GOING WITH THE FLOW OF QI GONG
TRAVIS USINGER Explains What It Is, How to Pronounce It, and What It Can Do For You
By Danny Fields
“It’s about increasing your breathing capacity to the point where air becomes food,” Iggy Pop said to The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead about the practice of Qi Gong, explaining how he kept his teenage torso at the age of 63. In a YouTube video, Iggy elaborated: “It starts my motor, gives me energy, and makes me calm at the same time.”
Iggy was once again gaining my attention. Having dabbled in various aspects of yoga for many years, I was intrigued by Qi Gong, and did a YouTube search. The results were numerous and bewildering. There were grandmasters, The Five Animals, promises of superhuman strength, musical meditations, vocalizing practices, lots of levels, various varieties, one ancient wise man who could start fires by pointing his finger at the fuel, and even an “Energie Bubble Demonstration.”
Once again the mysterious East was overwhelming me. That is, until I came across “Qi Gong For Cold Hands,” which sounded practical, friendly, and non-cosmic.
“Hello, I’m Travis,” said an extremely pleasant-looking, very young man, in a voice that sounded like it really wanted to help, and a follow-along-with-me fifteen minutes that brought the promise home. An instant fan, I fired up an e-mail friendship, and found Travis in Thailand studying with monks, but soon he was home in the Rockies, and later on his way to New York City for the first time in his life, accompanying his partner, who’s a veterinarian, on a business trip. Evenings for the two were vegan dinners and Broadway shows, mornings were sampling local yoga and Qi Gong classes, but Travis’ afternoons were free, and so myself and PMc Magazine decided to interview this fascinating young man.
Now 23, Travis Usinger was born in California, and raised in Hawaii. When he was ten, his family moved back to California, where his father is a lighting engineer, and designs custom equipment for musicians on the road; Travis’ mother works in his dad’s business. Travis studied video production in college (he’s something of a tekkie), but decided he wanted to live close to nature.
We’ll join him talking about his career moves at that point:
Danny Fields: What did you do that took you from video production to teaching Qi Gong, yoga and meditation?
Travis Usinger: I loved the process of editing videos, and seeing the final picture come together, but I found that I really didn’t want to live in a big city like Los Angeles working at a computer all day. I wanted to live surrounded by nature. I did a weekend massage retreat at Esalen on the Big Sur coast, and was fascinated by learning how touch can deeply affect our emotional, physical, and psychological well-being. I decided to go to massage school that summer, and as part of the training we practiced Qi Gong every day to prepare for giving massage. I had practiced yoga before, but Qi Gong was different.
DF: What is Qi Gong?
TU: Qi Gong translates, from Mandarin Chinese, to “working with the energy of the body.” There is no literal translation of what this “energy” or “Qi” is, but we can see its effects. With an abundance of Qi in our body we feel energized, awake, excited, and determined. With a lack of Qi we might feel lazy and exhausted. The practice of Qi Gong works with the energy of the body, so that we are relaxed yet energized, contented yet determined.
DF: The “Chi” in “Tai Chi” is also an energy, or a force, I’m told. That and “Qi” are both pronounced like “chee,” so which is preferred?
TU: There are two usual ways of spelling the Chinese characters in English, one is as “Chi Kung,” the other is “Qi Gong.” I use Qi Gong because that is how my teachers have written it.
DF: The practice of Tai Chi seems kind of familiar, people do it in parks in small groups, and we see it in travelogues showing street-corners in China with large groups of all ages doing Tai Chi—briefly, what’s the difference?
TU: Tai Chi is a martial/medical form of Qi Gong. It consists of multiple Qi Gong movements that are brought together into a continuous flow that goes from one movement to the next. Learning a Tai Chi form can take months of daily practice, and is more mentally demanding than learning Qi Gong.
In Qi Gong we would practice similar movements as a Tai Chi class, but the individual movements are repeated many times, making it easier to learn and to get into a calm state, instead of having to memorize a set sequence of movements.
DF: Just looking over the YouTube choices for Qi Gong, I see spiritual exercises, poetic Qi Gong, self-healing, healing others, the tao of Qi Gong, standing, seated, vocalized, silent, it’s a big menu. What is your “version,” besides your famous “Qi Gong For Cold Hands”?
TU: With my style of Qi Gong we start by using shaking, swinging, and gentle knocking techniques to release blockages of “stuck” Qi or energy. We continue with calming flowing exercises to encourage the flow of balanced energy. This way the practice will calm the do-it-all, eager and hyper-active types of people, and it will excite and energize people who feel lazy, exhausted, depleted.
