Embodiment: A Different Take on Qigong’s Turf

Aligned book coverMy latest “wow!” book sat in my “To Read” pile for at least five years. Twice I started to read it but quit after a few pages.

But now my copy of Will Johnson’s “Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness” is stuffed with sticky notes marking exercises I want to try and points I want to remember, and I’m about to give it a second read.

I am blown away by the fact that he seems to be writing about what I consider to be the turf of qigong without ever using the “q” word, and I can see that I will learn a lot from his quite different approach.

Johnson is a practitioner of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. But where some meditators regard the body as a hindrance and a source of little more than knee pain during prolonged sitting practice, Johnson believes not only that any practice of mindfulness must include full awareness of the body, but also that full awareness of the body is a powerful tool in leading you towards that goal of goals which he calls pure awareness.

He has coined the term “embodied mindfulness” for what he teaches and, indeed, is director of the Institute for Embodiment Training, which I would guess is headquartered on Vancouver Island, where his website says he lives.

So let’s look at the three leading words of his book’s title: “aligned,” “relaxed” and “resilient.”

Proper body alignment is crucial, Johnson says, because when your body is not aligned, you are constantly fighting gravity, and you cannot relax.

And you need to relax, he says, because if you’re not relaxed, your body is filled with tension, and that tension acts like a suit of armor that keeps you from experiencing subtle sensations both internal and external. When you’re cut off from what’s really going on, your mind runs its usual chatter-chatter-chatter programs, and it’s “goodbye, mindfulness.”

Resilience is a bit harder to understand—and it’s also where Johnson sounds most like he’s talking qigong.

He defines resilience as “the allowance of free and unhindered motion that wants to pass through the medium of the body.” Which sounds like qi to me.

He writes:

“When we truly are able to align the physical body and then surrender its weight to the pull of gravity, we begin to experience ourselves as phenomena of motion and flow. … The water of our bodies is the place where the palpable elements of our physical form interact with the mysterious, invisible current of our life force. Like electricity moving through water, the flows and impulses of our life energy charge through the watery medium of our bodies, animating our physical form with the recognizable characteristics of human life. …

“Sometimes these surges are primarily physical in their form. Other times they are permeated with rich feelings and emotions. Our physical health and emotional well-being are dependent on our ability to recognize these internal motions and allow them to pass freely through the conduit of our bodies with as little interference as possible. … If the free and organic movement of that current becomes blocked …, holding and tension are recreated in the body. Our bodies become brittle, the awareness of sensations becomes numbed, and the internal monologue of the mind becomes activated.”

This sounds to me like the stuff of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture and qigong.

There are other parallels between what Johnson writes in “Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient” and qigong as I know it.

For example, he describes techniques for bringing awareness of the breath into one’s practice. He terms this “breathing with your whole body.” In Yi Ren Qigong, we call it “skin breathing.”

And he talks about bringing attention to the space directly behind the eyes, in the middle of the head. This space, he says, is “the seat of thoughts and the primary residence of our sense of self.” When we can release our mental tension and allow the life force to make its way through this area, he says, the mind quits spinning its usual stories, and we can “become the process of becoming” and realizing “pure awareness.”

Johnson’s “middle of the head” sounds like the “third ventricle” which Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun, my Yi Ren Qigong teacher, talks about as an important place to move awareness and energy to. In a series of seminars he’s teaching based on the classic Chinese text “Secret of the Golden Flower,” this area is referred to as the “Heart of Heaven.”

The major difference that I see between Johnson’s approach in “Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient” and what I understand to be the approach of qigong, is that Johnson doesn’t ascribe any particular pattern to the movement of internal energy, whereas qigong views that energy as traveling through the body’s various energy centers and meridians in a fairly systematic manner.

Johnson also says that we should simply be mindful of what is going on in our body and let it work itself out by providing alignment and relaxation, while qigong practice strives to influence what is happening.

This latter difference gives me pause, and I’ll continue to ponder it. Meanwhile, however, I’m finding many things in Johnson’s book that are enriching my understanding and experience of qigong.

One of the exercises for developing the ability to relax so that inner sensations can be felt, involves lying down and relaxing your way through your body from head to toes. You start with your head, becoming aware of any sensations you can feel, letting tensions drain away, and then surrendering the weight of your head to the pull of gravity. Down and down and down….

In my first effort at this, I set a timer for 10 minutes and lay down on my back on my bed. Within two minutes, it became apparent that I should have closed my bedroom door, because I had two cats lying on top of me. But it takes considerable effort to get up and close a door when you have two cats lying on top of you and besides, I would have had to reset the timer and start over again. So I continued surrendering my weight and my cats’ weight to the pull of gravity until the timer went off.

I didn’t think I’d reached any great depths, but when I finished and got up to do some Yi Ren Qigong, I was amazed at how heavy I felt, as if my center of gravity were somewhere down around my knees, and I had a marvelous practice session.

I’ve repeated the exercise a couple of times since, with and without cats, and I do like it—although the trick, of course, is to not fall asleep. Mindful relaxation is not the same thing as a nap.

I don’t have an ending for this post because I’m not done with the book.

But it seems important for those of us who practice qigong to be reminded that that which we know as qi is universal and has been discovered by others, even though they may deal with it differently.

And “Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient” is wonderful reinforcement for my own belief in the importance of both physical alignment and relaxation.

I’ve been working really hard to lessen the twist through my back and hips because I’ve found that it definitely blocks the flow of energy; qi doesn’t seem to like to travel crooked.

And, thanks to both taiji and qigong, I’ve come to realize just how much tension I carry in my body All The Time, and for no apparent reason. Every so often I will pause, somehow shift gears, and feel a veil of tension drop away. When that happens, I marvel that everything has become so light, so clear. But then, as I wonder why I can’t always be that way, the moment passes….

I guess that’s the journey….


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2 responses to “Embodiment: A Different Take on Qigong’s Turf

  1. Nick Lape

    Great article. Read both of his books several years ago and had the same impression that his seated meditation thinking/insights had a lot of application to tai chi/qigong. Really a good book from someone relating his true findings that can help any internal arts player. He’s on tho something.

    Nice job on the review and nice to find someone with similar thoughts.

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