Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Notice Differently

In Wujifa class we talk about "noticing differently". This pair of words never made sense to me. How do I notice differently when I only know how to notice the way I notice? How do I notice? What does it mean to "notice differently"?

In the mid-1990s, I read the book "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" by Dan Millman. Recently I watched the vaguely related movie "Peaceful Warrior" which inspired me to go back and reread the book. As I read, I noticed passages I did not highlight in my first reading. My focus had changed. I was noticing differently.

I asked my school brother one day, "Yeah, it's great that my focus has shifted over the last 10 years but how do I speed up the process? How can I notice differently today, here, now?" He then played a little game with me:
D: Pretend you're wearing colored glasses. What color are you wearing?
Me: Blue.
D: So everything looks kind of blue-ish? And this is how you usually see things?
Me: Yeah.
D: OK. Now pretend there are a pair of glasses with yellow lenses on the table. Take off the blue pair and put on the yellow pair.
Me:(I went through the motions)
D: And?
Me: Everything... Wow! There's a different feeling, perception, feeling, something...
D: It's really that simple. Notice differently.
Here's what I noticed in "The Way of the Peaceful Warrior" this time:
"Then what do you mean when you say, 'My body is sore today'? Who is the 'I' who is separate from the body and speaks of it as a possession?" [pg 81]

"It only burns where you have knots. If you were free of obstructions - if your mind was clear, your heart open, and your body free of tension - you'd experience the energy as an indescribable pleasure..." [pg 103]

"... but your muscles hold too much tension. Tense muscles require more energy to move. So you have to learn how to release the stored tension." [pg 140]

"Oscar meowed loudly. I patted him. "Now squeeze his leg muscles, slowly, to the bone.
"I might hurt him."
I pressed deeper and deeper into the cat's muscle until I felt the bone. The cat watched me with curiosity and kept purring.
"Now squeeze my calf muscle," Soc said.
... I squeezed and was surprised to feel that his muscles felt just like the cat's, yielding like firm jelly.
"Your turn," he said, reaching down and squeezing my calf muscle.
"Ow!" I yelped. "I'd always thought hard muscles were normal," I said, rubbing my calves.
"They are normal, Dan, but you must go far beyond normal...
... I learned things about my muscles, ligaments, and tendons I'd never known before. ... It was amazing that I, an athlete, was so unfamiliar with the inside of my body. [pg 141]

... think less and feel more. [pg 161]
Noticing thinking...

Noticing absence of thinking...

Noticing beneath the skin...

Noticing feeling...

Noticing feeling of sinking, rising, expanding feeling together...

Noticing connecting...

Noticing differently...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Force, Balance, Limp

In my last Wujifa class I demonstrated how, using my intention, I was able to create a feeling of sinking and raising, a “stretch” from pelvis to head. My instructor pointed out that I was forcing creating the feeling. I thought I found the feeling through relax so I asked, “Is it possible to force ’Relax’?”

To get the kinesthetic I was feeling, he pointed out that I was tightening my lower abdomen, tightening my solar plexus and tightening my neck. Using force to "relax" does not result in relax.

We looked at the Primary Wujifa Triangle (Relax, Balance, Structure) and analyzed what I was actually doing in relation to this triangle.

When I started learning Tai-chi my instructors said to ‘relax’. Knowing only force, the only way I knew ‘relax’ was the opposite of force, namely, lack-of-force, or Limp. Sometimes I was too limp. Sometimes I was too force. So my Tai-chi sought and found a balance between Force and Limp. And I stayed stuck on this Force-Limp, Yang-Yin plane for many years. My former teachers either didn’t know the non-limp feeling of relax or they couldn’t explain or teach what they could feel, or I wasn’t ready or able to feel to that level.

When I started Wujifa, I heard, “Relax is not limp.” And working from my existing paradigm, I couldn’t conceptually understand what this meant and I certainly could not kinesthetically feel the difference.

The figure below (from my class notes) shows the Primary Wujifa Triangle in the center. The dashed triangles show the relation of Limp and Force to each other and to the elements of the Wujifa Triangle. Force is opposite relax. Limp is opposite structure. Force is opposite limp.

force, balance, limp

Back to the story, my instructor then asked me to once again demonstrate the sinking and raising, connected “stretch” feeling I was doing (with force). Then he told me to relax that forced feeling 75%. How does that feel? Next, he had me shake it out and then get into the Zhan Zhuang structure again, but this time take a deep breath and exhale with an audible “Aaaahhhhhh”. (The tone and pitch of the voice convey emotional meaning and getting the desired feeling requires a common and ordinary yet particular ‘ahh’ sound which I don’t know how to explain in words.) The resultant feeling was a sinking and raising, connected “stretch” feeling yet much more subtle than what I was forcing.

I noticed that both approaches yielded the same yet different feeling. Sourcing from force or from relax to feel that feeling each carry their own residual, body memory energy. (???) (Not to sound woo woo but I don’t know how else to explain it.) But this is what feels different about arriving at the "same" feeling through different approaches.

What I learned is that “Relax” has a certain aliveness to it (??? for lack of better words) which doesn't originate from force or limp and that “Limp” (what I used to call relax) does not have that feeling of aliveness. Truly, relax is not limp!

Through feeling and understanding how I was forcing a feeling, I learned more about what ‘relax’ means.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Noticing the Shoulders, Elbows, Arms, and Fingers

When I first tried Zhan Zhuang, I began by simply raising my arms to shoulder height in a manner that imitated holding a large ball or hugging a large tree. I didn’t notice all the tension and sticky points that caused my shoulders to raise with my arms, and my elbows to jut up and out, and fingers to spread apart stiffly. While this may have bore a vague, external resemblance to Zhan Zhuang, and despite my best efforts at imagining and visualizing chi flow, I wasn’t feeling anything internally, kinesthetically.

Later, when I started practicing Zhan Zhuang in earnest in the Wujifa system, I started with the version of Zhan Zhuang that placed my elbows at my sides and forearms parallel to the ground, palms facing each other. In this structure, I was not “tempted” to raise my shoulders. I also started practicing with relaxed wrists, hands hanging loosely, keeping the fingers relaxed.

After many months, I slowly moved into practicing extending the now relaxing fingers more with intention than with stiffening the fingers muscularly while keeping the wrists and hands relaxed.

In recent months I’ve been focusing on relaxing and widening the shoulders. (I’m carrying a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders so this is a real challenge.) I now can notice a stretchy feeling from my lower jawbone down my neck to collarbones and into my deltoid muscles. When I make tiny adjustments in my head position, I notice the lower sides of my face will tingle and a kind of subtle “pull” into the arms.

A little over a month ago I felt my elbows “drop”.

And most recently during stance, I noticed the fingers-extending feeling increasing when, or originating in, the shoulders relaxing and widening; a feeling, sort of what might be described as an almost continuous feeling of something from shoulders to fingertips. Feeling connection? Note: I noticed this feeling when playing with the "hold the ball" arm position.

So at the next Wujifa class I went to, I demonstrated my discovery and asked, “Am I on the right track?” Here are my class notes, loosely paraphrased through my own filters.

