Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Pelvic Floor: Source of Energy and Misunderstanding (video)

Discussion of the pelvic floor usually comes up in connection with pregnancy and childbirth or if you have problems with incontinence. But otherwise, it is rarely mentioned. Similarly, in most Taijiquan and Qigong training, the pelvic floor is rarely mentioned. Yet it is precisely these muscle layers that can help our training enormously if we know how to use them. But how?

The Federal Association of Taijiquan and Qigong of Germany is releasing a new video which interviews three experts who share their experiences and insights to help you deepen your understanding of how to develop and use the pelvic floor.

The premier of this video took place on Saturday, April 17 at 1:00pm Eastern Standard Time (USA) which is 7:00pm Central European Summer Time (Europe). The movie premier lasts about 35 minutes and was followed by a 30-minute Zoom discussion with the featured experts.

Featured experts include:

  • Gesa Ott, pelvic floor trainer and Shiatsu therapist (Germany)
  • Michael Buhr, author of the book "Secrets of the Pelvis for Martial Arts" (USA)
  • Renu Li, senior trainer for Tao Yoga and developer of the Yintao Program for Women (Germany)

The premier can be accessed at:  

 

A separate video where you can meet the experts can be accessed at:


Many of us here in the USA don’t often get an opportunity to hear what our European counterparts are doing and this topic promises to be most insightful!

I encourage all of you to attend and be sure to comment in the live chat section during the premier!

See you there!

* This premier is part of the ongoing “Treasures of Knowledge” (TOK) series which is sponsored by the Federal Association of Taijiquan and Qigong of Germany. The purpose of this TOK series is to highlight and share the knowledge and experience of a wide range of teachers and thus promote international networking among Taiji and Qigong practitioners. This particular video was produced by Martin Neumann, Sonja Blank, Sascha Behrens and Urte Zahn.

 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Quality of Movement: Water as Metaphor

Bruce Lee is famously quoted as saying, "Be like water..." 

My friend and teacher, Richard Taracks wrote an interesting article titled, Be Like Water? where he references the ancient Chinese engineer, Li Bing.

I'd like to take this metaphor of water in another direction.

Imagine you had never been to a lake or ocean. You go there the first time. Somebody tells you that you can walk in the water. You walk in ankle deep water. You notice that it is different from walking on, well, now there is a distinction - dry land and wet land. You think you know how to move in water.
 
Then someone tells you that you can walk in knee-deep water. You try it and you notice that moving is different from walking in ankle-deep water. Now you think you know how to move in water.

Then someone tells you that you can walk in waist-deep water. You try it and you notice that moving is different from walking in knee-deep water. Now you think you know how to move in water.

Then someone tells you that you can walk in chest-deep water. You try it and you notice that moving is different from walking in waist-deep water. You also begin to notice a kind of pressure on your body and a cyclic buoyancy with breathing. Now you think you know how to move in water.

Then someone tells you that you can float in water where your feet don't touch the ground. You try it and you notice that your buoyancy is related to breathing. Now you think you know more about water than you ever knew before. But how to move?

Then someone tells you that you can move across the surface of water. You are introduced to swimming. You try it and you discover a completely different way to move in water. Now you think you know how to move in water.

Then someone tells you that you can swim under water. You are introduced to holding your breath and different swimming techniques to swim under water. Now you think you know how to move in water.

Then someone tells you that you can see clearly and breath under water. You are given a mask and snorkel. You try it and you discover an entirely new way to experience water. Now you think you know how to move in water and enjoy all the benefits and pleasures of moving in water.

Then someone tells you that you can see and breath under water far below the surface. You are given scuba diving equipment. You try it and you discover much more about water than ever before: thermocline, buoyancy compensation, how to equalize pressure on your ears, illusion of size caused by your mask, the reduction of light with depth, how currents affect creatures around you, and much more. Now you think you know how to move in water. Indeed, you have now mastered how to move in water.

So what's the point?

After I had been practicing Tai-chi and other Chinese martial arts forms and push hands and sparring for ten to twenty years, I thought I was pretty advanced. According to this metaphor, I thought I was a scuba diver!

However, when I look back from where I am now, I would say that even after twenty years of practice, I was only walking in ankle or knee deep water! I had never transitioned to even learning how to float in water much less how to swim or dive in water!

So, we have three metaphors referencing water. Bruce Lee's "Be like water" which talks about changeability, Richard Taracks, "Be like Li Bing" which talks about learning how to control water, and my addition where I say that as practitioners, we develop through a range of experiences on the path to mastering the quality of movement found in Chinese martial arts.

