Transcription of Brain Training & T’ai Chi #291

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio. Hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at Here’s some highlights from this week’s program.
Pam Blodgett: That way, when a person who’s curious, let’s say you have a child with ADD, you want to know, “Well, how do I find the best caregiver possible?” Joe Smith down the road said, “They know how to do this. They have, you know, two electrodes hooked up to their car battery and they’re going to fix my problem.” But I would suggest that people go to that site,, and find a caregiver who is certified in either biofeedback or neurofeedback and that means they have passed the minimum standard of efficacy in the field.
Ken Ryan: Again, it’s easy for us to think that, when we see some set of movements, it’s something that’s somebody’s gym teacher thought of two years ago, and so it’s something that’s been in the works for thousands of years. But in Chinese medicine, as you well know, there are organ systems that are identified and worked with and there are particular movements that and points of focus with the mind that helped to activate those particular organ systems, so the meridians that are connected to those organ systems would be particularly in play.
Dr. Lisa B.: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you’re listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 291. Brain training and tai chi. And for the first time on Sunday, April 16, 2017. We all have within us what we need to be healthy. Today, we speak two people who are helping others create and reinforce optimal patterns for wellness within the brain and body. Pamela Blodgett is a counselor and educator who practices neurofeedback and biofeedback. Ken Ryan is the founder of Maine Coast Taijiquan, where he instructs students in tai chi and qigong. Thank you for joining us.
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Dr. Lisa B.: Today it’s my pleasure to have with me Pam Blodgett who is board-certified in neurofeedback and trained as a counselor and educator. Her office, Brain Training of New England, is located in Kittery. Thanks for coming in today.
Pam Blodgett: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Lisa B.: You and I met at Maine Live. I believe it was last fall, perhaps, and I was pretty immediately fascinated by the work that you do because you’re dealing with brains, which is something that we all have to work with on a regular basis but you’re actually doing some nitty-gritty stuff.
Pam Blodgett: We are. It’s the command central. Without it, we don’t do anything.
Dr. Lisa B.: Yeah. Tell me what it means to be board-certified in neurofeedback. What is that?
Pam Blodgett: For the listeners, I think it’s important that you find a caregiver if you’re trying to fix a problem such as ADD, anxiety depression, brain injury, seizure disorder, post-stroke, any of those things. You want to get the best care possible and most people want to do that as effectively, quickly, and as naturally as possible to optimize what we have between our two ears.
As I was pursuing my training in this field, I’d have a master’s in counseling for 30 years but I started meeting people who were counselors or MDs adding neurofeedback as part of their healing regimen into their practices, and the advice that I got, which I promote to everybody else, is go to the site, which stands for Biofeedback Certification International and they have a list of caregivers who have passed a board certification exam. You have to put in about, in the case of neurofeedback, you can be certified in two tracks: biofeedback or neurofeedback. One’s brains, one’s body, in the most simplistic way.
And you have to pass, you have to complete about 3,000 to 5,000 hours of training that is supervised, you have to have a minimum of a master’s degree, and you have to pass a board certification exam, which I did about three or four years ago.
That way, when a person who’s curious, let’s say you have a child with ADD, you want to know, “Well, how do I find the best caregiver possible?” Joe Smith down the road said, “They know how to do this. They have, you know, two electrodes hooked up to their car battery and they’re going to fix my problem.” But I would suggest that people go to that site,, and find a caregiver who is certified in either biofeedback or neurofeedback and that means they have passed the minimum standard of efficacy in the field.
Dr. Lisa B.: So in your case, you are certified in …
Pam Blodgett: Neurofeedback.
Dr. Lisa B.: Neurofeedback, and just very briefly describe what that process looks like, when you are working with the client and you are doing neurofeedback.
Pam Blodgett: Awesome. A client comes in and I’ll say, “What are your diagnoses to begin with?” Typically they come in and they’ll say, “Well, I have struggled with, you know, attention deficit disorder since I was seven and I have been taking Adderall for the last 20 years. I’m really sick of it. It makes me drop weight and I don’t sleep well. Do you think you could heal this or could my brain get more optimized using neurofeedback?”
The hope of course is always yes, so what will happen is I’ll do an intake with that person and I will be looking for all kinds of things. Everything from post-traumatic experiences to brain injury to developmental disorders. I’ll ask if they’re a righty or a lefty, what their growing up experiences have been, because the brain is a complex closed unit. If one piece is off, it’s going to affect everybody else.
So if a person isn’t sleeping, that informs me that there’s something going on with the occipital lobe. The back of the head. So if they have an attention and focus problem, they may have more of a left front issue, which is more of an executive functioning problem than an actual focus problem, and I’m not going to know that until I put electrodes on their head and watch the live EEG, but I’ll do that intake first then I will determine the best way to treat and we’ll proceed from there. Typically, the commitment is about 20 sessions. Sometimes as few as 10 but it may be as much as 60.
