The word baraka transcends several languages, and most often refers to some sort of "blessing." In the case of the ancient healing modality and alternative medicine Qigong, baraka applies to "a blessing that stays in a place," according to local practice leader Patricia Seator. Qigong calls that latent energy a "chi field," and it's not unlike the palpable energy some people feel in sacred spaces like churches or areas of dramatic natural beauty.
But the difference between a chi field and a sense of humbled awe is that you can supposedly access and use a chi field for self-healing. Seator, psychologist and co-owner of the Poor Richard's complex with her husband Richard Skorman, has practiced Qigong — a gentle, slow series of postures — almost daily for nearly seven years and says it has "made an enormous difference" in her life.
Ten years ago, she fell and sustained multiple fractures; migraines followed, and even today she's vulnerable to them. But after trying "everything: all kinds of bodywork, herbs, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy ..." she says the most consistent suppression of the headaches has come through regular Qigong practice. She's also seen other results: "I've had scoliosis since childhood — now it's unwinding and my back is healing."
Over a 12-day retreat at the Chi Center outside of San Francisco this past June, Seator says, she observed a classmate who suffers from multiple sclerosis go from wan to radiant and from wheelchair to walker. Other testimonials found at chicenter.com detail healing transformations experienced by people afflicted with ailments ranging from Lyme disease to advanced-stage cancer.
Between Oct. 9 and 11, Chi Center founder and Qigong master Mingtong Gu will be in Colorado Springs to teach workshops and to host a free healing spiral. Event organizer Ellie Coriell, a local psychotherapist and certified Qigong instructor, says this "is a rare opportunity for Colorado Springs to be on the cutting edge of this new paradigm — of what healing can be and how individuals can be empowered."
Gu, one of the pre-eminent Qigong figures in the West today, spoke to the Indy last week; below is the full interview. (Note: English is not Gu's first language; for clarity's sake, we have corrected some errors of syntax.)
Indy: How do you describe Qigong for those entirely new to it?
MG: It is a kind of technology to use pure life energy to effectively cultivate our mind and to work with energy of love and wisdom and harmony and apply that energy for many areas of life, including healing.
Indy: In one of the Chi Center videos, you say Qigong is like "Western biofeedback therapy," a "psychophysiological self-regulation." Can you break that down for us?
MG: It's a very ancient art and science. There's a traditional language applied to the metaphysical. We're using a new language. They're more accessible words.
Biofeedback, in this case, is referring to the mind working with your body and the machine in between indicating some sort of evidence of what is happening in the body. Showing your mind the intention and purpose and the direction you want to go, then creating a positive loop. For example, thinking positive thoughts. When you send that signal, when the mind realizes it can do that, it wants to do it more.
In Qigong, you don't need to use a machine, it's directly mind working with body — getting that feedback from systematic experience. Feeling energy, feeling pain minimized and dissipating, feeling connected as well. That feeling gives a signal to your mind: "Wow, I'm doing something — something is happening." On one hand, the mind is initiating the process, searching for evidence. If you don't see evidence, then it depends on faith. That's old traditional way. Now when we are doing Qigong, you automatically get feedback from your body and the mind is getting the evidence while you are doing it and reinforcing that loop, basically. So that's the language to help us understand it.
Indy: Is there any spiritual/religious component to it?
MG: It's strictly a healing art, but it can be applied into a very spiritual way of working with life. My perception is Qigong is not a religion, but it works with life energy, which is very spiritual. There's a spiritual dimension to it, but it's not a belief system or faith tradition. It's a science of mind, used to apply to all levels of transformation, including health.
Indy: Can you briefly explain Qigong's influence on or connection to martial arts?
MG: Martial arts becomes more famous because ... it's martial arts! [Laughs heartily.] It's very expressive. People can relate to it in different ways, so it's become more popular.
Qigong is more like a foundation of internal energy work. When you're working with energy, you can apply the energy in different ways. Martial arts is one of the applications. It's more like using the energy in a hard, forceful way for defense, for fighting, for power. If you're using the energy for a healing way, you're using it very softly, very gently. It's very feminine, very nourishing, using it as a medicine. If you use it for spiritual reasons, with that foundation, you're connecting to the universe more directly.
Indy: How long does it take for someone to become a proficient practitioner?
MG: It's very easy. It's not defined by a time frame. It's almost like learning to ride a bike. Before you know how, you think it is so difficult, but you find out it's so easy. Once you learn the technique — one day, two days, then you have the basic skill. But learning how to apply it can be a lifelong journey and depends on your needs.
