When I was traveling for 6 months after graduate school, I had nothing but the pack on my back, and a sense of adventure. I was out of my normal mode of activities and training. However, no matter where I was, I had a consistent 3-5 days of tai chi practice per week, anywhere from 15-30 minutes per session. Fast forward to moving to Tucson, and within the first weekend of being there, being taken on 1/2 day mountain biking training expedition that involved a 20 mile uphill climb. Just up, up, and up. Now, considering I had not been engaging in anything resembling cardio training in the past 6 months, I was expecting to be sucking wind. However, I found that although I was keeping pace with hardcore mountain bikers, my breath was full, nourishing, and adjusted quickly to the onslaught of work my lungs were being asked to do. How could this be?
When it comes to training “cardio” we often think hitting the trails or gym for 20 minutes or more and getting our heart rate into a particular zone is the way to get our lungs and heart in shape. While this can work, it is not the only way to reap the health benefits of a healthy cardiopulmonary system. In fact, for some people, who run on stress mode most of their day, more “pushing” and exertion is not necessarily best.
If you’re looking for exercise that gives you the benefits of meditation, builds bone density, soothes the joints, and gives you cardiopulmonary benefits, consider tai chi or qi gong. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to lump qi gong and tai chi practices together, as they are both working with enhancement and manipulation of qi (or life force), albeit in different forms and rhythms. I’m going to use the term qi gong to cover both.
Qi gong for cardiopulmonary health
The centuries old practices of qi gong (i.e. moving meditation) have been proven to significantly enhance cardiovascular health. One reason may be its effect on the sympathetic nervous system. Another way to think about it: the heart is a muscle which, when working efficiently, must be able to contract and relax. Put simply, qi gong is aiding the relaxation phase, resulting in greater efficiency.
Additionally, mindful breath work is a focus of these practices, enhancing control, depth and use of breath. When those times of great exertion (or stress!) come, you are better able to keep the body in the calm zone utilizing the power of your breath. This enhances your ability to get through that tough hill climb on your bike, or gracefully navigate a stressful workday.
The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi is a research geek’s guide to the great body of evidence showing the health benefits of qi gong. Such studies show qi gong practice can enhance aerobic capacity as much as traditional moderate cardiovascular workouts of comparable times. This is remarkable! It has also been shown that qi gong was as effective in lowering blood pressure when compared to other low to moderate aerobic activities. This is great news for people who have injuries, are out of shape, or are handicapped in some way, as qi gong is accessible to all levels of physical ability.
Studies across the board consistently show evidence that qi gong practices improve bone health, cardiopulmonary fitness, balance and factors associated with preventing falls, quality of life, and self-efficacy (the confidence in and perceived ability to perform a behavior).
Qi gong has also the benefit of enhancing vitality (i.e. you will feel energized and “filled” from your practice, rather than worn-out like some people do from traditional cardio), and increased awareness of body and mind patterns. Qi gong practices can increase circulation to the whole body as well, lubricating joints, and keeping the body supple.
The biggest barrier for practice is the perception that there’s not enough “doing”, the movements are too slow, and it’s only for elder populations. The evidence speaks to the contrary, as do the centuries of practice. There are hundreds of qi gong forms from simple seated ones to sweat-inducing complex martial arts sequences. In other words, if you’ve tried one type and didn’t connect with it, I encourage you to explore other teachers and forms.
Where can I learn qi gong and tai chi in Walla Walla?
Here are a few options to explore:
Many Waters Wellness Center has ongoing classes from various instructors.
Revolver Yoga hosts tai chi with our very own Julie Baron from 7-8am on Sundays through December 17th, breaking for the holiday, then starting up again January 14th, 2018. These classes are offered free of charge, a donation bin is set out for the space rental.
Tim Sampson is teaching qi gong on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:45pm-6:45pm at Pioneer Methodist Church at 209 E. Birch St. through December 14th, 2017, then starting back up in January. Free.
Amanda Johnson (AJ) practices at Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She loves to show patients how Chinese medicine is fantastic at relieving body pain, aiding recovery and enhancing vitality. When not in the clinic, she will be out hiking, cycling, or playing in the water.