Monday, December 27, 2010

Practical Non-Attachment: Journal Notes #19

Notes from my July 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

A "theme" in this month's journal entries seems to revolve around how to practice non-attachment to feeling an idea of the feeling; why "not knowing" can lead to a step in the right direction.

* Don't think about what something will feel like based on books or hearsay. Just practice the pattern drills until the feeling reveals itself to you.

* A fellow student, after having his structure adjusted said he could feel "something weird" in his tan-tian area and that the feeling wasn't what he thought it would be. This is why we avoid saying that "the feeling" is "X,Y,Z" because then the mind starts looking for, starts imagining, starts creating X,Y,Z feeling and you wind up missing the self-discovery of the real feeling.

* Just do the exercises. Keep focused on feeling the fascial stretch and one day you'll feel your tan-tian. It all happens quite naturally. Once you get the feeling, then discard the method that brought you to the feeling. (The method is not the truth.) and then focus on amplifying the feeling.

* Another example of why we use contradictions to speak the truth. For example, if the question is: "Is the feeling subtle?" and if the answer is, "Yes", then you'd look for something subtle and you'd miss a dramatic feeling. If the answer is, "No", then you'd look for a dramatic feeling and miss the subtle feeling. Either feeling, subtle or dramatic, may be the next "a-ha" moment. So.... the feeling is both and neither. It is like.... maybe... . Speak of the feeling obliquely and in ambiguities so the mind has nothing to attach to.

(I grouped the above entries as I did because these all speak a single truth to me. I have heard many teachers and read many articles expounding just the opposite advice; focus on the tan-tian, feel a warm ball of energy or imagine hanging from a string attached at the top of your head, etc... None of these artificially produced or imagined "feelings" helped me at all. When I tried using my mind to forcefully will a feeling I got nowhere. Now I'm taking a more Zen-like approach of simply noticing what shows-up. )

* Teaching how to develop internal strength is an art in itself.

(I've discovered the truth in this statement for myself! There are a lot of teachers. There are fewer masters. There are fewer masters with some level of internal strength. There are fewer masters with some level of internal strength who teach how to develop internal strength. There are fewer masters with some level of internal strength who teach how to develop internal strength who have students who are developing internal strength. No wonder there are so few people actually "getting it". There is a difference between "having it" and being able to teach it. )
* I need to be able to roll the femur heads forward. Could practice while sitting as well. Still can't get them forward enough but getting closer as I was able to feel the "hot spot" faintly and briefly.

* Progression of practice for me:
  1. Correct stance
  2. Side to side
  3. Silk reeling
  4. Tai-chi form
* Without correct stance, you won't do side-to-side correctly. If you don't do side-to-side correctly, you won't do silk reeling correctly. If you don't do silk reeling correctly, you won't do Tai-chi correctly. Period!

* You know you are standing correctly when you get a searing burning pain in the quads, mid-upper, outer thigh.

(A question came up in class one time, "How do I self-validate if I'm doing stance correctly or not?" and one answer is, if you get that burning pain sensation in your mid-upper, outer thigh, then you are sinking your weight.

I regularly use this as one of the calibration points in and outside of practice. I play with how quickly I can "drop into my legs". And especially in practice, how intense can I get that feeling and how long can I endure it?)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Relaxation Riddles: Journal Notes #18
Next article in this series: Chen Xiaowang Seminar 2004: Journal Notes #20

Monday, December 20, 2010

Relaxation Riddles: Journal Notes #18

Notes from my May and June 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

May 2004 -
* The path of development is a path marked by various feelings. As you grow, your feeling experiences will change. An experienced guide will be able to recognize where you are in your development based on the feeling experiences you describe and the kinds of questions you ask. In this realm, book knowledge is an impediment because the mind will think it knows something when in fact the feeling (that you need to learn) cannot be learned through reading.

(It's only after having developed a feeling that I'm able to go back and read how someone else describes the feeling and say, "Yeah, it could be described that way.")

June 2004 -
* Once you get the feeling, go straight for it every time. Program yourself for the feeling. You have to be able to drop into it at a moment's notice. It has to become intuitive, automatic, like the professional basketball player, after years of practice, it all comes naturally.

* There are different training strategies.
  1. Hold the position in stance no matter how much it hurts and eventually the tension will release.
  2. "Where the mind goes, the chi follows"
    • 2a. Focus on part of your body and keep building the chi there until it breaks out.
      2b. Focus on another part of the body than where you are focusing.

* Don't tuck. A lot of Tai-chi teachers erroneously teach their students to "tuck under". The resultant problem is that the lower back bows out losing its straightness and the intention is driven forward instead of straight down.

* Exercise to help loosen and develop feeling in a tight lower back. Sit on the edge of a hard chair with feet flat on floor. "Slide" knees forward and back (only an inch or a couple cm) by rocking on the "sits bones" - the bones of the pelvis that contact the chair seat - creating alternating arched and straight lower back. Feel into the pelvis. (This is the Buddha Dipping His Something in the River Qigong.)
(I find that with any new exercise, I tend to force it, or muscle it to "do it right" and I can feel all the muscle-ing I'm doing which is OK to begin however, a more advanced practice is to continuously discover a more relaxed way to do the same, simple exercise. Sometimes I find different muscles can be used or that I don't need to use as much muscle to get the same movement. I've had lots of "a-ha" moments with this method alone!)

* Always remember that all these exercises and analogies and set-ups are methods to elicit a particular feeling. These are all methods to draw your awareness to a particular structure which has a feeling distinct from the structure you are usually familiar with.

* Focus on remembering the structural set up only as long as and until you recognize the feeling. Once you get the feeling, then focus on that and intensify the feeling. Explore where the feeling leads you. Grow in that feeling. Develop the kinesthetic feeling sense is the core practice, the key to "getting it".

* Remember:
  • Relax is not limp
  • Relax is no tension
  • Relax is Chi-ful
  • Maintain structure and release all unnecessary tension
  • Pressure is not tension.
  • Develop the feeling of pressure.
* Because of chronic tension in the glutteal muscles (tight ass), notice your natural standing posture of how the toes point out. This is due to tight muscles on one side pulling the toes out, not balanced. Practice stance to correct that to a balanced point. For me, this means turning the knees, femur heads forward but push the knees out to the side so don't become "knock-kneed".

* Question: My natural stance is with the toes pointed out, especially the right foot. Are there exercises to loosen the muscles so the feet naturally stance straight and parallel?
Answer: Stand "pigeon toed", toes touching and heels out to get the femur heads to roll forward, knees touching and pointing toward each other, slowly roll down, dropping the head and let the arms hang until between knees and floor. Roll up and repeat.

* Question: I notice I'm continually clenching the perineum area. How do I get this area to remain relaxed? I notice that when I relax this area I get a better relax/widening in the lower back.
Answer: (I've edited the original entry to the following...) Some techniques are neither generally nor publicly discussed. A technique may be used for different purposes but "unplugging" or releasing the tension in the perineum muscles to allow the Qi to drop is the purpose here. Remember, Tension restricts Qi flow. Relaxing allows Qi flow. You also may want to find a good instructional video on hip-freeing exercises.
(One reader suggested the book "Pelvic Power" by Ivan Franklin. I've heard, 'the best place to hide a planet is out in the open where everyone can see it'. I've found this to be true in at least a few different ways.

Discovering my muscular holding patterns regardless of bodily location is an amazing part of the process. Just because I'm able to relax say my abdomen area doesn't necessarily indicate that I've relaxed another area.)

* Question: I feel a pain in the collarbone while standing. What's up with that?
Answer: If it's pain from releasing and relaxing, then that's fine. Just breath into it.
(I still experience this. It's not a bone pain, rather, when I relax the muscles in the front of my shoulder and neck I feel a 'tugging' or 'pulling' in a four fingertip width from the center end of the bone.)

* All the exercises are done slowly and deliberately with intention of feeling the fascia stretch throughout the body. We can dispense with talk of "Qi flow" and "Tan-tian" because these things appear spontaneously after sufficient feeling of fascial connectedness is developed.