If you're just releasing pain, some difficulty, some stress, then you practice 20 to 30 minutes a day or here and there. But if you want to really reverse a condition and strengthen your energy, invest longer — 30 minutes to one hour of daily practice. Gradually, it becomes way of life.
It's like eating food: You don't think about it in the baby stage. You're learning how to eat food; for a baby that's so new, it can be difficult. It's the same way to learn to use the energy. Once you learn it, it becomes very natural. Then every day you're eating food but also learning how to cook food, how to make it healthy, delicious, gourmet. Then it can be lifelong enjoyment. For people coming with a severe, incurable condition from a conventional-medicine point of view, they may want to invest more and they can do more regular practice, including coming to a retreat. But learning it is very simple.
Indy: After attending this weekend workshop here, if I never study further, do I already have the tools I need? Do most people practice by memory, with a DVD or in a class setting?
MG: The idea is to use whatever tool is available so the mind can relax, so the mind is not trying to remember. When you're working with the energy, you're really slowing down the mind. The regular mind says, "What's next, what's next?" So you're missing the experience. It's like the journey from A to B: you're looking at B already before you are realizing B. The process is the most important thing.
The materials not only help you follow the movement, but they help your mind to relax, to feel the energy, feeling every moment. That's the joy, that's relaxing and also, that's the process of really training the mind to slow down and really mapping your self. A new map. The old map is like from the neural passages, very much thinking-oriented — this is very feeling-, experiential-oriented.
Indy: In yoga, it's more about the breathing and the meditative aspects than the postures. Is it the same with Qigong?
MG: Yes, absolutely. Yoga has a whole science. The most popular way of practicing in the Western culture is focusing on the stretch and breathing and calming the mind; it's very effective. Part of Qigong is more like slowing down the movement. The mind is not so much focused on the stretch, it's more on some movement invoking the subtle energy. Then the mind rests into that subtle energy. Then you're using that subtle energy and applying it back to your physiological condition. Then that becomes a medicine right away. It becomes energy of nourishment toward your organs, brain, cells, blood, your immune system. That's the very special quality.
As a result, the calming of the mind is very similar to yoga. When the mind is not thinking in a conventional way, you're connecting with the physiological, in this case more energetically, and the mind calms down inwardly. The mind settles into the body, which is the home for the spirit. You're feeling this moment, the wholeness of the present.
Indy: Can you briefly explain the Chinese government's effect on Qigong throughout history and today? I read that in the 1950s they tightly controlled it, and it wasn't until the '70s that it was allowed to become more widespread. Then, in the '90s, the Falun Gong was said to re-introduce "superstitious elements" that lead to a "crackdown" by the state. That led to support only for the health and science aspects by the government. How is it today?
MG: Qigong has been quite a secret for 5,000 years or more. Before then there were a few grand masters teaching it, but it was still very underground. It came out to the mainstream in the '70s, due to a lot of reasons and very much to do with the cultural revolution. The country was in crisis — spiritual, health and economic crisis — so the government was searching for whatever way to help the condition.
Then Qigong resurfaced to the mainstream, because it's not religious-oriented. Martial arts has been around for a while, and people are familiar with it. Then people introduced Qigong to the public in the beginning for health reasons. The government realized it was good and they supported it, because of the health implications, including reduced health care costs of all the country. There are statistics available that show this.
It became so popular, so then different schools for Qigong came out, then it became very powerful, and so the government felt a little bit threatened. Some of the groups, including Falun Gong, became somewhat critical and somewhat religious-oriented. The government felt threatened, so they basically crushed down the whole Qigong movement.
During that process, grandmaster Dr. Pang — he's a medicine doctor in both Chinese and Western medicine — formed a hospital. His approach is very scientific: He has incredible, profound knowledge of this esoteric practice, and he used it in his healing when he was working officially as a doctor. He realized people were healing quicker with self-healing, so from that he created the Qigong center. So people came to practice at the center for four weeks at a time as one cycle. They lived there and practiced day and night, basically. Then from that, he was determined to understand how Qigong works. He had people go through a medical checkup before they enrolled in the program, then go back after four weeks to have a similar checkup and compare the results. If you see a measurable difference, then it's effective. If you see no symptoms, then it's cured. He was taking that very scientific approach, then improving his methods.
From that process, he realized a 95 percent effective rate. In the beginning it was 40 percent, then increasing to 60 percent, very quickly to 95 percent because of the scientific approach. He wanted to introduce it in a very scientific kind of way — kind of like understanding it from a new point of view, like quantum physics. His way was also to make peace with the government, so it could be widely available for the mainstream. He sees it as very universal, cultural, because working with energy is not based on belief or cultural conditioning. You can directly feel the energy inside of you, and use your own direct experience to guide energy for whatever purpose you want to realize. He sees that as a very universal language.
