Podcast: Marcus Woo talks about medical research into ancient Asian practices:

Imagine walking through walls or eating shards of glass without as much as a burp. Imagine setting fire to a stack of paper with your bare hands. Better yet, imagine ridding yourself and others of disease and ailments with miraculous ease.

These alleged powers come not from a comic book, but from an ancient Chinese tradition involving breathing exercises, body motions, and meditation. Called qigong (pronounced "chee-gohng"), people tout it as a way to improve health and longevity. Over the past two decades, it has become a global phenomenon as another approach to holistic health in the West.

Indeed, some Americans have embraced qigong as alternative medicine, even though its impacts are unclear. Doctors seem to recognize some benefits, but they remain skeptical of qigong's healing abilities. While most researchers argue qigong fails under scientific scrutiny, a handful believes the jury is still out. They are pursuing rigorous scientific experiments to study the influence of qigong on health—so far, with equivocal results.

"People want to look into alternative medicine, but they don't know if it works or not," says psychiatrist Kevin Chen of the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Medicine in Baltimore. "We should bridge that gap between our knowledge and our practice." Chen studies qigong with partial funding from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an agency in the National Institutes of Health with a $122 million budget in 2006. But can money and science validate a treatment rooted in mysticism?

Qigong fever

In Chinese, "qi" means, simply, air or breath. It is the life-force in traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy, a spiritual energy that pervades all living beings in the universe. Qigong (where "gong" means work or skill) is an effort to harness that energy, whether it be for igniting a stack of paper or curing an illness.

Throughout history, qigong has encompassed martial arts, spirituality, health, and medicine. "Qigong is a huge umbrella of a term," says Nancy Chen, an anthropologist at University of California, Santa Cruz. Chen (no relation to Kevin Chen) spent a decade in the 1990s conducting field work on qigong in China, Taiwan, and the United States. In her book, Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China (Columbia University Press, 2003), Chen outlines the revival of qigong over the last two decades in China and the West.

Reports of health benefits, stories of supernatural powers, and the charisma of qigong masters drove the popularity of qigong. When China dismantled its state-sponsored health care system in the 1980s to move toward a market-based economy, qigong filled the need for affordable health care. Soon, people converged onto city parks to practice qigong, and crowds flocked to qigong masters who held demonstrations in stadiums. People were overcome with emotion as they perceived qi coursing through the crowd, reminding Chen of evangelical gatherings and religious concerts from her Louisiana childhood. Using Chen's phrase, the country was gripped with qigong fever.

Qigong made its way westward in the wake of other traditional Chinese medicines, such as acupuncture and herbal remedies. Although the response in the U.S. has been more subdued, qigong is finding its way into American consciousness. Clinics have cropped up, teaching people self-healing through qigong. For instance, the Five Branches Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Santa Cruz has offered masters and doctoral degrees in Chinese medicine for 23 years. Even though many students at Five Branches train to become acupuncturists, the school requires courses in qigong.

"Those schools survive because of demand," says Kevin Chen. "People want to learn those techniques, they feel good about it, and they want to tell their friends about it. That's grassroots evidence that something probably works, but there's not enough research about it."

Knocking on the door of life

Outside Five Branches, Bonnie Overgaard of Scotts Valley and her son wait for their first qigong class. She is all smiles, unfazed by the cool breeze of a January evening.

As with many who begin practicing, word of mouth and the desire for a healthier lifestyle led Overgaard to qigong. A few years ago, she was living a sedentary life and not sleeping enough. Just over five feet tall, she weighed more than 200 pounds. Then, she developed sciatica, a nerve pain in her lower back. A friend recommended acupuncture; after some initial doubts, she acquiesced. Two years of treatment later, she is a different person.

"I'm pain-free and better rested," she says. "And I lost 65 pounds."

Recently, she started searching for something that would improve her balance, strength, and stamina. But at age 62, she did not want anything too strenuous. When she found this qigong community class, it seemed a good fit.