* What's the feeling of this? Find the feeling! It's difficult to use words to describe that which words are ill-made to describe.

* The old old masters and teachings speak in contradictions because if a teacher said "X" then the mind would go to "X" and get stuck there.
(Hmmm... Contradictions like riddles fry the brain creating an opening for what... Yes ! Letting go... Relaxing... Even more... Now... )
Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Bio Questions: Journal Notes #17
Next article in this series: Practical Non-Attachment: Journal Notes #19

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bio Questions: Journal Notes #17

Notes from my April 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* I don't have any particular stance-mechanics questions because I feel that my stance progress is tied to these other concerns.

* Beware of the psychodrama. Keep it simple. What do you feel? "I feel hot and sweaty. I feel my legs trembling. I feel my shoulders hurt." Leave it at that.

(I think this note is referring to one of the traps I was prone to falling into when I started. And that's the trap of focusing on a feeling in a way that would not necessarily yield functional results. For example, "What do I feel? oohhh, I feel scared because when I was little...." or "What do you feel? ohh, I feel angry because I remember..."

I myself (and I have also seen my school brothers) struggle with emotional stuff that comes up in the process of relaxing and releasing patterns of muscular tension. What helps me avoid the trap is staying focused on "What's your purpose?" My purpose is to develop a feeling of connectedness. I can notice the psychodrama as it arises. If it is troubling enough, I can seek counseling. Otherwise, I can simply acknowledge it, learn from it and stay focused on the body.)

* Take responsibility for your actions, feelings, attitudes, situation. If you want to change, then experiment. Try "x". Monitor the results. Take responsibility for the result you created.

* Don't focus on the tension. Focus on the bio-feedback the released tension is giving you.
(Wow! I read this now and think, what a huge clue to training! What does this mean? Assuming "bio-feedback" is a validate-able result that I can demonstrate, for example, when this relaxes, I notice more pressure in my quads... Questions I might ask myself: How do I experience the bio-feedback? What can I learn from this? How do I apply this to deeper and ever more "subtle" levels of feeling? )

* Question: How do I find the feeling of serenity that was evoked in the last class?
Answer: That has also happened to me before too. I don't know. That's your puzzle to figure out. But now you know it's there and you are capable of feeling it.
(This question is referencing an experience that was noted in Journal Notes #16.

This is still a big puzzle for me, "But now you know it's there and you are capable of feeling it." For all the amazing feelings I've experienced over the years including many from in-class postural adjustments, I haven't been able to replicate similar feelings during my own practice time. I suspect that I'm not hitting the same postural alignment that would elicit that overall feeling. Or.... maybe these feelings are one-time roadsigns that I should not get stuck on trying to replicate. Maybe it depends on the feeling? Maybe, yes, replicate and develop the heaviness in the quads ("sink the chi"). Maybe, no, don't try to replicate the serene feeling. Maybe some feelings are merely by-products of practice.)

* When standing, you need to keep the monkey mind busy so the stallion can run free. If you continually monitor your stance, then you are letting the monkey control the stallion; you are thinking too much.

* Introduction to pole shaking. The core is stance and side-to-side. Silk reeling. Need to have the legs and kua/inguinal crease open and close properly.

(Pole shaking is not done by the shoulders and arms even though to the untrained eye, it appears to be done this way. In fact, there is very little shoulder and arm movement. The force to shake the pole is generated in the legs and kua and transmitted out the arms to the pole tip. Similarly, the shaking end of the pole should be able to reverberate back through the relaxed arms and into the relaxed torso and you should be able to see the relaxed muscles shaking all the way down to the butt. While this exercise looks simple, it takes quite a lot of relaxation and connection to do it correctly. Though I intellectually have a better understanding and may be able to see better what is "right" and "wrong", I still can't do it "right".)

* Question: What other bodywork can I get into now that I've finished my first set of ten Rolfing sessions?
Answer: See Kristina at xxx. She does good deep tissue work and won't pull or hold back if you tell her that's what you want. A lot of people say they do deep tissue work but they don't really.
(I never did pursue other types of body work or deep tissue massage work.)

* Question: Why did the Rolfing ninth session which worked with my hands, arms and shoulders elicit such strong feelings?
Answer: Energetically, that session works with the feelings of 'reaching out'.

(Note: This month's journal contains a section which, when I was reviewing it, thought that it could be misleading to someone not familiar with Wujifa training and my personal situation. Therefore, I have reworded this section as seen below in an attempt to convey the spirit of this entry which I'd like to share without divulging the potentially confusing details.)

* Question: I'm feeling a new, heightened level of energy that kind of feels like a sexual energy? It's weird. I don't quite know how to describe it. What's going on? Should I... ?
Answer: One view is that all energy is sexual energy. Continue practicing. The path will become clear and probably won't be as you are imagining it now.

* Question: What should I be looking for with the towel-twisting exercise?
Answer: Look in the mirror to see where the skin is flush, where blood is flowing, and where ashen or pale, where muscular tension is restricting blood flow. Rub or move the ashen or pale area to relax the muscle to allow blood flow.

(Yes, I do notice a "splotchiness" in my face and neck (because I'm wearing a shirt) when I do this exercise. I want to say more about my experiences with this Q&A but don't know how to right now. Maybe in another post.

I have done this exercise sporadically over the years but never consistently over a period of time to notice long-term results. I've recently started doing this exercise again.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Body Changes: Journal Notes #16
Next article in this series: Relaxation Riddles: Journal Notes #18

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mastering Internal Strength

One of my recurring questions used to be, "How long it take to 'get' internal strength?" which of course is a different question from, "How long does it take to 'master' internal strength?"

When I returned to the School of Cultivation and Practice after my three year hiatus, I noticed that one of my new and younger school brothers developed a basic level of internal strength with about three years of practicing stance and other specific mind-body exercises. (He started after I left.) I understand that he practiced more than three hours a day with attending class and private practice time!

How is it that he 'got something' with three years of practice and I didn't 'get anything' with my previous twenty years of practice?

In the 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, Part 1, Chapter 2 is titled "The 10,000 Hour Rule" in which he reframes the old "nature vs. nurture" argument into "talent vs. practice" or "talent vs. preparation". He says,
"Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities." (pg. 155)
So the question I have is: What are the "predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities" that I can access to develop and master internal strength?

Well, one aspect is time. Time spent practicing. Here are a few ways I can analyze my practice schedule regarding how long it may take me to develop or master internal strength:

1 hour/day x 7 days/week x 365 days/year = 365 hours a year.
So, 10,000/365 = 27 years.

2 hours/day x 7 days/week x 365 days/year = 730 hours a year.
So, 10,000/730 = 14 years.

3 hours/day x 7 days/week x 365 days/year = 1095 hours a year.
So, 10,000/1095 = 9 years.

Well, I've logged my 10,000 hours but apparently time alone is not a predictor of mastery. So again, what are the "circumstances and opportunities" that I missed and that maybe I can still look for?

Also in the "The 10,000 Hour Rule" chapter, Gladwell references Dr. K. Anders Ericsson's early 1990's study. So, I looked into Dr. Ericsson and found...

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson... is widely recognized as one of the world's leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertise. Dr Ericsson's research interests and publications can be found (as of this posting) at the Florida State University, Department of Psychology.

I've never heard of expertise studies. (Maybe developing and mastering internal strength can be approached from the view of expertise studies?) So I looked around some more and found various books have referenced Dr. Ericsson's and others' expertise studies, for example:
This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin 2006. Chapter 7 is titled "What Makes a Musician? Expertise Dissected.

"The ten thousand-hours theory is consistent with what we know about how the brain learns. Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in the neural tissue. The more experiences we have with something, the stronger the memory/learning trace for that that experience becomes. Although people differ in how long it takes them to consolidate information neurally, it remains true that increased practice leads to greater number of neural traces, which can combine to create a stronger memory representation. ... The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced. " (pg 193)
(Maybe mastering internal strength has to do with repeating specific experiences 10,000 hours ?) So I did a little more digging and I found what I'm guessing is "the early 1990's" Ericsson article referenced in the above books:

The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (available as pdf)
K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer
Psychological Review
1993, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406
Here are a few excerpts:
We have shown that expert performance is acquired slowly over a very long time as a result of practice and that the highest levels of performance and achievement appear to require at least around 10 years of intense prior preparation.

