In a yoga class, a practitioner bends herself into triangle pose, a widely practiced yoga posture. She is probably thinking about the ache in her thighs, fighting the feeling of wanting to lean into the hand that is touching the floor, while trying to keep her straight leg locked. Little does she know that while struggles on the outside, a world of good is being done on the inside her. Her nerves are being revitalized, her last five vertebrate are being stretched, her hips are opening, her upper thighs and hips are being firmed and her waist is being trimmed. At the same time, her mind is being brought into union with her body.
Similarly with qigong. The groups of qigong practitioners you see moving in gentle, fluid synchrony in parks and community spaces are doing a lot more than getting into different postures. They are also revitalizing their organs and circulating their ‘qi’ or life force, clearing their mind and calming their spirit. They are healing specific health conditions or parts of the body, while also bringing about general wellness.
Both qigong and yoga date back thousands of years. Both are based on the concept of equilibrium, circulation and holistic wellness. Both have evolved into various schools of practice, each with its own style and technique. Both use movement, postures and breath. And both offer immense health benefits.
Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine
Over in Tanjong Pagar Plaza, in the midst of the bustling market, food stalls and warren of convenience stores sits a busy traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) clinic. Patients pop in an out, seeking treatment for various ailments, and are attended to by physician Choo Led Sin and his team, whose clinic it is. Apart from using herbs, acupuncture and tui na massage—three widely practiced branches of TCM—to help their patients, Choo’s clinic also offers qigong—a fourth branch of TCM.
Qigong as a form of healing and therapy is less commonly found, and Choo’s clinic is one of a small pool in Singapore that extends this option to patients. In fact, they take their qigong so seriously that Choo also founded The Centre for Medical Qigong Science (www.medicalqigongscience.com) in 2010 to focus on his clinic’s qigong programmes.
“Qigong is at the root of traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts and Chinese philosophy,” explains Choo. “It is a powerful system of healing, and uses the art of breathing techniques, gentle movement and meditation to cleanse, strengthen, and circulate the qi. At our centre, we practice five types of qigong: traditional health qigong, medical qigong, meditation, healing qigong and fu yuan qigong, which I choreographed myself to provide more systematic training to our students.”
“We have been conducting qigong classes regularly since 2002,” continues Choo, “and are one of the few TCM clinics in Singapore that apply qigong to their medical practice. Qigong in our centre is performed only by licensed TCM physicians who are also qualified in acupuncture, acupressure, bone setting, chiropractic, osteopathic and herbal medicine, and takes up about 10-15 percent of our daily work.”
A proper qigong practice is indeed closely intertwined with TCM training. “A good qigong master should have a strong foundation in traditional Chinese medicine,” Choo elaborates. “He or she should study TCM classical texts, like Huangdi’s Internal Classic and Huangting Classic, to name a couple, and through qigong, help practitioners activate the meridians channels in their body, something which takes practice and skill to do properly.”
Numerous patients have been helped by Choo’s qigong practice, including a Ms Wong, who had suffered from chronic back pain for years when she showed up at Choo’s clinic in 2009. Various medications, therapies and doctors she had consulted had failed. Choo assessed that weak back muscles were causing the pain, and enrolled her in a Ba Duan Jin (Eight Pieces of Brocade) qigong course. After about 10 sessions over two months, her pain reduced by half. And Ms Wong now keeps her pain at a manageable level using a specific qigong exercise prescribed to her by Choo.
This deep level of qigong practice is hard to attain. Most people, Choo points out, just practice qigong in a general sense. “Just like any other form of exercise, such as taiji yoga or swimming, qigong can be used for broad health benefits,” says Choo. “Not every lay person can study qigong deeply, which involves knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine fundamentals like meridians channels and acupoints, and even modern medical knowledge like anatomy and physiology. It may take years for a layperson to understand how to activate and promote the meridian qi in a person, so most people practise qigong as an exercise.”
And that is just what Kng Poh Eng, president of the Qigong Shi Ba Shi Association does. This association runs qigong exercise groups all over Singapore, in HDB estates, parks, community clubs and schools. It practices two types of qigong: 18-movement qigong (shi ba shi) and Chinese health qigong. In addition to extending the obvious health benefits of qigong to its members, the Association is also a social network, a form of fellowship, which, according to Kng, is a huge bonus.
“The social benefits of qigong are more tangible in our association,” says Kng. “We have qigong exercise groups all over Singapore, and the people in these groups become friends. Many of our qigong groups are also grassroots organizations. After exercising, our members go chitchat over morning coffee. They become so comfortable with each other, they even go on holiday together sometimes. Our members get a lot out of the fellowship and informal support group activities our association offers. Of course there are health benefits too. People tell me that they eat better and sleep better after practising qigong.”
At the end of the day, whether qigong is turned to for healing or for general exercise, it offers significant health benefits and is a practice accessible to all. As master Choo says, “Qigong can be practised by most people who are willing to practise. With good posture and correct breathing, even a patient in a bed or on a wheel chair can pick up qigong.” “Like any many other forms of exercise,” adds Kng, “regular qigong practice makes you more relaxed, calmer and thus happier with life in general.
