mental function. These outcomes continued to the end of the study at six months.

Qigong (pronounced chee gung) is two words from the Chinese language. The word qi is often translated as “internal energy”, but this doesn’t really seem to be a very good translation. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, it primarily refers to connecting different parts of our body. It also refers to communication where our mind, or intention, moves our bodies. Gong can be translated as exercises or work done on a regular basis. So qi gong can be used to mean “exercises that enhance our vital energy and connectedness”.

There are thousands of qigong exercises for everything from curing illnesses to preventive medicine. This study used a type of qigong called Chaoyi Fanhuan Qigong (CFQ). According to the study,

Qigong training consisted of an initial workshop conducted over three consecutive half-days by a qualified CFQ instructor. Participants received training in level 1 CFQ; this consisted of instruction in seven key movements known as "the hexagram" and ancillary exercises. Hexagram movements consist of choreographed movements that emphasize softness, relaxation, downward releases and full body distribution of "qi".

The follow-up at 4 months and at 6 months indicated that the participants that maintained their CFQ practice for at least 45 minutes per day were able to maintain the improvements. Participants that practiced significantly less reported less benefit after the end of the practice training.

The complete study can be read here:
A Randomized Controlled Trial of Qigong for Fibromyalgia
Arthritis Research & Therapy. 2012 Aug 3;14(4): R178. By Lynch M, Sawynok J, Hiew C, Marcon D.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, September 22, 2012

What I Read - Tai Chi and Qigong

This week, I wanted to share information about sources of information related to tai chi and qigong that are available on the internet. This is not intended to be a comprehensive ranking or listing. It only reflects my opinion and experience about learning some aspects of tai chi from internet sources.

Web Sites
Here are some of the web sites that I have found useful. I recommend them to other people.

This is Dr. Paul Lam's Tai Chi for Health website. At this web site, you can find a teacher and/or a workshop, read an article related to tai chi, and purchase books and DVDs. I recommend that you subscribe to the newsletter.

This is Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming's website. At this web site, you can read about Dr. Yang's tai chi, qigong, and martial arts programs, purchase books and/or videos, or read an article related to these topics. Dr. Yang has sold the YMAA business and is putting his energy into his YMAA Retreat Center in Northern California.

This is Michael Gilman's website. At this web site, you can take a free online course, read a few interesting articles, or buy a book or DVD. In addition, he has placed many videos online at YouTube

This is the home page of the E-magazine, Yang-Sheng, an online magazine and a network for all healthcare professionals of preventive medicine, practitioners of mind-body exercise (such as Qigong, Tai Chi, Yoga, Reiki, mindfulness and meditation), health seekers, and spiritual cultivators. It promotes philosophy and methods of self-healing, positive mind and health preservation, and shares knowledge and experiences with those who are interested in the subjects and their applications in everyday life. I write a regular column titled Meditation in Motion. I recommend that you sign up for the email notification.

This is the home page of Ian Sinclair. At this web site, you can take a free online course, read about tai chi news and events, and find a tai chi school. He is publishing a collection of tai chi teaching videos to go along with his online course at YouTube

This is the web site of Qi magazine. The magazine is no longer published, but the archived journals are available online at no charge. There are articles about many topics, including tai chi and qigong.
Here are the blogs I regularly read, a brief description, and what I get from it.

n this blog, you can read about basic tai chi principles, like standing in wu ji, relaxation, and slow movement. Huan Zhang writes clearly and covers each topic in depth. I only wish he would write more. He averages about 1 new article a month.

Internal Gong Fu, by Mike Buhr
In this blog, you can read about Mike's journey as he learns about the whole-body techniques of wujifa. He is very open about his successes and failures in applying the techniques he is learning. He writes a lot, typically about 5 or 6 new articles each month.

The Bean Curd Boxer, by Paul Read
In this blog, you can read about Paul Read's thoughts on tai chi. He also publishes a weekly podcast that is fun to listen to.

SpiralWise, by Dr. Howard Tripp
In the words of the author, "Turning Internal Arts Hippie Babble into Scientific Enlightenment". I don't agree with everything he writes, but it is usually pretty useful.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Want a Bigger Brain? Tai Chi May Help

This is one of occasional articles I plan to write on the health benefits of tai chi. Tai chi has become popular as an exercise to promote good health. There have been quite a few studies done in the last few years that support this.

