CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - With final exams just around the corner, stress levels are rising for college students everywhere. But at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, students in kinesiology professor Weimo Zhu's class are riding out the tension in the "horse position" - a meditative posture characterized by slightly bent knees and outstretched arms.
The more relaxed among Zhu's students even claim to have found their "Qi."
Others just sleep through the last 20 minutes of class.
What's more, Zhu doesn't mind. In fact, he requires students to bring pillows.
"I like to say this is the only class you'll take where the professor encourages students to fall asleep," said Zhu, whose "Qi-gong for Stress Management" class is popular among students as well as university faculty and staff members. About 60 students and 30 faculty and staff members enrolled in the six-week course, which meets for two hours, three times a week.
Although Qi-gong's Chinese practitioners have long been convinced of its beneficial effects on physical and mental health, Zhu is well aware that many Western observers - particularly scientists - have understandably remained skeptical about its purported healing effects. In particular, the U. of I. kinesiologist wants to identify scientific means for understanding why Qi-gong works, as well as procedures for measuring results quantitatively.
Photo by Clark Brooks
Many of the enrolled students were steered toward the class by academic advisers, who recommended it as a good opportunity to beat pre-finals stress and earn an hour of academic credit. Zhu said the Office of the Provost and the Faculty-Staff Assistance Program also have promoted the course as a simple but effective form of stress-reduction therapy for university employees.
So, what exactly is Qi-gong?
Zhu admits it's not easy to describe in just a few words. Qi-gong (pronounced chee-KUNG) is best understood, he said, by breaking down and translating the meaning of both components: "Qi" and "gong."
"The ancients in China concluded thousands of years ago that Qi (life force, or vital energy) is the essence of all things on Earth, including health. 'Gong,' in Chinese, means practice or training," Zhu wrote in "Qi, Aging and Measurement: History, Mystery and Controversy," a chapter from the soon-to-be-published proceedings of the 10th Measurement and Evaluation Symposium held at Illinois two years ago.
Qi-gong exercises, which emphasize regulating postures, breathing and meditation techniques, have been shown to not only reduce stress, but to lower blood pressure and improve glucose metabolism, Zhu said. In addition, he said Qi-Gong can be an effective treatment for headaches, insomnia, pain, cardiovascular disorders and even cancer.
"The gentle movements, easy postures, and simple meditation techniques of this powerful healing method bring about a balanced energy flow, the result being optimum health of the body and mind."
The U. of I. instructor said he decided to promote the stress-relief aspects of Qi-gong with this year's class after reading essays from students who took a basic Qi-gong course offered last year by the kinesiology department. Zhu co-taught the class with Ping-Zhang Chen, a Qi-gong master from China.
"At the end of the class, we asked students to write a reflection paper," Zhu said. "One thing surprising me, I read, was that so many of our students are stressed out. Stress is a big thing now. We read in the media how everyone is stressed out.
"I believe this is the first class in the world to teach students how to relax through sleep. At a university, we traditionally focus on just teaching knowledge-based subjects. This has to be changed. We have to teach students life skills - ways to handle the stress they will encounter out in today's fast-changing world."
Among those from last year's class who cited tangible benefits from the exercise was an English major, who wrote in her final essay:
"As I began to come to class more and really relax, I started to feel differently, both mentally and physically. ... I feel like the Qi-gong practice is the first step into creating a healthier lifestyle for myself."
The same student reported that "since attending the class, I've found myself watching television less." Perhaps more remarkably, she added: "The practice of Qi-gong has also helped me decrease my liquor intake. I've been an avid binge-drinker for several semesters, and I can honestly say that nothing compares to the feeling of Qi. I feel as if I'm healing my body with this exercise, and I don't want to put anything adverse into my body to disrupt the good feeling I now have."
Meha Patel, a junior from West Chicago who is majoring in elementary education and in religious studies, said she believes her experience in this year's class is putting her in a better state of mind than usual as final-exam week approaches.
"It relaxes me so much, and helps me sleep," she said. "After two hours in class, I feel fresh and energetic - I'm ready to go home and study."
Although Qi-gong's Chinese practitioners have long been convinced of its beneficial effects on physical and mental health, Zhu is well aware that many Western observers - particularly scientists - have understandably remained skeptical about its purported healing effects.
"Because of many unexplained phenomenon of Qi and Qi-gong, the secrecy in the method of teaching it, ties with religions, and its unmeasurable feature, Qi and Qi-gong have been full of mystery and controversy throughout its history," Zhu said. "While efforts were made in the 1970s and 1980s to measure Qi, and new evidence has been accumulated in recent years, practice of and research in Qi have been criticized as a 'pseudoscience.' "
Zhu is among those who suspect further research will dispel such concerns. In particular, the U. of I. kinesiologist wants to identify scientific means for understanding why Qi-gong works, as well as procedures for measuring results quantitatively.
To that end, Zhu is collecting data from class participants for ongoing research. "We measure self-reported stress levels every other Thursday - at the beginning and the end of the class," Zhu said.
He is hopeful that the data ultimately will support some of the conclusions that he and other proponents of Qi-gong have arrived at informally through practice and observation. Among other things, he said, "We believe that Qi, like muscular strength, is an ability and function that everyone has. With a little training, everyone can feel and benefit from Qi."
"The beauty of Qi-gong is that everyone can do it. It's simple. You can learn it in one day.
And unlike other forms of exercise, which require large blocks of time, special equipment or clothing, Qi-gong can easily be incorporated into daily routines, Zhu said.
"Everybody says, 'I don't have time to exercise,' but there are no excuses with Qi-gong. You can do it while watching TV or waiting on the bus.
"I call it the "21st-century exercise."