Teaching Qigong Online: Zooming in on the Virtual Classroom
©2021 Kenneth S. Cohen
An earlier version of this essay was published in
Qi: The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health & Fitness 30:3 (Autumn 2020).
I have never been a fan of online learning, and until the coronavirus pandemic had never been willing to offer online classes. But you know what they say: never say “never.” My hesitation has been based on some core beliefs that I still hold:
1. It is only possible to learn Qigong and Wu Shu (Chinese martial arts) accurately in person. Over the long term, online learning is likely to cause the loss, misrepresentation, and deterioration of these ancient cultural traditions.
2. The online environment fosters a lack of accountability to a particular teacher or school. Although this appeals to independent-minded Americans, learning is enhanced through in-person and not virtual communities as well as ongoing association with a Shifu (Master Teacher).
3. The existence of a technology does not mean that it is in our best interests to use it. Rather, I advocate the “precautionary principle”— carefully assess the risks and benefits of a technology before investing yourself, including time and money, in its implementation.
Yet, although online learning is not ideal, it is what is needed and a way for teachers to be of service during these times. Here are my thoughts on the pros and cons of teaching and learning qigong and related arts in online meetings or webinars.
Nothing can substitute for in person learning. In person learning means students can see me and I can see them from three dimensions rather than looking at two- dimensional images on a computer screen.
In person students have earned what they learned-- there is some sacrifice in time and making the journey for training, and thus they are more attentive and more likely to retain information.
There is something about online learning that makes it more like watching TV. In a real qigong or martial arts class, students feel comfortable spending fifteen minutes practicing on their own or in small practice groups, rather than needing to constantly receive input (again, like television). Online learning is passive rather than interactive.
Because of the solitary nature of online learning, it may increase narcissism and goes against our ancient, genetically programmed need to learn in small group or community settings. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” was a reductionistic and false view of evolution. As reported in Science Daily and many other journals, “Cooperation, not struggle for survival, drives evolution.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160512100708.htm
Another deficit in online learning is the lack of continuing supervision and oversight by a teacher as well as lack of accountability to a particular teacher, lineage, and school. Long established protocols that assure accurate and ethical transmission through the generations are broken. Online learners may be independent and on their own, but, in my opinion, they are too independent. Here is an example that I find personally disheartening. Some students take a single two-hour introductory qigong webinar about a particular qigong style and then, within a week or two, post youtube demonstrations and offer classes in that style. I am reminded of a Chinese saying 畫虎類犬 huà hǔ lèi qǔan “If you draw a tiger poorly, it looks like a dog.” Dedication, patience, and practice guided by a great teacher or coach are the keys to success. There is no shortcut.
We also need to remember that electromagnetic fields (EMF) from laptops, tablets, and cell phones weakens qi, harms DNA, and has adverse immunological and neurological effects. The harm caused by repeated or prolonged exposure is cumulative and reduces the body’s resilience and ability to adapt to environmental stresses. As Martin Blank, Ph.D. writes in his excellent work Overpowered, “The type of cellular damage caused by EMF is similar to that caused by aging. The residual errors and genetic mutations accumulate, leading to malfunction and disease.” (p.63) These effects are greatly mitigated when we are at a distance from the devices, which is true for most practice-oriented classes.
In person I can ask a student to hold a posture as I walk around him/her to adjust alignment and positioning of hands and feet. This is far more efficient than asking students to angle the camera slightly up (to see above the head) or down (to better see the feet), to stand closer or further away from the camera, or to turn various directions. It is also far easier to catch subtleties such as discomfort communicated through body language or the health of a student’s qi field when the student is actually present.
Tactile learning, that is learning through lightly touching various areas or asking a student to lightly place a palm on the teacher’s shoulders, back, or abdomen, while not orthodox in China, is a powerful way to immediately communicate qigong skills. This is obviously impossible online. While practicing Bagua Zhang in the 1970s, my teacher, B.P. Chan, would sometimes place one of his hands on my sacrum and the other on my kua, the crease between my thigh and hip and then follow me as I “walked the circle.” The challenge was to continue moving without rising up or down, maintaining a straight lower back, and the kua constantly released and sunk, as though sitting into the hips. With his hands in place, I realized how much I had been previously deluding myself, thinking that I had been correctly following his demonstration and verbal instructions. Unable to return to my comfortable bad habits, my legs were on fire. Then Chan asked me to place my hands on his own back and hips. I could feel, with my hands, that he was a moving mountain.
Tactile learning is even more important in the more advanced and subtle aspects of practice, especially those that involve breathing. For example, renowned Tai Chi Master T. T. Liang shared a great insight, “Here’s how you tell if someone has achieved a certain level in Tai Chi.” He asked me place one palm on his lower abdomen and my other palm on his lower back to sense the movement in his dan tian (lower abdominal energy center). As he breathed, I felt like a balloon was expanding and contracting between my hands, with nearly equal movement in the front and the back! Now I had a goal as I practiced dan tian breathing. And one more example: I never would have understood the term song chen, “relax and sink” if my teacher, Madame Gao Fu, had not allowed me to place a hand on her shoulder and another on her sacrum as she invisibly sunk the qi downwards, with no outwards physical movement. None of these skills can be learned online.
The fatigue factor: Online learning is tiring in comparison to in person. Many virtual classroom experts note that one to two hours is the attention limit for a seminar. Qigong intensives have to be spread out over several days or weeks rather than a 9 am-5 pm weekend seminar. By comparison when I teach a three hour in person session, we can take a brief mid-class break for tea and discussion and then continue refreshed. And we might enjoy a festive group meal after class.
