Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chinese Martial Arts History

An internet search for "Chinese Military History" tends to yield a completely different result set from a search for "Chinese Martial Arts History" and yet these two histories are inextricably linked.

For a primer on how "martial" diverged from "military" and for a perspective on separating Chinese martial arts fact from fiction, you might want to read a couple easily accessible books by Brian L. Kennedy and Elizabeth Nai-Jia Guo:

Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey (2005)
Jingwu: The School That Transformed Kung Fu (2010)
What I got out of reading these books together was how and when the military martial arts crossed-over from being a closed-door, skilled and paid trade of the military, village militias, and security guards into an open-door form of exercise for strengthening the general population.

Basically, it seems the crossover from martial arts for fighting to martial arts for exercise occurred during the Republican era (1911-1949) with the influential writings of Sun Lu-tang (1860-1933) and the original Jingwu Athletic Association (1909-1924).

At that time the military/martial arts, using traditional military hardware; swords, sabers, spears, etc., was on the precipice of extinction due to a negative populace view and the advent of firearms. The martial arts survived largely due to emerging associations like Jingwu which made martial arts accessible to the general public as a form of exercise to strengthen the nation; a strong body and strong mind would strengthen the country.

The historical Chinese military fighting arts were not dissimilar to our current U.S. Army or Marine Corps fighting arts in that there was and is an underlying cosmology and cultural worldview. However, it is doubtful, as these authors infer, that a modern soldier would orient or speak of his close-quarter combat training and sidearms use in cosmological terms. So too throughout the history of Chinese military martial arts. However, during the Republican era, all this changed. Referring now to Sun Lu-tang mentioned above:
"Sun's books modeled, for better or worse, the way the modern world sees the three internal martial arts of China. When a modern practitioner of Taiji speaks of the art as being "good for his health and a way to align his energy with the energy of the Tao", he is parroting Sun Lu Tang. Or when Bagua practitioners walk the Bagua circle and talk of how "Bagua forms are physical embodiments of the I-Ching," their ideas derive largely from Sun Lu Tang. Or when modern day practitioners of Xingyi opine that "the five forms of Xingyi interact like the five basic elements in Taoist cosmology," they too owe their thinking to the foundations established by Sun Lu Tang." (pg 182. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals)
And so 100 years later, what we now call Chinese martial arts are an odd combination of these two influences: open door, exercise oriented, cosmologically intertwined, remnants of military/militia close quarter combat drills (minus the associated weaponry).

Other perspectives I enjoyed in this book are:
  1. The authors outright reject the popular myths and market hype that have been more recently created and passed off as historical fact - as they call it, "pulp journalism".
  2. The authors discuss how some masters' systems or styles will never be known because they either left no written legacy (training manual) or their manuals were destroyed, and conversely, how some more recent "masters" may have received undo fame because they were much written about and received by a naive public.
Call me a guy who's been around the barn a few times, but I now find that the extra-ordinary achievements of ordinary, mundane people practicing ordinary, mundane practices are more inspiring than any fanciful Taoist Immortal or cosmologically spiced up "special" practice.

The "Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals" book does not include actual translations of old training manuals. However, the authors included a chapter on Liu Kang Yi, a Taiwanese collector who publishes reprints of these old martial arts training manuals. I believe you can also find these reprinted training manuals at Plum Publishing.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Building Internal Community: Journal Notes #71

Notes from my October 2009 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: Why do you say there is no goal in training the building of connection?
Answer: It means that there is no end point. There is always further refinement. Consider the P.I.D. loop. It continually adjusts. If anything, the goal is to continually adjust to approach the median.

(In industrial control systems, a proportional-integral-derivative controller provides automatic correction toward a desired setpoint, for example, a cruise control on an automobile; accelerates going uphill and decelerates going down hill, continually adjusting to maintain the desired speed.
graph of PID loop
I remember my instructor drawing a picture like the above in class and explaining something like the following... Let's say the blue line represents "the goal" of training - a deep and full feeling of relaxed connection. And I am the red line.

I begin
(at point 1,0) by practicing a method of Wujifa zhan zhuang alignment. Like many beginners, I can't even feel into my own body. So while the goal is to feel connection, in my practice I get stuck on the method and I don't recognize any kind of feeling - I'm just practicing the method. So I overshoot the blue line which was my "goal" - noticing "the feeling".

My instructor, who is the P.I.D. controller in this example, notices that if I continue the path I'm on, this won't lead me to "the feeling" and so corrects the course of my practice.

I then change my practice but I get attached to the new method and without feeling, I overshoot the blue line. My instructor notices my error and guides me back
again to the feeling that the method is intended to elicit.

If you've been following my zhan zhuang training journal notes, most of my practice to this point can be summarized as I did above: I'm shown the feeling but I get stuck on practicing the method instead of practicing to find the feeling.

After nearly ten years of this level and kind of stance corrections,
I began to learn how I was getting stuck on methods. As you'll continue reading in this post, I'm beginning to feel.

The P.I.D model not only applies to the path I've walked so far - being reminded that "the method is not the truth" - but also to those like my instructor, who already feel relaxed fascial connection. Feeling "the feeling" is not the endpoint, but the beginning point to then refine, deepen, and strengthen "the feeling".

Continually refining the path that has no goal... there is always more refining...

* Question: Will the burning in my thighs go away in time?
Answer: Yes and No. Yes, it will go away if you stay where you are. No, it won't go away if you continue to relax at deeper levels and continue dropping more weight into your legs.

* Question: How can I learn how to learn this zhan zhuan exercise?
Answer: You can be one guy standing in a soup line waiting for a handout or you can be part of a community that works together.

There are different levels of understanding "community". On a macro level, you can build community/connections outside - a social network. On a micro level, you can build community/connections inside - a feeling/fascial network.

* Question: What's going on with my back?
Answer: Well, what do you notice about your back?

Me: I can feel the lower and upper parts but not the middle part in-between. It feels like the whole back is not connected.

Instructor: Why is that? How do you notice your back?

Me: What do you mean?

Instructor: Noticing adds energy. You focus your attention on what you notice. Noticing builds neural pathways in the brain. Build community. Ask it.

Me: Back! How does the lower part feel? (Back's answer: Feels widening horizontally.)

Me: Back! How does the upper part feel? (Back's answer: Feel stretching vertically.)

Me: The feelings are not the same! What's up with that?

Instructor: Introduce the two. Build your internal community.

(I was noticing different feelings in my back but I had the concept that "the feeling" should be the same throughout and so I was confused by what I was noticing. I didn't appreciate that I was now able to notice different feelings; that I might notice many different feelings depending on the part of the body I can notice...)

* Notice differently! Always noticing in the same way will always give you the same result and this will keep you stuck.
(This is a great example of a P.I.D. loop instruction. The way you've been noticing got you "x" results but if you continue that way, you'll miss the mark. Modifying how you notice will give you more insights.)

* Question: How do I notice differently?
Answer: Use the analogy of colored glasses. What do you notice looking through blue glasses? What do you notice looking through green and then yellow glasses? You still see the same table but differently. How can you change the lens through which you notice your own internal kinesthetic feelings? You have to figure this out for yourself.

* Question: How can I build connections internally? Like with my back, I can feel upper and lower separately but not as one single unit.
Answer: Notice your emotional state, the tone of your voice - frustrated, not curious. This is a different way to notice. So now you notice a couple kinesthetic feelings and you notice an attitudinal feeling. How cool is that?

Me: Not cool at all! It doesn't help.

Instructor: Think about the giant redwood trees in California. A redwood tree does not have an individual, deep taproot. Rather, redwoods have shallow surface roots that intertwine with other redwoods and together the roots form a web of support, a community.

* Question: What then should I notice or focus on?
Answer: For you, don't focus on all the little details because you get lost there. For now, focus more on general concepts, the bigger picture. Sometimes focusing more broadly resolves the details. After you get the general idea of how feeling connection works, then you can chunk back down to details and apply the same method to build more connection.

* This is how you learn on your own.

* Oct 26 personal training note: During stance practice today I felt my sides "drop". I suppose anatomically, I felt my oblique muscles relax and let go. Very interesting feeling! This was accompanied by a feeling of my elbows dropping and my thigh muscles relaxing which felt kind of like the muscle sliding down toward the knee and the knee sliding forward.

* Oct 30 personal training note: During stance practice today I had a feeling of my shoulders "letting go" or expanding which was followed by a feeling of my elbows pushing out which was weird because when I looked at my elbows, they hadn't moved from my side and my fingers felt like they were naturally extending, even though I wasn't intentionally extending them. It was just feeling that way. That's weird. When one part "moved", other parts "moved".