There was a recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease that evaluated interventions designed to reduce dementia risk. A representative group of elderly men and women from Shanghai were randomly assigned to one of four groups for the 40 week intervention. The groups were tai chi, walking, social interaction, and a control group with no intervention. The type or style of tai chi were not described in the paper.

Previous studies have shown that physical exercise can reduce dementia risk. In addition, increased social interaction has been observed to reduce risk, this is the first study to use randomized trials to evaluate this. Brain MRIs were performed before and after the study. In addition, a battery of neuropsychological tests were included.

Increases in brain volume were found in both the tai chi group and the social interaction group. This means that the brain was increasing the number of neural connections. There were no overall average increases in brain volume for the walking group and the control group. However, when the walking group was stratified according to walking speed, it was found that the members of the group that walked fastest had the most increase in brain volume. This suggests that more vigorous exercise could give more favorable results. This may not be possible for the elderly.

In addition, there were improvements in many of the other tests for the tai chi group. The social interaction group also showed improvement in some of the other tests, but not as many as with the tai chi group. No differences were found between the walking group and the control group in other tests.

This study excluded people that had ever practiced tai chi. However, it did not exclude people that had never walked. One of the inclusion criteria was that participants must be able to walk 2 km. I suspect that this decision by the researchers may have reduced a possible effect of improvements for people that start walking for the study. They are already in fairly good shape. Nevertheless, it is a fairly good study that shows that activities that require complex mental activities, like learning tai chi or practicing social interactions, increase brain volume and improve cognitive functioning. It does not show that practicing tai chi has any effect on fitness over that of simple walking.

Complete article here:
Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 30 (2012) 757–766
DOI 10.3233/JAD-2012-120079
IOS Press

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Spirituality in Tai Chi

What does spirituality mean in tai chi and in everyday life? The word has been used in popular literature to mean many things. To many, spiritual means living with our inner selves instead of living for the external things in our lives. People who are spiritual are comfortable with who they are and are not motivated by the external. Spiritual does not mean believing in a higher being outside of themselves. That's religion. Spiritual people may be religious. Religious people may be spiritual. However, the words do not mean the same thing.
Spirituality (inner self) is important to maintaining health and well being. Long-term experience of any kind manifests itself in our bodies. For example, if we are feeling a lot of external stress, our shoulders become hunched over because we "store" stress there. Wherever tension is held in our bodies, we develop blockages to qi flow. If we habitually stand with locked knee joints, we develop blockages and stagnant qi that manifest as foot, leg, hip, or back pain.
What does any of this have to do with tai chi? Tai chi can help us learn to see and understand the internal aspects of ourselves. Sun Lu-Tang, creator of Sun style tai chi, claimed that the highest level of tai chi is when the practitioner merges with the Dao and is in harmony with nature. Jing (精) describes how the tai chi mind quiets down and ignores the mental chatter that normally bombards us. Jing means to be focused and aware of your self and our surroundings.
My friend, Caroline Demoise, wrote a book, Tai Chi as Spiritual Practice. In it she says,
"Slow movement calms your mind and leads you on a path inward to experience the stillness at the center of your being. The energy of tai chi is innately meditative and produces this inner alignment. The underlying principles teach you to harmonize with Tao and flow with change."
Slow movements help the mind to focus when taking deep breaths and help to sink the qi to the dan tian. It can take time to develop a quiet mind. With practice, the forms become second nature and the mind begins to lead the body and mental quietness develops. With each successive practice, it takes less time to return to a quiet mind. Mental quietness calms the mental chatter. It helps us cope with stress and crisis.
Breathing is another important part of tai chi. Slow deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm down the body and mind. This can also help with stagnant qi. Stagnant qi can feel like a heaviness or slowness in the body. Abdominal breathing can be used during the forms practice to help with developing calmness and focus. Speed can be controlled by using one inhale for each opening movement and one exhale for each closing movement.
Long-term practice of tai chi promotes the flow of qi. The movements loosen the joints, muscles, and tendons. In fact, one of the fundamental principles of tai chi is song (), which means relax and loosen. When practicing tai chi with song in mind, the joints open up and the qi flow improves. Further tension in the muscles can be relaxed by being aware of substantial and insubstantial in our weight shifts. In addition, song can refer to relaxing and loosening the mind.
Learning tai chi requires the interaction of the mind and body in ways that cannot be done with Western exercise systems. The meditative aspects achieved through jing help maintain calm when the chaos of everyday life constantly surrounds us. The relaxation from song helps relax the mind to help us focus in our inner selves. Long-term practice teaches us to integrate mind, body, and spirit so we can calm down and live from our inner focus. When you use your mind actively to focus on and enhance your body movements, you build a strong mind/body connection. Your energy follows your intention. This is tai chi.
© 2012 Eric Borreson
This was previously published in a modified form in Yang-Sheng magazine.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a mental practice used to get beyond the unaware mind into a deeper state of awareness. According to Wikipedia,