The little bit of mind-body integration that developed from my everyday, normal, quality-of-movement, seemed like a huge change! And it was! But it was only the change from walking on dry land to walking in ankle deep water! It was only the first step, an introduction to mind-body integration.

When I knew very little, I thought I knew a lot. Now that I know more, I see how little I actually knew then and how much further I can go.

There is much more to learn as we grow and develop in our chosen art.

Happy practicing everyone!
 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Conclusion

The title of this series is: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are you Ready? When I was asked this question twenty years ago, I responded with an emphatic “Yes!” As the years went by and I discovered the amount of work involved in mastering this art, I slowly came to realize that, no, I was not ready. Sure, I was willing to give it a try but I was not appropriately prepared to learn.

This realization then shined a light on the question asked by many internal gongfu practitioners, “Why does it take so long to get it?” To this, the typical response is, “If getting it were that easy, then everyone would be a master.” Hopefully, this series of posts has provided a more thoughtful response to this question.

Brief Review
In the Introduction to this series, I mentioned how I had considered my life as a variety of compartmentalized activities and one of these compartments was internal gongfu practice. In this way of perceiving, each activity was isolated from and not influenced by any other and each activity required its own skills. Over my years of practicing Wujifa, I learned that my development is as much influenced by what happens outside of class and practice as by what happens during class and practice.

As I pondered the question “Why does it take so long to get it?”, the insight occurred to me that these outside influences either support or hinder my development and these could be distilled into a set of components. Thus, the six components of My Practice was born. As I further reflected on my years of practice, I recalled various attitudes or situations associated with these so-called components. Thus, the Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix was born. To complete this picture, I added some insights regarding instruction in Sources and Levels of Instruction. And now, here we are at the end of this series.

Considering Components
It is possible that the components of My Practice that I presented here will not hold true for everyone. I was exploring how to articulate an insight based on my years of practice. You may want to add or modify or remove a component according to how you think about the various non-curricular aspects that influence your formal training curriculum.

If these components are not readily apparent to you, give it some time. The inability to notice something at the outset is not a reason to dismiss the possibility that it exists. It may take some time for you to notice the connection regarding how various aspects of your life influence your practice and vice versa. After all, it took me over thirty years of training before this insight came to me!

You may think that the idea of components is dumb or irrelevant, that there are no components, or that I’m going off in the wrong direction, that I just need to think less and practice more. I used to think that way too. I would encourage you to at least consider the possibility. You may discover a clue to that next step.

At the very least, this series will give you an insight into how I approached my practice in the past and how I am understanding my practice these days.

My Practice as a Puzzle
We have a saying in Wujifa that “Noticing changes everything.” Notice how and where these components show up in your practice and in your life. Notice how they interact. Notice how one component connects to and influences another and another. Notice that this is a new kind of kinesthetic puzzle.

Learning Strategies
When I was learning Tai-chi forms and push-hands, I applied the same learning strategy that served me well in learning other physical activities. The result was about the same level of achievement; a kind of fluency at the level of gross motor skills and not much more.

When I began practicing Wujifa zhan zhuang, I eventually discovered that the learning strategies that worked well for me in other situations simply did not work here. I eventually learned that I needed to learn how to learn in the context of internal gongfu. I needed to develop a new learning strategy. I needed to learn how to discover connections and build congruence. I needed to literally learn how to get my compartmentalized life together. 

I now know that the conditioning or preparatory phase of training largely involves developing this new strategy which gives me crucial insights and perspective.

A Brief Word About Eating Bitter
“Eating bitter” typically refers to enduring muscle pain. In addition, the “bitter” in internal gongfu can also refer to emotional pain that may be noticed on the road to congruence.

Comparing Models
Now that I’ve come to the end of this series, let’s compare the two models side by side. I know how these two models are different for me. My question to you is, Which model illustrates how you would represent your practice? Or would you conceptualize and illustrate your practice differently?

my life compartments

my practice puzzle conclusion


In Closing
So, there you have it. The secret to mastering internal gongfu. Oh? Did you miss it? Well, let me spell it out for you; BE CONGRUENT! Stop compartmentalizing your life and your body! Notice connections! Think about it a second. If you can’t notice the connections between the "components" that I spelled out for you in this series, then how the heck are you going to notice the kinesthetic connections within your own body which can be multiple times more subtle?

Look, the preparatory or conditioning phase of training is all about discovering connections and developing congruence. Break down the conceptual walls between this part and that part of life, between mind and body, within the body, deeper and deeper into the body. Discover the congruence within your own body and between your body and mind and between your practice and your life.

