Monday, July 30, 2012

Not Practicing: Journal Notes #102

Notes from my May 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 been training since April 4. This intestinal problem and other daily life stressors continue to sap my energy and willpower to do anything.

* At the May 14th Wujifa class, while our instructor is standing in front of my school brother and adjusting his stance...
Me: Hey, I can see a break in the connection through the hips and kua.

Instructor: The break is due to the arch in his back.

Me: Do you know the front because of the back?

Instructor: I see the whole and you are seeing parts trying to discern the whole.

Me: So are there different levels of seeing? Do you begin by seeing parts first and then at higher levels you can see the whole?

Instructor: You tend to focus too narrowly. Don't focus so narrowly. Look globally. What do you see?

Me: Wow! It's as if I can see through him and I see how his tight back is affecting his front. It's like having some kind of three dimensional x-ray vision. I've never seen this way before!

* Regarding my stance. I still have tension above the pubic bone and in each kua. Less than before, but still some there. I need to continue releasing these.

* In class, we worked on my stance a little, showing me a different way to help me to feel how to get my kua more relaxed and "in":
  1. Get into the standard Wujifa zhan zhuang stance. Then simultaneously, thrust your chest up and forward, hyper arch your back by leaning slightly forward and sticking your butt as far up and back as possible, and relax your belly.

    Put your hands in your pants pockets and feel the muscles under your pockets - the inguinal crease. Feel how the muscles are soft and in. This is the feeling you are aiming for.
  2. While maintaining the chest up and butt back, pivot on the femur head and lean your entire torso slightly backward. Keep the inguinal crease soft. Stretch the lower abdominal to pubis so that it stays relaxed and soft. Get a positional release in front so you don't engage the front to tuck.

    In this second step, the softness of your inguinal crease is your bio-feedback device. If you feel the muscles under your fingers activating, then start over because you're doing it wrong.

  3. Simultaneously, slide the knees forward as you slowly release the arch as if sitting down. Then bow forward slightly and maintain the softness in the inguinal crease. You should feel that the kua (inguinal crease) goes in more as your back straightens.

    In this third step, a typical problem is that the muscles under the fingers get taut which means you are engaging your abdominal muscles; you are "tucking". Notice that this level of tucking is much more subtle and deceptive than what most people practice. Finally, the soft/in feeling should feel like a kind of "sucking-in" feeling at the kua as you adjust from #1 to #3.

    (I found this method to be very helpful in terms of giving me a way to feel, albeit with my fingers, where I lack the ability to feel my internal kinesthetics, and in terms of calibrating where I'm losing the soft/in feeling in my kua.)
* What I notice as a result when practicing this new method is that my left knees clicks and pops. Without having the sensitivity to know for sure what is causing these noises, my hunch is that muscles on one side of my knee are relaxing against tight muscles on the other side or muscles on both sides are going through a cycle of relaxing and tightening which is causing the joint to shift slightly; just enough to cause the clicking and popping noise. So while I'm elated to develop this further deeper relaxation, I'm also scared that I may in some way be hurting my bad knee which has not been a problem in my daily life living all these 35+ years.
(Note: I seriously injured my left knee during high school and within months of the injury, a torn miniscus was surgically removed. As I've learned in more recent years particularly with Rolfing, is that my body compensated for the injury. In fact, my right knee had become problematic, probably as a result of this compensation. As I untwist and relax my structure, I'm cautiously mindful of the effects on this knee.)

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Training Submission:Journal Notes #101
Next article in this series: - Learning From Myself: Journal Notes #103

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wujifa Learning Through Questions

Learn Wujifa through asking questions. What questions should you ask? That is a very good first question!

In all the public martial arts classes and seminars that I've attended, students act primarily as empty vessels into which the teacher pours selected and measured amounts of information and skill sets. I believe this is an appropriate format for the purpose of acquiring information and mechanical skills.

However, in my experience, this kind of "mechanical skill acquisition mindset" is not the most suitable when it comes to developing internal, feeling, non-mechanical skills.

In Wujifa, we are encouraged to develop the mindset of a scientist where my body-mind is simultaneously the researcher, research subject, and development project. Given this orientation, students are expected to come to class prepared to present the questions they are working on.

Questions are the medium through which you convey where you are in your training.

Rodin statue of The ThinkerFor example, when I was interested in gathering data, my questions lacked feeling and were generally disassociated from the functional kinesthetics of my body. As I shifted from data to feeling, my questions became more grounded in my internal kinesthetic experience.