Characteristics of Deliberate Practice
The most cited condition concerns the subjects' motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. In addition, the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

Comparison of Deliberate Practice to Other Types of Domain-Related Activities
Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.

The commitment to deliberate practice distinguishes the expert performer from the vast majority of children and adults who seem to have remarkable difficulty meeting the much lower demands on practice in schools, adult education, and in physical exercise programs.

After I read this, I had a little "a-ha" moment. The "Characteristics of Deliberate Practice" seems to be a very functional approach to developing mastery which in my view can be equally applied to mastering internal strength:
  • The subject's motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance.
  • the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners
  • the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
  • The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance.
  • The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

If I reword or reframe the above into what I might look for in terms of the teaching methods of someone teaching skills that can lead to internal strength, I might say the teacher would...
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that "fit" the preexisting knowledge of the learners. (For me this means talking to me in my vernacular, in my "western" paradigm and not forcing me for example, into the Chi paradigm.)
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. (For example, the Wujifa Alignment, 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4.)
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that provide immediate feedback. (For example: feeling the burning in the quadriceps or focus on feeling connectedness and noticing gaps in feeling.)
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that can be performed repeatedly. (To me, this does not include forms. Forms are very complex. A simple task that can be performed repeatedly might be something like zhan zhuang, or side-to-side or one of the Wujifa warm-up exercises.)
Finding a teacher like this could provide the "circumstances and opportunities" that I missed. Also, developing a personal mind-set like the above could help me find the "circumstances and opportunities" to guide my learning and the kinds of questions I might ask. For example,
How can I break down, for example, "Fair Maiden Weaves Shuttle" into a simple, elemental "task" that I can perform repeatedly, that will deliver immediate feedback, that can be quickly and easily understood by another person, and that fits pre-existing knowledge? And I would add, that would lead to deeper levels of feeling of connectedness? Of course, all of this must be validate-able.)
According to my understanding of the little I read to write this post, I violated every characteristic of deliberate practice that would lead to expertise in my chosen field - mastering internal strength. So, from this limited perspective, it's no surprise that I wound up where I am. (I'm no expert in expertise studies. I just started connecting some dots and this is my understanding at this time.)

In conclusion, in my opinion, one of the contributions of Wujifa to the internal martial arts community is that it uses "Characteristics of Deliberate Practice". I've seen how practicing Wujifa can lead to developing internal strength in as little as three years. For myself, I've made a lot of progress in this system since returning to class seven years ago!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Body Changes: Journal Notes #16

Notes from my March 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* Question: How much can Rolfing do? Would another year have pursued the emotion?

Answer: No. You're getting your money's worth with that alone. By analogy, you're buying a factory built car. If you want a stock car, you've got to work on it yourself.

(From January through April 2004, I went through the first series of ten Rolfing sessions. (See my Rolfing Notes.) This question refers to this experience. In Journal Notes #15, I had asked about Rolfing and was told that Rolfers generally don't get into the emotional release / counseling aspect. I was looking for a short-cut; to have someone else do "the work" for me. This question is a continuation of that conversation.)

* Question: I'm seeing people's structures and sometimes I'll feel their structure and it hurts me. How do I stay open to feeling but not get influenced?

Answer: You have what is called an "easy-going" or "flaccid" personality. Your boundaries are weak. To strengthen boundaries, do the towel exercise three times a day. See what comes up.

(There were a few experiences that I'm referring to in the question which occurred after having gone through several Rolfing sessions. In one case, I had gone to a workshop where we had to "take on" a physical characteristic of another person in the room. I was able to do that but then couldn't shake it. Also walking around on the street and noticing that I could now notice people's structures in a feeling kind of way, not just visually notice. A really new and different experience.

In my case, the personality observation is accurate. What's interesting to me is how this easy-going, "Taoist" Tai-chi yielding, going-with-the-flow personality also manifests in the musculature. In my Wujifa zhan zhuang practice, "taking a stand" or "setting boundaries" on different levels was and is one of my long-standing internal gong-fu practices. For me,
developing internal strength is about a lot more than "just standing".)

* While standing in class, I received an adjustment such that my legs felt heavy and my top felt light and I felt a peaceful serenity I can't recall ever feeling before - or at least not in a very long time. But I wouldn't allow myself to enjoy that feeling for long and slowly shifted back to the pain, back to constant scanning of my structure.
(Ah, yes, the internal gong fu. Part of what "holds me back" is not wanting to or being afraid to let go of the old, ingrained habits. One habit is "look for a problem and fix it". Interesting how that showed up in my zhan zhuang practice, eh? )

* "The method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method."

* You're getting caught up in the method. Try this, while standing, adjust on one breath. Relax and be with that for three breaths. Check and adjust with one breath. Repeat.

(I think this is referring to "Stance Dance" which is where I would continuously scan and adjust the alignment of each part of my body and I wound up not standing still and feeling the whole but continually "dancing" based on mechanistic perceptions. Wujifa alignment (1,2,3,4 and 1,2,3,4) is a method in which a feeling can be discovered. I wasn't looking for a feeling. I was stuck on mechanistically following the rule of "proper alignment". So, another method was suggested to help me overcome my being stuck on a method. And yes, this method did help me to c-a-l-m - d-o-w-n... )

* Learned about the inguinal crease (kua). Side to side and circling the hip is a "kua" exercise.
(Wow! I learned about inguinal crease stuff six years ago? I still can't do it right. I'm still learning and refining...)

* The key is to feel the elasticity of the fascia.

* Wow! What an enriching hour of class that was!

* During the week (the last week of March 2004), I felt the inside of my musculature of my vertebra from shoulders down. I felt my thickness and could differentiate front and back.

* While my body is going through these fantastic changes, I still feel lackluster.

* One day, I woke up feeling vibrating and tingling especially in the lower belly area.

* I've felt how I keep my lower back contracted and pulled in almost always. I'm now paying attention to allowing it to open out and sideways. Relaxing there brings up a fear of falling even while sitting in a chair as if the chair will break and not be able to withstand the outward pressure so I have to hold it in.
(This is another of the many "that's interesting" feelings, one of the roadsigns along the way that the body is slowly changing. I continue to work on relaxing my lower back outwards/sideways. I still feel a little fear that I'm going to "push it" too far when I reach "the edge". I haven't broken any chairs yet. Stay tuned!)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: An Early Lesson in Learning: Journal Notes #15
Next article in this series: Bio Questions: Journal Notes #17

Monday, November 29, 2010

An Early Lesson in Learning: Journal Notes #15

Notes from my February 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* The sit down and bow from the hips are contradictory intentions/movement. The purpose of which has to open the lower back, the ming-men point. Also, from this point, feel the pelvis turning out and spiral down across the front of the thigh.

(The "contradictory" issue arises from the "one way" rule of living. "Sit" feels like one distinct movement and "bow" feels like another distinct movement. Doing both at the same time can feel like contradictory movements. Again, the finger pointing at the moon. "Sit" and "bow" together are the finger pointing to a feeling. Once I got the feeling, then there was no contradiction. The contradiction was a mental construct which inhibited my getting the feeling. This pattern of being locked into "A or B" and not being open to experimenting with "A and B" also shows up in other areas of my life. Body patterns can reflect life patterns.)
* Muscles in chronic spasticity are hard and prevent feeling. To be able to feel requires first opening / loosening / relaxing these muscles.

* In learning stance, if I or anybody is all armored (lots of muscular tension), this presents a formidable task to try to open and coordinate that kind of body. It would be better to have un-armored oneself first to be able to focus on the feeling building connections.

(Then too, maybe the exercise is called "internal gong-fu" because the point of it is the process; the process of learning how and dissolving the armor, the process of relaxing the tension, the process of learning to open and coordinate, the process of building the feeling of connectedness.)

