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