Turning the corner to enter grounds of the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon (CCCF), I had the most intense urge to sob, tears came up and I had to pull over and stop the car wondering what on earth was going on. I was happy to be going to an interview with the chaplain at CCCF to discuss starting a qigong class in Oregon’s prison for women. CCCF houses approximately 900 inmates and has several areas: temporary men’s quarters and the women’s prison which is divided into medium and minimum security. After a moment I realized my empathetic nature had kicked in and the feelings were coming from the prison.

After five years of thinking about teaching qigong there, I had an opportunity to teach qigong to a group of people whom I felt could benefit from the the healing powers of qigong. As I went through security, met the chaplain who immediately gave me a tour of Medium Security, and heard the cell doors opening and slamming shut on a one-hour schedule, the feelings of depression, sadness and the urge to start sobbing kept recurring. He and I were both excited about starting the class.

Driving out of the parking lot after the interview, I didn’t know if I could teach and deal with the feelings I’d be surrounded with. After a couple of weeks with no word from the chaplain, I inquired about class and was told that CCCF was reorganizing how they did their programs. More months went by until I inquired again in November 2006. By December 4th I was scheduled for an introductory class in the Minimum Security, Treatment Section. My class was scheduled for every other week in Minimum Treatment and alternating weeks with the Minimum,General Population. Several of the original 23 who attended the first session in Treatment returned and reported what they’d experienced practicing the Tibetan Three Palms Rising Qigong form I’d taught.

"...it is very relaxing..."

"...there is less pain in my lower back..."

"I'm drinking less coffee!"

“I’m using my inhaler once in awhile instead of all the time.”

“I’m able to sleep better.” [visualize 50 women to a room in bunkbeds]

The months that went by prior to actually teaching at CCCF gave me an opportunity to study and practice another ancient spiritual system known as shamanism—connecting with spirit and your incarnate spiritual teachers (guardian angels, etc) via a specific type of meditation. That training prepared me to teach at CCCF. People would ask me if I was afraid of teaching in a prison. That surprised me, because the only hesitation I had in the beginning was being able to deal with my empathetic abilities and to deal with the prison bureaucracy.

The real challenge was teaching to a class where there were a variety of new students, curiosity seekers, regular students, and those who wanted to advance in their qigong practice. It’s comparable to teaching to several grades in the old one-room schoolhouse. My lesson plans were very quickly tossed out leaving my classes almost entirely spirit and student driven. I do come in with an idea of what I want to share with the class; but often their own spirit-driven feedback dictates what happens.

Did I ever learn to include singing in a qigong class? NO, but after the first time I shared a couple of dittys from the anthropology class I’d been taking, singing is now part of the qigong class. A couple of students have even shared the songs they’ve channeled from spirit with the class. We’ve done Tibetan qigong forms, Essence qigong, used rattles as meditative tools, had Native American-style talking circles after qigong, discussed how to shield from negative energies, laughed together and cried together. There are so many times I feel more like the student than the teacher.

The Treatment and General Population groups are housed separately and cannot intermingle except for a church service or special event, so I was teaching one night a week almost every week to two different groups. Students came and went. It’s a real joy to have a student drop the class when you know they are going home. Suddenly one day, I was informed that the two groups were going to be allowed to attend the same qigong class. After that, there have seldom been classes with fewer than eight ladies.

As certified qigong teachers, we’ve been instructed to discourage our students from teaching on their own due to the possibility of qi diviation. When I found out that my students were chatting up qigong and teaching others the Three Palms form, I was ethically conflicted about what I needed to do. Spirit spoke and I realized that they were probably the best ones to speak to the effectiveness of qigong through their own experience. One day a week for an hour and forty-five minutes when I was there didn’t compare to them being there 24/7. Many of my students already have a good knowledge of energy, the chakras, acupuncture, and many other energetic forms of healing and spiritual practices. They have reported experiencing every form of paranormal experience: seeing auras, clairvoyance, clairaudience, channeling music and art, and angelic visitation to name a few. At one of Friday’s classes a student brought in incredible drawings of dreams she’d had, another shared a page from the book she is writing, she also shared a moving song she’d channeled, and someone else was given a message while walking in the prison yard.

One of the most touching stories came from a regular student who “disappeared” for awhile. When she returned to class, she related that she had been sent back to Medium and put “in the hole.” While there she said she was finally able to meditate! What follows are statements from some of my current class. They have given their permission to use their names along with their story. What they have to say is the real heart of this article.

