On the way to NQA (National Qigong Association) conference

Well, I am sitting in the Dartmouth Coach (a welcome feature of life in the Vermont/New Hampshire Upper Valley), on my way to Asheville, North Carolina and the National Qigong Association conference, where my colleague Mardi and I will be presenting about our research on Qigong.
Qigong (pronounced “chee goong”) is a traditional Chinese healing art, which is the biggest influence on Bodymind Training, so this seems like a good time to write about it.

Like many people, I came to Qigong via T’ai Chi, which is much more widely known. Everyone has seen images of groups of people in Chinese parks, moving in unison in graceful slow-motion. Although it looks like a dance, Taijiquan (to give it’s full name) is a powerful martial art; the slow-motion sequence is just the first step. And a difficult one! Although there are simplified versions, one of the more popular styles has 108 precise movements, which can take over a year to learn; and only then can one focus fully on the deeper aspects of the art.

I first learned Taijiquan in London in the early 70s. At that time it was not widely known in the West, and little information was available about its deeper aspects. I gleaned every nugget I could from my teacher and from books. I was already familiar with the concept of “chi” (also spelled “qi”, and translated as “life energy”), and I recognized that a central aspect of Taijiquan was to promote the free circulation of qi throughout body and mind. Whatever exactly that meant!

My early studies of the martial arts led me into teaching—initially self-defense, but gradually I found I was much more interested in teaching about centering, grounding, and awareness. These are core aspects of most martial arts training; but I wanted to be able to teach them without the necessity of learning long movement sequences or specific martial techniques. That is where Qigong comes in! Qigong uses simple, easily learned movements, clearing the way for a deep focus on the more meditative and healing aspects.

So what are these deeper aspects? Traditionally, Qigong is said to involve “balancing the body, the breath, and the mind”. This formulation demonstrates the Chinese worldview, which sees body, breath and mind on a continuum; this is radically different from the traditional Western view, which (after Descartes) posits the mental realm and the physical realm as fundamentally distinct—thus giving rise to “the mind-body problem”: how do these two realms manage to influence each other?

The Chinese word for “breath” is “qi”; the same word as used for the mysterious “life energy”. (In fact, most traditional cultures have a similar word, meaning both breath and life energy.) Qi forms a bridge between “body” and “mind”; mind is seen as a subtle form of qi, and the body as a coarse form. Again, this is very different from the Western view. Science grappled with the concept of “life energy” in the 19th Century, and concluded definitively that there was no such thing, a conclusion which has only been reinforced over the decades by a massive body of research. Any mention of qi, prana, or life energy. To a scientist, will immediately result in eye-rolling and mutters of “woo-woo”.

This is a big problem! Without the support of science, methods based on this view (which I call Bodymind methods) have no chance of mainstream adoption and acceptance by government or the medical and academic communities. Although over the past 4 decades an increasingly large number of people have embraced these arts, they have either been watered down to fit into the “physical” or “mental” dichotomy (as has happened to yoga and meditation respectively); or, as is the case with Qigong practitioners, the idea of qi is embraced as a mysterious energy not yet discovered by science; or alternatively qi is equated to a known scientific energy such as electromagnetic fields, sub-sonic vibration, or quantum effects. For reasons beyond the scope of this blog, this is a non-starter with scientists, and the gulf remains.

My own view is that neuroscience offers a way of resolving this apparent split. To explain “qi” in a way compatible with science, we must look to the brain and nervous system, not to undiscovered energies. In the past couple of decades, neuroscience has made incredible advances; and I am not talking of the undeniable technical achievements, but of an overall understanding of the way the brain works. This understanding has profound philosophical implications for our view of the nature of human experience and of reality itself.

Hopefully in forthcoming blogs I will be able to explain this in more detail; and in the meantime, I will be fascinated to see how (and whether!) presenters at the NQA conference address these issues.

What Am I Doing Here?

All my life I have been fascinated by the Bodymind arts.

I started when I was 11 with Judo. I was living in Geneva at the time, and as a precociously intelligent and bookish child, I was picked on at school. My half-brother Kenny, 10 years older than me, suggested Judo. I loved it! Something about the rituals, the language, the accoutrements, and above all hints of mysterious energies, drew me in. To the right: me at age 12, demonstrating with my long-suffering younger brother!

At the same time I was very intellectually oriented. I wanted to be a nuclear physicist when I grew up! I couldn’t wait to be able to take science classes at school.

Of these two divergent interests, the science came easily to me; but my own emotional pain kept pushing me in a different direction, towards the martial arts first, then meditation, psychotherapy, and Western somatic systems like the Alexander Technique.

As I made slow and painful progress on my personal journey, I kept exploring and seeking to understand the subtler, deeper aspects of these systems. Although I gradually experienced and understood more, I was always aware of the painful Cartesian gap between what rational science could grasp, and the realities revealed in my direct experience.

With time, I started to teach and to develop my own system, integrating many of the systems I had studied. In particular, professional certifications as an Alexander teacher, a Somatic Experiencing practitioner, and decades of study of Qigong, contributed to what I now call “Bodymind Training”. This integrates methods and insights from traditional Asian methods, Western Somatic practices, and the trauma-oriented body psychotherapies.

