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

Monday, October 18, 2010

The End of the Road: Journal Notes #9

Notes from my August 2000 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.)

* It's all about feeling which means dealing with and addressing my own feelings. When I avoid addressing my emotional feeling memories by choosing not to feel them, then I am also inhibiting my own progress in Tai-chi. Remember the question, "How deep can you feel? Then feel deeper."
(This point has long been a contentious issue for me. I mean, what does feeling emotional memories or feeling emotions have to do with developing internal strength for internal martial arts? Nothing, right? It seems like adding this "emotional feeling" component turns internal strength training into woo-woo, quasi- psychotherapy fluff.

And on the other side of the coin, I can understand the rationale. If I do not fully develop the skill of feeling in all its breadth and depth in all aspects of my life, not only physical but also emotional, then I am limiting the development of my ability to feel which in turn can introduce blocks or breaks or gaps in what I can feel.)

* It's not just about sensation. To focus on sensation only is one path but this leads to a kind of schizophrenia. What is the emotion behind the sensation? Follow this path.
(In a mind-body practice of developing the internal connectedness of internal strength, where do I draw the line between what I consider in-bounds (physical) and what I consider out-of-bounds (emotional)? I mean, all of who is "I" is inside this casing of skin, right? And so "I" am the emotional and physical and everything in-between and more. Getting to the intellectual place of acknowledging the validity of this point doesn't necessarily make the task of feeling any easier.)
(Oh my God! I just wrote about this 'letting go' feeling in my Sept 26, 2010 journal entry! Here it is: "He adjusted my stance to where my legs gave out. As usual he said something like, "You just had it. Did you feel that?" At some level, I had a feeling that I now understood "letting go". All prior times, I had no idea what he was talking about. The feeling just before falling."

Wow! Amazing! Previously I was competing to remain standing; how much and how long can I tolerate the burn in my quads. I never imagined there was anything to learn in that final moment when I couldn't stand any more, where my legs literally collapsed underneath me. And so, I was always confused by this statement and question. But truly, there is something there.)

* To move from the center, from the Dan-tian requires an ability to feel very deeply. Feeling feelings and the feelings of emotions is one step on the path to feeling the Dan-tian.
(Absolutely!!! In my earlier Tai-chi days, I was really hung up on wanting to feel and imagining I was feeling my Dan-tian when I couldn't even feel basic stuff. I can admit now that I was basically faking it. And I would suggest that anyone who cannot feel deeply into their own musculature and emotion but who says they can feel their Dan-tian is probably fooling him/herself and others.

These days, I don't even care about feeling my Dan-tian. It's not important to me now. I've got more easily accessible stuff to feel into, and beneath this, there's probably another layer that I can't currently access and then under that maybe many more layers to feel through before I can truly, kinesthetically feel what the real masters talk about. And I may never get to the level where I can feel my Dan-tian. And that's OK. I will have made a lot of progress and learned a lot on the way.)

* I was playing push-hands with a guy was was very noodley and was very easy to toss around. After having his posture corrected and receiving a few tips as described in this book then suddenly he became a force to be reckoned with; he became very difficult to push and he was able to push me. I learned the importance of body alignment, practical visualization and intention.

* Push hands is a martial training device. It's not a feel-y game. Yes, feel and feel deeply but with the intention to go directly in. Don't play around like you see many push-hands players do.

* Always be focused on "going to McDonalds". (In push-hands) let your opponent guide you to McDonalds (his center). Tai-chi never retreats. Always advancing. Always adjusting. Always going around "obstacles". Remember, an obstacle is what the opponent puts up to protect his center. By presenting an obstacle, he also shows where his center is. An "obstacle" therefore is not an obstacle, rather it is an indication of how you should proceed. All this happens instantaneously before thoughts have a chance to create words. Life is in the moment.

* I was digging in my compost pile and experienced a revelation that my cup is full. I realized that I am done, that I have completed what was needed to complete, that I have learned what I needed to learn, all I wanted to learn, that I've come to the end of the road.
(And with that, I quit going to class. I quit practicing zhan zhuang. I quit practicing feeling. I quit practicing push-hands. I quit. Pulled back. Withdrew. The End.
If you don't remember Pleasantville and the courtroom scene at the end of the movie, check it out. See the part where Bud holds the mirror up to the mayor and he sees his "colored" face for the first time and the mayor runs away. In retrospect, I think that was me. I got overwhelmed with all the feeling and ran away.

