In China, people look forward to retirement as a time when they will be free to spend time with friends, and to 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 the retired elderly folk of China.
When I visited the Chinese capital Beijing in 2003, I was amazed by the number of elderly people in the parks early every morning, enjoying informal group activities that included ballroom dancing, knitting, calligraphy, musical performance and practice, tai chi and a number of other lesser-known martial arts, and … walking.
However, this was walking with a difference. They were walking BACKWARDS. I asked an elderly gentleman to explain this to me. He told me that these people were ‘walking backwards to their youth’. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with his answer, but his English was limited and my Mandarin was non-existent, so I didn’t pursue the matter further at the time.
Some time later, I was working on a film with a qigong master from Hong Kong. I asked him about the backwards walking and found his answer much more enlightening. He pointed out that “when you walk forward, you can 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 over.” Then he added one important point that has stuck in my mind ever since. It’s the hidden key that is so easily overlooked.
“Every second 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 re-building itself without our conscious intervention. In fact, a lot of the time, this process goes on in spite of our less-than-health-enhancing mental and physical activities.
The great value of meditation and ‘mindfulness’ is that for the while that we are practicing, we stop getting in the way of our healing process. Of course, when we think of meditation we typically think of someone sitting very still, possible twisted into an impossible position rather like a human pretzel. If you find this thought off-putting, you may be glad to learn that meditation can be done in motion, through a simple activity such as walking, either forwards or backwards. The key to it is how you manage your awareness.
In backward walking, you will tend to naturally anchor your awareness along your central axis as this way you’ll feel most balanced. You’ll also be ‘listening behind you’, which is another important aspect of health-enhancing awareness. Walking backwards briskly, and stamping down your heels as you walk is also said to stimulate the flow of ‘qi’ along certain meridians running from the feet up into the torso.
You will of course need to pay careful attention to where you’re going to avoid having an accident. This is a health-enhancing practice in itself, and its value is not to be underestimated in these stressful times when consideration for our own well-being can so easily go to the bottom of our list of priorities.
Walking backwards is just one member of a large family of simple exercise forms 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 kinds of ‘qi’ are considered to be health-enhancing while others are not. Some forms of qigong exercise are designed to throw off “sick qi” as well as to facilitate the smooth flow of “healthy qi”. Our mind-set and intent play a critical part in the practice of qigong.
Many of the most basic qigong exercises are very easy to learn and practice, although you could carry on practicing them for a lifetime without ever exhausting the possibility for 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 suffer from limited mobility. Qigong really can be of great benefit to anyone who is willing to spend a little time learning and regularly practicing it. This is the great beauty of qigong exercise.