Now that depends. Is that person post-concussive? Have they had been exposed, for example, in the case with a veteran I worked with, more than a hundred blast injuries when they’re in Afghanistan? Or was that person a football player? I’m part of an NFL study and I might get some linebacker who’s had their head smashed thousands of times.
So that person’s brain and how quick they’re going to heal and establish some new neural pathways and to optimize their own brain function is very different than someone who maybe a 50-year-old woman who’s going through menopause who’s having some sleep issues and maybe some memory loss and who wants to optimize her brain. Just different. Everyone is 100% unique, every person who walks through the door.
Dr. Lisa B.: So by putting, by listening to what people have to say and their story and their symptoms and their diagnoses but then also by doing brain wave readings, electrical brain wave readings, you’re able to come up with some way of helping people shift those patterns?
Pam Blodgett: Yes. So a person, each sessions with the equipment that I primarily use, there’s different types of neurofeedback equipment but, in general, the principles are the same. That by putting electrodes on the head, it’s completely … It’s not invasive and it’s not painful so people don’t have to be afraid that it’s electroshock therapy. It’s not transcranial magnetic stimulation. It’s in the level of invasiveness, it goes up.
So I put electrodes on the head. Five of them. One in the back of the neck, two behind the ears. Those are reference points. The one in the neck is a ground and then two are actives and so it’s reading the electricity that is coming off of the head and they can see it on the screen. I have a very wide screen, as if you’re watching a football game, and they get to see their brain live.
And so for example, when I start at the front of the head, I work front to back to front and so when I’m working the frontal lobe, that’s going to inform me, now does that person have a plethora of slow wave activity? If they’re an adult, I’m going to pretend that we have a nice 27-year-old sitting in the chair. There are placements that are based on what’s called the 10-20 system. I don’t want to get too specific here but everyone in neurology learns it and they are classic placements.
So you’ll work from the front. It’s going to inform on the left side, does that person have a logical sequential issue, more of in that executive function domain, or do they have good emotional regulation? So the right hemisphere of the brain is more in charge of emotional regulation, depression, how you approach other people. So again, after that intake in the person’s own complaints and issues that they’re dealing with, I’ll have an idea of what I’m going to be looking at but I’m always surprised.
So I start there and that’s going to inform me. For example, they may say, “These are …,” I’m trying to think of specific clients. I’ll say, “Well, this is interesting that you complain about ADHD and yet I’m not seeing excessive high wave activity at the motor cortex of the brain. The top. I’m pointing to my head and no one could see me doing that, but then there might be, and so I might get surprised.
And I might have a client, I’ll say, “Wow, look at all that high wave activity that’s happening at the top of your head,” where it should be more of an alpha range. More of a focused-yet-relaxed state. And when I see excessive beta wave, that’s a high-speed activity. It’s paying attention or maybe driving your car, that’s in the beta range, or doing your taxes, yay, and I’ll ask them. I’d say, “Well, how do you sleep?” One of the funniest responses I’ve gotten is, “Well, when I wake up in the morning, my pillow’s in the kitchen.” And I said, “Well, how do you manage all this excessive motor activity?” They said, “I have to jog or do something physical every single day, just to calm my body down.”
So those kinds of things inform me, so when I see it in a child, excessive motor activity, I will suggest to the parent, “This is a kid. You need to get out and jog and run and walk and have a skateboard, whatever that activity is, to wear off some of that excessive activity.” In terms of slow wave activity in the front of the brain, I can also be informed, for example, even if a client doesn’t disclose if a person is smoking pot frequently because I’ll see a plethora of alpha wave activity.
And they may be on a medical marijuana card, and I don’t have a problem with that at all. However, if they come in with a complaint of depression and then I found out that they’re smoking pot every night to reduce anxiety, I will inform them and say, “Here’s your brain. This is what it looks like on pot. You might just want to do an experiment.” The same happens with Red Bull use, excessive coffee use, or stimulants. I’ll say, “Well, I understand the choice that you’re making and why. Let’s look at your brain. Here’s what it’s doing. Here’s what it looks like, and you just might want to think about the choices that you’re making and experiment. Just experiment. Let’s see how you feel after a month of no pot. And let’s see what the brain looks like and see how you feel.”
See what your functioning is because an excess of alpha wave in the right frontal lobe will inform me they may feel depressed. And if they do, now they’re a more informed consumer of their own life. They can now make a choice about other ways they might want to deal with their anxiety and depression that is not chemically-based.
Dr. Lisa B.: And you talked about Red Bull, caffeine, other substances. What do you see in the brain waves with those things?