Combining movement and breathing, the practice increases one’s feeling of physical and emotional balance, and the sense of that increase brings an awareness of power, certainty, and confidence.
When the Qi, or energy, is flowing in a steady, balanced way our body functions well and we feel good. When we have congestion in this flow of energy we feel pain, discomfort, or tightness. With Qi Gong we work on moving this stuck energy, and then cultivating a healthy balanced flow throughout the entire system.
DF: One more distinction: how is Qi Gong different from yoga, which you teach as well? Yoga is so huge now, although there has been some controversy lately about injuries—still, everyone thinks they know what yoga is.
TU: Originally, yoga was intended to make it easier to meditate, to sit in a cross-legged position and meditate for hours on end. It’s generally taught now as a group of physical poses achieved by strengthening and stretching the muscles, ligaments and tendons. I know there has been some controversy about possible injuries in Yoga. Some people are focusing too much on inversions, like doing shoulder-stands and head-stands, which are spectacular, but risky if someone is not physically ready; you do not want to take a chance of doing something harmful to your upper spine or neck.
But Qi Gong is practiced in a very safe way. My class is done completely standing, with the use of a chair for seniors, and the flowing movements are fluid and soft. Some of the warm-ups include stretching similar to yoga, but there are no inversions or poses that would tie you into a pretzel.
DF: When I took yoga classes, and I know this is wrong, but I always felt competitive. The person next to me is doing a perfect bow, and I’m flopping around and feeling like a loser. Then I pull off a plow, and I feel superior to some “clod” who’s tumbling and toppling. I know both attitudes are wrong, but people do check themselves out in comparison to others.
TU: When you see a teacher demonstrate a posture, or see it illustrated in a book, you are seeing that posture perfected, and you tend to measure yourself against that, which can get you in a competitive frame of mind; it can also cause you to feel over-confident, or somehow inferior on the other hand. Whenever there is an ideal in front of our eyes, we strive for it, it’s human to do that. But, that ideal is attained, if it even ever is, only after a great deal of time and practice. Yoga should be about the person’s own seeking the ideal, rather than achieving a model of perfection—enjoying each moment of the journey even if you never achieve that “perfect” pose.
Qi Gong really can’t be about competition; there’s no “attaining” of a perfect pose. The movements are fairly simple, and while it’s possible to get frustrated because you can’t “perform” the movement as fluidly or “perfectly” as the teacher or the person next to you, it really doesn’t matter, because the movements are only helping to guide the energy we have within ourselves.
When we direct our attention outside, by comparing ourselves to other people, we lose the connection with our own energy, and are no longer practicing Qi Gong.
I recognize this competitive nature and I try to disarm it at the beginning of the class by explaining that there is no real “right” way to do any of the movements. It’s all an exploration of how you feel when you slow down, breathe, and move with mindfulness. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t able to do the movement the same exact way as the teacher or the student next to you because your body is different and you’ll always move in a different way.
DF: When I first saw your YouTube videos, I was so impressed with your posture. You seemed “lifted” and grounded at the same time, not stiff or military, but naturally poised. It made me feel so…slumped, I guess that’s the word. Is there a simple secret to good posture?
TU: It’s not a secret. You know, when we are at the computer, for example, we will collapse forward with our head as we stare into the screen. This is easier said than done, but lifting the head back is one of the best ways to improve your posture. In Qi Gong we use the visualization of being lifted from the top of the head, and the rest of the spine is relaxing as it is drawn downwards by gravity. This can be difficult to experience at first, so I recommend standing with your back against a wall, and then lifting up from the top of the head and relaxing the shoulders, allowing gravity to get the rest of the spine aligned.
DF: If people want to participate in your teachings, what do they do?
TU: I have a website at TravisDharma.com with a few Qi Gong videos. At that site you can sign up for my newsletter, where you get another free Qi Gong video that focuses on self-healing. With the newsletter you’ll be updated every other week with new content that I create and with special offers for services such as private Qi Gong videos and custom-guided meditations. I also have another website dedicated to helping people get better sleep through Qi Gong and yoga at SleepYogi.com.
Travis Usinger is a Qi Gong enthusiast and instructor.
Written by Danny Fields
Photography by Christophe Tedjasukmana
Design by Marie Havens
Travis Usinger, NYC, 2012, Photography by Christophe Tedjasukmana