Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Internal Martial Arts as a Foreign Language

Learning the internal strength component of the internal martial arts is like a native speaker of English learning a foreign language like Chinese. Insofar as Chinese is linguistically different from English, so too is the quality of moving with internal strength different from our normal way of moving.

Framing the learning of internal strength in terms of learning a foreign language might be a useful model to help you gauge if you are learning a completely different body-movement language or if you are learning variations or refinements of your current body-movement language.

Let's first consider this basic sequence of language learning and cross-cultural experiences. Many of you may have walked part of all of this road in your life:
  1. If you never met a Chinese person and all you knew was based on what you heard, read, or saw on TV, then your meaning of "Chinese are X" would represent this level of understanding and experience.

  2. If you got to know a Chinese person as an acquaintance, friend, or in-law and learned to speak a few words in Chinese, for example, ni-hao, xie-xie, gam-bei, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before.

  3. If you took a 10 hour Chinese language class at the Community Education program and went on a ten day tour of China, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before.

  4. If you took a couple years of Chinese language at university, got a job in China and lived there for a year or longer, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before

  5. If you continued your Chinese language studies in China (in Chinese), developed complete fluency in Chinese, married a Chinese and lived within the wider Chinese community for 10, 20, or more years, then your meaning of, "Chinese are X" would be different than before.

Anthropologists and linguists have long argued over the relationships between language, thought, and culture. The way you "naturally" move is also as much a product of your native culture as is the way you "naturally" speak. Hence why this model fits so well here.

As we move through each of these five language-learning and acculturation "levels" we probably find the most people with a "Level 1" understanding and the fewest people with a "Level 5" understanding. The same is true in the internal martial arts community. Here's why.

Assume that your native body-movement language is "English" and the foreign body-movement language you want to learn is "Chinese". Remember, English, Spanish, French, and German languages are all based on or derived from the same Latin alphabet. Chinese is not.

So you come to your first Tai-chi Chuan class only knowing "English". (We'll use Tai-chi because it's the most well-known of the internal martial arts.) You learn open hand and weapons forms. Have you learned "Chinese"? No. You only learned "Spanish". You learned a variant language using your underlying "Latin alphabet".

You go on to learn Tai-chi push-hands. Have you learned "Chinese"? No. You only learned "French". You learned a variant language using your underlying "Latin alphabet".

You go on to learn Tai-chi joint locking and sparring. Have you learned "Chinese"? No.You only learned "German". You learned a variant language using your underlying "Latin alphabet".

From your "English" point of view, you think you are learning something completely different, and developing internal strength, however, the "foreign language" you are learning is merely a variant of a common underlying alphabet. An "M" is still an "M" and a "P" is still a "P". You are merely training a variant of your native body-movement language.

So how do you know when you are beginning to learn "Chinese"; a non-"Latin" body-movement language? You will know when your teacher begins teaching you 放松 and you ask if this is like "M" and your teacher says, "No"! Or your teacher begins teaching you 圆软 and you try to make it work like "P" and your teacher says, "That's wrong." Or you ask your teacher to show you 沉 and you have no letters to equate it to.

When you finally reach the understanding that there is no relation between 放松 and "M" or between 圆软 and "P" or between 沉 and any other "Latin" letter, and you can demonstrate a little 放松 and 圆软 and 沉 then you've advanced to Level 2 as above.

Just as many Americans experience culture shock when they travel to and are immersed in Chinese culture (and vice versa), when you try to make your "P" fit into 放松 or or "M" fit into 圆 or vice versa, you will probably encounter a kind of body-language culture-shock. More on this later.

See Part II: Internal Martial Arts as a Foreign Culture 

See also: How Beliefs Can Inhibit Martial Art Skill Development.
And: The Language of Internal Strength

Monday, December 17, 2012

Habits, Patterns, Blockages: Journal Notes #108

Notes from my November 2012 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 for November, I'm still not fully back to practicing my Wujifa zhan zhuang training on a daily basis. I am doing some stance maybe 2-3 times a week for 10-20 minutes a session. However, I am doing the Wujifa adjunctive exercises and my Tai-chi form every day.

* Instructor's question to me: Why do you come to class? You're not training. You're not following through on breakthroughs you make. Why do you keep coming to class?
My answer: I don't know. Habit I guess.

Instructor: What if I told you that you couldn't come back?

Me: I don't know.

Instructor: What do you mean you don't know? I can see the expression on you face. What are you feeling?

Me: I would be sad... There must be something I'm not noticing.

Instructor: That's why you get stuck. There are things you're not noticing. How can you notice more of the things you're not noticing? Like when you said you'd be sad but that didn't come out as a response the first time.

* When you're discombobulated, confused, uncertain, that's when you're in a position to discover something. If you're in your patterns, then you're not in a position to discover anything.

* Question: Am I doing the rubberband hands exercise with more connection and movement through my upper chest? I've been practicing this the last couple weeks.
Answer: You are still using too much trapezoid and rhomboid. You need to relax more and find out how the breath moves the shoulder. If you let the shrimp move, you'll discover connection.

There are many shrimp in your body. When you feel the Wujifa shrimp, then that will help you. You have shrimp in the shoulder, neck, sternum, and kua. You have many shrimp. Don't limit yourself. Learn how the many become one.

* Question: What are you talking about, "shrimp"? What do you mean by "Wujifa shrimp"?
Answer: Here's a whole body movement exercise. You can see a similar whole-body movement in the Zebra and Mantis Shrimp when they are escaping danger.

* Fa-jing is simply an umbrella term for the quick release of stored energy. There are different ways to do this once you figure out how to move internally.

* One blockage to progressing is being afraid to really get it and become part of that small minority who really got it, who became great; being afraid of putting yourself out-there, becoming "public", taking challenges, taking "the heat".

* You must be able to move, that is, not move in a manner you've grown accustom to and as you normally identify as moving. There is another quality of movement which when done, looks like sheets of theraband pulling and stretching under the skin.

* Don't tuck! Use a different focal point to get "tuck". Push in under xyphoid process on the inhale. This creates feeling of rolling the dan-tian, belly up which creates tuck without tension. Then on the exhale, roll the belly out, down, and forward which "untucks".

* Notice your level of your functionality. If you can see the bigger picture, you can see the level of dysfunction you have. Once it is exposed, then you see the problem and what you have to work on.

* (Victor Chao made a guest appearance at the November 25th class. Here is what I consider to be the key points):
  • We practiced a method that he's currently teaching to help develop "sinking" which involved dropping the weight to the front of the "Bubbling Well" point rather than into the heel.
  • He too noticed that I'm holding in my chest; not letting go and dropping enough. Rick suggested I get Rolfed on my rib heads to help free up that part.
  • Victor read my pulse (Traditional Chinese Medicine style) and said: Strong Qi. Weak heart.
  • We then talked about "Qi flow" and arrived at an understanding that "Qi flowing" has a particular meaning in the internal martial arts which is distinct from all other definitions and uses of "Qi". In the internal martial arts, "Qi flowing" is a short-hand, abbreviated way to say the bones and connective tissue are correctly aligned which allows a particular body quality to show up. (In Wujifa we call this quality, "connection".) "Qi not flowing" means the opposite, that something in the alignment is wrong. There's muscular tension or fascial adhesion which is skewing the skeletal alignment; no connection.
  • Keep the abdomen and butt relaxed. These muscles are very strong but what you rely on for muscular strength will prevent or inhibit internal development.
  • Need to develop and use muscles of the inner side of the thighs; muscles that you normally don't use. These are the muscles used to develop fa-jing.
  • Must practice many times throughout the day even if only a few minutes. Need to develop muscle memory. If you're only practicing once or twice a day, you'll never get there because what you're not practicing is what you are practicing. Whatever you habitually do is either building or reinforcing muscle memory. (Sitting behind a desk, steering wheel, lunch table, sofa, etc. 10-12 hours a day outpaces 1-2 hours of practice.)
  • "Dragon Waves Tail" in BaGua refers to moving the tailbone. The tailbone has to move for fa-jing to occur. If you practice stance and your tailbone doesn't move, then this is practicing the wrong way. Need to open and close with breathing. If not, then you are locking.
Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Back To Where I Was Six Months Ago: Journal Notes #107
Next article in this series: - Submitting to the Experience: Journal Notes #109

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Basic Training for Silk Reeling and Taijiquan

For beginners, Chen Xiaowang's "The Five Levels of Taijiquan" can be a bit abstract. Here is a really nice article that explains clearly and in plain English the practices and the changes the body goes through in developing what I understand to be those First Level Taijiquan skills.