First, my "hold the ball" arm position was changed to elbows at sides, forearms parallel to ground and parallel to each other,wrists and hands relaxed and palms of hands facing each other. (See the article on Zhan Zhuang Alignment.) And then...
Extend using your intention the top (index) finger. What do you feel? I feel the tops of my forearms.
Extend using your intention the bottom (pinky) finger. What do you feel? I the feel the bottoms of my forearms.
Extend using intention the center finger. What do you feel? I feel kind of through the centers of my forearms. Not as obvious a feeling as the tops and bottoms.

Practice extending through the center finger.

If you hold the ball and practice expanding OUT as a method (as you were doing), then you must also learn how to ‘expand’ IN (squeeze) as a method. This is polarity. When you build the intention in the middle path and generalize out from the center in all directions, then you have top and bottom, and in and out, in a single unified feeling.

Remember that methods are "feeling-pointers". Feelings are not data! Don’t make the mistake of treating a feeling as data. Don’t practice “X” activity to yield “Y” feeling. Learning a collection of methods/feelings is not the same as learning the principle and the feeling of whole body connectedness.

Getting stuck on data-feelings results in missing the unifying feeling of connection.
So this is where I am now regarding noticing the shoulders, elbows, arms, and fingers; allowing my shoulders relaxingly widening, feeling expanding through my shoulders and arms and relaxingly with intention extending my center finger. (Described sequentially but in real-time, happening simultaneously upon letting go.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Internal Structure: Part 4 – Kinesthetic Awareness and Proprioception

This is the final part of a series which presented the way I now understand internal structure. Part 1 presented a way to view internal structure / posture. Part 2 presented ideas about structural integration. Part 3 presented my session-by-session experience with Rolfing. Part 4 concludes with Kinesthetic Awareness and Proprioception.

"Proprioception and kinesthetic awareness are often terms that are used interchangeably but they actually mean two separate things."

"Proprioception is an inner sense (the central nervous system) while kinesthetic awareness is an external sense (the body in space and time). However, they do work together and impact each other."

(The above quotes were originally linked to: http://www.quickmedical.com/health_information/fitness/proprioception_kinesthetic_awareness_2.html  The link was no longer active as of August 2018.)
A quick internet search on “zhan zhuang” proprioception, or on “zhan zhuang” kinesthetic awareness yields a wide range of reading material, data.

My purpose here is not to restate what others have said on this topic (Scott Phillips’ 12/08/07 blog post has a nice article titled: Proprioception and Kinesthetic Awareness ) but rather to “top off” this series with this topic.

Although I’ve come to a new conceptualization of my mind and body as being a unified whole and I’ve experienced many structural integration sessions, the question remains:
Have these concepts and bodywork sessions helped me develop the kinesthetic awareness and proprioception to consciously feel my internal connectedness?
I would have to say: No. And why not? Because:

1. Concepts do not result in feeling.
2. Going external does not develop internal.
Certainly, Rolfing has improved my structure/posture. Before and after pictures from sessions irrefutably show a dramatic structural change. Rolfing has done what it said it would do.

However, I made a mistake in expecting an external therapy to develop my internal ability to feel. I believed I was making quick progress from seeing my structure improve but I never learned to feel on my own. If I continued on this path, it could take me longer to “get the feeling” than if I were to simply open myself to my kinesthetic perception with whatever structure I have. I used an external method (Rolfing) to create a space (a temporary feeling of internal connectedness) that I couldn't yet create myself.

So now I’ve learned to stop “going external”, to stop thinking about, imagining, visualizing and comparing what others say the internal feeling is like and focus on simply noticing and feeling what is already in here. You are where you are and that’s where you start. Relax... Calm down… Feel…

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Functionality and Wujifa

The Different Ways to Train Zhan Zhuang article says

"In Wujifa, (without going into the philosophy of the triangles) Zhan Zhuang is first practiced to discover structure, then connection. This is a very functional place to begin, as it calibrates the body and the mind to be able to work with more advanced practices.
Wujifa practice’s first focus is to get the body functional within a certain basic structure."
What does "functional" mean in the context of Wujifa Zhan Zhuang practice?

I asked my Wujifa brother and I discovered that after all my years of reading and note taking in class, I had only a vague and very, method-based understanding of the principle of functionality. This is how I understood our conversation and how I now understand the principle of “functionality”.

The primary Wujifa triangle (relax, balance, structure) is a graphic representation of what it means to be functional. How can I apply the first triangle in my Zhan Zhuang practice? My body functions optimally when there are equal levels of Structure, Relax and Balance. The more I refine this first triangle in my body, the more I feel internal connectedness; what is felt by others as internal strength. This is the meaning of "get the body functional". Where one corner is more exaggerated or diminished than another (or other two), then the whole is not functional, or can be said to be dysfunctional.

A principle can be applied to various frames or contexts whereas a rule only applies to a single frame or context. The primary Wujifa triangle represents a principle and as such, may be applied in various frames or contexts.

For example, in a martial arts context, a beginning martial artist may learn techniques/rules/methods. For example, if your partner executes this technique, then counter with this technique. As the practitioner progresses, s/he may come to understand the underlying principle of the various techniques. Wujifa takes the “learn the principle first” approach so the body responds in a way that maintains functionality: structure, balance, relax.

As always, my understanding is subject to further refinement. Thankfully, there is no end to learning...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Internal Structure: Part 3 - Rolfing Notes

After each Rolfing Massage Therapy session, I recorded my experience. These are my notes.

First ten Rolfing sessions: January to April 2004

1. Notice my shoulders lying down.

2. Notice soreness in legs – must be using “new” muscles.

3. Notice breathing seems fuller. While lying on back, notice pelvis gently rocking with breath.

4. Notice I can feel more of the floor; feet squish out more. How could I have been grounded when the tension in my foot kept me “off” the floor? Now I feel grounded. No imagining.

5. Feel that I can inhale more than before; breathing is unrestricted. Felt the softness of the abdomen for the first time, felt the support of the spine, felt vacuity between ribs and pelvis. Feel a lack of underlying anxiety. Feel taller.

6. Notice pelvic area feels like a big “dead zone”; no feeling. Notice an increased sense of feeling throughout my body. A feeling of connectedness?

7. I did some crying during today’s session. Don’t know why. It just came out. Felt calmer after session.

8. Notice a feeling of leaning back. Therapist said in fact I was standing straight up and not leaning forward. Reset my internal gyroscope.

9. More crying during session. After this session while walking around in public, for the first time I’m seeing peoples’ structures; how people carry themselves, especially where they’re holding. I see people whose bottom and top halves don’t look connected. Am I imagining seeing this? Seeing people this way is a bit overwhelming.

10. Feel really energized. Felt a big release in neck and shoulder. Discovered more tightness in shoulder.

First set of three follow-up Rolfing sessions: February 2005

1. No notes about feeling. Rather some Q&A data from therapist and me.

2. I invited the therapist to not back away from my pain vocalizations. A very uncomfortable session yet I now feel taller, broader, fuller, lifted, grounded and smiling. I feel new.

3. Lot of pelvis work. Feel very vulnerable, tender and painful, so much so that I pull away. Still a good session. Feeling a new way to stand and walk. Fascinating!

