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