What was gratifying for me in reading this article was that I resonated with most of what he was describing. I attribute this to my Wujifa training experiences, many of which I've shared in this blog. That said, I still consider myself unable to demonstrate some of these higher-level, basic skills. I need to practice more.... much more!

Read the full article here: The Five Most Important Taijiquan Skills for Beginners
The Five Most Important Taijiquan Skills for Beginners
by Wang Hai Jun and translated by Nick Gudge (2010)
Many people spend years studying taijiquan but for most of them their progress is slow in gaining the skills of taijiquan. Part of this is probably insufficient practice, but a significant element is not understanding the basic skills that beginners are required to develop. It is not possible to start taijiquan training and learning at a high level. Using conventional learning as an analogy, it would be like trying to start at Phd. research Level. In reality, first there is primary education, then secondary education, then undergraduate study etc. This is equally true in taijiquan. Without a good mental and physical understanding of the basic skills that are at the foundation of taiji, high level taiji skills will not be developed. It is not magic, but the result of consistent and sufficient training in the correct manner.
When asked what I consider the five most important skills for a beginner student in taijiquan, I  listed them as:
  1. Fang Song – Loosen the body by relaxing the joints
  2. Peng Jing – an outward supportive strength, the basic skill of taiji
  3. Ding Jing – upright and straight
  4. Chen - rooted
  5. Chan Si Jing – Reeling Silk Skill
These five basic skills should be considered the early steps in taijiquan training. Without these basic skills being embedded in the body and the accompanying changes that occur during the process, a student is stuck outside of taijiquan. They are learnt through exercises and in the process of learning and training the foundation form of taijiquan.

Master Wang Hai-Jun was the first non- Chen family student to be traditionally trained in Chen Village in Henan in modern times. His teacher, Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei, is one of the "Four Golden Tigers" of Chen style Taiji. More information is available at Master Wang Hai-Jun's Chen Taiji Academy.

And if you haven't read Chen Xiao-wang's Five Levels of Taijiquan, you can find information about this at my article about The Five Levels of Taijiquan.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Five Levels of Taijiquan

Well, here we go again. The most recent rendition of The Five Levels of Taijiquan by Chen Xiaowang with commentary by Jan Silberstorff (2012) is not the first and most likely will not be the last. Let's take a look at all the ways this has appeared in the popular press...

Generations of Chen Style Taijiquan book cover
I believe the original writing appeared as Chapter 4 (pg 26-33) of the book "Generations of Chen Style Taijiquan" ( 世传陈氏太极拳 ) by Chen Xiaowang (陈小旺). Publication date: 1984. The title of Chapter 4 is, "Chen Style Taijiquan Five Levels of Gongfu" (陈 式太极拳的五层功夫).

(When this article was published, a scanned copy of this book could be downloaded from Subsequently, this site has become inaccessible.)

You can also find the Chinese text of this chapter on various Chinese websites by doing an internet search for:
For those of you who are learning Chinese, here's a word-by-word translation of the text provided above:
太极拳 (tài jí quán) a kind of traditional Chinese shadowboxing (tai chi chuan)
的 (de) of - possessive, modifying, or descriptive particle
五 (wǔ) five; 5
层 (céng) a measure word for layers; laminated; repeated; floor; story (of a building)
功夫 (gōng fu) skill; art; kung fu; labor; effort
The popular magazine, "Inside Kung Fu" ran an article titled, "Five Levels Of Tai Chi" in their May 1992 issue. As of this writing, I don't have a copy of this edition. However, at Nick Gudge's site you can find a copy of the material that appeared in this issue: Master Chen Xiaowang's Five Levels of Skill in Tai Chi Training By Howard Choy and Ahtee Chia. I have not been able to verify that this is the first appearance of this text in English.

In the book, Chen Style Taijiquan: The Source of Taiji Boxing by Davidine Sim and David Gaffney (2002), Chapter Three includes a section titled, "Chen Xiaowang's Five Levels of Skill" (pg 83-93) which provides their translation but no commentary.

Here is a video of a lecture given by Chen Xiaowang on the "Five Levels". This looks like it was filmed in China. I could not find a lecture date but the upload date is February 27, 2009. I found the subtitles difficult to read. (Video was subsequently removed from the site.)

Another apparent direct Chinese to English translation was done by Tan Lee-Peng Ph.D. and can be found at the following sites. (There may be other sites posting this as well.) Note that only the first provides a posting date of December 29, 2011. The remaining posting dates are unknown.

I wish the translation by Tan Lee-Peng was accompanied by a brief introduction of the translator and the date it was translated. And, who is Mr. or Mrs. Tan Lee-Peng? If anyone finds this, let me know and I'll include a reference here.

The Five Levels of Training in Taijiquan by Christopher Pei at the US Wushu Academy site has what looks like an adaptation of Chen Xiaowang's Five Levels without attributing this adaptation to Chen Xiaowang. Adaptations are bound to occur.

Which brings us to the most recent version of The Five Levels of Taijiquan, with commentary by Jan Silberstorff. But this one has a twist...

As you may know, Jan Silberstorff became the first Western indoor student and family disciple of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang in 1993. In March 2010, he published a German translation of the Five Levels with his commentary. And then two years later, in March 2012, an English translation of the German translation appeared.

Here are Jan's books in German and English. (I have not purchased the German version.)

Translated from Chinese into German Translated from German into English
Die 5 Level des Taijiquan
nach Großmeister Chen Xiaowang
kommentiert von Meister Jan Silberstorff
Jan Silberstorff (Autor), Xiaowang Chen (Vorwort)
Publication Date: March 2010
The Five Levels of Taijiquan
Chen Xiaowang (Author),
Commentary by Master Jan Silberstorff (Author),
Translated by Christina Schulz (Author)
Publication Date: March 2012

In Nick Gudge's review of the Five Levels, he says he knows of five translations including three on the web - I only know of the three I mention here: Sim and Gaffney (2002), Tan Lee-Peng (date unknown), Christina Schulz (2012).  Nick assumes the Chinese translator for Jan's German book is Michael Vorwerk and that Jan only provides the commentary. Nick also says a translation of the Five Levels in Chen: Living Taijiquan in the Classical Style by Jan Silberstorff (2009) looks to be the same translation as in this current book.

After reading this most recent English language version of the Five Levels a couple times, here are my thoughts....

First, with translations it can be difficult to translate the intended meaning of colloquial phrases and technical jargon directly from one language to another. In this case, translating from Chinese to German and then to English, I believe the opportunity for missing subtleties and introducing errors are compounded through this indirect translation.

Second, there is no preface to this English edition. Nothing is mentioned in the English version about Christina Shultz's qualifications to understand and translate such a work or other notes. According to the Taoist Sanctuary in San Diego, California, "The translation from German to English was done by Christina Schultz a student at the Taoist Sanctuary." (The site to which this quote was originally linked, was subsequently removed.)

Christina may be perfectly capable but I would like to have read about both her translating and Taijiquan experience. In a world where the reader's understanding hinges on the translator's selection of words, these experiences can be important considerations.

What I liked about Jan's book is that he seems to be speaking from his heart in the Introduction. The Introduction spans the first 20 pages and in it he talks about some of his own experiences in the first four levels. I think this material could be valuable to many readers. As for me, a lot of what he said in the Introduction resonated with what I have written in this blog about my own Wujifa training.

After the Introduction, which I assumed was a teaser of things to come, I was hoping to find many, many more details about how he trained at each level, how his training changed at each level, what were the kinesthetic shifts or changes that he noticed in his body, what challenged him at each level, and specifically, how all this relates to Chen Xiaowang's descriptions. I did not find what I was hoping to find.