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: How Do You Know: Journal Notes #70
Next article in this series: - The Middle Path: Journal Notes #72

Monday, December 19, 2011

How Do You Know: Journal Notes #70

Notes from my August-September 2009 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 various feelings I've been experiencing in stance class like, connection and presence, are so unique and so different that I can't find any other data terminology to compare them to.
(This drove me crazy when I first started feeling these feelings. Now I've come to accept the uniqueness of this exercise. It's OK that there are no words.)

* Are you motivated by carrots or sticks? If I'm holding the stick, then I can't relax and respond because I'm holding the stick. Noticing the stick leads to a dead end. Noticing the opportunity when getting hit by the stick leads to....

* Finish all statements about your zhan zhuang experiences with "That's weird." Why do this? Because a statement/explanation is produced by the ego and reinforces identification with the thought. When you say "that's weird", you question the basis of the thought and this creates an opportunity to explore other avenues.
(There's a place for being definite and for being not definite. I've learned that there's a difference between getting clear on feeling and getting clear on the concept of or "the talk" about feeling... That's weird.

Notice the shift?)

* I'm still too focused on "doing it right". I'm still too stiff when I practice stance. I follow the rules too rigidly: notice, relax, balance, structure. A good medicine for me now is to do silly, uncoordinated, goofy dancing to loosen my grip on "doing it right". When I goofy-dance, I "feel" silly and embarrassed but my body responds by naturally relaxing. Goofy-dancing loosens my mind's grip on my body and my whole system relaxes naturally without all the effort I normally apply.
(As I mentioned in previous posts, I discovered I cannot compartmentalize zhan zhuang practice from daily life. Whatever attitudes I demonstrate in daily life will naturally appear in my zhan zhuang practice. "Relax" and "let go" cannot be a kinesthetic phenomena isolated to zhan zhuang practice. "Goofy dancing" is a method to help put me in a "relax and let go" frame of mind-body.)

* When you notice a pattern, then you have an opportunity to break that pattern and try something different.
(If you dare.... )

* Question: In stance class, you always look me in the eye and ask where am I. And then I learned about my pictures. Bringing this to my attention, I'm now noticing differences in peoples' eyes. What's up with this?
Answer: The level of intensity emanating from the eyes directly corresponds to the amount of relax and expanding-ness in the body. The two cannot be separated. Relax is about expanding. Expanding is not pushing outward. "Pushing" implies using force. Relax and allow expanding.

* How do you know?
(This is a great question often heard in Wujifa class!

Another great Wujifa statement is "Show me." This typically follows the response to the "How do you know?" question. Here's a sample dialogue from a typical Wujifa class:
"I feel Qi flowing." How do you know? "Because x,y,z." Show me.

"I feel grounded." How do you know? Because x,y,z." Show me.

The "How do you know?" and the "Show me." I think really contribute to keeping internal skill development functional and demonstrable.

How do you know?)

* Be specific on the edge of what you can influence. Playing on the edge of your circle of influence will expand what you can influence.

* You can conceptualize and visualize 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4 and imagine connection but if you don't practice kinesthetically feeling connection through 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4, then you won't get it.

* The method is not about noticing "x" and doing nothing about it. Don't just notice stuff. Rather, notice "x" and then use 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4 to further refine "x" and in turn, then further refine your practicing 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4.
(The 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4 mentioned above refer to the Wujifa Zhan Zhuang alignment.)

* Question: In the last class you set me up and I felt a deep, lower belly relax. Over the past two weeks of practice, I lost that feeling, or have been unable to notice the same feeling again. How do I get back to that feeling again?
Answer: Whatever feeling you are noticing now in response to the method employed to help elicit that feeling is "the feeling". Think of "the feeling" as a point. As you refine and feel more and deeper, you can then look back at the various feelings you noticed. This is why it is good to keep a journal. When you look back, you notice that each feeling-point became a pointer to the next feeling. You notice the points line up to point to something. That "something" is the direction of progress.

For example, when you walk up a flight of steps, you use the same method to get from one step to the next step. With each step you notice that the view changes. You don't try to recreate the view from the previous step on the new step.

Similarly, with each "step" in stance practice, you notice changes in what you can feel. As you become more sensitive to a greater variety and depth of feeling, then what you are able to notice in yourself and others also changes. Your capability to notice and feel will change and deepen with practice over time.

(In Wujifa practice we are developing our ability to feel the internal kinesthetic sense of fascial connectedness. When I began this practice, I did not feel connection. In fact, I did not feel much of anything! Simply developing the ability to feel was not simple. Over time with practice, the feeling skill is honed and more areas of the body open to feeling. Slowly, glimpses of the connected feeling are emerging for me.)

* Question: You mentioned turning feeling into a method. How can feeling turn into a method?
Answer: The feeling can become a method if you keep going back to recreating and practicing that same feeling. If you stay stuck on whatever feeling you are noticing and feeling now, then you will not progress.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Developing Presence: Journal Notes #69
Next article in this series: - Building Internal Community: Journal Notes #71

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New Insights on Old Zhan Zhuang Video

Occasionally I like to re-watch old movies and videos. I'm often surprised with new insights. I recently re-watched Erle Montaigue's Advanced Qiqong Volume 2 (MTG 175) and discovered that I now understand what he was saying about zhan zhuang entirely differently than I did when I first watched it about ten years ago.

Advanced Qiqong Volume 2 discusses Three Circle Qi Gong or what looks like Zhan Zhuang. Here is a short clip:

This time around, I noticed that:

Relaxing Feels Like

He speaks of the feeling of relaxing/dropping as "feeling like" a chain dropping in a tube. Ten years ago, I tried imagining this image happening in my body to force the "like" feeling but I couldn't make it happen. Today, I relax into my legs and I understand that, yes, relaxing with Wujifa zhan zhuang structure could be described as feeling like a chain dropping in a tube. Lesson learned: Trying to force someone else' "feels like" feeling will not result in the feeling they say it "feels like". Practicing relaxing results in a feeling that may be described as...

Zhan Zhuang Isn't Boring

He mentions that if you're bored with Zhan Zhuang, then you're not doing it correctly. Ten years ago, I didn't understand zhan zhuang and found it boring! I only wanted to practice push-hands and light sparring to maintain my skill level. Today, with a calmer mind and more body focus and presence, and a kind of re-direction of purpose, I've discovered that zhan zhuang is definitely not boring! Difficult and challenging, yes, but not boring. Lesson learned: Getting clear on my purpose and finding the appropriate training method makes a huge difference.

Super Qi Powers

He mentions that people give up because they're looking for all the wrong things. Ten years ago, I was looking to develop super Qi powers through stance. Today, I'm finding more by not looking for anything in particular but by simply noticing what's there. Lesson learned: I gain more when I practice the ordinary until it becomes extra-ordinary than practicing some special, advanced Qi-gong that my body is not yet ready to enjoy the benefits of. (See: Ordinary and Extra Ordinary: A Secret of Wujifa Training.)

Activate Acupuncture Points

He talks about feeling the acupuncture points activating. Ten years ago, I wondered how he felt individual acupuncture points "activate" (What does an inactive acupuncture point feel like in comparison?) and I imagined activating my acupuncture points. Today, I still can't feel specific acupuncture points and I really don't care. I feel what I feel and I notice what I notice. I am where I am and that's where I start. Lesson learned: Words are too ambiguous. Show me the feeling in my body that you are talking about. Give me a simple exercise designed for my level to help me change and grow.

Relax and Widen Pelvis

He talks about feeling the pelvis relaxing and the lower back widening. Ten years ago, I could feel this and thought I knew exactly what he meant. Today, I feel sooooo much more and I wonder how much further this can go. Lesson learned: There is no end to feeling, understanding and being aware. The only goal is the point I achieve when I quit training.

Tension Held in Chest

He talks about tension and holding up. Ten years ago, I was so full of tension and holding and I didn't have an experience of drop and let go to compare to tension and holding up. I had only a conceptual understanding and no body-experience understanding. Today, having experienced the feeling of dropping into my legs and what it took to get there. I understand much more about tension and holding up. Lesson learned: It takes a lot of correct practice to get to the point of body-understanding. Reading or hearing "x" and literally thinking "I understand" is the wrong path. Practice, demonstrate, validate.