Pam Blodgett: That will jack up the brain so they’ll have more beta wave activity and that might give them anxiety, so if someone comes in and complaints about not sleeping and anxiousness or anxiety or fidgeting excessively, we’ll take a look at their brain and I’ll talk about their habits and what that’s doing and just ask them to make an experiment for themselves. Not for me. I’m not dictating. But I think it helps and I would say nearly 100% of people, when they’re ready and usually by the time they walk in my door, they’re very ready to make their own choices and they’re in their own best interest and I’m just an informant.
Dr. Lisa B.: And what about things like sleep and exercise and other types of healthy activities, what do those do to the brain?
Pam Blodgett: Well, it appears that when a brain can calm itself, meditation is a perfect example. The best brains on the planet, and I say this every day in my office, are owned by meditators. And we know this from QEEG, quantitative electroencephalogram studies that put lots of electrodes on the heads of people who’ve been meditating for 30 years.
When I say I’m the best, it means that we measure intelligence by the level of alpha wave activity in the brain. And a person who’s brain can be the most responsive, meaning they don’t get stuck in certain patterns of response. A person, when you’re in an alpha wave pattern, it’s like in a good idle. You’re aware and anyone who meditates know you close your eyes and your brain will start to make in the frontal lobe more alpha wave. That will allow you to be relaxed yet focused.
You don’t do that driving a car, but you do that when you’re trying to let go of a lot of excessive stress and that will improve your focus and it also raise your IQ. So these are all things that even while I’m treating, putting electrodes on and the brain is … I call it going to the gym. It’s why my business is called Brain Training of New England, and I tell people, “You don’t expect to make a gym membership in January and look like Arnold Schwarzenegger by February.” That’s not a realistic goal.
And training your brain in new patterns, having increased blood flow, making new neural networks … There’s a phrase that I love, I believe it was Dr. Amon who said, “So brain cells that fire together, wire together.” So if you’re making new pathways that are wiring those little pathways in, you’re going to have new ways. If there’s only one way up a mountain and that gets snowed in in February, you’re not going to get up the mountain. But if you have 16 different pathways, there might be one roadway you can get up to the top of the mountain. Same in the brain.
For example, a learning disabled student, and these are all alive people I’m working with that I’m thinking of. I’ve been working with this young eighth grader for three, two and a half years-ish, on and off. And when he came in, he was in all special needs services. Very learning disabled, dyslexic, and not doing very well academically. A lot of anxiety, ADHD. And after two and a half years of on again, off again, adding this as part of his regimen within the school system and privately, he’s now getting As and Bs. He’s about done, and I think that his brain has been optimized to a point where there’s lots of new roadways.
So maybe some of those pathways weren’t optimized when he was born but he has grown them, and now he has more options for seeing a math problem, more ways of looking at English and language. He’s super politically involved, and we have fascinating discussions during treatment, but this is a kiddo who I personally would love to see neurofeedback equipment in all the schools because if you can fix these problems like attention focus issues when they’re little, then you’re not going to end up with a teenager who’s frustrated and has low self-worth by the time they’re 15. I hope I stayed on topic and I answered your questions. I don’t know if I’m being logical sequential enough.
Dr. Lisa B.: Yes. No, that’s very helpful. I was just thinking about people who have had traumatic brain injuries, people who have been in combat situations, people who have been in car accidents, people who have been in domestic violence situations, I mean, there’s some structural things that can cause I guess the brain patterns just go off the rails. How do you work with that? If somebody’s had enough hits in a football game over the course of their lifetime that their brains are bruised, essentially, how can you help that brain get back on track?
Pam Blodgett: I think the exciting thing is this is 2017 and while you and I are sitting here having this conversation, there are thousands of fascinating, intelligent men and women doing research to make better and better and better equipment. So we have amplitude-based training for neurofeedback. We have low energy systems. A wide variety. I don’t want to get too technical but so many options for new equipment that is computer brain interface.
So that’s essentially what I’m doing is we have a brain, we have a computer, and those electrodes connect them so that they can have a better conversation. By working the brain … For example, the most simplistic way of explaining neurofeedback is I would put a movie in, I would set the parameters of the computer to reward the brain when they get within the optimal range. Let’s say you have trouble keeping focus and attention. That reward band is going to be 15 to 18 Hertz. That’s the optimum, low beta range for paying attention, and most folks who get a diagnosis of attention and focus problems, executive function problems or ADHD, their brain, for whatever reason, whether it’s genetic, injury, or those probably the two greatest ones because it’s not always a genetic cost. It can be an injury.
And a lot of folks who come in, such as have been exposed to a football injury, a soccer injury, hitting their head too many times, falling downstairs, domestic violence, that brain goes into a healing pattern. It will, to heal itself, slow everything down and produce more delta, which is a sleep wave, and theta, which is that between waking and sleeping. It slows the brain down.
