Sunday, December 21, 2014

Vertical Kua Exercises: Journal Notes #128

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

Notes from 11/03 class

* Question: What's the difference between paying attention and being aware?
Answer: The body response is different.

* Sing the ABC song. Stop at "C". What's next? If you said "D", then you are stuck in a pattern. "D" does not have to follow "C". My beginning singing the song recalled for you a pattern. The fact that you responded to the pattern suggests your predisposition to patterns instead of spontaneity.

* To get to "When one part moves all parts move", you need to first isolate the parts to get the individual parts to move and then go back and reconnect the body in a new way.

* I match to a superficial level of awareness. I need to recognize that and figure out how to go deeper.

* The "hip swivel" exercise is a component of the "side to side" exercise.

* Question: I've been working on doing the "hip swivel" exercise. How does this look?
Answer: Show me. Terrible. You're using too many muscles.

Me: I can't feel that I'm moving. I feel like I'm standing still. Where am I moving?

Response: My instructor and school brother then held my body in place as I did the exercise and I felt a stillness in my body I had not felt doing this on my own. You're muscular neuropathways have mapped an inappropriate level of muscular engagement. You don't know how to turn off the muscles you don't need to do a simple exercise.

* Question: I've been practicing the mini-breathing squats with pressure. How am I looking?
Response: Show me. You're still being too mechanical. The mini-squat exercise is about maintaining equal pressure in the lower abdomen with different "distortions". Think of a round balloon resting on the floor. Now think of a flat surface on top the balloon pressing down on it. What happens? It distorts its shape side-to-side but the pressure remains the same. In the mini-squat exercise, there are three distortions: up, down, and bow.

Look at mini-squats another way. (He stretches and holds a theraband against his upper right chest and  left leg quad. What happens when I squat? The band relaxes. What happens when I stand upright? The band stretches. What you see the theraband doing is what you want to feel happening under your skin with the pressure of your breath initiating your movement.

* Question: What should I focus on practicing? The hip swivels or the mini-squats?
Answer: The method is not the truth. The mechanical exercise is not the point. Practice being more aware of the more subtle. Move more slowly and evenly with the breath as a driver. Use the hip swivel to relax the hip but put more time into the mini-squats. Think of the exhale as being like a pressure cooker blowing off steam as a result of the increased pressure caused by squatting.

* Use your intention to help focus your awareness on the pressure. Focus, awareness, and intention mutually develop each other.

* Start in Wuji. Stay in Wuji. Don't go to Yin Yang.

* With pressure you learn the meaning of movement in stillness. The pressure remains the same (stillness) even though the body is "distorting" into its various shapes (movement) - just like squeezing a balloon.

* Question: When I do the laying down exercise (where the legs move out with the in breath and move in with the out breath), I can feel the lower abdomen breath pressure push the legs out but I can't feel the decrease of pressure pull them in.
Response: Lay down. Show me. Then he leans over me. Breathe in. Good. And now breathe out. (As I breathed out, he pushed down on my lower abdomen.) Feel that?

Me: Yes. I feel a kind of pulling on the inner thighs.

Notes from 11/16 class

* My school brother has been working on a new exercise to develop the feeling of vertical fascial stretch from quads, across the dan-tian to lower ribs. I inquired about the feasibility of my practicing this exercise. Here's what transpired....

I knelt on my hands and knees. A short broom handle was placed along my spine. I was instructed to bring my spine in contact with the broom handle. My torso was secured (as best it could be) to this broom handle. Next, I was instructed to get up into a kneeling position being mindful of maintaining contact with the broom handle all along my spine.

With my knees and shoulders on a "plumb" vertical line and adhering to that line, I was instructed to focus on relaxing and maintaining contact with the broom handle as my pelvis was pushed forward from behind. My torso pivoted on my femur heads.

"Look!" my instructor exclaimed, "There's the vertical fascial stretch!"

"I can't feel it!" I said with frustration.

With this, my school brother took over assisting with my pelvic movement. My instructor grabbed his camera and took a photo of my three point (shoulder, pelvis, knee) vertical/relax posture and then another picture of my pelvis forward/vertical fascial stretch posture. When I looked at the photos, I was amazed! I could clearly see the stretch from my quads into my lower chest! However, I could not feel it.

