Teaching Students with Fibromyalgia, Chronic Pain and CFIDS

(Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome) by Kim Ivy

It is only now, in the early years of the 2nd millennium, that the shroud is being lifted from the body of knowledge that is Chi Kung (Qigong). For longer than the existence of Christianity, tens of thousands of forms lived among China’s misty landscapes, used as ways of cultivating health, longevity, and spirituality. Not until Nixon visited China and a bridge began to span between our two vastly different cultures did Qigong and its companion T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Taijiquan) begin to move from the parks of China to the practice halls of America.

From Nixon through Clinton these practices began to spread slowly, inspiriting curiosity. Those who ventured practice felt good when flowing through the slow and mindful choreography “Chi” (Qi) based practices, but western science remained confounded as to the technical functionality and practicality of these. Even during a time when Yoga was beginning to be taken seriously Tai Chi and Chi Kung remained more of a novelty. However, those who practiced did seem to have an increased vitality and strong overall health. Stories leaked through practice communities of those who had almost miraculous healing experiences: tuberculosis, cancer, musculo-skeletal irregularities, heart conditions, immune dysfunctions.

I was introduced to Qigong in 1988. I had been a competitive martial artist in the vigorous art of Judo for 10 years and had been only recently introduced to the molasses-like movements of Tai Chi and Qigong. The details of coordinating the slow physical movements with the deep breathing that these movements required was a rigorous task for a 30 year old athlete, but I was compelled to try after a devastating car accident left me with a fraction of former movement. The physical pain I was enduring was nothing compared to the mental anguish of having a movement filled life ripped out from under me. The discipline of mental focus that Qigong also required proved to be a useful tool that brought some calm and peace back to my life. Little by little over the next 1 ½ years, with Qigong, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care and counseling, I regained most of my movement and most importantly, the trust in my body. The peace of mind I discovered through the process was as surprising as the reestablishment of my body’s movement. The entire process changed the course of my life.

I began teaching Tai Chi and Qigong to students who have chronic pain conditions in 1990. I began in a retirement home where the average age of the clientele was 85. Hip replacements, arthritis, cardiac related illnesses were all the order of the day. These students could not touch their hands to their feet or perform deep knee bends. With the exception of one woman who had traveled to China in the early 80’s, they were unfamiliar with Tai Chi, Qigong or Eastern based philosophy, but their zest for something new was wholly inspirational.

Each Tuesday at 10:00 AM we turned a lunch room into a practice hall and over the course of the next year we breathed and bent and turned and danced the circles of slow graceful movement. My own experience with limited movement proved useful not just in modifying the forms but in being a credible teaching source, despite my relative youth. We came to trust each other deeply and these early students did not hesitate for a moment to tell me what worked and did not work! We worked together, continually modifying the choreography for their comfort and capacity. None of us knew it at the time, there was no blue print in America for what we were doing, but we were all at the beginning of the alternative and complimentary health care movement that was to take hold over the next decade.

My own career took shape in the midst of this revolution. The good majority of my clientele have some chronic pain condition ranging from simple age-related aches and pains to more debilitating conditions such as CFIDS, Fibromyalgia, and cancer. I learned very quickly that traditional methods of teaching Qigong and Tai Chi such as holding postures for minutes at a time, physical conditioning methods such as deep bending and even hour to hour ½ - long classes without breaks could be challenging practice environments for these students and in many cases caused the student a significant increase in symptoms. However, with a great deal of collaborative experimentation, my chronic pain students and I discovered a host of training and teaching methods that proved very successful and with these modifications allowed them the fun of participating in regular classes.

Each training method that proved successful was based on the core principle of Qigong: Mind intent leads energy, energy leads movement. To begin to understand this principle in everyday life, think of being hungry. The sensation of hunger leads to the thought of going to the refrigerator (mind intent). The thought of going to the refrigerator leads to the impetus to get up (energy) and the impetus to rise off the chair fuels the action of going to the refrigerator (movement). Using Qigong – type movement for people who have limited movement due to pain and dysfunction can work similarly. We train the student to first thinks about the movement using visual or audio imagery, then we see that over time the energy of the body begins to follow the images and eventually propels the physical body. One can see in this process that the physical movement is the last rung on the process ladder, the least essential of the trio. Over time as physical movement improves, a student is able to visualize greater movement, stagnation in the energetic system releases, and greater physical fluidity is achieved. The whole process improves.

Many students have had significant breakthroughs in healing by following this practice course. Cheryl (name has been changed) came to my class when I was teaching at one of our local hospitals in conjunction with their pain clinic. Every student had significant and debilitating pain and health conditions including CFIDS. Cheryl was a woman in her early 50’s, an athlete and landscaper. She had been thin, muscular and vital her whole life. About 2 years prior to meeting Cheryl she came down with the flu and never recovered. Now, 50 pounds overweight Cheryl was all but bed-ridden. Having confounded the medical system, Cheryl had been recently diagnosed with CFIDS.

Cheryl entered the 8 week Tai Chi/Qigong course I designed for the pain clinic. We met for 1 ½ hours two times per week. When Cheryl began she was unable to stand for more than 2 minutes without her heart rate exceeding 200 beats per minute. During the course of the eight weeks, Cheryl would follow the movements as she could and lay down to rest every two minutes. During the rest time, Cheryl would watch very intently, imprinting the simple arm, waist and leg patterns into her brain. When watching became to fatiguing, she would close her eyes and follow the voice instructions. Over the course, Cheryl became skilled at visualizing the movements and would practice them mentally at home. Within four weeks of practice, Cheryl was standing and practicing with the group for at least ½ the class.

Cheryl continued to develop her Tai Chi and Qigong skills in this way and over the next four years came to practice for hours several days a week. Cheryl became one of my top students, expanding her studies with other teachers to become a competent assistant instructor. It was not that Cheryl’s suffering had been obliterated, nor did Cheryl only rely on her Qigong and Tai Chi practices for her improved health, but they were instrumental in helping her symptoms to recede, increasing the quality of life dramatically.

I know many people like Cheryl for whom both Qigong and Tai Chi help in vivid and spectacular ways. And though there are many types of movements and forms in Qigong and Tai Chi, the principle of “mind leading energy, energy leading body” is fundamental to each. If a student can adopt this method to not only their Qigong practice but to all movement, he or she will see progress. It is important to understand that whereas the physical body is deeply involved, is not the beginning or the end of the healing process. As students if we can be patient enough and disciplined enough to cultivate the mental aspects of our practice amongst our physical limitations, the Qigong way shows us that the energy will follow, and after that, the body will improve. This process is a key that can unlock dramatic possibilities for healing physically, emotionally and spiritually.