Think about a person who’s been severely concussed and they go into concussion. What is that person doing? Or when they go into a coma. What are they doing? They’re sleeping. They’ve gone night night to heal their brain, to slow everything down so that it can go into a healing pattern. And, for some reason, the brain can get stuck in that pattern.
So neurofeedback very gently starts to encourage it. To explore different pathways to produce more beta and you reward that. When you’re hooked up to my equipment, you’ll be watching a big screen. When your brain is within that target range that is most optimal for paying attention, the movie plays. When you fall out of range, the movie will stop and you figure out very quickly how to make that movie go. Whether you are five or a hundred. My oldest client is 91.
Dr. Lisa B.: Wow, 91 and still wants to re-pattern the brain.
Pam Blodgett: She has a Ph.D. and she’s been a therapist and she just opened her own art show. She lives in Kittery, Maine, at the age of 90. You know what? We’re just never too old to be fabulous, and she wants to be optimal. She’s fallen on her head three times and she’s had some deficits because of that. Some speech and language issues and, yeah, and so she continues to want to improve her life and is working on her memoirs as we speak. 91.
Dr. Lisa B.: So if you’re, whether you’re 91 or 9 or any age in between and you’re wired up and you’re looking at the screen and the brain … you’re trying to get the brain to do whatever it’s going to do to make that movie play. What is that like inside the person’s head? Do you ask them to think of certain things? Do you ask them to relax? What is the mechanism by which you get that reward?
Pam Blodgett: More just your own experience. Now the brain, at any given moment, is making all of those brain waves. Whether it’s the lowest which is delta, theta, which is that going to sleep, waking up, that optimum state for implanting new thought, which I’d love to talk about another time because each brain state, when it’s predominant, has a function that’s important, alpha for relaxation and focus, and then beta for paying attention. So every neurofeedback person who’s board-certified has to complete at least 30 sessions of neurofeedback on themselves. That’s myself included.
So when I started being curious as a result of when I was a professor at the University of New Hampshire and I was curious about neurofeedback. A friend was doing studies with stuttering patients, and I would hang out and eat burritos and drink beer with him and pick his brain about what was this. Then I started meeting veterans who had been healed using neurofeedback for their traumatic brain injury. So my experience is that I had lyme disease. I had some sleep issues, I had migraine headaches and so those were my presenting issues. And as a perimenopausal woman, I was also having sleep issues. So I went in for that. And those were my predominant goals.
So you put the electrodes on. A movie’s playing, for example, and you just kind of figure out through, within a few seconds, that all of a sudden you will get a reward like the movie will start to play maybe when you’re just a little bit more relaxed or you’re a little bit more focused. It happens so naturally and so easily, before you know it, then the movie’s playing and then you might space out for a second and then the movie will stop. You’ll go, “Oh.” And then you just micro-adjust your own consciousness and away goes the movie. It’s so non-stressful that you don’t think about it. You just experience it and away you go. Anyway …
Dr. Lisa B.: Well, tell me about the theta waves.
Pam Blodgett: Ooh. A lot of people talk about positive thought. How do we think more positively? How do we believe that we’re worthy? How do we believe that we’re a good person? That we’re handsome or pretty or smart or capable? How do we access our own what I would call superpowers, right? So we know from when we’re a tiny child that our brain is in a predominantly slow wave pattern. That’s what kids do. Think about when … You have three children? Is that right, Lisa?
Dr. Lisa B.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Pam Blodgett: Me too. How many adorable pictures do you have of your one-year-old asleep in their spaghetti bowl or their two-year-old asleep on the toilet, right? They just, when they’re tired, they just fall asleep. Their brain is … and infants. Think of a tiny little infant, right? They sleep most of the day. That’s a delta state. And then when they’re kind of sleepy, their little eyes are fluttering, that’s a theta state.
So during those states of starting to go conscious and then moving into an alpha state, the brain is most easily able to implant. Think about people who move here from another country. I do service work in Nicaragua, for example. I’ve done 21 trips. And so I talk a lot with people about their mother tongue and their developing, emerging language and I notice that, when I’m there at the end of the evening, my brain has a harder time thinking in Spanish than it does in English.
English is my mother tongue. That was implanted when I was an infant, right? By hearing my mother speak or my father. People you love. By the same token, if we were lucky and you had a parent who said, “Oh, my goodness. You’re so cute. You’re so good. You’re so smart. Look at you. You tied your own shoe,” that goes in your head. By the same token, someone we loved when we’re tiny said, “It’s a wall. It’s a ceiling. It’s a car.” We do not question that. Those thoughts, that’s just information we took in in that theta state. It’s implanted. It’s a car, it’s a wall, it’s a shoe, it’s me. I’m Pam. You’re Lisa. We don’t question.