* Student - teacher/guide relation. Use analogy of a puzzle. To assemble a puzzle into a complete picture, if I ask a teacher to put each piece in place ("How should I stand?"), then I never learn the process of puzzle-ing. This is how many students and teachers operate. It would be better that I am presented the puzzle [and I think through and figure out which questions to ask]:

  1. How do I sit and not fall down?
  2. How do I bow without the butt sticking out and the chest rising?
  3. How do I drop the chest without the head lurching forward?
  4. How do I hold the head upright and back?
Then, the question to ask the teacher is "How do you do it? Can you show me what you do?" Then me figure out, how is that different from what I'm doing? What do I need to change?

(On a mechanistic level, the old "monkey see, monkey do" teacher-student model of teaching and learning forms fails miserably when it comes to teaching and learning internal connectedness. Relying on a teacher to show me is one habit that becomes an impediment to learning internal connectedness and must be surpassed to make progress beyond the basic structural mechanics of standing. There is an entirely different way to learn and I didn't know this until more recently, and in fact, I continue learning.)

* Stand first. Resolve the four puzzles, the four methods; 1,2,3,4 and 1,2,3,4. Then learn side-to-side which is the foundation of moving. All silk reeling is based on side-to-side.

* Side-to-side hints: Watch yourself in the mirror with horizontal lines behind you at shoulder and waist. As you shift, do NOT turn the waist or shoulder as will seem "natural" to do. (What feels "natural" is in fact your chronic stuck-ness.) Feel what happens! Though the outside does not move, there is movement inside - muscles twisting and stretching. Hence the saying, "Movement in stillness. Stillness in movement." These are the best words to describe what is physically happening. Also, keep the shoulders and hips parallel to the wall as move. No Twisting.

* Be attentive and feel and practice and change will happen naturally. If you try too hard, this will hamper progress.

(How can trying harder, practicing more, hamper progress? Seems to be a contradiction. Discovering the feeling of internal connectedness takes a balance of effort and openness. Too much effort, means the focus is on the effort. The effort is the finger pointing to the feeling discovered in the openness. Focusing on the effort is like focusing on the finger. Exert just enough effort to find the feeling and then exert just enough effort to develop the feeling.)

* Open. Open. Open.

(I started my first series of 10 Rolfing Sessions in January 2004. The below are probably responses to questions I was asking about the efficacy of Rolfing.)

* Rolfing and any bodywork will un-stick what's stuck but body workers stop short of getting full emotional release so though you may feel better, the underlying problem/issue/attitude/emotional charge, since left unaddressed will find a new place to stick.

* Standing [zhan zhuang] with a competent guide can achieve the same and longer lasting results. Going to a Rolfer, or any body worker is giving them responsibility to "cure" you. If you don't take the responsibility for yourself, then you will never solve your own puzzles and never make any progress.

* Stages of stance/standing:
  1. Rigid. Muscular holding.
  2. Beginning to relax while maintain structure.
  3. Relax to point where breathing moves body.
  4. Drive movement inward so that outside looks still but movement is under skin - muscles are moving and adjusting.
  5. Muscles are still. Qi alone moves.

* For the first time in class, I could see what is meant to be connected and broken; where the "qi" path [for lack of a better word] was broken by postural choices! Amazing!

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Big Things Little Packages: Journal Notes #14
Next article in this series: Body Changes: Journal Notes #16

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Internal Gong Fu Paradigms

In my years of learning different internal gong fu forms and other practices, I primarily saw and learned the superficial, mechanical differences without deeply understanding the differences in their underlying paradigms.

I tried synthesizing ideas without first having a basic functional understanding of each. As a result, I wound up with a confused stew pot of ideas. I learned to "talk the talk".

My purpose in writing this article is twofold. This is primarily an exercise to help me clarify my understanding of the paradigms of various internal gong fu practices. And in so doing, present you, the reader with my current understanding. Specifically, I want to answer the question, "What's the difference between Wujifa and its paradigm and other internal gong fu practices and their paradigms?"

First, what is a paradigm? The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines paradigm as:
"a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind"
Here's my current understanding of the paradigms of the various practices from my experience.

Paradigms in the Asian Tradition
  • Chi or Qi ( 气 ; ) paradigm: An invisible energy is the foundation of the universe. This energy flows through humans via a meridian system. Learning how to recognize and direct one's energy (internally) can also open one to connecting with the energy of nature and the universe.
    [Over the years, I've done all kinds of Qi-gong exercises with a variety of teachers in a variety of settings and heard Chi explained all kinds of way including doing Tai-chi as a moving qi-gong. So my 'definition' is kind of the gist of everything I've heard or read.]
(The below are listed as "sub-paradigms" as I believe the chi-paradigm runs through each.)
  • Wu-Ji ( 无 极 ; wú jí ) paradigm: the mother, the undefined that gives birth from the flow of energy of the Tao to Yin-yang, Five Elements and the ten thousand things. The stillness underlying movement.
    [When I got to college, I pursued a Bachelors in Religious Studies and Philosophy focusing on Asian Buddhism and Taoism. So of course, being on a college campus on Long Island, NY in the 1980s, and with New York City just a train ride away, I tasted A LOT of fruit. Transcendental Meditation, staring at a candle flame tip, staring at a full moon, sitting in a tree feeling how the tree grounds the wind, attending the Church of Eclectic Esoteric Whatever and on and on. Looking back, when I started, I remember sitting and notice my mind racing everywhere. Crazy. I can get to a quiet place much easier now.]
  • Yin-yang ( 阴 ; yīn yáng) paradigm: A philosophy of duality, polarity; complimentary opposites in balance.
    [In the 1980's, in addition to usual classes, I also attended workshops and seminars with William C.C. Chen, T.T. Liang, Yang, Jwing-ming and many others I've forgotten at summer camps at the original Tai chi Farm. So looking at Tai-chi, first there is the full leg/empty leg thing. And then in push-hands, where an opponent presents strength, I yield; where an opponent is weak, I fill with strength. I understand and feel this at the mechanical level, however, I never got to the point of consciously applying this paradigm in my daily life.]
  • Five Element ( 五行 ; wǔ xíng) paradigm: A philosophy recognizing five fundamental forces and how each overcomes or gives rise to the next.
    [I attended a couple seminars on the Five Element Xing-yi. One with Yan, Gao-fei and one with Gary Torres. In Yan's seminar, I remember spending a lot of time on practicing and honing the feel of the form and less time on philosophy. In Gary's seminar, I remember him covering a some philosophy and then we got into doing a two person Five Element Xing-Yi fighting form where for example, I attack with Wood and my opponent counters with Metal. Gary also covered the acu-point striking with Xing-Yi and how rubbing or slapping one point can overcome the effects of another being struck. So even in the acu-point area, I got a taste of the Five Element philosophy.]
  • Ba-Gua ( 八 卦 ; bā guà) paradigm: A philosophy recognizing eight fundamental principles of reality. Associated with the I-Ching.
    [This is probably the sparsest of my "internal" form training. I took a set of classes with Victor Chao and learned some forms and some philosophy. I never got anywhere near learning all his 64 forms. So it's hard for me to say much about Ba-Gua. My experience is pretty limited here.]
  • Twelve Earthly Branches ( 干 支 ; gān zhī) or the Twelve Animal Zodiac ( 生 肖 ; shēng xiào) paradigm: Each of the twelve animals of the zodiac express particular characteristics.
    [This is the wildest stuff. When I trained with Bob Klein at the Long Island School of Tai Chi Chuan in the 1980's, there was a strong emphasis on nature and wild animals. (You might recognize me in a few of the videos he made during at that time.) I learned a Tai-chi Monkey and Mantis form and started learning a Snake form but never got through it. When I was learning the monkey form, I used to go to the Bronx Zoo early Saturday mornings and sit for hours in the primate house watching the chimpanzees. Bob, being a zoologist would also on occasion bring out his boa constrictors. Very cool! So I got a chance to handle some very large snakes as well as do some snake staring. The purpose of all this training was to imbue my animal forms with the "spirit" of that animal. I also got to where I could imitate squirrels (in abundance in the local woods) but I got pretty jittery and so stopped this animal. Some wild stuff!]
  • I-Ching paradigm: An ambiguous framework of eight trigram/sixty four hexagrams meant to explain how things work through correlation.
    [You know, again, lots of different teachers have spoken of the I-Ching and somehow tied it back to Chinese martial arts but I still personally don't see how this is an underlying paradigm for any internal gong fu form or practice. Maybe one day, but for now, I just don't understand.]

