The Vitalizing Dimensions of Qigong

Mimi Kuo-Deemer, an internal martial arts teacher, delves into the multifaceted world of qigong.

By Ekin Balcıoğlu
December 12, 2023
14 minute read
Published by the Slowdown

Mimi Kuo-Deemer. (Photo: Aaron Deemer)

A prominent figure in the world of qigong; meditation; and neijia, or internal martial arts (she is a sixth generation lineage holder in the Baguazhang practice), Mimi Kuo-Deemer has a profound belief in the nourishing and supportive capacity of embodiment practices. Kuo-Deemer shares her wisdom—drawn from nature, the Dao, and the teachings of Buddha Dharma—to enhance personal well-being and extend this impact to the welfare of all life. Her written works, including Qigong and the Tai Chi Axis: Nourishing Practices for Body, Mind, and Spirit (2019) and Xiu Yang: The Ancient Chinese Art of Self-Cultivation for a Healthier, Happier, More Balanced Life (2020) have served as guides for countless individuals seeking the transformative power of these disciplines. Originally from Upstate New York, Kuo-Deemer has embarked on a remarkable journey that has taken her around the globe, including Beijing, London, and her current home in Oxfordshire. There, she resides with her husband and a vibrant household of animals, which includes a dog, three cats, eight chickens, and a thriving community of around 60,000 bees.

Here, Kuo-Deemer delves into the multifaceted world of qigong, unveiling its martial, medicinal, and spiritual dimensions. She discusses how qigong fosters emotional resilience and equilibrium, illustrates the concept of the five elements, and provides practical insights into harnessing intention to elevate both qigong practice and life energy.

For those who are new to the concept, can you define qigong and explain how it differs from other forms of meditation and exercise?

Qigong is the practice of transferring energy, and the characters for it in Chinese are descriptive of what I feel is the value, the benefit, and the process of this work. “Qi” has the radical for a kernel of rice and the radical for steam. What this suggests is that we’re using steam to cook something that is a seed and turn it into nourishment. It’s a transformation of energy, and it’s also pointing to how energy can be a form of nourishment. “Gong” tends to mean merit or accomplishments. The radicals combine the character for work and the character for strength, but the origin etymologically is a carpenter square—a tool used to make right angles, to shape or create whatever you’re constructing with more precision and strength. Etymologically, it comes from the word for plough, which suggests steady perseverance. Qigong is therefore the practice of shaping and creating life energy with steady perseverance.

​In Chinese culture, qigong is one of five branches of medicine—the others being acupuncture, herbs, massage, and feng shui. Qigong is also the foundation of many martial arts. Martial artists want their chi flow to be as optimal as possible, not only to help them heal from injuries, but also to protect themselves from getting injured, and to optimize their decision-making. When their chi is in balance, a martial artist will be able to use their skills to stop violence. It takes a very clear, settled heart and mind, which is aided by qigong.

​Qigong is also considered a spiritual practice in China, and many Taoists and Buddhists have used it since ancient times to support their spiritual aims. For Taoists, this means oneness and harmony with nature and the cosmos. For Buddhists, it means a sense of awakening to or insight into the nature of reality.

Qigong differs from other forms of meditation in that it tends to be nature-based. It draws a lot of inspiration from empirically understood ways that nature unfolds—its cycles. In terms of movement, it can be gentle, and simpler than some of the other movement modalities that people may be familiar with, such as Pilates or yoga. And there’s a lot of repetition of the forms, which tend to be done symmetrically. This makes qigong quite accessible in that it doesn’t require a huge amount of flexibility, or coordination. The benefits can be subtle, but powerful.

I love that it is martial, medicinal, and spiritual at the same time. It’s so rare to have a practice that encompasses all three.

I think that also makes it interesting to a wider group of people. People might come to it because they want physical healing. They may come to it because they have a martial practice or because they seek that kind of relational discipline. Or they may come to it because it fosters and deepens a connection to nature.

How does qigong, through its specific practices and techniques, enable individuals to build emotional resilience and cultivate inner equilibrium, particularly when confronted with challenging circumstances?

Challenges can be internal challenges, such as our anger, jealousy, or pride. These can result in a tight self that thrashes around more than necessary. They can also result externally, such as having difficulties at work or difficulties with what’s happening in the world at large. There’s also the arising of the body, the breath, the desire to be more connected to nature.

​Nature is a wonderful healer. There are a lot of studies today about forest bathing resetting the nervous system, or allowing a sense of remembering one’s identity and place in the world. Qigong uses a lot of specific visualizations that connect people to nature and the natural world—the sky, the soil, the wind, trees, everything that lives and grows. If we live in a city, for example, and we don’t have access to nature at our doorstep, through qigong we can visualize forms such as a flying crane, or moving clouds, or rolling waves. Through these practices we can feel connected to an aspect of nature that is there and is within our immediate knowing.

