Back in May, in the early days of the pandemic, I signed up for an online qigong class. I’d never heard of qigong before but the class was offered through a local community school that I love, and I was stuck at home without enough to do so I figured I’d give it a try. I’m a person who can feel very uncomfortable doing “body things” in front of other people, so the fact that this class was online made it more appealing to me, not less, even though of course the class would typically be offered in person.
I told a few friends about the class before it started, taking a guess at how the word was pronounced. My version was quite different from what my instructors call it; it’s pronounced something like chee-gung, and the word qi is in there because the practice is a Chinese system of movements and meditations that are meant to work with the life energy, called qi or chi in Chinese. Qigong is related to tai chi, and its movements are slow and graceful, as if underwater.
My instructors teach a form of qigong devised by the teacher and writer Daisy Lee, who has developed a practice meant specifically for female body systems. This appealed to me too. I’ve always loved women’s spaces—not heteronormy events like bridal and baby showers, which create in me a kind of dread and sweaty distress that might fairly be classified as dysphoria, but dorky, often queer spaces like feminist groups and women’s art organizations. I feel safe in groups like that, accepted and even liked. A blessed relief. At first, when the class was still new to me, I fretted over what to wear and felt I had to cover my overgrown, messy hair with scarves. Now I can show up to class with no bra on and feel almost as comfortable in my skin as I do when I’m alone.
I’ve now taken the class three times and consider it an important part of my life; in a way it’s been essential to my feeling of well being during the pandemic. I love the feeling, the movements of qigong. Many of them match my breathing in an easy, natural way, which allows me to reach a meditative state in a way I just can’t in sitting meditation, which has a way of making me fixate on my breathing till I start to get freaked out.
If grief and other emotions can get stuck in the body, then it stands to reason that the right movements, with the right intention, could help them get unstuck. Most times when I do qigong I start to yawn like crazy, and my teachers both say that this is a sign that energy is moving through me. Good, I thought. It needs to be on its way.
In one of my favorite qigong exercises, we bring our hands straight up over our heads, then draw them down in a wide circle over either side of our bodies and imagine that rainbows of light are streaming from our finger tips. Rainbows of light! How badass is that? I love the language of qigong just as much as I love the movements. The instructor Robert Peng, whose video “Qigong Ecstasy” I’ve watched on my instructors’ recommendation, says to let your heart soften and open, like a fragrant flower. When we breathe, he says, we’re filling our bodies with this loving energy. A younger version of me would have thought this sounded corny, but this version of me quite likes it, finds it easy to imagine. Maybe my heart can be softer, more loving. Maybe the universe really is an ocean of qi, and I’m just bobbing around in it like an adorable otter.
All my life, whenever I get interested in something, I’ve read about it. I’ve studied it. But qigong must have felt more sacred than that somehow, or maybe I was just content to let my teachers be the ones who knew everything and trust them to tell me whatever I needed to know. After several weeks of practicing I realized that it hadn’t once occurred to me to read about it. Aside from asking the internet why I yawn so much, I’ve let the practice be something I encounter not with my mind, but with my body. And I’ll continue on this way, once a week during this strange, scary year, moving my small body through the space of my room and pulling rainbows of light all around me.