“My name is Peggy and I have been attending Qigong for about three months now. The instructor JoAnn is awesome and is definitely a font of information. Our group is like a little family and it feels good to belong. I used to be real negative and no matter how much I tried I couldn’t shake it. Qigong has literally turned my life around. I am now a positive person whom people like to be around. I feel good in my own skin. Thank you JoAnn for you have definitely touched my life.” Peggy Payan

“…after the 1st [Essence] class, there was no pain in my shoulder for three days…”

“…it is easier for me to stay positive in all this negative energy…”

“Qigong has become a very big part of my newfound spiritual growth. As most, I came to qigong with reservations. However, after attending and gathering information. The experience has been fantastic. I’m not ill anymore, my mind is clearer and I can focus my thoughts and gather healing energy. The warmth and serenity of my friend, and very educated instructor, have made qigong a wonderful, safe and healthy addition in my Christian walk with Christ. [A message she received] “Creation—as humans were put on earth to enjoy and gather the healing elements. No matter what your belief may be, our directions are all the same. May we be open channels to receive our creator’s gifts of energy and spiritual light.” Amy Madrigal

“Qigong has been a very healthy outlet for me to help with the negative energy and to bring in very positive energy and to bring the good in and keep it. I thank the energys and the peacefulness that I get. Thank You” Gloria

“Qigong has become an anchor for me here, where the energies around me are often chaotic and quite draining. It brings me quickly and beautifully back to my center. I am grateful to have access to learning such a potent, powerful art in the midst of such a tumultuous place in my life.” Krystal Barger

“One morning I woke up and my face had no movement on the right side—no smile, no eye lid or eye brow movement—no blink, very bad news—complete paralysis—very scary. [It was] Bell’s Palsy. This was the week I decided to check out qigong. When I first experienced [Tibetan] Three Palms Rising, it felt like the most natural movement, as if I’d done it before. Class is on Friday. On Saturday of the following week I saw, and others saw, a slight improvement in my eyebrow movement. Over the next three weeks slowly the movement returned to my face. I noticed after my practice a twitching sensation in my eye. Four weeks from the onset my paralysis was almost completely healing. I continue to practice and reap the benefits of my new practice. Qigong Heals!! Thank You.” Michele

“Qigong has helped me find my inner power and shown me how important my connection with the universe is. Strengthening my peaceful nature and helping my journey unfold with such immense beauty. Namaste” Laurie Thrasher

“Qigong to me is my time to circulate my energy and center myself for a positive life experience. I enjoy time with people that are open and receptive to share my life experiences. Thank You PS: I love you a lot JoAnn” Toni

“Qigong is about energy. Well, the first time I came I had the best experience. When I was done with the class I was so moved. I have some problem with my siatic nerve and with the energy I was pain free for three days. I was so impressed. It is the most calming thing I have done for myself in years.” Gail Hernandez

“Qigong has been an excellent escape from the everyday hassles of prison treatment. I look forward to Friday nights with Jo Ann. The forms of Qigong I am being taught are very relazing and helpful. Definitely helps keep me grounded and stress free at least for a few hours. What I’m being taught falls into my spiritual beliefs as well.” Erin McIntyre

“Coming to qigong is a wonderful relief from the daily routine that is prison life. The forms being taught to us are great and easy to remember. I can do what I’m being taught in the yard by myself anytime. I thank Jo Ann for all that she is helping me learn. She has a plethora of information on other information as well. This is definitely something I will take home from my prison experience.” Shannon Moore

“My life has developed in many ways since I began chi-gong. It has opened up parts of my psyche and eased my anxiety in ways I never knew possible. I’ve continued to grow in myself as I practice chi-gong. I hope more people learn and explore chi-gong. It will change their life. It has min, and for this I’m grateful.” Billie Bates

It’s auspicious that one of my students was given the following message that fits so nicely with the theme of unlocking the chains of the mind.

“How do you see your aura? Look inside, tell me what you see.
How do you see your aura? Tell me are you free?
Take a look inside, found or are you free?
Take a look at your aura as you draw in energy.” AM

Blessings come in many forms and one of mine has been to meet these amazing women who have been through some of life’s most severe challenges. They’ve told me that they sometimes wonder why their life’s path led to CCCF; and how they are grateful for the opportunities they’ve had in prison for learning, self-improvement, friendship and a chance to re-enter mainstream society with a new focus on what they want the rest of their path to be like. It is an awesome experience to share qigong with them and watch as their physical and mental “chains” fall away, the spirit light of their eyes brighten and they leave class after sharing “qi-hugs” all around. They may be locked up in prison; but their spirits and minds can be free. The whole experience of teaching qigong in prison has left me humbled beyond description.

Author's Bio: 

Certified by the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine as a Qigong Instructor, I teach qigong classes and do energy work with animals in Portland, Oregon. My formal study of energy medicine began while removing cataracts from my right eye using the power of the mind for healing. Master Wang Zi-Sheng Rinpoche accepted me as a healing apprentice in 1996. Intent on developing skills as a qigong practitioner, I've travel to China and Tibet to study qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine. In the summer of 2001, I was honored to be invited to teach qigong as an ongoing part of qigong study trips to China and Tibet. For three years I studied with and was a teaching assistant of Professor Chen Hui-Xian, the former head of OCOM's Qigong Program. My passion is teaching people the skills they need to gather universal energy for health and healing by using qigong movements, visualizations, and meditation techniques. Teaching qigong at community colleges, senior centers, Nature's NW Wellness centers, and to private groups lets me realize that passion.