For more than two years, Bianca Mollé dismissed the hand tremors she was experiencing.
Being a type-A personality, she figured the shaking was just "nerves" or the result of too much caffeine from that second cup of coffee.
But the tremor intensified until it reached the point where the Marin County, CA, resident couldn't eat soup without spilling it on herself. She soldiered on in her profession as a middle school teacher, becoming more and more easily fatigued with each passing day.
Eventually she went to the school librarian, whose husband had been diagnosed with Parkinson's a year or two before. There was nobody in the staff room but the librarian and herself, and she held out her shaking hand. "Is this what your husband looks like?" she asked. The librarian said, "Yes."
That was Bianca's cue to see her general practitioner and then a neurologist, who gave her a series of physical tests, watching how she moved her fingers, how she wrote and how she walked, and ordered an MRI. He also told her he was 99.9 percent sure she had Parkinson's.
He gave her a one-month prescription for the dopamine drug Sinemet; if she saw immediate improvement, they'd know it was Parkinson's. "But because I was pretty young [59 at the time of her diagnosis], he didn't recommend continuing on the course of medication at that time. He said, 'You want to save that for later.'"
Within a short amount of time Bianca felt much better, and the tremor was significantly reduced—seemingly confirming her doctor's suspicion. Because of her condition, Bianca decided to take an early retirement, and after receiving a major educational award at a ceremony, she began to slowly wean herself off the drug over the course of a month. By the end of the process, she was feeling significantly worse than she had before starting.
An active woman who'd always been interested in health and fitness, Bianca could no longer keep up her gym membership. She also found hiking to be more and more difficult.
"I thought that Parkinson's was just a tremor thing," she says. "I didn't know about the loss of balance. I kept falling off my bike, and eventually I injured myself and had to stop riding. I gave the bike away."
As the disease progressed, the yoga she once enjoyed became a thing of the past. Her brain was foggy and muddled, and she felt like she was losing IQ points. She experienced difficulty swallowing, particularly at night, and struggled with fatigue so bad she says she would practically crawl through the door at the end of the day and fall on the sofa with nothing left to give.
To make matters worse, she discovered she was one of the small percentage of people with Parkinson's who experience all-over body pain, a condition called central pain syndrome. Her arms and legs felt like they had weights on them. "Going uphill, the pulling of the muscles and nerves in my neck, shoulders and back was extremely painful."
She joined a Parkinson's support group only to discover it was mostly "people sitting around comparing notes on their medication."
As an educator who had raised a son with autism, researching effective alternative solutions for helping him thrive in the world, Bianca was not about to take a strictly Western approach to Parkinson's. However, she couldn't find any alternative approaches that felt workable and eventually went back on Sinemet herself.
Nothing to lose
Finally, 15 months after her diagnosis, a friend told Bianca about a weekend Wisdom Healing Qigong seminar being held near her home. In June 2009, she went to the workshop, taught by Master Mingtong Gu, founder of the Center for Wisdom Healing Qigong in Santa Fe and a leading voice in advancing this type of qigong, also known as Zhineng Qigong, in the West.
"I didn't know what it was or why, but as the weekend continued, I felt better and better," she says. "I'm not an impulse buyer, but I bought every CD, book and DVD they had on Zhineng Qigong."
The teacher told the group if they were trying qigong out of curiosity, to do the forms for half an hour a day. If they had a minor health concern, he recommended doing it for an hour. But if they had a major chronic concern, they should do the exercises for three hours a day.
Three hours sounded like a lifetime to Bianca, until she considered that she was flopped on her sofa for nine hours a day anyway. She thought, perhaps if she practiced for three hours, she could reclaim the other six. What did she have
to lose by trying it?
Within the first week, she could feel energy moving throughout her body. Something about the practice just "resonated." But the movements were not easy for her.
There were times when she would be standing in front of the TV following the DVD doing some squatting movements and her legs would shake and quake. "A couple of times I hit the hardwood floor. But I decided it was better to pick myself up and continue."