Forcefully "Allowing"

He talks about letting happen what will naturally happen and don't try to imitate or force the shaking. Ten years ago, I very well may have forcefully "allowed" the shaking because that is what's "suppose" to happen. Today, I have experienced how the shaking arises and diminishes naturally and I notice spots where I tend to block it and when I relax more then... Lesson learned: This is coming around to teach me again. In my recent Wujifa class I tried forcing the feeling of fascial connection. Of course, I was justly reprimanded. Too much muscle! Relax more. There! That's it!

Stand and Breathe

He talks about just stand and breath. Let the body do what it does. Ten years ago, this was a confusing "huh?" concept. But... But... But... Today, I am discovering what this means. Lesson learned: The highest level practices when stated simply confounds the mind. Stand and relax. Can you do it? Further reading: See my earlier blog post titled: Notice Differently where I re-read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Milman and noticed passages that related to experiences I've had since reading it the first time.

What new insights have you had on old teachings, books, videos? How has your understanding changed as your practice has evolved?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Developing Presence: Journal Notes #69

Notes from my July 2009 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.)

* Note: I didn't record a lot of questions and answers this month. Instead, I was dealing with a lot of stuff to get me to stop running from feeling deeper and to remain present with feeling deeper. So my notes are kind of, well, note-y. I hope you get an idea of the nature of what I was working on.)

* You are where you are and that's where you start.
(A lot of people don't know where they are and mistakenly want to start at a higher level than they are capable of and either skip or ignore the immediate work they need to do to get them to that higher level. I've done this either through ignorance, not knowing or not being taught what the immediate step was, or through ego, believing that I, a mere novice, could do what the old masters describe.)

* When I "zone out" or "go into trance" this means I'm not staying connected to feeling, hence, not feeling. Being present, being here, now and not "tranced-out", is an important step to feeling connection.
(Back in July 2009, I blogged an article titled: Zhan Zhuang; Breaking the Stance Trance in which I wrote about this experience as I understood it then. Now, after two more years of working on this I understand and feel more deeply.)

* The process I experienced and moved through in the July 23rd class. Breaking stance trance.

breaking stance trance
(If none of this makes sense to you or seems a bit "mystical", all I can say is that after two years of working on this, I can now notice more easily when I'm blocking or open to feeling, for example, when I'm dealing with some every-day life "situation" that I don't want to feel or when I hit a newer, deeper level of connection in zhan zhuang practice that feels completely awesome. I still tend to block the flow but opening in class and training is becoming easier and less painful. Another level of sensitivity and feeling.)

* When I feel anxiety, I notice the opportunity to ahhhhhh (exhale).

* Question: How do I figure out this presence thing?
Answer: Instead of trying to figure it out in your head, try to figure it out in your body. Then instead of trying to figure it out, simply feel.

Question to me: How hard do you have to try to figure this out? (Instructor touches my shoulder.)
Me: Not hard at all. I just feel it.
Instructor: Exactly!

* I now notice when I'm out there or in here. I am noticing opportunities to be here.

* I feel the presence feeling and connection as a very soft feeling. I can get there and here myself.

* Making movies and pictures inhibit my progress and slows me down.

* Becoming aware of feeling overloaded vs feeling overwhelmed. I feel secure with overloaded but overwhelmed with feeling still freaks me out.

* What is the opportunity? Noticing the opportunity can be pretty good medicine.

* I get stuck in my pictures... until now....

* Are you noticing out there (space)? Can you notice feeling in here (body)?

* I'm beginning to feel presence my self. I feel anxiety when I bring my pictures closer.

* Where are you? Here? What do you feel? Bring your attention into your body. What is the opportunity? To bring feeling inside.

* Pictures of You song by The Cure.
(The most amazing aspect of Wujifa class is when a song on the playlist coincides with and puts into words the mood or feeling or teaching at that moment. Wujifa class can be a magical place at times.)

Part of the lyrics:
I've been looking so long at these pictures of you
that I almost believe that they're real.
I've been living so long with my pictures of you
that I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel.
There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more
than to feel you deep in my heart.
There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more
than to never feel the breaking apart
All my pictures of you.

* We discussed the pros and cons of various zhan zhuang stances. Many stance practices allow for the body's habitual twists and chronic contractions. The difference with the Wujifa zhan zhuang stance is that it is designed to identify where the twists and chronic contractions are as the body attempts to conform to the Wujifa structure.

* Question: Dan is doing San-ti, why can't I start doing San-ti too?
Answer: After you feel connection from doing zhan zhuang, then you can move into doing san-ti.

(Again, you are where you are and that's where you start. A lot of people, like I used to be, don't know where they are and mistakenly want to practice higher level practices than they are capable of and either skip or ignore the immediate work they need to do to get to that higher level.)

* I'm beginning to notice there is a difference in the feeling between following the rules of stance (1,2,3,4-1,2,3,4) and standing in a way that feels right.
(This last line was actually the last entry for July 2009. How interesting that I noted this AFTER I went through the above noted classes and got more connected in my body...)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Wujifa Kua Movement: Journal Notes #68
Next article in this series: - How Do You Know: Journal Notes #70

Monday, December 5, 2011

Wujifa Kua Movement: Journal Notes #68

Notes from my June 2009 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: Why practice side-to-side?
Answer: The Wujifa side-to-side exercise is a foundation movement that is found in silk reeling, Tai-chi, Yi-chuan, etc... It is the transition exercise from stance to moving. It teaches you how to develop your kua.

(If you haven't seen the Wujifa side-to-side, watch it now. This is one of those deceptively "simple" exercises that reveals its depth the more you practice it.)

* Question: Can practicing side-to-side help me develop fa-jing?
Answer: Fa-jing comes from adding power to side-to-side. Once you get the feeling of the shifting being driven by the kua opening and closing, then you can add power behind it. Lead with feeling. Relax quickly. Let the power follow the feeling.

(From my experience, in beginners, the kua opening and closing is driven by the muscular power of the legs pushing or pulling. Trying to do fa-jing at this stage is completely wrong because it builds in bad habits that you'll only have to unlearn later if you want to get the real thing.

It takes a lot of practice just to get to the point where:

  1. you begin to demonstrate proper Wujifa zhan zhuang alignment
  2. you learn the feeling of how to sit down while standing in zhan zhuang
  3. you learn how to open the lower back and round the dang (圆裆)
  4. you begin to feel what you can identify as an opening and closing feeling between the leg and lower abdomen using leg driven muscle power,
  5. you begin to feel some of the fascial stretch in the inguinal crease (kua) as it opens and closes from leg driven muscle power,
  6. I'm not there yet. I'm still working on #5.
Some have said the fa-jing shake is like sneezing. To try to imitate a sneeze and call this fa-jing is also completely wrong. I just sneezed and the sneeze was not driven from my kua.

Fai-jing is driven from the kua. You develop fa-jing by practicing the advanced form of side-to-side. Trying to do it with muscle will take you down the wrong path. There's a reason fa-jing is a high level skill...)

* Question: How should I work on developing my kua?
Answer: Many people aren't able to demonstrate the full range of movement of the kua. The kua can open and close vertically and horizontally and all degrees and percentages of degrees in-between.

Beginners need to first work on developing the basic feeling in the vertical and horizontal movements. For example beginning side-to-side is nearly 100% horizontal opening and closing and 0% vertical opening and closing.

(I've seen demonstrations on how various percentages of horizontal and vertical opening and closing result in the body being moved different ways. Quite amazing!

The pelvis/hip area is a very complex area to relax and feel into and learn how to control. I watch Youtube videos of "masters" who have less kua movement than me. Why they call themselves masters is beyond me.)

detail of kua movement

* Question: Can I continue to punch on my heavy bag while learning side-to-side?
Answer: Developing the kua with side-to-side is building a new body movement. To develop the kua, you must discontinue all other forms of training. You can't build in a new kinesthetic pattern when you continue to reinforce old existing patterns of movement.

(This was one of the difficulties for me. Besides being a good workout, slugging the punching bag was an ego-gratifier. To step away from heavy bag to practicing shifting side-to-side meant I had to change my exercise and training regimen.)

* Question: I can't feel the stretch up through the front. How do I get that?
Answer: Feeling the stretch/connection up and down the back is the first level. You need to get this first. Feeling the stretch/connection up and down the abdomen is the next level. You're not there yet. Focus on maintaining the feeling of connection as you shift side-to-side.

* Question: We were talking about my predilection to use polarity, that is, to view life, including my Wujifa practice, in yin-yang terms like good-bad, this-that. What's wrong with polarity?
Answer: Most people who run polarity tend to get stuck in their own polarity and this tends to hold them back from making progress.

