As a former competitive dancer with a 30-year career as an aerobics instructor, you'd think Manuela Roche, now 52, would feel the picture of health as she celebrated her milestone birthday in May 2020. But, having suffered from a compulsive overeating disorder for several decades, Manuela found her usual methods of keeping in shape were no longer working following the menopause .
"From around the age of 45, I noticed that when I started to put on a few pounds, they just wouldn't shift again – even when I underwent extreme dieting and spent several hours in the gym each day. I eventually gave up and wasn't in a good place mentally at all. I was overweight, unhappy and totally out of balance,' Manuela explains.
That was until one of Manuela's close friends Maddy introduced her to qigong (pronounced 'chi gong') – an ancient Chinese form of slow and mindful movement that promotes healthy energy flow through the body as a form of healing.
Having discovered the practice via devotee Trinny Woodall, Maddy was one of the thousands of women gripped by the live qigong Instagram classes offered by Chinese medicine practitioner Katie Brindle during the UK's first Covid-19 lockdown.
As the founder of Hayo'u Method , a range of tools and treatments inspired by Katie's 20-year work in Chinese medicine, she decided to stream her morning qigong sessions to help people cope with the anxieties of the time. Katie had already seen astonishing health and weight loss benefits from the practice herself but never anticipated how hugely popular the sessions would be with hundreds of new followers every day. It led to the birth of Hayo'u Fit – the first online qigong platform that offers over 100 classes a month as well as masterclasses and workshops.
"The gentle, relaxing yet energising practice showed people that exercise routines need not be arduous. It's like giving yourself a massage for the duration of the class – a long way off the usual haul to the gym where you dread every minute," Katie tells us.
It was a 50th birthday Zoom call with her friends that finally prompted Manuela to give qigong a go. "Maddy had already inspired the other ladies on the call and they'd all done Katie's live Instagram qigong that morning. I tried my first class the next day and I haven't missed one since. Something just resonated with me. It all made so much sense and I soon began to notice changes to both my physical and mental health. After six months, I'd lost three stone, gone from a size 14 to a size 10 and had a lot more energy," Manuela explains.
"I could see my small waist was returning but my legs and bottom also started to become stronger and shape up. There was a huge change in my menopausal symptoms with no more hot flushes and fewer joint and back pains," adds Manuela.
Having fallen in love with the Hayo'u platform and qigong practice, Manuela decided to train as an instructor herself, completing two courses with acclaimed qigong teacher John Munro. She is also about to start a degree in Chinese medicine.
But how did such a gentle form of exercise deliver radical results for Manuela?
The German-born mother-of-three believes it's down to the change it brought to her mindset (her other diets and extreme exercise never managed to curb her compulsive food cravings), its impact on the kidney and liver (two key organs where the menopause is involved, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine) as well as the toning effects of the more dynamic practices. These include those taught by fellow Hayo'u Fit instructor Arron Collins Thomas combining his traditional personal training expertise with qigong ‘animal' flow which activates certain muscles and ligaments.
"I'd been a compulsive overeater since my 20s, weighing almost 18st at one point. I just couldn't resist carbohydrate cravings in the afternoon. I would eat anything I could get my hands on for a quick fix.
"It was like being a drug addict. I even went to the doctor to get help but he didn't take it seriously at all and I left in tears. That was when I decided to train to become a fitness instructor. For decades, my intensive cardio routine helped me keep a lid on my weight, despite the constant afternoon binging, until the menopause came along and my body just changed," Manuela tells us.
Now, she sits down daily for a 15-minute lunchtime meditation or calming qigong routine (her Five-Element Flows are a favourite) alongside her short morning practice and the online classes she teaches four times a week.
"My lunchtime meditation gets me in the right mindset for the afternoon but also calms the stress on my liver which was triggering my cravings," she explains.
So, where should you begin with the practice of qigong? And what exactly does the ancient art involve? Here, Katie Brindle gives us the lowdown...
What is qigong? By Katie Brindle, acupuncturist and qigong teacher
Frequently referred to as 'Chinese yoga,' qigong is an ancient technique, originating around 4,000 years ago, that combines considered slow considered movements with rhythmic breathing and mental engagement. But it can also help with weight loss, toning and sculpting the body.
It's based on the traditional Chinese medicine principles (TCM) that state health problems can occur when energy (known as 'qi') becomes stagnant in a certain area of the body. Qigong promotes a healthy flow of qi, in turn helping the body's own healing processes.
