During my taiji studies and early forays into qigong, I periodically encountered things that men and women were supposed to do differently. The most common was choosing which hand to put down first when putting one atop the other at the dantian, the energy center below the navel.
I can’t say for sure which hand women are supposed to put down first, because different teachers said different things—and because my Yang-style taiji teacher and his teacher, a Chinese woman revered by her American students, felt it really made no difference.
Still, every time I encountered this or any other gender-specific instruction, I bristled. I was sure the woman’s hand position was less powerful. Black people figured out early on that “separate but equal” wouldn’t work for them, and I didn’t think “different but energetically appropriate” would work for me, either.
I am, after all, the daughter of a feminist born ahead of her time, in 1912, to Bohemian immigrants living in Chicago, a woman who was feisty and smart but hobbled in her pursuit of the American Dream by being a woman.
My mother became a teacher, not because she wanted to but because it was one of the few careers she could enter. She went back to teaching as soon as my sister and I were in school, and she referred to women who didn’t do so as “kept women.” Her career advice was, “Girls, go where the men are, because that’s where the money is.” (We, of course, did not listen; my sister became a teacher, too, and I ended up in journalism, where there were a fair number of men but still not much money.)
I have had many more opportunities than my mother did, but yes, I still have some of her anger.
I have been thinking about my mother, and about my feminist anger, ever since this past weekend, when I heard Hilary Hart speak about her latest book, “Body of Wisdom: Woman’s Spiritual Power and How it Serves” at the 2013 Conference of the Institute of Qigong and Integrative Medicine. I bought a copy on the spot and have begun reading it, although it is not the easiest of reading and my reading speed is slow-verging-on-glacial.
Hart writes about how the world’s major religions were designed by men for men’s spiritual development, and how women’s spirituality is very different. Women’s spiritual power, she says, draws upon the power of the earth, which women connect with through their bodies, which are energetically as well as physiologically different from men’s bodies. Women’s power lies not in “ascending to transcendent realms” but in embodiment, and is expressed through such undervalued but sacred acts as giving birth and providing nourishment to babies, families, the community at large and ultimately to the earth.
I find myself quite taken with Hart’s notion of an embodied spirituality. I remember years ago trying to explain to a yogi who wanted me to sit on a cushion and contemplate a flower that I felt I somehow needed to involve the circle of my hands and my arms and my chest—not just my mind. Perhaps I like doing Yi Ren Qigong as much as I do because it does involve my entire body.
And I do know that I have become comfortable when Yi Ren Qigong founder Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun says men’s and women’s bodies are energetically different—for example, that our dantians are in slightly different places—and suggests that men and women practice certain exercises in different ways. He seems amazingly nonchauvinistic in these matters—and indeed, he was one of Hart’s sources for “Body of Wisdom.” She quotes him in her Introduction as saying “Women’s bodies are alive! Women’s bodies are wise because they are alive in ways men are not!”
Hart says that “women’s spiritual power is a missing piece in a world out of balance” and challenges women to discover their yin power to counter the excessive power of yang energies on the planet.
Can women’s spiritual power make a difference in the face of global warming and what may become a struggle of the fiercest and the richest to survive?
This is doubtless a very yang question to ask; I may need a paradigm shift as much as the world does, if only to release my anger and my fear.
So now I have another reason to continue practicing qigong. It’s the best path I know for discovering the wisdom of my body and claiming my spiritual power. And indeed, isn’t that what qigong is about?