Paradigms in the Euro-American Tradition:

  • Mechanistic paradigm: The philosophy of DeCartes and Newton. "I think therefore I am." Head-Body duality. Tends to not feel or to strictly control feeling of intuitions and emotions. Lives life by rigid formulas, laws, rules, codes of behavior.
    [This is the paradigm I grew up with so this thing is deep in my bones and influences every activity and thought and relationship and, and, and,.... When it came to learning martial arts, this is the place I came from. And when I could reproduce the mechanics of forms, techniques and applications, well, I thought that was the pinnacle. And why not, I also attend and even participated in a couple competitions (back in my Long Island days) and to me, then, competitions were all about being judged on mechanics. So... ]
Paradigms not Tied to a Particular Tradition:

  • Fantasy paradigm: A philosophy that the use of imagery and concepts will evoke bodily sensations. However, people often get lost in the image and don't develop validate-able skills.
    [Wow! Who hasn't heard these lines before? Imagine hanging from a string. Imagine roots growing out the bottom of your feet. Imagine moving as if through a thick viscous fluid. Imagine a ball of white energy between your hands. etc..]
  • Mystical or Spiritual paradigm: A philosophy of garnering power through petitioning or connecting with a "higher power" or supernatural being beyond my comprehension. Again, people often get lost in the "woo-woo" and don't develop validate-able skills.
    [Again, my whole Bachelors degree was about this stuff. However, I approached my studies mechanically, not understanding my philosophy nor experimenting with living the philosophies I was studying. As an extra-curricular assignment, I attended a wide range of different churches, synagogues, and temples, sweat lodges etc. over four years. It was interesting. Where I confused myself was in associating any of this wide variety of religious and spiritual practices with Tai-chi or Qi-gong.]
  • Functional paradigm: Looks to generalize principles found in natural, scientific and various other processes. Not based on rules or methods. See my article "Functionality and Wujifa".
    [When I started practicing Wujifa I was struck by the lack of forms, by the focus on feeling, by the focus on using temporary methods as short-term "medicine" to yield a particular result, namely a feeling of more connectedness, to work through a "sticky-point". Philosophically, the "Wu-Ji" of Wujifa is the same as the Wu-Ji above, loosely translated as No Ridge Pole, No dead post. The "Fa" of Wujifa refers to principle, law, or method. And it is this "Fa" that distinguishes the Wujifa standing practice from the common Wuji standing practice. So altogether, Wujifa is the way or principle of not being a dead post - or being fully alive, of being functional. This is kind of how I'm understanding it now.]

Here's another way to look at the above:

Qi-gong - based on the Chi and Fantasy paradigms.

Wu- Ji standing practice - based on the Wu-Ji and Chi paradigms.

Tai-chi chuan - based on the Yin-yang and Chi paradigms. Popularly practiced from the Mechanistic paradigm and employing the Fantasy and sometimes Mystical paradigm.

Ba-gua chuan - based on the Ba-gua and Chi paradigms.

Xing-yi chuan - based on the Five Element or Twelve Animal and Chi paradigms.

Wujifa - based on the Functional paradigm. The School of Cultivation and Practice uses a functional definition of Wu-Ji and approaches Wu-Ji functionally looking for connectedness.

* * * * *
I hope my sharing gives you an idea of my cumulative knowledge of my experiences with various martial arts and internal gong fu practices and my current understanding of Wujifa as I practice it today.

What's interesting is that I've been going to classes for years (decades), and I will come home and practice the methods and never really see the big picture of the school I was and am attending. Writing this article has been a great experience in helping me see the differences in the philosophies driving the practices.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Big Things Little Packages: Journal Notes #14

Notes from my January 2004 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* Question: How do I drop the chest without hunching?

Answer: Look at the human skeleton. The sternum is not tied at the top and is capable of up/down movement. It is only held up by muscular tension. Relax and allow the muscles to stretch. As the sternum drops, because of connecting ribs to spine, a cantilever effect takes place and makes the spine feel as if it is moving up. This causes the "hanging by a string" or "pushing up" feeling at the top of the head.

(I didn't make any hand drawings for the above. I'm looking for some graphics that I can modify to help you visualize this and I will get these posted as soon as I can. Key point here is that the "hanging by a string from the top of the head" is not some imaginary as-if-ness to get you to stand up straight. There is a real kinesthetic adjustment that takes place over a period of time that can create this feeling. )

* Learn how to ask questions. Be direct. Leading a question with other information is an ego defense to reduce vulnerability. It's OK to be vulnerable.
(To elaborate, I have a tendency to provide a long back-story to explain how I arrived at the question I want to ask. The problem is that the back-story builds walls so that only certain answers become rationally "correct". It's taken me a long time to learn how to simply ask a question with no back story and be completely open to whatever answer comes back. The back-story creates the possibility of an answer "from left field". No back-story, no "left-field." I'm better at verbalizing only the question but inside I struggle with how to ask the question that adequately represents the back story. Maybe one day I will be able to drop the back-story and just ask the question.)

* Two approaches. Trade offs for each:

  1. Relax. When one part moves, all parts move. This is easiest for the mind to grasp but doesn't address the many blocks obstructing relaxing.

  2. Focus on addressing each individual block. This is difficult for the mind to remember. The mind tends to grasp at one and attach to it as the truth and misses the big picture.

There weren't a lot of notes for this month, however, don't let the shortness fool you. There's a ton of stuff here that can guide your entire practice IF you pursue the depth of these ideas! Sometimes big things come in little packages.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Looking at the Finger: Journal Notes #13
Next article in this series: An Early Lesson in Learning: Journal Notes #15

Monday, November 15, 2010

Internal Gong Fu Stance Training

Over the years I've looked at various stance training qi gongs to aid my internal gong fu. What I've learned is that stance training can be a method to develop internal strength but stance training in and of itself will not automatically develop internal strength.

What is stance? Any standing posture can be a "stance". Standing in line at the supermarket or standing and waiting for the bus is a "stance". Similarly any martial art "stance" can be performed like and yield the same results as standing in line at the supermarket or standing and waiting for the bus.

Therefore, I don't think there is any magical something inherent in any particular stance posture that through repeated performance will develop internal strength. Which is not to say that certain results cannot be realized through continuous and repeated practice of a stance. What I want to focus on here is using a stance as a tool to develop the feeling of whole body connectedness, what is felt as "internal strength".

There are numerous variables that determine the results of any stance training program. Among these are:
  1. My purpose
  2. My personal characteristics including ability to learn, commitment, etc...
  3. The teacher's level of whole-body connectedness; internal strength
  4. The teacher's ability to adjust my posture to elicit the feeling of connectedness in my body
Standing in any stance with a particular purpose and focus becomes "stance training" and this can be hard work [gong fu]. Depending on your purpose and desired result, it can take more time to notice substantial, demonstrable results than, say, mechanically reproducing forms, techniques, and applications.

When I first started Tai chi, I started with forms, not stance. I assumed there was a magical something inherent in the form that through shear repetition would develop internal strength in me. Stance training was not part of the curriculum. Outside of class and on my own I practiced a low Horse Stance for the purpose of strengthening my legs. Still, no internal strength.

Years later when I realized that I didn’t develop internal strength through forms, I thought maybe I could develop it through stance training and so I began practicing zhan zhuang. (This also could have turned out to be a wrong assumption had I not found the right teacher.)

Early in my zhan zhuang training, I also took classes from Gary Torres. I learned and trained a variety of stances: Tiger Stance, Horse Stance, Half-Horse or “L” Stance, Bow and Arrow Stance, Lotus Stance, Rooster Stance, Empty Stance, Short Empty Stance, Tai-chi Stance. Note: This is the breadth of my stance training experience.