A functional way to use polarity can help you make progress. Hold onto "this" as a method to explore the feeling of "that". Once you feel and understand "that", then let go of "this" which pointed you to "that". Now, the old "that" becomes the new "this". This and that become the wrungs on a ladder.

Note: I cannot see the path ahead. I cannot see the goal or objective. I may say my goal is to develop "internal strength" but I won't know the steps I need to take until I encounter what I need to do. Therefore, all I can ever see is a possible next step. (If I can see that at all!) And I can't know if that is really the actual next step until after I have a result. When I look back, then I will see my path that lead to my goal. I will see the methods that allowed my advances. I will see the steps I took. No two practitioners engage the same methods in exactly the same way.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Feeling and Data: Journal Notes #67
Next article in this series: - Developing Presence: Journal Notes #69

Monday, November 28, 2011

Feeling and Data: Journal Notes #67

Notes from my May 2009 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: Why is it that when I ask you questions you never answer the question I asked but somehow your answer does answer the question in a bigger way than I could have imagined?
Answer: When a student asks a question, always look at what the body is doing first. The verbal content (data) is secondary. Read the body (feeling). The words the student asks may be filtered by the student's conceptual framework and may not be related to the adjustment the body needs.

* Question: I notice a lot of tension in my lower back. How do I get that to relax?
Answer: To help loosen the lower back, do the head hanging exercise.

Stand upright. Feet parallel under hips. Point toes in so toes and knees touch each other. Without bending at hip socket, slowly roll head and torso forward as far as possible. Let head and arms hang. Push butt up. When you come up, sit down and push up from heels and roll up. This will also contribute to developing your kua by relaxing the muscles in the back. Release these to get the butt to drop.

* Question: I can see now that you do the (Chen Xiaowang) zhan zhuang closing circles differently than I do. What's going on?
Answer: There are three levels of the closing circles as you shift side-to-side.
  1. Beginner. Just circle the hands. Follow the path of your large intestine.
  2. Novice. Do side-to-side with kua and just let the hands go up and down.
  3. Intermediate. Do side-to-side and the up and down are really both down and down. (The up is the dan-tian rolling up, in and down. The net effect is a down.)

* Question: Not having a language for the internal kinesthetic feeling terrain sure makes it tough to learn using existing skill sets and compare notes with others. What's your take on this?
Answer: The value of having no words for new feelings is that this is a great place to play. Once you assign a word/concept, then a method arises. Remember, the method is not the truth...

(As a guy so deeply wedded to data knowledge, I'm slowly coming to appreciate the beauty and volatility of the kinesthetic transmission of this feeling-knowledge.)

* Question: I read lots of books and websites and many authors are using words that sound to me like they are describing the feeling of internal strength. How can I know if their descriptions are describing the same feeling I'm working on?
Answer: When people do a quick, informal demonstration, as in "Hey, show me what you're talking about." they reveal what has or has not been built into the body. Once you have full body internal connection, it's easy to see who has or doesn't have it. A lot of people don't really have full body connection and yet, they can talk-the-talk.

* Question: For people who hunch, like me, can't this be corrected simply by keeping the shoulders rolled back?
Answer: Rolling the shoulders back, like the military "attention" pose is a temporary and superficial fix. People who use this method may appear to correct their hunch but may in fact have a sophisticated hiding method and they still keep the weight in the shoulders and not sunk.

(From my own experience, I've stood a head taller than my classmates since kindergarten. To try to fit in and feel part of the group, I developed a hunch to feel shorter. Incorrect Tai chi instruction reinforced this bad posture.

When I got into Wujifa zhan zhuang, I discovered that an external postural "fix" of rolling the shoulders back does not address the underlying emotional issue that built and maintains the hunch. I've noticed this in other school brothers as well. One's height has nothing to do with hunching.

Rolling the shoulders back without resolving the underlying issue that built and maintains the hunch is like putting lipstick on a pig. No matter how much it looks like Miss Piggy, it's still a pig.

It takes a lot of effort over time to address the underlying emotional issues that contribute to and maintain a particular physical structure. Don't expect to resolve these subtler structural issues through tai chi form classes or seminars.)

* Question: How do I self-teach? For example, I notice my deltoids tilt forward. If I correct this by rolling them back, then I notice my head feels tilted forward. If I push my head back, then I notice my deltoids feel rotated forward, etc. I get stuck in a loop. How can I learn from this?
Answer: If you get in a loop like you describe, then you are probably applying a medicine to a tight area that is not letting go. In this case, change your focus. There's a difference between noticing something to fix (being self-critical) vs noticing opportunity.

* Question: How can I continue developing on my own?
Answer: See the next step only. Don't get stuck in wanting to work five to ten steps ahead. Know where you are. Notice the opportunity presented to you. You are where you are and that's where you start.

* Question: What's the best way to handle insights that come up during practice?
Answer: Insights are great but you need to use them as a basis for experimenting and building-in the results.

* Question: I'm still not clear on the difference between principles and methods.
Answer: See Steven Covey's "Principle Centered Leadership" and compare that to his "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People".

Principles should hold true in all cases. If not, then it's a rule or method. The framework gives you the application.

* Question: So what's a simple way to understand the difference between data and feeling?
Answer: Stand up. Now, explain how you stood up. Standing up is the doing, the feeling. Talking about the feeling after the fact is the data.

Also, there are no words for the level of kinesthetic feeling we work at. If you assign words like "stretch" and you don't know the feeling we assigned this word to, and if you have associated a different feeling with that word, then when you hear or read "stretch" you think B when really we mean A.

How can you open every joint in your body? What is that feeling?

* Expand and contract are not opposites. Expand is not relax. Expand is part of structure. Expand is peng. Expand then relax with expansion. Always practice expanding. Practice eccentric movement.
(This is another example. You read these words. You interpret these words through your own interpretive filters. You "think" you know what I'm talking about. You may or may not be correct.

I go to Wujifa zhan zhuang class. I watch my instructor. I get adjustments. I feel certain kinesthetic feelings. I don't have words for these feelings. We use words in class the concepts of which approximate the feeling so we have a common language. I record these words and my body remembers the kinesthetic experience.

You sit at your computer and read these words. You did not attend class. You did not experience the kinesthetic feeling. The best you can do is guess what feeling I'm trying to convey. Feeling and data.)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Connecting Intention and Body: Journal Notes #66
Next article in this series: - Wujifa Kua Movement: Journal Notes #68

Monday, November 21, 2011

Connecting Intention and Body: Journal Notes #66

Notes from my April 2009 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 can you know where my mind is just by looking at me?
Answer: When you see anybody/any body, you know where their mind is. For example, show me your stance. (I get up and casually demonstrate my stance.) Look at your feet. (My feet aren't really parallel according to Wujifa zhan zhuang structure.) Your mind is only paying attention to the level of detail you naturally demonstrate.

(Developing internal strength is also an exercise in focusing the mind, in developing the intention to pay attention to increasingly finer levels of detail. As a byproduct, as I refine my structure, that is, as I pay attention to finer and finer details, I then begin to see where others are but only to the level of where I am. I cannot see in others what I have not yet developed or let go of in myself.

From a teacher-student perspective, the level of detail of the adjustments your instructor makes to advanced students may be a indication of the level to which your instructor has developed him/herself and is willing to share. For example, in Wujifa zhan zhuang class, my instructor can give me adjustments that are not visibly perceptible to me; there is no "external" movement. These adjustments feel like a change of a millimeter or two - an adjustment that results in a muscle relaxing a bit more which results in more sinking and connection. At other times, the adjustment feels more like an adjustment of intention - "Extend through this finger" - which results in a feeling of improved connection. Very subtle stuff!

For a teacher to be able to help or guide a student develop this level of connection requires not only the teacher to have developed to that level but to also be able to connect with the student to guide the student to that level.

How rare it is to find a treasure such as this!)

* Question: How do I find, see, and exploit opportunity in stance? It seems like problems and opportunities are two sides of the same coin. You see the same thing but differently, right?
Answer: What do you feel? Don't go through the brain looking for some words. There are no words. The nerves are firing. You're getting unpatterned neural input. What is the sensory input you're feeling?

When you focus on a problem, you miss the opportunity of feeling something else elsewhere. For example, focusing on the problem of tight shoulders, you miss the opportunity to notice that your lower back is also tight and not relaxed.

