The morning air is cool and soft. A cornflower blue sky arcs overhead with no sign of where it begins or ends. Our feet, some bare upon the grass, some clad in comfortable shoes, seek the feel of the earth beneath our soles. The lake, dotted with water lily pads and awakening flowers, is as still and silent as a mirror.
We feel the breath move across our nostrils as we inhale and we consciously draw it down through our chests, ribs and diaghram into our bellies, noticing its expansion like an air-filled balloon. As we exhale, we imagine the breath travelling in a ribbon of golden light up our spines until it quietly spirals around the inside of our skulls. On the next inhale we draw the air-light back down into our bellies, mindfully circling breath and energy through our bodies in a cycle known as the ‘microcosmic orbit’.
Here on this beautiful day beside the lake, a group of about twenty of us – of mixed ages, genders, and states of health and fitness – is practising a form of ancient Chinese exercise and meditation known as Qigong (pronounced chee-gong). “Qi” for lifeforce and “gong” for skilled practice.
We have become something of a quiet tribe over the years, sharing our breath and slices of our lives each Monday morning when we soften the public facades between us, beneath big skies. Inside our tribe are avid bird watchers and readers of books; women living through and recovering from breast cancer; people living with disabilities and their carers; bushwalkers; retirees; people suffering from anxiety, depression and grief; full-time, part-time and casual workers managing their work-life balance and stress levels; grandparents; parents and so many more.
As we each cross the threshold onto the grass by the lake, or in hot seasons, into the air-conditioned green room, we seem to release the rushing that got us here and relax into each other’s warm company to breathe and move energy through our bodies; exhaling the stress and tension of busy days and perhaps traumatic times. Together we stretch, activate energy and move in meditative flows which fill us with feelings of peace, calm and centredness at the beginning of each working week.
In truth, I don’t remember my first experience of Qigong, but somehow I knew it existed separately to the complex sequences of Tai Chi that I’ve never been able to remember or flow serenely with. When a request was made many years ago for a Tai Chi/Qigong class at the local community centre where I already taught fitness and yoga, I felt capable enough to offer a hybrid mindful movement experience. Thus began an intimate and ongoing love affair with the rhythms and pulsing of this practice, with me finding and learning online Qigong moves at home and bringing them to a slowly growing group of patient locals.
This ancient slow motion martial art also seductively offered a deepening of peace to my own monkey mind that had been so busy during my life that I had existed in a state of perpetual motion for decades.
I began my crash course in online learning by propping my phone on the railing of the front verandah at home and connecting to a few eastern and western teachers whose styles seemed to match my temperament and constitution.
Cue sunrise with shafts of ethereal light climbing through cumulous to breathe warmth across my yawning wintertime verandah. Loaded to the eyeballs with jumpers and scarves I’d ‘knock on the door of life’, rotating side-to-side from hips and waist, swinging my arms to lightly slap lower back and belly, then knock on chest and clap upper shoulders. All the while breathing steam in the crisp mountain air. At times I’d struggle to remember the poetry of names like ‘painting with light’ or ‘grasping pharaoh’s tail’. Sometimes I’d be left reeling with their fluid beauty and race to grab pen and paper to make notes that would guide me through the next class I was to teach at the community centre.
As weeks stretched into months and then into years, these regular sessions seemed to nourish my nervous system. Deep rhythmic patterns of breathing that matched the flows of movement seemed to settle my system in ways that hugged my 30 year yoga practice and took it free diving into places where peace and stillness reside. The joys of feeling steady, awake and present – all at the same time – were and still are compelling.
Even my surfing inexplicably improved as my Qigong practice deepened. I don’t really know how or why, but my capacity to align my own energy to that of the ocean before paddling out into the surf, seems to have grown and honed and more often than not these days, I am able to meet the ocean without expectations and to dance with its big patterns and energies.
In March 2020, when COVID reached Australia’s shores, extending its frightening tentacles into every home and community across the continent, the whole country went into lockdown. All of my community centre classes stopped and like so many millions of people, my income flatlined.
In collaboration with the community centre, I raced to create an online platform for my classes. I realised more than ever before, how vital movement, exercise, mindfulness and social connections are to all of us. Without any guarantee of payment, I began hosting my classes, including Qigong, from home; reaching out through online technology to connect with my community tribe. It kept me feeling useful and I hope it kept many of us connected.
When the federal government’s early superannuation access scheme was opened in mid-2020, I saw a long-awaited dream come to life. I leaped at the chance to enrol in formal, online Qigong teacher training with a school in Santa Cruz, on the other side of the world. Without a second thought I jumped in, barefeet and all, and through the guts of COVID for more than six months, I trained and learned, practiced and read, astounded at the depth and breadth of this form of ‘exercise’.
I needed to ditch most of my previous informal online learnings and begin again; systematically dismantling my cobbled-together technique and rebuilding my practice from the ground up. I felt humbled in every way and was grateful to undertake formal studies. My brain worked overtime to remember new and exciting concepts and movements and it was a blessing to apply myself deeply to studying again.
The benefits of online technology too! How astounding to access international expertise any time of day or night and then translate that immediately into my own You tube and Zoom classes for my groups in the Northern Gold Coast and beyond.
Today there is rain, so much rain it seems we will never see cornflower blue skies again. The 2021-22 La Nina summer in Australia is at times like living inside a waterfall. At home in the storybook cottage in the mountains, it’s too wet to set up my phone against the verandah railing, so I retreat to the small, south-facing space I call the ‘cloud mountain room’. There I connect to my Qigong teacher’s latest class which includes stretches, activations and flows with names like ‘grasping the bird’s tail’ and ‘Kwan Yin paints the rainbow’.
For over an hour I am entirely inside my body and my breath. I invite my mind to focus on the very important job of feeling my breath pass across my nostrils and to notice my feet upon the bare timber floor and below that, the earth herself. There is nowhere to go; there is nowhere else to be. Rain lashes the glass doors and Mt Roberts, home to Binna Burra Mountain Lodge is veiled by mist and clouds. For a miraculous stretch of time, complete peace prevails within me.