‘Embodied Learning and Qi Gong’:

Integrating the Body in Graduate Education

Roxana Ng



from Within and Beyond Borders: Critical Multicultural Counselling in Practice, edited by

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

(Cohen, 1997).


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?


Final comments

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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