In China, people look forward to retirement as a time when they will have the freedom to spend time with friends and do all the things they enjoy most. Naturally, from this perspective, it would make sense to prolong life after retirement, and anything that helps this will naturally find its way into the daily routine of China’s elderly retirees.
When I visited the Chinese capital, Beijing, in 2003, I was amazed at the number of older people in the parks early every morning, enjoying informal group activities that included ballroom dancing, knitting, calligraphy, musical performances and practices, tai chi, and a series of other lesser known martial arts, and… walking.
However, this was walking with a difference. They walked BACKWARDS. I asked an old man to explain this to me. He told me that these people were ‘returning to their youth’. He wasn’t entirely satisfied with his answer, but his English was limited and my Mandarin was non-existent, so I didn’t investigate the matter further at that time.
Some time later, he was working on a movie with a qigong master from Hong Kong. I asked him about walking backwards and found his answer much more illuminating. He noted that “when you walk forward, you may be thinking about other things: the shopping list, something that happened in your past, worries about the future, you’re not really there in your body. When you walk backwards, you have to be there.” , or else you’ll fall.” He then added an important point that has stuck in my mind ever since. It’s the hidden key that is so easily overlooked.
“Every second that you spend fully present in your body is healing you.”
This sounds too simple. Surely, if that were the case, healing would be much easier than it is. Well, the fact is that the body is constantly healing, restoring and rebuilding itself without our conscious intervention. In fact, most of the time, this process continues despite our non-health-promoting mental and physical activities.
The great value of meditation and ‘mindfulness’ is that as we practice we stop getting in the way of our healing process. Of course, when we think of meditation, we usually think of someone sitting very still, possibly twisted into an impossible position, like a human pretzel. If you find this thought unpleasant, you may be glad to know that meditation can be done on the move, through a simple activity such as walking, either forwards or backwards. The key is how you handle your conscience.
As you walk backwards, you will tend to naturally anchor your awareness along your central axis, as you will feel more balanced this way. You’ll also be ‘listening behind you’, which is another important aspect of improving health awareness. Walking backwards briskly and stomping your heels while walking are also said to stimulate the flow of ‘qi’ along certain meridians running from the feet to the torso.
Of course, you will need to pay close attention to where you are going to avoid having an accident. This is a health-enhancing practice in itself, and its value should not be underestimated in these stressful times when consideration for our own well-being can so easily fall to the bottom of our priority list.
Walking backwards is just one member of a large family of simple forms of exercise known collectively as ‘qigong’. ‘Qigong’ is made up of two Chinese words: ‘Qi’, often translated as ‘life force’, and ‘gong’, usually translated as ‘work’, so ‘qigong’ means a way of working with your life force . or life energy. However, ‘qi’ is more than just ‘energy’. Not only is it the energy that animates all living things, but it acts as both a message and its carrier within the energy system of the individual. Consequently, some types of ‘qi’ are considered to improve health, while others are not. Some forms of qigong exercise are designed to get rid of “sick qi” as well as to facilitate the smooth flow of “healthy qi.” Our mentality and intention play a fundamental role in the practice of qigong.
Many of the most basic qigong exercises are very easy to learn and practice, although you could continue to practice them throughout your life without exhausting the possibility of further development. There are also various forms of seated or supine exercise that can benefit even those who are recovering from illness or injury, or who suffer from limited mobility. Qigong can really be of great benefit to anyone who is willing to spend a little time learning and practicing it regularly. This is the great beauty of qigong exercise.