Second set of three follow-up Rolfing sessions: May 2006

1. Request to focus on working right knee problem. Notice lots of “dead zones” around ankles and knees, probably scar tissue from high school basketball injuries.

2. No notes about feeling. Rather some Q&A data from therapist and me.

3. I showed how I try to open the lower back to allow the femur heads to roll forward (close the kua). Session focused on releasing fascial adhesions in thighs. After these sessions, notice my zhan zhuang stance feels completely different, much more inviting, easy, fuller.

Third set of three follow-up Rolfing sessions: May- June 2008

1. Noticed a release up into neck while therapist working on ankles. Felt like a web of internal connection; “tugging” at ankles produced a tugging sensation in neck. Amazing! I can feel that!

2. Feel neck is very tight. We worked it hard. Sore afterward.

3. Invited therapist to not go lightly working pelvic area and lower back. Painful yet fruitful session. Feel top and bottom more fully connected.

Fourth set of three follow-up Rolfing sessions: November 2009

1. Therapist working ankles, lower legs. Don't feel too much different after session as before.

2. Therapist working shoulders, lower neck. Feeling tingling into legs. Feeling muscles across scapula and lower neck like steel bands against his touch. Wanted to pull away from the pain but stuck with it as long as I could. Feel more expansive on top and taller after session. Notice I'm standing much straighter. My head is more over/on top of my neck.

In the week following this session I noticed a "tug of war" between the new more vertical neck with head on top, chin in vs the previous, habitual, neck leaning forward, head forward, chin out. In stance practice, I'd notice the upper back muscles engage and relax in each position respectively.

3. Third (of three) sessions usually works the pelvis. In this session however, the therapist returned to working primarily the feet and a secondarily, the pelvis and rib cage. Another wonderfully painful session as he dug as deep as I could tolerate. Afterwards, I noticed I felt more of a "ka-chunk" solidity with the ground. Viewing the before and after photos, I saw a lengthening in the leg muscles.

Fifth set of three follow-up Rolfing sessions: May 2011

1. Therapist worked ankles. He mentioned I must've injured ankles a lot. In fact, yes, many sprains and strains playing high school basketball. We've been chipping away at this for six years.

2. Therapist worked shoulders and wrists. The root of hip problems is in the ankles. The root of shoulder problems is in the wrists. After this session, I noticed a couple changes:

  1. I no longer have right knee pain when doing squats and climbing stairs! (That said, my ankles are still tight and I can't do a full squat without raising my heels.)
  2. I felt my left shoulder open up. Meaning, my habit was to lean on my left elbow or arm which locks the shoulder. I'm now able to feel the difference.
3. Therapist worked pelvis and knees. When I got up off the table I was able to feel much deeper into my kua move as I walked. Therapist said I was feeling my psoas working.

Sixth set of three follow-up Rolfing sessions: July 2012

For this set, I want to address an imbalance in the movement of my right and left legs. In the weeks prior to this session, I saw a couple different massage therapists who both pointed out and worked on tension and holding in the psoas and other internally located pelvic muscles.

1. The Rolfing therapist noted I have a twist in the hips, the left is slightly forward and down relative to the right being slightly up and back. He noticed the source of the torque in the hips originating in the left ankle. He worked my left ankle particularly hard and then the right ankle to balance the work on the left. Before and after pictures showed a huge extension and lift through my abdomen - all from working ankles primarily and knees secondarily!

2. I mentioned that I'm noticing a taut feeling extending downward from the top of my right iliac crest when I relax and let the right hip drop when taking a step. (Not getting the same effect on the left side.) The Rolfing therapist said that was a sign of the hips opening. He also suggested a pelvic floor exercise to help get more relax.

In this session I laid face-down over a bosu ball while he worked my scapular area really hard and to a lesser degree, my lower ribs. Several times he hit the spot where I felt tears forming from the pain and wanted to quit and simultaneously wanted to keep going. Got huge changes. Noticing a feeling of three-dimensionality fullness out the back. When I got off the table, I noticed I felt more connected through and more solid on my feet. The before and after pictures showed a huge shift of my torso from a slight lean forward to being more "plumb" over my ankles.

3. I mentioned that I'm again looking at working on my right foot because the arch collapses and it is difficult to stand with stability on that one leg. The therapist had me walk around and said, "We'll work on the ankles." And he worked them hard! I was surprise how much pressure I could tolerate. By the end of the session, I felt like I had new feet, was more solid, and with more lift, and my arch was no longer collapsing when I walked!

Seventh set of four follow-up Rolfing sessions: March-April 2016

"So, what's going on with your body?"

For this set I specifically wanted to address the left knee which continues to have a limited range of motion, and decreased strength as I approach a 90 degree angle; unable to squat. I demonstrated a comparison of right and left leg movement.

After two sessions, I noticed more increased range of motion and strength (as well as a sustaining of these gains) than I noticed after all the physical therapy sessions throughout 2015! (I went to physical therapy throughout 2015; in the spring/summer for bi-lateral Achilles Tendonopathy and fall/winter for left knee which was originally diagnosed with a Baker's Cyst and later x-rays showed the beginning of osteoarthritis.)

I asked how it is that Rolfing is helping with this. C'mon Mike, you know the answer. Rolfing "untwists" the body. We're releasing the compression on the knee joint which should help decrease the irritation. And in your case, the ankles are contributing to misalignment in the knee. As we get the ankles softer and more functional, this will help the knee.

In all four sessions he focused on the problematic left leg from ankle to pelvis. He also worked the right leg to keep it in balance as well as a little on the shoulders/neck/head to keep them connected as well.

I asked if he remembered how my ankles felt when I came in for my first ten session set. He said, Yes. They felt like they were cast in concrete! And now? Now they feel more like asphalt which has a little "give" to it but still hard.

I mentioned that my instructor notices a holding pattern in my pelvic area. Do you notice that too?

Most alignment problems in the body are caused by problems in the ankles. Making adjustments in the ankles has a trickle up effect through the rest of the body. In your case, your ankles are pretty messed up so naturally the body will compensate with various holding patterns. The pelvis is just one link in the chain where compensation occurs.

He told me about one aspect of his Rolfing training in 1982 in New York City. His instructor told him that the best way to know what to do with the patient is to feel what they're feeling in their body. So, go out on the street and watch someone and "mirror" or "put on" their structure in your body. Then he told me some anecdotes of this experience. This has been his approach to Rolfing for 30+ years and it has now developed into an art where just at a glance he "knows" where he needs to work.

I mentioned that I wrote a book; a collection of experience and references pertaining to the pelvis. He then told me a story of when he started yoga. He was having trouble balancing in a particular beginning yoga pose. The instructor told him to contract his perenium muscles and this helped. He went on to say that this instructor has a method for new students to work with their pelvic floor moving from contraction to relaxation. The process develops focused attention in that area which contributes to a relaxed balance in connection with the ground.

Eighth set of three follow-up Rolfing sessions: July 2018
Whereas all the previous sessions were with the same therapist, I decided to try someone else this time. And I'm glad I did.

In the first session, he asked if I'd ever been in a car accident.
"No, nothing serious. Why?"
I'm getting the feeling that your sacrum is pushed forward, as if from a blunt trauma.