The depth of my stance training has occurred in practicing Wujifa Zhan Zhuang for several years with The School of Cultivation and Practice. I think I am now beginning to feel and understand the process of developing internal strength through the use of stance.

I like browsing the health and martial arts sections of the local bookstores looking for others' experience with stance training. The martial art books tend to mechanically describe postures. The chi kung books seem to go into more depth using, imagery, chi and meridian language, and references to Taoist philosophy but that "depth" is often an illusion.

I personally have not yet found any published authors that describe in depth their experience with using stance training as a method to develop whole-body connectedness, internal strength and are written in plain English.

I did however find a few articles on the internet that I think provide a good summary of a general "why" and "how" of stance training and are generally written in "plain English". If this is your first time reading about stance training, please visit these sites and read the entire article. Below are some excerpts from these articles.

* * * * * * * * *

The Four Right Reasons for Stance Training by Master Eric Sbarge
(As of September 1, 2018, it appears that this article has been removed from the internet. The original link was )
"The real reasons for stance training are to develop solid root, to improve posture, to temper and control one's mind, and to cultivate chi or inner energy. If any of these qualities aren't fully developed in your own training, then your skill will never reach its full potential."
The first reason for stance training...
Why is rooting essential? Because only from a rooted stance can you generate power through your legs and waist to effectively strike with "whole body" power, which is the signature of an advanced martial artist.

The second reason for stance training is to improve posture...
Our minds must first ingrain the gross and subtle characteristics of each posture, and then our muscles and joints must be conditioned to be able to form the posture correctly. This is far easier if we are standing still, focusing only on the posture rather than moving and thinking about stepping or sequences.

The third reason for stance training is to temper and control our minds.... stance training inherently stills the body and thus allows for observation and work on the mind.

The fourth and perhaps greatest reason for stance training is to cultivate chi or inner energy....
To cultivate chi while holding stances, you don't need to consciously think about or manipulate your chi; the process is automatic. ... What you should pay attention to is correct posture, proper rooting, releasing the mind and body and breathing naturally and correctly. If you follow these simple guidelines, an increase in energy and chi will come naturally and in time will spread throughout your body of its own accord.
* * * * * * * * *

Traditional Shaolin Stance Training by Shi Xingmi (This article also available in pdf format Traditional Shaolin Stance Training pdf.)

Stance training has for centuries represented an important part of Shaolin training, often considered a fundamental element without which most other aspects of the discipline would be impossible to understand, perform correctly, and have any martial efficiency.
Often it is argued that as a means of physical preparation stance training has today been surpassed by other more modern and scientific methods; this however is a conclusion that simply displays limited first-hand stance training experience, and limited understanding of the “science” of stance training and its multiple objectives.
Stance training has a number of fundamental objectives, which can be divided in three main groups; technical, physical and mental.

Most importantly, and quite uniquely, traditional stance training combines all the above technical, physical and mental training objectives, providing a single fundamental training foundation.
* * * * * * * * *

Training Advice for Chenjiagou Taijiquan by CHEN XIAO WANG
(As of September 1, 2018 it appears that the original link has been removed. The original link was )
Learning Chenjiagou Taijiquan is similar to learning other forms of sports. There are some basic facts and training requirements which will be helpful to know.

3. Always start from a high stance to loosen up the joints. When you feel sufficiently relaxed and warmed up, you can then practice at the more demanding middle to low stances. This way, you lessen the chances of getting a muscle pulled or other sports injury.

5. Do take note that with martial arts training, you must not try to accelerate your progress by over-exerting your own limits. It does not work that way, there are no short cuts, and it means you must train yourself in stages, bit by bit. Train with moderation. Adjust the frequency of your training, the intensity and the level of difficulty based on the height of your stances according to your age group, fitness level and physical health. As a rule of thumb, if you feel relaxed, comfortable and alert after training, it means you have trained at your optimal intensity and level (that is just right for you). On the other hand, if you feel shaky, tired, and take longer than others to recover your breath, it means you have trained beyond your body’s capacity. In this instance, you must tone down your training activity accordingly.

6A … When you have not fully controlled your inner emotions, you will not be able to concentrate on generating your qi. So if you try to train at the lower stances, you will not be able to maintain a line of connection for your qi, it will get broken easily, and your qi will not reach your “梢节 (shao jie)”; the tips of your extremities.

* * * * * * * * *

As I said, The School of Cultivation and Practice uses the Wujifa Zhan Zhuang Qi Gong for stance training. Wujifa works on connection as their primary focus. Wujifa does not talk much if at all about "chi" because for many people this becomes very misleading. What I like about Wujifa is that it is functional and practical. A question for beginners and which is also re-asked of long-time students is: "What is your purpose?"

For me, the answer to the above question is what frames and authenticates my stance training.

What does this mean? I remember my first time answering this question and feeling something phony about the answer. There was something in-congruent between my words and my intention. I've noticed this in others as well, like, they don't quite believe what they are saying. And I remember the last time I answered this question and feeling less phony about the answer but still not completely rock-solid in it. It's a very interesting question.

The answer also sets my direction of training and ultimately the results I get.

What is your purpose? My purpose is to feel internal connectedness; to develop internal strength. In the beginning I didn't know the way to develop internal strength, but when I state my purpose, I establish the intention that I'm doing stance training for "this" instead of for "that". The subsequent questions I formulate will be focused on "this" instead of on "that".

Knowing my purpose for training is an important aspect of my training. Stance training is more than simply standing in a "stance", eating bitter and hoping for some result.

At the level of individual practice sessions, I can also ask a question which "frames" that particular session. See my article on "Framing Your Zhan Zhuang Practice". The question can be asked for each session; my focus for the week. For example, "How can I feel more "let go" and relax and open my lower back even more?"

If my purpose provides a general frame for my training, and a question provides a frame for individual training sessions, then the details of how I practice, what I do or don't do during practice, how I engage my mind, how I engage my body, what I feel or don't feel, and how deeply I feel or don't feel as I progress through the process are "the trick" to developing internal strength.

Such is my understanding as of this writing.

What tripped me up the first several years of stance training was wanting to "get it" (and wanting to "get it" through data and mental understanding and not through feeling). I would have an "a-ha" moment and then mostly think and a little feel that I finally "got it" because I noticed what felt like 100% change. However, to a trained eye, I really only changed .001%.

Only within the last year, I no longer concern myself with "getting it" because I've learned there is always more to "get". There's always more drop. There's always more inguinal crease. There's always more peng. There's always more. Eventually I let go of my desire to achieve a defined goal... (When I look back, I've far surpassed those earlier achievements)... and I've changed to focusing on continually refining my internal gong fu stance training.

Happy practicing, everyone!

Looking at the Finger: Journal Notes #13

Notes from my December 2003 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* Question: When I stand and if I shift from heels to balls of feet, I feel the weight in the thighs decrease. Should I stay in the heels or on the balls of my feet?

Answer: Show me your stance. [I get into zhan zhuang.] What you are doing is changing your posture and taking the weight up. Adjust your posture and you feel the weight in your thighs again. Playing off the balls of your feet is not stance. Stay in your heels.

* Breathing exercise. Stand normally. Hands hang at sides. Palms facing legs. Inhale, roll shoulders back, arms and hands turn out to finish with palms facing forward. Exhale, roll shoulders forward, arms and hands turn in to finish with palms facing legs.
First step - 100% mechanically force the motions.
Second step - 90% mechanical force, 10% relaxed, natural body response.
Etc... using less and less muscle to force the hands turning. As the muscles let go and relax, less mechanical force is needed and the natural breathing mechanism will move the shoulders and arms.
(I've done this breathing exercise periodically over the years. The way I understand this exercise now is that the chronic tension across the front and back of my shoulders inhibits the natural rhythmic pulse of breathing. Mechanically forcing a [natural] movement temporarily and artificially "over-rides" the tension. The method of gradually transitioning from mechanical forcing to naturally allowing movement helps me notice and feel.)