His comments in the Level 1-5 sections seem rather cerebral. In some places it seems like he simply re-iterates the translation and in others, it seems like he says what anyone who has spent many years reading similar material could say. For a guy who's been an indoor student of Chen Xiaowang for nearly 20 years, I wished he would have written more about this unique experience which would have made this book a real treasure!

I hope my research has provided some perspective on how this work continues getting recycled. It's kind of like how a popular tune gets covered by many different bands across the generations and each audience thinks they are hearing it for the first time... In the case of "Chen Style Taijiquan Five Levels of Gongfu", this one is an oldie but a goodie...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Back To Where I Was Six Months Ago: Journal Notes #107

Notes from my October 2012 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 for October, I'm still not fully back to practicing my Wujifa zhan zhuang training on a daily basis. I am doing some stance maybe 2-3 times a week for 10-20 minutes a session and I continue doing the Wujifa adjunctive exercises and my Tai-chi form.

October 7 class:
* Question: It's tough to get back into practicing stance. I can get "tuned up" in class and this will last a few days and then I go numb again. I've been in a numb place for a while. It seems I've got a fear or anxiety about feeling and I retreat to data to avoid feeling. I see philosophy as data and not as a basis for behavior, a way of experiencing life. What's up with this?
Answer: The instructor turned my question over to our school brothers to answer. Here's some of their responses:
  • Do you want security or growth? There is security in not addressing your fears.
  • The Cro-Magnon sense of responsibility, of keeping the clan safe, can trap you too. What works for you can also become a trap.
  • Consider your intention vs the compromises you're making.
  • Adhering to an identity is secure. Developing gongfu changes your identity.
  • Sometimes you need to do the uninspiring just to stay in the game. Practice isn't always inspiring.
  • I found something in Wujifa that I can do for the rest of my life. There's no urgency to achieve something so it's easier to practice every day.
  • Starting out is always inspiring but after a while, it's easy to get bogged down in the drudgery of the details especially as you dig deeper.
  • People get caught in circular thought and rationalize dysfunctional behavior. How do you get out of the loop? Identify what you never do and do that. Do something a little different. Start with something small, almost insignificant.

* Question: I'm practicing the rubberband-hands exercise. I think I'm feeling fascial stretch. How's this look to you?
Answer: You're still making the mistake of using muscular tension. All you're creating is a tension stretch. You're fooling yourself by forcing it. Some people mistake tension for stretch. It feels like stretch but in fact it's tension. Feel the bicep as a force pulls down on the forearm. (Slowly allow the arm to extend.) It feels like the bicep is stretched. With this bicep example, you feel stretch but this is tension stretch not relax stretch.

bicep tension vs stretch

* A note on observing my school brother receiving a postural correction. Head back and up, if done wrong, can create tension in back of the neck. Rather, first start with pointing the chin to the ceiling. Then, rotate on a point under the ear lobes by raising back of head, not by pulling the chin down. Use mental tricks to "trick out" which muscles are engaged and how to achieve the desired posture with minimal muscle use, with the most relaxation.

* A teaching note. Only work on the part of the body that the student asks about even if you see problems in other parts. Why? Because this is the area that the student is ready to work on.

October 21 class:
* Question: Would you check my rubberband-hands exercise? I feel like my breathing is creating a little stretch and I'm not using muscle to stretch the rubberband. Is my breathing driving my arm movement or am I still muscling it?
Answer: You're chest is frozen so your breathing, your upper chest, is expanding forward and upward but not sideways. First, look at how your arms hang at your side. Your shoulders are rolled forward. Now, raise and lower your arms like the first Tai-chi move. You are contracting your rhomboids and pulling your scapula in and back. You don't need to engage all those muscles just to raise your arms.

Me: I''m not even aware that I'm doing that.
After more discussion, my school brother Trevor, who passed his first level of Rolfing certification and my instructor gave me an unprecedented three hours of body work just to get my shoulders to lay down. A lot of work on a tense and shortened pectoral minor. During this time, Trevor noticed a link between the tension in my scapula and my kua. When I can roll my scapula out flat and do so without pulling them down, that is by relaxing, then this creates length down the back for the femur heads to roll forward achieving a closed kua.

(When I got off the massage table, I was really jittery and confused. So much of my body had changed. A lot of stuff was worked free. I could barely stand. I could barely speak a coherent sentence. It took a while to get oriented and my posture was much better.
Note that the body work I describe pertains to my body. You may or may not share all or part of the muscular usage and tension patterns that I have. Do not assume that what is therapeutic for me will by therapeutic for you. Even though generalities may apply, each body must be addressed on an individual, case-by-case basis.)

October 28 class:
* Same question as last week. I can feel the inside of my upper chest area moving but it feels like there's a hard covering over my heart/chest area that isn't moving. After the three hours of body-work last week and a week of practice, am I doing the exercise any better or any less wrong?
Answer: What did you notice after having all that body work in the last class?

Me: (Gazing unfocused into space - up and to right, I said in a data tone) I noticed I could feel and breath more fully into my upper chest in the area under my shoulders.

Instructor: Look at me and say that. Associate.

Me: (Repeating what I said.)

Instructor: You're disassociating.

Me: What do you mean?

Instructor: You're giving me data. Where's Mike? Tell me again.

Me: When I'm paying attention to my practice and I notice the feeling of my breathing...

Instructor: Stop! Notice how you said the word "and". A little bit of feeling showed up. Go back and say that again and really emphasize and put a lot a feeling into the word "and".

Me: (Repeating with emphasis)

Instructor: What did you feel?

Me: Expansive.

Instructor: This is the process you want to bring into your practice. You have the data but the data is not helping you progress. Discovery is the biggest part of gongfu practice. Most people either just want the data or they take their discoveries and turn them into data - their purpose for discovering was to get data. If you want to progress to the highest levels, you've got to stick with discovery and don't get stuck in the data.

Instructor: You need to have emotional connection with kinesthetic feeling. Going to data is disconnecting. Real masters are connected with their emotions. Conversely, you can see "masters" with blank, lifeless, dead-pan faces. These folks have disconnected or disassociated from their emotions. The admonition about emotions is to not get attached to emotions. Many people make the mistake of interpreting this admonition as meaning you should disassociate from emotions. Not getting attached to emotions is vastly different from disconnecting or disassociating from emotions.You've got to practice connecting emotions and kinesthetics.

* Instructor demonstrated lying down stance and how the movement of lying down stance appears in various other exercises like squatting monkey and silk reeling.
(I was really amazed how he was able to see how this kind of internal whole-body movement quality shows up in other exercises and how this one simple exercise, lying down stance, is a foundational exercise for all these other movement patterns.)

* Question: Going back to the bicep curl exercise... As one side contracts (bicep), the other expands (tricep)...
Answer: Only focus on the expanding side. In Wujifa, there is no such word as "contract". There is only expand, extend, elongate, stretch.

Me: But if I focus on the bicep, it alternates between contract and expand as I close and open my arm.

Answer: Always change your point of reference and focus on the side that is expanding and stretching. Find and feel the expanding feeling in every movement. A postural move may appear to be withdrawing and contracting but in this you can find the expansion. Sometimes the expansion is "hidden" in a twist.

If you put your attention on contraction, then you become tense and stop noticing expansion. When you stop noticing expansion, then you lose peng.

* If you're working in a yin-yang paradigm, you are trained to look for balance. If yin is contraction and yang is expansion, and you look for balance, what do you have? Nothing! Peng is a function of relaxed elongation and expansion. This is where a lot of Tai-chi people get screwed up and never get peng.

* On a related note, the kua never closes. Yes, we talk about opening and closing the kua, and this is to help beginners develop basic movements. However, once you develop a level of movement through the hips, then remember how Bagua talks about the kua wrapping. So if you are closing in the front, the back is expanding and wrapping around the front. Always focus on the side that is expanding!

* The opposite of anger is sadness. People can armor through anger. Crying releases the armor and leads to genuine feeling which is the basic requirement to develop internal connection.

* Question: If sadness is opposite anger, then what is the opposite of data?
Answer: Connection! Feeling!
*When even a little bit of genuine feeling shows up, is expressed and connection is felt, I get overwhelmed and withdraw to data and become Spock-like, emotionless.

