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Sharing life-affirming joy of Qigong

Parize Michaud was a young mother, with two toddlers in tow, when she first set eyes on someone performing tai chi.

It was a quarter-century ago, in a park in California, a long way from Quebec City, where she grew up, went to college and married Michel Bruneau, a civil engineer interested in a teaching career.

The slow, deliberate movements of the man in the park struck her as foreign, mysterious and so, so calming – a feeling she would long to recapture a few years later as she struggled with a boggling illness.

“I could not operate in a day,” she said. “I had a hard time getting up and making breakfast for my children.”

West Coast doctors tried conventional means to comfort Michaud, but in the end could find no physical cause for her suffering, concluding that she was burned out.

“That’s when I started seeking other ways of looking at health,” she said. “I started taking different classes: soft gymnastics, classes about energy, about color, all different things to try to find myself. I started to become interested in naturopathy, essential oils. I was looking at other ways to take care of my wellness.”

During this journey, her sons started taking martial arts classes, and she saw in their training the fundamental movements she remembered in that California park.

She began to dabble in Qigong (pronounced CHEE-gung), which blossomed into a life-changing pursuit in Western New York, after her husband was offered a job 16 years ago in the earthquake research center at the University at Buffalo. She has since trained in the Eastern philosophy in three places: the WNY Karate Studio in Amherst, Bill Adams Martial Arts studio in Elma and the Qigong Institute of Rochester. She teaches group classes in senior residential living centers and community gathering spots, and conducts one-on-one counseling.

Michaud, 55, of Clarence, is in the midst of a four-part Qigong group training series at 7 p.m. Mondays in St. Paul Lutheran Church, 4007 Main St., Eggertsville. To register for her 90-minute classes, which cost $15, or learn more about Qigong, call Ellen Muller at 833-1088.

Q. What is the difference between karate, tai chi and Qigong?

Karate is what we would say in traditional Chinese medicine is a yang type of training, meaning that it’s very physical and the purpose is to attack or defend. It is learned through katas – forms – but it always has blocking and punching. Tai chi is done through forms. It’s a choreography of movements. All the movements in tai chi are Qigong movements that have a martial arts application. It’s done slowly and it becomes a type of moving meditation.

Qigong is said to date from 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. The story goes that it started on the banks of the Yellow River. That river floods, and anywhere that things flood there’s a lot of dampness, and anywhere there’s a lot of dampness, the bodies ache, the bones ache. The people discovered that if they moved certain ways, some of their discomforts would disappear.

Qigong training holds two aspects. One is active, where we have slow, coordinated breaths; movement that is quiet. The other aspect is more passive. It’s more meditative. Sometimes it’s only 30 seconds of taking conscious breaths to be able to relax the mind. This tool allows us to create the time and space so emotions can be addressed and we and release them, we can let them go. … The third aspect is a spiritual aspect. This is a tool that allows us to reconnect to our soul, being able to be present in the moment, to enjoy life better.

Q. Take us through a class.

There’s 14 or 15 exercises. … All you do is follow me, so there’s not a lot choreography to learn. It’s simple exercise and you’re going to repeat it a number of times, coordinating the breath with it and calming the mind. … The last part of class, I always do some passive Qigong, so we do some standing like tree … a more meditative aspect. This sort of breaking up the class allows them to leave calmly, peacefully.

Q. What age range are you dealing with?

My youngest student last week was 3 years old. I got her to do Qigong for 5 minutes, which is great for 3 years old. The moms with babies wrapped their babies on their backs. One little guy was really fussy, and within 5 minutes of his mom doing Qigong, he fell right asleep on her back and stayed asleep for the whole time. We have that, all the way up to 95. It’s mostly women who are looking to create this quietness in their life, and mostly women who are a tad older; women who’ve had their children and have a tad more time for themselves. Women juggling a family and professional life, it’s hard.

Q. So this is a power of silence and self-awareness?

Yes, the power of being here, now. When we start, I always invite people to close their eyes and just breathe, forget the outside world. I will ask them, ‘Where am I?’ The answer is, ‘I am here.’ I’ll ask, ‘What time is it?’ ‘It is now.’ ‘What are you?’ ‘I am the present.’

Over time, some of my students – I call them ‘players’ – have found they don’t need as much medication anymore, because they have found ways to overcome some of their anxiety or sleeping problems. I will never tell people not to take medication, because our medications are here to help us. The problem is that sometimes those medications don’t have all the answers.

You don’t need to choose. It’s about both the doctors and modalities like this trying to look at the body and trying to understand. We are a big mystery. We all hold a small part of the truth of the mystery of the body, and it’s all of us together that can make a body beautiful.