* Question: Why don't you like using breathing imagery, for example, inhaling and feeling the body filling like a balloon?
Answer: It depends on the person. The feeling you describe can be achieved with tension. So this is not a good method for the tense person. However after you relax, then this could be an OK method. This method elicits only one kind of feeling.

* Question: A lot of times, stance practice is between difficult and just plain sucks. What's a good way to end these kinds of practice sessions?
Answer: If you end stance practice with "this sucks" then the next time you'll have less motivation because all you remember from the last time was "this sucks". So at the end of each stance session, finish with, "I really enjoyed today. I look forward to next time." The "I look forward to" creates a bridge.

* Question: When we do the closing circles after stance, is this dan-tian rotation?
Answer: Dan-tian rotation is an advanced practice. You do not get dan-tian rotation by thinking, imaging, forcing or in any way trying to rotate your dan-tian. The dan-tian rotates as a byproduct of doing dan-tian rotation exercises. You first must achieve a deep level of relaxation. Do the exercise and notice what you feel.

(I think of the analogy of a nut and bolt rusted together. If I try to force the nut to turn, it won't. If I focus on soaking it with oil, applying some heat, tapping here and there, then slowly, over time, the rust that binds these together loosens which will allow the nut to turn.

I remember when I first heard of rotating the dan-tian and I imitated the external mechanics I was seeing. My chronic muscular tension - the rust - prohibited any dan-tian movement whatsoever. And yet, I still thought I was rotating my dan-tian.

Beginning or amateur level practitioners who say they are rotating their dan-tians are probably fooling themselves. Believing you are doing a high-level practice when you haven't first "worked out the rust" is an example of not knowing where you are in your practice.

You are where you are and that's where you start.)

* Question: What's the whole "eating bitter" thing all about?
Answer: The whole point of "eating bitter" is that you come to enjoy and appreciate what the bitter experience will result in. The point is NOT to be proud of being able to "eat bitter" for the sake of it, nor to look for something bitter to eat.

(Some people who are proud of their ability to "eat bitter" may get stuck in dysfunctional practices, situations or relations because they've flipped "eating bitter" on its head and mislabeled it as a virtue: dedication, loyalty, or faithfulness.

It can take quite a bit of work to examine and figure out your own what's-really-going-on stuff. And then, to be able to accept that what you've been holding on to as a virtue may have been an illusion of sorts.

GongFu is hard work on many different levels but they're all connected!)

* Question: What's the relation between the kua and "tucking under"?
Answer: Tucking under results in the kua popping out (forward). It's all about the kua. Keep the kua closed in stance. In and down. Relax the lower back.

* Question: Where should I look while standing?
Answer: Some say to look into the distance and focus on something far away. But this may keep you focused out of your body and not feeling.

Some say to close your eyes. But this may result in daydreaming and getting lost in thought. Again, focused out of your body and not feeling.

Some say to look outward while looking inward. But relying on this paradox without providing a more substantial, functional instruction may also result in your focusing where ever your mind habitually wanders.

In Wujifa, where to look depends on the individual's patterns and habits.

(Sometimes, one of the above is the functional "medicine" for a student and sometimes not.

In public seminars or classes, even if the teacher has the ability to suggest a different "where to look" for each attendee, to do so may not be practical in this setting.

However, I would think that in ongoing classes with long-term, advanced students, if the teacher defaults to one of the above for everyone then this might suggest that the teacher cannot see or connect with individual student's patterns at deeper levels to recommend something specific to that person at that time.)

* Question: Many martial arts emphasize gazing at the hand. Why?
Answer: To develop the habit of connecting the intention going where the hand goes. Then after much practice, the hand goes where the intention goes.

(Remember, the method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, then you no longer need to adhere to the method that elicited that feeling - go straight to the feeling! Connect intention and body through feeling.)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Keep the Plates Spinning: Journal Notes #65
Next article in this series: Feeling and Data: Journal Notes #67

Monday, November 14, 2011

Keep the Plates Spinning: Journal Notes #65

Notes from my March 2009 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.)

* Think of the circus act of the plates spinning on a stick. Keeping all the plates spinning keeps you stuck because there is an effort involved and a consequence if the plates stop spinning. Being a Polly Anna, "Oh, how wonderful! Look at all these spinning plates!" is dysfunctional. She doesn't see how she's stuck. Not seeing how she's stuck, she can't begin to imagine how to let go.
(Practicing Wujia zhan zhuang over a period of time helped me identify where I was "spinning plates", where I had holding patterns, both kinesthetically in terms of muscle tension and in terms of everyday life patterns.)

* Question: If you have a lot of plates spinning, do you let them all crash or take them down one at a time?
Answer: That's up to you. Kinesthetically, bodies tend to unwind slowly which is like taking a plate down one at a time though some changes can feel like a plate crashing.

* Question: We talk a lot about simply "noticing". What do I do with what I notice?
Answer: Noticing leads to application. Do something with what you notice. See the big picture. Look for small opportunities first all the while moving towards the bigger vision. Work on the small opportunities. Apply activity to opportunity. What you notice that is not going toward your vision, may need some effort. Do something.

(Many small and incremental changes over time lead to large results. Patience and perseverance is a key characteristic.

The guy who's spinning the plates thinks he's persevering. In this case, he should just let the plates crash. This is different from the guy who wants something else besides spinning plates. The feeling of the guy who's persevering in pursuing what he loves is very different from the guy who's persevering just to keep life together.

One uses patience and perseverance to get through something, the other uses it to stay locked in.

The whole point is to choose between whether you want to be driven by intention or by externals.)

* Question: So say I notice a tension here. I want to make that relax. Is this what you mean?
Answer: It's not about trying to force something to happen. This creates dysfunction. It's about relaxing and allowing.

* It's OK.

* I see you.
(Practicing Wujifa Zhan Zhuang over a period of time has a way of taking down the spinning plates so the audience then gets to shift focus from the spinning plates to see the real person who kept the plates spinning.)

* Question: I've had some experiences recently with feeling opening. Should I focus on finding opening or on connecting and grounding?
Answer: The goal in stance is to connect and ground. Opening is a by-product.

* Question: Why is stance so difficult? Why does stance take so much energy?
Answer: It takes energy to keep things closed. If you are connected and grounded, then the energy flows through easily. It's not about trying to open but about allowing yourself to relax and connect. The difficulty you notice is your resistance to letting go.

* Question: Why don't I allow myself to relax and connect?
Answer: Fears. Habits. Patterns. Stance is a small chunk of life. The fears you notice in stance are the same fears you have in everyday life. Build in new habits for energy to flow through.

* Question: Is intention functional?
Answer: How you choose to engage your intention is what determines whether your use of intention is functional or not.

* Question: How do I get "person x" to connect with me?
Answer: You can't force another person to connect with you. You must connect with yourself first and then you will know how to connect with another.

* It's best to be flexible to be able to shift between moving toward what you do want and away from what you don't want. A functional mix is about 80% Toward (what you want) and 20% Away (from what you don't want). However, many people you meet have a mix of 99% Away and 1% Toward.

* Question: What's an easy method for me to know what's Toward or Away?
Answer: What's your favorite meal? "Steak". Your answer was frank and natural. There was no judgement. If you notice judgement, then that's Away.

* Don't make the feeling into a method. Any practice when done routinely can become a method. In stance, find another area to play and notice what happens. If you routinely focus on relaxing the shoulders, then change it up and relax the belly and notice what happens in the shoulders. When one part moves, all parts (should) move and you should notice this too.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Zhan Zhuang Medicine: Journal Notes #64
Next article in this series: Connecting Intention and Body: Journal Notes #66

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tai Chi Teacher Certification Pros and Cons

What is the value of a certification to teach Tai chi? Let's look at some pros and cons of Tai Chi teacher certification.

I was recently asked to teach a Tai Chi class for a fitness program. In my interview with the program director and another Tai Chi expert from China, I demonstrated my old Tai Chi form which I amped up by incorporating my Wujifa skillset.

After my performance, the director asked me if I had any certifications. "Well, not with me." Luckily, the other interviewer, the Tai Chi expert, told her my Tai Chi was "professional level". And I got the job.

This experience raised a curious question for me. My skill is recognized as being professional level by an expert and yet I appeared questionable to the unknowing because I didn't have a certification.

As you may or may not know, the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association (ATCQA) offers independent, "third-party" certifications of Tai Chi teachers.
"The ATCQA Certification is not affiliated with any particular school, program, style or lineage. ATCQA provides independent accreditation of Tai Chi/Qigong practitioners and schools."