Between this and the next session I thought about this and the idea came to me that he may be detecting a familial postural habit - pelvis forward, chest sunk back and down. My uncle and one of his sons stand like this and while my father did not, I do. For me, being above average height, I always felt a need to shorten myself to "fit in". Making this kind of postural adjustment helped, as it were.

In the second and third sessions he worked on giving me more "lift", getting the "up energy" flowing, getting me to stand up straight. He mentioned that my chest needs more work but that will be for another time. Get comfortable with these changes first.

Common notes:
During session, therapist will press a spot and ask “What do you feel here?” Nothing. He says he’s pressing hard and the muscle feels like wood. After he works a bit, I can feel where I couldn’t before.

He works one side first then the other. After working the first side, I notice this first side feels alive and connected whereas I don’t feel the same aliveness and connectedness on the not-yet-worked-on side. Feeling the side-to-side comparison in my own body is amazing!

Question. Why do you stop pushing when I wince in pain even though I say "keep going"?
Answer. There are three parts to your answer and these can overlap:
  1. The "Mike" that people know says, "Keep going. Let's get through this once and for all." However, the system says, "No way!" There's only so much change the system will allow and that has to be respected. If the entire body freed up all at once, the system would be so different to "Mike" that there would be some real identity issues.
  2. Pushing through pain can create resistance to future treatment which will make further change more difficult.
  3. The body has to be unwound in a way that the the entire body will support. Sometimes a painful area will naturally release when another area releases so it doesn't make sense to push through that area.

Question: What's the purpose of Rolfing?
Answer: A lot of Rolfers mistakenly think their job is to unstick fascial adhesions. Not so. The purpose is to untwist the structure. Everything is fascia. Muscle fiber is fascia. Bone is fascia with mineral deposits. Habits create chronically tense muscles and when the muscles stop moving, then they get stuck together. Rolfing gets everything moving again.

A good Rolfer is like an engineer. He sees the entire structure then works to untwist sections at a time and only to the degree the rest of the system can support without undoing the changes.

A not-so-good Rolfer may work on a particular problem area, like a knee and get the knee all freed up but doesn't bring the rest of the structure along with it and so the un-free parts will force the free part to get stuck again.

Question: So it sounds like Yoga can do the same thing that Rolfing does?
Answer: I have Yoga teachers who come for Rolfing. The Asanas are designed to do what Rolfing does. What can take years in Yoga, can be accomplished in a few hours in Rolfing.

Question. When I first come in, you always ask, "So what's going on in your body?" What are you looking for?
Answer. This question is a way to find out what problem you have without going psychological. I'm looking for information about your body; feedback on the results of last session. It can be a starting point. It's a way to connect "you" into your body.

Question: Rolfing, Yoga, Zhan Zhuang all sound like similar kinds of practices. Thoughts?
Answer: One purpose of practice is to bring conscious attention to freeing up the body, to discovering what's stuck and not moving. The work then is to get that free and moving. Doing this through Asanas or Zhan Zhuang is a way to point out what's stuck. My putting my fingers on this stuck part is another way of pointing out for you what's stuck and then helping you free it up.

Question: It is said that once Rolfing frees fascial adhesions that those same adhesions will not reform but can new adhesions form?
Answer: New adhesions will not reform in the same place because the trauma or habit that caused them in the first place has been changed. However, new trauma or new habitual ways of not moving may form new adhesions in a new area.

Question: I've been coming back every 1-2 years for a three set follow-up. If I had unlimited resources, what's the most frequent pattern for treatments?
Answer: I have some patients come twice a year (summer and winter) for a three session set. I have others come for one session once a month who say, "You see what's wrong. Fix it." Actually, the body needs time to adjust and settle into the changes so maybe twice a year is probably the most frequent treatment pattern.

You can also use eating as an analogy. You take some food in. You chew on it a while, notice its flavors, digest it, then excrete it. Then you're ready for more. If you continuously ate without stopping, never allowing time for digesting or excreting, you'd never notice the flavor or the effect. Rolfing is like this. You need time between sessions for the body to settle, to "digest" the changes.

The three session "tune up" is like eating a full meal. You need some time for you to chew on the changes, digest them, and rest before the next meal.

Question: Can anyone ever get completely free of fascial adhesions to where they no longer need to come in for Rolfing?
Answer: Yes, but it may take 800 years. (Laughter.) They say that some monks sitting in Himalayan caves reach a state in meditation where their bodies completely relax. I think these guys probably don't need Rolfing. Be that as it may, you and I are surrounded by hundreds of people with all kinds of stuck patterns and our bodies tune into this.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Internal Structure: Part 2 – Structural Integration

When I began Zhan Zhuang stance practice in the Wujifa system, I experienced difficulty getting good structural alignment.

Going for structural integration bodywork has helped me with the Structure aspect of the Primary Wujifa triangle – Structure, Relax, Balance.

Because structure was the easiest place for me to start, and due to my inclination to gather and analyze information, I read quite a bit about the various psycho-somatic and somatic therapies ranging from Bioenergetic Analysis to Rolfing Massage Therapy.

My understanding of the theory of Bioenergetic Analysis is that it looks at how emotions are stored in the body and through body work and talking, strives to open the body to get a pulse to move through body, looking for and resolving the emotional-muscular holding patterns that block that pulse. On the other hand, Rolfing only works on the physical structure and does not counsel psychological issues. If psychological stuff comes up that needs discussing, then the person should see a qualified counselor or psychotherapist.

For a historical context, my understanding is that the Western psycho-somatic “movement” originated with Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) who was a student of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and by extension, a “classmate” of Carl Jung (1875-1961). Where Jung followed the mind only path of Freud, Reich followed the mind-body connection and developed methods to work on the mind through the body. Two of Reich’s students, Alexander Lowen (1910-2008) and Ida Rolf (1896-1979) respectively established Bioenergetic Analysis and Structural Integration which later became known as Rolfing.

Personally, I have not been to a Bioenergetics professional but I have been to and experienced a series of Structural Integration / Rolfing sessions.

Here is a short video of compiled clips of an interview with Alexander Lowen. The original clips and other short videos can be found at the Lowen Foundation website.

Alexander Lowen - Segment 1. You Are Your Body

Método Rolf - Primeira Parte (www.rolfguild.com.br)

Método Rolf - Segunda Parte (www.rolfguild.com.br)

While the Rolfing logo “before” picture (on the left) illustrates twists, to me it only infers un-parallel lines. I like the image that Karin at portlandolfer.com uses because this explicitly shows the un-parallel lines of the “before” structure and like the Rolfing logo, shows the parallel lines of the "after" structure.

(Image used with permission)

I think both images together provide a good representative comparison of the un-integrated and the integrated structures. I particularly like the way these images help me relate to the images of vector alignment in the Wujifa “Zhan Zhuang Alignment” article.

In the “Myofascial Tensegrity and Zhan Zhuang

    “There is now emerging a lot of research on fascia that gives us a whole new understanding of the structure in our body. We all know that fascia surrounds and connects everything. But never have anatomist given it any attention. For centuries they have overlooked fascia just to get down to the individual muscles and their individual functions. But now, with Tom Meyers amazing work – www.anatomytrains.com - we are seeing the emerging of a whole new understanding of the holistic myo-sceletal system in our body. And for our Zhan Zhuang practice, this is a gem! Instead of seeing individual muscles connected to individual bones and joints, we can now begin to see whole-body patterns.”