Over the years, I've learned how this orientation shows up in questions on a couple levels. Of course there is the lexical expression of the question itself. However, behind or underneath the lexical component is the feeling or intention driving the question. It is this aspect that may reveal more of the person asking the question and thus convey an entirely different issue than the question itself conveys!

For example, when I ask a question, in the course of answering that question, I may discover how that answer answered three other questions. How? The intention that inspired each question was essentially the same. Learning to recognize that in itself as well as learning how that same intention shows up in my body-mind patterning often provides huge training insights!

In terms of where I am now, I still have not fully developed the scientist mindset. Even though I've made progress transitioning from the "empty vessel" model on which I was raised, I'm still largely stuck in a "closed-loop" diagnosis mindset: What's the problem and what do I need to do to fix it? Unfortunately, this mindset is not suited for curiously exploring an "open-loop" development like internal strength.

Curious about what other people had to say about questions, I searched on-line "Quote" sites. Of the many quotes about questions that I found, here are 15 of my favorites that speak most directly to me about my experience in using questions to learn internal strength in the Wujifa system.

Disclaimer: The various sites from which I copied these quotes do not reference the original work or context in which the quote appeared. As such, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these quotes nor the attribution. For my purpose here, the meaning is of primary value.

If you're curious what kinds of questions are asked in Wujifa class, take a look through some of the entries at my Zhan Zhuang Journal page.

And if you have a great quote about questions that pertain to your internal martial arts training, feel free to share it here!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
  1. The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he's one who asks the right questions. Claude Lévi-Strauss (French anthropologist and ethnologist, 1908-2009)
  2. A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions--as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all. Friedrich Nietzsche (German philosopher, 1844-1900)
  3. We hear only those questions for which we are in a position to find answers. Friedrich Nietzsche (German philosopher, 1844-1900)
  4. Judge of a man by his questions rather than by his answers. Voltaire (French author, humanist, rationalist, & satirist, 1694-1778)
  5. A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea. John Anthony Ciardi (American poet, 1916-1986)
  6. We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself. Lloyd Alexander (American author, 1904-2007)
  7. The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. Adolf Augustus Berle Jr. (lawyer, educator, author, 1895-1971)
  8. It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. Eugene Ionesco (Romanian and French playwright. Decouvertes, 1909-1994)
  9. Before you wonder, 'Am I doing things right,' ask, 'Am I doing the right things?' Stephen Covey (American educator, author, motivational speaker, 1932-2012)
  10. Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer. William S. Burroughs (American novelist, 1914-1997)
  11. Questions focus our thinking. Charles Connolly (unknown)
  12. Knowing the question is the first step to knowing the answer. Zen proverb (unknown)
  13. The one real object of education is to have a man in the condition of continually asking questions. Mandell Creighton (Bishop of the Church of England, 1843-1901)
  14. I do not pretend to start with precise questions. I do not think you can start with anything precise. You have to achieve such precision as you can, as you go along. Bertrand Russell (British philosoper, 1872-1970)
  15. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Albert Einstein (German physicist, 1879-1955)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Training Submission: Journal Notes #101

Notes from my April 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've become aware that I don't have the sensitivity to feel individual muscles. I don't notice which muscles engage when they don't need to. I need to develop further sensitivity so I can feel which muscles are being used and when. This idea came from one Wujifa class where I stood in zhuang and my instructor and school brother laid their hands on my lower back and kua and noticed my muscles twitching; were not still, calm, relaxed. When I laid my hands on my instructor's lower back and kua, his muscles were calm and soft. I have muscles "firing" all over the place and I am not feeling it.

* We were talking about different students and their attitudes towards training in Wujifa class and...
Question: So what quality makes the best student; one that follows the prescribed training regimen and doesn't make the instructor crazy bringing a lot of other ideas into the practice (and then complains that there's no progress)?
Answer: If you don't begin training with submission, with surrendering, then you can't learn. If you begin with #4 and not #1, then you begin to see but you don't address what you see and so learning is hampered. When you begin with #1 and progress to #4, then you address issues as you progress and finally see.

(Hmmm.... In my own practice, how much do I want to use force to get a result that is within my range to notice instead of quietly waiting, observing with intention, submitting to simply noticing, and then acting on what I notice... ?)