* I've developed an ability to express emotion as and through data. It is really difficult for me to be genuinely me and connect and remain associated. I learned to shut down feeling and exist in data.

* Question: Those few moments in class when I do open to feeling, it feels amazingly fantastic but when I get to the uncomfortable feelings, then I close down to block them out. How can I remove the plate over my heart, open my heart, feel the connective tissue moving across my chest, feel and not freak out and shut down?
Answer: When you practice your zhan zhuang stance at home, attach some emotional feeling to your standing practice. Being emotionless is limp. Remember, "Relax is not limp." And so, relaxed is not emotionless. Always stand with an emotional feeling. Being intensely focused can be emotionless which does not help.

There's always some emotionality to kinesthetic feeling and that's the point. Connect with that emotion!
Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: What I'm Not Doing: Journal Notes #106
Next article in this series: - Habits, Patterns, Blockages: Journal Notes #108

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Kung Fu Quest: Tai-Chi Chuan TV Show

How much Tai-chi Chuan can you master in three months? Not much. But suggesting this is possible makes for an entertaining "reality" documentary-drama television show.

This 48 minute RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) TV show on Tai-chi Chuan documents two martial arts students through three months of learning Tai-chi Chuan as a martial art. The Chen and Wu styles are highlighted. (Unfortunately, the original Tai Chi segments referenced here were subsequently removed.)

If you aren't aware of how Tai-chi Chuan is a martial art or if you don't have much exposure to Chen style, or if you are curious about how Tai-chi Chuan is portrayed in China, then this is an interesting show.

First, a few short comments...

What I consider contestable:
  • Part 1 begins with the narrator repeating the popular and polarized belief that external martial arts are hard, tough, fast, powerful and the internal martial arts are soft, meditative, and restrained with a inference that internal martial arts train with Qi.
  • Most of what I see demonstrated in this TV show is "muscle movement". The techniques and applications may be from Tai-chi Chuan, but the techniques and applications are not being executed with the unique quality of "internal" connectedness. And so for me, what they are doing is not really Tai-chi Chuan.
  • In the fifth part, they have practiced Tai-chi Chuan for three months and are now going to compete amongst themselves to test how much they've mastered. And as you'll see, with only three months of training and practice, they haven't mastered much at all.

What I like:
  • The first lesson is learning to do zhan zhuang stance practice.
  • A comment in Part 4: "The Standing Exercise and Silk-Reeling force in Chen Tai-chi Chuan are not necessarily exclusively for Tai-chi movements. When you understand the dynamics behind them, after practicing you may apply them to any movements."
  • A comment in Part 5 by Prof. Yuen Keiching, speaking about Tai-chi Chuan, "It's original foundation is the same with the foundation of all martial arts."
  • Another comment in Part 5, by the narrator who apparently also learned something on this journey, says, "Chinese martial arts are not defined by internal and external styles. External styles also have internal practices. Internal styles are not just about gentleness."

You can purchase the entire Hong Kong version of Kung Fu Quest DVD with English subtitles from YesAsia. "Kung Fu Quest takes viewers inside the amazing worlds of Wudang, Shaolin, Wing Chun, Hung Fists, and Taichi to see the truth about Chinese kung fu.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Silk Reeling Secrets and Levels of Seeing

The irony of learning silk reeling is that you cannot see the level which you have not yet manifested and demonstrated in your own body. In the vein of the classic, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" conundrum, what you train is what you develop the ability to see. And as you develop your ability to see, you refine the focus of your training.

I've passed through many levels of training and seeing. A few of these are well defined; the development of specific skills. While some transitions are dramatic, most are nearly imperceptible. As my skills have developed, so too has my focus changed. Through the Wujifa training process I've refined my ability to see with greater depth and clarity.

For example, the more I train "relax and let go", the more I move away from where I was - tense and holding. In this way, I develop the ability to see the tension and holding in others that used to exist in me. Some of this ability to see is developed through this process of relaxing and letting go and some is developed by my Wujifa instructor repeatedly pointing out various muscular tensional patterns as we train at the School of Cultivation and Practice.

To illustrate this point,here is randomly selected, short video of a silk-reeling seminar. Let me say that I did not attend this seminar. I've never met nor touched hands with Grandmaster Wang Jinxuan. For me, this video simply provides an opportunity to talk about levels of seeing in silk reeling.

What do you see as you watch this video? Make a few observations and then continue reading below.

So what did you see? Here are a few of my observations based on where I am at now.
  1. Grandmaster Wang appears to be really strong, grounded, and connected because he can throw around men half his age.

  2. The audience participants look like "willing participants". They don't appear to be very well grounded or connected nor do they offer any peng. They appear to be exaggerating the effect of his techniques.

  3. Body positioning and body mechanics are important in executing technique when the other person cannot render your technique ineffective by being more grounded and connected.

  4. Beginning at time 00:30, his right arm movement looks disconnected from the rest of his body. I'm seeing a break at the shoulder.

  5. At time 1:30-1:45, his knees swivel horizontally with his hip movement suggesting to me that there may be tension through the hips.

  6. Beginning at time 5:08, there appears to be movement in the front kua but the rear kua looks stuck; the rear femur/knee rolls with the hip movement.
For me, these are examples of seeing at different levels. If you haven't worked on releasing tension in the kua or noticing how tension creates certain patterns of movement and non-movement, then these "more subtle" points may have eluded you. Of course, those with more training and deeper skill than me can see even more.

In the end, the only secrets in silk reeling are those that you cannot yet see. And not because instructors are deliberately hiding "secrets" from you. It's more the case that you are simply blind to seeing. Once you can see to a particular level, then that level can no longer be hidden from you. The formerly invisible becomes subtle and the previously subtle becomes obvious.

As my Wujifa practice has deepened and my body has changed,I have developed the ability to see at a different level from where I started. And as my focus has changed and refined, I find myself naturally seeing more specific kinesthetic qualities, seeing more internally.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

What I'm Not Doing: Journal Notes #106

Notes from my September 2012 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* I haven't done any Wujifa zhan zhuang training since April 3rd. I've only been doing some of the Wujifa adjunctive exercises and my Tai-chi form making this six straight months of not doing any core zhan zhuang training.
(It sure is embarrassing to post that I'm not training. What then is there to post about? Where's the conquering your fears, eating bitter and all that jive? For me, it's not always there. There's highs and there's lows. I'm in a stretch of being on the low side now. Just saying... Speaking honestly... )

* Pretty depressed. No mood for class. I attended class but since I haven't been regularly practicing  zhan zhuang, I had no questions and I wasn't in the mood for taking notes, so no notes. Don't know why I even bothered going to class, maybe just to stay in touch and not run away entirely.

* We had a long discussion regarding Rolfing, fascia and connective tissue systems and models and we looked at some really amazing videos of fascia.

* The model must match the purpose or else the model is useless.
(This discussion later became my blog article, How Beliefs Can Inhibit Internal Martial Art Skill Development, and so I won't re-write these notes here. Go read this article.)

* I hung back and listened to a class discussion about a couple different ways that people walk in reference to the motion of the lower spinal vertebrae, L1-L5, and the pelvis. If the muscles are free to move (no chronic tension and no fascial adhesions 'gluing' the muscles together), then L1-L5 tends to remain on a vertical line and twist horizontally while the pelvis moves in a figure eight motion. However, if the muscles around the L1-L5 vertebrae and the pelvis are chronically tight resulting in fascial adhesions 'gluing' these tense muscles together, this effectively makes the pelvis and L1-L5 a single unmovable unit. When this happens, then  the pelvic motion during walking is transmitted up the spine and the lower spine moves more like a pendulum, swinging from side-to-side with the motion of the pelvis.
(Because everyone thinks that their way of standing or moving is normal, a frequent comment is that structural/postural adjustments range from feeling weird to feeling mildly painful. Some people embrace the discomfort and others fight against it and yet others withdraw from it.)

