Happy American Labor Day! On this day, we celebrate the rules and regulations that helped prevent people from literally being worked to death, and the amazing accomplishments we’ve been able to achieve since then. It’s an amazing time we live in to have “free time” for family, hobbies and relaxation, especially considering many of our not-too-distant ancestors would have worked 12-hour days, seven-days a week in hard physical conditions just to feed themselves and their families.
It’s thanks to pioneers like Henry Ford and John Patterson that our current 40-hour, five-day work week exists. In several industrial-age studies, these giants of industry showed productivity increased when employees were healthy and had time to do things like sleep and be with their family members. Workplace accidents decreased, expensive mistakes were reduced, and as a result the businesses were more profitable.
Less work made for better results.
So too with Qigong!
During qigong sessions, you will often hear me say “let the muscles just hang on the bones.” This may sound unrealistic, but it’s an idea to help you relax MORE — to put forth LESS EFFORT into the movement. Afterall, the many benefits that science extolls about Qigong ONLY come from three things:
- Coordinating breath and movement
- Frequent and consistent practice
- Relaxed movement — Think of it this way, if you wanted to shine light through a curtain, are you more likely to succeed if the curtain is bunched up tightly, or loose? So too with Qi moving through your muscles.
So how do you relax more during Qigong? Here are a few tips:
Make sure your posture is aligned properly.
When your bones are stacked on top of each other, you need less muscle effort to hold you. In protocol school (diplomatic etiquette, not computer programming), I learned that the deportment classes of old were actually created to teach ladies how to stand comfortably (in tight corsets and multiple layers of clothing) for long periods of time. Deportment is now considered a study of behavior, but it originated as a lesson in posture and bearing — evolving from the meaning “structure resting on supports.”
I practice my posture alignment multiple times each day starting in the shower. I place my feet so that the sides are parallel with the side of my shower (toes slightly turn in when the outside of the feet are parallel). Then I lift my toes so my weight is evenly distributed across each foot — ball and heel, outside and inside of arches. I spread my toes and lay them down gently.
Next, I ensure my knees are every-so-slightly bent, and I rotate my femur bones as if I were pointing my knees to the outsides. This lets my tailbone drop, which always feels good on my lower back! I relax my abdominal muscles. Then I roll my shoulders down and back so that the front of my chest is open.
Finally, I adjust my head by lightly placing the tip of my tongue on the roof of my mouth behind my front teeth so that my bottom jaw relaxes, and I imagine the crown of my head (the spot on top of the skull that once was soft as a baby) being pulled up slightly so my chin drops and slides slightly back toward my neck. I take a couple deep breaths here relaxing fully, and I’m already energized for the day!
Breathe deeply and slowly. The deeper and slower your breath, the more your parasympathetic nervous system relaxes…and therefore, the more your physical body relaxes.
Inhale through your nose directing your breath down the “straw” at the back of your throat focusing on expanding your lower abdomen (Dantien) like you’re blowing up a balloon. Exhale through your nose or mouth as your abdomen sinks back to normal or gently squeeze your lower abdomen back toward your spine (like you’re sucking in your gut just slightly). Repeat until this becomes easy and natural.
You can also try counting during your inhales and exhales to see if you can make them deeper and slower…but always with no tension. Holding your breath even a tiny bit is a different Qigong practice we will explore in colder weather.
Approach your practice with joyful curiosity. As we move into cooler weather, our Qigong practice will include more warming exercises — that is, exercises that create warmth in our bodies.
Heat is energy, and energy is Qi. So as you stand and hold Hug the Tree posture (as an example), you will notice your arms beginning to warm up. Many of us have learned over time that this “warmth” is negative and as a result tense our bodies, willing them to hold as long as everyone else.
Another option, though, could be that when you feel your muscles engaging and warming in this “efforted” way, be curious about the feeling. Perhaps you can smile at those muscles and encourage them to enjoy the heat and effort, to thank them for their strength, and to stay relaxed even as they create energy. Perhaps you can also experiment with slight adjustments to your posture—rounding your chest or upper back slightly, gently encouraging the shoulders down and back more, even wiggling your jaw or loosening your abdominal muscles…or any slight adjustment to see how it affects the feeling.
That said, Qigong should NEVER be painful, and any practice that causes pain should be immediately stopped.
Practice more often. Just like anything you want to learn, the more you practice, the easier, more relaxed and better it will be.
Practicing more often doesn’t need to take a lot of time or be a major commitment. Personally, I practice Qigong daily and my daily practice mostly consists of multiple 10-minute “breaks” from work to do deep breathing with one movement at each break. By the time my day is over, I’ve probably had 6 of these breaks…which means 6 times a day I’ve talked my parasympathetic system out of fight-flight-freeze response and into relaxation, and I’ve completed an hour of Qigong.
I also have a longer daily practice that I use for my physical, mental and spiritual well-being needs. I pick those practices based on how I’m feeling that day and what I need—whether it’s to cool down or blow off steam, to aid digestion or address aches and pains, to release emotions or create stronger boundaries, to give gratitude or call in grace.
In this way, I care for the one and only gift I will have my entire life (my body) and honor the Giver of this gift.
Practice movements you enjoy. Throw out the old saying “no pain, no gain.” Research shows physical and mental benefits of exercise are better when you enjoy what you’re doing.
Immortal Tree Qigong sessions are based on Traditional Chinese Medicine Five Element practices synchronized with the seasonal changes of our little spot of Earth. However, each of us is a unique mix of the Five Elements*. As an example, my constitution is more than half Wood Element. Wood is the element of growth, lengthening and strengthening; so it’s not surprising that I enjoy practices that stretch, twist and use a lot of strengthening.
But you don’t need an astrology chart* to tell you what you enjoy; simply listen to your body. When you find a practice in class that you enjoy, take it home and add it to your personal practice. My favorite flow is Embrace the Moon — a Fire Element practice — and I do it every day because it makes me happy. And if I need to quiet my mind, I always do Grasp Sparrow to the four directions…because it just feels good. There doesn’t have to be a reason.
Wishing you a fun and relaxing week of Less is More!