Monday, July 2, 2012

Lessons from the Shoulder: Journal Notes #98

Notes from my January 2012 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang.(My current reflections are added in italics.)

* Question: Relax is not limp but is limp with structure a level of relax?
Answer: No. Being a lump or limp does not lead to balance. Balance doesn't mean only the physical balance between heel to toe even though we typically play with this level of balance in zhan zhuang practice. Balance means balance in the six directions and in daily life. Being a lump or limp kinesthetically equates to being flaccid in daily life.

* Question: What's a good method to develop proper arm movement for silk reeling?
Answer: Silk reeling is simpler and easier than you're making it. You still have many bad movement habits the main one being you're movement is still too wiggly.

Practice isolated movements and find the least amount of muscle engagement to do the movement. Use your other hand to wiggle the muscles keeping as many muscles as soft and loose as possible.

For example, practice rotating the shoulder with the upper arm both perpendicular and parallel to the ground. Also practice raising and lowering the elbow both in front of and to the side of the body.

When you reach the end point of these movements , then massage and loosen the muscles. Invest your time in really isolating and feeling the individual movements of the gleno-humeral joint. Figure out the minimal amount of muscle needed to move. Eliminate and reduce any unnecessary muscles being engaged due to habitual patterning.

After practicing just these individual movements for a couple weeks, you should be better at feeling into and understanding the workings of the shoulder joint. When you put these movements together again in the "silk reeling" form, you will have a deeper sensitivity and understanding than when you began.

* Question: I've been working to get the kua more "in" using what I'm calling "kua sticks". What do you think of this as a method to help develop the feeling of kua "in"?
Answer: Show me.

I demonstrate how I use two short broom handles, each held at one end by each hand and the other end of each placed on the inside of the respective thigh. Only the weight of my arm applies a light pressure through the stick to the inside of the thigh to aide my awareness of muscular tension/relaxation in the kua.

Instructor: Stop doing that! You're engaging too many other muscles in your effort to relax to get the kua in. You'd be better to get into stance and then tighten and relax and notice what's different.

(Even though I did learn how tight my kua was from doing this, I did stop this short-lived experiment. Since then, my instructor has shown me another method to help me feel and relax to get the kua in.)

* Question: My goal in 2012 is to double my peng. How do I measure peng or levels of peng so I know my baseline and when I achieved a doubling?
Answer: "Peng" is too big a chunk size. Break this down into a manageable chunks or easily definable steps. For example, hone your ability to distinguish relax while maintaining structure. Then the fruit of your practice is understanding what fascial stretch is.

* In class, we worked on showing me how I can raise and lower my arm without engaging other shoulder muscles. When I argued that "I can't move that way!" or "My arm doesn't move like that!", I learned that this is an example of emotional resistance to change, an example of my defending my armors. A more functional response would be, "Hey, how do you do that?" or "How can I move my arm like you move yours?"
(Since this class, I've made a real conscious effort to notice where those instances of resistance "want" to show up in class and either not express my resistance or express that I'm feeling resistance. This was a big lesson for me!)

* I watched a previous class video of a school brother trying (and failing) to ground pushes by our instructor. After our instructor corrected where he was blocking the energy of the push (tension in the shoulder and lower back) then he was able to ground the pushes while staying relaxed.

I then asked to be pushed and our instructor noticed that I was doing the same thing wrong that my school brother had been doing. One of the wonderful by-products of Wujifa practice is that we develop an ability to see holding patterns in others' bodies. And so, my school brother was able to imitate how my body was responding to the push. (Even though this is wonderfully illustrative, it is unnerving to see "me" being demonstrated.)

After seeing what I was doing "wrong", and getting corrected, I was then able to ground the push through my structure. Feeling relaxed, vulnerable and connected was stronger. Really quite amazing!

What I learned was that my spine was acting like a big coiled spring. Turning out the push energy after I'd absorbed all my system could absorb, is a bad habit I learned from external style push-hands. Don't turn! Forget all that Tai-chi crap! If I really want to get the internals, then I have to figure out how to relax and take the force to ground through my structure without bracing. I did not learn how to do this in Tai-chi push hands!
(When I learned Tai-chi push-hands nearly thirty years ago, I did not learn how to
take an incoming push and run that through my structure and fascia system to ground and at the same time be relaxed and able to move around while maintaining that connection but rather I learned how to sense and redirect my training partner's push or pull.

Many Tai-chi practitioners to this day believe that push-hands is an internal practice, however,
this dermal level of sensitivity training is after all only skin deep and so is not what I now consider to be an internal practice. See my article in this blog, What Internal Strength Means to Me. And so I've come to conclude that the typical Tai-chi push hands is really an external practice.)

Relaxing my shoulder a certain way allows the force to go through. It's completely counter-intuitive but it works! Figuring out how to use the minimum muscle needed to maintain structure under load is going to be the real trick!

Moral of this lesson: Don't "give it all you can" as the saying goes. Rather, give the least you have to maintain structure.

* I don't have any or much movement across my chest. The upper chest is still largely frozen. This is another area that needs more work.

* If we consider muscle movement vs. fascial movement using a sandpaper analogy, relying on muscle tension to transmit incoming force is like using a course 60 grit sandpaper, and relying on fascial movement to transmit an incoming force is like using a fine 220 grit sandpaper.
(Both types of sandpaper are useful for their intended purpose. But you should not use a 60 grit when you need 220 grit and you should not use 220 grit when you need 60 grit. But if you only have 60 grit and you need to do a 220 grit job, well.... the results will not be pretty.

We all start out as the course 40 to 60 grit sandpaper. Through practice we may refine ourselves to the finer 220 grit sandpaper.)

* You are where you are and that's where you start.

* I learned some more HUGE lessons in this class:
  1. I had a kind of academic understanding of armor and resistance and never thought of it in such simple, straight-forward terms as I experienced today with my shoulder. Huge lesson!
  2. My questions are not yet coming from a place of genuine vulnerability to open-ness and change.
  3. I still want to defend and use old Tai-chi ways. I really haven't gotten to the place where I'm willing to move on to the next level. My continuing attachment to the past indicates I'm still not ready to let go of the past. This is also impeding my progress.
  4. To dissolve the rigidity in my shoulder and hip which blocks the force from going through, I need to practice relax in a way where I feel open and vulnerable. I'm afraid to really go there but paradoxically, I've learned that that's where I can experience relaxed whole-body strength. How can I make self-motivated, small, incremental changes to be more vulnerable yet connected and grounded?

* Instead of "I can't ___ " or "I have to ___ ", substitute with "I choose to___ "

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Whole Body Relax: Journal Notes #97
Next article in this series: - Zhan Zhuang Training Conundrum: Journal Notes #99

Make sure to visit and the Wujifa blog.
And stop by The School of Cultivation and Practice.

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