Effortless Effort: My Qigong Journey

by Francesca Gobeille

When I signed up for my first ten-day meditation retreat, I was in my mid-20s and in the throes of “burnout,” the culmination of a lifetime habit of perfectionism and striving.  One of the most upsetting aspects of this period was that even my yoga practice, which had reliably provided me refuge since my teens, was no longer possible. I was sustaining a hip injury, and it made even basic seated postures painful.  I was distraught.  How could this practice, which I had believed promised eternal health and wellness, a panacea for human ills, be undeniably hurting me?  I had practiced faithfully; I had done all the “right” studies and spent years studying “advanced” practices and “perfect” alignment.  I felt betrayed. 

Ready to confront myself, I signed up for a silent meditation retreat in the verdant hills of Northern California.  On the first day, upon receiving the schedule, I saw that each morning and afternoon would feature a guided practice of Qigong.  

I had few ideas about Qigong.  My mother had long practiced T’ai Chi, and I assumed the disciplines were related.  I also assumed the practice was boring, slow, easy, and primarily suited to the elderly.  

A first lesson in Qi and "underdoing"

On the first morning, our group of silent retreatants was greeted by a grey-haired, soft-spoken man, standing beautifully upright in his black martial arts uniform.  He didn’t say much, proceeding instead to lead us in gentle, flowing, standing movements organized around the breath.  He moved gracefully, fluidly, and the group mirrored his circular gestures.

During the practice, he spoke of smoothing and settling the Qi, the vital life energy animating the body.  He also instructed us to “underdo” the movements.  “Just go to 70% of your capacity and range of motion.  Underdo.”  I was taken aback.  Countless yoga teachers had instructed me to “go to your edge and breathe,” underscored by manual adjustments in which they pushed me farther into forms.  Underdo?  Was this really allowed?  How could these flowing, simple movements accomplish anything, compared to my Sun Salutations and Pigeon poses? 

But by the end of the session, I was amazed to find my body in a state of quiet, soft, light expansion.  My hip, instead of throbbing and aggravated as it typically was, felt more relaxed.  My mind was alert, calm, and clear.  I was intrigued by this practice, and soon after the retreat began attending Qigong workshops with the teacher.  

Qigong meets (and transforms) Life 

Over the past 10 years, I’ve joyfully continued practicing and studying Qigong.  As one of the oldest healing systems in the world, originating in ancient China, Qigong possesses a rich history and a wide variety of practices with an aim of "cultivating (gong) life energy (Qi)."  It is one of the five branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and includes martial arts applications and spiritual influences from Taoism.  Its practices — including breathing, slow movements, self-massage, intention, and meditation — are underpinned by profound principles, derived from the wisdom of nature. 

From the beginning of my study, I found Qigong principles infusing my yoga asana practice, as my injury gradually healed.  My yoga practice became quieter, softer, subtler, and more attentive.  Over time, Qigong’s emphases on being grounded and rooted, harmonizing with natural cycles, energetic awareness and balance, and effortless effort (“underdo!”), have transformed the way I move and live.   

I love sharing Qigong with yoga practitioners because I’ve found that its philosophical orientation can offer balance to a modern culture that is highly “yang” (even our spiritual practices are not immune to ambition and struggle!).  Additionally, I’ve experienced the variety of Qigong practices to be therapeutic and harmonizing on many levels.  Qigong is a practice that can sustain a body and mind for a lifetime.  


To learn more and experience the quiet, healing power of Qigong, you are welcome at Francesca's August 15th "Introduction to Qigong'' workshop, or at her weekly yoga classes which include Qigong principles and practice. 

More info can be found at francescagobeille.com. 

About Francesca Gobeille

Francesca Gobeille is al sinds haar geboorte omgeven door Oosterse filosofie en spiritualiteit. Haar vader was in de jaren 1980 yoga- en meditatie leraar en ook haar moeder beoefent yoga.