* Question: What are you talking about #1 and #4?
Answer: There is a built-in philosophical aspect to the second set of the Wujifa zhan zhuang structural alignment method: 1,2,3,4 - 1,2,3,4
  1. Inguinal crease in. You can get the inguinal crease in by hyper-arching the back and sticking the butt out in a submissive posture. You must submit to receive. This is the first thing that is needed to be built-in but is often the most overlooked. To submit means to be open and not closed and yet not pushed around. Being able to submit means being able to see possibilities which allows more freedom of movement.
  2. Back down. With the inguinal crease in, then relax and drop the lower back. This builds a foundation for the backbone. Experiencing your backbone in this way gives you strength and courage to stand up to challenges and hold true to tough decisions.
  3. Sternum down. While keeping the spine straight, drop the chest without hunching from the back. This allows the rib heads to loosen and allows the front and back door of your heart to bring more "spirit" and "heart" into your practice.
  4. Head up and back. This allows you to keep your mind clear so you can follow intention and see clearly. The neck must be relaxed and not stiff-necked as this will block out the eyes. A stiff neck, a military neck (back and up creates tension) makes it good for obeying orders. Conversely, neck up and back allows the muscles and occiput to open which allows you to think for yourself and follow your own intuition.
* My core zhan zhuang training was on-and-off before Cook Ding's 2012 Lenten Challenge which was February 22 - April 7. For the Lenten Challenge, I committed to and stood zhan zhuang nearly every day. However, after that, I caved in to a some daily life stressors and I lost the willpower to continue training. So... now at the end of April, I haven't been doing any of the core zhan zhuang training since April 3rd.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Finally! The Beginning: Journal Notes #100
Next article in this series: - Not Practicing: Journal Notes #102

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tai Chi Research

Most research on Tai-chi Chuan is based on the assumption that there is "something" inherent in the Tai-chi form itself which manifests health improvements in its practitioners. I believe that this position is flawed and perpetuating this belief in a research setting is bad science.

Tai-chi is recognized in the exercise market by its slow-motion movement. To my knowledge, there are no other slow-motion movement exercise routines. And to me, this is the central problem confronting Tai-chi research!

As seasoned internal martial art practitioners will tell you, not all slow-motion movement is Tai-chi and not all Tai-chi is slow-motion movement.

Most Tai-chi that is taught and practiced these days is nothing more than a slow-motion, choreographed dance or exercise routine; lacking the "internal" component.

For most people, it is primarily the variable of "movement speed" which differentiates Tai-chi from other exercises. And so, comparing Tai-chi to other exercises is like the proverbial "comparing apples and oranges". There is no basis for comparison.

Therefore, to properly compare Tai-chi to similar exercises where none exist, then similar exercises must be created. This is easily done by isolating the attributes of movement found in Tai-chi movement: slow-motion, flowing, soft/relaxed, and then creating a choreographed dance or exercise routine guided by these attributes.

If researchers were then to compare a popular Tai-chi routine to one of these independently developed, slow-motion, choreographed exercise routines, would there be any difference in the clinical variable being studied? I suggest that there would be no difference because it is not the particular Tai-chi form per se but rather one or more of the attributes that produces the noticeable results.

Once the individual movement attributes are isolated, another research question arises: What is the effect on the variable being studied when one or more of these movement attributes are modified? What is the result when slow movement is interspersed with fast movement; flowing movement is interspersed with choppy movement; soft/relaxed interspersed with tension? Is it only the synergistic combination of these movement attributes that yield the observed result or does one attribute play a more dominant or significant role than the others?

Maybe it is not "Tai-chi" that yields the various health benefits but rather moving with less muscular tension or moving with more awareness. If this proved to be the case, it may then be possible to develop more effective or functional exercise mediums so the patient doesn't have to acquire the entire Tai-chi "package" to garner a particular benefit.

Some researchers have suggested that it is not possible to do double-blind in mind-body experiments involving Tai-chi. I disagree. Insofar as the typical Tai-chi routine is comparable to a slow-motion, choreographed dance routine, the sham or "placebo Tai-chi" would be an independently developed slow-motion dance or exercise routine.

Because the general population now tends to identify any slow motion, choreographed movement as being "Tai-chi, it should be rather easy to set-up a double-blind Tai-chi study where group "A" would learn a popular Tai-chi form and group "B" would learn the "placebo Tai-chi" form mentioned above.

I think that until Tai-chi research gets to the point of isolating and testing particular attributes in other "forms", attributes that are currently bundled in Tai-chi, then "science" is acting as little more than an ad campaign for this very complex and little understood art.

Finally, I have written the above based on my survey of Tai-chi research studies to date. If I've missed something, please let me know.

Further reading:

You can find research on Tai-chi by doing a search on Tai-chi at Pub Med.