Lee Holden arrives and unlocks the door. A graduate of Five Branches, Holden now teaches qigong as a faculty member. He turned to qigong to rehabilitate himself after suffering a soccer injury. Now a practitioner of qigong for 20 years and an acupuncturist, Holden runs his own clinic in Los Gatos, sells instructional DVDs, and even has had a program on public television. "I just love helping people," he says in a gentle voice. "It just blows me away how people respond to these exercises."

About ten students have shown up for tonight's class. The room is dimly lit and the heat feels cozy. Anatomical posters displaying acupuncture points line the classroom. Holden instructs everyone to take off their shoes, and he begins with a warm-up exercise he calls Knocking on the Door of Life. Overgaard and the other students begin twisting their torsos. As their bodies swivel, they let their arms swing around, their hands striking their fronts and backs.

Most students in these community classes are 40 to 65 years old, Holden says. Tonight, some look no older than 30. Many students are like Overgaard—they want to find relief for chronic pain. But they also seek to improve their immune systems and to battle allergies, infertility, and hormonal imbalance, Holden says. "They love it because it gives them more energy, less stress, more flexibility and strength."

The class proceeds with more stretches and slow arm movements. The only apparent difference between this and any other low-impact exercise is the frequent and mystical use of the word "energy." Holden directs the class to unblock areas with "stagnant energy." At one point, he encourages them to channel energy for someone else they care about. A qigong master once told him the energy inside a person's body can power an entire city, Holden says.

This channeling of energy toward another person is called "external qigong." In this way, medical qigong practitioners claim to heal, while others supposedly ignite paper. Conversely, "internal qigong" refers to harnessing and balancing one's energy for one's own health.

Both approaches are important to Jean Vlamynck, one of Holden's colleagues at Five Branches. Vlamynck has practiced qigong for about 25 years; she also runs a private acupuncture practice out of her Santa Cruz home. Parked outside her house, her white Volvo station wagon bears the license plate "QIGONG1." Inside, rows of jars containing dried Chinese herbs combine with her two cats for a sharp smell.

"When we're teaching qigong treatments, the first skill we teach is to feel the energy," Vlamynck says. She demonstrates how she balances another person's qi by pulling out excess energy. Her hands make grabbing motions followed by vigorous throwing, as if she is trying to rid herself of something unpleasant and sticky.

Since the concept of qi fills all aspects of traditional Chinese medicine, she integrates medical qigong with her acupuncture work. This means, she says, it is hard to isolate the main reason why her patients improve. She says she has helped many sufferers, including a skeptic who recovered from a sports injury and a woman whose cancer somehow vanished. "I don't claim to treat cancer," Vlamynck says; rather, she treats side effects and helps patients cope. Still, some do claim qigong can cure diseases, including cancer.

The search for evidence

The idea that harnessing your qi can improve your health as well as heal others—even from a distance, according to Vlamynck—might seem incredible. Kevin Chen at the University of Maryland is one of the few researchers in the country trying to use science to explore this.

"Some people think it's completely from psychological effects," Chen says. "We need good research to support whether qigong physically works or not, not whether you think it works or not. That's the bottom line."

In a pilot study, Chen and a team of researchers looked at how external qigong affected patients with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition causing pain and fatigue. Patients who received medical qigong from a qigong master reported significant improvement and two reported complete recovery. But as the paper points out, the study did not consider placebo effects—most likely from the psychological benefit of close interaction with the qigong master—and only had 10 subjects. This work was published in the November 2006 issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

In an earlier study, Chen and others claimed medical qigong shrank lymphoma cancer cells in mice. Although the research was far from conclusive, Chen has continued probing the health impacts of qigong. For instance, some of his research suggests qigong helps people battle heroin addiction. Chen is now studying qigong's effect on osteoarthritis, an inflammation in the joints that affects 21 million Americans. But few mainstream researchers seem to pay attention. In fact, Chen says, his work has met little criticism.

