What I Learned About Simplicity from a Master Teacher in Tai Chi and Qigong
Twenty years ago, I could not have honestly said I was keeping it simple. Overscheduled, overworked and overwhelmed by the stress in my life, I was tied up in endless complexities I would need to unravel before having any chance of living in a sustainable, fulfilling way. I knew something had to give, I just didn’t know what or how. Then one morning as I was opening my studio to teach a full day of classes, I found myself standing outside the front door… simply breathing. In that moment I became profoundly aware of my body relaxing and releasing tension. This miraculous moment was a wonderful brush with inner peace, and I was astonished by how simple it was!
As a fitness enthusiast and wellness instructor, I had studied many movement systems. I was just starting to recognize the essential significance of mindfulness. It was Dr. Jahnke’s influence that gave me what I needed to start turning this moment of epiphany into a sustainable practice.
By the time I met Dr. Jahnke, I had been teaching in Julio Horvath’s Gyrotonic System for 10 years. I had already discovered how many systems were influenced by Tai Chi and Qigong. Julio told me plainly that if I really wanted to understand Gyrotonic, I needed to learn the principles of Tai chi and Qigong. So, at my next visit to the Esalen Institute, I signed up for a Tai Chi Class. My instructor was Dr. Roger Jahnke.
I had never taken a Tai chi class, but I did know there were multiple styles and thousands of forms, so I’d prepared myself for the download of complexity I was used to with the Gyrotonic System.
What I Learned About Keeping It Simple
Dr. Roger Jahnke was a doctor of Chinese medicine. He had made many trips to China to study ancient texts and work firsthand with renowned teachers of Tai Chi and Qigong. To my surprise, what he had to say about these practices was incredibly simple.
After years of treating patients, Dr. Janke discovered they were depending on him for their health without realizing their own innate abilities to heal. His goal was to inspire people to recognize and utilize their abilities to balance their lives, increase their vitality and improve their health. In short, he wanted a simple and understandable method people could use to rediscover their ability to generate what he called “the medicine within.”
Over the course of the week, he taught us a simple nine-phase version of Qigong he had distilled from his decades of study and teaching. He would ask us over and over if what he was saying was clear, inviting the question, “How can we make it simpler?” He sponsored a true atmosphere of collaboration and discovery aimed at finding the best way to communicate and practice the very simple principles he was outlining.
Dr. Jahnke taught us that the essence of any form of Tai chi or Qigong was the 3 points of focus: Posture, Breath and Mind. Awareness of your posture (whether it reflected physical ease or tension), awareness of your breathing, and learning to keep the mind primarily focused on these two things.
While there are thousands of different Qigong forms (including spontaneous Qigong – as the name implies, there is no predetermined form!) and all of them are the same in essence. The foundation of every single form of Tai Chi or Qigong is the practice of Posture, Breath and Mind. This gave all these practices a unified purpose.
Applying the Simplicity of Dr. Jahnke’s Teachings
I have participated in many workshops and retreats with Dr. Jahnke since then, but that first class was a real turning point for my own practice and teaching. His invitation to simplify allowed me to see my own movement practice in a new way – to practice it as a form of body-centered mindfulness. When I returned home to my studio in Indianapolis, I built everything I was teaching around these three simple points of focus.
That’s when I began teaching clients a practice that didn’t require any particular equipment or even a studio (or me!).
Finally, I had something I could take everywhere, something I could give my clients to close the gap between what they did in their lives and what they did for their health! The main focus was no longer mastery of complex exercises because “the” exercise was Awareness and the simple practice of Posture, Breath and Mind was the formula for realizing this awareness.
Like Dr. Jahnke, I wanted to help my clients feel confident and capable of taking responsibility for their own health. Teaching them the Practice of posture, breath and mind, first and foremost, gave them a simple formula for turning everything in their lives into a practice for optimal health and well-being.
My job now was to help them learn to use this simple practice as consistently as possible.
Making the Practice a Habit
My clients and I certainly practiced these principles at my studio. But we needed ways to establish this simple practice outside the studio to help build that consistency. We started by anchoring the Practice to routine activities throughout the day. First thing in the morning before getting out of bed, sitting down to meals, getting in and out of the car or talking on the phone. While doing these activities, we would ask ourselves:
- Is my posture relaxed right now? If not, where am I feeling tension?
- Am I breathing freely?
- Is my mind focused primarily on relaxing my tension and breathing?
When we get in the habit of paying attention to our breathing while relaxing muscular tension, we find a reliable way to calm our emotions and quiet our minds.
When we got in the habit of paying attention to our breathing while relaxing muscular tension, we found a reliable way to calm our emotions and quiet our minds. I could see that no matter how high or low I was flying – no matter what I was doing, all that mattered was awareness of my posture and my breath. I now had a way to start unraveling the complexities of my life, and I welcomed this simple approach with open arms.
Just to be clear, what I now call the Practice is not a formula for avoiding your difficulties. I was still facing all the same challenges. But it gave me real confidence to know that my health didn’t have to tank while I was working them out. The simple Practice of posture breath and mind gave me a way to constructively live through these difficulties. I could learn from them instead of exhausting myself trying to survive them.
This emphasis on simplicity had a profound effect on me. I had been running to stand still most of my life, spending way too much time in fight-or-flight mode, always looking over my shoulder for the next bomb to drop. Dr. Jahnke reminded me of my inherent ability to take care of myself. And in this reminder, I found the permission I needed to take responsibility for my health and happiness along with a simple and effective way to do it.
Instead of getting lost in the complexity of my problems, I was starting to embody the principle of a relaxed body, calm emotions and a quiet mind as my first priority. It became the guiding light to meaningful change. This simple formula, consistently practiced, is the most effective way I’ve found to stay aimed at the health and happiness we all want most of all.
As the saying goes – keep it simple! Give it a try and see for yourself!
Take good care : )