‘Embodied Learning and Qi Gong’:
Integrating the Body in Graduate Education
Olga Oulanova, Isaac Stein, Aanchal Rai, Maya Hammer, Patricia A. Poulin
For about ten years, beginning in 1990, I took over one of my colleague’s courses
entitled, ‘Health, illness and knowledge of the body: Education and self-learning processes.’ My
interest in this course was a result of my own illness and my healing experience through the
years with alternative medicinal systems, notably Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Although I have always believed that the body and mind are intimately linked (how else could
we explain our existence?), my experience with TCM led me to raise fundamental questions
about the Euro-American conceptual system, beginning from Descartes, which glorifies the
superiority of the intellect (simplistically equated with the mind) and denigrates, or at least
renders less central, the body and spirit. In the interim years, in addition to incorporating TCM
into my health regime, I also took up the practice of Tai Ji Juan, and, more generally, Qi Gong.
Both Qi Gong and Tai Ji are forms of meditative and martial arts practice that involve the mind,
body and breath – what is commonly known as the internal martial arts. These practices led me
to inquire more deeply into their philosophical roots, which also constitute the theoretical
foundation of TCM. As I became conversant in Chinese medical theories, Tai Ji and Qi Gong
practice, I began to experiment with bringing them into my teaching in a graduate institution in
the university setting. Around 2000, I renamed the course on health and illness as ‘Embodied
learning and Qi Gong’ to reflect the development of my thinking, teaching, and practice, and to
connect the different strands of my scholarship.
This chapter is based on a workshop I offered at the 4th Critical Multicultural Counselling
and Psychotherapy Conference. The workshop was divided into three parts: Part I discussed the
notion of embodied learning and my starting point; Part II explained what Qi Gong is, and
discussed briefly the principles of this ancient form of exercise; and Part III involved doing Qi
Gong exercises with the participants, to give them a sense of how this practice works. Obviously,
I cannot reproduce the last segment of the workshop in text. However, I can at least explain, in
more depth in this chapter, what I considered embodied learning and how I integrate Qi Gong in
a graduate program in education.
What constitutes embodied learning in graduate education?
My work on embodied learning asks a basic question: “How do the oppressor and
oppressed co-participate in acts of oppression?” This question came out of my theorizing of
gender, race, and class as fundamental relations of inequality in our society, and my activism in
the feminist and anti-racism movements. It is based on the recognition that even though many of
us attempt to do anti-oppression education and work toward change, we reproduce patterns of
behaviour that perpetuate oppression and marginality. To explore this question, I rely on Franz
Fanon’s (1963, 1967) analysis of the psychology of the colonized, and Antonio Gramsci’s (1971)
notions of hegemony and common sense. In understanding how colonization worked, Fanon
drew attention to how it is internalized by the colonized, so that she adopts the ideas and
behaviour of the colonizer, and acts and regulates herself according to the norms of colonial
society. Similarly, Gramsci uses the term ‘hegemony’ to understand how ruling ideas are shared
by the dominant and working classes. He asserts that once a ruling idea becomes hegemonic, it
becomes common sense and taken for granted; that is, these ideas and ways of doing things are
not to be questioned. Using insights from Fanon, Gramsci, and Foucault, we can see how
dominant and subordinate power relations are played out interactionally in ‘normal’ and ‘natural’
ways. Feminists have drawn attention to how patriarchy works in practice: Men are listened to
when they speak; women and minorities are not .
My notion of embodied learning, which I am now calling an ‘integrative embodied antiracist
feminist approach,’ builds on a critique of Western liberal and critical education, which
privileges the mind over the body and spirit in educational pursuit. It disrupts the bifurcation of
body and mind in pedagogical endeavours in higher education. It seeks to help us develop the
capacity not only for critical reasoning, but also for dispassionate observation, in order to alter
actions and patterns of behaviour that contribute to the reproduction of dominant-subordinate
relations. In short, an integrative embodied anti-racist feminist approach – embodied learning –
is an attempt to close the gap between progressive theory and practice.