When I started Wujifa training, if you told me then that I’d be writing this now, I would have said that you were full of it. “Just show me what to do!” But that’s the point. This is what to do! And I can’t show you specifically what you need to do. I can only point the way. This series is another proverbial finger pointing at the moon; the whole moon, the round moon. 

So back to the question, "Why is it taking me so long to get it?" Do you understand now? You see, it comes down to compartments vs. connections. The longer you hold onto compartments, however subtle they may be, the longer it takes. The sooner you get to connection and congruence, the sooner you get through the first door! Now you are ready!

Bottom line, internal gongfu is about putting your whole self into practice! Learn to eat bitter and appreciate it for all that it will help you understand. And then using the learning strategy that you developed in the conditioning or preparatory phase, continue refining and discovering all you can because there is always more to learn and more doors for you to discover and open!

Previous post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Source and Level of Instruction

Happy practicing everyone!

Monday, September 14, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Source and Level of Instruction

The title of this series is: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are you Ready? When I was asked this question twenty years ago, I responded with an emphatic “Yes!” As the years went by and I discovered the amount of work involved in mastering this art, I slowly came to realize that, no, I was not ready. Sure, I was willing to give it a try but I was not appropriately prepared to acquire new skills.

This realization then shined a light on the question asked by many internal gongfu practitioners, “Why does it take so long to get it?” To this, the typical response is, “If getting it were that easy, then everyone would be a master.” Well, we need a better answer than that! This series of posts is an attempt to provide a more thoughtful response to this question.

In previous posts in this series I explored six components of My Practice. I then explored how attributes of these components may influence the rate of progress in the Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix. In this post, I explore the intersection of my practice and instruction. Let me begin with a training anecdote.

My Practice puzzle completed

In 2003 I attended my first Chen Xiaowang silk reeling workshop. (I had been practicing Yang style Tai-chi forms and push-hands for almost twenty years by this time but no zhan zhuang or other stance practice.) During the workshop he adjusted my elbow and said, “Qi flowing”. He adjusted it again and said, “Qi not flowing”. He adjusted it again and said, “Qi flowing. Understand?” I nodded, not quite knowing what just happened, and thanked him and he moved on to the next person.

Following this workshop I began training with the purpose of developing the internals. Thus, I began a new adventure which led to a new understanding about the internal gongfu development process, a new understanding about teaching and learning, and a new understanding about the source and level of instruction. I’ll present the most important insights I’ve discovered and toward the end of this article I’ll reexamine this anecdote from the view of these insights.

The Internal Gongfu Paradox
My ability to discern those who demonstrate higher-level skill from those who demonstrate rudimentary or no skill depends on the degree to which I myself have conditioned my body or developed the movement principle in my body. The more I develop, the keener my discernment.

The point is that when I did not have any skill, I didn’t know what it meant to have skill. I didn’t know what to look for. I was easily duped by those who I considered as having skill when in fact they did not. When I did not have any skill, I thought I had skill but now that I have some skill, I know how little skill I actually have.

The Terminology Paradox
Some Chinese martial art terms are representations of descriptions of the author’s experience, for example, Li, Jin, and Yi which I’ll discuss in more detail below. Before I developed any skill, I misinterpreted these terms according to what I thought they meant. However, after I had developed some skill, I began to see and feel and understand the difference that these terms represent.

Qi Flowing, Qi not Flowing
"Qi flowing" has a particular meaning in the internal martial arts which is distinct from all other definitions and uses of "Qi". In the internal martial arts, "Qi flowing" means that the bones and connective tissue are correctly aligned which allows a particular body quality to show up. (In Wujifa we call this quality, "connection".) "Qi not flowing" means the opposite, that something in the alignment is wrong such as a muscular tension or fascial adhesion which is skewing the skeletal alignment. Each has its own distinct feeling.

Teachers, Instructors, Guides
Considering the components of My Practice and the Progress Scenarios in the Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix it should be obvious that each practitioner has his/her own unique path to walk. That said, there is no single cookie-cutter or template of instruction for everyone.

Granted, a system of instruction may have a general template as a guide but how the teacher guides the student within that template will be unique to that student. The teacher has to meet the student where the student is to guide the student to the next step for that student.

Given the complexity of the process, it takes two to three years for the teacher to get to know the student. Over time, the teacher develops a deep personal relation with the student; like a family relation. In this sense, attending seminars and workshops has a very limited and specific purpose since the amount of interaction between teacher and attendee is very limited.