With this, I was unbound from the broom handle and attempted this seemingly simple exercise on my own without any props. I immediately did it completely wrong!

Kneeling Vertical Kua Exercise rough sketch
Kneeling Vertical Kua Exercise (rough sketch)

The main problem was with my lower back arching. I was given the broom handle to hold against my back. I tried again. I struggled with figuring out the coordination.

"Don't tense your abs. See how he is using his abdominal muscles to get the back to flatten? Don't do that. Relax the back relax the front. Now push your penis forward!"

"Why do you have to make this about the penis?" I asked.

"Because it's not about the belly. Look. (He got on his knees and demonstrated the exercise.) Here's pushing the belly forward. Now here's pushing the penis forward. See the difference?"

"Ah! Huge difference! Pushing the belly forward comes from arching the back which allows the hips to stay locked. Pushing the penis (or pubic bone) forward requires mobilizing the entire lower abdomen area."

"Exactly! Now try again!"

I tried but I am so tight and I have so little control over that area that the best I could do was maybe move forward a millimeter on my own.

"Ah! That's good! Practice there!"

"But I hardly moved!" I whined.

"Do you want to do it right and make progress or do you want to do it wrong and fool yourself? Remember, you are where you are and that's where you start."

Notes from 11/31 class

* These last two weeks, I've been practicing the mini-squats and trying to get a better feel for the squatting coming from de-pressurizing rather than a coordination of breathing out and squatting. During these two weeks, the following ideas occurred to me:

* Question: What's the difference between holding and pressure?
Answer: Holding is a faux pressure. They can feel similar but are not.

* Question: When I inhale into my lower abdomen, should I focus on pushing out from the center only or should I focus on expanding all directions?
Answer: You're thinking from a yin-yang perspective. No. Don't focus on any direction. Simply allow the lower abdomen to expand on the inhale. (At this point he demonstrated by stretching a small section of theraband over his mouth and blowing into it.) What happened? It all expanded. Do that. Don't over-complicate it. Just do the exercise.

* Question: Is deflated the same as limp? If I completely "depressurize" it feels limp in comparison.
Answer: They are similar but not the same.

* Question: What's the relation (if there is any) between pressure and connection?
Answer: Pressure is just a method. (Chinese use the concept of ch'i as a way to talk about pressure.) You don't need to use breath to get fascial stretch. Fascial stretch is a type of pressure. When you use your breath, you can notice certain movements. You can notice biotensegrity distortions without muscular tension. If you get stuck on abdominal breathing or reverse breathing, then you are stuck in kindergarten. In biotensegrity/Wujifa, there is only movement. The teeter-totter is yin-yang. The fulcrum is outside the teeter-totter. When you apply martial intention to this, then you have internal martial arts.

* Question: I notice the lower abdomen pressure extending into my upper legs and creating a downward pressure like there's more weight dropping. Is this a strategy to help get the weight to sink?
Answer: You're creating an illusion with your intention.

* Question: When I'm standing in zhan zhuang, should I breathe to maintain pressure; to not deflate?
Answer: Don't worry about it. Breathing is a strategy. Just stand and relax.

* Question: Is pressure the "charge"?
Answer: When pressure and armor come in contact, then you get vibration. "Charge" is the amount of gusto for life that you have.

* Question: Is flaccid the same as no or low pressure?
Answer: Yes, in Wujifa, we would consider these similar.

* Remember, in Wujifa, the "dan-tian" is the entire area from the bottom of the ribs to the mid-thigh. This area is the most difficult to let go, to release, to stretch, to pressurize and to feel connection in and through. It is the area which holds the most challenge and demands the greatest amount of focus and work.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Remember, The Moon Is Round: Journal Notes #127
Next article in this series: Gaining Clarity on the Training Methodology: Journal Notes #129

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Where Are You on the Robot-to-Human Scale?

Here's one of those fun online surveys that fits really well with the theme of this blog and the practice of internal gongfu.

Do you have any emotions

In this forty item survey, you are instructed to check each item that "makes you feel something, anything." The listed items include a mix of situations and references to movies or other stuff you might see. Depending on the number of boxes you check, you'll fall into one of these four categories:

You are an emotionless robot. You’re barely human, and basically don’t care about anything. I’d say you should be disappointed, but you wouldn’t even feel that.