* My instructor talked with me about this withdrawing phase I've been going through. He helped me examine how and why I get stuck and shut down and how noticing these "sticky points" can lead to change. He again suggested that I read the book Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth by Brad Blanton (2005). He insisted that this is required reading for all Wujifa practitioners to understand where and how we are hiding from being fulling present, connected and engaged.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Working the Lower Back: Journal Notes #105
Next article in this series: - Back To Where I Was Six Months Ago: Journal Notes #107

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Necessity for Fear

It was fear. I was shaking inside. I cannot beat this guy. This is José ("Chegüi") Torres, the great WBC and WBA 1965 Light-Heavyweight Boxing Champion speaking at The Moth Radio Hour about fear. Jose Torres talks about fear at The Moth

What particularly caught my attention was toward the end where he says that it is fear that allows you to anticipate when a punch is coming before the punch is launched.

Maybe the quest for the superpower to know what my opponent is going to do is a dead-end quest. Maybe the old masters who wrote stuff like, 'When my opponent moves, I move first', were eloquently describing how afraid they were.

For a guy like me who is struggling to overcome being disassociated from my body, "I think, therefore I am." to being more embodied and associated, "I feel, therefore I am.", I am discovering that I deny I fear when I'd be better served by noticing and feeling I fear. Noticing and feeling is part of the process of developing internal gongfu.

If I pull back from training or stop training and I don't know why, maybe the "why" is because I'm afraid. But if I deny I fear, and I don't feel what I'm afraid of, then I may never even get to the point that José talks about; using your fear.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Working the Lower Back: Journal Notes #105

Notes from my August 2012 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 haven't done any Wujifa zhan zhuang training since April 3rd. I've only been doing some of the Wujifa adjunctive exercises and my Tai-chi form making this five straight months of not doing any core zhan zhuang training.
(In a recent Wujifa class, we were talking about the "miss one day puts you back ten" saying. I had always interpreted this as a scary admonition to practice and as a matter-of-fact that you can't recoup days you didn't train. One of my school brothers who is going through Rolfing school explained that this saying also has a physiological basis whereby zhan zhuang training converts fast-twitch muscles into slow-twitch muscles. Tense muscles are fast-twitch and consume 30% more metabolic energy than slow-twitch which supports the 'you increase available energy through relaxing'. And the slow-twitch muscles are a pre-requisite for.. (more on this in another post). Point being, by my not practicing the core Wujifa zhan zhuang training, I am not only not making progress, I am allowing any progress I had made in the conversion of my muscle fiber to return to its former habitual status.)

* Question: Why so much focus on the lower back?
Answer: The reason for focusing on the lower back is to get openness for the kua to move.

* Question: I've been working on playing in the pain of stretching my lower back. How does this look?
Answer:If the lower back muscles are tight, then you can't drop. If and when you can achieve drop, then this creates space for the hip to move. Then you can begin working on loosening the hip rotators to get movement in the hip without moving the femurs.
(This following drawing refers to my demonstrating how I can drop my lower back. However, what I wasn't noticing, and what my teacher noticed was that in my dropping my lower back, my knees also splayed out. And so the instruction to not move the femurs - most easily noticed in knee movement - and allow the pelvis to turn.)

knee alignment when drop pelvis

* Question: What is more useful, scientific knowledge or kinesthetic feeling?
Answer: Both, but knowledge alone cannot help you get there. You need feeling.

* When shifting side-to-side or front-to-back, the pelvis may move one inch in space. The majority of movement takes place in the kua and femur heads.

* The more relaxed you are, the closer to the center of the hips you can move from. The biggest mistake people make is believing or imagining that they are moving from "the center" when they haven't yet achieved the level of relaxation to be able to do so.

* Some muscles may be tight and others may be flaccid. As I drop my back, I roll my knees in. Don't do this. Put a stick between your knees so you don't push your knees together.
(Here's another note on the same topic. In fact, I think the suggestion was to gently hold a double-tipped arrow between my knees so that I would be instantly reminded if I exerted any inward pressure. Gotta love some of those "old school" methods....)

* In Wujifa we say, "Once you get the feeling then get rid of the method." My pattern and chief problem from the beginning has been that once I get the feeling, I then abandon the feeling and go back to the method. I go to class. I do the instructor led exercises. I experience intense, overwhelming feelings that for lack of an accurate description I call "presence"; a kind of hyper-awareness and new sense of embodied connectedness. And after class, I am either not capable of maintaining this level of feeling or I allow it to slip away and I go back to my old habits. Why would I allow it to slip? This may be due to my fearing to experiment with living with this new level of feeling-connection and addressing my daily life from this new awareness. And too, my environment could contribute to this; I get sucked back into the patterns of the people around me. As a result, my practice cycles between a heightened, intense feeling and a kind of routine emotional numbness...

(You might think that I'd be happy to have had this pointed out to me but in fact I'm not. Why? Because it shows me clearly that I'm not incorporating advances in class training into daily life where I thought I was. I'm really good at lying to myself and fooling myself, hiding from myself, stuffing stuff, etc. None of which fits my notion of myself!)

* We practiced the "Reaching for fruit and eating it" exercise. I couldn't let go and get into the exercise. My behavior remained very mechanical and controlled. One of my school brother's commented: "That's his problem. He's afraid to grab life. Not hungry for life."
(As I've posted before, in practicing internal gongfu, there's no compartmentalizing practice and daily life. Each shows up in the other.)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Holding To Routines: Journal Notes #104
Next article in this series: - What I'm Not Doing: Journal Notes #106

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Demystifying Qi Seminar Video

How ever you translate Qi, you probably got it wrong. And if you practice any of the internal martial arts or qigong practices and talk about Qi flow or Qi circulation as if it were some "thing", well, you probably got this wrong too.

In my on-going quest, I stumbled upon an excellent site headed up by Dr. Andrew Nugent-Head of the Association for Traditional Studies.

I encourage you to see his Demystifying Qi Seminar, Part 01: First Lecture (Update: This lecture was free when this article was written in 2012 and has since become part of a paid Continuing Education course. As I remember, the entire video was over an hour long and well worth the viewing!)

Here are a few of what I think are the key points:

In Chinese language, a character may have more than one meaning. To focus this lack of specificity, these characters are often paired with another character to clarify a concept. This is the case with Qi.
"There is no single thing called Qi. The word is representational, not definitive."

"There is no meaning to Qi. There's just a whole lot of flavors or colors. You take it and add it to something to create an idea or concept that fits that specific situation."
He begins the seminar with a brief history of the word "Qi" and follows this with presenting nine primary definitions for Qi. He then reads through a list of 163 definitions where Qi is the first part of a compound character set and and then reads a list of 235 definitions where Qi is the second part of a compound character set for a total of 407 definitions that use the character Qi. This largely consumes the first 37 minutes of this lecture.

While you might think that listening to a reading of definitions is boring, if you only know Qi as "energy", "life force", "pneuma", "breath of God" or whatever, then you are in for a real surprise and listening to this list is absolutely essential! I found my understanding of Qi shifting and changing as he read through the list.

In my opinion, by our (American) translating a non-definitive, non-elemental word-concept like Qi into definitive, elemental terms like "energy" or "life force" or whatever, this flawed "translation" process has resulted in some real silliness in the internal martial arts. How did we wind up here?

After this simple linguistics demonstration, Dr. Nugent-Head then gives a historical context for our American encounter with the word "Qi" by providing a brief contemporary history of Chinese in America and American interaction with and perceptions of Chinese.

I really enjoy this video because he's encapsulated and expanded on points I was exploring in my earlier posts Chinese Martial Arts Without the Qi and Internal Gong Fu Paradigms as well as corroborating much of the reading I've been doing on this very topic.

Friday, October 12, 2012

When Did Tai-chi Chuan Become Slow?

Origin stories of Tai-chi Chuan speak of a Taoist hermit witnessing a fight between a crane and a snake or of a military soldier returning to his village and developing a new fighting style.

These origin stories also include references to how Tai-chi Chuan represents traditional Chinese cosmology and philosophy, notably Wuji and Yin-Yang.

Developments of these origin stories include a young Mr. Yang spying on the Chens and thus learning Chen Tai-chi Chuan which he later transformed into the Yang style of Tai-chi Chuan.

For the longest time, I naively assumed that this very strange slow-motion martial art was designed that way; that the hermit or the soldier in response to an inspirational "What if...?", began experimenting with performing known hand-to-hand combat sequences in slow motion and codified the sequence as Taijiquan.