Maybe it's all placebo? (August 24, 2010) by Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., Director, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, sharing her thoughts on the NEJM Fibromyalgia study that had just been published. Here's a portion of her comment:

"Tai chi is one CAM practice that clearly illustrates the challenge of conducting clinical research in CAM. As an accompanying editorial in NEJM notes, it is a complex intervention involving multiple components: exercise, breathing, meditation, relaxation, and a practitioner. How do you control for all of these variables when designing a study? Some CAM proponents will say that it is the combination that makes the intervention work; many conventional researchers will say you must isolate the components to identify the active “ingredient.” Critics will say it all just the placebo effect—you expect the intervention to work, and so it does."

The magazine, "Inside Kung-fu" posted an article by Dan Ferber titled, As Minds Open, Taiji and Qigong Gain Ground in Western Medicine: An Interview with Master Yang Yang, Ph.D (I think this was posted around February 2011). While this interview covers a lot of ground, here are a few notable quotes that I think express the core points:
"The written and oral tradition of taiji emphasizes that sitting and standing meditation (wuji) is the starting point for efficient taiji practice. You have to learn how to relax your mind and body in stillness before you can relax in form movement. You have to learn how to relax in form movement before you can relax while perturbed during push-hands.

Perhaps the most well-known saying in the internal martial art tradition of China is: lian quan bu lian gong, dao lao yi chang kung. (If you practice form, but not qigong, even if you practice your whole life, your art will be empty.) Very few research studies to date have mentioned this essential aspect of traditional taiji practice. The researchers and possibly the taiji instructors themselves are not yet sufficiently aware of this core tradition of the internal arts."

"The vast majority of taiji research studies to date, Dr. Yang said, have involved testing subjects who underwent only form training. This omits a crucial and once-secret part of traditional taiji training - the standing, sitting and lying-down qigong practice that builds internal energy and gong. When researchers omit this essential practice, they cannot investigate the full benefits of the art."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Finally! The Beginning: Journal Notes #100

Notes from my March 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: Regarding stretching the theraband, I found I was using too much muscle and so switched to holding a section of rope to eliminate the intention of stretching what I'm holding. Is this OK to do?

Answer: No. The rope has no "give" to it. Look! I did the experiment and got results. I shared the experiment with you so you can replicate and validate the results. Don't change the experiment (from therband to rope) and expect to get the same results.

Instructor: (He then cut a little rubber band and gave it to me.) Here. Pull this.

Me: I locked out my arms as I learned in last month's class and held the rubber band. I found that when I breathed, the breathing action stretched the rubber band.

Because the tension of the rubber band was so much lighter than even the lightest theraband, the only muscle I needed to use was to hold up my arms. I didn't need to engage any additional muscles to pull that little rubber band.

By allowing only the breathing action to pull that little rubber band, I was able to feel the fascial stretch running through my arms and back. Very subtle!

(It had been many months of hearing, "You're using too much muscle." and repeatedly scaling down to less stretch tension. When I finally found a tension where I could do the exercise correctly, I was pleased. Remember, the phrase: You are where you are and that's where you start." It took me a while to discover where I was. So now I can begin working at the level at which I am capable of training correctly.)

* Question: I first did the "swingset exercise" ten years ago and occasionally since then and I still have tense shoulders. Why?

Answer: The way you trained this exercise ten years ago is not the way you should train it now. Show me. (I demonstrate using a rope tied to the ceiling.) Ten years ago, your purpose was to begin feeling into your shoulder. Today, you should be refining your level of relax and feeling sensitivity in your shoulder.

Try this. Position your feet in a normal Wujifa zhan zhuang stance with your arms hanging straight at your side. Now, pivoting only on the shoulder, raise your right arm in front of you until your arm is parallel with the floor. Notice how many muscles you used to raise your arm. Feel your shoulder complex.

Now, begin with your right arm extended in front of you, parallel to the floor and let your right elbow rest on something, for example, your left hand, or your training partner. Allow your shoulder and deltoid muscles to relax. Then, slowly lower the support from under the elbow. Notice the deltoid muscles engaging. Repeat supporting and slowly removing support and figure out how to use the minimum amount of muscle needed to hold the arm up.

Once you get a feel for this, then let your right arm hang at your side and raise it in front of you until your arm is parallel with the floor. What do you notice is different this time?

Isolate simple movements and discover the minimum muscle needed to perform a movement. Retrain your neuro-pathways one simple movement at a time.