* Using imagery is a trick to get the intention to move.
(The trouble I have had with imagery is that I get myself stuck in the make-believe world of the imagery which re-enforces the dis-connect between body and mind. What I mean is, if I feel something as a result of the imagery, I tend to attribute that feeling to the imagery which further re-enforces my dependence on that imagery when instead I should be making the leap to noticing the resultant feeling, going with the feeling and casting aside the trick that elicited the feeling. I get stuck on looking at the finger [methods] instead of what the finger is pointing to [feeling]...)

* Relaxation is not the same as limp. I feel if I any more relaxed then I will fall down. Falling down is going limp. Relax and maintain structure.
(This is a puzzle of balance. How much can I relax without falling down? What is the minimal muscle needed to maintain structure, that is, to remain standing? How do I know I am as kinesthetically relaxed as I can be? Can I relax yet further?)

* Question: How long does it take to get Wuji?
Answer: Just keep standing.
(The above note refers to the preceding question about the quickest way to get internal strength. In these early years, I was completely method based - I didn't "get" the whole feeling thing. I struggled with the finger and the moon thing for a L-O-N-G time. The above drawing is laying out a couple paths "up the mountain"; one based on method and one based on feeling. Following method could take 30 years. Following feeling could be much quicker.)
* Question: How do I open and close the inguinal crease?
Answer: Stick your butt out, then alternatively tuck and un-tuck. Feel in front how it opens and closes horizontally (with crease = closed)

* Bowing [closing the inguinal crease horizontally] is the method. The truth is the feeling. What do you feel when you bow? Get the feeling.

* When I start standing and dropping, my breath is short and held-in because I'm afraid to let go. After I drop into my legs, which takes about 15 minutes at this point, then my breathing slows and deepens and it feels OK. There was nothing to be afraid of after all.
(Geez, I wish I could apply my wisdom to other areas of my life! When I was a kid, I was afraid of the lion behind the furnace in the basement. Fears change. I've got new fears now. Whatever my age, my fears, my self-restricting beliefs keep me from discovering... )
* Question: I find that if I focus on dropping, then I lose "peng" in my arms and if I focus on my arms, then I don't feel drop. Is there a trick to get everything going together?

Answer: Focus on legs and dropping first. Once the body learns this and can do it automatically, then start to work on the arms. However, getting a good drop sets-up proper posture (and vice-versa) so the rest will come naturally.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: A New Beginning: Journal Notes #12
Next article in this series: Big Things Little Packages: Journal Notes #14

Monday, November 8, 2010

A New Beginning: Journal Notes #12

Notes from my November 2003 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* Four Levels: Philosophy - Principle - Form - Technique
(An entire article can be written about this sequence of words. Here's my simple understanding:

A collection of techniques can create a form.
Understanding forms reveals a principle.
Understanding principles reveals a philosophy.
Even though I read that the tai chi form was based on Taoist philosophy, I never examined the form with the intention of feeling nor understanding the underlying principles. Consequently, during all my years of learning forms including learning zhan zhuang, I was stuck at the level of mechanically imitating whatever the teacher demonstrated or said. "Knowledge" meant being able to mechanically reproduce what someone else showed me.

I've had some nice shifts recently which have resulted in changes to how I approach practice.

What I'm curious about now is, What is principle driven training? How is principle driven training different from
mechanical imitation training? How do I distill the understanding of principles from my feeling experience in my zhan zhuang practice?)

* Feeling, understanding, awareness. If you only work with understanding and awareness, then you never make progress. Need to feel.

* Rule 1: Be responsible for own self.
* Rule 2: Be rational and functional.
* Rule 3: Experiment, try, feel result.

* Experience BE-ing.

* The method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, then get rid of the method.

* The method is a medicine. You only take medicine when you are sick. After you are well, if you continue taking medicine, you can become addicted or the medicine will hurt you.

(Upon my return to the School of Cultivation and Practice, after being away three years, the "format" of zhan zhuang training had evolved to what I sketchily noted above. By the way, the vertical lines should be parallel with each other and both should be perpendicular to the ground.

My questions below refer to practicing the methods as shown above.)
* Question: I was following these methods for two weeks and noticed the burning in my front thigh decrease. What happened?

Answer: You are holding the tension/weight in your lower back. Upon opening the lower back, the weight again dropped into my thighs.
(I'm quite sure that some rigorous hands-on adjustments created a slight or just-enough "opening the lower back" feeling for me to feel more weight drop.

Over the years I've learned that "relaxing" and "opening" are not polar OFF-ON, CLOSED-OPEN, TENSE-RELAX. My experience is that relaxing and opening typically occur in tiny increments over time and these tiny increments are sometimes discernible and sometimes not.)

* Question: If the method is not the truth and if I can get an intense feeling but can only hold posture for 30 seconds, is that better than standing so-so for 15-30 minutes? What is better, quantity of time standing or quality of stance?

Answer: You crawl before you walk and walk before you run. Get good at crawling first and develop naturally.
(When I watched my nieces and nephews learn to crawl, then walk, then run, I don't believe they were fixated on the quality of their crawling vs. the amount of time crawling. They crawled, stopped, smiled. Crawled, stopped, smiled.)

Stand. Stop. Smile.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Three Years Away: Journal Notes #11
Next article in this series: Looking at the Finger: Journal Notes #13

Monday, November 1, 2010

Three Years Away: Journal Notes #11

Notes from my September 2000 - October 2003 training journal. Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

I'm going to break from my Zhan Zhuang Training Journal format for this article. Basically, over these three years, 2000-2003, I made two journal entries, one in December 2001 and another in September 2003. And rather than splitting up those two entries with a bunch of comments, I'm just going to lay some stuff out for you.

As you've been reading these "Journal Notes" so far, I dove deeper into feeling (vs mechanical technique) through the practice of push-hands, stance and other specific mind-body exercises. I made amazing progress! Although my push-hands improved a lot, something else very unexpected and unanticipated happened.

As I felt more and more, feeling 'spilled over' into other areas of life. I couldn't isolate and compartmentalize feeling to training any longer. In addition to feeling what I'll call "body-neutral" or kinesthetic feeling, I also began feeling some other not-so-nice stuff; anger, resentment, regrets, etc.

Eventually, I became so overwhelmed with all the stuff I was feeling and rather than taking responsibility for whatever showed up in the course of my training and dealing with it, I blamed and bad-mouthed my teacher, "It's your fault I'm feeling all this!" and in August 2000, I QUIT! (How crazy is this, huh?)

With that, I shut down and pulled back as far as I could to an old familiar "I don't feel much of anything" me. I tried to get back to being "normal" like the others in my social circle at that time; very cerebral and not very feeling.

Before working on developing feeling, I kind of remembered "X", but I wasn't really feeling and letting go of the "X" feeling. Doing all the kinesthetic feeling work got me in touch with feeling "X". But I was afraid to deal with "X" on a feeling level and I thought that if I stopped feeling, then "X" would go away.

The only problem was that I felt "X" and so now "X" was conscious. I then made a conscious decision to hold onto and not work through "X" feeling. And so I made myself stuck at that level of feeling. I could not open to greater feeling to discover more "sung" which would lead to better rooting and whole body strength.

So, after about a year of sweeping stuff under the carpet and trying to be "normal" and sporadically (and mechanically) practicing my old Tai-chi forms, I started feeling lonely and disconnected. I then began looking for a new group of folks to hang out with. After testing the waters, I discovered that none of the people I met were operating at the level of feeling that I was opening to when I was training. I felt even lonelier. I couldn't really close the door to feeling that I had opened.

Along the way I realized that I alone hold myself back from developing whatever level of internal strength I'm capable of and yet I'm afraid to go there and discover what may await me.

Having always kept the folks at The School of Cultivation and Practice in the back of my mind, in late September 2003 I decided to jump back in. Thankfully, there was still a School of Cultivation and Practice to jump back in to. And thankfully, I was welcomed back.

