Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Walk with My Teacher Through His Garden

I arrived early for class one balmy August morning. My instructor was already sitting on his front porch in his favorite chair, enjoying the mid-morning energy. After we bid our greetings, he arose from his chair and said, "Follow me. I want to show you something..."

Ma Lin Landscape with Great Pine Song Dynasty 13c
 "OK." I replied as I followed him down the steps of his porch and into his yard.

He led me to a small Japanese maple tree where we stopped and stood for a moment. Drawing a slow, long breath, he finally said, "Look at this tree and tell me what you see."

After years of trying to second-guess the answer to these kinds of questions, I've settled on simply saying what I see and then wait to discover where the conversation goes from there. So I replied, "I see a small tree".

His response began with his classic wry smile. I knew something good was coming.

Trees will grow according to their environment. We can intervene with vision to shape their growth. We can prune or use wire or other props to encourage a particular growth pattern. You must first have a vision of how you want the tree to look before you consider which methods to apply. You must also know how the tree will respond to various methods over time. You must also know the time horizon of your vision. Do you understand? Pruning and supporting are two methods and may seem contradictory but they are not contradictory when applied at a specific time and at a specific point.

He continued talking about the various branches, pointing out where he had pruned and why and how this pruning supported his vision of the tree's growth. He also pointed out heavy copper wire, which I had not even noticed, which he said was there to gently train those branches to grow in a particular direction. As he went on and on, my mind drifted off, pondering, "Do you understand?" I was pulled back to the moment when he said, "Let's go back and sit down."

"So," he began, "Do you have any questions?"

"I'm getting stuck on the, "Do you understand?" I mean, yeah, the metaphor seems obvious but I think that I probably don't have the same idea that you want to convey."

Too many people practice without a vision of where they want their practice to go. They may start with curiosity and get hooked into a practice and then get strung along pursuing whatever is presented to them. Suddenly years have passed...

"Yeah, this is pretty much how it works", I interrupted.

You see, if there's no vision or purpose, then you wind up making decisions based on "it just seemed to be the logical next step". Following "the logical next step" could take you on a very interesting journey. But this is not vision. Having a vision of where you want your practice to grow will help you avoid the trap of "the logical next step". You can approach practice with a near-sighted "do this now" or with longer range vision.

"So, then, what's the difference between vision and purpose? You always ask, "What's your purpose?"

Vision is based in kinesthetic feeling. Purpose is based on concepts and words. When you apply vision with purpose then you get functional! Look at the masters. See the vision they were seeing.

I recalled one of the Wujifa slogans, "Follow not in the footsteps of the masters. Seek out and discover what it is they sought."

As others arrived for class, I sat quietly pondering this unique teaching. A couple months have now passed since that summer day and whenever I see that little tree, I can see the twisted, windswept tree of his vision. Even now, seeing a twisted, windswept tree, I am gently and subtly reminded, "What's your vision for how you want your practice to grow?"

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Exercise for Kua Freedom of Movement: Journal Notes #126

Notes from my September 2014 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

* During the month of September, I devoted a good deal of time and energy to calming an emotionally distraught family member. This left me tired and out of sorts and consequently my practice time suffered. Things settled down toward the end of the month and I got back into practicing about an hour a day; half-hour stance and half-hour other exercises.

* A sole practice of zhan zhuang stance is not enough. You also need to do isolated exercises to get the feeling of relax in specific areas of your body.

* In one class, one of my school brothers reminded me a a class a couple years ago where we were all together and I clawed my forearm and cried, "I can't feel anything!" This was a huge turning point for him! In my moment of frustration, he realized that he couldn't feel the things that he was being instructed to feel for either! He slowly then came to realize that "armoring" is a word signifying this non-feeling condition. "Armoring" is not a mere theoretical or mental construct or metaphor. It is a real description of areas of the body where a person is tense or is blocking from feeling. I mention this here because:
  1. An emotionally dramatic moment in class led him to understand what constitutes a functional internal practice.
  2. This experience changed his approach to practice from thinking it was all mental gymnastics to realizing the actual physical work that was needed. He's since made a lot of progress!
  3. He articulated his turning point with such clarity! This may help others understand too.

* My instructor has been saying that I am amongst his worst students because he's had to "dumb down" even the most basic exercises. I prefer to reframe this the following way: due to my armoring, he has had to refine and calibrate his teaching methods to the most elemental, fundamental level to facilitate opening, relaxing and feeling in areas that are traditionally the most locked down and difficult to open.

* Sometimes I feel overcome with pride with what this little band of practitioners is accomplishing. Between a devoted teacher and dedicated (even if sometimes troublesome) students, methods of building internal connection are being tested, developed, and documented that will benefit generations of practitioners in a way that other teachings of this topic will never be able to.