So, as you've figured out from this blog, I did get back into practice. What's interesting is that over the years after I started again, I've noticed different patterns in people who come to practice.

They begin to feel. And then they hit a point and either run away physically and don't come back or they continue showing up physically but pull back their opening-to-feeling to a previous level of shut-down-ness or they v-e-r-y slowly continue opening to feeling or they stop opening to further feeling; they get stuck at some level of feeling. And yes, "they" includes me.)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: A Little Honesty: Journal Notes #8
Next article in this series: Gary Torres: Journal Notes #10

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fibromyalgia: Is Tai Chi the Prescription?

As of this writing, a search on Tai chi and Fibromyalgia yielded a lot of sites referencing the August 2010 New England Journal of Medicine study, A Randomized Trial of Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia as if this study proved that Tai chi is a prescription for fibromyalgia! Wow!

You may want to read my article Tai Chi: Where We Are and a Hope for the Future where I discussed this study's misguided reference to not having a "sham Tai chi" control group.

In the same NEJM edition that had the "Tai chi for Fibromyalgia" study, there was also an editorial titled Prescribing Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia — Are We There Yet? (N Engl J Med 2010; 363:783-784 August 19, 2010).

Unfortunately, it seems that the same sort of mindset that promotes Tai chi as an alternative health exercise is using this study to promote Tai chi as a prescription for fibromyalgia while wholly ignoring an accompanying editorial.

As I read the editorial, I found the last two paragraphs to be the most pertinent and copied them here. I split these paragraphs into sections to accommodate
my comments which appear in italics.

The authors state that they tried to minimize any a priori differences between expectations for tai chi and the control intervention, which consisted of stretching and health education, and they report that expectations in the two groups were similar at baseline. However, it seems likely that when a persuasive and enthusiastic teacher of tai chi first explained its potential benefits to the class, expectations in this group were heightened.

Maybe a future study needs to add a control for selling snake oil. Real Taiji instruction can be conveyed without the verbal hype.

The authors dutifully suggest that a sham tai chi intervention would have been desirable as a control. Ideally, a placebo control matches all aspects of the therapeutic intervention except for the “active” element of that intervention.

As I said in my article Tai Chi: Where We Are and a Hope for the Future, this study in fact used sham tai chi. For a future study, the placebo control could be any slow motion sequence of movements. You could re-choreograph Swan Lake, a karate kata or a Michael Jackson routine. No tai chi form in and of itself contains any active therapeutic intervention! That said, real Taiji does contain an "active" element however, this active element: can be developed outside of any Taiji form, can exist a-priori to any sequence of movements, can appear in any movement, not just in Taiji.

But what is the active element of a complex, multicomponent therapy such as tai chi?

Good question! First, real Taiji is neither complex nor is it multicomponent. Second, the "active element" in real Taiji is a particular kinesthetic phenomena for which our American English language lacks words to articulate. Some people use the Chinese "Qi" paradigm, but this does not contribute to clarifying the kinesthetic experience in plain English. The best we can do for now is offer analogies; it feels like...

Is it rhythmic exercise, deliberate and deep breathing, contemplative concentration, group support, relaxing imagery, a charismatic teacher, or some synergistic combination of these elements?

Unequivocally and absolutely NO! It is none of the above for the real Taiji.

It's basically like this. The old "New Age" folks co-opted the shell of something they couldn't understand and repackaged that shell with a lot of other unrelated material like breath work, contemplation, imagery, a compelling backstory bound to legend, antiquity and nature, etc., and Voila! Tai chi was born and foisted on the masses.
Established medicine is right to be skeptical of popular Tai chi. That said, nearly everyone is ignorant of the real Taiji skill set and the training involved to develop that skill set.
Learning real Taiji is so much simpler, yet in the simplicity is hidden its depth and difficulty. (Not complexity! Difficulty!) The simplicity is consciously relaxing musculature with a particular intention. The difficulty is training the depth.

If so, would the matched control include awkward movements, halted breathing, participant isolation, unpleasant imagery, or a tepid teacher? Would the resulting sham intervention be credible, valid, or even genuinely inactive?
No. This line of thought is an example of the result of the mistake of inches; assuming the correct practice is a complex, multicomponent practice, and assuming the matched control must be the opposite. This is the wrong road!
Actually, the opposite of real Taiji is pretty much the way most people walk around in their usual day-to-day business which is pretty much how sham Tai chi is performed. People walk into a rec-sports or adult-ed or dojo class or seminar and learn a series of movements and stay pretty much stuck at this level for however many years they continue practicing. Some go on to be teachers and the cycle repeats itself.