Related to this, it is much more difficult to cultivate qi and feel energized both during and after an online class. During in-person classes, we train together. A significant portion of the class consists of practice and repetition, so that the techniques become part of body memory. But in an online class, because of fixed cameras, one needs to interrupt training to change position, angle, and distance from the camera. “Would you please move closer to the camera, so I can see the distance between your heels? Please stand sideways so I can check if you are correctly massaging the gall bladder meridian.” And so on. This becomes even more challenging when teaching Tai Chi Sword, since the blade is so thin that it is sometimes impossible to see the angle of the blade.
Online students are limited by logistical factors such as the strength and speed of their wifi or mobile signal and the acoustics in the practice space. As a result, the great majority of virtual qigong classrooms are indoors. Although students are certainly encouraged to practice outdoors whenever convenient, both teachers and students miss the group outdoor experience.
Outdoor classes enhance qigong benefits, especially connection with and support from the qi field of earth, grass, trees, sky, sunshine and other natural elements. Medical science confirms that outdoor exercise is better for you. The body produces its optimal level of Vitamin D with just an hour of mid-day sunshine, which reduces depression and disease risk. A varied outdoor terrain creates opportunities to improve balance and coordination. And although we appreciate thermostats, the body’s inner thermostat –its ability to regulate and respond to changes in temperature—is primed by exercise outdoors. Important hormones respond to the outdoor environment, including melatonin, dopamine, serotonin, and the body’s good mood chemicals: the endorphins.
I am certainly not saying that it is always best to practice outdoors. Chinese medicine warns against the “external pernicious influences,” the pathogenic effects of heat, cold, wind, damp, dry and summer heat. I personally don’t enjoy outdoor practice when it is hot and humid or when I am providing a feast for mosquitoes. Yet, in general, outdoor practice is more inspiring for everybody.
On the other hand, there are positives. I am enjoying teaching low-cost programs (thanks to reduced overhead) that can reach many distant students. About 1/3 of my students in group or private online classes have attended from as far away as England, Germany, India, Taiwan, South America, Australia, Africa, and New Zealand. This makes a rich and diverse learning environment. Many of the participants would not have the opportunity (or financial means) to learn qigong if not for these classes. No need for airfare, lodging, and expensive retreat center tuition.
The online venue also allows me to present slide shows, photos, and film clips through screen sharing. This gives students access to information that I had previously only offered to cultural organizations, medical schools and conferences. The latter are often cost-prohibitive for the general public. Additionally, some in-person venues, including churches and smaller retreat centers, do not have the projectors, screen, or a practical space for viewing images. A virtual space solves the problem.
I have learned a whole new set of skills to teach these arts online, including room set up, lighting, audio requirements, camera height and angle, cabling to a large screen monitor for more detailed and helpful instruction, and how to demonstrate from various positions, angles and distances so that students can learn details (such as heel or toe pivot, distance of arms from the body, height of the hands, distance between feet, weight distribution, coordination of body parts, etc.). Although an online class is not the best situation for personal qi cultivation, students leave the class with lots of homework and tools to improve their level of skill.
To my surprise and delight I have even been able to teach beginners methods that I thought would be impossible online, such the complex and intricate choreography of Chen Style Tai Chi (Taijiquan). Of course, this requires that students have a high level of dedication and patience. It generally takes about 6 months of weekly private classes to learn the entire Chen Style form.
As an online teacher I can put a group class on mute so that students do not distract themselves and others with questions that take time away from practice. I can field questions through the chat function in order to answer the ones that are the most helpful and of most general interest. Questioning and critical thinking are important, but unfortunately many Americans use questioning as an excuse to avoid practice. It is a delicate balance.
There is also an unexpected bright side to not having a physical teacher present, whether for demonstration or what I earlier called “tactile learning.” Students cannot as easily or blindly “follow the leader” and try to learn only through imitation. They are forced to reflect, practice, and self-correct. They know that they will not achieve skill (gong) without a great deal of practice.
Some students even discover that they learn certain aspects of qigong more easily in the virtual classroom. In an online group class, each student has the teacher all to themselves. Though they are welcome to put their device in “gallery view” in order to see how each person in a group is practicing, most will let the image of the teacher fill the screen. As one of my students put it, “I no longer have an obstructed or partial view of you because of needing to look over people’s heads or because of where I am standing in the classroom. Now, I can see the height of your arms, the angle of your feet, and other subtleties such as whether to pivot on the toe or heel, rather than relying, at times, on verbal descriptions.”
I have been personally inspired by positive feedback after the classes. Though this luddite hates to admit it, we are all enjoying the experience. One European student with COVID-19 even remarked that qigong had the strongest effect on reducing her symptoms ("Each time I practice it is like taking a magic pill, and I feel better all day."). Qigong and Daoism are based on adaptability, “going with the flow”. As we face changes wrought by the pandemic, online classes are a necessary adaptation.
Teaching and sharing qigong, even online, is a good reminder that when we help others, we help ourselves; we are lifted out of personal preoccupation and worries and find new meaning and purpose. President John F. Kennedy got it right, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Altruism is good for health. At the entrance to China’s Bama Longevity Village, known for its concentration of centenarians, there is a famous inscription, “Only the kind live long.”