But is this true? And who cares? We have what we have and isn't that sufficient?

Sometimes, yes. And sometimes learning a different point of view on some arcane bit of history can shift your world and make certain vague, barely believable stories more coherent and believable.

Was Tai-chi Chuan always slow as it is today? Was it created slow? If so, then what were the inspiring influences that led to creating hand-to-hand combat sequences in slow motion? Or was it originally fast and became slow later? And if so, when and why?

Snakes and cranes do not fight in slow motion. Military soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat do not fight in slow motion, so how and why did the notion or element of slowness get applied?

In the book Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin (2008), the author Livia Kohn suggests:
In a separate development of healing exercises in the late Ming and early Qing periods, the exercises also served as the foundation of martial practices, among which the best known are taiji quan (great ultimate boxing) and Shaolin gongfu (martial practices of Shaolin temple). The heavy reliance of these martial arts on Daoyin is obvious in their emphasis on deep abdominal breathing, their intense, focused movement, their rhythmic alternation of bends and stretches and the fanciful names of their patterns, which are often associated with animals or supernatural figures. (pg 189)
So if you were to believe Professor Kohn who has published widely on Daoism, you might think that this is a plausible explanation. The hermit or the soldier having grown up in a culture where Daoyin exercises were well known might have had the thought to combine Daoyin and hand-to-hand combat sequences and through years of trial-and-error, ultimately developed the slow-motion art we know today.

However, Professor Kohn provided no references for this assertion and so for me, this remains one hypothesis.

For another perspective, I searched the Chinese website and found Yang Luchan and his descendants spread the achievements of Taijiquan in Beijing posted May 2003. Here's my summary of this translation:
Yang Cheng-fu went to Chenjiagou as a worker and eventually apprenticed in the Chen Style Old Frame Taijiquan. When he left Chenjiagou, he returned to Beijing and after earning the title of "Yang the Invincible", was recruited by local aristocrats and officials to teach his martial art to their children. However, upon discovering that his students were enfeebled by their luxurious lifestyle and were not capable of performing the Chen Old Frame, he dumbed-down the Chen form by making the postures simpler and more gentle as a way to help improve their physical capabilities.

From what I understand, this story is not referenced to an authoritative source either and so for me, this too remains one hypothesis.

While either of these stories could be true, I think the latter is the more believable. In a twist of history, the dumbed-down Chen version later became known as Yang Style Taijiquan of which we have various versions today.

If someone has yet another version or can substantiate either of these versions, I'd be glad to here from you. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

How Beliefs Can Inhibit Internal Martial Art Skill Development

When I began learning Tai-chi Chuan, I developed a belief about what constitutes internal martial art skills and what is required to develop them. (This belief was a strange brew of beliefs about Tai-chi Chuan, Daoism, Qigong, and New Age precepts.) Unfortunately, this belief didn't lead me to the results I wanted. Years later when I got into Wujifa, I noticed people making good progress even though they "lacked" the experience and belief that I had. How was it that they were progressing and I wasn't?

I now realize that much of my struggle in learning Wujifa was an attempt to reconcile my earlier belief with a very down to earth, elegantly simple yet highly effective practice as I found in Wuijifa. Ironically, my belief about internal martial art skill development was counter-productive to my developing internal martial art skills.

In a recent Wujifa class, I asked my teacher about why this happens. His response was:
"In Wujifa, the first saying is 'You are where you are and that's where you start.' People have disconnects between their physical reality and mental belief systems. Certain belief systems will color the way they understand everything else. Wujifa doesn't contest that but asks people to come with an open mind or at least temporarily leave their belief system on the shelf so they can look at the functional realities of simple practices like standing (zhan zhuang). Wujifa looks first at the alignment of the feet, then the knees, then the pelvis and finally the shoulders and head. This kind of functional practice can yield a new understanding if the person is willing to temporarily set their biases aside.

In Daoism, there is a saying that goes something like, 'The best place to hide the universe is in the universe'. This means that the answers are often very practical and right in front of you but you don't see them because you complicate them too much.

Copernicus and Galileo explained that the earth revolves around the sun. But if you are walking from your home to the next town, the aid of a flat map will serve you better than the astrophysics of planetary movement. Often, people don't make this distinction. And so, the problem with belief systems is that they can get too complicated and not provide practical maps for developing a functional, kinesthetic means of understanding."
So, yeah, I had developed this really complex belief about internal martial arts over years of integrating a wide variety of ideas from many teachers, masters and scholars. I thought this was the right way to go. When I got to Wujifa, I was the guy trying to interpret the simple road map to town through using the complicated astrophysical map from the earth to the moon.

Here's what I mean. The concept of "Qi flow". I have a belief built around these two words. But when I explore this concept outside of the usual stories and my belief, I learn that the word "Qi" is quite ambiguous; its meaning is often colored by the context in which it is used. So if I am locked into accepting the typical Western translation and my belief, then I may misinterpret a learning opportunity and not learn what is being  plainly and unambiguously presented to me.

For instance, many years ago I was at a Chen Xiaowang Silk Reeling seminar. He adjusted my arm. "Qi flowing." He adjusted my arm again, "Qi not flowing". He adjusted my arm again. "Qi flowing." Understand?

He was graciously giving me the opportunity to experience, namely: This is the feeling of proper structural alignment through the arm and this is not. This is the feeling you're looking for and this is not. The words were merely pointers to help bring a feeling to my conscious awareness.

Unfortunately, I was so caught up in adding that simple experience of "Qi flow" to my belief system about "Qi flow" that I missed the simple lesson he was giving me. It took me ten years to learn this lesson.

I share this with the hope that you might learn from what I learned so you that don't make the same mistake and miss ten years of development.

Happy training everyone!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Internal Martial Arts Books: Sorting Fact From Fiction

For the newcomer to Chinese internal martial arts, sorting fact from fiction is a near impossible task. In that beginner's enthusiasm, there is a tendency to trust all published material at face value. However, doing so could "muddy the waters" of developing a functional framework for practicing the internal arts.

As you know, books are typically divided into categories by subject area. For example, the Book Industry Study Group lists "Martial Arts & Self-Defense" under "Sports & Recreation". Alternatively, Plum Publications, my favorite site for martial arts books and DVDs, categorizes martial arts books by style.

Point being, if you want to find a book on Chinese internal martial arts, you are largely restricted to using the category listings of the book seller. This system may not serve your best interest. And so while these categories are effective at the level of grouping topics or titles, they do not answer the fundamental concern, "Can I trust what the author has written?"

Hopefully, applying the categories below will help you sort fact from fiction both in your book selection process and while reading that which you've selected...

Academic Scholarship
These books and journal articles may be direct translations of primary sources (original documents in the original "source" language) with an accompanying analysis or interpretation. These can also be presentations of original field research. These works can reference prior scholastic publications and typically provide footnotes and a lengthy bibliography. Works are published by a university press and meet the rigors of the scholastic, peer-reviewed methodology.

Non-Academic Scholarship
These books and journal/magazine articles are usually well written. "Facts" may be presented but the source document where this "fact" originated may or may not be referenced; may or may not be reference-able. These works may or may not include a section on "Further Reading". Quality can vary by publisher.

Autobiographical Experience or Point of View
These books and journal/magazine articles are primarily experience-based or perspective-based and typically do not include efforts at being a work of non-academic scholarship. Some of these works may include a section on "Further Reading" and are also published by a wide variety of presses.

Evaluating Chinese Nei-Gong Books
Given these three broad ways of viewing books on Chinese internal martial arts, how can you use this information to be more selective in your reading and to get a clearer understanding of what the author really has to offer?

First, there is value in reading books and articles in each of these categories. Each has something to offer and conversely, each has a hidden danger. Here are some Pros and Cons:

Academic Scholarship
  • Pro: Peer review process maintains certain academic publishing standards. It keeps everyone in line. Scholars in academia have a different audience and criteria of success than martial arts teachers publishing and selling their own books.