Instead of embarking on a quixotic search for the ideal sham, what else needs to be done and what is a reasonable course of action for the physician who must counsel the patient with fibromyalgia?

Again, the popularized form of Tai chi is the sham version of real Taiji. So you've already found the ideal sham in Tai chi. No "quixotic search" needed. Regarding counseling patients with fibromyalgia, I cannot comment.

For next steps, we need replications of this study on a larger scale over longer periods of time, with different practitioners and different styles at multiple sites; determination of the optimal “dose”; comparisons with similar therapies such as yoga; and an assessment of cost-effectiveness.

Hooray! And before you set up your study, please do your homework!

Seek first to learn and understand the distinction between real Taiji and sham Tai chi!!!
The real Taiji people are in the minority. And in a field where anyone can claim to be a master, well, it becomes difficult to discern who's the real deal and who's using lineage as a front for selling snake oil.
Beware of seeking out different styles for the sake of diversity! Sham Tai chi can be found in all styles!
From my experience, yoga and real Taiji are not similar.

In the end, however, it may be that further evidence in support of tai chi for fibromyalgia, even if consistently positive, will never be as fully convincing as the results of double-blind pharmaceutical trials.

I don't know. I think this is a valid concern.

It is also possible that future studies will not replicate the dramatic findings of this small trial12 and that not all patients with fibromyalgia will find tai chi acceptable or available.

The training involved to achieve even a beginners level of real Taiji is probably way beyond what the ordinary person who signs up for a clinical trial would be willing to engage in and follow-through on. While sham Tai chi has become somewhat available, accessing training in real Taiji is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Even so, the potential efficacy and lack of adverse effects now make it reasonable for physicians to support patients' interest in exploring these types of exercises, even if it is too early to take out a prescription pad and write “tai chi.”
Agreed. If people are getting some health benefit from sham Tai chi, well, good for them! It's also good to go for a walk...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tai Chi: Where We Are and a Hope for the Future

Tai Chi just passed a watershed point in its thirty or so year history in the United States. Tai-chi made its debut in the August edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (N Engl J Med 2010;363:743-54) in a study titled, "A Randomized Trial of Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia".

My how times have changed!!! Remember how it was even 20 years ago where Tai chi was still largely unknown, still a novelty. I remember learning Tai chi in the mid-1980s and being labeled "kooky", and getting odd looks from passersby. Indeed, how times have changed!!

The New York Times ran an article in August 2010 titled Tai Chi Reported to Ease Fibromyalgia and another in September 2010 titled A Downside to Tai Chi? None That I See. Both of these articles reference the New England Journal of Medicine study.

Even though this is a HUGE milestone, I found a sentence in the Discussion section of the study to be very informative of the current perceptions of Tai chi:
"Our study had some limitations. We did not use a double-blind study design, since this would have required the use of sham tai chi, for which no validated approach currently exists."
And this September New York Times article also echoed the above sentiment:
"There is no “fake” version that could serve as a proper control to be tested against the real thing."
Well . . . .

I think that the participants in the study actually learned the fake tai chi, or sham tai chi.

(Note: in the real internal martial arts community, the term "Tai chi" typically refers to the fake stuff and the term, "Taiji" typically refers to the real stuff.)

Based on my past experience as a beginning tai chi student and as a former tai chi instructor, I know that most students aren't capable of learning real Taiji with only 24 hours of Tai chi instruction. (The study indicated a 1 hour session, twice a week for 12 weeks.) I'm sure the study participants could roughly imitate several basic external movements with that amount of exposure, but probably not much more.

To me, real Taiji is played with internal connectedness, which is experienced by an opponent or partner as "internal strength". Remember, Taiji is an internal martial art.

IF Taiji is not played with this unique kinesthetic quality, then it is fake Tai chi, faux Tai chi, sham Tai chi, Tai chi dance, Tai chi exercise, moving meditation or whatever you want to call it, but it's not real Taiji.

I am discovering through personal observation and experience at the Wujifa school that developing a basic level of internal strength seems to take about three years of serious, focused zhan zhuang work along with other specific practices tailored to the individual.

Therefore I conclude that it is highly improbable that a group of beginners would be able to perform REAL Taiji after a mere 24 hours of instruction!

So where are we? Fake Tai chi has been popularized complete with its own propriety language. And now a distinguished medical journal is lending a new level of recognition and credibility to fake Tai chi without knowing their mistake. And that's OK. We are where we are and that's where we start.

