The doctors said, “You will never walk again.”
I said, “I will dance.”
Medicine put me in a chair.
Qigong healing put me on my feet.
Therapists told me to accept.
Qigong told me to know.
An accident took my life.
Qigong healing gave it back.
As a youngster, I had the very unusual opportunity to study in a Chinese Buddhist temple in New York City -- me, an Italian-American kid from New Jersey! This was the early 1960’s, and where I lived, we had Catholics and Jews. That’s it. I had never really heard of Buddhism. Little did I know at the time that one of its sacred (and secret) practices would not only change my life...but save it.
Like most great stories that change lives -- or even the world -- mine was steeped in the seemingly ordinary...save for the very inordinary way in which my exposure to the cherished Buddhist practice of Qigong swelled to intrigue, and then to an honored request for my mentorship, followed by my education and devoted practice as I grew to adulthood. Finally, as with all great stories, mine came full circle to manifest the truth that there are no accidents...even though an accident almost killed me.
I didn't know at the time that Tai Chi and its ancestor Qigong (or Chi Gong, “energy work”) had been closely held secrets, passed down in monasteries and closed family lineages for centuries. I also didn’t know that it was not acceptable to teach it to westerners.
But, while my friends were racking up belt bragging rights in the “external” art of Karate, I was falling in love with the “internal” arts of Qigong and Tai Chi. Unlike the hard, aggressive style of Karate, these arts generate lightning fast movement (and glowing health) from the unrestricted flow of energy throughout the body.
And it would be that graceful, mesmerizing, unrestricted energy that would flow through every breath of my life, shaping my thoughts, my discipline...and ultimately my recovery and destiny.
In 1991, after a recent move to Scottsdale, AZ, I set out to drive back to the east coast, my Ferrari en tow behind my Bronco. As I drove out of Flagstaff, the trailer hitch broke, sending my Bronco over the mountain, into a tree, and then into a 200-foot freefall before landing on the roof and continuing to roll another 80 feet.
“Call Flight for Life. We have a quad here.”
My neck and back were broken. I could not move.
I was still unconscious, but somehow strangely aware, in the ER. My vantage point was from up on the ceiling. I saw everything, heard everything -- Dr. Hales being paged for a code blue, a nurse picking shattered glass out of my face, the medical team drilling holes into my skull to attach a halo, a doctor saying I would die without immediate surgery.
I cannot explain how the fear became surreal and the surreal gave way to calm, but I was out of my body; and at some point, perhaps because there were no physical restraints on my mind, I was consumed by a knowing -- a lucid, unequivocal knowing -- that I was going to be all right.
They didn't. “This is about saving his life. He's going to be a quad.”
The doctors did save my life.
I spent 18 hours in the ER and many more in surgery. They completely removed two cervical vertebrae that had shattered into more than 150 pieces. Four disks were taken out. Every other disk in my spine was ruptured. Parts of my hips were removed and shaped into spacers, which were fused with the remaining vertebrae.
At some point the list stopped mattering. My shattered body, by all medical standards, was functionally irrevocable.
Dr. Hales might as well have given me a death sentence when he said I would be paralyzed from the neck down...for life.
The thought “I don’t want to live as a head on a bed” kept running through my mind. They propped me up in a wheelchair and sat me in front of a window. I wanted to die, but couldn’t move to kill myself.
After a month in the hospital, I went home. Paralyzed. Stuck in a neck-to-waist brace 24 hours a day. Unable to do even the slightest thing for myself.
I was excited to begin physical therapy, as that meant working on becoming whole again, or so I thought. But I soon learned that the therapists’ objective was to get me to accept a lifetime disability, not change it.
And that pissed me off.
The out-of-body “knowing” I had experienced in the ER was back, and “acceptance” wasn't in its vocabulary.
So I quit. I quit the PT. I quit the drugs. I quit the quitting. And I returned to my roots: Qigong.
When I was learning Qigong in the temple, I would see people come in with every ailment from headaches to cancer. And always...the monks prescribed Qigong for their healing.
I called my teacher from the temple for guidance, and was told, “Do Qigong.”
“But I can't move...at all.”
“Do Qigong...in your mind.”
He assured me that my years of practice in the temple had provided me with all the tools I needed to recover.
And so I began the journey of Qigong healing. My caretakers would lower my body into a hot tub every morning for three hours and every evening for three hours. I was strapped to a chair and wore a sombrero to shade my face.
I did an Embryonic Respiration meditation to guide my body through rebuilding itself cell by cell. I did specific movements in my mind for many months, until gradually my body started to respond. It was important to convince my mind that my body was actually doing the movements I imagined -- even if that was not true yet; so, I kept my eyes closed and “felt” my body moving.
My arms would actually float in the bubbles, and after many months, began to do more than just float. They moved as I imagined.
It took a year to regain some gross motor control of my body. Regaining fine control was a new challenge that I embraced by turning every move into a Tai Chi exercise. And because I was bilaterally paralyzed, I had to learn every basic movement with both hands, both arms, both legs, both feet.
After I could walk and take care of myself, I started an intensive Qigong practice. Two hours a day standing practice to rebuild my energy, Tai Chi Kung joint rotations to restore mobility and let my Qi flow freely.
I still had no feeling in parts of my body four years after the accident, so I envisioned energy flowing past where the nerves were damaged. I got feeling back eventually, but the feeling was pain, not pleasant sensations. I continued my practice until, eventually, the pain was replaced by normal feeling.
It took seven years to fully recover, and I am better today than I was before the accident.
But then, there are no accidents, right?
I believe that both Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine have much to contribute, but Qigong offers hope because it engages the natural way of healing from within.
As I further my mission of inspiring others to have hope, and teaching them how to move freely without pain, I return to the temple abbott’s lesson about the value of the gift of Qigong:
You have been given a gift that is more valuable than anything else on earth: the gift of maintaining good health. Not everyone will recognize its worth. If you had a basket of gold coins and took them to Central Park, would you have any trouble giving them away? Of course not, because anyone who recognized the value would beg you for it. It is the same with Qigong. Do not try to give it to people who do not know its value.
Joe Pinella believes that we all have the capability to heal if we tap into the natural wisdom of our bodies. He is renowned for helping people decrease pain and regain mobility. You can learn the same Qigong movements Joe used to recover.