For this Self-Help, we wriggled on the floor, waved around tiger-claw fists and pinned down fleeting moments of inner peace with some qigong and qigong dance classes led by Marceau Chenault, a French qigong instructor and professional dancer who co-founded the qi dance form in Paris. Marceau now lives in Shanghai and holds lessons at the Qigong Institut in Xuhui (Mondays, 2-4pm), the Center for Spiritual Living in Tianzifang (Mondays 7-9pm) and the Mahota Health Management Center in Changning (Thursdays 6-9pm).
I tried out both his straight qigong class, and the dance version and, while I did learn some new stuff from his traditional classes, it was the qi dance that was more worthy of a story — think a freeform, up-tempo version of qigong that involves dancing with fellow participants.
What you need
First and foremost: an open mind. Seriously. The majority of the class involves freestyle dancing based on the foundational movements and postures of traditional qigong. There will be people pirouetting around you with their eyes closed. You will be prompted to do things you may have never considered doing before. Among some firsts I experienced with Marceau were "letting the energy of my elbows lead me" and "connecting with the energy of the floor".
Apart from an open mind, you just need loose, comfortable clothing and a bottle of water.
If there are enough newcomers in the class, Marceau will provide an introductory explanation of qigong as he leads the class through 15 minutes or so of warm-up exercises. During this time, we did some basic qigong stretches and worked on establishing a steady breathing pattern.
The point of qigong exercises is to maintain a positive and balanced qi flow throughout the body. Picture the energy within your body as if it's smoke or water, swirling around, capable of condensing and getting jammed, dissipating in certain spots, or even diminishing altogether. Such disruptions to your qi are believed to be the root causes of many health problems, such as a weakened immune system or the poor blood circulation that keeps your lady friend's feet stone-cold even during the summer months.
Qigong movements are typically kept slow and steady. As anyone will know who's scurried through parks full of elderly folks sedately slicing through the morning dew, the exercises doesn't seem to demand much more than some simple steps and small sweeps of the arms. But there really is a lot more going on than that.
The warm-up actually required a fair amount of coordination and concentration. Meditation is an all-important component of qigong, so getting the whole exercise right involves reaching a state of mental clarity and composure. You're supposed to use this extra mind-space to visualize the movement of qi through specific parts of the body, applying the calm, measured breathing and fluid body movements of qigong to encourage that positive flow. As I did this, I felt pretty peaceful, and actually had some pleasant tingling sensations of warmth in areas I’d concentrated on charging with a qi boost.
Then, a few drawn-out wails of the erhu on the soundsystem segued into a dance remix of "Set Fire to the Rain”. At this point, Marceau encouraged everyone to move out of our circle formation and dance about the room. I was told to surrender to my inner energy: let it do its thing, take me around the room as my body followed the natural course of all this whirly energy.
Sounds an awful lot like interpretive dancing? Yeah, well, that's because it is. With qi dance, there are no formal dance steps, there aren’t even any actual techniques to learn. Marceau will simply single out a specific body part — hands, neck, knees — which you then try to channel your energy through as you prance around the room.
Childish as I am, I did let out a few giggles as I made figures of eight with my elbows and played the zenned-out ballerina amongst this small crowd of frolicking qigong enthusiasts. But, just like my first time at yoga, once I let go of my reservations and got swept up in the gusto of the group, it became a genuinely enjoyable experience.
In the last 10 minutes of the class, Marceau led us back to a calmer meditative state and we did a synchronized group taichi walk before calling it a night.
Who goes in for this
Chicks. Why mince words? Just chicks. Mostly French; some American. One class included a Spanish flamenco dancer whose moves effectively convinced me to shelve my primitive pirouettes. One class we went to also had a lone male participant, which was certainly a welcome addition to all the estrogen whizzing about, but, yeah, mainly chicks.
How much of your life will this take up
However much you want it to take. You may want to focus just on traditional qigong techniques (1.5-2 hours a class), or you may want to take both qigong and qi dance on the same night (3 hours in all). We opted for the middle ground at the Tianzifang location, which fuses the two courses into a 2-hour session. Scroll down to the end for a link to Marceau’s current class schedule. To really feel the benefits of qigong, however, you'd definitely need to put in extra time to self-train yourself in meditation and practice what you learn from Marceau's courses throughout the rest of the week.
How much does it cost
80rmb for an introductory class, then 150rmb per class after that. Or you can opt for a package of 10 classes for 1300rmb.
Depending on how much you're willing to let go and just let your elbows or knees take the lead, you can definitely work up a bit of a sweat with qi dance. The meditation portion of each session could also be an excellent de-stressor.
And, in the long run, qigong exercises done properly and regularly support a sense of wellbeing that goes beyond the physical, helping you to attain a higher sense of self-awareness through a stronger connection between mind and body. Or, if you're a miserable curmudgeon and you like yourself that way, do it for the increased flexibility and improved blood circulation.
This won't be intensive enough to become your primary workout. Qigong doesn't generally target specific muscle groups that will tone and tighten. So even with qi dance, which is already a more vigorous form of the exercise, you can't reasonably expect to undergo any substantial or visual changes in appearance. It's more about staying limber, keeping joints strong yet flexible, and working out the intangibles of qi and mental awareness.
For a listing of where these classes take place, click
here, here and here. For more details about Marceau's complete class offerings, and a timetable, visit the Qi Dance website here.