The yoga studio where Brendan taught was located at the far end of “the Ave,” which runs north-south through the University of Washington’s “U district” and peters out at Ravenna Park. The studio was half a block north of a big old house where I’d lived briefly almost 50 years previous, which struck me as amazing—I lived across the street 50 years ago!—but seemed to impress no one else.
The studio was pleasant, sparely appointed, with perhaps 10 or 12 folding chairs set in a circle. I no longer remember who my fellow students were during my first six-session Level I class because I’ve sat in so many circles in that room over the past year and a half. But it’s safe to say we were assorted, because, always, we were, and wonderfully so—men, women, students, people even older than me, a college instructor, a tech writer, a massage therapist, a retired music critic, a man who lived on the street. I do recall that some of the people were newbies like myself, and some were repeaters, come to give their home practice a boost with class-generated qi.
We had in common a willingness to step outside the mainstream to learn more about the world within our bodies and without, and a desire to change our life in some way. We had found Brendan via word of mouth or Internet searches, or he had found us through his vigorous marketing efforts.
Brendan was the only one of the dozen or so people certified to teach Yi Ren Qigong who was doing it full time. He absolutely and passionately believed in Yi Ren Qigong—there was no way to doubt this—but he also knew how to build a business from having sold mortgages and cars. He created a website; he handed out fliers everywhere he could; he presented introductory classes at East-West Bookstore, a Seattle mecca for seekers of alternative paths.
He had honed his ability to help people feel and cultivate their own energy, and that is what we set about doing as he introduced us to Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun’s health-oriented qigong system, Yi Ren Qigong.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), when your life energy, your qi, is abundant, balanced and flowing freely, you experience health and well-being; if your energies are deficient, unbalanced, stagnant or blocked, you experience ill-health and emotional distress. Acupuncture aims to optimize the state of patients’ qi; Yi Ren Qigong was “acupuncture without needles”—it aimed to help people optimize their own qi.
Brendan told us that when he was young, he’d abused his body and ruined his health; Yi Ren Qigong had restored his health and improved just about everything else in his life. “It just gets better and better,“ he would say. “Better and better” sounded good—I had lots of room for improvement—but still, more than anything, I just wanted to know: “What is this thing called qi?”
We started out doing something called “shaking,” where we’d bend and straighten our knees, sinking and rising over and over again to align our energies. Brendan moved so slowly that it was hard to see how you could call what he was doing shaking, but he said fast was good, too, and, indeed, some people were veritable jitterbugs. We also did a lot of the “cosmic taffy pulling” I had done in Brendan’s basement to feel the energy between our hands.
As the class progressed, we did exercises where we focused on various energy centers in the body, such as the dantian, a qi storage reservoir located in the lower abdomen. We’d stand with feet shoulder-width apart, moving our hands and arms to guide the energy, sometimes bending down and standing up again. Brendan would be telling us where to focus as we inhaled or exhaled. Occasionally I’d think, “whoa, something’s there” or “something’s moving” – something indefinable, a presence, a density, something I wasn’t used to feeling. Other times I’d think, “I’m never going to get this. Everyone else seems to be getting it. Just not me.”
One of the exercises we did in this Level I class included eight major energy centers. Brendan told us it had been taught to Dr. Sun by his grand uncle, a Daoist qigong master in northern China. The grand uncle had required that young Guan-Cheng do the exercise an hour a day for two years. This still boggles my mind. Can you imagine getting a 21st Century American child to do a single exercise an hour a day for two years? Can you imagine getting yourself to do a single exercise an hour a day for two years?
We also did two exercises based on the classic Small Universe, which is “small” because it involves only the torso and the head, where the Large Universe also includes arms and legs. I’d encountered the Small Universe before, in several qigong books, where it was also referred to as the Small Heavenly Circulation or the Microcosmic Orbit.
The Small Universe exercises were for moving energy up the center of the back, over the crown of the head and down the front of the torso in a repeating cycle. You were supposed to use your intent as well as your hands to do this. You were also supposed to relax your intellectual mind, but whenever I’d feel something moving, my intellectual mind would worry about whether I was noticing something that was happening of its own accord or whether I was making something happen.
Every so often I would feel something that would surprise me—a whoosh or a sense of a broader, indefinable something moving up or down. I decided that if I was surprised, it couldn’t be something I was creating with my mind. So being surprised was good. The fact that energy was moving was also good, since according to TCM, it meant my body was being cleansed and harmonized and nourished.
Another most interesting practice Brendan taught us was called “tapping,” where, basically, we systematically hit ourselves—our arms, our legs, our lower backs and chests and hips, even our heads. Some people were gentle tappers; some of the guys, especially, would really wallop themselves and also each other, when we did back-tapping with partners.
The purpose of tapping is to release negative energy and develop strength. It is not unique to Yi Ren—other forms of qigong have similar practices—but at first it did seem odd. Eventually I got used to it, as I got used to the even more peculiar practice of ear stretching, which has something to do with the presence of lots of acupuncture points in the ear lobes.
Brendan’s Level I class comprised six 2-hour sessions. I ended up taking three Level I classes more or less simultaneously, because I was definitely not an energy superstar and felt I needed as much practice as I could get. This energy business seems to come naturally to some people, but I am not one of them. Brendan would say that you shouldn’t let your intellectual mind get in your way, but mine had ruled the roost my entire life and wasn’t about to quiet down and go with the flow.
During these Level I classes, Brendan and some of my fellow students would sometimes describe amazing experiences like energy swirling in their lungs or lighting a fire in their kidneys or descending like a cape down their back. I would despair of ever having such a powerful experience—until I would have one, a little one perhaps, but enough of one to make me believe that the experiences the other people described were indeed possible—perhaps, someday, even for me.
The exercise I remember best was akin to the One-Finger Zen exercise I had done with Ken Cohen’s DVD, only we did it as a group.
Brendan had us line up, and the first person in line turned around, stepped back, and became the sender. Those of us who were receivers held out our left hands, palms facing the sender. The sender made circles with the index and middle fingers of his or her right hand, aiming at the receivers’ palms.
When Brendan sent, I could definitely feel a circle on my left palm, although he was several feet away. But something far more stunning occurred when I became the sender. To my utter surprise, I felt energy rise up out of my abdomen and shoot out my fingers. Brendan said, “I felt that!” – and I was sure he had, absolutely sure. I didn’t know what I had done to make it happen, or to let it happen, and I wasn’t able to do it again.
But, wow! It was real. I was again blown away, just as I had been when I’d felt my right hand sucked to my left.
I had read and heard about taiji masters who were able to throw people to the floor or send them flying across a room without ever touching them, but I always figured I’d believe it when I saw it. But now I believed it, believed it was possible. My little bolt of energy wouldn’t have sent anyone flying anywhere, and I doubt I’ll ever be able to summon enough energy to make that happen—not that I particularly want to—but yes, I believe there are taiji masters who can do it.