Montana State University

MSU students use yoga, qi gong and meditation to help themselves and others

February 7, 2006 -- By Carol Flaherty

John Christopher, center, and his class practice qi gong as part of a class he offers for counseling students at MSU. MSU photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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Montana State University counseling students are learning how yoga, qi gong and meditation can help them help others and weather the stresses of their own profession.

John Christopher's "Mind-Body Medicine and the Art of Self-Care" at Montana State University does just that. It provides master's level counseling students with experience in three mind-body traditions: yoga, qi gong (pronounced "chi gong") and meditation. The class helps students explore how they might use the techniques for themselves and in counseling others.

After a recent morning session of qi gong and yoga, the students described using the techniques. One student said she used a breathing technique to calm a client whose tensions were rising during a session.

"It worked beautifully," the student said. "It slowed everything down and centered her."

Another student said that after experiencing meditation, she is more comfortable with silence during a counseling session. "I was very aware of just being," she said.

Christopher is in his fifth year of offering the class to students, and has had articles based on an evaluation study of the class accepted in three professional journals: the "Journal of Humanistic Psychology," "Journal of Counseling and Development" and the "Teachers College Record."

"Health workers are particularly vulnerable to stress overload," Christopher said. "They can experience 'vicarious traumatization' that can harm them or reduce their effectiveness. This class gives student counselors the tools for self-care."

Christopher, in addition to being an MSU counselor and psychologist, has practiced yoga and meditation more than 20 years. For the MSU Counseling students, he teaches a twice weekly, 75 minute practice that includes elements of hatha yoga, meditation, qi gong and relaxation techniques. The students are required to practice outside of class for at least 45 minutes four times a week, complete readings in the disciplines, and keep a detailed journal of their physical and mental responses to class-related experiences. Focus groups and journal responses were used as part of the evaluation study for the published articles. Students had the option of not having their responses included in the study, though no students chose to withhold their data. Their responses were anonymous.

Christopher and colleagues used content analysis to determine themes from the focus groups and student journals, and found the students reported increased strength, flexibility and physical balance.

"I feel that my body is more energized even in the morning," a former student wrote. "There are many positive physical changes that I am grateful for."

A majority of students reported that they developed an increased ability to deal with strong and threatening emotions.

"I was surprised at how emotional the class was on many levels," another wrote. "My experience with slowing down and letting go was something I have not done for years. . . . Class gave me a tool to work with in terms of letting go of things. I feel as though now I process and reflect on things until I have some sort of peace with them."

A student also wrote of a growing empathy for others. "I have been noticing my capacity for empathy has increased as I have been engaged in this class," that student wrote. "I have a notion this is the result of becoming aware when I am being judgmental of others or myself."

Some of the students reported an affinity for yoga, others for qi gong or meditation. "Yoga is an amazing high yield investment . . . For a little investment, I receive high yields." "I am most drawn to qi gong. I love the fluidity and feel of doing it." "Meditation especially helps . . . Meditation creates my own therapy room."

Christopher said counselors are taught to usually follow a client's lead, but that the counselor can "gently encourage them to experience themselves in new ways" through breathing or directed movement.

"Most students reported intentions of integrating mindfulness practices into their future profession," Christopher wrote.

Contact: John Christopher,