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.