Within a month, Bianca's strength was increasing, and the tremors subsiding. Then one day she forgot to take her medication. A week later, it happened again—which was very strange because, like many Parkinson's sufferers, she literally lived for the next dose of Sinemet to help with her symptoms.
"I thought, 'Maybe my body is giving me the message that it doesn't need more medicine.'"
Without telling her neurologist, she gradually weaned herself off the Sinemet. By September 2009, she was off the drug and headed to China for another qigong seminar. Before she left, she consulted with her doctor and passed her physical exam with flying colors. The only remaining symptom was a small tremor.
Within two years, Bianca was symptom-free. Her neurologist told her she no longer had Parkinson's and not to come back. Now, 10 years later, Bianca is a health coach and consultant, helping people with Parkinson's and other diseases to develop qigong-based wellness practices.
Qi sensing technique
Not sure you even believe in qi? Here's a little sensitivity-building exercise you can do to help develop the ability to sense energy in your body.
Exercise: Place your palms facing each other and relax your shoulders. Take a breath and let it go. As you inhale, slowly move the palms away from each other. As you exhale, bring them back toward each other without touching. Inhale as the hands separate, exhale back. Inhale apart, exhale together. Inhale and exhale. Now inhale as they separate, and as you exhale, this time slowly bring the hands closer and closer together.
Notice any sensations you might feel in your hands. Can you feel any sensations such as tingling, pressure, a magnetic feeling, or vibration?
About 50 percent of people can feel something on the first try without any training. With a little training, most people can feel something. That, say qigong practitioners, is qi, and your body has a way to sense it if you relax and tune into it.
What is qigong?
The ancient Chinese practice of qigong dates back at least 4,000 years and is one of the four main branches of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), along with acupuncture, herbal medicine and medical massage. Qigong is based on the understanding that human beings have energy flowing constantly through our bodies, feeding our organs and every cell.
This life energy is called qi—pronounced (and sometimes spelled) "chi." The word "gong" means something that takes time and effort.
"Literally qigong means 'cultivation of energy,'" says Lisa B. O'Shea, a certified Qigong Master and Qi Healer in Rochester, New York. "You're cultivating energy—like a farmer cultivates his or her field. You're watching it, becoming aware of it and tweaking it, managing qi and learning while you do it."
Qigong practices can be dynamic—a series of flowing movements or "form" to coordinate the body, breath and mind—or static, holding postures for long periods of time. Meditative forms of qigong use breath, chanting and mantras to move energy and open the mind and heart.
Followers of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius believed qigong improved moral character. TCM doctors used (and still use) qigong to prevent and cure illnesses and promote longevity. Martial artists have used it to improve combat performance.
Qigong can be used by people of all ages and abilities. Different styles can be done sitting, standing or lying down. Many health benefits, such as lessened anxiety, greater ease of movement, better cardiovascular health and quality of life have all proven to be achievable with just a few minutes of qigong practice every day.
What does a medical qigong practitioner do in a session?
Jeremy Colledge, founder of Three Monkeys School of Qigong in the city of Bath, England, has been a student of various forms of qigong for over 30 years. A medical qigong teacher and therapist, he has, in recent years, embraced Zhineng Qigong, also known as Wisdom Healing Qigong, popularized by Master Mingtong Gu.
Unlike Western medicine, a healing session in qigong is a multidimensional event that takes into consideration the physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual condition of the patient, using four or five different systems to come to a diagnostic conclusion. Even something as simple as taking a patient's pulse is more complex.
An allopathic doctor reads a person's pulse rate to see how fast their heart is beating. That's it. But according to Colledge, a trained medical qigong therapist can detect
18 different types of pulse on the wrists.
"Principally you deal with about six pulses on each wrist—pulses for each of the major organs, the heart, lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys, with two pulses on each arm and the kidneys split across both arms. At a deeper pulse there are associated organs where you get about 12 readings.
"For example, the heart point is associated with the small intestine. The lung point is associated with the large intestine. If you're very good you can find another six pulses within that."
After the therapist has read the pulses, he or she starts asking questions about the patient's life and symptoms, as well as his or her mental and emotional state: Do you feel fearful? Are you worried? Do you trust people? Do you ever feel shame or guilt?