    Sometimes, too, scholars will re-publish their Ph.D. dissertations in a more easily accessible format for public consumption. These re-workings may either appear as books or articles.
  • Con: What is considered acceptable academic work in contemporary, scholarly circles may exclude certain documents, translations or traditions from consideration. For example, martial artists of old were usually not literate and so there is no written documentation that scholars can reference. And where old martial family poems do exist, these are usually not translated correctly by scholars because these poems are written in a "code" whose meaning is only relevant to the practitioners of that style.

    Even within academia, scholars may not be in complete agreement over certain points. Be wary of taking one author's point of view as absolute truth without reading others in the same field.

    Scholars of today look back on scholarship of even a century ago and assign new understandings and interpretations. Just because a scholar makes a particular interpretation today does not mean that that interpretation can stand the test of time. Pay attention to publication date.

    Some popular books in China about martial arts (as well as their translations) may be problematic due to the close relation of the media and publishers to the central government. I once read a bi-lingual "History of Chinese Martial Arts" which was published by a reputable university press in China and parts of it contradicted American scholarship on this topic. Who's right? Who's wrong? What and how much is a matter of interpretation? I don't know.

Non-Academic Scholarship

  • Pro: Publishing houses have a reputation to maintain though what qualifies as "publishable" is not as narrowly defined as at a university press. A wider range of valuable material can be found here.
  • Con: When references and citations are not required, editors, and not a stringent peer review process may allow some questionable documents and interpretations to be published. It can be difficult to know which authors are telling the truth.

    Some earlier books on the internal martial arts may reference "historical facts" as they were known at that time. Since then, more recent scholarship may have updated these "facts". Some newer works reference these older works and out-dated "facts" instead of the more current historical "facts". Pay attention to publication date.

Auto-biographical and Personal Experience
  • Pro: Probably one of the best sources of good insights on internal martial arts practice! These can be particularly valuable in learning how another practitioner describes his or her internal experience or how another practitioner approaches the art. You've found a real gem if the author includes challenges and problems as well as gains and triumphs. Finding someone who shares both the good and bad is more likely to be telling the truth; reporting their true experience.

    After reading a few of these accounts, you may begin to understand how the same or similar experiences can be described in different ways. And you may also learn that you don't necessarily need to force yourself into an alien paradigm to learn and acquire nei-gong skill sets.
  • Con: When the author claims everything is great and there are no problems, or talks about extra-ordinary powers, you may wonder, "Is this for real?" Sure enough, people can imagine and fabricate all kinds of stories.

The bottom line is that it may take you as long to learn how to distinguish fact from fiction and real from fake as it takes to develop internal skill itself. And it may be the case that the two go hand-in-hand; until you start to get some skill of your own, it is difficult to sort out all that has been written on the subject.

In all my years of pursuing and later learning what's required to develop internal skills, I have to admit that all the reading I've done over the past two decades has not contributed one iota to my developing internal skills. Learning and practicing under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher is of paramount importance!

Reading and developing theoretical frameworks and memorizing lineages and history and staying current in the field all have their place. Just keep in mind that reading is no substitute for feet-on-the-floor practice if your goal is to develop physical skills!

Finally, if you have any insights that have helped you sort out and understand the wide range of writings on the internal martial arts, feel free to share.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Getting Clearer on Chinese Nei-Gong

To many westerners, Chinese nei-gong is often interpreted through a mystical lens. Growing up in a dualistic, mystical-physical cultural milieu created a filter in me which tainted and distorted my understanding of Chinese nei-gong and associated terminology.

This past July, I wanted to write a blog article with a background reference or two. Soon, scope-creep set in and I found myself reading a long list of articles and books about Chinese science, Daoism, Qigong, Daoyin, New Age Movement and even works that discuss issues with translating words and topics from "eastern" to "western" mindsets.

Curiously, two things are happening: 1. I'm scratching the surface of the academic scholarship that has been published since I received my Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies in 1987, and 2. I am discovering that I'm understanding old topics in new, clearer, more grounded ways.

I believe I am now getting a clearer understanding of Chinese nei-gong. If I were to describe this process as a "path", here's how this has unfolded for me:

Stage One: Interpret everything through the dualistic, mystical-physical filter.
When I began my practice of Tai-chi Chuan in 1983, I interpreted and understood my practice and all I read about Daoism, qigong, and nei-gong through the filters of my religious upbringing and through my later acquired New Age metaphysical perspectives. While I thought I had an "enlightened" understanding, I truly did not know that I was, nor how I was applying my biased views to my readings.

Stage Two: Practicing Wujifa
Through the course of my more recent years of practicing Wujifa, which takes a very functional, practical, and grounded view and approach to developing certain nei-gong skill sets, I've slowly come around to a more grounded understanding.

Stage Three: Seeing Water in the Glass
While reading these topics this summer, I noticed that I was understanding the presented words and concepts in a very practical, functional manner, stripped of any unconscious intention to imbue or apply or interpret any sort of mystical perspective. I only noticed this in hindsight when I reflected on the mental links I was making and the understandings I was arriving at.

And so, at this point, I've got a plethora of notes and a bibliography fitting a graduate term paper. My goal now is to slowly think all this through and develop a few different articles; practical, functional, grounded articles on topics that are typically treated with a mystical brushstroke.

You may ask, "Has this research helped your Wujifa Zhan Zhuang practice?" To this, I must answer, "No". At this point, I don't believe that having the viewpoint I now have of these topics contributes to developing the physical skill sets of Wujifa. Physical skills sets must be developed with physical practice. Conversely as I said above, it is actually the practice of and exposure to Wujifa that has contributed to the view I now have of these topics.

Stay tuned. I'm not done writing just yet...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Holding To Routines: Journal Notes #104

Notes from my July 2012 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 teach with questions?
Answer: Because the "question and answer" format shows how students' brains work as they develop. It shows where your focus is. It shows your intention.

* Question: Can you check my stance to see if I'm doing correctly what I learned in last class?
Answer: Show me. (Reminder of what I was shown):
  1. Arch your lower back to give you the "kua in" feeling. This is a faux "kua in" because you did not attain "kua in" with relax.
  2. Relax the lower belly just above the pubic bone and feel the kua move in deeper.
  3. Now relax the lower back and butt muscles, let the femur heads roll forward. Slide the knees forward with maybe bow slightly forward on the hip joint.
  4. Check the belly again. Is it still relaxed? Is the kua still in?
  5. Drop the chest.
The key is that the hips should always remain over the ankles. Your tendency is to roll back off-line as you roll your hips so you need to shift forward to keep the femur heads over the ankles.

* Question: As I walk around during the day, I feel like I'm letting go of the lower back as I step out. I feel this more with the right side and not so much with the left side. I used to call this feeling "pain" and avoid it but now I've slowly gotten comfortable with this feeling and now I'm calling it "stretch". What I used to avoid and hold against feeling, I am now aiming for. So the question I'm working with when I practice is, How can I get this feeling of stretch in stance because I've only felt it when walking?
Answer: Show me what you're doing. (I get into stance and demonstrate.) You're tucking. You're using tension in front to feel the stretch in back.

Me: I don't feel that I'm tucking. I only notice feeling a strong stretch in back.

Instructor: As you're standing with the stretch in the lower back feeling, use your fingers and push in just above the pubic bone. It should be soft even when you feel a relaxed stretch through the back. And the pubic bone should not rise when the lower back goes down.

If you simply let your flesh hang, this will give you a truer stretch than using tension.

Here's a guidepost: If the pubic bone rises when you relax the back, then you are tucking. That said, the pubic bone may move a fraction due to where the hinge point of the hip is between front and back.

Me: Darn! I thought I was making some progress re-framing the feeling from "don't let go, holding and painful" to "letting go, stretch".

Instructor: If you were just beginning, I'd say this is good but you're not a beginner. Can you notice without preconceived ideas? Your resulting data will be skewed when you approach a feeling with preconceived ideas. When you label a feeling, it's like you're putting it in a box; first, the "pain box", and now the "stretch box". What's next? What are you going to label it after "stretch"?

Instead of labeling feelings, how about simply feel? Simply notice what is there. Notice what you are doing and notice the result you get.
* Practice note: I went home and practiced stance in front of a mirror and recreated this feeling of stretch in the lower back. With my clothes on, I could not see what I was told. After undressing, I could easily see in the mirror how the front muscles are tightening. Not so much the surface abdominals as the muscles deeper inside the pelvis. When I jamb my fingers into the front sides of the pelvic crests, I can feel these muscles engage.