Unfortunately, we also were implanted with some thoughts that may not have been so constructive, such as, “Well, that was dumb. Well, that was a stupid thing to do,” and worse. I don’t want to swear on air, but, unfortunately, from somebody who’s worked with trauma survivors for 30 years, I’ve heard stories that make my hair still to this day stand on end. That break your heart.
When I see children, for example, that have terrible self-concept and they repeat things that they obviously heard as a child, those thoughts were implanted somehow by someone. I’m dumb, I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I can’t. For all of the listening audience, if they want to have positive thought implanted in their own brain, do so when you’re waking up and when you’re going to sleep. So that thought of, “I’m wealthy, I’m capable, I’m in the right place at the right time. Everything I need is coming right to me. All of my family relationships are in great condition. I adore my son, my daughter, my husband, whatever that is.”
Those are the times when you want to put by your bedside those little cards of speaking in the positive. I am, I can, it is, and visualizing what you want because that’s when your brain is most susceptible to new thought.
Dr. Lisa B.: Well, that is fascinating. It makes me think of all the times that I have fallen asleep watching something really silly on television and wonder what’s like in my brain now from all of those years of sort of candy television, that I call it. I’m going to have to stop that now.
Pam Blodgett: It’s probably a bad idea. You know, we are what we think. We are what we believe we are and I have worked on myself, you know? I don’t think anyone is given the “perfect childhood”, I’m putting that in quotes, and so we all have areas where we can improve and I work on myself all the time to be a more loving, caring compassionate person, and to be empowered even when things don’t always line up. Then I have other tools that I use, and some of those I share with my clients, actually, while we’re doing a treatment, which is the law of attraction thing or The Work of Byron Katie or working on positive thought and how to have their new brain work most optimally for them.
Dr. Lisa B.: So it sounds like you … patients or clients who contact you, you do an intake, you listen to what they have to say, then you pay attention to what their brain is telling you with the brain waves, then you not only deal with things over the course of so many sessions and helping their brains with the equipment that you have, but you also give them tools that they can use in their everyday lives. Practical suggestions.
Pam Blodgett: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
Dr. Lisa B.: So you’re kind of you’re dealing in a very holistic way with whatever issues people are coming to you.
Pam Blodgett: Yeah, and I have great referral lists and some people want to work on their diet and, unfortunately, living in Maine, we have a lot of people with lyme disease. Sports injuries are common. I also have a property with walking trails and a labyrinth so the moms who come and bring their kids and we’ll do a session, they can go outside and drink a cup of tea and stare off into the trees.
Dr. Lisa B.: So you’re helping them at the same time.
Pam Blodgett: That’s my goal, always.
Dr. Lisa B.: Well, I appreciate your coming in and having this conversation with me today. It’s been fascinating. Completely illuminating. I’ve been speaking with Pam Blodgett. She’s board-certified in neurofeedback and trained as a counselor and educator. Her office, Brain Training of New England, is located in Kittery and it was great to see you again. It was really I think important that we met each other and met live.
Pam Blodgett: I know. I think it’s really fun. People can find me at my website,, and I’m launching a new podcast called the Brain Dot Show next month.
Dr. Lisa B.: Excellent. We will make a link to that in our show notes page as well. Thank you so much for coming in.
Pam Blodgett: No, thanks for having me. Fun.
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Dr. Lisa B.: As is often the case, we don’t know always when people will come back into our lives and this next individual is someone who I met several years ago when I first started doing qigong and Chinese medicine and now he’s back so it’s wonderful to have him. This is Ken Ryan who is the founder and chief instructor at Maine Coast Taijiquan, a tai chi and qigong school in South Freeport. With classes in Freeport and Brunswick. It’s really nice to see you again.
Ken Ryan: Nice to be here.
Dr. Lisa B.: I was impressed when I went out to your studio several years ago that, in addition to obviously helping people move their own energy within themselves, you were creating a space for them to I guess explore their energy even more effectively than if you’re just in the basement of a church or … not that there’s anything wrong with that but the space for you was really important.
Ken Ryan: It was, and the space sort of filled itself out with the people that have been there so there’s also a feeling that most people can experience, although they may not know what they’re experiencing, that all the classes and people that have been there have sort of really filled out and substantiated the … It’s a sunny space and a nice space but it feels even more welcoming and warm because of everything that’s gone on there.
Dr. Lisa B.: Tai chi and qigong are very much about the movement of energy. Of chi. And you’ve been thinking about that for quite some time because your background is in counseling and is in helping people through kind of the energetic road blocks of their lives.
Ken Ryan: Right. Although, for me, I actually had traditional clinical training in the Boston area when I started out, so everything was a medical model and very conservative. And so the feelings I had about energy work and that sort of thing were not well-respected, and so I adapt them down for a while but they were always there and, as I practice more and became my own person practicing, they started to emerge more and more until I started doing martial arts about 20 years ago and then they really emerged through the tai chi and qigong practice that I have.