Embodied learning consists of at least three core presuppositions that I have described
elsewhere (see Ng, 2004 for details). These are, first, an explicit acknowledgement that we are
all gendered, racialized, and differently constructed subjects who do not participate as equals in
interactional settings. This approach to embodied learning therefore recognizes that unequal
power relations permeate all social interactions, and that these encounters, positive and negative,
have an impact on our mind, body, and spirit simultaneously. In other words, intellectual and
social encounters are never neutral; they do not reside only in people’s minds. They are exercised
through confrontations of bodies, which are differently inscribed. Power play is enacted and
absorbed by people physically as they assert or challenge authority, and therefore the marks of
such confrontations are stored in the body. The assumption and standard practice in education
processes, which only or predominantly focuses on the intellect and on cognition, to the
exclusion of other dimensions of human existence is, therefore, a fallacy.
Following from this premise, the second presupposition of my approach to embodied
learning is that, in addition to developing critical analysis intellectually, we need to disrupt
common sense ideas and practices, and reflect on how we ourselves participate in social
encounters by adopting the dominant and normalized ways of being. Based on my own practice
of Tai Ji Juan and Qi Gong, I suggest that these two exercise forms, especially Qi Gong, which
involves the body, mind, and spirit simultaneously, are tools that lend themselves to this
reflection. Thus, in addition to the standard format of university teaching (which usually involves
lectures, readings, audio-visual materials, and small group discussions, for example), ‘Embodied
learning and Qi Gong’ devotes a third of class time to the practice of Qi Gong and meditation.
As well, students are asked to keep a journal that consists of two components. First is a summary
and reflections on the readings, lectures, and other materials. The second component is their
reactions to and reflections on the Qi Gong exercises. They are asked to assess and reflect on the
textual and other materials using insights they develop from the Qi Gong exercises, if any.
The purpose of using the three modalities (readings, lectures, video and discussions,
journalling and Qi Gong / meditation) together is that they complement each other in stimulating
the development of thought, insight, and emotional intelligence, so that class participants can
develop and enhance their awareness of the ideologies they embody, as well as the (possible)
disjuncture between theory and practice. The cultivation of mindfulness is a central aspect of the
course. I will go more deeply into the foundations of Chinese medical theory to illustrate how Qi
Gong is conducive to mindfulness in the next sections.
The third presupposition of ‘Embodied learning and Qi Gong’ is that eliminating sexism,
racism, and other forms of oppression requires that we reflect on how we unwittingly participate
in courses of action that implicate us in the perpetuation of acts of oppression. This reflection
must be situated in a larger collective vision of an alternative social arrangement to the one we
have at present. Thus, an embodied integrative anti-racist feminism goes beyond simple
reflection. It is a praxis – the complete integration of theory and practice. Moving from
individual awareness to social change is an uneasy process, because it means that we not only
have to change our individual behaviour and cultivate integrity in our own praxis, but we also
have to bring our awareness and behaviour to bear on the larger societal structures. This is
certainly one of the most challenging aspects of the course.
As most writers in the field of transformative learning postulate, in order to transform the
world, we have to transform ourselves (e.g., Mezirow, 1990; O’Sullivan, 1999). Thus, I see
embodied learning as a form of transformative learning (Ng, 2005). It goes beyond inserting
ourselves into existing social and institutional arrangements and securing our positions within
these arrangements; it requires that we envision a society free of oppression and that we change
both ourselves and society in order to achieve this vision.
Using Qi Gong to undo the body-mind binary
This section of the chapter delves more deeply into Chinese medical theory and Qi Gong
to illustrate how I use them to disrupt the mind and body-spirit divide in our thinking. I hope to
show that Qi Gong provides a vehicle, albeit not the only one, for reflection and the development
of insights – the precursor to changing patterns of behaviours or habits.
Chinese medical theory, or TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is based on the central
Taoist principle of unity of opposites – Yin and Yang. According to Chinese creation myth the
universe was an undifferentiated whole in the beginning. Out of this emerged Yin-Yang: The
world in its infinite forms. In both Taoism and TCM, Yin-Yang is a symbolic representation of
universal process (including health in the latter case) that portrays a changing rather than static
The important thing to understand is that the two opposite states are not mutually
exclusive or independent of each other. They are mutually dependent, and they change into each
other. Therefore extreme Yang becomes Yin and vice versa. Health is seen to be the balance of
Yin-Yang aspects of the body, and disease is the imbalance between these aspects. This is a form
of dialectical thinking radically different from the causal linear thinking and logic of allopathy
and positivist science. The body in TCM is seen to be a dynamic interaction of Yin and Yang; it
is constantly changing and fluctuating (Kaptchuk, 2000).
