More than 20 people circled around, tapping near their eyes, hips and knees in an effort to access their body’s energy points.
During the weekly "spring forest qigong" class at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth, practitioner Glenn Tobey held his hands parallel to his body. He moved them slowly from his hips to his forehead. “I feel happy. You don’t have to prove it. Just say it,” he said. Those in attendance followed suit.
For more than 15 years, Tobey has been practicing qigong, a 6,000-year-old meditation practice involving movements that are believed to heal the body and its energy.
Qigong (pronounced chi-gong) is about addressing energy blockages and learning to train the mind through meditation. The name “spring forest qigong” is the understanding that this is one healing tree in a forest of options, and spring is the growth, Tobey said.
It’s about raising your vibrational mettle to happy, joy, peacefulness and approaching your day from there, said Wendy Ruhnke.
She’s the lead practitioner during Thursday’s sessions.
She has been at it for years. She meditates daily and said things just sort of roll off her today. “I can’t even think of a time where I got angry. I had some minor irritation a couple of weeks ago, but I dealt with it," she said.
One of the draws is a great sense of community, she said. Before the session began on a recent Tuesday, attendants shared some personal gains.
“It makes me feel like I matter, and I can make a difference,” said one. “Balance, expansiveness,” said another.
“I can access faith without going to the faith community, without heavy dogma,” said Esther Piszczek of Duluth.
“You don’t have to be religious to do this,” said Chris Persgard of Duluth.
Later during the session, Tobey played a qigong CD recorded by his teacher, qigong master Chunyi Lin.
Some sat on chairs, others on the floor, a couple laid down and spread out. Tobey circled the room, before seating himself and closing his eyes.
Tobey attributes this healing practice with saving his life.
In 2003, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, “a symptom," he said, a sign that he needed to change.
His mother died in 2001, and at the time, he wasn’t sleeping, eating or exercising, he recalled. Tobey believes that manifested into his diagnosis. “It wasn’t so much the cancer that was my problem. (It was) the anger, frustration, lack of care,” he said.
The thinking behind qigong is that everything is energy; you can’t destroy it; it just takes different forms. There’s a physical body and an energy body. When energy is balanced, the physical body works well. If energy is not balanced, it shows up physically.
Most have an urgency to have their physical or emotional pain tended to right away, but sometimes, it’s healing on a spiritual level that takes time and patience, he said.
“I’ve heard the definition of spirituality is the art of going home,” he said. “When I came to qigong, I felt I came home to a philosophy of healing. So genuine, so powerful, so empowering.”
Tobey grew up attending Lutheran church in Brooklyn.
He said he questioned concepts from an early age, and said early impressions of god or spirit in the people around him. Going to different Jewish festivals and being treated with such love in a faith in which he wasn’t familiar. Seeing kindness and generosity from a corner grocer or a cigar salesman.
It took the form of a community rather than a religious body, he said.
When Tobey got to college, he visited different religious organizations, but had not found a home church. During that time in 1968, Tobey worked outreach with street youths.
“I was going to structured religious Lutheran seminary," he said. "At the same time, I was invited by a lot of kids into drug parties.”
He learned humility and respect for the people “we think need help,” and he learned insight and understanding during that time, to the point where it shifted his future and his understanding of god.
A homeless teenager said she was looking for the god in other people, and Tobey said he was studying the god above. “That changed me a lot. No matter who I’m talking to, they have that god within them,” he said.
That started to shift his beliefs about evangelism, and he instead wanted to be a source of care for youths. He began teaching the kids tools to help each other.
“It’s not always true that the shepherd changes the life of a sheep, but it’s always true that the lost sheep change the life of the shepherd,” he said.
Tobey teaches qigong levels 1-3, instructor certification and other workshops, including an upcoming Heart Wisdom teleseminar this fall. Sharing this is important because qigong helped with the “chaos and confusion,” he said.
We can go through life practicing love or practicing hate. “If every day you go, ‘I’m so worried about money … I’m so angry at the government, that’s chanting. … You’re chanting worry, you’re chanting anger, you’re chanting fear," he said. “You’ve got to change your chanting.”
Back at the session, Tobey repeated, “I feel joy. I feel peaceful. I feel satisfied. I feel contentment.” The group members, including Tom Hultquist, repeated the words with deep breaths.
Hultquist’s intro to qigong came when he saw a public event at Leif Erikson Park. He recalled talking to Tobey afterward, and he has been going to qigong ever since. That was 12 years ago.
Tobey offers free classes, which has made it possible for Hultquist to attend. “Glenn is very generous with his time and attention,” he said. “He's my friend; he's everybody's friend.”
Hultquist has been interested in eastern philosophies for some time. He recalled a tough patch of depression. After a year of suffering, tai chi, qigong and author Eckhart Tolle came on his radar.
“The (qigong) class talks about the physical wellness," Hultquist said. "To me, that was secondary. I went into it to further my evolution as a human being, and I’ve had quite a few amazing physical things that happened.”
Hultquist said qigong helped heal his back. It helped him quit smoking. And it brings him “back down to earth” if he’s stressed because qigong is a “petition to consciousness.”
“Scientists call it ‘the unified field,’” he said. "Religious people call it ‘god.’ We’re all trying to strengthen that connection.”