But because of the government limitations, we had to close down the center in 2000. The government didn't really close it, but we had to because the government had a new policy that you could only practice with less than 100 people. So it is still allowed in China, but you can't practice with a large group without permission from the government.
Ultimately it's about control. They feel threatened. It's interesting because they know very well the health benefits of the practice and the science behind it, but they're afraid if it becomes too big, it becomes politically threatening for them. Some of the government leaders say they are supporting Qigong, but it's not politically right for them right now. But in the back [behind the scenes], many are working with Qigong masters for their family and their own health.
Indy: When did Qigong leave China for the West? I read that America's first exposure was on PBS in 1993 with Bill Moyers. How has it spread in the West since?
MG: The media, including Bill Moyers, helped the Western people get exposed to this tradition. So people started to study and study in China at times. Some masters came here to teach, and with that gradually happening, it became more progressive in the last five years — which is also some to do with the closing down of the Chinese government. With contracting of Chinese government, more people from China came here to teach.
Everything is much more open and available now. Different cultures are merging and finding common ground, so this is incredible timing we're facing now. The quality of Qigong is working with energy, so everyone can identify with that. It is transcending cultural difference and boundaries. Like the language of music — it's so universal. But to play, you need instrument training and professional support. Qigong is not that demanding, but you can relating to it directly. You don't need an instrument — you can move your body yourself and meditate and visualize and so that becomes very intimate, and at the same time, very universal.
Indy: When did you open the Chi Center and Wisdom Healing Foundation? Is it all a nonprofit, or two separate arms?
MG: The foundation was conceived in 2006, the Chi Center in 2001. The foundation is a nonprofit organization focusing on the larger vision: realizing a physical center similar to the center we had in China, also providing scholarships for people who need it, also public education and research work as well. The Chi Center is more focused on the daily operation of giving workshops, retreats and supporting the students on an ongoing basis.
Indy: There's a lot of testimonials on your website that seem to prove Qigong's benefit. But on Qigong's Wikipedia entry, a note says: "Some researchers are skeptical of some of the claims for qigong and label the subject matter a 'pseudoscience.' In addition, the origin and nature of qigong practice has led to misconceptions and misuses. The abuse of qigong practice had led to the formation of cults and potential psychiatric problems." Can you address this?
MG: That's beyond my knowledge. My understanding is basically there's a difficulty in studying it. When taking a conventional paradigm to study Qigong — which is a very different paradigm — you may end up with challenging problems. Because conventional, for example, uses a double-blind study — it wants to take out the elements of the mind. But if you take the mind out of practice, there's no mind-body involved, then you take Qigong out of it to study Qigong. How could you possibly study it? That's the paradox we're facing now.
Ultimately, the difference is between the conventional, objective Newton-science paradigm and the ancient mind-body-oriented paradigm. The gap we're facing now is, it's not about which is better, which way is wrong or right — it's just so different.
Now, cutting-edge scientists understand that all these paradigms can coexist even when they contradict each other. What that means is the paradigm isn't about right or wrong: Both can be right, but coexist within the concept. The implication is very simple: It's difficult to use one paradigm to validate another paradigm unless you have a much larger one to validate an individual within the larger one.
I'm hoping the scientists will begin to understand not only the problems we've faced, but also new solutions, at the same time seeing that the mind has much creative implications on physical phenomena. That's ultimately the question: how much chi and the mind can affect the physical.
Indy: What about the "mental disorders" also listed on Wiki? Is there really a wrong or harmful way to practice, or "inappropriate channeling of chi"?
MG: I can't comment on that overall. There's so many types of Qigong and practice from different traditions. I know that this practice, the way we're doing it, is really focused on breathing and relaxing yourself mentally, physically, emotionally and finding the balance for yourself.
Secondly, if you're following the movement in a very structured way — it has been tested a long time — that's providing a grounding for your energy.
Third, it's a gradual process, very systematic: You go step-by-step. The side effects you mentioned, or concerns people have, are coming from certain cases — people, say, putting a medically non-stable person in a strong energy field. They'll have an overwhelming response. If no particular master is helping them to ground that energy, that can become problematic.
The way we're doing it is introducing it very softly, emphasizing that the person uses their own mind and uses the method to stabilize their mind. So it's a very different approach. If you have a student worship something or channel something — when you're channeling something in some ways, you are more focused on something external — if you don't have strong base it can be problematic.