Structural integration not only helps improve posture a.k.a. structure, but it is also a doorway to understanding and getting a feel for whole-body connectedness.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Internal Structure: Part 1 – The Body

In high school biology class I developed a dis-integrated, system-isolated view of my body as being an upright skeleton upon which were added muscles, blood vessels, nerves, and organs all wrapped in skin. I viewed my body as a collection of parts.

In college, my view of my body changed to a confused amalgam consisting of:
  • The holistic triangle Body (Physical), Mind (Emotional/Psychological) and Spirit
  • The body as energy via the Shakras or Qi-gong energy centers
  • The Chinese Organs-Elements-Meridians system
However, none of these views contributed to my developing a kinesthetic feeling sensibility of my own corporeal reality, of life in and under my own skin which I am now discovering is critical to developing whole-body or internal strength.

When I started Wujifa classes, I learned about Wilhelm Reich’s (1897-1957) view of the body. (I quote others here as my understanding of Reich's work is amateurish at best.) This is from Wilhelm Reich - Armoring:
"Wilhelm Reich was a student of Freud's who believed that the body plays an important role in an individual's expression. Crucial to his understanding of psychology is the concept of Armoring which is basically the physical component of repression as understood by Freud."
And also this from Wilhelm Reich and His Influence
" "Body Language" -- the term is now commonplace. It wasn't always that way. With Freud and psychoanalysis everything was the mind. Reich was the first to bring the body into psychoanalysis, and to physically touch the client.

An armored person does not feel their armor as such. Reich believed that mind-body work is necessary for people to rid themselves of this armor.

BODY ARMOR AND CHARACTER ARMOR are essentially the same. Their function is trying to protect yourself against the pain of not expressing things that society says you may not express. Muscular armor is character armor expressed in body, muscular rigidity.

Armoring is the sum total of the muscular attitudes which a person develops as a defense against the breakthrough of emotions, especially anxiety, rage, sexual excitation. Character armor is the sum total of all the years of the muscular attitude that have also been incorporated in the person's character."

In addition to emotional or character induced muscular holding, fascial adhesions may develop from repetitive motion, physical habits and/or physical injury. Gil Hedley's "Fuzz Speech" uses a human cadaver to show fascial adhesions.

Esther Gokhale’s Authors@Google presentation brings up a couple interesting points for me about structure. 1. Body structures vary between cultures and through history (time 14:10 – 20:40) 2. Comparison of human spines from 1911 and today (time 30:40 – 33:40)

So how do I see all this relating to my Wujifa Zhan Zhuang practice? Esther’s presentation tells me that my core body structure is a living, malleable structure. Over time, my skeletal structure can change. Gil’s presentation gives me a look inside my body. Now I know what fascial adhesions are. Victor Daniel’s article on Reich’s work points to the unity of “me” and “my body”. This Me-Body, this "I" is what shows up at class and practice. Some parts move freely. Some muscles are rigid. Some muscle bands are stuck to others. Some adjustments feel great. Some adjustments scare the hell out of me. The me-body work is my internal gong-fu.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Feeling the Sides Drop

Sometime over the last couple weeks, while standing, I felt my "sides drop". Anatomically this could mean I felt my Obliques let go, stop holding, relax. I wasn't thinking about or imagining or visualizing doing this. It just happened! The result was a feeling of lengthening on both sides.

In a recent Wujifa class, while doing the secret leaf-raking training (well, ok, practicing side to side using the slight resistance of the rake to help me notice the feeling of connection), I received external validation of when I was holding or lengthening the sides. Nice!

What's interesting to me is that along with this side-drop feeling came the feeling of weight sliding down my quads and into and slightly through the knee which feels like the knees sliding forward.

I remember, maybe a year or more ago, observing (data) that the knees sliding forward is more about intention than actual physical sliding forward. Now, I feel the knees "sliding forward" and the feeling is completely different from what I "achieved" using imagination/intention.

One of the corrections I routinely received in class was to "drop" the elbows. As with the knees, I previously noted (data) that "drop the elbows" is about the imagined/visualized/intention of the elbows hanging. However, I never experienced a real kinesthetic feeling of the elbows dropping, that is, until now. This elbow-dropping-feeling just "naturally" showed up one day.

What is most exciting for me is that I can now distinguish two feelings: holding and relaxing.
Holding elbows up or dropping elbows.
Holding sides up or dropping sides.
Pulling knees back and up into the thigh or sliding down and forward.

I also notice that these component feelings suggest or point to a single whole body feeling, however, I'm not able to get my mind around the whole as easy as the components at this time.

So after a long period where "nothing" (that I could notice) was happening, then BOOM! a perceived "big jump".

I was reminded that plateaus are gestation periods where new neural pathways are being formed. Practicing and not noticing subtle shifts and growths is like planting a seed and watering and watering and watering, not seeing any growth, trusting that there is growth until one day, BOOM! noticing a sprout!

During the plateau time, I wasn't able to notice the level at which changes were occurring. What I notice surely points to the level of my noticing ability which too, is wonderful to notice!!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When a Tree Grows: External ~ Internal

I planted a seedling in a field near my house.

The place where this tree grew had a steady breeze and sometimes a brisk wind.

The tree tends to lean a bit.

And then the old barn fell down changing the wind pattern.

As the tree grew, it encountered a low hanging limb from an old dead tree nearby. The young tree grew around that limb and developed a bit of a "hunch" about mid-way up the trunk.

Years later, that old, dead tree was cut down for firewood, leaving only the stump.

Many years later, after the barn and dead tree were gone, a tree guy looked at the now mature tree and analyzing the tree, said:

That lean looks like lean I've seen in other trees. There must have been a lot of shade here and the young tree was leaning toward the light.

That hunch looks like the hunch I've seen in other trees. Looks like something fell on it which someone later removed.

I enjoyed watching the tree grow, noticing... the process…

The tree guy approached the tree analytically, identifying data points, comparing…

When I started practicing Zhan Zhuang in the Wujifa system, I “naturally” compared this new system to systems I learned before: What’s the same? What’s different? What’s the data?

But I did not “naturally’ learn this way when I was young, when there was no previous experience to compare to. I either jumped in with curiosity and excitement or held back in fear.

After years of practicing, then I began learning.

I suppose I can compare external systems; systems based on a collection of forms and techniques like the tree guy did.

However, when I tried to compare my previous experiences in external, technique-based systems (including faux Tai-chi), with an internal feeling-based system, I learned that analysis leads to paralysis, not to progress.

I had to stop analyzing and start feeling kinesthetically. Then I had to stop analyzing "the feeling", because "the feeling" changes. Now, I may be ready to start learning the process.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Musings on Training and Competitions

This past weekend I had the opportunity to sit in the same room with a half dozen guys recounting their martial arts training. Frankly, I was impressed and even intimidated by the breadth and depth of martial arts training some of these guys had; black belts, sometimes in more than one style, competitions, and trophies.

However, when I considered what brought us all to this room, despite all our collective years of experience and belts and trophies (or lack of), none of us through our past training were taught or learned whole-body strength, the internal connections, or groundpath known as internal strength. Suddenly, I didn't feel so intimidated anymore. We all recognized a gap in our training and came together to learn to close that gap, to develop internal connection, to develop whole-body strength.