(This was a really instructive exercise. How can I re-pattern the muscles that I habitually use to using only the minimum muscles needed to raise my arm? To get up out of the chair? To stand in zhan zhuang?

Which reminds me... I was at a seminar once where I laid on a bedsheet on the floor. The other participants, by lifting the bedsheet, raised me into a standing position. For a few moments, I experienced a completely different way of standing - I had not used my normal muscle movement pattern to stand myself up. I learned that I don't need to engage all the muscles I habitually use to remain standing.

Darn! I had forgotten this lesson!)

* I use more muscle than needed to hold up and move my body under no-load conditions. It's as if I'm always responding to being under a load - I habitually engage more muscle than I need to simply move without load. Because I do this, I need to learn how to relax.

(I had an insightful discussion with my instructor the other day. Not everyone needs to learn how to relax. Practitioners who are tense, need to learn relax. Practitioners who are limp need to learn how to "firm up". There are a variety of neuro-emotional-muscular patterns and to find "the way" for you depends on your particular pattern.

Maybe it's the case that tension forms a dominant pattern, hence, why "relax" is such a popular mantra?)

* My school brother noticed that when I'm focusing on stance, then my muscles are dancing a lot and when I'm distracted, that is when I'm not focusing so much on my body, then my body calms down.

* Question: I'm frustrated that I don't know the labels of emotional feelings when I'm asked to label a feeling, as in, "What are you feeling?" Do you have any tips on how I can develop this internally?

Answer: You've mentioned many times about having a constant internal dialogue, the "monkey mind". In terms of the Audio/Visual/Kinesthetic (AVK) elements, your primary representative system is audio and you're expressing your body's feelings in dialogue. Because making pictures (visual) is not your primary rep system, you could practice visualizing or making pictures of your feelings without the dialogue. Then, move your pictures into kinesthetic and notice the feeling of your pictures.

* There's a difference between pushing yourself and finding joy in training the same simple exercises. The difference is trying to get to a more advanced level vs. working to find and understand the depth of a simple feeling. In my case, I still want to get to the advanced level. I want to be "good at X". I am still not content to find and understand the depth of a simple exercise that is designed to help me find the feeling.

(And so until I really understand that progress comes through the joy in discovering the depth of a single, simple exercise, until I really understand that, until I stop wanting to get something, then I think that I will continue to struggle with practice and I will continue feeding the very tension I'm ostensibly trying to reduce and let go of.)

* Question: I'm thinking of writing a blog article to try to explain how fascial movement is different from coordinated muscle movement. I wonder if the graphic I developed is an accurate representation. What do you think?

Answer: We had a long discussion about the relation between levels of muscular coordination and levels of fascial connection and how these can come to be expressed in fascial body movement. In the end, my instructor sketched a graphic that really clarified for me what I was trying to understand.

three circle overlap of structure, fascial stretch, and coordinated movement
* Question: Is it true that ground path is about having the skeletal bones in good alignment, where the bones carry the load?
Answer: The bone path is wrong. The load is not carried by the bones. The load is carried by the fascia. Read books by Buckminster Fuller and books on Tensegrity. The load is carried by the softer elements that connect the harder elements. The load is carried by fascia which connects bones.

(This is so counter-intuitive to me. I wonder if my mental constructs of bone-path is playing a part in interfering with my ability to develop fascial pathways?)

* For now, I need to practice simply swinging my arms (relax and move shoulder) and flick my fingers at the end of each arc. (Focusing on the fingers is the distraction to not put too much attention on the shoulder.) Don't engage muscles in front when raising arms. Keep relaxed and soft. After doing this, and keeping shoulders back and scapula in, then raise arms and hold rubber band and breathe. Feel what shows up. Do not pull the rubber band with breathing. Notice the most subtle feeling that is happening as you breathe a full chest breath.

* I've been told that I'm not noticing what is plainly showing up in my body because I'm paying attention to something else.
(Reminds me of that old joke. A guy is searching the ground under a street lamp. Another guy approaches him and asks,
"What are you looking for?"
"I dropped my car keys."
"Where did you drop them?"
"Over there."
"Then why are you looking here?"
"Because the light is better."