Proceeding from this fundamental understanding of the nature of Yin-Yang and health as
balance, TCM views illness not so much in terms of discrete diseases but in terms of patterns of
disharmony. Thus, TCM goes on to outline eight guiding principles for determining these
patterns of disharmony. According to Beinfield and Korngold (1991), the eight principles are
four sets of polar categories that distinguish between and interpret the data gathered by
examination. These are: Yin-Yang, cold-heat, deficiency-excess, interior-exterior. Again, these
are not mutually exclusive, but can co-exist in a person.
A major difference between biomedicine and TCM theory is the way in which the body is
conceptualized. The Chinese body has no Western anatomical correspondence. For example,
Chinese medical theory does not have the concept of a nervous system, yet it can treat
neurological disorders. It does not perceive an endocrine system, yet it is capable of correcting
what allopathy calls endocrine disorders. Although TCM language makes reference to what the
West recognizes as organs, such as lungs, liver, stomach, and so on, these are not conceptualized
as discrete physical structures and entities located in specific areas within the body (see
Kaptchuk, 2000). Rather, the term ‘organs’ is used to identify the functions associated with them.
Furthermore, TCM does not make a distinction between physical functions and the emotional
and spiritual dimensions governed by the ‘organ’ in question. It does not only describe an organ
in terms of its physiological processes and functions, but also in terms of its orb, that is, its
sphere of influence (Beinfield & Kornfold, 1991).
For example, in TCM the Spleen is the primary organ of digestion. It extracts the
nutrients from food digested by the stomach and transforms them into what will become ‘Qi’ and
‘Blood.’ A way of expressing this is that the Spleen is responsible for making Blood, whereas the
Liver is responsible for storing and spreading Blood. As such, the Spleen is responsible for
transformation, transmutation, and transportation, and these functions apply to physical as well
as mental and emotional processes. At the somatic level, ‘weakness’ in the Spleen means that
food cannot be transformed properly into nutrients that nourish the body. At the emotional and
psycho-spiritual level, a weak Spleen affects our awareness of possibilities and disables us from
transforming possibilities into appropriate courses of action, leading to worry and confusion.
Ultimately, it affects our trustworthiness and dependability (Kapchuk, 2000, p. 58-66).
The body, then, is not conceptualized in terms of distinct parts and components, but in
terms of energetics or energy flow (Qi). Qi, a fundamental concept in TCM and Chinese
thinking, although frequently translated as ‘energy’ or ‘vital energy,’ has no precise conceptual
correspondence in the West. Qi is what animates life. Thus, while there is Qi, there is life; when
there is no Qi, life ceases. It is both material and immaterial. Qi is present in the universe, in the
air we breathe, and in the breaths we take. It is the quality we share with all things, thus
connecting the macrocosm with the microcosm. Qi flows in the body along lines of energy flow
called meridians or organ networks. Another way of conceptualizing disease is that it arises
when Qi is not flowing smoothly, leading to blockage and stagnation, which, if persistent, will
lead to disease (that is, pathological changes in the body). Thus, an important part of the healing
process is to unblock and facilitate the free flowing of Qi. Different therapies (massage,
acupuncture, and herbology) are aimed at promoting the smooth flow of Qi and rebalancing
Together with these notions of health and the body, the Chinese have developed exercise
forms called Qi Gong (or Chi Kung, depending on the system of translation used). These
exercises have been around for at least 2,000 years (some literature dates Qi Gong to 5,000 years
of history). Briefly, they are exercises aimed at regulating the breath, the mind, and the body
simultaneously. There are literally thousands of forms of Qi Gong, from sitting postures, similar
to what the West recognizes as meditation, to Tai Ji Juan, which, at its most advanced, is a form
of martial art aimed at honing the body-mind to respond to external attack without force. Indeed,
Qi Gong is a recommended exercise form in TCM and is taught widely as a healing art in China
Practitioners of Qi Gong believe that by disciplining, activating, and regulating the
normally automatic, involuntary way of breathing, they are able to regulate and alter other
functions of the body such as heartbeat, blood flow, and other physical and emotional functions.
