July - August 1999
Living With CFIDS
healing and CFIDS
Taijiquan has helped me stay
improve my overall functioning.
Taijiquan has been part of my response
to CFIDS for the last three
years, and its impact has been both complex and profound.
Taijiquan (pronounced ti-zhee-kwan
and often referred to as tai chi) and its related Chinese system of exercises, qigong (pronounced chee-gong),
is a system of exercise and martial art designed to move energy internally. It has been my exercise regimen
during my illness, helping me stay flexible, improving my stamina, increasing my overall energy and improving
my functionality. While taijiquan is not an aerobic workout, it massages my heart and keeps the blood
and lymph flowing. Taijiquan provides a structure for my morning and a way of focusing my energy for the
day. In addition, taijiquan teaches me about balance, providing a set of metaphors that give insight into
my healing process, and opens the door to a rich literature of Chinese philosophy and medicine.
the time I went to my first taijiquan class, I was very sick. The 30-minute drive to class felt like my
major achievement of the day. The thought of standing for an hour doing some kind of exercise was beyond
my comprehension. However, taijiquan movements are slow and designed for internal energy flow rather than
for external display. In addition, my teacher, Dr. Jay Dunbar, director of the Magic Tortoise Taijiquan
School in Chapel Hill, N.C., helped me do about half of those early classes while sitting in a chair.
Even now, three years later, there are times I do part of the class sitting down. I found that taijiquan
did not present obstacles to be overcome; rather, it became a source of healing.
In my early
classes I learned a qigong set called the "five animal frolics." It focuses on moving energy internally,
making sure that all of the internal organs are nourished. Pairs of organs are related to specific animals,
colors and elements. For example, the stomach, which gives many of us problems, is linked to earth energy.
The monkey exercise mimes giving fruit and taking it back in the cycle of energy renewal that had been
missing in my life. My hands would reach out with the imaginary yellow fruit and always came back again
full of fruit offered by others. This was the lesson I had to learn: to replenish the energy I put out.
developed CFIDS in a classic manner: I was living an acutely unbalanced life. My diet included few natural,
unprocessed foods. My health care revolved around cycles of sinusitis and antibiotics. My work life was
constant high pressure with little vacation time and few weekends or evenings off. I was always pushing
myself to do more and, of course, to do it all perfectly. My personal life was wrapped around work. Energy
was constantly flowing out, while little was flowing back in. Whenever I thought about changing I felt
trapped by my own expectations of myself. From those first qigong classes I began to learn about taking
energy in and creating a renewing cycle to support my functioning and healing.
When I started
taijiquan long form I thought, "I can't remember what day of the week it is, how will I remember 108 steps
of the long form?" However, instruction started very simply, with learning to shift my weight from the
center to the right leg, back to the center, to the left leg, and back to the center again. In taijiquan,
one of the sources of external energy is the earth; feet are planted so that the energy travels up the
legs to the torso, which moves the arms and hands. I loved the feeling of sinking onto one leg, then the
other, allowing the earth to share the burden of holding my body. I also improved my posture, which allowed
my skeleton to do its job better. In response, my head and neck pain decreased. I was learning about balance
in the most concrete way; if I lost my balance, I would start to fall over. Immediate feedback!
teaches me to feel physical balance, as I can feel my weight shift from one side to the other, through
the center. This helped me realize that I can feel balance in other arenas as well. When I become emotionally
unbalanced, I can feel my head ache; when I start to take on too many commitments, my stomach clenches;
when I don't eat well, I feel weak and achy. When I pay attention and respond to these messages from my
body, I feel better. The taijiquan literature teaches me that this way has been traveled before:
Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
everything will fall into place.
From Tao te Ching, #23
by S. Mitchell
Balance is not a cognitive abstraction
to be figured out analytically. It doesn't come from dietary guidelines, nutritional information tables,
biochemical analyses of liver functioning, bottles of vitamins and supplements, date books and schedules
or exercise regimens. Balance is unique for each of us, and we can only know it by paying attention and
trusting what we learn.
Taijiquan heals by its nature. For example, as I go through the choreography
of the long form, I practice "open" and "close," a cycle of inviting the energy into my body and then
relaxing. As I feel the energy flow into my body my stamina increases and my overall energy level slowly
builds. Now I am learning to open to the energy that surrounds me all the time, not just when I'm practicing
Taijiquan also gives me a set of metaphors that are tools for thinking about my
healing. They are rooted in my taijiquan practice but move beyond it into the rest of my life. For example,
when you move your weight from one leg to the other, the first leg becomes "empty," without weight, but
is still necessary for balance. So it holds a place, but without weight.
When I have a day
of turgid brain fog, one of those days in which I sit for hours, unable to remember if I ate and losing
track of time, I call it an "empty leg" day. I used to call them "lost days," but now I understand that
they are holding a place; they are necessary for balance, even though they carry no weight of their own.
The weight is on the other days when I am functioning more in the social world. When I come to a time
when I need to be still and re-balance, I get an "empty leg" day. If I fight it, I feel worse. If I relax
into it, I feel stronger.
I am still doing everything I can to get well-acupuncture,
Chinese herbs, some supplements and vitamins, careful nutrition, visualization
and some Western medicines. But I've learned that the path to wellness is not
power and will. The route requires balance, love, renewal, listening to my body
and trusting my inner knowledge. Much of this I learn through taijiquan.
Hanna Fingeret lives in Raleigh,
N.C. She was diagnosed with
CFIDS in 1994.