Outside of the ATCQA, I'm not aware of any other independent third party certifying organizations. Email me if you know of any. I'm curious.

Without a standardized, independent certification system, comparing Tai Chi teaching certificates from any of the many Tai Chi and Kung Fu schools is like comparing apples and oranges. There's no basis for comparison. That said, I do think certificates from these schools or organizations serve a purpose of providing a level of credibility to the unknowing such as I encountered in that interview.

Once upon a time, I was teaching Tai Chi at an Adult Education class. The following semester I learned that one of my students who was a first time learner, was now teaching Tai Chi at another club. So surely certifications serve to protect both the teacher/school (No, that person is not certified to teach my material.) as well as protect the unknowing public from such learn-one, do-one, teach-one hucksters.

Unlike American public high schools and colleges where the entire school is certified or accredited by a third-party organization, when it comes to Tai chi schools, the only accreditation the school proper has is the certificate of the teacher from his/her teacher. To me, this is the same as no accreditation.

I recently saw one school's website which posted an extensive list of apparently every training certificate the teacher had accumulated. I think this is how certificates can be abused to mislead the unknowing. Breadth of attendance at seminars does not necessarily translate into depth of ability.

There are also many who claim to be part of a "lineage" which I do not consider to be a certification but rather a setting of an expectation. Advertising one's lineage may impress the unknowing, however, in itself, one's lineage is not an assessment of one's skill level. I used to belong to the camp that valued one's Tai Chi lineage until I woke up to this dark truth about the lineage claimers.

For me, the central question regarding Tai Chi teacher certification is, "Certified at what level to teach Tai Chi at what level?"

Even though a certified and lineaged Tai Chi teacher may have a long-standing, reputable and profitable Tai Chi school, and may have published books and videos on Tai Chi, and may have even won Tai Chi push hands and/or sparring competitions, and may have enough certificates to wallpaper a lavatory, this does not in itself mean that s/he can demonstrate or teach internal strength skills and full body connection which I consider to be the hallmark of real Tai Chi.

It happens that long-time certified teachers remain stuck at an amateur level and their advanced students remain stuck at the same level no matter how advanced they are in that teacher's system. On the other hand, a certified teacher may be "professional level" and provide advanced students higher level instruction and yet, according to the current ACTQA criteria, these two certified instructors could appear to be equal.

I applaud the efforts of the ATCQA and all involved to establish a baseline, third-party certification. However, a huge downside for me is that their certifying criteria (as of this writing) is based solely on counting hours in training or teaching and counting reference letters. There is absolutely no criteria involving an independent exam of academic knowledge nor assessment of skill level in specific skill sets.

I would like to see certification levels that get beyond counting hours and reference letters and gets into distinguishing functional skill levels such as:
Demonstrated skill in sinking/dropping.
Demonstrated skill in whole-body connection; internal strength.
I think by establishing certification levels based on functional skills would help distinguish teachers from masters and could provide a training path for those teachers who want to advance to master class certification.

However, there are probably issues to resolve like, finding the rare individual who has whole-body connection/internal strength and who would participate in assessing those interested in advanced certification.

And then too, there is probably little interest in establishing a certification level based on skill level because many "masters" may find themselves demoted to advanced teacher status.

What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of certifying Tai Chi teachers? What do you consider to be essential skill sets? How would you test and distinguish skill levels in these skill sets? I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Zhan Zhuang Medicine: Journal Notes #64

Notes from my February 2009 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: What's the relation between "sung" and "peng" in zhan zhuang?
Answer: In Wujifa we say,"Relaxed is not limp". This is another way to say, maintain "peng". "Sung" is "peng" without connection. Relax first to get "sung" then find "peng". Once you get "peng" then you are not limp and you have connection.

(In the distant past when I read about "bottom heavy", "top light", "sung" and "peng", I developed concepts about what these were and I thought I manifested these kinesthetics based on my conceptual understanding. This is probably a typical process for beginners' first encounter with Tai Chi. However, as it turns out, I was wrong on all accounts.

My experience with training Wujifa zhan zhuang taught me that only through and first feeling the feeling of bottom heavy that in contrast and equal proportion I could say that the top felt light in comparison. (This was a radically different experience from my initial imagine hanging from a string - top light - and imagine roots growing out my feet - bottom heavy!)

"Peng" is like an On-Off switch. Either you have full-body connection or you don't. Once you have full-body connection, then you've put your foot through the door and then you can have variations of how well refined full-body connection can become.

The medicine I talk about later is to help refine connection.

As with top light, bottom heavy, it is only to the extent to which I feel "sung" that in contrast and equal proportion, I am able to feel "peng".

From my experience, I was not kinesthetically prepared to feel sung or peng until I first experienced bottom heavy.)

* Question: What do I need to do to improve or change my push hands style?
Answer: Push hands is a game of frame control. You have to learn to maintain your own frame. Adjust your frame through your arm vs. adjusting to my frame through my arm. You were taught and learned push hands all wrong. You learned that relaxed and yielding means being a limp noodle. What you built in needs to be retrained.

* Question: What's the relation between practicing presence and internal strength?
Answer: When do you notice stuff in your body? Now. So if you can be more present, then you can notice more in your body.

* I learned a lot of different forms and I got stuck on refining the aesthetics and applications of the form but I never developed the feeling of sinking and connectedness that I'm developing now and so I realize now that my forms lacked power. I now understand that it's better to train to get the feeling first.

* Question: I can feel across my shoulders and I can feel my lower back but I can't feel the space between my shoulders and my lower back. How can I connect the two?
Answer: First, get the hump out of the top just below where you're feeling. Then arch your back. You may first feel your butt arch out and lower back tighten. Then get the upper back straight and relax the lower back and drop the butt.

(Here's an example of a method or "medicine" for me based on my question, my structure and how best to work with me and my musculo-structural patterning to achieve the feeling I'm trying to figure out how to get.)

* Stood for 1 & 1/2 hours in class today! It's amazing how much longer I can stand at class where time seems to fly by as compared to standing at home where time seems to creep by.

(Here's one example of a stance adjustment I received in one class. Everyone in class gets a different kind of adjustment which works on the particular patterning s/he presents in their zhan zhuang. In other classes, I have received different adjustments or "medicines".

sample stance adjustment
If you have been reading my blog and the Wujifa blog you have read about methods as a "medicine":

"Methods are much like a medicine and can assist or hinder one’s progress depending on the usage of various methods and when they are used." (From A System of Martial Arts Training and Objectives for Wujifa.)

The "medicine" I got in this Feb 23, 2009 class addressed a particular structural deficiency of mine, mainly, my tendency to hunch and what I would call being humble which could also be called a lack of having a proud or cocky spirit. So this particular "medicine" aimed to "raise my spirit" through a particular structural adjustment.

Once I got the feeling of the proud, cocky feeling, an aspect of the "raise the spirit" feeling, then I could structurally relax the chest and evoke the feeling pretty much at will. This is an example of what is meant by: The method is not the truth. Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method.)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Goals and Questions: Journal Notes #63
Next article in this series: Keep the Plates Spinning: Journal Notes #65

Monday, October 31, 2011

Goals and Questions: Journal Notes #63

Notes from my January 2009 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.)

* In the first Wujifa class of the new year, we did a goal achieving exercise. In this class we focused on noticing various feelings and feeling states. This was different from other "goal exercises" I remember doing in college and at work where the focus was on data: what's your goal and what are the steps you have to take to get there.

The method used in Wujifa class was to draw a picture of my goal on a piece of paper, then tape the picture to the wall, step several paces away from it, then turn and face my goal. How do you feel seeing your goal so far away? Now take a step closer. How do you feel now? Repeat these steps getting closer... closer... closer... then when within reach, grab it! Now how do you feel having reached your goal?

Then I did a variation of this exercise. I taped the picture to the wall and then stepped several paces away from it, then turned and faced my goal. This time however, classmates imposed obstacles on my "journey" to my goal. Notice your feeling when an obstacle comes between you and goal. Play with various methods to remove or overcome your obstacle, for example, ask for assistance (How do you feel when asking for help?), or use other methods available to you (How do you feel using new methods you may have never used before?).