Dr. Lisa B.: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that. You and I both went to Bowdoin, which is a lovely school and I think you still teach classes up on the Bowdoin campus.
Ken Ryan: I do.
Dr. Lisa B.: There’s a little bit more of a traditional feel about Bowdoin and there’s a little bit of a traditional feel in the medical arena, as I know because I’m also in there.
Ken Ryan: Right.
Dr. Lisa B.: How did you know that there was this, something inside of you that was really resonating in a different way with the world?
Ken Ryan: I don’t know how you cannot know. I mean, it’s just so elemental that I was always interested in reflective things and prayer and spiritual connection so it didn’t have the format of Chinese medicine until I discovered that but that’s actually been a wonderful portal or way for me to develop those feelings I think a lot of people have in different ways and develop in different ways, but it was always very obvious to me was there but it was nice to be able to bring it into my work life, rather than just having it in my personal life.
Dr. Lisa B.: I agree with you that many people have a sense that there’s something bigger, something … I don’t know. There’s a spirituality that kind of infuses us and what’s around us, but I don’t know that everybody understands that that’s what that is.
Ken Ryan: Well, yeah. I think part of it is having it emerge in a way that you can have a relationship with it and maybe develop it and participate in making it as full as it can be in your life. If you don’t know it’s there, if you feel it but don’t recognize it, then it’s really hard to do. I think that’s one of the beauties of the tai chi and qigong practice is that people go in, thinking they’re just going to try it. Kind of a different sort of exercise format, but it is a body, mind, spirit practice. Those things are not separated and so if you faithfully practice, it affects your body and mind in really positive ways but it also elevates your spiritual life, regardless of what form that takes.
So if somebody’s got some sort of a formal, religious practice, it doesn’t … It changes that only in that, in my sense, it gives you stronger lenses or magnifies your ability to experience the spiritual part of whatever your spiritual practice is. Your connection with nature, your connection with other people. That feeling that we’re all energetically connected and very much of the same original energy, and so that the tai chi and qigong practice and things like rural tai chi and qigong day that sort of bring that idea of connection out on a global level, those thins are all built … If you practice, they’ll emerge, which to me is part of the beauty of the practice.
Dr. Lisa B.: We’ve written about you and your works. Axelrod, one of our writers and editors has written about you for the magazine so people may be familiar with tai chi, qigong through that, but for people who don’t know what these practices are, how’d you explain them?
Ken Ryan: Well, qigong is a [inaudible 00:38:34] and medical practice of Chinese medicine. Really, they’re exercises people … Well, there’s actually different categories but the way we think of it normally is exercises people can do to access the benefits of other Chinese medicine interventions like acupuncture. The goal of qigong would be very much the goal of acupuncture, which is to move energy through the body, move blockages, strengthen the energy, and these exercises have … The RND is amazing, in terms of how long they have been studied and practiced and modified over that time, so even though they may look like simple exercises, they can have a profound effect on your body, mind, and spirit.
They’re exercises, generally, the movement of your body, use of meditative focus, meditative breath, and then tai chi chuan is a martial art that emerged more or less 500 years or so that is based on, among other things, qigong. It’s like qigong for a martial artist. It makes sense, if you think about the ability to heal and the ability to hurt are just two sides of the same coin, so the tai chi masters were fierce fighters in a time in China where you really needed to have that to survive and they were themselves robustly healthy but their ability to inflict injury on other people was also stunning.
That was how they caught the attention of people who weren’t necessarily aspiring to be bodyguards but were just interested in things like martial arts. They looked at the tai chi practitioners and were in awe of their ability to move softly, quickly, but incredibly effectively.
Dr. Lisa B.: Often we will see people say on the western prom here in Portland out in a small group performing movements that they’re all kind of in sync generally and there’s a flow to them that seems different maybe than a traditional let’s call it exercise class.
Ken Ryan: Yeah. True. It’s beautiful to watch and usually we talk about tai chi chuan or qigong as being very environmentally friendly because it’s not only good for you but somebody walking by is bound to sort of stop and look for at least a minute or two and to feel kind of soothed or affected by what they’re seeing. That’s certainly been my experience. But yeah, the part of what we cultivate is a more and more relaxed body, which allows for that flow and that the whole body moves together.
Not just together, but together the way an orchestra plays together. So an orchestra isn’t just a bunch of instruments all doing their own thing at the same time. It’s all these instruments coming together to create a maximized experience of the concerto or whatever they were playing. In tai chi and qigong, part of the study is learning to use your body so that all the parts are working together at the same time in just the right way. That combination of relaxation and full body movement I think accounts to a large degree for that smooth, unusual, it’s not ordinary movement. Smooth, unusual movement that you see and sort of feel captivated by.
Dr. Lisa B.: It’s also been attributed to longer lives.