A practitioner of qigong for 10 years, Chen is optimistic about its effectiveness. "We're not just talking about people feeling better, but people with cancer who have completely recovered just by practicing qigong," he says. His father had degenerative disc disease, a disorder of the lower spine that often accompanies aging. After two years of unsuccessful Western and Chinese treatments, Chen says, "He healed himself by qigong practice."

Despite his claims, Chen stresses the importance of rigorous scientific studies. "There is no convincing evidence from scientific research that qigong works," he says. Critics often cite this as a sign of qigong's failure to heal, but Chen says finding the answer requires more time—and more money.

As one of the newest agencies, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is also one of the lowest-funded. The agency's budget was less than 0.5 percent of the total NIH budget—$28 billion in 2006. Chen has an NIH research grant, but talking about funding gets him animated: "Mainstream medicine is still in a position against these kinds of traditions. The people in power who give money don't believe qigong really works."

A pain worse than death

These qigong studies are not the first. As qigong fever grew in China in the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese scientists responded with studies chronicling qigong's health benefits. But as researchers like Chen point out, the Chinese studies were poorly designed, often consisting of anecdotal evidence that fails under rigorous standards.

The effort to extract scientific evidence from a practice steeped in tradition and mysticism represented China's desire to rid itself of old superstitions. "There was a lot of waxing and waning in how the state viewed qigong's usefulness and dangers," says Nancy Chen, the UC Santa Cruz anthropologist. As masters gained influence and qigong fever got out of hand, the government imposed regulations. It distinguished "real" from "fake" qigong, separating secular forms from those of superstition and pseudoscience.

But the need for regulation was not only to reassert control, says Chen. Misuse of qigong can lead to so-called qigong deviation: various mental disorders causing people to hallucinate, lose body control, and claim possession by spirits. "The pain is indescribable," said one sufferer. "It's like dying and experiencing pain worse than death."

This reflects a bright divide between Western practices and traditional Chinese medicine: The latter is integrated with a view of the universe involving the balance of yin and yang and the concept of qi. Because qi is fully ingrained in Chinese tradition, it presents a challenge to scientists who want to separate physical truth from spirituality and philosophy.

"In the laboratory, we never use the word 'qi,'" says biologist Shin Lin of UC Irvine. "It's a philosophical term from thousands of years ago, and it has no real equivalent in today's scientific context." Trained in biophysics with expertise in molecular and cell biology, Lin runs the Laboratory for Mind/Body Signaling and Energy Research, funded by private and public sources. The lab's instruments measure physiological functions as well as human energy fields in terms of heat, light, and electricity. But Lin emphasizes he is not trying to measure qi. "We measure what we can measure. Maybe it's a matter of semantics. Nobody can measure qi, any more than we can measure God."

Lin has practiced martial arts for more than 40 years and qigong for 20. Now, he is trying to quantify how qigong affects the body through measurable indicators like blood flow. Every person has a weak electric field that can affect individual cells grown in culture from a centimeter away, he says. His lab is trying to correlate the increase in field strength from qigong practice with how the cells respond

During qigong healing, the field could increase several hundred times, he says. Still, a rudimentary calculation with Lin's numbers shows the total energy of an electric field a centimeter above an average person's skin is about 10 trillion times weaker than that of a 1.5-volt battery. If this is any indication of the energy stored inside the body, so much for powering an entire city—even with the aid of qigong.

Basic physics renders distant healing highly improbable because of the enormous amounts of energy needed, Lin says. Stories of qigong masters healing people many miles away are most likely explained by the placebo effect, he says. At the same time, he says, one could disprove these healing abilities only by testing every person on the planet—an impractical task, to say the least.

The (im)plausibility of it all

One outspoken skeptic of such investigations is Wallace Sampson, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University. A member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Sampson went to China nine years ago to observe the state of paranormal beliefs and traditional Chinese medicine. There is not enough observational evidence to support qigong and no plausible reasons to merit further research, he says.