If the perspective expressed in this study is any representation of the population as a whole, I think that most people cannot distinguish sham Tai chi from real Taiji. Why is this? Because the only "Tai chi" that has been popularized and adopted by the masses in the United States is the sham Tai chi. So of course, people get fooled into "thinking" they are "seeing" real Taiji and consequently make misguided statements that there is no fake version of Tai chi.

Here are excerpts from an excellent article by Ken Gullette titled: There is No Such Thing as Easy Tai Chi
This is one of the reasons I get annoyed when I see ads that promise "easy tai chi." Those who have studied with the true masters can tell you that there is absolutely no such thing. Fake tai chi might be easy. The health type of tai chi for "moving meditation" might be easy. Tai Chi for senior citizens might be easy.

Real tai chi is a powerful martial art. It is very difficult and takes years of practice to even begin to see proper body mechanics. No pain, no gain. That's a phrase you don't hear in the "easy tai chi" classes.

I've had students come to me after studying other styles of martial arts. Most of them don't last long. They see how difficult it is, and they can't adjust to the fact that THIS TAKES YEARS, not months or weeks.

My hope for the future of "Tai chi" in the U.S. is that over the next 20 years we see the development of the recognition of the difference between real Taiji and the watered down popular version. I personally do not see real Taiji ever becoming as popular as nor replacing fake Tai chi because I think developing real Taiji requires far more commitment than most people are willing to put in.

What would be interesting would be a longitudinal study of the effect on fibromyalgia on a group (of dedicated souls) learning real Taiji as compared to a group learning the popularized fake Tai chi. You can do a double-blind study. You just need to know where to look to find the real stuff.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Little Honesty: Journal Notes #8

Notes from my July 2000 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 have a bad habit of moving the pelvis too much. Keeping the waist to heart locked and wobbling the shoulders in counter action to the pelvis. Practice keeping the pelvis moving level, moving the knees as little as possible and getting the waist to heart to stretch open but don't "raise the chi", keep it down by always sitting down.

* Two types of introspection: thinking introspection and feeling introspection. Need to develop the feeling side fully in all of life. If feeling and sensing is isolated to push-hands or the form, then this is fragmentation. If the whole me, the whole feeling me isn't pushing hands, then there will be something that isn't connected. There will be a broken path. If the path is broken it really isn't push-hands. Then it becomes an external style sticky hands.

* Tai chi is an internal art which means feeling!

* Here is a tool to help develop more awareness of feeling. (Fill in the blanks.)
1. I feel _______ . And the reason I feel _______ is because of _______ .

2. When I feel _______ , I want/don't want _______ .

3. When you say/or do _______ , I feel _______ .

et cetera
* The point in push-hands is to "connect" with the other person. To feel their center, to be able to uproot them. The exercise or training for push-hands is in real life - CONNECT to others through feeling. Through understanding and feeling your own feelings, you are better able to feel and understand another human, even your opponent.

* Typically, the greatest opponent is yourself. Myself. To allow myself to feel freely and not create new armor or block feelings, to remove old established blocks on feelings is a GREAT challenge. The latter requires the courage of a martial artist.

* In Taoist philosophy, the original "place" is Wuchi - no action. This is represented in the standing posture. No action. No intention. If a single muscle is tense, that indicates intention. So relax, dummy!
(This is a really interesting entry. Check this out . . .

notice the language-ing; imagery, imagine. These a head words, not body words. This entry looks like an instruction on how to get the feeling through imagination rather than a description of the feeling. Big difference! In the end, imagining sinking did not create the relaxed feeling for me called "sink". Playing with imagery only fooled me and bolstered my ego; I had more words and concepts that made me feel like I knew something.

The "chain in a tube" drawing comes from Erle Montaigue's Advanced Qigong Volume Two (MTG 175, 1988) video.
(At that time, I volunteered some web design time for Erle's website and though I asked for nothing, he graciously sent me a selection of videos. One of the videos was the above. I never actually trained with Erle nor any of his students but I have watched the videos he sent.)
So I went back to this video to see if he actually talked about "imagining". Here's an unofficial transcript from minute 14-16:

"Think about this concept that I've spoken about many times of a chain in a tube. And the chain is from the back of your head here right down and branches out to both heels. That's the chain in this tube. And it's stretched up or something. Now what you're gonna do is to let the chain go and sink everything straight in a vertical line...