"And at the same time, I'm looking at them, judging the color and tone of their skin, watching their eyes, noting the quality of their gaze, that sort of thing," says Colledge. "If you're sneaky enough you can actually smell their breath, which is a good giveaway for a lot of conditions."
All the health indicators add up. The lung pulse might be "saggy," or the questions, skin tone or even reading the tongue may point to the lungs as problematic. Through the pulses, questioning and observation, the therapist ends up drawing a conclusion, at which point the patient is asked to lie down on the exam table.
"If a problem seems to be in the lungs, for instance, a practitioner will use their hands to move through the client's energy field, and then you can feel that it is the lungs. Say that the energy there feels hot, strong and powerful, and the energy around it feels weak. So, then you would start to clear energy away and work on that level around the lungs to try to create balance in the qi." says Colledge.
In his experience, once you touch into the patient's energy field, nine times out of ten you get an affirmation that the questions and observation have hit the mark. "But if they sense something completely different," Colledge adds, "practitioners attempt to feel their way through the body's energy and also use intuition to discover the source of the illness."
After the patient's qi has been balanced, they are sent home with appropriate practices to perform to continue to strengthen and balance the areas that were found to be energetically blocked and weakened.
Ancient science proven effective
Beyond simple improvements like flexibility, the more the different branches of TCM have been studied, the more scientific evidence is uncovered proving their efficacy, and qigong practice and medical qigong are no exception.
Qigong has been shown to prevent bone loss and maintain bone mineral density in middle-aged women,1 and it increases lung capacity, flexibility and general physical function while decreasing body fat in older women.2
For heart health, qigong reduces both systolic and diastolic blood pressure while producing favorable effects on cholesterol and triglyceride levels. 3 Qigong exercise specifically designed for cardiac rehabilitation can also improve aerobic capacity, physical fitness and bone mineral density in patients with stable coronary artery disease.4
Qigong relieves fatigue, reduces inflammation and improves mood in cancer patients, while significantly improving cognitive function and quality of life.5 It even has a measurable positive effect on immune cells, increasing two types of white blood cells, monocytes and lymphocytes.6
"The bottom line is, it doesn't actually matter what your illness is because in my experience anything can be healed at any stage," says Jeremy Colledge, a medical qigong and Zhineng Qigong therapist in Bath, England.
"Living in the West, it's rare that anybody gets a medical diagnosis and then says, 'I'm going to do qigong.' Almost everybody I see has gone through various therapies and terrible surgery and are already deeply damaged."
Colledge says he's been working with a man who had liver cancer and had half of his liver removed. Much of the liver grew back, but the tumors also returned. Told there was nothing the doctors could do about it except put him back on chemotherapy, he came to Colledge for help.
In addition to receiving Zhineng Qigong treatments, he does about an hour of prescribed qigong moves daily. "He's also been juicing and doing all the things I recommended to him, and he's gotten amazing results," says Colledge.
"He's still on low-level chemotherapy because the doctors have convinced him that if he takes any time off of chemotherapy, he will never be allowed to come back on it. But his liver is virtually tumor-free."
In addition to people who come in with a distinct diagnosis and have already been through extensive medical treatments, Colledge also sees many patients whose doctors don't have any idea what to do with the symptoms and problems they present.
"That tends to be the kind of person we can really work well with, because using the Chinese diagnostic system, you are outside of the Western stories," says Colledge.
"If they come in with a diagnosis, like they've had kidney problems for example, sometimes the diagnosis is right, sometimes it isn't. The more you work with them you realize it's actually not the kidneys at all, it's that the heart energy is so blocked, there's no flow to the kidneys and they can't get what they need, so the kidneys are playing up."
He relates the situation to an old adage in Chinese medicine called the story of grandmother-mother-child. The child is having issues, but you discover it's not the child, it's the mother that's the real problem. And when you look at the mother, you realize it's really the grandmother that's the problem.