Here, you go inside and work with the energy gradually to the capacity you've been cultivating yourself. You're not depending on an external energy entity: You're working with the energy of nature, the tree, the ocean, sky, the energy of the Milky Way. It's not psychically oriented, so that's very important from my experience. The student can be in a very grounded, empowered place.
Indy: One of the doctors you use as a testimonial on your site says you've "brought a new level of transmission of mind-body practice unparalleled in [his] experience." Is there a style or method you've pioneered, or are you traditional in your approach?
MG: [My style is] from the teaching of my teachers, but my own self-cultivation is always involved. Like any student receiving the teaching, I have a direct experience. I embody that teaching and am able to share it in more effective ways.
We emphasize the essence of Qigong is working with the energy — beyond a verbal-mental communication — so there's energetic communication happening there. My secret is no secret. Basically, when I feel this energy, I share it in whatever way I can. Often, students feel it directly. Then, when you practice together in a large group, it becomes so amplified. We call this effect a chi field — it's a collective energy synergized together for a unified purpose. I teach students how to work with it. It becomes tangible, palpable energy.
As a teacher, my purpose is multiple: First, giving the tools for them to do the practice; second, guiding the students for healing purposes and transformation in service of peace and love; third, to provide energy support. That's what we call the chi field. Students often come in a large group; they feel this presence of energy so nourishing, so supporting, so healing — at the same time, realizing the direct link within to that presence. It's one of the most important components in this school: With the collective energy, it's like a universal energy bank. So you connect with that universal energy bank and you can receive that large deposit. You don't have to depend on your own energy only. You're using that energy as supplement to your internal energy. That internal energy is creating a biofeedback with that universal, a new energy flow, a new connection.
There's specific methods to do that, called organizing a chi field. I teach that in retreats and teacher training. Ultimately, it is not about me. It's about our capacity as human beings. Now we are in the time that we need to realize this capacity, to train ourselves to go beyond what we've experienced, what we know. That's the exciting part. I see that as a wonderful human experiment.
Indy: What is your goal? To spread this further, empower people to heal themselves?
MG: My goal is to cheer Qigong as a universal energy science and technology as well as a spiritual awakening, realizing whatever my purpose might be. For me, it's simple: In life we're all searching for something: health, abundance. Ultimately, we're searching for happiness and fulfillment. Qigong has been a vehicle for me to realize fulfillment and happiness. I want to share that with people. To share it in a way that is so simple and intimate and so universal as well — it's like a process of coming home, coming to the wholeness.
Indy: Many view the Western medical system as broken in many regards. Is Qigong truly an alternative medicine?
MG: There's a need for Qigong now. More and more, people are responding to Qigong as a way of at least expanding their options. I don't see Qigong as a fix of the Western medicine problem. I don't see myself in the role of fixing the problem. It's merely expanding our options. It's about self-empowerment.
No matter how much conventional or alternative medicine treatment you've received, ultimately at the end of day, you can look at how to nourish and love and take care of self: How much responsibility are you taking for your health and life in general?
On a deeper level, I see that Qigong can really fulfill that underlying desire. Conventional medicine is focused on the physical, ancient medicine like Qigong is focused on the energetic. The dramatic difference is the physical is only 4 percent of the universe; 96 percent is formless and invisible — it's amazing. I want to see how 100 percent works, how the formless and form interact with each other.
Not to dismiss ordinary medicine, which is good in most cases for a lot of curative conditions. But a lot of conditions are caused by stress, emotion and by overall unbalance of life. It's difficult to take care of that by treating just the physical to cure that. In that area, we need more awareness to energetic medicine. To focus on being at least open to that 96 percent of the universe. If we use 4 percent to whatever degree we can, but we expand ourselves to another 1 percent within the 96 percent, then we improve as a result. If we expand further to 2 percent, then you become bigger. You go further and further.
Indy: Is there anything else you wish to discuss that I didn't ask?
MG: I want to make a final comment: This important question — concerning the health crisis we're facing — the question is: "Can this disease heal?" The underlying assumption is, "Can this body heal or not?" Beneath that assumption is that the body is separate from the mind. We think of the body as an isolated machine. That's limiting our potential.
A simple analogy would be if you take your mind out of your body: What's left? There's not much left. There's no life there. If you focus on the narrow approach — "Can the physical body heal itself or not?" — it is so limiting.
So my invitation is for people to ask, "Can my mind and body heal together?" That's a profound difference. Not only approaching the body energetically with spirit and mind, but also becoming a collaboration and creative process. So what Qigong is ultimately providing is a technology for the mind to work with the body.