Sounds True: For the benefit of new readers and listeners who are not familiar with your work, could you explain what qigong is?
Ken Cohen: Sure. In Chinese, qigong literally means “working with the qi.” Qi is a word for life force or energy. Qigong is a way of using breathing and meditation to work with this life energy; we can use qigong to help the internal flow of energy, control its movement, and even direct it to parts of the body where it is needed for healing. Practitioners have observed that the qi is similar to the body's internal electricity—the bioelectricity. When the body's bioelectrical messages are not transmitted where they are needed, then the body's self-repairing mechanisms are disrupted.
More technically, within the practice of Chinese medicine, qigong is both a preventive health care and self-healing system. In addition, qigong has deep and very ancient connections to both Taoism and Buddhism. They have in common meditative practices which are designed to cultivate insight and clarity.
Sounds True: How did you learn qigong?
Ken Cohen: My qigong training began at the same time I started my studies in Chinese language and philosophy—the late 1960s. And then, in 1973, I met a wonderful teacher from Fujian Province, Master B.P. Chan. He was my first formal teacher in qigong, and I remained with him until 1978. Qigong is a pursuit that involves a lifetime of learning, really, and I have had other teachers since then. In 1978, I met two Taoist masters from the sacred mountains of China, one of the most significant being K.S. Wong. He became a kind of Taoist mentor for me, and helped me refine my knowledge of qigong.
Sounds True: The Chinese are known for their longevity. How does qigong practice relate to extending the lifespan? What are the other health benefits of qigong?
Ken Cohen: I don't think there's any one method or cure-all for achieving a longer life. I remember a Chinese poem written by Po Chu I, a great poet of the Tang Dynasty (circa 800 A.D.). He describes all of the various qigong masters and alchemists, some of whom did not live such a long time. He ends the poem saying, “Only I, who have never dieted and who have yielded lightly to every whim, have thus protracted a tedious span of years.” The sentiment is that anyone—even a qigong master—who is uptight about healing and the body has been defeated already.
But qigong practice can definitely help increase and enhance the quality of life your experience. Certainly in Chinese literature and legend, we read about qigong masters who lived to a very great age. But we have to remember that the benefits are fully manifest only if you develop a way of living based on qigong and the qigong mind. You are not overreacting to stress, for example, you watch your diet and spend time in nature, and so on. Then it's possible for qigong to really contribute toward a long life.
Sounds True: So qigong is more than a type of physical exercise; it also exercises the mind and the spirit.
Ken Cohen: Yes, providing you don't compartmentalize your qigong work into separate, discrete mental categories with the idea that this will solve all of your problems—this is the tendency in the West. Qigong should be part of a holistic approach to living and healing, not just in terms of exercise and energy work, but also social relationships, how you relate to your environment, even your employment, and so on.
Sounds True: How can qigong influence your lifestyle?
Ken Cohen: Here is a very basic and concrete example: Qigong training places a great deal of emphasis on breathing—very specific techniques—how the breath comes in, how the breath goes out, even directing the energetic component of the breath to particular organs in the body. We learn to use the breath for energizing, detoxification, clearing the mind, reducing pain and stress, for example.
Breathing becomes a mirror that reflects exactly how you relate to your environment and your lifestyle. For instance, I work with people who can inhale easily, but have trouble exhaling. They live with the feeling that there is stagnant air in their lungs. These are the same people, I observe, who have stagnant relationships. It is hard for them to change and transform.
By teaching such persons the qigong breathwork, they also, learn how to “exhale” and release behavior they need to let go of in life. And when that individual learns to take breath into the body, to be refreshed by nature itself, they also enhance their self-worth. This is how life can be transformed, you see.
Sounds True: How would you respond to someone who says, “I'm sure qigong practice is valuable and would be good for my health, but I already jog and I go to the gym a few times a week. I don't have time for another form of exercise?”
Ken Cohen: There are two kinds of exercise: one is internal, and the other is external. The Chinese warn that if we only pay attention to the external—that is, to muscular conditioning and appearance—the internal begins to suffer. The expression in Chinese is “The outside becomes hard and the inside rots.” The Chinese perspective is that we should start with internal health; start by healing yourself at the deepest level of the body and its energy system. Qigong does not teach that aerobic conditioning is bad—it's just that it must be complemented by inner work. If there is good internal health, there tends to be good external health.
Sounds True: It seems that more and more people in the West are becoming interested in qigong work. Is this true?
Ken Cohen: I know through my work here and in Europe that its popularity has increased tremendously in the past ten years. And this is not simply a fad—qigong has a 3,000-year history. In fact, the National Institute of Health through the Office of Alternative Medicine has officially authorized the study of alternative healing practices, including qigong.
How popular will it be here? I know some people might consider this controversial, even blasphemous, but I believe there is the potential to develop a much higher level of qigong in the West than has ever existed in China. The West offers a more open environment; there is a “beginner's mind” here. I remember one of my qigong teachers said to me, “When you study qigong, never think like a Chinese. Just think for yourself.” Another of my teachers, a woman master from Beijing, was absolutely shocked that people had reached such a high level of practice here. You see, China historically had been burdened with a system of rote learning. Until very recent times, people were penalized for their creativity! The educational environment in the West is much more open.
Sounds True: Please talk about the scientific studies that have explored how qigong achieves its beneficial results.
Ken Cohen: A great deal of research has been accomplished and published in China. The research includes clinical studies, animal experiments, both in vivo and in vitro experiments. There is a well-known study published first at the World Conference of Academic Exchange of Medical Qigong in 1988, which identified anti-senility effects for the aging. This is very significant. I can give you an example of another qigong study, conducted in China. A master is hooked up to an electroencephalogram machine to measure his brainwaves. In the room are patients—people the master is to heal with external qigong. They are also hooked up to EEGs. As the master begins to project qi, he goes into a high-amplitude alpha wave state, with a strong background reading of theta waves. This suggests that the master is in touch with his own depths, his own unconscious. Then the patients exhibit these same unusual brainwave patterns, as if there is a synchronicity between healer and patient.
In another study, researchers at an immunology laboratory in China found that qigong practice increases the strength of the immune system. It seems to enhance the ability of the N K cells—the natural killer defense cells—to recognize intruding pathogens. Basically, the white cells become smart missiles in the blood stream. The research suggests that through qigong, your body can learn to more clearly distinguish foreign substances in the body. Many hospitals in China now have qigong clinics for both inpatient and outpatient care. That includes hospitals which practice traditional Chinese medicine, and those based on the Western allopathic model.