Parkinson's is a classic example of this type of dynamic, says Bianca, who regularly coaches people with the disease. "There is what I call the Parkinson's mindset—the paralysis of Parkinson's perfectionism."
"I have so many clients dealing with this. They'll look at a qigong DVD or watch a video of a master doing the practice that they need to do, and they'll say, 'Oh, my God, I can't raise my hands that high or I can't twist that far or I can't bend that low.' If they can't do it perfectly, they're not going to do it at all. Or they're so angry with themselves that they can't do it perfectly, it becomes a negative event."
One of the things Colledge loves about qigong in general and Zhineng Qigong in particular is the self-empowerment people feel as they take charge of their own healing experience.
"The most difficult thing for people to understand is that they are able to bring about these extraordinary healings themselves, and they don't need anybody else," he says.
"In the West we've been brought up with this story that there always must be someone in authority above us—like a doctor. But qigong teaches you that the power is inside of you, and you can connect yourself directly to all the energy in the universe without having to go through the filters of spirituality or religion or medicine to heal."
Qigong's little miracles
Zhineng Qigong teacher and therapist Jeremy Colledge says he has so many stories of qigong healings that it's hard to remember them all. But a few do stand out.
•"I met an astonishing lady in Xi'an, China, who presented with two tumors on her thyroid," he says. "They were so bad that she couldn't look down to see the floor. One was 7 cm [2.5 in] on the left, and the other 3 cm [1 in] on the right.
"She practiced the Zhineng Qigong self-healing method for three weeks and returned to normal. When I met her, she looked as ordinary as you or I. Her smaller tumor was gone, and the larger one measured 3 mm [0.1 in]." He saw all the medical scans to confirm it.
• Not as physically dramatic but equally life-changing is a story of one of his students in Bath. When he started qigong, he was sleeping very badly and could hardly navigate the stairs because his knees were in so much pain. Today he says he sleeps like a baby, and his knees were in good enough shape to carry him up the hundreds of steps of the Great Wall of China.
• Colledge also describes a woman from Israel, who was unable to use a cellphone or Wi-Fi because she was so environmentally sensitive. Because she was housebound, spending most of her time in a wheelchair, this made her life painfully isolating.
"I met her in China," says Colledge, "and she couldn't stop telling me how amazing it was that she was now able to use a phone and the internet after 20 years." But it wasn't the sensitivity story that got Colledge. What amazed him was that she was standing there, talking to him without a wheelchair.
"When I asked her about that she said, 'Oh that. I was just brave, got on a flight to China, trusting that qigong would heal me. After a few days in China I threw away my wheelchair. After a few weeks I threw away my crutches.' When our interview took place, she'd walked down about 30 steps, across a courtyard, and up another 30 steps unaided."
Lung sound exercise
Here's a simple exercise for strengthening your lungs that you can do in minutes:
• Sit on the edge of a chair or your bed with feet flat on the floor, knees at a 90° angle.
•Place your palms facing up on your lap, elbows out slightly and away from your body. Keep your back straight and relaxed and your chin tucked in slightly. You can have your eyes closed or opened slightly.
• Begin the form by raising your hands up in front of you, palms facing up. As your hands rise up, slowly turn them toward your body, then down. When the hands get to a level above your head, turn the palms up to face the ceiling.
• The tips of the fingers of each hand should be lined up and facing each other. The elbows and shoulders should be rounded and relaxed. Feel the lungs expand in your chest. This posture is to help you feel your lungs in your chest.
• Take a relaxed breath in and as you exhale, make a "Ssssss" sound through your teeth like a snake hissing or steam coming out of a radiator. Look up slightly as you do this. Exhale only one breath out as you make the sound.
• While you are making the sound, picture the negative emotions of sadness, grief or depression leaving your lungs. Picture them in any way you like—some people see this as a color or fog coming out of their lungs.
• When you have finished the breath and the sound, inhale and relax. Turn your hands palm down, slowly lower them back down to your lap and rest with the palms up.
•Relax completely and picture your lungs filling back up again with white light and the healing emotion of courage.
• Repeat as many times in a row as feels good. Do this exercise three times per day.