What I learned from this exercise is that I habitually approach goals with the same feeling or from the same feeling state. When I watched my school brothers do this, I experienced and learned that others approach goal achieving and obstacle-overcoming with different feeling and from different feeling states which gave me some insights, for example, how locked-in I am to one way of doing things and how little I'm aware of or able to express my feeling. Also, when I encounter an obstacle, if the first couple attempts to surmount it don't work, I then quit my attempt to achieve it using a rationalization: "It doesn't matter.", "Who cares.", or "I guess I'm not meant to get it after all."
(Now, almost three years later, I had completely forgotten this exercise and what I wrote about that class. But have those lessons stuck with me? Sorry to say, but I don't think so. I'm running into a long-standing obstacle again, however, this time, my approach is different. I'm taking more "ownership" of the obstacle-overcoming method I'm working with this time which in itself is also difficult for me because the underlying feeling has become more tangible: fear! And I'm noticing how the tension between the wanting the goal and the fear shows up in my body as... Guess what? Muscular holding and tension: armoring!

The goal of letting go can involve so much more than simply noticing a tense muscle and relaxing it. Sometimes, letting go involves not holding back on saying or doing certain things. Initially, I didn't even know why I was holding but the more I work there, the more I learn how deeply ingrained family, society, cultural lessons created boundaries or patterns. What I discover when playing on the edge of those boundaries is a less obvious and more subtle form of fear.

What I'm noticing is that holding back to satisfy some idea, to not go through a fear is fueled by an underlying intention to control and hold. So I'm thinking now that real SUNG is fueled by a deeper underlying intention of letting go and not an underlying intention of control and holding. "Relax" is more a global state of "mind" than a localized, compartmentalized experience.

If I am like many people, then I think many people may relax to a certain level that is within their "comfort zone". They never realize why they are only relaxing to a certain level; relaxing within the boundaries of their established patterns. They'll relax to the point they encounter the fear and then stop relaxing. To get to the deeper levels of SUNG I think requires more work than many people are willing to get into.

In the Wujifa class above, my "rationalization" was a way for me to avoid addressing and working through a fear that I couldn't even identify as a fear at that time. Of course, this is not a global attitude but rather an attitude isolated to specific areas of living.

Goals. Fears. Control. Holding. Letting go. Relaxing. Opening. Goals.)

* In another class, we explored the source feeling state of questions. (Wujifa classes are based on students' questions.)

Questions may be asked from a conceptual and mechanistic point of view which is largely devoid of the genuine feeling of curiosity. In this case, the question usually arises from a problem viewed as mechanistic in nature, for example when I ask, "I've been playing with getting the combined feelings of dropping, sliding knees forward, and bowing as one movement. How does this look? How can I get more weight in the legs?"

I frame the problem mechanically and even though the "feeling" word is involved, the question is based on and rooted in mechanics and concepts and is asked in a way that is devoid of feeling.

Instructor: Try this. Enter the state of genuine feeling of curiosity, the beginner's mind. Play with being a child encountering the world for the first time: What's that? Why? How come?

Me: OK. I'm curious... What do you mean by feeling more weight in the legs? What's that mean? How do I do that? How do I feel more weight in my legs?

Instructor: Can you feel the difference when you ask the question with a more genuine feeling of curiosity?

Me: Yes, I feel an internal shift between these two states, the latter feeling more alive and present than the former.

(I'm noticing now that I'm alternating between being holding/controlling and being more open/authentic. So maybe this is a phase for me. I notice that when I pull back into my controlling/holding patterns, that I'm comparatively dull and mechanical and I can't notice these subtleties in others. However, when I'm in my more open/authentic un-pattern, then it's much easier for me to notice these subtleties in others.

As I've said in other posts, I can only notice in others to the level at which I've developed in myself, which for me means, letting go even more...)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Mind-full-ness and Zoning Out: Journal Notes #62
Next article in this series: Zhan Zhuang Medicine: Journal Notes #64

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mind-full-ness and Zoning Out: Journal Notes #62

Notes from my December 2008 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.)

* When I am injured either physically (sprained ankle) or emotionally (some life event), my body responds similarly to both types of events. In the first case, "scar tissue" develops. In the second case, "armoring" develops. However, I notice that I respond differently to each. In the first case, I become more mindful of my body. I notice a function and an impaired function. In the second case, I'm completely unaware of the changes in functionality especially if the "injury" occurs slowly over time. Yet both "scar tissue" and "armoring" alter the original, free-flowing (qi) feeling and over time these injuries become me and are completely hidden from my attention. I think these blocked areas become part of the "me" that is paying attention to "me".
(Part of the more subtle and refined work in stance is to discover and feel these areas that are "hidden" and not readily and easily able to be dis-covered and felt. When I encounter scar tissue, I go to my Rolfer and he massages out the fascial adhesions which helps restore functionality. Encountering armor is a whole different story. It's more difficult for me to work through the armors and I can get stuck on one area for a long time; first denying there is an armor, second, accepting what's there, third deciding what to do, and fourth, acting.

Standing is easy. Real training is hard. Mastery is, well, stay tuned...)

* I'm learning how my unconscious life strategy is to compartmentalize life. For example, in case "A", I will strictly follow the rules. In case "B", I will playfully bend the rules. In case "C", another. This approach lacks wholeness. If I feel crappy in one compartment, then I'll move to another compartment to feel better. I'm not noticing a unifying, underlying principle.

* When I get adjustments in class, the person adjusting me requests feedback by asking, "How does that feel?" I'm still at a loss to describe what I'm feeling. It's like I don't have words for a feeling I never felt before and my brain simply freezes, or shuts down in the attempt to describe it.

* Notice the feeling behind the words. The words are the data. The real stuff is in the feeling.

(When making adjustments, "what" the practitioner says is less important than "how" s/he says it. The data is largely immaterial. What is more important is to listen for the emotional feeling charging the words. The feeling expressed is a good indicator of whether you are getting into touching an armor or not and the nature of the armor. Remember, scar tissue and armor are two sides of the same coin. Both are holding patterns that are not relaxed and need to be let go.

I think this is why real zhan zhuang is so tough and so few people take it to this level. It's like I heard long ago... Many people come to the table, a few will nibble around the edges, sample this, sample that, and fewer still actually partake of the entire meal. I didn't understand this when I heard it. I understand this completely differently now.)

* Question: My response to honest authentic feeling during stance is to zone out - to essentially disembody myself, to psychically disconnect. I know this doesn't serve me when I'm suppose to be focused on developing my feeling-ability. So why do I do this? Why do I "zone out"?
Answer: Zoning out in stance is a form of psychic armor to not feel too much too soon. Zoning out cuts off consciousness from feeling. Zoning out is akin to dead post stance. When you zone out, then you don't have to own the feeling. (See also the Wujifa blog article: Is your stance practice like a dead post?)

* Question: I'm playing with the feeling of what I see in the stance picture; the feeling of sinking down and back and "launching" up and forward. But I freak out after a couple minutes and the monkey mind says, "That's enough." and I quit feeling. What's going on?
Answer: Sounds like you're about to make a breakthrough. Push through it.

(My pattern is I tend to hold back and need to be pushed. Others push ahead and need to be restrained. Different patterns. )

* One kind of "peripheral vision" is to focus on the feeling of generalizing your attention. See the periphery and notice the associated feeling. Then stay with the feeling and focus the eyes.

* I'm noticing that when I massage/relax the tension in my neck, that my lower back relaxes a little more.

* How does this contribute to you? How does any of this serve you? Can you find how something here applies and anchor it back into you and your practice?

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Beyond the Monkey Mind: Journal Notes #61
Next article in this series: Goals and Questions: Journal Notes #63

Monday, October 17, 2011

Beyond the Monkey Mind: Journal Notes #61

Notes from my November 2008 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: I think I'm finding layers of monkey mind. Beneath the voice-in-the-head, I'm noticing a constant churning of feeling/emotion. Have you noticed this in yourself?
Answer: Finding layers is the monkey mind at work. Remember the story of the Taoist monk who goes into the jungle to meditate... While sitting in meditation, a monkey begins throwing sticks, then fruit, then turds at the monk. The monk gets frustrated and wants to kill the monkey but isn't able to catch it. Then he decides to ignore the monkey and as a result, he becomes robotic in his practice, shutting himself off from his surrounding environment.

The monkey mind can be a distraction AND it can be a teacher and provide insights. There are no layers. The monkey mind is the small intention. Emotions, the "feel like having or doing", are the large intention. Harmonize and align the small intention and the large intention.

When the monkey mind feels threatened it will "armor" the body, meaning, the muscles will tense which inhibits the free flow of feeling and qi.