I think I'm in the habit of looking where the light is instead of looking where the feeling is showing up.)
Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Zhan Zhuang Training Conundrum: Journal Notes #99
Next article in this series: - Training Submission: Journal Notes #101

Monday, July 9, 2012

Zhan Zhuang Training Conundrum: Journal Notes #99

Notes from my February 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: Is there a difference between forms of relax? For example, relax in zhan zhuang vs. relax in ward off while receiving a push?
Answer: Chronic tensions and conditioned emotional-neuro-muscular responses are a type of pattern. In the solo stance practice "zhan zhuang", you learn to relax under static, no-load conditions. In "ward off", you are under a dynamic load and the way the body reacts to an incoming force uses a different patterning. Therefore, learning to relax under load is different from learning to relax under no load. The skill of learning to relax in a no-load condition like during zhan zhuang practice is the foundation to learning how to relax under load.

* Wiggling around the stuck spots without feeling and relaxing the stuck spot, (as seen in the "limp-noodle" style of push hands), will not lead to "sung" nor to a better root because this is a method of resistance, of avoiding facing the issue. The lesson to learn is how do I relax and let go and feel vulnerable and in that emotional feeling of allowing and vulnerability, to notice and feel how the musculature may respond in kind and then find a new way that requires less force and maintains structure so the incoming energy cam move through the structure.

* "When one part moves, all parts move" does not mean that all parts are frozen together into one part. It means all parts are free to move on their own and each part has movement freedom. There are no sticky spots, no holding. This also does not mean to be wiggly or wet/limp noodle like movement because in doing so, you could be frozen in one part of the noodle and wiggle around the frozen part.

* Question: What's the difference between not training and taking a break?
Answer: The difference lies in the underlying intention or purpose. Why are you not training? Why are you taking a break? You can fool yourself. You might say you are taking a break but do you know why? Did you encounter something in training that you don't want to face or go through? Is your zhan zhuang practice getting too intense for you?

Not training to avoid or ignore an issue is different from recognizing what the issue is and taking functional steps to work on that issue before resuming training. When you take a break, you may be revitalizing your reserves, building a base, preparing for more intense training. This would be an effective, purposeful break. There is a difference between being scared or lazy and taking an effective break.

Suffice it to say, most people stop training because they are scared or lazy or both.

* Question: In Wujifa, there are a lot of exercises to help develop the feeling of fascial stretch. If I only practice these various exercises and not zhan zhuang, does this still count as training?
Answer: The first question is, why would you want to not practice zhan zhuang? But yes, there are two kinds of training: core training and adjunctive training.

Core training is dedicated time when you practice zhan zhuang and other exercises.

Adjunctive training is practice you do throughout the day in those moments where you have an opportunity to be mindful.

If you engage in adjunctive practices 20 times a day and you don't do any core practice, then 20 x 0 = 0. Adjunctive practice alone does not help you improve.

If you practice core exercises 2 times and adjunctive 5 times, then 2 x 5 = 10. Adjunctive exercises used with core exercises become a multiplier.

However, many people use adjunctive training as an exercise to avoid core training and as a result, don't make much progress. The bottom line is, What's your purpose? Do you want to change and grow or not? A lot of people miss this.

(While the above looks at Core and Adjunctive Training in terms of dedicated time and moments of practice throughout the day respectively, here is another way to think about core and adjunctive training:

Result LevelPrimary ExerciseSecondary Exercise
Best ResultZhan ZhuangWujifa exercises to develop feeling of fascial connection
Mediocre ResultWujifa exercises to develop feeling of fascial connectionMindful throughout day
Poor ResultMindful throughout daynone

* Here's a zhan zhuang training conundrum: If we have trouble feeling, then we tighten to feel. We can't feel because what we need to feel is tense.

(This is the area where I'm getting stuck. I can feel some fascial connection but it is so much more subtle (to me now) than muscular contraction and when I'm receiving force (to test my peng), my system is overwhelmed and I don't feel my subtle fascial connection feeling and so I unconsciously resort to muscle tension which I can feel and because I can feel something, I then think that what I'm feeling must be fascial connection, but alas, it is not.

You are where you are and that's where you start. Here's what I've learned...

If when you want to test your peng and the incoming force overwhelms your ability to ground the force through your fascial connection, and you bring muscular force on line to compensate for a lack of fascial connection, then you are fooling yourself.

It is better to assume your peng is weaker than you want to believe it is and really be mindful of when your fledgling peng is overwhelmed and stop there. Often, pride and ego will trick you into going further than you are currently capable of going. Learning where you are is a huge lesson! Bringing muscular force on line when you test your peng is a bad habit to get into because doing so does not help you break the pattern of relying on muscular force. Practice according to your level.)

* I still have too much movement in the kua when practicing stance. I need to practice having more stillness in and through my kua.