You are pretty emotionless. But some things will penetrate your cold, dead exterior and make you engage with humanity.

You are pretty emotional. Most things will penetrate your shell and you’re generally happy with the world.

So emotional. You are so emotional. You’re continually excited, or sad, or just feeling all the feelings. Literally anything you see makes you feel something. I’m not sure how you function.

And here's how I would interpret these categories in terms of learning internal gongfu:

C-3PO robot man
You are an emotionless robot.  You are probably also numb to any bodily kinesthetics outside of smashing your thumb with a hammer. You should probably pass on this whole internal thing because you'll never get it in this lifetime. You'd make better use of your time focusing on martial mechanics and techniques.

You are pretty emotionless. You can probably feel your muscles like when you are doing physical labor, exercise, or stretching but you are probably numb to anything past this. Developing this internal thing could take you f-o-r-e-v-e-r! You'll need to work on improving both your emotional engagement with life as well as feeling more in your body. Hope you (and your teachers) have lots of patience and perseverance!

You are pretty emotional.  To the extent that you can feel emotion as a bodily reaction, and with proper coaching, you are probably best positioned to make easy progress.

So emotional. You are about as close to being a "natural" as they come. Your biggest challenge will be refraining from giggling from the sheer enjoyment of discovering, "I didn't know I could do that!"

Happy practicing everyone!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Spirituality: In-Body or Out-of-Body Experience?

I was raised in the Roman Catholic church in the era bridging Vatican II (1962). And so from a very young age I learned that spirituality involved having an out-of-the-body focus. This is in my bones. Despite my "falling away" from the church, two decades of church teachings formed the background that I brought into my early studies of Tai-chi Chuan and qigong.

At one point in my early training, I considered out-of-body spiritual practices and the internal martial arts and qigong practices as being complimentary. I interpreted qi as a kind of spiritual quality. After a long, rough road, I now see how confused I was.

Lynne Forrest wrote eloquently about her quest for enlightenment and spiritual development and the revelation that led to her transition from pursuing out-of-body experiences to pursuing an in-body experience. My understanding is that she now considers developing a deep, clear feeling of connection within our own bodies as a "spiritual" path. She writes, "What if embod­i­ment is even nec­es­sary in order to know God?" (emphasis added). See her June 29, 2011 blog article titled, An In-Body Experience.

I like her article for two reasons:
  1. She did a nice job summarizing this generation's counter-culture spiritual values.
  2. I like how she re-frames spirituality from an out-of-body pursuit to an in-body pursuit and then hits a few key points of the experience of an in-body practice.
Her article provides a wonderful segue into considering how the pursuit of an out-of-body spirituality is completely counter-productive to developing the internal aspects of Chinese martial arts and qigong.

A focus on developing out-of-body-ness at least inhibits and at most negates the prospects for developing in-body-ness.

Except maybe for the highest levels, there is nothing about neigong that is out-of-body. My understanding is that any "out of body" experience is more appropriately understood as connecting between my body and the world outside my body. The "home base" is the body. Of course the presupposition is that I-body is first fully connected internally.

Bruce Frantzis hits on a few of these points throughout his interview with Iain McNay.

For me, the following are the key points of this interview:

8:10; It's not about being "spiritual". It's just good common sense to find out who you were. To most people, this doesn't enter their thought system. We live in a society that is utterly numb. And so much of the spiritual dimension is just blah blah blah blah blah

16:13; To mobilize qi, you have to learn how to really relax. To learn how to relax your muscles is hard enough. Then to really relax your energy, that's really harder.

37:30; What's in your head, if it doesn't translate through your body, you'll never notice it. When you're noticing something going on in your head, you're not noticing your brain, you're noticing your nervous system... how it's hitting your body in different ways.

Even though the interview goes on for over an hour and he does make some points that I understand (at my level of understanding), he also talks about some things that don't resonate with me based on my experience.

The bottom line for me is that it is worthwhile to at least entertain the notion of spirituality as being an in-body experience. This might be a way to help resolve the contention between A) my deeply ingrained religious views which devalue the "in here" in favor of the "out there" and B) my current practice which values feeling and connecting the "in here".