Just as each student has different characteristics and personalities, so too does each teacher. Every teacher will have his or her own understanding of the art, style of teaching, and relationship with each student.

Muscle(Li), Connection(Jin), Intention(Yi)
There are those who contend that Li, Jin, and Yi represent levels of development. Broadly speaking there is some truth to this but even this model either ignores or is ignorant of the process. Using intention is the highest level but it is also the first thing to begin training because it takes the longest time to learn how to develop.

Beginning training uses intention to focus attention on a particular location within the body to get a sense of that location. I ask my body, “What is the feeling there? Can I feel connection between point A and point B? If not, why not? Where is the break? What is a break? How can I develop feeling into a numb area?” and then I learn how to let my body answer the question without cognitive bias.

Zhan zhuang is a practice of establishing new neural connections. The existing neural pathways are good for what they are good for. Internal gongfu requires building new neural pathways for sensing inside the body. I have to develop my intention to focus my attention which encourages these new neural pathways to develop.

Therefore, I do not graduate from the Li level to the Jin level and finally to the Yi level but rather, I begin by practicing Yi and as the neural pathways develop, my body slowly transforms from Li to Jin to Yi.

The Problem with Levels
In the world of internal gongfu the word “level” is used as a kind of relatively-speaking acknowledgment of strikingly broad differences in skill. I suggest that the highest skilled person can identify different qualities throughout the developmental process and label these as “levels”.

When I began my journey, I read and heard about these and other levels. With no experience on which to base my understanding, I created mental (compartmentalized) constructs of what I thought these terms meant. As I developed my reperetoire of forms and experience in push hands, I gave myself more credit than I was due. I falsely assumed that I was working at a higher level than I actually was.

After I began practicing zhan zhuang, I discovered that there are no levels in this initial phase of conditioning or development. Even though there are signposts of progress along the way, these “progress markers” do not constitute levels.

I wonder if instructors who use levels as part of their initial training regimen do so to present the beginner with sense of familiarity (compartmentalized thinking) and to offer a sense of direction and accomplishment.

By inferring a similarity between ordinary compartmentalized thinking and the internal gongfu development process, such an inference misrepresents the process. The beginner could also use these levels to set expectations (show me what to do to get to the next level) and thereby misinterpret the actual development process.

In these ways, level-thinking can hamper development.

Source of Instruction
In typical martial art schools (including workshops and seminars), the source of instruction is the teacher. The process flow is typically Demonstrate-and-Imitate or Listen-and-Learn. This process works well for this kind of learning. However, the internal gongfu development process is entirely different.

In internal gongfu, the source of instruction is my own body. In this environment, the teacher serves as a knowledgeable guide who can see where there is a break or block in my body and can suggest a way to improve connection. Since my body is not capable of imitating the movement quality being demonstrated, my own body must learn, with guidance, how to implement and manifest the suggestion.

The Anecdote in Hindsight
Let's take another look at the anecdote presented at the start of this post through the perspective of the topics presented above.
  • I thought silk-reeling was just another set of forms to learn. I had no idea what I was supposed to be practicing.
  • My compartmentalized thinking understood that he was at a much higher level but I had no idea what this meant.
  • I had no internal skills and I could not recognize his skill. I did not know what to look for.
  • I could find no words to describe the feeling of these adjustments and my earlier description of "Qi flowing" which was based on my cognitive-derived imaginary feeling, did not describe this feeling either.

In hindsight, even though I had a number of years' experience behind me, in fact, this experience did not result in developing the skill that he showed me in my own body; the difference between feeling Qi flowing (connection) and feeling Qi not flowing (not connection). It was a most memorable experience and a pivotal experience which shaped the course of my practice.

In Closing
The practice of internal gongfu is incredibly complex and yet it is also amazingly simple. To use a metaphor, progress is like a dam or levee being breached. First there’s a barely perceptible dampening of the soil, then a tiny rivulet, then a little stream, then more and more until the dam or levee is breached and fails.

Translating the metaphor, the intention that builds the neural pathways in the body begins slowly and imperceptibly. This fools the cognitively biased practitioner into thinking that nothing is happening. However, continued practice builds more and more feeling into the body until one day full body connection shows up and the experience of the body is totally different than before.

This series continues with one more post offering some final comments.

Previous post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? The Progress Matrix

Next post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Conclusion

Monday, September 7, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? The Progress Matrix

The title of this series is: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are you Ready? When I was asked this question twenty years ago, I responded with an emphatic “Yes!” As the years went by and I discovered the amount of work involved in mastering this art, I slowly came to realize that, no, I was not ready. Sure, I was willing to give it a try but I was not appropriately prepared to acquire new skills.

