Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Qigong Parent Training (Believe It or Don't)
Today I received an email from a professional group I have respected in the past. They invited me to attend a session about qigong training for parents. I am somewhat startled about this, especially because this group, like others of its kind, is supposed to be alert to the evidentiary foundations of methods they recommend. They need not restrict themselves entirely to evidence-based treatments, because there may be perfectly good treatments that have not yet been thoroughly researched, but they should not be suggesting methods that are neither research-based nor plausible. They apparently don’t know this.
Qigong is a method that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine classes as a “putative energy therapy”. This classification indicates that qigong is said by its proponents to involve a field of energy (qi) that fills the body and surrounds it, but this energy is not electricity, light, or heat, and is not measurable by any physical means. Qi is thought not only to surround and fill the body, but to flow dynamically along meridians or pathways that connect body parts. If qi movement is blocked, there is resulting pain or distress. Of course, the distress experienced by the individual is the only thing that indicates to proponents that there is blockage of qi, or indeed that there is qi at all, since it cannot be measured.
Like many other “energy” methods, qigong is claimed to be an ancient tradition handed down for centuries. Although the practice does use traditional Chinese philosophical systems and meridian charts, the anthropologist David Palmer, in his 2007 book, dated current qigong practices to 1949. The method was created by a Chinese political functionary as a body training technique combining breathing techniques, meditation, and gymnastics—with the traditional belief systems omitted. In the 1950s, qigong became popular in China as political objections to foreign influences developed and there was new encouragement of Chinese traditions.
In the 1970s, however, a new group of qigong masters began to claim that they could “externalize” their qi , focus it on patients, and cure them, even at a great distance. Followers began to experience trances, “holy rolling”, and speaking in tongues, much as charismatic Christians sometimes do. Participants no longer needed to achieve skills in qigong themselves, but could depend on a master to heal them. The Chinese government began to find these activities embarrassing and tried to suppress them, leading to emigration of qigong masters to the West.
There have been some attempts to demonstrate systematic evidence for the effectiveness of qigong (for example, a 2010 study by Oh et al). Unfortunately, like studies of other unconventional treatments I have mentioned on this blog, the research on qigong failed to isolate the variable being tested. For example, in the Oh study of the effect of qigong on fatigue and mood of cancer patients, patients were randomized either to a group that met twice a week for 90-minute qigong sessions, or to a “usual care” group that did not meet. This means that any differences between the groups may be due to social contact, to expectations, to the relationship with the leader, to effects on their qi, or to all these factors or many others.
The existence of qi, an undetectable entity, is not plausible, and attempts to manipulate qi have not received the appropriate testing that might or might not establish an evidentiary foundation for the practice. So—does that mean that training parents in qigong is a bad idea? It’s true that doing qigong will probably not hurt anyone directly, so in that sense the practice is a harmless one, however implausible. However, there are a number of problems associated with encouraging parents to believe unlikely methods or explanations. One is that parents who are convinced that they know the secret way to health for their child may reject conventional medical help when it is badly needed (yes, I’m talking about Christian Scientists too). Another problem is that parents caught up in unconventional treatments may be unduly influenced by practitioners whom they admire, and may be unable to realize that they have been drawn into a cult that can have ill effects both on their children and on themselves. To state just one further point: of course, no one expects either conventional or unconventional practitioners to give their services for free, and parents involved with unconventional and ineffective treatments may find at the last that they have no resources to use for effective treatments.