“Different meditative disciplines encompass a wide range of spiritual and/or psychophysical practices which may emphasize different goals -- from achievement of a higher state of consciousness, to greater focus, creativity or self-awareness, or simply a more relaxed and peaceful frame of mind.”

A common form of meditation is mindfulness meditation. This is relatively easy for beginners to do. During meditation, we try to keep our mind on a single point of focus. The point of focus could be a short repetitive prayer, our breath, a breath count, qi energy flows, or anything else.

Meditation has a long history. It has been part of Buddhist culture for thousands of years. The two common types of Buddhist meditation are shamatha and vipassana. Shamatha consists of types of concentration meditations used to develop focus. Vipassana consists of practices to develop insight into the true nature of reality.

Step eight of the eight-fold path of Buddhism refers to “Right Concentration”, referring to meditation. In this context, concentration refers to a mental state where the entire mind is directed toward a single object. Through meditation, people develop the ability to remain calm and focused in everyday situations.

Christians have practiced meditation for almost as long, although they prefer the term "contemplation" nowadays. Some Catholics use the rosary to practice meditation. There are many biblical references to meditation among the prophets. Many scholars and religious officials of the Middle Ages wrote guides to meditation. In addition, there are many secular meditation practices.

Regardless of our motivation or background in meditation, our first efforts at meditation are difficult. Before we even notice it, our mind has wandered away. We find that our mind bounces around from one idea to another and it seems that there is nothing we can do to stop it. Some people describe it as your “monkey mind”, where your mind jumps around like a monkey jumping from one branch to another.

Mindfulness meditation is the process of recognizing when our minds have wandered away from our point of focus and bringing it back. Your mind may wander away during every single breath. That's OK. Just notice when it happens and bring it back. It is important to avoid judgment about how you are doing. There is no such thing as a "good" meditation or a "bad" meditation. It just is. Live in the moment during your meditation. It is not about forcing a result. It is about developing a skill. That's meditation.

The idea of meditation is to learn to become aware of our thoughts and emotions. It is not about stopping those thoughts. With practice, we can develop the ability to concentrate and focus so that we can control distractions and ignore all the stories we make up that cause us stress and discomfort.

Exercise develops your muscular strength or endurance. Meditation develops your “concentration muscles” and helps us learn how to maintain focus. When the mind wanders, all that is necessary is to bring the mind back to that point of focus. Do not allow recriminations or frustrations to develop. It is more important to meditate regularly than to meditate for a long time but only occasionally. If you are a beginner, start with 10 minutes a day. When that feels comfortable, go ahead and extend the time a little bit.

Let's finish with a quote from ZBOHY, the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun (

As the mind is quieted by the slow breathing exercise, the brain becomes better able to regulate serotonin (c.f. Bujatti, M. and Reiderer, P., Journal of Neural Transmission 39: 257-267, 1976) and other chemicals responsible for regulating our biochemistry: we sleep better, our overall mood improves, and we become calmer and less agitated. In addition, muscles relax, the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems become stronger and healthier, physical endurance and stamina increase, digestion improves, and mental capacity for concentration and memory are enhanced.

Here are some links to articles with some specific meditation guidelines:
You can read about breath counting meditation here 
You can read about meditation for relaxing and energizing here
You can read about walking meditation here
You can read about labyrinth walking meditation here
You can read about meditation in tai chi here

© 2012 Eric Borreson