As soon as you start the movement, you don't feel anything at first... As soon as you start to drop that chain, there, you get these feelings. I can't tell you what these feelings are... You must get them yourself...

It's like there's a sledge hammer hitting you on the head driving your feet into the g round. I'm trying to find anecdotes to tell you to bring it to you...

As you sink down, there are certain things that you may not see physically happening but there's a whole lot of stuff happening minutely physically and greatly internally at the Qi level..."
So I notice now that he's speaking anecdotally. He's not saying "Imagine..." Big difference! Yet somehow, at that time, I got "imagine" out of this. I now see this as a clear example of interpretive filters (generalize, delete, distort) at work. I didn't "hear" what was plainly spoken. He described what he was feeling and I distorted the anecdote into "Imagine..." And I didn't even know I was doing this! I didn't have a feeling to compare. I was stuck in imagination/visualization land.

Now that I'm beginning to actually feel relax and sporadically feel connectedness, I might represent the feeling of relax as transcribed in this old journal entry, or as Erle described it or maybe even another way. But representing a feeling and trying to imagine someone else's representation are not the same at all.

A more accurate entry might have been: Here's a couple ways others have described the feeling of "sink". Continue standing and relaxing and one day, maybe even now, I am discovering a feeling that I might describe like .... )

* The first intention to move generates polarities - left-right, forward-backward, up-down. These are the six fundamental directions.

* How to achieve Wuchi? In the old days in monasteries, you sat in meditation. This sitting removed every block by creating only one block - sitting. Then to achieve wuchi, the sitting block was taken away. In today's world, soma-psychotherapy can remove one block at a time. Different methods, same goal.

* Most push-hands resembles an external exercise. To play internally, play point/off point. Point/off point is played with intention inside. There are no visible external movements.

* Intention + Action = Intentionality. Spirit + Action = Spirituality. If you sit and meditate and imagine that you are spiritual, in fact you are not. Not until your spirit is put into action.

* You might have "good" intentions but they are impotent until mobilized in action.

* The action doesn't have to be the fully imagined action. A small step no matter how small starts the momentum. Keep taking small steps. Many small steps will take you a long way.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: The Keys To Something: Journal Notes #7
Next article in this series: The End of the Road: Journal Notes #9

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Keys To Something: Journal Notes #7

Notes from my June 2000 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. **Note: My notes skip from April to June. There was no May entry. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* Practice sitting down! This is the single most important key thing to learn. Get a bar stool and repeatedly (1,000 times) get into standing stance and sit down onto the stool. Let go. Drop onto the stool. Now do the same, get the same downward force, the same dropping feeling of sit down but don't touch the stool. Imagine you're hitting the stool before you actually do. Your legs become the stool. You should feel an increase in pressure in the thighs as the weight drops into the legs. Get this first!!!!!

* Standing appears to be easy. What could be easier than just standing? But it is not "just" standing! It is stance work! You train relaxing! You train using intent to move energy. (not in some mystical sense but in a practical sense). You train feeling, understanding and being aware!

* This journal entry continues onto the next page: The 'point' of this exercise is to get the body to move as one unit. The front opens on pushing forward and the back opens on pushing back.
(The "moving as a unit" thing was a "medicine" for me because I had become so noodley through years of practicing an incorrect interpretation of yielding in push hands.)
* Internal strength comes from stance practice. Stand first, then do silk-reeling, then do tai-chi. Without silk reeling, tai-chi is empty, useless. Without stance, silk reeling is empty, useless. It all comes back to stance! Learning to focus the Will and Intention. Harnessing the power of the Mind! Developing the power of the Will. Developing the power of intention.

* Standing is easier than it looks to someone like me who likes to / has a tendency to mechanistically analyze the details of things.
(As you'll see in upcoming journal entries, I just wanted to think my way into internal strength. I thought that thinking and analyzing and dissecting was the way to understand this art. I later learned that there is thinking-understanding and there is another kind of feeling-that-can-be-understood understanding. . . . And this comment is exactly a product of what this journal entry is talking about.)

* Relax is the key. Relax the lower back. Feel the lower vertebrae open. Feel the head push up. Feel the spine elongate. Feel taller. Feel the weight sink into the legs. As you sink (sit down) also open the back. Must get the back first. Once you can feel and understand this, then do the front.

