Look into my eyes and feel the power of chi

Zen monks believe that controlling your internal energy, or chi, can make you healthier and happier. By Clare Garner
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The Independent Culture
Walking into a Chi Kung energy healing session, you might think you had stumbled into a Paul McKenna show. Everybody is in a trance-like state, with their eyes closed and their arms flailing. But the man in charge insists that he is not a hypnotist.

Sifu Tony Leung is the official UK representative of Shaolin monks. He runs the Temple School in Islington, north London, the only Shaolin Zen Buddhist temple in this country. At the temple - a thinly disguised underground car park - Sifu "powers up" as many as 40 people in an evening, using his electromagnetic energy. The concept may seem alien to us, but there is nothing new about Chi Kung: the Chinese have practised it for the past 4,500 years.

"Watch at first because it might freak you out," Sifu advised newcomers. Those who were familiar with Chi Kung went first, one at a time.

Sifu held their hands for a few seconds, told them to close their eyes, and then let go of them. He pointed his first and middle finger at the client's forehead and then stood in front of them for about 15 seconds.

No two reactions were the same. Some staggered, some swayed, others threw their head forward and slapped their thighs. One man's arms flapped like a floppy-limbed puppet's, another man galloped on the spot as if he were playing ponies. Another man looked drunk, his knees giving way and his head lolling backwards and forwards. Someone grunted; someone else roared. A man at the front - one of the first to be "powered up" - curled up in the foetal position and cried. A young guy cavorted across the room, dancing, it seemed, with his shadow. And another spreadeagled his arms, rolling his eyeballs as if he had taken an overdose.

Indeed, it looked as if everyone had popped a pill half an hour earlier and the effects were just kicking in. But there were no drugs, just the waft of pungent incense and Sifu's potent cosmic energy.

There are more than 300 Chi Kung styles practised in China. Their common aim is to boost and regulate an individual's yin and yang energy so that the body can become its own healer.

The theory is that if one's energy channels are unblocked, good health and longevity will naturally follow. Sifu himself is a walking advertisement. With his smooth, unblemished skin and thick head of jet black hair he looks considerably younger than his 45 years. Those who attend Sifu's healing sessions suffer from an assortment of ailments, including migraine, arthritis, sciatica, rheumatism, multiple sclerosis, frozen shoulder and asthma. Some are simply stressed out.

Generally, they have drawn a blank with Western medicine. Khelly Shaker, 33, a banker, was waiting in line: "I'm just worried I'll go back to work after one of these sessions and I will do the wrong transaction," he joked. "I'm absolutely astounded by what I am seeing here. Someone is shouting and you feel like you're going to be assaulted."

When it came to my turn, I stepped forward and closed my eyes. As Sifu held my hands I felt a burning sensation shoot up my arms, and an electric shock seemed to twang in the centre of my forehead. "You can forget about work now," said Sifu. My mind drifted off as it does with a pre-med, and my body relaxed. My limbs seemed to lengthen and felt hollow. I started moving and dancing, feeling uninhibited but in control.

After what felt like several hours, but was in fact 15 minutes, I decided to return to Mr Shaker. He looked shocked by what he had witnessed. "You looked like someone who is enjoying a rave party, singing without words," he exclaimed.

"You looked at peace with yourself, unaware of anything around you. Just happy. It takes about three ecstasy tablets to achieve that result!"

Sergit Kumar, 30, was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis last August. Shortly afterwards he took the advice of his wife and signed up for a healing session with Sifu. "The first time I thought: `This isn't me. It's not working for me.' But after a couple of weeks I ran up the stairs. I was thinking: `If that works that time there's something there'."

Mr Kumar started going for a two-hour session twice a week. Now the tingling sensation in his legs has gone and his walking is "slightly better". He has faith in Sifu but regards Chi Kung as an "ongoing treatment" rather than a miracle cure.

Therein Ne Win, a fourth-year medical student at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospital, has followed Mr Kumar's progress at the Temple School. Mr Ne Win started out as a sceptic, but his own experience of a healing session blew his analytical medical mind.

He wrote a paper entitled: "A Medic's View of Chi Kung'' in which he describes the treatment for himself and Mr Kumar. He wrote: "When you start to move with no conscious thought, you realise that there is really something there after all."

He described Chi Kung as a "benign force" which had helped to heal an old sports injury of his. Sifu identified the clicking right shoulder and sent Chi into that part of Mr Ne Win's body. "I immediately had a feeling of real warmth and heat forming right inside the joint capsule... a few more sessions resulted in a much smoother action, eliminating much of the clicking," he wrote.

"It is easy to dismiss unfamiliar concepts such as Chi Kung as worthless Chinese black magic or mumbo jumbo," he continued. "We should all bring things into perspective and realise that tunnel vision will only prevent you from seeing the glories of the bigger picture."

He advocates practising Chi Kung as a preventative measure. "If your energy is strong enough, how can any illness befall you?" he asks.

He believes Chi Kung can combat stress: "It places you in a state of deep relaxation between full consciousness and sleep. The resultant change in brainwave activity and release of hormones helps to keep you in this state of total relaxation."

Regarding Mr Kumar, "every few lessons he seems to get better". But Ne Win also strikes a note of caution: "It is very dangerous, as well as foolhardy, to say that Chi Kung has cured him of MS because he is not 100 per cent cured.

"And, importantly, MS is characterised by relapse and subsequent remittance."

The most striking impact that Chi Kung has had on Mr Kumar, in Mr Ne Win's opinion, is that it altered his outlook on life: "Whereas before there was bleak depression, there now appears to be a new vigour and urge to get his life back on track. You really have to see him run up and down the stairs smiling to see the beneficial effects it has had."