The Qi gong effect
By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer
They file in one by one, some walking briskly, others with tentative, shuffling steps. Some use walkers; others roll in wheelchairs. All have one thing in common: a calmness, serenity and broad smile on their faces.
Call it the qi gong effect. The dedicated group of seniors comes to the Qi Center in the University area to exercise one, two or three times a week, and in spite of its large size — about 60 participants — the class has a sense of warmth and camaraderie.
The classes are free for those 65 and over, thanks to a grant from Friends of Hawai'i Charities and Partners in Development, and space provided by Kamehameha Schools.
One participant arrives by Handi-Van all the way from Wai'anae; another gets up at 4:30 a.m. to take a bus from Mākaha; others are dropped off by children or grandchildren who drive from all over O'ahu.
Earl Morita, 64, who lives in Downtown Honolulu, is anxious to talk about how qi gong has helped him. "I had throat cancer and ... I couldn't talk, and now I can," he said. "It helped heal the vocal chords, through exercise and Chinese herbs from the Master."
Morita spoke of a complementary relationship between qi gong and his traditional medical treatments. "Some of the exercises are similar to my physical therapy at Kaiser," he said, "but it's more advanced. It gives me a sense of well-being mentally, physically and spiritually."
Christine Ling, 83, of Kaimukī, described qi gong as "a total look at health and the ability to heal oneself.
"It takes more internally," she said. "You're not going to a doctor and saying 'fix me.' My motto now is to live long and live strong."
Beatrice Ing, 92, of Kuli'ou'ou, chimed in: "This class gives you energy to go another week. Breathing helps us bring up our energy."
The Qi Center was founded by Grandmaster Hong Liu, a renowned authority on natural healing and complementary health practices. He is on the faculty of the John A. Burns School of Medicine's department of complementary medicine and has worked with the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute on the herbal treatment of cancer.
Qi gong is a meditative practice that originated in China. It uses slow, graceful movements and controlled breathing to promote the circulation of qi (breath) within the body. It is said to enhance overall health and help reduce stress, as the Honolulu participants would attest.
"Qi" means breath, explained volunteer instructor Irene Au. "Gong" means exercise.
Au, 73, of Lanikai, is an avid proponent of qi gong. A former marathon runner, she began qi gong in 2004.
"It has kept me healthy. I have had only two colds since 2004 and I used to get two or three a year," she said.
Au was teaching the 12 Sitting Qi Gong class we attended at the Qi Center (see box), along with assistant teachers Michael Bacaro and J.C. Coelho.
Because participants are seated for the class, nearly anyone can do it, regardless of physical limitations.
The focus is on functional exercises that assist with increasing flexibility and keeping the joints moving.
Part of what helps break down both social and physical barriers is the form the exercises take. Five of them mimic animals (tiger, monkey, bear, bird and deer), complete with grunts and growls that elicit a childlike response from all ages.
Each exercise is designed to address specific emotions and is said to benefit targeted body parts. For example, the tiger releases anger and affects the liver and gall bladder. Participants growl and gnash their teeth with eager enthusiasm. The monkey is meant to elicit joy and attack depression while energizing the heart and small intestine. The sound effects, which mimic a baby monkey, mommy monkey and daddy gorilla, along with the comical gestures, draw out shy chuckles and hilarious laughter.
"They laugh like crazy when we do the monkey," Au explained. "A lot of them said they had not laughed out loud in a long time."
"You feel younger here. There's a collective energy," said Ling.