Kenneth S. Cohen — who looks like your favorite Uncle Shelly — with a ponytail, warm smile and pink cheeks, is one of the most revered teachers of qi gong ("chee-gong") in the world.
Cohen's other things, too — a native healer, tea expert, former martial arts champion, author of more than 200 scholarly articles — but he knows Chinese energy healing like the back of his hand, which he cheerfully explains can be placed near your sacrum to direct revitalizing qi to your kidneys, along your spine and any place your body feels tight, congested or uncomfortable.
Don't worry if you don't understand. You will in a minute, when you get a little taste of Cohen's teachings, and you'll be better off for it, Dear Readers, because — how can I put this? — qi gong is a kind of magic trick.
It's secret knowledge from ancient China that anyone can learn, and once you do, and you practice it — even 10-20 minutes a day — you can use it to move your qi so your body can do what it's designed to do: heal itself. Qi gong restores your body to balance, releases tension and awakens your energy channels.
Who wants sleepy energy channels? Not me. I'm into vitality, which is one of 10 reasons I signed up for Cohen's five-day workshop last March at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Esalen, now 53 years young, is one of my favorite places in the world to bliss out, get a massage and explore the mystery and grace of the body-mind connection.
I had no connection to Cohen, other than adoring his groundbreaking book "The Way of Qigong: The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing." I'd also heard from a mutual friend that Cohen is the qi gong master's master, fluent in Chinese. Plus, he tells stories like a Borscht Belt comic.
Cohen began qi gong in 1968 and within a few years was also training to be a song carrier by the Seneca Wolf Clan Teaching Lodge of New York State (I'm not making this up). He now heads the prestigious Qigong Research and Practice Center in Nederland, Colorado, where he lives, deep in nature.
Summarizing his workshop is like trying to wrap your arms around the earth, which happens to be one of many visualizations you use when you're learning qi gong, but I'm happy to give it a go because it is a phenomenal experience — intense, inspiring, humbling — and now I want everyone I know to take his classes or visit KenCohen.com and go shopping for his books and DVDs.
WHAT IS QI GONG? "Qi means life energy," says Cohen, and "gong" refers to skill, so "qi gong is the skill of working with your life energy."
Qi is an invisible, subtle, but quantifiable force in your body. We know it exists, he says, the same way we know sunlight and wind exist. There are more than 4,000 studies linking good qi to good health, notes Cohen, and more than 7,000 styles of qi gong going back 5,000 years.
Tai chi is one very popular form of qi gong, but the one Cohen focused on for this workshop is the Yi Quan ("ee-tschwen") system, as developed by Master Wang Xiangzhai (you're on your own).
All styles involve gathering and moving qi to improve health, says Cohen, but Yi Quan emphasizes mindfulness.
"Master Wong's style also helps you develop peace, tranquility and an awareness of the universe," Cohen explains. Not bad for something that involves an amazing amount of standing still.
ACTION IN STILLNESS. In qi gong, your body may appear to be motionless — knees slightly bent, relaxed shoulders, eyes level and gazing softly into the distance — but internally, you're working it.
You're touching parts of your body with your mind. You're sensing where tension is and releasing it. You're directing energy to areas of stagnation.
"Relaxation is a matter of effortlessness with intent," writes Cohen. "Developing large muscles requires effort; cultivating relaxation requires letting go."
Ahhh ... letting go. My fellow Cohen-sians and I spent hours every day hearing variations on that theme, sometimes in Chinese, and here's my headline: Once you let go of trying, everything gets easier.
NO EXCUSES. Anyone of any size, weight, level of fitness or mobility can do qi gong. The only negative side effect is bugging everyone you know to try it.
ENERGY EXPRESS-O! YES! I FELT IT! "As the internal energy comes into balance, health improves and the mind becomes tranquil." — Ken Cohen
Marilynn Preston — healthy lifestyle coach and Emmy-winning producer — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, marilynnpreston.com, and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to [email protected] She also produces EnExTV, a digital reincarnation of her award-winning TV series about sports, fitness and adventure, for kids of all ages, at youtube.com/EnExTV and facebook.com/EnExTV. To find out more about Preston and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.