This ancient Chinese practice may help you improve your balance and reduce anxiety.
For people with multiple sclerosis (MS), certain forms of exercise can be challenging. Some require a level of strength or balance that may not be realistic, while others may cause your body to heat up too much, making your symptoms worse.
But one form of gentle movement may be just the key when it comes to improving muscle coordination and increasing your overall sense of well-being.
Qigong (pronounced “chee gung,” and also sometimes called chi kung) is an ancient Chinese practice that incorporates slow, steady movements with the goal of reducing stress, building stamina, and increasing vitality. According to the National Qigong Association, there are three hallmarks of qigong:
- Physical postures
- Breathing techniques
- Focused intentions
Here are some potential benefits of qigong in people with MS, along with tips on how to find a qigong class that’s right for you.
Types of Qigong
According to Lee Holden, a qigong instructor based in Northern California whose programs have appeared on PBS, there are three main styles of qigong: medical, spiritual, and martial arts. Medical qigong was incorporated into traditional Chinese medicine, where “they would prescribe qigong exercises to prevent problems from arising,” he says.
Sharon Smith, a qigong instructor based in New York City, notes that while most qigong exercises are done in a standing position, “There’s also a variety of sitting qigong practices,” as well as “practices that you can do lying down.”
Many people are familiar with tai chi, a type of qigong that “has a self-defense, martial-arts aspect to it. But all qigong does not have that,” notes Smith. In fact, she says, “Most qigong has very gentle movements” that may focus on your tendons, joints, or muscles, with the larger goal of “training your life force energy” — which is what the word “qigong” means.
What the Research Shows
Several studies have evaluated mindfulness-based practices for people with MS, though only one research study specifically on qigong for MS has been published. That small pilot study appeared in the November 2000 issue of the journal General Hospital Psychiatry and found that a group of 8 people with MS saw improved walking distance and steadiness, less joint stiffness and numbness, fewer bladder problems, and a greater overall sense of well-being compared with a similar control group that didn’t practice qigong.
While this study was noted to have a high risk for bias due to its small size and ways in which outcomes were reported, a review published in October 2012 in Autoimmune Diseases found that several larger, more rigorous studies have shown other, similar mindfulness techniques to reduce depression, anxiety, and fatigue — and improve overall quality of life — in people with MS.
Another study, published in October 2016 in The Lancet, found that when socially isolated older Chinese adults participated in a peer-led tai chi/qigong program, they saw general improvement in psychological assessments of well-being. And in a study of tai chi in younger American adults, published in November 2016 in the journal Nature and Science of Sleep, the practice was found to reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality.
While neither of the 2016 studies enrolled participants with multiple sclerosis, the problems faced by participants — social isolation, anxiety, and poor sleep — are common among those with MS. Qigong may present a low-cost, nonpharmaceutical way to help with these issues.
Adapting Qigong to MS
Holden says that for people with MS, he would teach “exercises to help bring healing energy to the spine,” aiming to “release stress, tension, trauma in and around the spine and the nervous system.” In practice, he says, “there would be lots of flowing, meditative kinds of movements.”
“If something doesn’t feel good,” says Holden, then you should modify it. “I have people sit down whenever they need to, and do the exercises from there,” he says, noting that “qigong is about no pain … It’s a whole skill of listening to the language of your body.”
Smith recommends that people with physical challenges do qigong while standing for as long as they’re able, since doing so will “strengthen your connection to the ground.” But, she notes, “I would make sure that there were chairs nearby, and that they could sit down and do that practice” when it becomes necessary.
Finding the Right Class
Holden recommends that people “try a class and see how it feels for them,” asking themselves a few questions to evaluate the experience, such as:
- How do I feel after class? Did I get a sense of relaxation, tranquility, inner peace after class, or throughout the class?
- Did the class address areas where I carry stress, tension, and tightness?
- Did I feel a sense of elevation, maybe even an awakening to this internal energy that a lot of people have never experienced?
Smith suggests that people should “look for somebody with compassion. You don’t want somebody whipping you into shape.” Once you find a class you like, she says, “I think a class twice a week is better than once a week,” since this helps maintain any development or healing.
But before you visit a class, Smith recommends trying a sitting practice shown in a video by her own instructor to get a sense of what qigong entails.
To find a qigong class, inquire at local tai chi or martial arts studios, as well as at Chinese medicine, holistic medicine, or integrative medicine centers. You may also be able to find free or low-cost classes at community centers, public libraries, and senior centers.
Both Holden and Smith recommend attending a class led by a teacher, but Holden notes that for people who can’t do this, following a video is a reasonable alternative.
However you get your qigong fix, says Smith, the important thing is “to just experience relaxed movement.”
“I think in the future,” she adds, “there are going to be more and more people who are practicing qigong, as people learn more about what it is and what it can do.”
Article source – Everyday Heath