* Feeling is the key. It's the foundation. Hypothesis is based on feeling, not the other way around. Don't think of something and then try to feel it. NO! FEEL FIRST! Listen to the feeling! Listen to all the different feelings. From the feelings, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, you may hypothesize how the pieces fit together. Don't get fixated on this.
(It's interesting that even though I heard and logged these words, "Feeling is the key.", it still took me a long time to understand that thinking in itself isn't going to get me there. Thinking has a role but not what I thought it was. In fact, now that I spend some time considering this old entry, darned if it doesn't lay out the role of thinking in the process of developing internal strength. What does the "fixated" sentence mean? To me, now, it means, don't get stuck on over-analyzing feelings. Don't put feelings in a box as a data source for thinking. Stop thinking as the primary activity. Give the 'monkey mind' a rest. Let go. Feel. This entry is still really good advice for me... though, now, in a different way. )

* When you find/meet a master you will have already done the work of feeling, have a collection of feelings and a hypothesis of how the feelings/pieces fit together and then a few minutes with a master, with his demonstrating the feeling and your deep ability to feel deeply, you will be able to feel his feeling and thereby be able to recognize the validity of your hypothesis which may either be right or wrong, it doesn't matter. You've done your homework and have just made a quantum leap in understanding from only those few minutes! But you must have done the work first!

(Here's another example of how I was stuck on trying to use imagination. What I've learned since then is that relaxing or releasing the tension in the shoulder muscles results in a feeling of the shoulders widening out to the side. No imagination nor visualization needed. This entry also has a good pointer on what to watch for when working with the shoulder-upper body complex. )

* There are five levels. An instructor can take you through the first three. After that you know the exercise. Now you must learn from yourself. You body will teach you. A level four or five master is achieved only through self-training. Remember the training method; the rules are Relax. Feel. Understand. Be aware!

* Watch the movie Pleasantville (1998). Be able to understand how the movie discusses blockages, self-imposed limitations, authenticity, freedom and responsibility. When George says "it will go away", what is the "it" he is referring to? When Bud says, "You can't stop something that's inside you." what is the "something" he is referring to?

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Some GroundPath Stuff: Journal Notes #6
Next article in this series: A Little Honesty: Journal Notes #8

Friday, October 1, 2010

Zhan Zhuang Raising the Arms

One of the problems with "raising the arms as if holding a ball" is that raising the arms can also raise the shoulder. Many people have very tense shoulders, so when they raise their arms they cannot just raise the arms but unconsciously and unintentionally also raise their shoulders.

A different kind of problem with "raising the arms as if holding a ball" is that some people don't have a sense or feeling in the shoulder joint to know if they are raising the arm independently of the shoulder or not.

And yet another kind of problem with "raising the arms as if holding a ball" is that some people don't have a sense or feeling in the shoulder joint to know if they are pulling the shoulders forward or not as they are raising the arms to hold the imaginary ball.

The shoulders including the upper chest and upper back area can be tricky and can take a long time to work through.

As I was reviewing my oldest Zhan Zhuang Training Journal entries, I found a few scattered references to the shoulder exercises I was doing back in 1999-2000 to help me with the above mentioned problems. I thought pulling these notes together would make a nice post.

What is interesting is that even after years of doing Tai-chi, after years of doing what I thought was relaxing, I still needed to relax further and deeper! Such is the level of relaxation that can be discovered while doing zhan zhuang!

So here we go...

Find a swingset or construct a similarly functional device - attach a rope to an overhead object and at chest level tie in a board on which to rest your wrists. With your wrists resting on the swing, step into the swing and allow the swing to raise your arms without using any shoulder muscle to raise your arms.

 The purpose of this exercise is to feel deep into the shoulder.

See this Wujifa training video as an example: Wujifa and relaxing the shoulder

One purpose of this exercise might be to discover how to relax your shoulder when your arm is raising. Another purpose might be to discover that the shoulder and arm can move independently. Another purpose might be to feel deeper into the shoulder (as you shift or step forward and backward) while raising and lowering the arm.

After a hundred repetitions of this over many days, then slowly seek to find what muscles are minimally needed to lift one hand off the swing at various points in the swing arc while keeping the shoulder relaxed. Slowly wean yourself from the swing.

Of course, in zhan zhuang we are looking to feel connectedness. However, sometimes it helps to temporarily focus on an isolated area to resolve a "sticky point" in that area. Sometimes the shoulders and shoulder area can be a really big "sticky point" and may take more work than this simple exercise to resolve.

Well, there you have it. This helped me feel a little bit more into my shoulder. And of course, there are other exercises but this is pretty much where and how I started. Hope this helps you as well. Happy practicing!