Thus, Qi Gong is not simply a physical exercise. Nancy Zi, a professional vocal soloist who
studies Qi Gong to enhance her singing in classical Western opera, puts it concisely:
The practice of chi kung...encompasses the ancient Chinese understanding of disciplined
breathing as a means of acquiring total control over body and mind. It gives us
physiological and psychological balance and the balance of yin and yang... (Zi, 1986).
Thus, Qi Gong is based on the same principles as TCM; they are complementary.
I use and teach Qi Gong exercises as a way of integrating the body-mind, not only in
theory, but also in practice. For example, I start each ‘Embodied learning and Qi Gong’ class
with gentle stretching and breathing. The purpose is to direct the students’ attention to the parts
of their bodies that are normally ignored in carrying out intellectual activities (such as reading
and discussion). Then I introduce some simple Qi Gong exercises that activate most major
meridians (lines and systems of circulation of energy in the body), and ask students for feedback
regarding how they feel. I also encourage them to record their sensations and reactions in the
notebook and health journal and to observe physical and emotional changes over time as they
practice the exercises. Here is an entry from a student's journal:
We moved our arms, as if holding a big balloon, until we found the position that was
conducive to E[nergy] flow. My arms didn't make it far from my sides and I could feel a
tingling sensation between my arms & body. There was a strange feeling of a magnetic
field that kept my arms from moving further out & preventing them from falling back
towards my body. We kept that position for a while & allowed the chi to flow and warm
our arms, hands.
I talk about acupuncture as a treatment modality in TCM, the anatomical location of
selected acupuncture points and their functions, and show students how to find these points on
their bodies in relation to the Qi Gong exercises. (The actual bodily discovery of an acupuncture
point, which appears so theoretical and abstract, is an ‘aha!’ moment for most students.) Through
this kind of experiential learning, students obtain a different view of the body and are encouraged
to acknowledge and value their physical and emotional experiences in addition to their
intellectual experience. Furthermore, they are asked to use their experiences performing the
exercises to reflect on the readings and discussions: Do the theories and conceptions of the body
they read about coincide with their own bodily (including psychic and emotional) experience?
How may these theories and conceptions inform their experience, and vice versa? How may we
use embodied learning to close the body-mind divide? And how may we apply embodied
learning to the personal and professional spheres of our lives?
Qi Gong is frequently promoted in terms of its health benefits. I maintain that as an
exercise form, indeed as a discipline that involves the body, mind, and spirit, its application and
benefits go beyond the enhancement of physical well-being. The slow, even breath, coordinated
with mental concentration and gentle physical movements, constitutes a form of moving
meditation that facilitates and nurtures mindfulness.
In Full catastrophe living, Jon Kabat-Zinn (1996) defines mindfulness as ‘the complete
“owning” of each moment of your experience, good, bad or ugly’ (p. 11). Departing from this
starting point, I see mindfulness as the human capacity to encounter our external environment, be
it an interaction with an individual or a group or an encounter with social institutions, with full
alertness, awareness, clarity, and intention. Mindfulness enables us to see the world and our inner
processes with non-attachment; that is, without judgment. This contrasts with detachment, which
is a form of disengagement. In Buddhist thought, non-attachment indicates a person’s ability to
observe what is going on around her with empathy, compassion, and understanding, rather than
to react automatically, and at times thoughtlessly. Mindfulness therefore gives an individual the
capacity to respond strategically, with clarity, to situations, which is what I consider to be the
basis of change, individually or collectively.
I am using Qi Gong as a form of embodied learning to promote and cultivate body-mind
integration and mindfulness mainly in anti-oppression and transformative pedagogy. I believe
that Qi Gong as a form of mindfulness training can be adapted to clinical settings. By sharing my
experience of teaching embodied learning in a graduate program of adult education, I hope that I
am making a small contribution to new developments in clinical psychology and practice.
About the Author
Roxana Ng is a faculty member at the Department of Adult Education and Counselling
Psychology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She has delivered
workshops and taught about using Qi Gong as a form of embodied learning.
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