It is this balance and clearing of any negativity and stagnation that assists in any low-level niggles being dealt with efficiently before they have a chance to gain a foothold in the body and cause bigger problems.
Qigong ranges from gentle controlled breathing flows to dynamic cardio animal flows – there's something for everyone, whatever level of experience, ability or mobility they have.
How has qigong helped you with weight loss?
The practice has been the most beneficial thing for me when addressing my own weight issues. From my lower and middle tummy to my thighs and upper arms, all areas have toned up and literally gone into shape.
I had always weighed in slightly 'over' and was very conscious of that. After the birth of my twins ten years ago, I was 20 stone and even after gruelling diet and exercise plans, I could not get below 16 stone. Now I’m a healthy size 10 and have a better body now than I did as a 20-year-old.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the root causes of weight gain, particularly in our middle years, are imbalances in the spleen and stomach – causing dampness in the body and impaired digestive function, and the liver – creating toxins and stress which cause the fat cells to insulate, creating more fat.
These disharmonies result in stress, leading to reduced circulation, leading to inflammation.... which leads to stress , reduced circulation and inflammation. And so, the vicious circle continues. When the body is overwhelmed by this stagnation, everything is 'dumped' into the Dai Mai – the girdle vessel which runs around the torso. That then, quite literally, expands, leading to 'middle-age spread' as well as fatty deposits in other areas of the body.
Qigong gently exercises the body from the inside to balance the organs. Add in some tapping and combing (two alternative acupressure techniques), particularly around the torso area, and it can invigorate the metabolism and release qi and blood stagnation to deal with fat cells more efficiently.
Finally, meditation and breathwork will further relax the mind and body, addressing stress before it has a chance to cause bigger problems. Alongside a healthy lifestyle and eating plan (I follow a low-histamine diet), a balanced body will ensure weight issues are also balanced – without the need to count calories.
What are the mental health and wellbeing benefits of qigong?
As I juggle running my businesses, looking after my home and family, and teaching my classes, I've found I have more energy, better sleep and a brighter frame of mind now than ever before.
Chinese wisdom says that poor sleep is a result of a yin/yang imbalance where the active yang energy, during the day, fights the calming yin energy at night. Since qigong helps balance the body's yin and yang energies, it aids deep restorative sleep. This is then vital for ensuring our bodies and minds are recharged, keeping our immune systems working efficiently, our weight stable, our physical ability and cognitive powers strong, and our mental health calm and steady.
On a personal level, I've seen improvements in my menopausal symptoms (in fact, I didn't experience the menopause at all), anxiety, skin, joint health, bone density and immunity.
How can qigong help menopausal women in particular?
Very often women who are in their 'second spring' – like me – simply don’t want to go to a gym to exercise, let alone find the time or motivation to go for an early morning run. They might be returning to exercise after many years of simply being too busy with careers and bringing up families to have thought about their own fitness needs, or they might feel that they are a little too out of shape or a little too out of energy to start something new.
Qigong is a great way to help mid-life women keep fit, healthy and relaxed as possible whilst being gentle and nurturing to their bodies. The two main organs that impact the health of women at this time in our lives are the kidneys and liver. With age, our kidney energy declines which then leads to an instability in the yin/yang balance. This has a knock-on effect on our liver which balances our emotions.
Combined, we may suffer from symptoms such as hot flushes, mood swings, dry skin, aching joints, swollen lower legs, ankles and feet, weight gain and vaginal dryness or itchiness. We might also find that we become irritable, grumpy or suffer from insomnia or sleep disturbances.
In order to address these symptoms, rest and relaxation is crucial. A 30-minute rest in the afternoon between 3-5pm, ideally as a short meditation, will be invaluable. 'Tapping' can also help clear areas of stagnation, boosting circulation and lymphatic drainage, and gentle qigong will strengthen all five key organs.
Where can you access qigong exercises?
Qigong should be practised on a daily basis for the best results which is why I wanted to create the Hayo'u platform that could be used virtually at home at a time that suits people best.
I do a live qigong every day at 8am on Instagram for free but if you sign up to Hay'ouFit , you'll get access to a weekly timetable of 24 classes that you can watch live or on-demand.
Qigong doesn't require any special clothing or equipment so you can even do it in your pyjamas!
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