* Question: How do I find stillness in stance (referring to last month's class where you guys felt and noticed my back muscles twitching and not relaxed)?
Answer: What do you mean by stillness? There are stages of stillness developing. Beginners either move excessively or they are stiff like a dead post. Asking a student to relax, whatever form it takes, is a form of stillness for them. Calming the mind is a form of stillness.

* Question: Is it possible to practice point-to-point alone? For example, can I push against a wall or the top part of a door where the bottom is against the door stop (so there is a little play in the top part)?
Answer: Do not use a wall because there is no push back. The door has push back but you'll do it wrong. You could use a small tree because it is alive and connected to the ground but you've got to play real light like just barely touching.

* Question: Is point-to-point a necessary method for everyone to train?
Answer: It depends on your purpose. Point-to-point can be used to help discover where tension is in the body. It can be used to help refine connections. The problem arises when using it as a method to practice beyond your current capabilities.

* In the July 29 class, we learned a few new perturbation exercises with the wobble discs and theraband. These are adjunctive exercises which are not recommended until you can perform the basics and you've had your performance of the basics validated. If you cheat in the basics or do them wrong, then you will cheat in these adjunctive exercises or do them wrong as well.

* Question: What about the warm-up exercises like the Wujifa Hip Swivels? Are these adjunctive exercises too?
Answer: Yes. But you need something to do for warm-ups. Even though these appear simple, without a qualified Wujifa instructor, it is easy to do these wrong too.

* Comparing my performance of these new adjunctive exercises on the wobble discs to a school brother's, I tend to try to control my balance instead of allowing the perturbation to run through my body as he does.

* If you are trying to control, then you're going to work hard and be too slow - it takes time to implement a control plan. This occurs at the milli-second level. When you feel connection and you aim to maintain connection under perturbation, then where there are breaks or spaces, then you will automatically be able to connect. This occurs at the nano-second level.

* Remember, the micro-level is what shows up in the body. The macro-level is what shows up in daily life. From the micro, you can see the macro and vice versa. This kind of perturbation can show that if you are stuck in a routine, you may be disconnected from the flow. However, if you are connected to the flow, you may be able to vary your routine according to conditions.

* Do all your core and adjunctive exercises with weight in quads. Most people think their legs are getting stronger when they don't feel the weight in their legs but in reality, they are cheating and not progressing in relaxing to allow more and more weight to drop into their legs. Relaxing and dropping, and getting the burning feeling in your legs is not a one time goal but rather, is an ongoing process.

* Note: I went back for my sixth set of three Rolfing sessions during this month. Focused on really working the ankles. The last session "cured" my problem with the right foot arch collapsing as I step onto that foot. The arch doesn't collapse as it used to.

* I went for an Active Release Technique massage therapy session which seems like a blend of Physical Therapy manipulations and Swedish massage. (In my experience with Physical Therapy, the therapist does not do massage.) The therapist worked on the tight muscles in my hips and pelvis. He recommended particular stretches to target these muscles.

* My daily practice journal for July shows I'm standing 10-20 minutes every other day with some 30-40 minute sessions. I've been working on and noticing more distinction between the feeling of "kua in" and "kua out".

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Learning From Myself: Journal Notes #103
Next article in this series: - Working the Lower Back: Journal Notes #105

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Martial Arts and the Olympics

During this 2012 Olympic season, I learned about a side of the ancient Greek Olympics that might make some of today's martial arts fighters think twice before entering that kind of Olympic competition.

VFW Magazine Aug 2012 coverThe August 2012 edition of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) magazine has an amazing article by Katherine Dawson titled: 'Victory or Death': Ancient Olympic Sports.

As I read this well referenced article, I was surprised by how violent some of the ancient Olympic games were especially when looking through the lens of today's Olympic sporting events!

Katherine writes, "Unlike the modern jock of today, ancient athletes had to harden their bodies for the brutality of potentially life-threatening contests... Some events reached a point where states found it necessary to immunize athletes from laws against committing homicide when opponents were accidentally killed." (pg 20)

According to this article, some of the ancient "games" could be mortal contests where contestants exercised and developed their military combat skills on the field of sport.

Contrast this with the current popular understanding of the Olympics as promoted at the official website of the Olympics which alludes to the ancient games as being a peaceful event associated with religious festivals and which "aimed to show the physical qualities and evolution of the performances accomplished by young people..."

Clearly there has been a shift in purpose over the centuries as well as what seems to be a whitewashing of that portion of Olympic history!

And yet, the summer Olympics do retain events that are both remnants of former combat arts as well as events of modern martial arts: archery, boxing, fencing, javelin throw, Judo, shooting, Taekwondo, and wrestling.

Here's the link to 'Victory or Death': Ancient Olympic Sports. See pages pages 18-24.

And here are the references cited in this article:
Ancient Olympics: A History by Nigel Spivey. Oxford University Press. 2012
Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence and Culture by Michael Poliakoff. Yale University. 1987
Sport and Society in Ancient Greece by Mark Golden. Cambridge University Press. 1998
The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years by H.W. Pleket.. Chatto & Windrus Ltd. 1976
Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World by Donald Kyle. Wiley Blackwell. 2007
The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games by Tony Perrottet. Random House. 2004
The Ancient Olympic Games by Judith Swaddling. University of Texas Press. 2008
Athletics of the Ancient World by E. Norman Gardiner. Dover Publications. 2002
Sport in the Ancient World from A to Z by Mark Golden. Routledge. 2004
More Than Just a Game: The Military Nature of Greek Athletic Contests by Nancy Reed. Ares Publishers. 1998
Greek Athletes and Athletics by H.A. Harris. Greenwood Press. 1979

Monday, August 6, 2012

Learning From Myself: Journal Notes #103

Notes from my June 2012 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.)

* My journal entry of June 19 says: I haven't practiced zhan zhuang since April 3rd. I've only been doing some of the Wujifa adjunctive exercises and my Tai-chi form. However, I think I've hit a turning point with this intestinal problem recently. My body seems to be transitioning back to what was normal for me.

* My daily practice log shows 10-20 minutes zhan zhuang practice every other or every third day through June. Sometimes in the morning. Sometimes in the evening. Nothing consistent. Previously, I was trying to keep a practice log at the recommendation of my instructor but I didn't really have my heart into it. Something has changed recently. Now I want to write something in my personal practice log every day.

* Even though I went to Wujifa class as usual throughout June, I was not really interested in attending nor did I take any notes.

* I spent some time reviewing some of my old blog postings. I am amazed at what I've written! Re-reading my older postings has given me some insights. I feel like I've got a clearer understanding of what I want and need to do.
(Learning from myself in this way is new territory for me...)

* Questions that came up for me during one of my mini- practice sessions this month:
  1. How can I shift my spirit? How can I get into a new "space" and not slip back into the mood I was in for the past few months?
  2. How can I change my view to see the process instead of the points in the process; how to develop a process view instead of a thing view?

* When practicing the rubber band exercise one day, I noticed a kind of fullness feeling on the inhale which extends into my arms and then which recedes on the exhale.

* I went for a massage therapy session. When I asked the therapist to tell me what he was noticing and feeling, he said noticed that my spinus erectus is not abnormally tight but the underlying muscles are tight. As he worked my hips and thighs, he noticed that my psoas is tight which he says is likely pulling on L1-L2 which is accounts for the tightness of the underlying muscles of my spine: tightening against the tension of the psoas. He also noted the quads in my left leg are "bunched" near the top of the leg.
(From his reporting, I got a much clearer understanding of the kinetic chain. The issue it seems is not just that one muscle is tight, or that an emotional trauma may tense one or a group of muscles, though, this may be true. What I understand now is that the tension of one muscle can cause another muscle to tense in reaction, and another, etc.. in a chain-like fashion. This kind of pattern of chronic tension can lead to fascial adhesions which "glues" these muscle fibers in place reducing the plasticity or "sung" of the body.)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Not Practicing: Journal Notes #102
Next article in this series: - Holding To Routines: Journal Notes #104