The Many Paths of Yoga
Yoga is everywhere. From small, independent studios in shophouses to large fitness chains, all kinds of institutions offer this ancient form of Indian exercise. The varieties of yoga are as diverse—from ashtanga to Bikram to hatha, they practically run from A to Z. But while each school of yoga expresses yoga in its own way, all yoga disciplines are based on the same fundamental concepts of yoga, classic yoga postures, or asanas, and breath, or prana, and meditation.
The most fundamental of concepts is that yoga means ‘union,’ of body, mind and soul. This is the basic premise and ultimate aim of yoga, whatever the school of yoga. It should also be said that yoga postures—which most people associate with yoga—is only one slice of yoga. In yoga philosophy, there are eight branches of yoga, which include things people are familiar with like meditation, to lesser know aspects of yoga like cultivating karma by doing good works. If all branches of yoga are practiced properly, you achieve perfect union.
But the practice of physical yoga alone already carries with it a wealth of benefits. Its health benefits are well known and a big reason why yoga has become so widespread. Mental and emotional benefits are in abundance too—yoga helps people release stress, stay calm, clear their minds and centre themselves. Yoga has also supported women tremendously, with special pre- and post-natal yoga classes, as well as generally helping in the areas of menstruation, fertility, menopause and hormonal balance.
Mohankumar Rajaraman, a yoga master at yoga chain True Yoga (www.trueyoga.com) teaches gentle yoga, hatha yoga, hot yoga, pranayama (breathing) and meditation, pre-natal yoga, the sun salutation series and yoga therapy. “Yoga can help women cope with health issues at each stage of their lives,” he says. “It can help them improve the state of their body and mind, and alleviate the pain that comes with menstruation, manage stress and, if they are expecting a baby, ensure an easier pregnancy and delivery. Yoga poses are also designed to tone and firm the body, eliminate excess fat and increase flexibility and strength.”
“For instance,” continues master Mohan, “practising yoga is a great way to prevent and reduce menstrual cramps. The postures and breathing exercises help to calm the mind, relax the body, stretch the cramped muscles, and boost your mood. If you combine yoga practice with a healthy diet and adequate sleep, the body gets the energy required to cope with the symptoms of PMS and periods.”
“For expectant mothers, pre-natal yoga helps to improve general flexibility and strengthen the pelvic muscles, which are used during delivery. It also improves blood circulation in the body and also stimulates the organs and glands. … Poses in our pre-natal yoga classes have been modified so that there are no deep twists or forward bends. Props, such as chairs, cushions and straps, help the mother in certain poses as well. Classes are kept small so that the mothers get the necessary attention,” shares Mohan.
At Raffles City Shopping Centre, yoga instructor and studio director Diane Lee runs Bikram Yoga City Hall. As its name implies, this studio specializes in Bikram yoga, the original form of hot yoga, which comprises a series of 26 postures practiced in a room heated to 40-degrees Celsius. Lee also lives with Hepatitis C, and was first diagnosed in 1998 although she suspects having contracted the virus years before, from a childhood surgery. Through her own devoted practice and teaching others over a number of years, Lee has witnessed first hand the healing effects of yoga.
“Chronic fatigue is one of the symptoms of hepatitis C,” Lee explains. “Your energy level is low and you are tired all the time. But after my first Bikram class, way back in 2002, I woke up feeling energetic for the first time in years. I was shocked. It was just an unbelievable feeling. And the only thing I did different was the yoga the night before. Bikram Choudhury, our founder, said about this yoga—people with some disease or illness are going to see the effects right away, perhaps more than regular people, which is what I experienced in my first class.”
And she has accounts of how this yoga has benefited others too. “One of our students, Clarissa, went through two pregnancies with Bikram yoga,” Lee relates. “Before that she already had one child. She delivered through a C-section, couldn’t walk for weeks afterwards and had constant lower back pain. When she got pregnant with her second child and had by then started Bikram yoga, she stuck with her practice all the way through her pregnancy, doing Bikram’s pregnancy series three or four times a week. The day she delivered, she did class in the morning, went out shopping in the afternoon and had the baby at night. It was by another C-section, but on the second day she was walking around. Her husband couldn’t believe it. A few months later she returned to yoga and got back into shape so well, you couldn’t tell she had two babies.”
Even expectant mothers new to Bikram yoga can benefit from it, although Lee recommends that beginners do the pregnancy series without the heat. “If you’ve been practicing for a long time and are acclimated, your body can adjust to the heat when you’re pregnant,” says Lee. “If you are new—or even if you are experienced but just don’t want to do hot room work during pregnancy, particularly in the later months—I’ll teach you the pregnancy series and you can practice at home without heat. Luckily we’re in Singapore, where the ambient temperature is high enough to help warm your muscles so you can safely stretch.”
Getting pregnant is another area of health and life that concerns many women in Singapore today. “Conceiving and fertility is a huge business right now,” continues Lee. “And a lot of the problem lies in lifestyle and stress. Yoga helps to relieve stress and restore inner balance, and can help couples conceive much quicker. I know a couple who, after eight years of trying, both started Bikram yoga and got pregnant. And a lady in our studio who didn’t think she could have a baby because of her age, who got pregnant without any fertility treatment. As they say in traditional Chinese medicine, the qi has to move around freely, and if there’s any blockage you have to remove it. I think yoga does that and makes a big difference.”
Striking a pose in yoga and qigong comes with health benefits that go way beyond the physical.
First published in Eu Yan Sang's magazine Natura