"The likelihood that they'll find anything positive is so small, it's not worth the time and talents of the researcher," Sampson says. "They should be doing something more socially worthwhile." He does not object to looking for correlations between qigong and health, but actual experiments, he says, are premature.

Qigong enthusiasts usually point to a wealth of evidence and its long history, but Sampson says such evidence is unreliable. "People's observations of what happens to themselves are very often not only biased but plain wrong," he says. Further, just because people have practiced qigong for thousands of years does not mean it works. "People keep making the same observational errors that are reinforced by a political and semi-religious view of the universe," Sampson says. In fact, the concept of transferring one's qi for healing purposes was popularized only in the past 50 years, according to Lin.

How do you ignite paper, anyway?

At Five Branches, Lee Holden ends his class with a mild form of medical qigong, instructing people to give each other shoulder massages while channeling energy. Before coming to this class, Bonnie Overgaard knew nothing about qigong. But by the next day, she is sold. "When I got home last night, I was more relaxed than I'd been for a long time." She has not heard of qigong's supposed healing abilities, but she fantasizes about the possibility. "Two years ago, I wouldn't have been open to that idea," she says. "But now, I'm open-minded about it."

The placebo effect explains the apparent healing power of qigong, Lin maintains. "If they believe in something, their bodies could secrete all sorts of hormones and pain killers to heal themselves," he says. Miraculous healing aside, qigong practitioners attest to its ability to relieve stress, increase blood circulation, and enhance overall health. At the very least, qigong and traditional Chinese medicine promote a healthier all-around lifestyle. For example, the Stanford Cancer Center offers medical qigong classes as a part of its supportive care services. The center makes no claims of cures, but its stated goal is to improve patients' quality of life and to help them cope with disease and side effects.

But what about extraordinary claims of superhuman powers? Some qigong masters supposedly lie on beds of nails or break bricks over their heads. "Those things are trivial," Lin says; simple laws of physics can explain them. Other more extreme displays are just magic tricks, he says.

As for igniting paper with one's qi, Santa Cruz acupuncturist Jean Vlamynck has a different take. When she watched this demonstration in China, someone reported he saw the qigong master apply chemicals to the paper. As with any profession, some qigong masters are less credible than others, Vlamynck says, but in this case, she gives him the benefit of doubt. "I suspect what happened is that the person originally had those skills, but didn't want to tax his energy by doing it a lot," she says. "So he sometimes used help from chemicals." Imagine that.


Marcus Woo
B.A., physics, Cornell University
M.S., astronomy, University of Maryland, College Park
Internship: Caltech Engineering & Science magazine

Marcus Woo I was five when I finished my first book, an illustrated story about a whale named, fittingly enough, Whale. However, my attention span only allowed one afternoon per project, and unfinished projects piled up. But as my literary ambitions faded, scientific ones grew. I studied physics and astronomy, both for fun and for school. But soon I found myself intellectually stuck; my heart and mind couldn't commit to the extreme focus of research. I had forgotten science was fun, and I wanted to return to the innocent wonder I once had for planets, black holes, pretty rocks, and cow eye dissections. Now, combining both of my first ambitions, I hope to become one of science's new storytellers and to remind us all just how cool nature can be.


Beatriz Carmen Mendoza
B.A., fine arts, Columbia University

Beatriz Carmen Mendoza I hail from the salty swamps of south Florida, although more recently I have been spotted covered in wool and moss, in the rainy forests of the Pacific Northwest. After studying painting at Columbia University I decided I had my fill of loud cities, so I moved to the Cascade Mountians to study nature awareness, plants, birds, tracking, and primitive skills at a wonderful institution called Wilderness Awareness School. (check it out!) There, I realized I wanted to draw everything in the forest around me and thus ended up in the scientific illustration program (with a few years in between of adventures in herbalism and Italy). I have drawn for as long as I can remember, primarily fascinated with observing the outside world, although I used to (not so long ago) make big abstract paintings. I recently designed and illustrated a board game about medicinal plants called Wildcraft! Ask about it.