DiCarlo: You are a master in the art of Qi Gong, which is rapidly gaining in popularity in the United States. Let's define our terms first, what is Qi Gong?
Cohen: Qi Gong is literally "chi" work, or working with chi. "Chi" can be defined as life energy and it has certain measurable components. For instance, life energy is often related to air and some people speak of the life breath. It's probably related to the electrical messages that flow through the nervous system and perhaps to the electro-magnetic field that surrounds the body. We know that the electromagnetic field varies according to an individual's state of health and state of mind in the same way that the Chinese say the chi field varies according to state of health and state of mind. But nobody can say exactly what the chi is. Although there are measurable components, I don't think we should reduce it to what can be measured and nothing more.
"Qi Gong" is working on the chi. It can be defined as a way of using posture, breathing, visualization and meditation along with gentle movements to cleanse, gather and circulate the chi, or life energy. Some people have compared it to biofeedback. Like biofeedback, a person becomes aware of, and thus learns to regulate or control processes in the body, such as heart rate, that are normally beyond conscious awareness and control.
For example, if a person has poor circulation in the hands and feet, there is a way of becoming aware of that area and using gentle movements to improve the circulation. As a result, the person will actually experience greater warmth in the hands and feet. This can be used to treat a variety of metabolic disorders as well. But that's the basic definition of Qi Gong, using breath, posture, movement, meditation and visualization to cleanse, gather and circulate the chi. Generally for improving health and strengthening the immune system.
DiCarlo: How do most people experience chi or life force?
Cohen: There are four sensations, which of course are subjective states. In Chinese, they are known as the Chi Gan, meaning chi feelings, or chi sensations. These are the four signs that chi is flowing. One of them is warmth. The second one is weight, weight in the sense of feeling very grounded or rooted. The third one is vibration. Some people express this as a kind of tingling sensation. I should qualify this: there is good and bad vibration. Tingling that feels like greater aliveness is the good kind of vibration. If it's tingling from poor circulation and numbness then that's not a chi sensation. That's a sign of illness, or that an individual is standing or holding a certain posture that is cutting off the blood supply. So we have warmth, weight and vibration. The last one is termed expansiveness, a feeling that the dimensions of the body have changed as though you are not sure where the air ends and your skin begins. Or a feeling that your feet reach into the ground, or that your head reaches up into the heavens. These are the four sensations that students often experience, sometimes even early in their Qi Gong training. Often, first or second class they will have one or all of those sensations.
DiCarlo: Is chi mentioned in any other cultures aside from Chinese?
Cohen: All over the world. This is a universal concept. What's unusual about the Chinese is that they are unique in having developed a systematic and very sophisticated way of purifying and accumulating chi for self-healing. But the concept of chi is found all over the world. An example in the Western tradition would be the Ruach, the divine breath with which God supposedly breathed into Adam to create life. We read in genesis that God breathed over the waters. That comes at the very beginning of our myth of creation, before God says, "Let there be light." The ancient hebrews interpreted this to mean that breath or energy is the foundation of existence.
In classical Greek, chi is referred to as "pneuma." It is called "prana" in India. The philosophy of yoga speaks a great deal about purifying and gathering the prana. The bushmen of South Africa talk of the boiling energy known as "Num". In a way analogous to the Chinese, they say that "num" is stored in the lower abdomen and is made to "boil," moving throughout the whole body when a person is healing. American Indians also have similar terminology. Every ancient culture in the world knows about this life energy.
DiCarlo: Is Qi Gong easily absorbed by the Western Mind?
Cohen: There might be some difficulties in translating philosophical concepts because of the history behind Chinese literature and the different connotations of words in Chinese or English. For instance there is no single word that captures all the varied meaning of the word "chi". But in terms of practice, I don't see any problem whatsoever. The nature of the human body is really the same. A Westerner practicing Qi Gong healing techniques is going to get the same benefit, at the same speed as a Chinese practitioner. The practices are very easily adopted by Western society.
DiCarlo: What are some of the benefits to the person who practices Qi Gong?
Cohen: On a very general level, improved health and vitality. There are some interesting studies in China which suggest Qi Gong turns the natural killer cells, the "NK cells" -which are the body's first lines of defense against invading pathogens-into "smart missiles." They go more quickly and accurately to anything foreign in the body. That's one explanation they are using as to why Qi Gong seems to improve the immune system. There is also some literature from China which suggests that Qi Gong creates greater bone density, and perhaps makes bones less likely to be broken. It can possibly slow down the development of conditions such as osteoporosis.
We also know that Qi Gong causes a slowing of the brain waves, going from the usual distracted beta state, towards the greater focus and relaxation that is alpha and theta. This would be of great benefit to everyone in the west for reducing stress, or at least dealing more intelligently with stress so there is less damage to the body. There is also a tendency towards brain wave synchronization, or coherent patterns in the brainwaves. This is an indication that the person can maintain a quiet and calm center in the midst of a storm. That, I think, would be very valuable for westerners, it might help prevent cardiovascular problems which we know are very much related to stress and lifestyle.