Later, I wondered about the state of "internal" martial arts training and competition these days, eg., taiji, bagua, xing-yi, aikido, wushu, push-hands. Are competition judges required to demonstrate a level of internal connection, of whole-body strength before becoming judges or not? Are competitors judged on the level of internal connection/whole-body strength they can demonstrate or not?

The "internal" arts are truly not that art unless performed with internal connection, with whole-body strength. If belts are awarded and trophies given for well executed forms and for competency in techniques (all performed without demonstrating internal connection/whole-body strength), doesn't this dilute the art, lower the bar, and mislead the practitioner?

As I learned, I thought I was doing Tai-ji Chuan but in fact, I was merely imitating Tai-ji Chuan by performing only the outward movements because my "Taiji" lacked internal connection/whole-body strength. I've also learned that those who develop internal connection/whole-body strength also develop an eye for seeing who has and doesn't have internal connection and to what level. A real teacher will not only tell you what you are doing wrong but will also guide you in how to develop your internal connectedness. We are all adorned with the Emperors New Clothes.
(The Emperors New Clothes by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, tells the story of two swindlers who weaved clothes that were invisible to those who were either stupid or unfit for their office. The emperor hired them and the two set up their looms and pretended to weave. After some time, the emperor sent his honest minister to see how they were getting on. When the minister didn't see anything, he did not wanting to appear foolish or unfit for his position and so he exclaimed how wonderful it looked. The same experience befell another trusted official. When the emperor went for a look, he too didn't see anything and wondered if he was a fool and unfit to be emperor. He too went along with the ruse. Finally, the day came when he paraded his new clothes in front of the towns people. A child noticed and said he's not wearing any clothes. Finally, the whole town noticed that he was not wearing any clothes. And yet the emperor carried on as if he was wearing the most magnificent clothes.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Silk Reeling; Feeling and Intention

At my last Wujifa class, after stance, I was doing the closing circles (Chen, Xiao-wang style) as I had been doing for the past several years, rather mechanically. Then somehow I stumbled into really feeling the sensuousness of making circles; feeling the intentional moving of each arm-hand, pulling across, pushing down, pulling across, pushing up... I was told that this looked more like silk reeling than the mechanical moving I was doing just a moment earlier.

This comment piqued my curiosity. How could I apply this new found feeling that looked more like silk reeling to the actual silk reeling exercise I learned at Chen, Xiao-wang seminars years ago? What's the relation between the closing circles and silk reeling?

Here's the mechanics of how I'm working the feeling I discovered in stance into the silk reeling form:
Both hands positioned for the stance closing circles; right hand on top of left hand. Both hands moving across the upper abdomen Left to Right, then down the right side, then across the lower abdomen Right to Left, then up the left side, as I shift side-to-side.

Then I'll continue the left hand circling on the abdomen while the right hand slowly draws away from the body making larger and larger circles until I'm doing what looks like a hybrid of the Yang, Jwing-ming Tai-chi circle and the Chen Xiao-wang silk reeling form. I notice that this "method" helps me notice and maintain the connection and timing and feeling between the (right) "silk-reeling hand" with both the (left) hand circling on the abdomen and with the shifting side-to-side.

As I play with this hybrid Yang Jwing-ming Tai-chi circle and Chen, Xiao-wang silk reeling form, I'm noticing the CXW 1,2,3,4 positions don't exist as points or corners but rather as a single circle upon which points 1,2,3,4 may be identified but through which the arm-hand passes smoothly.

I was discussing my recent play and came away with the following:

In response to my concern that I may be bastardizing the forms or not understanding the distinct purpose of each, I heard that the pattern or form is not as important as the intention-feeling-connection you are working on.

If you look at the points, then you will get stuck. But if you look in the direction that the points are pointing to, then you discover even more.... now. (Recall the finger pointing at the moon.)

Again, what is your purpose? To collect data? To collect techniques? Or is your purpose to experience and understand the underlying feeling-intention of the art?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

You Are Where You Are and That's Where You Start

A lesson I am still learning is identifying where I am, what I am capable of, what I am ready for.

As I mentioned, in my early days I thought I was ready to jump in to the higher level stuff like learning forms, push-hands and sparring without having a grounding in the fundamentals. Even now, in my Zhan Zhuang practice, I tend to not content myself with noticing and discovering where my " here and now" is, but will ask conceptual questions which would not merit asking were my capabilities and understanding at that level. I still approach a feeling-based practice with thinking-based habits.

Here's an example.

I'm playing with the Gao Style Bagua Ban exercise as posted on the Wujifa blog and I'm curious about how Ban works the kua as compared to the Wujifa side-to-side exercise.

Ban is obviously much more 'active' with larger physical movements and I initially had a difficult time noticing the kua open and close. Then I played with the intention of closing the kua on the bent knee side and opening the kua on the stretched out leg side and I could feel the movement a little clearer and deeper.

And when I bring this intention back into side-to-side, I find I can notice a little bit more in the quieter movement of side-to-side. However, playing with too much intention causes me to force a feeling and a thought. I could also relax and feel the feeling already there.

So where I am kinesthetically is noticing and feeling the kua open and close. Yet, I asked a conceptual question like, "So does fa-jing work by developing a quick, forced, side-to-side muscular contraction?" and the answer I got was, "No, you relax quickly."

Relax quickly? How does this work? The monkey mind searched frantically for a match, for a hook, something, anything to make sense of this two-word koan. Relax quickly.

The conversation then turned back to where I am now. In relax, what do you notice? Do not try to notice something. You are not looking for anything. Rather, simply, relax and notice what is there. What you notice is where you are and this is where you start.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Zhan Zhuang. No Athleticism Required?

Even though Zhan Zhuang looks like simply standing in a manner suggesting there is no athleticism required, in fact, zhan zhuang can be quite demanding athletically.

I love watching the flashy forms these athletes display. And while I will never develop flashy forms, zhan zhuang does require a degree of athleticism. How so?

The burning in your legs tests your resolve to remain standing. Do you eat bitter and push on or quit? You learn how to relax certain muscles and engage and strengthen other muscles. Can you remain fully present and in-the-moment when the stillness lulls you to trance-out? Are you committed to practicing, to always seeking your personal best?

Make no mistake. There is more to standing that "just" standing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Zhan Zhuang: Breaking the Stance Trance

A big problem for me when practicing Zhan Zhuang has been the habit of "zoning out" or "trancing out"; a feeling of dissociating kinesthetically from my body, of being "out there" instead of "in here". (This entire experience begs the question of 'Who is "I" ?' if "I" am not "my body".)
"Zoning-out while practicing Wujifa “stance” training for example is akin to, or a component of what might be called a dead-post stance." (From Suggested Mental Unification Paradigms of Wujifa Practices - Part 2.)
When I am asked during class or I ask myself during practice, "What do you feel (kinesthetically)?", the answer is, "Uh......" and then I "go into space" (zone out) to try to find the answer "out there" instead of directly accessing my body "in here now". It's as if I block actually feeling the internal, kinesthetic dimension of my own body. Or as if I have no verbal construct to voice the kinesthetic feeling, and then "go blank".