In 2012, I began a collaboration with Dr. Mardi Crane, and returned again to my interest in science, specifically neuroscience. To my great excitement I found that modern neuroscience was now capable of understanding most of the phenomena I encountered in the Bodymind systems, without dumbing them down. Together with Dr. Crane, I published a number of papers on this topic, drawing on recent developments in affective, embodied, enactive neuroscience and neurophenomenology. Finally I felt the apparent split between the bodymind systems and the scientific view begin to dissolve. The developing understanding of the brain and nervous system provides a new (in the West) view of the nature of reality and of the person, which is remarkably coherent with the traditional Asian view.

Although there is now widespread awareness of many forms of Bodymind practice, it seems to me that much of the old Cartesian dualism lingers on under the surface. This gets in the way of a real grokking[i] of the bodymind systems (to grok = to know in fullness), which are based in a worldview which does not regard “body” and “mind” as entities at all. And this non-dual perspective, although coherent with modern neuroscience, is not easy to truly understand. Although “mindfulness” has been widely embraced, there is often little recognition of the traditional use of this skill to move beyond mind and body. Likewise, practices such as Tai Chi or Yoga tend to be reduced to skilled martial or athletic performances, and their depth and power as Bodymind practices overlooked. Even the body-oriented therapies may aim at symptom reduction and ignore the extraordinary therapeutic potential of direct recognition of our innate wholeness.

Just as it pained me to feel my own inner dividedness, so it pains me to see people unaware of the profound possibilities of the Bodymind practices, or unable to practice them due to lack of a teacher or misunderstanding of the methodology. In developing Bodymind Training, we have drawn on many sources, attempting to find the simplest, most accessible, and most effective practices. One big difference from most practices is the idea of “daylong practice”. This means that a practice is not something you do for a defined period of time every day; instead the practice is something you do all the time, right in the midst of whatever your usual daily activities—like standing, walking, sitting, lying down, moving around, and interacting with other. And rather than being a mental or a physical practice, every practice involves the whole of our being—in fact, what makes it a Bodymind practice is exactly that it does involve the whole of oneself!

In future blog posts, I will indulge my life-long passion, and continue to do my best to convey what the Bodymind arts are, and how to practice them. If you are already a practitioner, be it of Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga, Meditation, the Alexander Technique, Somatic Experiencing, or any other, I can guarantee you will find new perspectives here which will deepen your appreciation and open new possibilities. If you don’t practice any, I will show you extremely easy and simple ways to begin a practice.

If you would like to be informed of future posts, please sign up on our Contact page.

Hope to see you again!

Peter Payne

[i] To grok means “to know in fullness”; from the ancient Martian language. See Heinlein’s science fiction book, Stranger in a Strange Land.

1) Why “bodymind”?


Bodymind practices (also termed “somatic” practices) are therapeutic and educational methods based on the recognition that “body” and “mind” are not two separate things.

This is NOT the same as saying that body and mind influence each other. The bodymind perspective adopts the radical view that our body and mind, and our environment, form a single unity, “Body”, “feelings”, “mind”, “self” and “other”, are just different aspects of that unity; in the same way that different facets of a jewel are not separate things.

Unfortunately, the view that separates mind and body, self and other, is very deeply conditioned into us; and it is not easy to really grasp this new perspective. And yet, it is vitally important; much of our suffering as modern humans is due to this belief in separation. It is the aim of the bodymind practices to awaken recognition of this prior unity, and in the process to relieve stress, trauma, and mental, emotional and physical disease.

I have spent my whole life studying and teaching bodymind practices. I started with Judo in 1956 at the age of 11, and went on to study Karate, Aikido, Taijiquan, and Xingyiquan. I have been studying Qigong since 1969 and teaching since 1975. I became interested in meditation, and studied with Sogyal Rinpoche, Dhiravamsa, and Peter Fenner. I studied and experienced many forms of body-oriented psychotherapy, including Bioenergetics, Formative Psychology, Somatic Experiencing trauma therapy, and the Subtle Self work. I have studied a number of forms of bodywork, including Structural Massage and Cranio-sacral Therapy, and a variety of Western somatic practices: Bodymind Centering, Ideokinesis, and the Alexander Technique. In addition, I have studied the scientific bases of these systems, including anatomy, kinesiology, psycho-physiology, and neuroscience.

I do not claim mastery of all these systems! But I am thoroughly and practically familiar with them all. I am certified as a practitioner of Somatic Experiencing (SEP) and the Alexander Technique, I have been teaching Qigong for 43 years, and am a registered somatic movement educator and therapist (RSME/T). With my colleague Mardi Crane-Godreau, I have published several academic papers on these topics, and have conducted clinical trials at Dartmouth on the health effects of these practices.

I have found that all these different systems shed light from different angles on the same underlying reality. Working to reconcile and integrate apparently contradictory approaches has greatly increased my understanding, One of my biggest challenges has been to reconcile the scientific viewpoint with that of the traditional Asian methods. In published academic papers, we have demonstrated that modern neuroscience can provide a coherent framework for explaining the traditional Asian methods, enabling these to be integrated with Western therapeutics. We think this is important for two reasons.

First, the orthodox scientific community tends to reject the claims of the traditional Asian systems, because the Asian systems use terms like “chi” or “prana” (life energy), which are not acceptable to scientists.
Secondly, because Westerners trying to understand the traditional Asian systems often miss the mark and develop fantasies instead of a real understanding.
In this blog, I hope to present a practical and theoretical perspective which bridges these dualities.

The system of practice I now teach is called Bodymind Training. It integrates everything i have studied into a compact and simple package, which is easy to learn, can be practiced by anyone, and takes no time out of your busy schedule. We at Bodymind Science are making these teachings available in a number of formats, including innovative videos, multimedia, booklets, and audio files.