Remember the old Joni Mitchell song from 1970, "Big Yellow Taxi"? "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got til it's gone." It took me three years...

So in reflection, yeah, I wasted three years of training time both with SoCaP and with Gary Torres. But in those three years I got some insights that, I don't know, maybe I wouldn't have gotten otherwise, for example:

I learned that there is a difference between A) putting my teacher on a pedestal and B) respecting my teacher.

I learned that there is a difference between A) holding my teacher responsible for my progress or lack thereof [focus external] and B) following my teacher's suggestions and guidance and taking responsibility for my own progress or lack thereof [focus internal].

I learned that I didn't know which way I was going until I encountered myself going the other way. I was in the "A" camp from whenever through the first four years with the School of Cultivation and Practice where I got a glimmer of the "B" camp. I like to think I'm more in the "B" camp now, not fully there, but working on it.

I learned that at one level, feeling is feeling is feeling. Sure, feeling can be compartmentalized to emotional feeling and kinesthetic feeling. And there seems to be a range (?) where at one end, I can not really feel my body nor my emotions (more mechanical) and at the other end I can feel my body and emotions (more functional)... or something like that... I'm still learning.

I learned that there are a lot of people who don't feel very deeply if at all. Some of these people also do Tai chi and focus on the mechanics of the form. It's a rare gift to find someone or a group training at the feeling level.

Acting on a suggestion, I attended a two day Silk Reeling seminar with Chen Xiao-wang on October 18-19, 2003 in Michigan. I don't have any notes from this seminar but I remember approaching this seminar as I approached past seminars; go learn a bunch of new forms to add to my repertoire of forms and say, "Now I know silk reeling." However, I walked away with something much deeper; the feeling of "qi flowing" from his adjustments to my stance.

And with that, I returned to class and to training.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Gary Torres: Journal Notes #10
Next article in this series: A New Beginning: Journal Notes #12

Monday, October 25, 2010

Gary Torres: Journal Notes #10

Notes from my training with Dr. Gary S. Torres of the Phoenix Dragon Kung Fu Academy. At that time, Gary was offering classes in Michigan one weekend per month. I attended these semi-private classes, one-hour per month from January - September 2000 which is nine hours of instruction.
"Trained by the legendary Grandmaster Peter Kwok, Doctor Gary S. Torres has been teaching the Phoenix Dragon Kung fu System, a direct copy of the Kwok System for over fourty years. As both a physician and a martial artist, he brings to his teachings a unique perspective that simply can't be found anywhere else."
In my last posting: End of the Road: Journal Notes #9, I concluded with the journal entry stating that I quit training. Although I quit zhan zhuang training in August, I met with Gary one more time and then also quit this training after the September class.

A brief recap, the only form I had wanted to but didn't learn from my Long Island Tai Chi days twelve years prior to starting with Gary was a two-person fighting form. So I thought I knew everything about Tai chi except this form.

However, after a few classes with Gary, I realized how wrong I was! Sadly, I was too attached to my investment in the past to say, "Let's stop here and start at the beginning." In hindsight, I wish I had accepted the truth of my situation and had started anew, again.

In my classes with Gary, I learned a lot about body-positioning, stances, fighting strategy, the reasons why applications are the way they are in terms of body mechanics, etc.

Here is a sample of my journal notes while studying with Gary Torres. You can read more by following the link at the bottom of this page. (My current reflections are added in italics.)


* Hang by one hand from a rafter and punch as hard as possible with the other hand. Result? Not much power. Now stand on the ground and punch as hard as possible. Lots of power. Moral: Power comes from the earth.
(And I would add, the more "rooted", the more solid the punch. Practice stance to develop "root".)

* Keep the focus of questions on body placement and body mechanics.
(This was a big shift for me from the way I learned Tai-chi and one I struggled with for a long time even in zhan zhuang practice. Don't get all mystical/philosophical. Keep it real. Be able to demonstrate.)

* Develop sensitivity to intent. Does the person standing there intend to harm me? Got to be able to sense/feel that. If yes, what is the intention? Slander my reputation? Hurt me emotionally? Hurt me physically? So the daily, going-about-my-business needs to include developing a sense/feel or intuition of others' intent.

* The telephone book exercise. Open a telephone book somewhere in the middle. Place a hair on one page. Cover the hair by placing another page on top of it. Touch the page covering the hair with your fingers. Feel where the hair is. Add a second page covering the hair. And repeat. Develop a sensitivity of touch. Can you cover a hair with the entire phone book and be able to locate the hair?
(I got up to four pages and then quit practicing because it was no longer a novelty - practicing became a frustrating "impossibility". I wonder how sensitive my touch would be had I kept with this?)

* Question: What's the meaning of the soft in the hard and the hard in the soft? Answer: This means to have the sensitivity to change in an instant, to react spontaneously to changing situations, to be able to go from extreme hardness to nothing instantly. How is this possible? Relax! Relaxed muscles respond more quickly than tensed muscles.
(For so long I thought relax meant limp. And it made no sense that a limp relaxed body could respond quickly except through some Qi magic. It's been a tricky journey for me in learning the feeling of relaxed as in "relaxed is not limp". I think I'm beginning to get a sense of it now.)

* Question: What is the hardness of Tai-chi? Answer: It is having the body aligned in a precise, minutely particular fashion such that the vectors of force form one linked, connected path from the ground/earth to finger tips. To get and have this alignment is called having "groundpath".

* Question: How to train groundpath? Answer: This must be learned through working with a competent teacher. It cannot be learned from a book or video. Many Tai-chi teachers do not have this.

* Practice makes permanent. (Not practice makes perfect.) If you learn something wrong and practice it, you won't get perfection, you'll get a permanent wrong way of doing it.
(Boy did I learn this lesson big time! The old "Mr. Slinky" body that I developed in my early push-hands days still shows up from time to time in today's push-hands practice though less and less. Boy, if I could have it all to do over with what I know now... )

* The hungry duck story. Find a duck and start feeding it bread. It will consume past what it can assimilate and poop out what it can't assimilate. People learning Tai-chi are like the hungry duck. Always want to see a new trick without understanding, digesting, assimilating what they already learned.
(I love this story. Since I've been practicing zhan zhuang, I see it's doubly true. There aren't a lot of new tricks in zhan zhuang. It's more about taking a simple lesson "stand and relax" and chewing it over and over and over and understanding, digesting, and assimilating deeper and deeper and deeper. )

* Primacy of stance. Structure determines function. 10,000 techniques are useless without the proper foundation. All applications are built on different stances.
(I think this is where I realized the shortcoming of my original Tai chi training. The way I originally learned Tai chi was like building the house (learning forms) without first building the foundation (practicing stance). )

* Stance must become your nature. Not your second nature, but your nature.
(I didn't have a clue what this meant at that time. I think I'm getting a better sense of this now. Practicing stance is slowly transforming my body. The effect of stance work is becoming my natural body. Maybe this is the same as saying, whatever you do a lot of, is what you become.)

* Purpose of stance is to train the body. It is not to build strong legs, however, this is a peripheral benefit.
(The above three notes are about Tai-chi stances, however, I think these notes are also equally applicable to zhan zhuang stance.)

(The following notes applied specifically to my case regarding the way I first learned Tai-chi.)

* Question: Is it better to learn karate first to get a clear sense of application and then learn Tai-chi? Answer: Tai-chi is a martial art and has all the application in it. Without karate or other kung-fu experience, you will be learning applications for the first time in the combat form.

* Disadvantage of trying to learn the combat form with a Tai-chi dance background is that you don't have the application knowledge already. The Tai-chi form needs to be taught and learned as a martial art.

(Even though I have forgotten the details of these classes, the lesson that sticks with me is that IF you aren't learning and training Tai chi EXPLICITLY as a martial art, then all you are learning is a slow-motion dance form. Don't fool yourself and expect your tai chi dance to magically work as a martial art just because you learned a move called Deflect-Parry-Punch.)

See also: Guang Ping Yang Tai Chi: Martial Stances

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: The End of the Road: Journal Notes #9
Next article in this series: Three Years Away: Journal Notes #11