* After months of trying the theraband exercise and continually being told I'm using too much muscle, in this class we worked on helping me to do this exercise in a way that helped me get the feeling I should be looking for.
  1. Shoulders down and back.
  2. Elbows down and locked.
  3. Hands palm down. (My palms down tends to pull my elbow out - probably due to sticky points or tension)
  4. Using the lightest theraband, pull and hold a slight tension.
  5. Breath into the chest up and out to the sides.
The purpose of the set-up so far is to isolate the movement to feel the feeling of fascial stretch while breathing.

I notice that my chest movement is driving the movement of the arms pulling on the theraband and I noticed a feeling stretch through the arms. Then once I got the feeling, then I could relax the arms and continue feeling the fascial stretch.

I commented that the feeling I noticed is subtle and not distinctly definable. There were no "fireworks"; nothing that just popped out as really unusual, distinct, unique feeling. I can't think of a way to describe the feeling of fascial stretch other than, subtle.

* Practicing the theraband stretch, I don't know if I'm getting the feel. I know feeling changes. I'm being careful to identify and not use muscle to isolate movement to breathing.

* Training insight. I've never been able to find nor has anyone ever explained to me the mechanical process of how relaxing leads to internal strength. Here's what I understand of the process now:
  1. I began with a lot of muscular tension and a vague "mind" disembodiment.
  2. Relax is a method to draw my attention and awareness into my body.
  3. A simple, static posture like zhan zhuang is key to getting the mind to focus inside the body to the level of relax detail needed.
  4. The process of embodying the mind and relaxing contributes to re-patterning my muscular and fascial structure. (Getting Rolfing massage also helps in this repatterning.)
  5. The more I relax (remove fascial adhesions and muscular tension) equates to the more my mind is embodied in my body.
  6. Developing relax and this kind of embodied awareness is just the beginning. Having the intention to feel fascial connection is the gateway.
  7. And this is about where I am now. I've got a fair level of relax. I have an idea of intention. I see in others how this process can play out. I haven't yet found for myself the proper balance of relax and intention that is beginning of internal strength. In my intention I revert to too much muscle. I have to figure out how to express the intention of fascial connection with relax without reverting to relying on muscle.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Lessons from the Shoulder: Journal Notes #98
Next article in this series: - Finally! The Beginning: Journal Notes #100

Monday, July 2, 2012

Lessons from the Shoulder: Journal Notes #98

Notes from my January 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: Relax is not limp but is limp with structure a level of relax?
Answer: No. Being a lump or limp does not lead to balance. Balance doesn't mean only the physical balance between heel to toe even though we typically play with this level of balance in zhan zhuang practice. Balance means balance in the six directions and in daily life. Being a lump or limp kinesthetically equates to being flaccid in daily life.

* Question: What's a good method to develop proper arm movement for silk reeling?
Answer: Silk reeling is simpler and easier than you're making it. You still have many bad movement habits the main one being you're movement is still too wiggly.

Practice isolated movements and find the least amount of muscle engagement to do the movement. Use your other hand to wiggle the muscles keeping as many muscles as soft and loose as possible.

For example, practice rotating the shoulder with the upper arm both perpendicular and parallel to the ground. Also practice raising and lowering the elbow both in front of and to the side of the body.

When you reach the end point of these movements , then massage and loosen the muscles. Invest your time in really isolating and feeling the individual movements of the gleno-humeral joint. Figure out the minimal amount of muscle needed to move. Eliminate and reduce any unnecessary muscles being engaged due to habitual patterning.

After practicing just these individual movements for a couple weeks, you should be better at feeling into and understanding the workings of the shoulder joint. When you put these movements together again in the "silk reeling" form, you will have a deeper sensitivity and understanding than when you began.

* Question: I've been working to get the kua more "in" using what I'm calling "kua sticks". What do you think of this as a method to help develop the feeling of kua "in"?
Answer: Show me.

I demonstrate how I use two short broom handles, each held at one end by each hand and the other end of each placed on the inside of the respective thigh. Only the weight of my arm applies a light pressure through the stick to the inside of the thigh to aide my awareness of muscular tension/relaxation in the kua.

Instructor: Stop doing that! You're engaging too many other muscles in your effort to relax to get the kua in. You'd be better to get into stance and then tighten and relax and notice what's different.

(Even though I did learn how tight my kua was from doing this, I did stop this short-lived experiment. Since then, my instructor has shown me another method to help me feel and relax to get the kua in.)