I had a big "a-ha" moment in Wujifa class yesterday. With expert guidance, I experienced/felt the difference between my "out there" and my "in here". Being able to notice when I am "out there" gives me the opportunity to move "in here".

After class, I thought about this a bit more. In a way, Zhan Zhuang is like a kind of sensory deprivation exercise. Maybe more like an external-activity deprivation exercise. Stand. Don't do. Stand. Notice.

"Stance trance" does not feel the same as "monkey mind".

In my normal daily life, I make pictures/images and I run activity all day either chasing or avoiding these pictures. Imagine... Picture yourself.... In Zhan Zhuang, my external activity stops but my mind does not. I am so habituated to making pictures, to looking for some result or outcome and associating that to activity, that when I enter an exercise which does not require this physical and mental activity, I continue making the pictures anyway. There is no stillness.

I experience "monkey mind" as a restless self-dialogue, jumping from thought to thought or picture to picture whereas I experience stance trance as a longer duration, like getting stuck in a no-thought, no feeling place.

Both monkey mind and the stance trance put me "out there" instead of "in here now".

"Trancing out" or "zoning out" feels like not-here-now, not-present, not-connected. Breaking the stance trance results in a feeling of present-ness, of being here now. And through greater present-ness, I feel connection to my kinesthetics, to my body which presents me a greater opportunity to feel deeper into my body, where there are tensions, where there is relax. I needed to feel both to feeling-understand the feeling difference.

Noticing changes everything!

What is the opportunity in breaking "stance trance"? To feel inside. To feel the internal activity. To feel movement in stillness. To feel internal kinesthetic movement while appearing externally still to the untrained eye.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sink the Chi - How to Sit Down While Standing

When I began Tai-chi years ago, I thought sinking the "Chi" had something to do with keeping my attention focused on my lower abdomen, the tan tien. To aid in this effort, I serrated the plastic edge of a spice jar lid and taped this to my belly below the belt line; the proverbial stone in the shoe. While this was irritating enough, it didn't do the trick.

I also thought that sinking the chi had something to do with lowering my center of gravity. To this end, I worked lower and wider stances particularly in push hands and I slouched over a lot (interpretation at that time of "round the back"). This too did not result in sinking the chi.

What I completely did not understand in those early days was that "sink the chi" refers to a specific FEELING. (Such is my understanding at this time after practicing in the Wujifa system.) The sink the chi feeling is not related to paying attention to the dan tian nor is the feeling associated with depth or width of stance.

The Wujifa site has a nice article on the primacy of feeling in The Concept of Sit Down in Wujifa Standing. "...the common feeling for many people is the feeling "as if" they are starting to sit down on let’s say a bar stool."

I'd like to share a little parlor trick I've used to help people feel the feeling of sit down, of sink the chi.

This 'trick' requires about a two foot length of wood for example a 2x4 or a 2x6 or a section of book shelf.

First, I get the person structurally aligned and then tell him/her to slightly bend his/her knees. I stand behind the person and hold the length of wood under the "sits bones". (I've been strong enough to support the people I’ve worked with, however, if you are the person holding the board, err on the side of caution. You may require two people to hold the board.) I then tell him/her to sit down on the board.

At first the person may not "let go" and really sit down. You may notice him/her holding up in the chest; you will not feel you are holding his/her full torso weight. When I notice this, I reassure the person that I've got them, I won't drop them and encourage them to let the weight sink into the board, to really sit down on the board I'm holding. Sometimes it takes two to three tries before I notice the person let go and drop their weight. When you see this, you’ll know exactly what I'm talking about. This is a key internal movement.

After I feel that I have him/her "on the board", I say, "I will slowly lower the board and I want you to keep your knees bent exactly as they are and slowly transfer the weight from the board into your legs". Typically on the first attempt, the person will raise back up into his/her chest. When this happens, I point this out to the person, "Did you notice how you moved your weight back up into your chest?" This is often a new level of awareness for the person. Then we try again.

Usually on the second or third attempt, the person will "stay down" and successfully carry their weight in their legs, however, for only a few seconds after which the pain becomes unbearable and they rise back up into their chest. This is OK because now they just got a taste of sink the chi / sink the weight.

I've done this with martial artists, runners and dancers, those with strong legs and they are not be able to stand for more than a minute. This is where we all start. It takes time. From my limited experience, it looks like a cycle; the stronger the legs get, the more you can drop, and the more you drop, the stronger the legs get… all over time.

Here's a variation on the above trick that I have used. While standing, I back into a surface that is about sits bone height when my knees are slightly bent and sit, sinking my weight onto this surface. Then, I slowly slide off that surface, transferring the weight into my legs.

Remember, the method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method. The method is the board or the surface that helps you discover the feeling. Once you notice that feeling, then practice replicating that feeling while just standing without the board or surface.

At this point in my training, this is what I understand is the meaning, THE FEELING of sink the chi.

I must also add that this feeling is not a one time, one level feeling. As I continue to release tensions and correct my structure, I continue to notice (well, truthfully, my teacher points out to me) other areas where I'm holding "up" and not sinking, and when I am able to let this area go, a whole new wave of painful standing ensues... and the cycle continues. This rabbit hole goes very deep.

One final note, all "pain" should be felt in the quad muscles. If there is any pain in any joint, then immediately STOP because you are doing this exercise wrong. You really need someone experienced in this practice to see what you are doing to correct and advise you.

Addendum: Feb 8, 2011. See also the article Rounding the Crotch (圆裆) for Tai Chi and Zhan Zhuang which discusses this feeling in greater detail.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Path

What do you notice in this fun little commercial?

There is the element of "eating bitter"; hours, days, weeks, months of practice.

There is the element of discovery.

There is the element of aspiring to achieve a goal.

There is the element of practicing the ordinary until it becomes extra-ordinary and practicing the ordinary some more until it appears extraordinary.

There is the element of gongfu.

Then there is the element of discovering that the goal you achieved is merely the gateway to even more. And you didn't even know that next level existed! Why?

Zhan zhuang works like this. However, instead of training with another person, my practice partner is the voice in my head, the monkey mind.

(Sorry, folks. I removed the Youtube video that was here because the link broke and I don't remember the commercial I linked to.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Side to Side - Beginner Observations and Tips

Recently, the Wujifaliangong blog posted an excellent video and article on the side-to-side exercise. See "Keys for Developing the Inguinal Crease, aka Kua, with Wujifa Side to Side Practice. Of all the videos available, and there aren't a lot, this is the first I've seen that focuses at this level of detail on developing feeling in the kua.
"The process of side to side allows a very specific focus to guide people in making progress towards understanding the inguinal creases which is so very helpful in deeper discoveries of full-body movement and practice."

Watching this video, you might think, "Oh, all they're doing is shifting weight. So what? I can do that." Or, you may think, there's something there, and try to imitate what you see.

After practicing side to side (on and off) over the last few years and seeing new students in class learning this exercise, I offer a couple observations and training tips which are my own and not part of the Wujifa curriculum.

If you've been exposed to any of the Structural Integration bodywork therapies, for example, Rolfing Massage, you know that over time, your body develops certain muscular holding patterns and fascial adhesions which "twist" your structure; defining patterns of movement and certain ranges of motion.

