By Andy Ho
IN TRADITIONAL Chinese medicine (TCM), qi is the life force. Gong is work, so qigong means working with qi to cultivate it so it flows freely, in which case good health is obtained. Conversely, when the flow of this enigmatic qi is blocked, there is ill health.
Qigong is meditation done sitting, standing or moving. To the untrained eye, the still type is more obviously meditative in nature. The meditation that practitioners of martial art taijiquan engage in is also imperceptible to outsiders.
Qigong is a self-directed meditation method with various specified body postures, breathing, relaxation and visualisation techniques. The meditation involves moving the qi around. This can be done because in TCM thought, qi, breath and mind are closely related.
So qigong involves putting your mind or mental awareness inside your belly and feeling it go around your insides. You do this in quietude to 'review' your insides. You do not merely visualise your insides. Instead, you must learn to actually feel them experientially, explained Dr Yang Jwing Ming in his book The Root Of Chinese Qigong: Secrets For Health, Longevity And Enlightenment.
An adept who has mastered this can then use his hands to direct his qi into a patient to enhance the latter's qi.
But novices who overindulge in prolonged meditation may be putting themselves in harm's way. In the medical literature, such novices have been known to literally go mad.
These psychotic episodes usually involve a novice who engages in qigong meditation for three to four hours at a stretch. After about a month of doing so, he begins to hear voices and see things. Then he becomes quite mad. Fortunately, he usually recovers with a few days of anti-psychotic medication.
This is no slur on qigong. Reports of people going mad after practising it first surfaced in China from 1950 to 1965. But such reports were largely inaccessible to Western psychiatry, as Dr David Palmer - who practises qigong himself - noted in his erudite Qigong Fever: Body, Science And Utopia In China.
Many qigong practices began in Taoist and Buddhist monasteries. In this way, they came to afford an acceptable kind of urban religiosity during the Mao period when religion was oppressed.
For political reasons, qigong was actually banned during the Cultural Revolution, which took place from 1966 to 1976. But in the era of market reforms, it was not only permitted but also promoted by the political authorities, for it served as cheap health care for the masses.
Post-Mao physicists and physicians eagerly furnished scientific proof of qigong's efficacy in healing all manner of ills. But Dr Palmer, a Chinese University of Hong Kong anthropologist, showed how that scientific 'proof' was of very poor quality.
So the effectiveness of qigong has not been established. What is known for sure though is that prolonged qigong meditation can trigger psychotic episodes. In the mid-1980s, when Western psychiatry became aware of this, it became labelled as 'qigong psychotic reaction'. Psychiatrists in China call it 'qigong deviation reaction'.
In such an episode, which includes hallucinations and trances, the patient may be hysterical, disoriented, talk too fast and adopt odd qigong postures. He may complain that 'qi is dashing to my head' or 'qi has stagnated' somewhere.
But unlike schizophrenia, these acute attacks are almost invariably short in duration. Afterwards, the patient may not be able to even recall the episode.
Adepts attribute the psychosis to neiqibuzhi (adverse qi flow); waidongbuyi (uncontrollable motion); zouhuo (overmeditation); or rumo (spirit possession). Thus the descriptive folk name for this psychosis, zouhuorumo or 'fire wild, demons enter'.
This explanation of the psychosis is based on a notion of mind as self-awareness that flows around in the body. By contrast, the biomedical model is mind as consciousness that emerges from a functioning brain, so psychosis arises from a dysfunctional brain. The two explanatory models are obviously incommensurable.
The idea of qi also appears in other cultures and a similar psychosis called the Kundalini syndrome has been similarly noted following prolonged meditation by yoga novices. In this case, one unusual symptom is intense sexual arousal.
Kundala means coiled, so kundalini points to a coiled-up serpent of prana - the qi equivalent - asleep at the base of the spine. Meditation awakens the snake, which uncoils to release prana up the spine and into the brain.
Kundalini psychiatric symptoms are not unlike those in a qigong psychotic reaction, with trances and visions, unusual breathing patterns, convulsions and impossible yoga postures.
Similar psychoses have been noted in many other forms of meditation when abused. A large review of studies of meditators published in the International Journal Of Psychotherapy in 2000 reported psychological side effects in two-thirds of long-term meditators and experienced teachers. Be warned: Don't overdo it.