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Feng has the soothing presence of a man who meditates daily. To provide a visitor with a quick example of how qigong works, he placed his open palm an inch above the back of his guest's hand. He explained that human energy, especially warm energy, can be manipulated to flow to any direction of the body. He said that was why a qigong master at the press conference was able to stab himself in the throat with the sharp end of a bamboo chopstick, which then snapped in two. The master had directed his qi to the vulnerable spot in his neck, then stacked an internal blockade of energy beneath the skin.
As Feng spoke, he said he was directing the heat of his palm to transfer to the hand below. Was it hot? he asked. Indeed, there was a sudden warm sensation. He called this a projection of his energy, and said it could be used to heal.
"Or," he said, "I can emit coolness."
Feng wiggled his fingertips in a raking motion. A slight breeze was evident, although the fanning action of his hand, and not his mind, seemed to have created it. To this suggestion, Feng slowed his hand movement, and after a minute or so, said, "If I keep doing this, you'll feel it." He extended his hand to show that his fingertips were already cool, while his palm remained hot.
That bodies can transfer heat energy is uncontroversial for anyone who has cuddled with another person on a cold night. Yet in qigong, practitioners such as Feng believe their energy flow can be used not just as a heating pad, but to unsnarl the blocked energy of others. Feng says he has had particularly strong results with asthma sufferers. He is able to assist their breathing technique and, using the gentle assistance of his qi, free the patient's breath into a more relaxed, fluid rhythm. The process can take weeks, months, even years, Feng says, because everyone's body heals differently. The most vital component is the patient's capacity to believe it's possible: "Positive thoughts are essential."
Thus, qigong ultimately teaches self-healing. So even though Feng may show his patient the way toward health, the responsibility falls on the patient in the long run. In this sense, healers such as Feng view themselves as catalysts, not saviors. Their role in the universe is a decidedly humble one, and largely unknown -- at least until recently.
According to some texts, the qigong concept took root somewhere around 1122 BC in the I Ching, the "Book of Changes," which introduces the idea of qi as three "natural energies"--heaven, earth, and humankind. Some six hundred years later in Tao Te Ching, a Taoist text whose title translates roughly to The Book of the Way and Its Power, the sage Lao Zi described simple breathing techniques that contribute to good health. "Concentrate on qi and achieve softness," he wrote. Half a millennium later, when Buddhism and meditation came to China by way of India, qigong entered its spiritual era, and breathing for health acquired a religious component. Eventually its teachers also incorporated qigong into the martial arts, using breath to motivate body movement.
Today, qigong is practiced in countless ways, all centered on the idea that breath equals life. Oakland-based teacher Vicki Dello Joio compares it to dance. She typically leads her students in seated meditation for up to thirty minutes, then takes them through a handful of slow, flowing body movements. In this sense, she says, qigong can be practiced outside the studio too, while doing something as mundane as washing dishes. "It's how we take what we learn in here and apply it to the world outside," she says.
The experience of Ted O'Brien demonstrates qigong's appeal to some practitioners. This 33-year-old took up the discipline last year. His diet once consisted of fatty foods and several beers a week, and he exercised infrequently. His youth paid the bills, but by his mid-thirties, the slothful lifestyle had taken its toll. "I was at a place where I didn't think I'd ever attain the vitality of a young person again," he says.
He tried health supplements, which led to more exercise, which begat a trip to the acupuncturist, which initiated the idea of meditation. For O'Brien, qigong offered a mix of exercise, health, and spirituality. "I tell my friends qigong is a combination of yoga, tai chi, and meditation," he says. Now each day he does an hour's worth of qigong, which usually includes the "Five Animal Frolic," a series of animal-inspired poses reminiscent of yoga.
"The first thing I noticed was that my emotional balance was no longer about fears, anxieties, angers. Those just melted away," he says. "After a few months, the ache in my knee -- I'd been wearing a knee brace when I played basketball -- was gone. I didn't need it anymore. I wasn't fatigued. I had high energy, suddenly. That vitality that I never thought I'd see again had returned."
For his part, Feng has been impressed by qigong's gradual influx into the East Bay. In the early 1970s, he had few colleagues and worked out of a small studio in Berkeley. He'd been trained by his father, Wei Ren Feng, a scholar and spiritual adviser himself. Over the years, the younger Feng has witnessed a huge increase in the number of practitioners and has seen the formation of two national associations, the Qigong Association of America and the National Qigong Association. In 1996, he helped Chow start up the first Qigong World Congress in Berkeley. "We get people who walk into the center and ask specifically, 'What's qigong?'" Feng says with some pleasure. "Before, that didn't happen."
Feng credits Chow with much of that spike in interest. "She brings such a variety of people to the congress, people in the continuum who wouldn't otherwise be in the same room. She's able to bring that whole chop suey onto one plate to let you decide -- is this for you?"
Somewhere along the way, Chow added Adam to her wok. Feng was curious to meet the boy, and they had a brief conversation at the congress, but Feng says he was busy with his duties as cochair and didn't attend any of Adam's workshops. When asked directly for his impression of the teenager and his claims, Feng considers the question thoroughly. "Adam," he says, going silent for a good ten seconds before placing his palm on his chest, "Adam, in my brief meeting with him -- and this is my personal opinion -- was that he is on the path. That he is discovering who he is, and that he is willing to discover who he is.
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