When you first come to the side to side practice, you will "naturally" perform side to side with your own unique structural twist. Part of the beauty of this exercise is that it provides a benchmark against which you can gauge and relax through your particular holding patterns.

Notice in the video how the students demonstrate moving as if sliding on a pole. If no one is watching you (caveat, someone who knows what to look for) to observe if you are keeping your hips level on both the horizontal and vertical plane as you move, and keeping the knees in place, then how do you know if you are doing side to side at this beginning level? How do you work on / relax through your internal structural twist?

When I started practicing side to side at home, in between classes, I used the following to help me notice what my body was doing. And I still go back to these from time to time.

1. Stand facing a wall with your feet a little more than shoulder length apart and your toes an inch or two away from the wall. Now, bend your knees so the knees touch the wall. Glue your knees to those spots. Now shift side to side. (I do this at the kitchen sink with my knees against the cabinet door so I don't look like such a nerd.) This helped me develop a feel for the kua opening and closing. If there is any pain, move the feet closer together and don't bend at the knees so much.

2. Find something, a countertop, the back of a sofa, a table, that is about your butt height when you slightly bend your knees. Lightly back into a tabletop or whatever, and keeping the knees in place from #1, slide back and forth paying attention to maintaining a light contact between your butt and the tabletop, noticing if there are any differences in pressure between your butt and table. Smooth those out to keep the pressure light and constant. This helped me develop a feel for if I was twisting my hips or keeping them level.

Keep in mind though that the aim is to develop a kinesthetic sense or feeling of what is moving under the skin, a.k.a internally. You want to learn to rely on your feeling, not rely on walls and tables. If you are like me, your body will want to twist and turn all over the place. Side to side is a pretty tough exercise to get. I am still learning.

Now even after practicing side to side the last few years, and even after working out some of my courser structural twists, I continue to discover deeper and more subtle holding patterns. What was once called 'subtle' has become obvious and then there is a new level of 'subtle' which in time will become obvious and then there will be a new level of subtle... and... this rabbit hole goes very deep...

I hope this gives you a little insight into how I started. Of course, even following this method is only a rough first step. It is always best to get some "hands on" time with someone who can point out to you what you cannot see and point out those subtle, yet obvious kinesthetic feelings.

And of course, I make the same disclaimer: "As with any exercise, make sure you are in good enough physical health before attempting this. Ask a doctor if in doubt. "

Monday, June 22, 2009

Practicing Embodiment

I grew up with a religion and culture which dissociated the corporeal from the spiritual. My undergrad Religious Studies and Philosophy coursework re-iterated this corporeal-spiritual dichotomy. (At least, according to my understanding at that time.) When I started Tai-chi and Qi-Gong, I began with this perspective.

The evolution that occurred in those early years was a blending of the disembodied spiritual notion with an embodied notion; imagining a ball of white, cosmic, Qi energy between my hands, imagining moving Qi through my body; the small circulation.

However, even this so called "embodied" experience was an un-embodied experience because I was imagining intangible, "spiritual" qualities in my body. I was not noticing areas that were relaxed or tensed. I was not noticing ever more subtle muscular movements. I was not noticing subtleties of bodily structure.

Now, I am not saying that Qi does not exist nor am I denying that one may feel or control Qi. However, when I began Tai-chi years ago, I did not make progress developing internal strength through visualizing and imagining the feeling of Qi in my body.

Through the Wujifa approach to developing internal strength, of getting "down to earth" and getting grounded in-the-body, of practicing embodiment, and developing my ability to notice and feel, I am now progressing in developing internal strength.

For an excellent introductory article on the kinesthetics of zhan zhuang, see the Wujifaliangong site "Basic Tips for Zhan Zhuang".

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"The Feeling" Is Not What I Expected

Here's a fun little commercial. Even after learning all the drills, all the techniques, there was still the unanswered question, until...

(Pepsi ad - Way of Kungfu 2004 )

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Language of Internal Strength

This post describes my experience (so far) with the language referencing the internal strength for which the martial arts of Tai-chi chuan, Ba-gua Chuan and Xing-yi Chuan are known.

During a typical Wujifa class, the instructor makes hands-on physical adjustments to my Zhan Zhuang stance. The following conversation typically ensues:

Instructor: "How's that?" or "How does that feel?"
Student: It's different.
Instructor: "Different how?"
Student: Uh... Well.... Not the same as before the adjustment.
Instructor: OK. What do you mean?
Student: Uh... Well... I don't know. It's... Like.... Before the adjustment is a “1” and now this is a “2”.

When I started FEELING the kinesthetic feeling from which internal strength develops, I realized that I do not have words in my English lexicon to describe these new kinesthetic feelings. I soon discovered that there is no vocabulary unique to describing the internal kinesthetic feelings as the body mind develops its "internal strength" perception/kinesthetic paradigm from its customary and habitual "external strength" perception/kinesthetic paradigm.

In traditional Chinese martial arts, the word Qi or Chi and Qi flow or Chi flow are used. The problem, as a “westerner” not growing up in Chinese culture, is that I have no cultural context for these concepts. The best I could do was ascribe a kind of second-hand, intellectual understanding to these words/concepts based on reading about and attending workshops on Qi, Qi-gong, and internal martial arts.

This approach led to developing an imaginary notion of what Qi feels like and my trying to create the feeling intellectually. In this way, Qi and qi flow became “loaded” words/concepts with no foundation in nor relation to my kinesthetic reality. This road led me to a dead-end.

I had to jettison all mental constructs, all my data (which was a long, arduous process) and focus on developing my own internal kinesthetic FEEL. Later I developed the ability to FEEL the distinction between the “before adjustment” and “after adjustment”.

For me, the process of developing internal strength has been one of slowly noticing subtle kinesthetic feelings until these became obvious, then noticing more subtle feelings until these became obvious and on and on…

In my most recent class, I was able to articulate that yes, the kinesthetic feeling that I am now feeling could be labeled “open” or “stretch” however, the kinesthetic feeling underlying these words/concepts is completely different than the feeling underlying these words as they are typically used in an "external strength", kinesthetic paradigm. I’m borrowing "western" words grounded in a different experience to describe a different experience.

This then opens up the problem of using words such as “stretch” and “open” to describe the feeling of developing internal strength. For example, if I say, “The feeling of developing internal strength feels like stretch or open.” and if you read this and haven’t yet experienced the kinesthetic experience that I’m referencing, then you may think, "Oh, I need to stretch more to develop internal strength." Nothing could be further from the truth.

I appreciate the Wujifa approach because the focus is on developing the kinesthetic FEELING and avoiding the use of loaded words like Qi and Qi flow. Western words like connection, or fascial connection, or open, or gaps, or sticky points, or blocks, or blockages, are used instead. However, these western words also present a koan: What is the feeling of fascial connection? What is the feeling of loading or distributing a chin-na force throughout the fascial system? How do you create the feeling of open between all your joints?

After I felt something that could be described as open, stretch, connection, then I saw the problem of how to talk about the internal aspect of the internal martial arts. Our words can communicate and guide us in a shared experience or our words may unintentionally mislead when there is no common experience.