* Question: My goal in 2012 is to double my peng. How do I measure peng or levels of peng so I know my baseline and when I achieved a doubling?
Answer: "Peng" is too big a chunk size. Break this down into a manageable chunks or easily definable steps. For example, hone your ability to distinguish relax while maintaining structure. Then the fruit of your practice is understanding what fascial stretch is.

* In class, we worked on showing me how I can raise and lower my arm without engaging other shoulder muscles. When I argued that "I can't move that way!" or "My arm doesn't move like that!", I learned that this is an example of emotional resistance to change, an example of my defending my armors. A more functional response would be, "Hey, how do you do that?" or "How can I move my arm like you move yours?"
(Since this class, I've made a real conscious effort to notice where those instances of resistance "want" to show up in class and either not express my resistance or express that I'm feeling resistance. This was a big lesson for me!)

* I watched a previous class video of a school brother trying (and failing) to ground pushes by our instructor. After our instructor corrected where he was blocking the energy of the push (tension in the shoulder and lower back) then he was able to ground the pushes while staying relaxed.

I then asked to be pushed and our instructor noticed that I was doing the same thing wrong that my school brother had been doing. One of the wonderful by-products of Wujifa practice is that we develop an ability to see holding patterns in others' bodies. And so, my school brother was able to imitate how my body was responding to the push. (Even though this is wonderfully illustrative, it is unnerving to see "me" being demonstrated.)

After seeing what I was doing "wrong", and getting corrected, I was then able to ground the push through my structure. Feeling relaxed, vulnerable and connected was stronger. Really quite amazing!

shoulder hip blocks and spine as spring
What I learned was that my spine was acting like a big coiled spring. Turning out the push energy after I'd absorbed all my system could absorb, is a bad habit I learned from external style push-hands. Don't turn! Forget all that Tai-chi crap! If I really want to get the internals, then I have to figure out how to relax and take the force to ground through my structure without bracing. I did not learn how to do this in Tai-chi push hands!
(When I learned Tai-chi push-hands nearly thirty years ago, I did not learn how to
take an incoming push and run that through my structure and fascia system to ground and at the same time be relaxed and able to move around while maintaining that connection but rather I learned how to sense and redirect my training partner's push or pull.

Many Tai-chi practitioners to this day believe that push-hands is an internal practice, however, this dermal level of sensitivity training is after all only skin deep and so is not what I now consider to be an internal practice. See my article in this blog, What Internal Strength Means to Me. And so I've come to conclude that the typical Tai-chi push hands is really an external practice.)

Relaxing my shoulder a certain way allows the force to go through. It's completely counter-intuitive but it works! Figuring out how to use the minimum muscle needed to maintain structure under load is going to be the real trick!

Moral of this lesson: Don't "give it all you can" as the saying goes. Rather, give the least you have to maintain structure.

* I don't have any or much movement across my chest. The upper chest is still largely frozen. This is another area that needs more work.

* If we consider muscle movement vs. fascial movement using a sandpaper analogy, relying on muscle tension to transmit incoming force is like using a course 60 grit sandpaper, and relying on fascial movement to transmit an incoming force is like using a fine 220 grit sandpaper.
(Both types of sandpaper are useful for their intended purpose. But you should not use a 60 grit when you need 220 grit and you should not use 220 grit when you need 60 grit. But if you only have 60 grit and you need to do a 220 grit job, well.... the results will not be pretty.

We all start out as the course 40 to 60 grit sandpaper. Through practice we may refine ourselves to the finer 220 grit sandpaper.)

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

* I learned some more HUGE lessons in this class:
  1. I had a kind of academic understanding of armor and resistance and never thought of it in such simple, straight-forward terms as I experienced today with my shoulder. Huge lesson!
  2. My questions are not yet coming from a place of genuine vulnerability to open-ness and change.
  3. I still want to defend and use old Tai-chi ways. I really haven't gotten to the place where I'm willing to move on to the next level. My continuing attachment to the past indicates I'm still not ready to let go of the past. This is also impeding my progress.
  4. To dissolve the rigidity in my shoulder and hip which blocks the force from going through, I need to practice relax in a way where I feel open and vulnerable. I'm afraid to really go there but paradoxically, I've learned that that's where I can experience relaxed whole-body strength. How can I make self-motivated, small, incremental changes to be more vulnerable yet connected and grounded?

* Instead of "I can't ___ " or "I have to ___ ", substitute with "I choose to___ "

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Whole Body Relax: Journal Notes #97
Next article in this series: - Zhan Zhuang Training Conundrum: Journal Notes #99