​I would also say that movement and meditations in qigong are all about energy transference. Qigong allows us to find balance in the flow of energy through the body—emotions associated with organ and meridian systems. This means that we experience and express different emotions in a more balanced manner, as naturally arising instead of as sudden shocks to the system. For example, anger is associated with the phase or energy of wood, and the season of spring. There’s a lot of growth and push in the spring to express and expand. A lot of people think of anger as a negative emotion, but in Chinese medicine and in qigong, it’s a healthy, natural emotion. It’s necessary for living authentically. If there’s too much anger, we get annoyed or frustrated, aggressive or violent. And if there’s not enough anger, we can’t express ourselves. We feel meek, we lack confidence, we are unable to stand up to something that is unjust and seek to change it. Balanced anger, though, can result in humane actions, positive social change, and visions for a more just world.

If our intention with qigong is to help bring the body’s organs, meridian systems, and associated emotions more into balance, then we can mediate difficult, challenging circumstances and have more resilience, more equilibrium, and express our emotions, which are healthy to have as humans, in a way that is more loving, more connecting, and more compassionate, enabling positive outcomes rather than aggressive or negative outcomes.

In your teaching and practice of qigong, you emphasize the concept of creating space. Can you elaborate on how qigong helps individuals cultivate a sense of inner and outer space in their lives, and why this space is important for well-being?

When I talk about creating space, it’s often in reference to the opposite of space, which is constriction, tightness, a lack of room to express and feel free. Spaciousness allows for a sense of ease and release. It’s also the natural state of the heart half of the time. We often think, “I want a full heart,” or, “I’m full-hearted about this.” But the heart, by design, pumps—it empties, then it fills. I think because we live in a very consumer-oriented society, we are always about filling things, and thinking that accumulation is better than spaciousness. We forget that natural ease and release.

I talk a lot about creating space as in that natural state of the heart, because in that space we can be less reactive and more responsive to situations. It’s the moment where, if we have space, we can pause and wonder, What’s happening right now? Where am I? How am I? Without that space, we lack that reflective opportunity and end up saying something we don’t mean or internalizing a negative thought or behavior pattern.

In some traditions, the concept of the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, water—plays a significant role. Can you delve deeper into how understanding and balancing these elements within ourselves can contribute to overall vitality and well-being?

Think of your body as a garden. Gardens—to grow the flowers, the trees, the grasses, to have abundance and balance—need good soil, adequate sunlight, sufficient water, wind, minerals, nutrients. If any one of those is absent, it shows. Plants will get leggy if they don’t have enough sunlight, and they’ll get soggy and unable to get strong roots if it’s too wet. The five elements or phases of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, is how the Chinese looked at the natural world and deduced that there is a naturally arising balance within nature. The relationship they saw that sustained this balance works like this: Water feeds wood. Wood will feed a fire. Fire needs wood to create heat. Fire burns down into earth. Earth produces metal, which manifests on our planet as rocks and minerals. Rocks are what store water and release it as vapor. Likewise, wood uses its roots to stabilize earth. Earth will dam water and contain it. Water will put out fire. Fire will soften and melt metal. And metal will cut wood. All of these also create the control cycle, a balance in which things can survive, thrive, arise, and dissolve.

​The same is true for the body. Human beings are nature manifesting in human form, and like a garden, they have tendencies toward excess or deficiency or balance. And this idea of five elements plays an important role in understanding how, when, and if any of our aspects of our elemental constitution, such as fire’s heat, warmth and connection to one another, of generosity, of joy—is deficient or excessive, making us feel imbalanced, we struggle. Qigong recognizes that we are responsive and dynamic, like all things in nature. If we support the healthy flow and balance and transference of life energy, we can enjoy a very long, happy, vital life.

When I talk about energy, I know that a skeptical person may find it esoteric or woo-woo. But any physicist will tell you that the same amount of energy was present at the beginning of the universe as is present today. It takes the form of light, heat, sound, gravitational energy, nuclear energy, kinetic movement—all the different types. The first law of thermodynamics states that within this universe, this closed system, no energy can be created or destroyed; it can only be transferred. When we are moving, or eating, or even resting, we’re transferring energy, and qigong is a focused practice that helps the transference of energy be less blocked, more smooth. Everything, from the transference of food we eat, taking in its chemical energy, to our breath, which is taking in oxygen, a chemical that flows through our bloodstream to our cells to facilitate metabolic processes. Adenosine triphosphate is created, which is electrical energy, which fuels the bodies of all life, not just humans.

The role of intention in qigong is intriguing to me. Can you share a practical example or exercise that illustrates how individuals can harness the power of intention to enhance their qigong practice or life energy?

A simple one would be to gather that which feels blocked or stagnant, and float the hands down in front of the body to clear it out. Then do the same movement with a different intention to gather and fill the body with what feels easeful, open, fluid, and clear.

​Another easy example would be to, first, move the hand forward and back without any intention, just movement. Then, imagine moving the hand through clouds. Then move the hand like it’s moving through water, or mud. Nothing about the movement has changed, but the intention has. Especially the mud—that’s going to be a very different experience of intention.

To finish: What, to you, Mimi, is the good life?

Being around people. Doing practices I love. Sharing practices I love with others. Having good teachers. Being with my family, my friends, my animals. Lazy Sundays. Cooking and eating. Appreciating beauty whenever it’s possible, wherever it’s possible. Listening to the advice of trees. Reading the Tao Te Ching. Spending time talking to and respecting those past—my ancestors, teachers. Getting good rest.

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