This realization then shined a light on the question asked by many internal gongfu practitioners, “Why does it take so long to get it?” To this, the typical response is, “If getting it were that easy, then everyone would be a master.” Well, we need a better answer than that! This series of posts is an attempt to provide a more thoughtful response to this question.

In the Introduction I said that I now think of training as consisting of two phases where preparing and conditioning my body is the first phase of training and then when I am ready, I can begin the second phase of training –  the practice of developing the movement principle in my body.

I then introduced six components that I consider as having an influence on my practice of preparing or conditioning my body. In each of these components I identified how my approach within that component either helped or hindered my practice. Now I'd like to extend the application of this "My Practice" puzzle by looking at these components through the framework of a hypothetical Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix.

My Practice puzzle completed

The Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix further parses these six components into three progress scenarios: Quickest, Moderate, and Slowest. The purpose for doing this is to frame the above six components in the context of situations and attitudes found in each component that influence the rate of progress.

These three scenarios have been developed from my observations and from comments that have been expressed by myself and by my school brothers and by visitors to Wujifa classes over the last fifteen years. Hopefully, this collection of observations and comments as I’ve summarized them here, can help identify where we might be getting stuck in our preparation or conditioning phase of training and where making one or more changes may help our progress.


The Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix
ComponentProgress Scenarios
Quick progress over short period of time (3-5 years)Moderate progress over a moderate period of time (5-10 years?)Slow progress over a long period of time (more than 10 years)
Activity PatternsMy daily activity pattern is congruent with practice. I can train 2-4 hours throughout the day.Some of my daily activity pattern supports practice and some hinders practice. I can train 1-2 hours a day.My daily activity pattern absolutely hinders practice. Training time is limited to 1 hour or less.
Cognitive BiasI don’t have any previous experience in these arts. This is all new to me.Sometimes my biases hinder practice, but when I notice them, then I can overcome them.I’m not going to ignore all my previous experiences. This new stuff fits in there somehow.
Body Structure-CharacterI feel free to experiment with different aspects of my body structure-character. It’s really fun!I’ve heard about body structure-character before. I’m skeptical but I’ll explore the possibility.Body structure-character has nothing to do with achieving expert performance.
Ability to ChangeI enjoy exploring changing my body and daily life.I may be open to small, incremental changes but not big changes.I came here to learn. Don’t tell me I have to change!
TalentI’ve always been able to sense and feel inside my body.I’ve never been able to sense and feel inside my body. I’ll practice but it’s difficult and uncomfortable.I can't feel anything! Feeling is overrated. Just show me what to do.
CommitmentI’ve (re)organized my life so that my practice is the focus. Maybe a 80% commitment to training.I can incorporate practice throughout my daily life. Maybe a 40% commitment to training.I’ve got other commitments that take priority over practice. Maybe a 10% commitment to training.

It is likely that many people (myself included) will not identify entirely with one column of the Progress Scenarios. It is more likely that we identify with one scenario in one component and with a different scenario in another component, or more likely we place our attitude or situation somewhere between two columns.

The point is that this matrix should provide an insight into how your situation or attitude about any one of these components may be influencing your rate of progress.

I don’t expect that every practitioner will agree with all of the Components and Progress Scenarios that make up this matrix. As I said, this matrix is based on my experience in Wujifa. If these components are not pertinent to you, then what components would you identify? How would you define or describe your components? How would you define the attitudes and situations that constitute Slowest, Moderate, and Quickest rate of progress for your components?

In Closing
This Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix is a first step toward recognizing the influences on the internal gongfu practitioner and how the practitioner’s own attitude or situation in any given component can influence the practitioner’s rate of progress.

This model may be the first of its kind to provide internal gongfu practitioners with a tool that can both provide a reasonable explanation for their rate of progress and simultaneously provide guidance on how to improve their rate of progress. It may also stand as a prototype for others to develop their own progress metrics.

A practitioner’s rate of progress does not have to be a matter of chance or fate. As I've attempted to illustrate over these last several posts, it is possible to identify the components of an internal gongfu practice and then further parse these components to identify attributes that contribute to quick, moderate, or slow progress. It is here that we ultimately find what may be hindering progress and in this, we find clues as to what we might want to explore to improve progress.

This series will continue with considering the role of the Source and Level of Instruction and then we’ll close this series with some final remarks.

Previous post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Commitment

Next post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Source and Level of Instruction