* Question: I can't find that open feeling in stance when I practice at home. But I get it when you adjust my posture here in class. What's the main point that would help me find it?
Answer: This is the paradox: You have to let go of your armoring that you can't notice. People can't notice their own armors. Letting go is also difficult because of the way you armor. As soon as you build a charge in one area, then you shift an armor to not feel that charge. In your case, and this is common, your shoulders are soft on the surface but you hide your tension below the surface in the deeper layers of muscle which even you can feel with your fingers are hard as steel.

* Mike, notice how you use your language. Your words reveal your underlying attitude. The tone of voice reveals the underlying emotion. In your case, it sounds like you are coming from lack: "I can't feel..." and "How can I get...?". What happens if you change your language? Remember how you played at the 20/20 seminar a few years ago...

* Ambiguity and generality allow deeper insights to show up. Let it be OK for something to show up. This creates space. Judgment cuts off space.

* Question: We've talked about how thankfulness, appreciation, and gratitude all contribute to creating an opening feeling. But I equate being thankful with getting something I wanted. How can I be thankful for getting something I didn't ask for like noticing something in stance?
Answer: There is external and internal thankfulness. External is for things and situations. Internal is for noticing and feeling. How can I be thankful....

* Question: I still don't understand what the "open" feeling has to do with internal strength. What's the relation between the open-present feeling and internal strength?
Answer: A baby is open and in growing up, slowly shuts down/armors. Stance and bio-work aim to dissolve and release the armoring to reclaim that original open feeling. Once you are open, then you harness intention to practice extending and expanding. Internal strength is in the extending and not in contracting which is armor. It's difficult to extend when the body is locked in contraction. Open allows the Qi to flow, allows "Peng" in all directions.

* Question: In push-hands, how can I connect with another person without losing my grounding?
Answer: Be aware of your internal. Notice their external. Do this until "we" show up. Move back and forth between the two.

* Over the past two weeks of practice I noticed a few different feeling "states":
  1. Present: Here, now, connected.
  2. Here but cutoff, not connected.
  3. Spaced out, not connected, trance-like.
Question: I still spend a lot of stance practice time kind of "out there". How can I resolve this?
Answer: You see how stance is the same way you experience your body on a daily basis. To avoid stance trance, look down at your heart. Keep the head up but roll the eyes down. When your eyes wander up, you're spacing out and losing presence. When the eyes roll up and the gaze seems distant, this can indicate the mind is making pictures, imagining something, and is generally cut off from the body. When the eyes stare straight forward, without that spark or twinkle of life, this is trance. Consciously placing the focus of the eyes at a point on the body helps maintain and build connection to the body.

(I've learned different practices over the years regarding where to focus with the eyes. What I've learned is that the above was a medicine for me at that time. I've heard my Wujifa teacher tell different students specific things to do with their eyes. There are many places the eyes can be focused. It depends who you are and what you're working with at the time.)

* Question: I notice that I tend to space out when confronted with a feeling kind of question where I don't have an established academic answer. What's up with this?
Answer: Your ability to answer initially from feeling is armored. Your pattern is to go to data. You're becoming aware of where you are armored.

* Question: Is there a way to use breathing to calm down and relax in stance?
Answer: Breathe slowly and naturally without forcing slow and natural. Breath in five counts and out five counts. Slow deep breathing induces alpha brain-waves which help relax the body, and in turn, your breathing naturally slows and relaxes as your body relaxes.

* I notice when I feel my elbows relax, then my torso relaxes. That's interesting.

* Feeling is a fruit of practice. Don't strive to achieve yesterday's fruit. Always look for the newer, fresher, riper fruit.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Internal vs External Martial Arts: Journal Notes #60
Next article in this series: Mind-full-ness and Zoning Out: Journal Notes #62

Monday, October 10, 2011

Internal vs External Martial Arts: Journal Notes #60

Notes from my October 2008 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: I've heard you mention that a lot of Tai-chi is done externally. But Tai-chi is an internal martial art. So what do you mean by internal and external?
Answer: Practices such as Tai-chi, Bagua and Xing-yi are known as internal martial arts but in fact, these are most often learned and practiced the same as all other external martial arts.
Comparison of Internal (Wujifa) and External Practices
You form your own moldYou force yourself into someone else's mold
Change yourself from the insideChange yourself from the outside
Practice cannot be isolated to the level of physical activityPractice is isolated to the level of physical activity
Practice involves changing unexpected and unforeseen personality traitsPractice may develop expected personality traits like calm, confidence, assertiveness
Principle orientedTechnique oriented
Grounds and relaxes you over timeBurns you out over time
Techniques are demonstrated to point out possibilities of applying principlesTechniques are taught as an end in itself
Techniques are diffused by changing intention/positionTechnique "B" is used to counter technique "A"
Fascial and tendon strength orientedMuscular strength oriented
Speed and strength developed from being loose and pliable (relaxed) yet connectedSpeed and strength developed from muscular reflexes
You make your own discoveries. You own the discovery.You wear others' discoveries.
You own the periodic table. You learn to combine elements.You develop the results of others' combinations of the periodic table.
Instructors point out what you are not yet able to notice . You learn from yourself.Instructors teach you what they know. You learn from the teacher.

(I've learned that it's not the name that makes a practice "internal" or external" but rather HOW any practice is taught and developed.

I've also come to realize that a practice is only "Internal" when it can be identified with ALL items in the "Internal" column. If some items from both the "Internal" and "External" columns are identified, then the practice is in fact "External".

As I look at this now, this could be a topic to further expand and clarify.)

* Question: You have mentioned sitting zhan zhuang and lying zhan zhuang. How do I do these?
Answer: Follow the same principles as standing zhan zhuang
Lying and Sitting Zhan Zhuang

* Question: What does relaxing have to do with the feeling of lengthening?
Answer The typical body is held in contraction. Relaxing creates lengthening. However, forcing a feeling of elongation without relaxing is illusory and temporary. Relax!

(Three years later, although I've changed a lot, I notice at deeper levels that I still have the tendency to want to muscularly force the elongation feeling instead of simply relaxing, letting go and noticing the elongation feeling.)

* Question: When I do any of the squatting moves like "Snake Creeps Down" or "Golden Chicken", I notice that my torso doesn't stay so vertical like I see others. I bend over a lot to keep my balance. If I didn't do that, then I'd fall backwards on my butt. Can you see what's going on in my body?
Answer: To get low, to correctly perform "snake creeps down", you need flexibility in ankles and hips. You need to release holding patterns in hips, knees, and ankles. You may also be holding in front or back of shin/calf.

One practice is to sit against a wall with the balls of your feet on a thick phone book or block of wood and then drop and roll out your butt. Cross your arms over your knees.

Don't focus on going physically lower because you will cheat to satisfy your ego. The priority is on noticing holding patterns and letting go which, when done correctly, will initially feel like going lower internally even if there is no visible external movement. Look for small, incremental changes over time.

(And I should add to this note, begin by aligning yourself using the 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4 points of Wujifa Zhan Zhuang alignment and only squat as far as you can while maintaining that structure. When you notice yourself starting to break structure, then that's where you need to work on letting go and relaxing. How do you figure out what and where you need to relax and let go? That's your internal gongfu.)

* Question: What's the relation between fascial stretch and Qi flow?
Answer A: Dixie cup and string. When there's no stretch, then there's no Qi flow. Need just the right amount of stretch.

(This analogy is referencing the elementary school science lesson where two paper cups are attached by a string and when the two cups are pulled to stretch the string just the right amount, then a person can speak into one cup and the other person can hear the voice in the other cup.)

Answer B: A little hose with lots of pressure can only spray so far. Getting more relax has the effect of creating a bigger hose. Initially, the energy doesn't fill the newly expanded hose but eventually it does. You won't notice energy flow soon after relaxing to a new level but as the energy increases to accommodate the larger hose size, then you notice energy flowing again. And repeat... Remember, noticing energy flow is a byproduct of practice. Focus on relaxing and enlarging the hose.
(One of my earlier stumbling blocks was in wanting to "feel the magic" and getting stuck on that. I had the idea that feeling energy flow was a one time "Off-On" proposition and that "cultivating Qi" was a way to turn "on" the feeling.

Now I think the whole cultivating Qi thing is not so much about turning on a feeling or responding to a lack, but rather, and more functionally, it's more about relaxing the antagonistic and chronic muscular tensions that block or restrict the free flow of energy that already exists as well as honing the intention.

Following the hose analogy, if my focus is to feel energy flow, then I'll be stuck at that small hose level when the point is to continuously relax to develop a bigger hose.)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Feels Like Nothing: Journal Notes #59
Next article in this series: Beyond the Monkey Mind: Journal Notes #61