A guide for the physical therapist interested in pursuing their own mindful movement practice.

By Karen Danchalski, PT, DPT

Welcome back to the fourth and final article in the Mindful Movement and Physical Therapy series! Before we move on to how to start a mindful movement practice, let’s go over what I’ve covered in this series to set a foundational understanding. In the first article, The Case for Mindful Movement and PT, I introduced movement practices such as qigong, tai chi, and yoga as light to moderate forms of exercise that fit aptly into the biopsychosocial model of healthcare. Major health institutions including the US Veterans Association, Harvard Medical School, and the American College of Sports Medicine all recommend mindful movement as a means to enhance physical, mental, and emotional well-being.  

In the second article, The Benefits of Mindful Movement in Physical Therapy, intention, focus, and slow diaphragmatic breathing were shown to develop one’s interoceptive skills and elicit the relaxation response. In addition, qigong, taichi, and yoga help patients build strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination. Many conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, frequent falls, chronic pain, inflammation, osteoporosis, arthritis, pulmonary disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, depression, anxiety, and cancer can be better managed with mindful movement practices.

In the third article, Qigong for the Physical Therapist, I discussed six levels of practice along with patient examples. Seven directions of movement were described with specific language for cueing quality of movement. Several Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concepts were interwoven into the article. 

Moving Forward

Physical therapists can be confident that there is substantial support for mindful movement practices within the healthcare community at large. Therapists can explain the many benefits of these practices to their patients and become comfortable using specific language, concepts, and cues in guiding their patients to better health. 

So how can a therapist move forward and feel confident in using these practices? What are the first steps? How does a therapist find a teacher or mentor? I don’t have all the answers, but I can share with you my personal story and offer some suggestions for where to begin to start a mindful movement practice.

My Experience

About a decade ago, I decided to explore Chinese medicine and eastern philosophy as adjuncts to western healthcare practices. I wasn’t looking for specific cures or procedures; I simply wanted to understand another perspective on health. I picked up several books on the topic of TCM’s five-element theory, which links the qualities of natural elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) with human physiology and one’s ability to adapt to stress. I also read excerpts from the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text of Taoist poems embodying Taoist philosophy. I took a continuing education class on five-element theory at a local high school that introduced me to qigong. In this class, I learned that qigong is an integral part of TCM and is prescribed for maintaining good health as well as for specific ailments and conditions. I experienced firsthand how qigong felt: gentle, invigorating, and relaxing.

Flipping through a brochure for wellness classes offered at a regional wellness institute, I discovered that the author Robert Rosenbaum, who wrote my favorite book on the Tao Te Ching, Walking the Way, was teaching a five-day retreat on a specific long form of qigong called Dayan or “wild goose.” I went on that retreat where I practiced with other qigong enthusiasts and learned to feel qi moving through my body as I expressed the nature of the wild goose through a sequence of elegant movements. I also got my book signed! 

Honestly, while I left that retreat inspired, I didn’t start practicing or using qigong in physical therapy right away. After a year or two, I started taking weekly tai chi classes in my community and learned t’ai chi ch’uan, also called the traditional or long form. But I still wasn’t hooked. I wanted to learn a greater variety of small individual qigong movements that I could teach to my patients. 

My Mindful Movement Practice

I think many of us would agree that while the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world much misery, it also opened up space and time for self-exploration. I felt at that time that I was given an opportunity to look more diligently for an instructor and develop a personal practice schedule. During the spring of 2020, I found my current teacher of qigong, Jeffrey Chand. He runs an online school called Qigong For Vitality. Members have access to an extensive library of qigong videos, a forum where students from all over the world share stories and ideas, and a monthly virtual lecture and group practice session. I often emulate Mr Chand’s routines or use other qigong exercises from the internet, making adaptations as needed to use with my patients. I am also a member of the National Qigong Association and listen to monthly online chats given by qigong experts on various topics.

Mindful Movement Practice Resources

There are many resources out there to get you started. You can turn to books, videos, online content; find a local teacher; take live classes in your community; attend courses at a wellness institute; or learn online from a teacher halfway across the world. Certification is not required, and there currently is no national standard for certification. The National Qigong Association offers a certification based on the number of hours spent on learning, personal practice, and teaching experiences. Many other programs and individual teachers also offer certifications that you can find by doing a Google search. A certification does not make you an expert, but may open a door for you professionally if you want to build your bio or resume. There are dedicated practitioners all over the world with thousands of hours of teaching who do not claim to be “certified,” nor do they claim to be “experts.” 

We have so many choices as therapists to hone and highlight our skills. Therapists can choose from a number of manual therapy certifications, become APTA clinical specialists or experts in electrophysiology. Learning a mindful movement practice is another spoke in your professional wheel and tool in your toolbox. It can have a tremendous impact on your relationship with your patient as a healer, as well as improve your own health and well-being. I know it has done that for me.  

Karen Danchalski, PT, DPT
Karen Danchalski, PT, DPT

Karen Danchalski, PT, DPT, has been practicing physical therapy for 24 years. She currently practices in an outpatient orthopedic clinic and provides outpatient services in the home setting. Karen has a special interest in mindful movement, has been a certified Stott Pilates instructor for the past 10 years, and is a member of the National Qigong Institute. She integrates Pilates and qigong exercises into traditional physical therapy treatments whenever it can benefit the patient. She is the author of several articles written for therapists on the topics of exercise for seniors, pain, and personalized healthcare. 

Main Photo: 44639436 © Monika Wisniewska | Dreamstime.com

Read Karen Danchalski’s other posts in this series:

The Case for Mindful Movement in PT

The Benefits of Mindful Movement in Physical Therapy

Qigong for the Physical Therapist