* The following is an exercise that I was shown in class and that I've been working on to help develop more range of motion in each hip:
  1. Get into the Wujifa zhan zhang stance position; feet parallel and one foot's length apart. Flex the knees a little.
  2. Shift weight to right so all weight is on right leg.
  3. Lock the right femur into place so that both the knee and the greater trochanter remain perfectly immobilized! This is the key to this exercise! I've been practicing this by standing beside an immovable object, like a door, and holding my right greater trochanter against the door knob.
  4. With the right femur locked in place, and keeping the lower back relaxed, then slowly move the left side of the pelvis forward and back on the horizontal plane with the only movement occurring at the right hip socket.
  5. Repeat on the other side.
    When I do this correctly, with my weight sunk, my quads fatigue within a minute. My instructor has exposed to me the many ways that I cheat. In other words, there are many ways to do this wrong. Here are a few:
    • Rotate the shin bones on the ankle bone.
    • Rotate the femur with the shin bones.
    • Tuck and untuck the pelvis.
    • Move the other leg excessively giving the illusion of pelvic movement.
    Why are these mistakes? If my focus is on proving that I have a full range of motion and no tension or holding my femur and pelvis, then I am more likely to unconsciously add elements like the above as "proof" that I can do this.

    As I practiced this over the month and worked on distilling out the errors, I discovered that in fact I have very little range of motion (at most only eight degrees) and very little single leg strength under a slowly moving load. This is in contrast to the nearly 90 degrees range of motion I have when I rotate an unweighted leg (on the heel resting on the ground) from foot forward to foot to side.
    So the issue is not range of motion in the hip socket per se, but rather the way I "hold" myself upright. My habitual range of motion has patterned certain muscles to work in certain ways. I'm strong enough within that patterned range but weak on the edges. I think this exercise is designed to extend this range.

    When I shifted the focus of practice to monitoring for cheating, e.g., "Am I maintaining stillness and non-movement throughout my body? Am I only moving at the hip capsule?" then my practice changed. It was the same "external" exercise but when I practiced with a different purpose then I got different results!

    After getting a feel for this (which may take months of practice), then apply this to walking. Grab your pants at the side pocket seam and then as if throwing something, throw/pull your pant seam forward throwing the unweighted leg forward. Pulling the right side means rotating on the left femur head and pulling the left side means rotating on the right femur head. This exercise provides the greatest opportunity to cheat so pay careful attention!

    An advanced form of this exercise involves counter-twisting the spine and punching forward with the hand opposite the forward foot. This begins to look kind of like a simplified Xing-yi.

    * I've also been practicing this exercise:
    Facing a surface that is about waist height, I extend my arms over my head and bend over to this surface placing my elbows on the surface. Squat down a little bit. With my torso hanging relaxed like a hammock strung between my elbows and hips, I then create the feeling as if I am pushing out a poop. Feel the skin across my pelvic floor stretching and opening. I couldn't feel anything "back there" for several weeks but eventually I began to notice how the greater trochanters can move a little more than before.

    Why bend over to do this exercise? Because bending over takes the back and torso out of the equation. In this position I can learn that it is not my tight back causing the problem of "frozen" hip joints but rather it is a tight butt and tight pelvic floor.

    * I demonstrated my mini-breathing-squats in class and was told that the "going up" looks OK but the "squatting down" part is broken. Just as the "up" is as if inflating and slowly building pressure as I'm inhaling deep into the lower pelvis, conversely the "down" is as if deflating and slowly releasing that pressure on the exhale. We reviewed again the details of the min-breathing-squats. Remember, the entire "mini-squat" only moves in a 6"-12" range from the full upright position to the full squat.

    * My instructor told the story again how he spent years working on isolating muscle activation. I think this gave him the "competitive advantage" in learning and developing a very deep sense of kinesthetic feeling. A simple and beginning example of this is to rest your arm on a firm surface and then relax and tighten the bicep and only the bicep and no other muscles. Once you are able to do this, then relax and tighten only the tricep. You get the idea. Practice this on all the muscles throughout your entire body.

    * While practicing mini-squats at home, I got an insight regarding the exhale/deflation. I also got a deeper feeling for the intentional-mechanics of the hips and knees movement. How to explain? Previously, I "thought" I had the intention of "knees forward, sit back and down" but I always got corrected so obviously something was missing. With this deeper feeling, I found a much clearer sensation of the knees driving forward while simultaneously sitting back and down.

    * My school brother asked a question. I answered with my understanding of the question. He said, "You don't know what I'm talking about." Our instructor then answered the question. How could he answer it and why couldn't I? He could understand that the words of the question were selected to represent a feeling my school brother was experiencing. I didn't understand the kinesthetic feeling he was trying to verbalize.

    Further reading:
    Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
    Previous article in this series: What's Sex Got To Do With It: Journal Notes #125