DiCarlo: What would you say is the ultimate goal of the practice of Qi Gong?
Cohen: Are you talking spiritually, or physically or both, or whatever impression I have?
Cohen: On a physical level, I think it's optimum health. I wouldn't call it perfect health because that sets up the possibility of despair, or the feeling of not reaching one's goals. I don't believe there is such a thing as perfect health. But there is an optimum level of health for each person. That doesn't mean total elimination of disease, although I think practicing Qi Gong helps one get over illnesses much more quickly, and gives one a much better fighting chance against many of the long term chronic and debilitating diseases that western medicine cannot cure. So the physical goal is optimum health and vitality.
On a spiritual level, it would be developing a feeling of harmony with nature, perhaps nature in both senses-one's own inner nature, that is, self-awareness, and also the surrounding environment. A feeling of harmony and belonging. Certainly Qi Gong is an excellent cure for alienation. One of my teachers use to say that by practicing Qi Gong and practicing some of the breathing techniques, you are taking the external world as air, into the body, and you are releasing it. You're not treating it as a possession, but as a gift. And to the extent that one allows the easy interchange of the external environment into the body, and releasing it back into the external environment-to the extent that one can do that-one tends to feel spiritually in harmony with that environment. Changing the person's breathing pattern, changes the person's psychology and spirit. Whenever we feel removed or alienated, that is reflected as physical holding of the breath.
DiCarlo: How does Qi Gong relate to other American forms of exercise, such as jogging or aerobics?
Cohen: It's compliments them. Of course it's somewhat different. I think it is important for a person to have some form of aerobic practice and also do something to develop basic physical strength. But the Qi Gong exercises really specialize in "internal health' and that's where western calisthenic tradition has been lacking. The Chinese poetically say that if you focus too much on the outside, that is, too much on muscular tone, complexion, appearance and so on, but neglect the internal health, such as one develops through the practice of Qi Gong, then "the outside becomes hard, but the inside rots." So we need to compliment the aerobic and muscular training of western calisthenics, jogging and so forth, with the internal healing exercises of Qi Gong.
DiCarlo: How do we imbalance ourselves, or deplete the level of chi in our systems?
Cohen: This is sort of like asking me, "Why do people get ill?" I will summarize; obviously I don't have time for a comprehensive response. First of all, the Chinese say that chi is part of a trinity of energies in the body. The lowest, or most yin form of energy is the sexual energy. The middle form is called chi, the uppermost yang form is called Shen or spirit. They say that if sexual harmony with one's partner is lacking, the jing or sexual energy is lost, wasted and leads to illness. So this is one aspect of ill health that is not sufficiently dealt with in medical literature. Sexual harmony is a key to health. The chi, in this model of the body, is wasted through excess, through not observing the rule of moderation, whether it's excess eating, excess exercise-any kind of excess. Especially through excess talking. This is quite interesting. In the model of the three treasures, which I am presenting to you now, the way to conserve and accumulate chi in the body is to breathe quietly and slowly and to observe long periods of silence. That could be a very important piece of advice for many westerners, where we tend to suffer from an almost exclusive, left-brain verbal emphasis in our education.
The spiritual energy, Shen, is wasted or lost when we don't spend enough time looking within. When we are so outward and material oriented. That's one way of looking at why a person becomes ill.
The Qi Gong philosophy is very much in harmony with the philosophy presented by most holistic health practitioners. Lifestyle has a great deal to do with health or illness. Diet is extremely important also. In Chinese medicine, it is advised that one eat foods that are very high in energy but that do not take a lot of energy to digest. In other words, there is a recommendation to balance various food types but to avoid foods that are deep fried or cooked in heavy sauces or a great deal of oil because that would be difficult to digest and thus take energy away from bodily processes.
Lifestyle, diet, sexual and emotional relationships, getting a proper balance of exercise and rest-these are all important. Also, too much Qi Gong is probably worse than not doing enough. I've seen people who have developed Qi Gong diseases from going to extremes. There's an unfortunate tendency in the west to think that if a little bit is good for you, then more must be even better. Imagine if you applied that philosophy to medications or antibiotics. It's not true. There is an optimal dose. As with any medication, you have to tailor the dose to the patient. So it's important when a person practices Qi Gong that they find out what is the amount that helps them to improve their health and state of mind, and not assume that more of that is necessarily going to be even better. Again, moderation is seen as one of the keys to good health.
DiCarlo: In his book Encounters with Qi Harvard Professor Dr. David Eisenberg describes some extraordinary experiences with Qi masters, such as moving lanterns with Qi, lighting up a fluorescent bulb, even frying a pork chop. Do you have any similar stories?