Ken Ryan: Yeah. It’s improved health, vitality, and longevity are certainly the reputation and I can’t speak to the longevity yet but everything else that I’ve read about in terms of the benefits of these practices have been the case for me and for many of my students. So we’ve seen the sort of the reputation realized in our school and that helps to reinforce our practice because we know it actually really has a profound effect on the body and mind and spirit.
Dr. Lisa B.: There is a relationship between the types of movements you do and the types of meridians that the energy is moving through.
Ken Ryan: Yes.
Dr. Lisa B.: Talk a little bit about that.
Ken Ryan: Again, it’s easy for us to think that, when we see some set of movements, it’s something that’s somebody’s gym teacher thought of two years ago, and so it’s something that’s been in the works for thousands of years. But in Chinese medicine, as you well know, there are organ systems that are identified and worked with and there are particular movements that and points of focus with the mind that helped to activate those particular organ systems, so the meridians that are connected to those organ systems would be particularly in play when you’re doing these.
So when you do a good qigong set, for instance, it’s pretty … I think it’s very comprehensive in terms of, you don’t realize it but it’s going sort of through all your systems and tuning them up without you realizing it. Same thing with tai chi chuan, but in a less … I think of qigong as more distilled Chinese medicine practice and tai chi chuan, because it’s go so much else going on in terms of the movements, it’s a little less distilled but it’s also interesting enough that people can stick with it longer so if you are doing tai chi chuan for an hour a day every day, you’re in pretty good shape, as far as what it has to offer.
Dr. Lisa B.: There’s a position that my qigong master taught me, which is … He used to refer to it as kind of holding the ball. Basically your arm’s in front of you and it’s as if you have a big beach ball in between your arms and your body. And one would think, “Oh, how hard is that?” But it, really, just standing still and just holding that position for any period of time can be a really interesting experience.
Ken Ryan: Yes.
Dr. Lisa B.: So some of the smaller things that we think, “Oh, that seems like it should be easy.” There’s an intensity to them.
Ken Ryan: Yeah. It is true. That embrace the sun position is one of the great surprises for people when they start practicing and they’re asked to stand that way for five minutes, which seems like it would be a piece of cake. A lot of people discover, but what you’re discovering is how, A, how tight your body really is. It’s not weakness that makes it difficult for people to hold their arms up but they get tight and then they get afraid that they aren’t going to be able to do it for five minutes and that being afraid tightens their muscles more and so there’s a little bit of panic going on now because you don’t want to be the only person in the class who dropped your arms down.
But all that’s part of the potential learning. It’s all part of, if you can learn to control your central nervous system so you don’t get scared and you just relax, that’s a pretty big lesson for your body to learn.
Dr. Lisa B.: The persistence is also a big lesson, and even the sort of internal competitiveness. I’ve had patients, and I felt this way myself, I’ve referred to classes and then I’ll come back and they’ll say, “Well, I’m not as good as them,” or, “They’re not as good as me,” or it’s usually opposite, “I’m not as good as they are,” but there’s the sense that there’s a right way of doing it. Whereas, really, the only right way is to just show up and keep practicing it over and over again.
Ken Ryan: Right, yes.
Dr. Lisa B.: But that’s not the way that we feel in our culture, generally.
Ken Ryan: Yeah. The cultural bias that we have works against … Right now, works against people coming and staying. I think of tai chi as sort of where yoga was 15 years ago or 20 years ago. That, at some point, it’ll be very common practice and the more common it is, the more … Once you get a sort of a critical mass, then people are more likely to go through that sort of self-questioning that you mentioned because everybody is doing it so it’s not a big deal. Right now, people, a lot of people think about it I think but don’t come. A lot of people call me but don’t show up. A lot of people that do show up don’t necessarily come back. So there’s a kind of a screening out that people do of themselves. You’re right.
Dr. Lisa B.: There are also so many different forms of qigong and tai chi. I know that the one that I practice is Wu Ming Qigong but you probably teach a completely different type, and so there are people who will say to me, “Well, I used to practice this way but then I moved and now I can’t find that same teacher anymore. I can’t find that same community.” And so that’s also … Well, it’s kind of similar to yoga. The different types of yoga that are out there.
Ken Ryan: Right, except there’s probably a lot more. I think there are thousands of different qigong sets and practices so what I’ve tried to do is find really good teachers and then hold on to the ones that really spoke to me. So we play around with 8 or 10 different qigong practice sets or approaches but we also have our favorites that we know are the gold standard of what’s going to be really good for us if we just do that one thing.
Dr. Lisa B.: Give some examples of those.
