A Chinese therapy Michael Phelps didn’t use finds followers in midtown Manhattan



Zhineng Qigong group meets every other Tuesday night in midtown Manhattan. Photo: Guanhong Hu.

“Lift Qi up, pour Qi down.” Ethan Baker moved his arms up and down while inhaling and exhaling, as 10 people imitated his gestures.

The Zhineng Qigong group meets every other Tuesday night at the New York Edgar Cayce Center in midtown Manhattan. They have been meeting there for about one year. According to the co-organizer Amir Shah, they usually have 10 to 15 people per session, and a few curious newcomers show up from time to time.

Medical qigong, along with herbal medicine, cupping therapy and acupuncture, is viewed as a common practice of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It is based on a belief in a cosmic energy, or Qi, translated as “life energy.” Through cultivating and balancing Qi, people can gain “stronger health, stable emotions and extraordinary capability,” Shah told the group.

Baker, the practice leader, is 42 this year, and will soon celebrate his 17th anniversary of qigong practice. A year ago, he took a medical qigong course in New York College of Traditional Chinese Medicine while pursuing an acupuncture degree.

“Through different movement and breathing methods, as well as mental meditation, medical qigong affects human’s nerve system and blood circulation to cure problems in different organs systems,” said Dr. Linda Qiu, director of the medical Qigong practitioner certificate program at the college, who is from China and has been teaching TCM in the U.S. since 2001, “and by spiritual cultivation, it helps practitioners realize themselves and build connection with nature and society.”

Medical qigong seems to work best for those who understand it or are open to a new therapy, according to Dr. Qiu. “For higher level practitioners and healers, it can cure those conditions when other medical treatments fail, ” she said, “and for those who have awareness and sensitivity of the Qi, and also, an open mind.”

She teaches a form of qigong called Zhineng Qigong, developed by Dr. Pang Ming in the 1980s, which includes a few physical movements and meditation — lifting one’s arms while inhaling to draw Qi into one’s body, lowering arms while exhaling to release the internal negative Qi, directing Qi with one’s hands to specific acupuncture points while mentally focusing on the body parts one wants to heal. According to Baker and Qiu, Zhineng Qigong is famous for group practice, with hundreds of people practicing together to generate powerful fields of Qi.

“For people in the west and probably for people in China as well, this idea of having large groups of people practicing such things can be seen as, I don’t want to say scary, but it caused concerns of a potential cult-like mentality, or people misusing and abusing the group dynamics,” said Baker while talking about the qigong craze in China in the 1980s.

By the end of the 1990s, most qigong organizations were deemed illegal by the Chinese government and many pseudoscientific “masters” were thrown into jail.

Dr. Yanzhu Liu, the president of Acupuncture Corporation of America, has practiced traditional Chinese medicine for 27 years and feels that it is undervalued in this country. Although it was brought to the U.S. over a century ago, only acupuncture has been officially acknowledged by the government, and acupuncturist is the official title for any practitioner, although they have to master much more than that to practice TCM.

Olympic swimmer Mark Phelps brought TCM into the spotlight when he used cupping therapy during the games. “More patients will come to me after that,” said Dr. Liu, who is also a licensed acupuncturist at Columbia Acupuncture, “and we got more orders for cupping and acupuncture medical equipment.”

Dr. Liu said there are about 1,400 registered acupuncturists in NYC now, but few qigong groups. Meanwhile, Baker hopes to introduce more people to the benefits of qigong.

“Qigong can be a way of treatment, as long as it’s not from the quacks,” said Dr. Liu, “New Yorkers are very open-minded.”