Go with the flow &mdash Healing, healthful qigong unlocks energy channels

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Qigong, an ancient movement discipline that has been practiced for thousands of years in China, is finally catching on here as well.

It’s a mild form of exercise that balances and unblocks the body’s vital energies through deep breathing, fluid motion and visualization, according to Yun-Fan Hoge, who was born in the Szechuan province of China and studied the practice with a renowned Chinese qigong master.

Considered a form of preventive medicine by the millions of Chinese of all ages who gather in town squares to practice the discipline on a daily basis, qigong (pronounced chee-gong) was a closely guarded state secret until 15 or 20 years ago because of its healing effects, according to Hoge.

Although qigong is a gentle form of exercise, it strengthens and tones all the muscle groups and makes the body limber. The deep breathing brings oxygen to the body on a rejuvenating cellular level. The combination of visualization and deep breathing results in relaxation and a sense of mental, physical and emotional well-being, according to Hoge, who says the movements are based on the elements of nature, including animals, clouds and waves. The movements are repetitive and Hoge likens some of the exercises to “swimming on land.”

Unlike tai chi, which is a martial art, qigong is a healing practice that takes a mental and spiritual approach.

In his book, “The Way of Qigong” (Ballantine Books, $15.95), Kenneth Cohen writes, “Qigong means working with life energy, learning how to control the flow and distribution of qi to improve health and harmony of mind and body.”

Barbara Metz, a qigong instructor who teaches the discipline to doctors, nurses and rehabilitation therapists at Sharp Hospital in San Diego as well as at the Taoist Temple, defines qigong as “energy cultivation.”

“Qi is the vital life energy that’s in all of nature and that we all have in our bodies. Gong means work or the practice,” she said.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, qi flows through the body via a network of 35 meridians or channels. Qigong enhances the balanced flow of energy through the network, which helps strengthen the immune system and the organs so the body is better able to heal itself, according to Metz.

Doctors and therapists find qigong to be beneficial even for people who are bedridden, according to Metz.

“Visualizing the image of the qigong movement can be as beneficial as doing it,” Metz said, adding that the body-mind connection is what distinguishes qigong from other forms or exercise.

The slow, repetitive movements have a calming effect on the nervous and circulatory systems, and promote the free flow of qi through the meridians.

Other benefits include greater vitality, increased range of motion, improved balance and coordination and increased stamina. Qigong also improves functioning of all systems of the body and removes impurities.

Qi is closely linked to the breath, and different systems of breathing are used to achieve different results. Abdominal diaphragmatic breathing, which is used in many qigong exercises, helps lower blood pressure, activate peristalsis and increase the venous return of deoxygenated blood, according to Metz.

A free video that illustrates how qigong is performed can be obtained by going to the National Qigong Association Web site at www.nqa.org.

Local classes to get you moving

Here are some qigong classes in the Bay Area:

• Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley: Ongoing, drop-in qigong and accupressure classes are offered noon to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. $10 for six-month session. Co-sponsored by Berkeley Adult School. (510) 848-0237. On-going “Qigong for Healthy and Vitality” classes are offered 7 to 8:30 Wednesdays with a private instructor. $15 session for JCC members, $20 nonmembers, four-class minimum. Sign up through instructor. Call Ellen at (510) 597-1160.

• Strawberry Recreation District, 118 E. Strawberry Dr., Mill Valley. Ongoing, drop-in classes 10 to 11:15 a.m. $10 a class or six-class card for $48. (415) 383-6494 or strawberry.marin.org.

• Palo Alto Family YMCA, 3412 Ross Road, Palo Alto. Spring session qigong classes run March 2 to April 20; 10-11 a.m. Tuesdays. $50 members, $65 nonmembers plus one-time program registration fee of $40. (650) 856-9622 or www.ymcamidpen.org.