Penny Navis-Schmidt talks fast. A psychotherapist by training, Navis-Schmidt admits she lives fast, too. Qigong (pronounced chi kung) helps her slow down. “I’m a pretty type-A person,” Navis-Schmidt said. “I’m someone who really needs to do this.”
Juliet Wing’s Eastern affection falls on yoga. “It’s a journey,” she said. “That’s what I like about it. There’s always more to learn.”
The Eastern-inspired exercises yoga and qigong each allow practitioners to learn proper breath and posture. They invigorate the body’s energy.
Neither are religion, nor magic. Each takes work, discipline and patience.
“It’s more than exercise,” Wing said, who teaches yoga locally. “It’s more of a model on how to live your life.”
A yoga student can pose perfectly. But if her mind wavers to thoughts of say, what to eat for dinner that night, she is not practicing successfully. One must pay attention.
“It’s not about flexibility. It’s not about getting your leg around your head. It’s about quality of life,” Wing said. The practice of paying attention, of approaching situations with intent, can seem quaint in the modern, multi-tasking world.
Navis-Schmidt, like everybody, has what she calls a “monkey mind” — the wandering beast that controls us.
Yoga and qigong are both forms of moving meditation. And through meditation, humans can stop acting on the impulses that they so often regret. The practice can impart distance between impulse and action — allow one to avoid “knee-jerk” reactions, said Wing.
Some meditation practitioners explain that just sitting and breathing deeply, acknowledging thoughts and then letting them evaporate, allows individuals to take life one breath at a time.
“When we half-breathe, we half-live,” Wing said. Breath acts as a pump to allow body circulation. Breath is energy.
Chi means energy, and the practice of qigong, also known as Chinese Yoga, is also about breath and energy flow. “It’s a very simple practice that anyone can learn no matter your age and stage of physical ability,” Navis-Schmidt said. She’s worked with students from 7 years old to 93.
“If you come into the practice with intention for well-being,” Navis-Schmidt added, “then you’re going to benefit from the practice.”
Both yoga and qigong promote wellness. They are not meant to supplant medication, though Navis-Schmidt said some of her patients have been able to decrease blood pressure pills, for instance.
“We are spending billions of dollars on our health care system and we’re not getting better,” Navis-Schmidt said.
“We have to do prevention. We have to eat better. We have to exercise.” Even during exercise, breathing deeply can slow the heart rate by several beats per second.
Both practices promote balance. “When we are out of balance, we are open for illness or injury,” said Navis-Schmidt. “One of the easiest ways to balance is through breath.”
When both Wing and Navis-Schmidt first started practicing in Payson, neither yoga nor qigong were very popular. Now, they say, it has become more mainstream.
Doctors sometimes even direct their patients to the Eastern stress-relieving practices.
“It’s just kind of exploding,” Navis-Schmidt said of qigong. Roughly 700 different forms of qigong exist, but all consist of a series of movements designed to enhance energy flow through the body’s meridians, or pathways.
In Chinese medicine, blocked or slowed energy is thought to be a source of malady, much like stagnant water attracts mosquitoes.
While yoga teaches breathing — Wing teaches a three-hour class just on that subject — and different poses, qigong relies on a series of flowing movements. (Although at least one type of yoga also flows through poses quickly.)
Navis-Schmidt, along with her husband, each morning clasps her fingers together just short of her hands reaching the floor. She pulls her body up, takes her clasped hands and lifts them over her head, brings them down and out parallel to her stomach, and then back down. The movement is repeated, and Navis-Schmidt says the morning routine calms and energizes her.
She recalled being a stressed mother when her children were younger. If she overreacted to something, her kids would ask her, “Have you done your qigong?”
“I’ve always had a real love for wellness,” Navis-Schmidt said. “I’m also someone who has been kind of a seeker.” Stress, she says, is a factor in the majority of illnesses.
Americans tend to breathe shallowly through their chests. The shallowness leads to increased frequency. Fast breath means that a stressed out, shallow breather’s body is constantly in low-level fight or flight mode, Wing said. The continued heightened state is unhealthy and can lead to illness.
Wing took a yoga class for the first time in 1986. While Wing said “new-agey” pursuits have always drawn her, Navis-Schmidt confesses to having a Type-A personality. She admits her short attention span and need for quick mastery attracted her to qigong.
“I’m like most Americans. If I can’t get it fast, I’m not going to do it,” Navis-Schmidt said.
Although the benefits of yoga can include weight loss and reduced stress, Wing says the practice isn’t about exercise.
“It’s not about the postures; it’s about being present.”
Through presence, we can become conscious of our choices and actions — we act instead of react, Wing said. People can change behavioral patterns imbedded in their personalities after becoming aware of them through meditation.
Wing has a poster of 900 yoga poses in her studio. The photographer took 1,600 pictures because the fellow pictured on the poster eliminated those photographs in which his mind was unfocused during a particular frame. Even if his form was perfect, the posture is pointless without presence, Wing said.
“The perfect pose is whatever you can do at the moment,” she said. Pain is not indicative of progress. If a practitioner feels pain, he should stop. Pushing the stretch, however, is required.
Wing teaches a class now at the college, and she also teaches at her studio. “I’m a yogini,” she said. “This is my life — not a job.”
Misconceptions abound about both yoga and qigong — mainly that they constitute religion. (Qigong is not the practice that the Chinese government wanted to subdue.)
While types of religious or deity-focused yoga exist, all yogas are geared toward self-realization. The most common yogas practiced in America leave out devotion, and focus mainly on developing breath, posture and flexibility through poses.
Many artists speak of forgetting the clock as they toil on a project. Meditation is similar. It is the practice of letting go. “The body wants to be in balance because our mind can override the body’s wisdom,” said Wing.
Just as life is about the journey, and not the destination, Wing said, “It’s in the process of the practice where the benefits lie. It’s not goal-orientated.”
As Navis-Schmidt says, “It’s not snake oil, it’s not going to cure cancer.” But perhaps, taking one breath at a time, we can deal with whatever may come.