By Caroline Hatfield
Before finding tai chi and qigong in 1988, I had been recovering from five years of multiple episodes of psychosis from schizophrenia, including being homeless at one point. It is not easy to recover from losing everything you have in life, including your mind, your personality and even losing your “place” in your family — so it took me a while to find the path forward. For me, that path was through tai chi and qigong.
I started learning the practices of tai chi and qigong as a method to quit smoking, and I immediately fell in love with these arts. Not only did I quit the nasty habit of smoking just five weeks after beginning tai chi and qigong, but I also found that the unique movement-based, Qi-inspired relaxation (Qi is your life force energy or vital energy) from these practices was helping me to heal and recover from mental illness.
As I was learning tai chi and qigong, I noticed that these ancient Chinese mind/body/breath exercises were helping to “ground” me, something I sorely needed.
Many things need to come together to help a person recover from mental illness. This includes finding the right medicine without over-medicating. (When the doctor over-medicates, it is like asking vulnerable people to dive head first into shallow water and many patients just give up when dealing with intolerable side effects.) Also, access to good mental health support services, family support and time to heal are all very important. But the last key step is grounding.
Having mental illness serves to completely “unground” someone. Grounding was important in growing my emotional and mental balance, which went along with finding my physical balance through the practices of tai chi and qigong. I believe that the process of grounding helped me to stay on the path of recovery and to not re-enter instability.
My Sifu (honored teacher, Master) always gently encouraged me and, eventually, I learned how to speak to groups and to teach. Tai chi grew my confidence by giving me a reason to do things that required walking through my very great fear of being in front of a group. One time Sifu told someone in front of me that I was his best student — in response I said, “He’s just saying that.” I meant it, but he angrily said, “I’m not just saying that!” Then, I took in the praise.
The key to much of my personal growth is that these practices seemed to develop my intuition, giving me better direction in life and directing me to better choices. Though this may seem like a side benefit, it is really a part of the core energy (Qi) work, which is an internal response in the practices of tai chi and qigong.
Not until 2001 did I know that the study and practice of tai chi and qigong had given me many of the skills I would need to fulfill another important mission in my life.
In that year, I received a spiritual calling to reach out to families affected by mental illness. I had “been there” and was primed to help families with ill loved ones to understand what the illness is like from the inside looking out, rather than from the outside looking in, and to give them hope.
I started going to NAMI meetings for the families of ill loved ones to do just that. I walked cautiously through this, not really knowing if it would be appreciated or even knowing what I might say. My heart and mind were warmed as my participation was always well-received and appreciated and I was asked to return.
I have felt guided whenever I’ve answered this calling and I learned to trust that. I would never have been able to answer my calling, nor likely receive it, if I weren’t ready. And a huge part of being ready was directly because of the personal growth I had made through studying, practicing and demonstrating tai chi and being urged by my Sifu to teach a small class or to assist him in large classes.
Later, feeling compelled to more directly reach out to persons with mental illness, I eventually taught a self-esteem workshop for over a year at a day treatment facility for people with mental illness — mainly schizophrenia, bipolar, depressive disorder and OCD. This allowed me to offer support directly to my peers. It was rewarding to work with them and to witness their success. They touched my heart.
My workshop was based on my mother’s book, “Secrets of Self-Esteem with a 30-Day Program for Self-Esteem Development,” by Shirley J. Mangini, M.A., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Mom and her life-based work on self-esteem were a big part of my recovery and my calling. (Mom is now passed, but her book has been credited by many readers as having changed their life, while others have said that it “saved” their life.) During this workshop, I was affectionately called “grace under fire” by my workshop participants.
It was tai chi and qigong that gave me the poise to handle such a workshop without any previous experience, not to mention walking coldly into a NAMI meeting to talk about what mental illness was to me without any preparation to do so.
For anyone who has experienced mental illness, the recovery journey lasts a lifetime. For me, recovery has become continued personal growth — once a growing person, always a growing person. Tai chi and qigong have given me a positive focus from which to grow. As my tai chi and qigong grows, I grow. Without a positive focus in the life of anyone suffering from mental illness, their growth may stagnate or stay shallow. There are many avenues of positive focus in the world, for me, it was and is tai chi and qigong.
Caroline is a Level III certified tai chi and qigong instructor. Caroline’s article, “Healing Asperger’s Through Qigong” was published by the Autism Asperger’s Sensory Digest — a leading publication on the subject of autism — in their August – October 2020 issue. It has also been posted online by the Tai Chi, Qigong & Feng Shui Institute, a worldwide teaching organization. As collaborating/contributing author, Caroline also assisted her mother in re-writing her Mom’s well-loved book, “Secrets of Self-Esteem” by Shirley Mangini. It is available on Amazon.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Call the NAMI Helpline at
In a crisis,
Find Your Local NAMI