Dozens of teachers around Santa Cruz now teach Qigong, a type of Chinese yoga.
Classes in the once-esoteric practice are being are offered at Five Branches University, a traditional Chinese medicine school, Santa Cruz Integrative Medicine and Chi Center and Wild Coast Qigong, to name a few.
Yet, Qigong has been slow on the uptake.
“It's not going to turn you into a super model and it's not an easy thing to impress your friends with; it's an internal art, ” says Marcy Reynolds, a teacher with Wild Coast Qigong. “As much as I would hope that Qigong can be on every corner just as yoga is now, I don't know if it will.”
At its heart, Qigong is a method to develop the body's qi, or life force, through movement, meditation and breathing. This may be part of its struggle, as invisible qi is widely viewed as nonexistent by Western science. The practice is based on the Taoist concept of non-effort, which may also help explain why it has slipped beneath the radar of American culture.
“Qigong is about coming into a non-forced experience," said Reynolds. "It's coming into the Tao, which is the natural flow of all things, and once you're in the flow, you don't have to push so hard; the flow will carry you. That's a very opposite direction from our achievement-oriented culture."
Like yoga, the practice is more than 2000 years old, but Qigong's expansion into the West has been stymied by a history of secrecy and repeated government crackdowns.
Qigong teachers were persecuted in China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, and a second wave of crackdowns came after the rise of Faolun Gong, a simple Qigong practice which grew into an anti-establishment political movement centered around the charismatic figurehead of teacher Li Hongzi.
By the time the Chinese government decided Falun Gong was a political threat, the group had already been affiliated with so many other Qigong lineages that the government's response was effectively to ban the public practice of Qigong, according to Bingkun Hu, a Berkeley-based master of Wild Goose Qigong, one of the oldest and best-known Qigong lineages.
“So at that time, all the Qigong was dropped to the lowest level, even Wild Goose,” said Hu. “No one wanted to have a big gathering because any big gathering of Qigong people suspect is Li Hongzi-related, and this is really a sad thing. Even in the park, you can only see tai chi or other martial arts, and up till now, people are practicing still less than before.”
The teaching of Qigong and Wild Goose have resumed in China, but the health art has yet to reach its former glory. At one time, almost every university and hospital in China had a Qigong wing, said Hu, a Ph.D. in Western Psychology.
Prior to the Falun Gong crackdown, government-funded medical research into the effectiveness of Qigong had just begun to get underway in China, but once government money dried up, studies ground to a halt.
“There's no big profits behind it," said Reynolds. "Qigong is a self-healing technique so it's kind of taking money away from people who fund big research in medicine.”
The result is that Qigong never established the scientific credibility, which might have paved the way for its popularity in the West.
Secrecy has been another obstacle.
Historically, Qigong techniques have been closely guarded, kept within family lineages or parsed out to devoted students in small doses over decades.
In recent years, however, teachers and students from various traditions have begun opening their practices up to a wider audience.
Wild Goose is a case in point.
The motion-centered practice dates back 27 generations to the 200s CE, and for almost all that time it was handed down from father to son as a family secret. A few practitioners were eventually allowed to teach, but only after 60 years of training, according to Hu.
In the early 1900s, when the family failed to produce a male heir, the lineage was passed onto a daughter, Yang Mei-Jun. In 1978, following the suppression of the Cultural Revolution, Mei-Jun opened Wild Goose up to the world, fearing that it might otherwise be lost forever, according to some accounts.
Hu, a direct disciple of Mei-Jing, believes there are only about three teachers in the U.S. who studied with Mei Jing, although the exact number is kept hidden.
“I think it's a mistake,” said Hu. “They [the teachers] should know each other ... in the olden days it was like this, because to be a disciple meant lots and lots of power.”
In Hu's view, the time for Qigong's concealment has passed.
“I believe the Qigong should eventually belong to the whole world so no one can monopolize it,” he said.
With the roll back of secrecy, the popularity of this ancient health system has grown, albeit slowly.
Hu's students are still few in number, but those he has seem to treasure the opportunity to work with him.
"I really appreciate the existence of Dr. Hu,” said Peter Liebenthal, an acupuncturist who graduated from Five Branches University and has practiced Qigong for 12 years. “It's quite difficult to find a trustworthy Qigong teacher and also one at such a high level who is actually willing to share his knowledge.”
Qigong may not be the sexiest of health practices, but lineages such as Wild Goose offer a kind of esoteric purity which can be hard to find in the far more commercialized field of yoga.
“Hopefully we can take advantage of these Chinese masters while they are still alive, because the information they have to share is really precious,” said Reynolds.
Bingkun Hu will teach his next Soquel class, on the Six Healing Sounds, on March 26-27.