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Slow down and live long with the ancient practice of qigong

Story highlights
  • Qigong involves sensing the energy within and then following a series of slow movements
  • Experts say such practices go hand-in-hand with healthy habits that can improve longevity

Hong Kong (CNN) Among the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, eight senior citizens gather at the Happy Valley Recreation grounds in the Wan Chai district. It's time for their weekly class in qigong, an ancient Chinese mind-body practice similar to tai chi.

It's summer on the island, and at 8:30 in the morning, the temperature is already 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with an unforgiving level of humidity.

But the hot weather does not deter qigong Master Joe Lok's students; they believe wholeheartedly in the positive effects the practice has on their health.

Qigong Master Joe Lok during his class.

The word qigong is a combination of "qi," meaning energy, and "gong," which loosely translates as an accomplishment or practice, explained Lok, who has been practicing qigong for nearly 30 years.

It is the accomplishment or practice of energy and involves becoming aware of your breathing, sensing the energy within you and then following a series of slow, coordinated movements.

Movement, meditation and controlled breathing are the staples of every qigong session, with the ultimate focus being holistic well-being.

Lok explains that "in order to do qigong ... we have to be pretend to be empty, so the first thing to empty is the mind, so we try not to think of anything and only listen to our breathing, relax all the strength and relax the mind, so it's some kind of meditation."

Meditation has been shown to improve stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts believe it goes hand-in-hand with healthy habits that can improve our longevity.

As a result, qigong itself is a health practice, Lok said.

Feeling the energy

For Lok, it is vital that all his students experience "qi" before they begin any movements. He practices Taoist qigong, which has a strong connection with nature, he explained. In his class, he says that you can start to experience the "qi" by simply holding a specific posture.

Your feet should be between hip and shoulder distance apart and your toes turned out slightly. From here, Lok encourages you to breathe deeply and straighten the curve in your lower spine by moving your hips slightly forward. With your hands hanging loosely, relax your body so you don't feel any pressure or tension on your joints.

Lok directs his students to focus and straighten their fingertips slightly with their hands in front of their stomachs and pointing at an angle down to the ground.

Students find 'Qi' by placing their hands in front of their stomachs and pointing them at an angle down to the ground.

He then asks his students whether they can sense "qi"-- a warm feeling or feeling of life in their fingertips, often causing a tingling sensation. Once his students all feel the it, the movement routine can begin.

He warns that you can easily wave your hands around without really experiencing "qi," and that would completely defeat the purpose of his practice.

The goal of the movement is to clear blockages, release pain and refresh the body and mind.

Slow and steady

The movements in qigong are very slow. Students raise their arms over their heads, rotate their wrists, lower their arms and then make circular motions with their hands. Lok says that "as soon as you get into it, the qi begins to flow."

Emotions are also calmed, and people tend to live happier, Lok believes.

One student slowly works through the Qigong movements.

In a day and age when wellness is prioritized and dozens of wellness practices sprout daily, with elements of the ancient practice of qigong forming the basis for many of them and studies highlighting the benefits.

Removing the mystery

Cecilia Chan, chair of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong, has been studying the effects of qigong for years. Her aim is simple: to demystify the seemingly inexplicable benefits.

There are a lot of "misconceptions about qigong," said Chan, whose team studies internal qigong, or exercise qigong -- a simple set of movements in which no energy is given to participants through a qigong master; instead, the participants use their own energy to do the movements, similar to other movement practices, like yoga.

They do not explore external qigong, in which many believe that a qigong master can give you healing energy through hand gestures.

Chan believes that qigong can be beneficial to health, especially for those with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Her team conducted studies on women with chronic fatigue in 2012, concluding that qigong "may improve chronic fatigue symptoms and mental functioning."

They conducted another study in 2017 to explore whether qigong can reduce depression among women with chronic fatigue. "From our study, we found that a lot of people after practicing qigong ... become more positive," Chan said. "They become less indulged in their suffering, and they leave the victim's role more readily."

She likens qigong to other mind-body practices like yoga and adds that it "teaches a philosophy of letting go," helping those who practice it to embrace a "philosophy of let it be ... and be happy with yourself."

Researchers at Harvard University have also been exploring the heath aspects of qigong, with their research finding that its practice can help with motor function and depression for individuals with Parkinson's disease.

Lok, however, needs no convincing that qigong works on many levels. He witnesses the healing benefits all around him in class. "There's evidence everywhere that it benefits life in general," he said. "If you have a little time, try qigong. Perhaps you will see the miracle in the qigong, but if you don't try it, there's no chance. ... Find a teacher near you or otherwise go online and start doing something. It's very easy, and the benefit is ever so great."

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