Ken Ryan: Our primary qigong set was created by a man named Feng Zhiqiang, who is now dead but was very well-known and very well-respected for many, many years. He created a set called the Hunyuan Qigong Primordial Set, although primordial is used in a lot of titles so it doesn’t narrow down that much, but that set is incredibly comprehensive. You can tell at the end that you’ve sort of … You can tell you’ve gotten to all the parts of your body and we’ve had people many times, coming in with a cold that’s just coming on and they’re just in that stage where you know you’re going to be sick for the next week. They do the set with us and they walk out and, poof, it’s gone.
I’ve had experience many times. It’s our sort of go-to set that we definitely want to keep going, but then there are others that have certain characteristics. Some that are more lively and big movements and some that are quieter and more we call wuji or still movements or stillness with movement, and sometimes it’s what season is it, what we feel like doing, or what do we just need today. You can also combine them with the seasons. The five elements. And so in the winter time, we’re more likely to do quiet, more yin practices that address the kidneys and that sort of water elements. Now that we’re in spring, we’re going to start moving more and doing more things like that.
Can I put in a plug for the World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, which sort of speaks to this because it’s got that international aspect that draws in so many different practices from around the world? So over 15 years ago now, a guy in Kansas got his tai chi, qigong community together and got out on the steps of either their library or hospital, I can’t remember which one, and did a presentation. Demonstrations and talking about tai chi and qigong. And somehow that got to CNN or some of the bigger outlets and it got some legs and so he continued to do that but sort of invited people from around the country and then around the world to also on the last Saturday of April, 10:00 in the morning, get together in your community and demonstrate and invite people to come in and give information.
Now, it’s this huge global event that happens in over 80 … I mean, it’s all over the world. Big cities, little villages, small towns, and it starts at 10:00 the first time zone, the New Zealand time zone and then the next time zone picks it up at 10:00 and the next time zone. So you have this wave of tai chi, qigong practice coming across the globe with a tagline “One world, one breath”. So it’s not just about promoting the arts but it’s about promoting that energetic connection that we all have that really ties us together.
So we’ve been doing it in Brunswick for 15 years now. First time I did it, we had seven people on campus. We do it at Bowdoin. Lately, we’ve had close to 200, with the numbers growing each year. So it’s a sizeable showing of people out on the campus so it’s quite beautiful. But the profound thing is that so many other people are doing it at the same time as well, so you really feel this tremendous connection, and the World Tai Chi Day organizers have done a really good job of creating a website that has pictures, videos, live streams so you can look at all those little villages and see people in beautiful silk outfits and see people in their work clothes and big spaces, small spaces.
It’s really a very impressive and interesting event, and so we’ll be doing that on April 29 at Bowdoin on the campus at 10:00 in the morning, and you don’t have to be a practitioner to come. We’re really hoping people will come just to check it out. You can participate or not participate and it’s a very meaningful event.
Dr. Lisa B.: Well, I could talk about this all day because it’s one of my favorite subjects. I love the idea of the five elements, the five phases. I think qigong and tai chi, I recommend pretty much to all my patients. Any one who will listen, I will tell them I believe that this is a good thing for you to do. Since we can’t keep talking about it forever, it’s a limited interview, I hope people will take the time to go and be part of World Tai Chi Qigong Day, possibly maybe think about giving you a call, looking in to taking a class with you.
I think it’s interesting because we’re all looking for the right thing to do. The right yoga, the right exercise, the right food to eat. The interesting thing for me about this practice has been that you don’t have to reach out of yourself to pull something in. You’re working with what’s already within yourself.
Ken Ryan: Right.
Dr. Lisa B.: And that isn’t something, that’s not a message that we get very often. That we have it within ourselves to heal ourselves and not have to take pills or potions or eat specific kinds of foods. The energy is there.
Ken Ryan: Right. Moving medication, this is sometimes called, because you’re right. The power to heal is a really untapped power in the body and there’s also an element of qigong where Chinese doctors practice qigong where they help to heal other people, so there’s the external healing as well as the internal healing. But it’s pretty vast and open. You could practice for a lifetime and still be learning and growing.
Dr. Lisa B.: Well, I can definitely attest to that because I have barely scratched the surface myself but it’s been a fascinating process for me and I know it has also been very interesting for you. I appreciate your coming in and taking the time to talk with me today. I’ve been speaking with Ken Ryan, who is the founder and chief instructor at Maine Coast Taijiquan, at tai chi and qigong school in South Freeport with classes in Freeport and Brunswick and also advocate for the World Tai Chi and Qigong Day. Thanks so much for being here today.
Ken Ryan: It was a great pleasure.
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Dr. Lisa B.: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 291. Brain training and tai chi. Our guests have included Pam Blodgett and Ken Ryan. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as DoctorLisa and see our photos as LoveMaineRadio on Instagram. We’d love to hear from you so please let us know what you think of LoveMaineRadio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also let our sponsors know that you’ve heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our brain training and tai chi show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. May you live a bountiful life.
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