Today’s guest column, about the power of Qigong to increase receptivity to herbal medicine, is written by Sheila Devitt of Sun & Moon Dispensary. Qigong is a subtle body practice from the Chinese tradition, and Reiki, a Japanese light-touch healing practice, is sometimes compared to it. Both practices are meditative and seem to facilitate healing.
Sheila Devitt is an herbalist and actor in San Francisco. We met in the late 1990s, while working for an herbalist. I have long admired her equally strong commitments to acting and herbalism, interests which seem to balance and influence one another in ways that I find continually inspiring.
I’ve been a practicing herbalist since 1998, first working with Western European and North American herbal medicine, then incorporating Ayurvedic traditions, including yoga practice, and in recent years expanding to include Traditional Chinese herbal medicine. A couple years ago, I had an opportunity to study herbal medicine in Shanghai. I traveled with a group of fellow students and teachers for a two-week intensive. While doing hospital rounds, our translator mentioned that she also works at the Shanghai Qigong Research Institute, across the street. She arranged for our small group to meet some of the instructors and drop-in on a couple classes.
One of the instructors asked about our group of herbalists from the United States. “How can you just practice herbs?” he asked. “We do not separate it from the other branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine” (acupuncture, Qigong exercise, Tui Na massage, and diet and nutrition).
“We practice Qigong so that our bodies will be more receptive to the herbs.”
That simple statement was like a light-bulb moment for me, an “A-ha!” Of course.
Qigong is a form of simple stretching and movement that focuses on the meridians: the same meridians that acupuncturists reference when selecting needle points. One teacher defines Qigong as “a form of gentle exercise composed of movements that are repeated a number of times, often stretching the body, increasing fluid movement (blood, synovial and lymph) and building awareness of how the body moves through space.”
Another teacher says, “Practicing Qigong cultivates positive energy.”
When we practice Qigong, we clear stagnation in the meridians. Receiving acupuncture also clears stagnation, or blocked energy, in the meridians. When energy blockages are removed, or at least reduced, it clears the pathway for herbs to work in the body. When we are less tense, more relaxed, the herbs have an easier time getting to where they need to go, therefore working more effectively and efficiently. (Oftentimes, herbal formulas will include a small amount of a warming, spicy ingredient that stimulates circulation, such as ginger, cinnamon, cayenne or black pepper. This serves a similar function, helping to facilitate circulation, and deliver the main ingredients in the formula to their destination, whether that’s a particular organ or joint or limb.)
Acupuncture, Qigong and herbal medicine are all synergistic modalities: each one amplifies the benefits of the others. I believe that any practice that helps to calm us down, reduce stress, quiet the mind and release tension will also help the body become more receptive to herbal medicine, both physiologically and energetically.
I recently read an article about electricity in nature that said, “Plants, being earthed, have the same negative charge as the ground that they grow upon, but they protrude into the positively charged air. This creates substantial electrical fields between the air around them and the tips of their leaves and branches…”
Herbs as medicine contain a variety of active chemical constituents, that can be identified and measured using various scientific means, but they also retain this electrical energy. Of course it’s highest when the plant is alive, and will gradually diminish once the plant is harvested and dried, but it will still retain some echo of that energy.
When we practice subtle body arts, in the form of Reiki or Qigong, we might well tune in to, and amplify, a similar electrical energy in our own living bodies. I believe in this way, we become more receptive.
Here are links to a couple of my favorite Qigong videos. I often recommend the Eight Brocades series and the Five Element series to my herbal medicine clients. The Eight Brocades is an ancient practice that has been handed down over many generations. I think of it as a foundational set, similar to doing sun salutations in yoga. In the Five Element series, I especially like the link between the physical organs, and corresponding emotions. When our emotions feel overwhelming, as if they are too much to contain, this practice can help us to create a larger, more stable container, and to provide us with a greater capacity to process difficult emotions.
When we combine the physical exercise with herbal medicine, we are utilizing simple, gentle, powerfully effective healing modalities that bring peace and comfort in a busy world.