Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Little More Pelvic Progress: Journal Notes #139

Notes from my November 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Note: A left knee problem continued to annoy me with muscle tightness and weakness. Small gains with physical therapy.

* We talked about my belligerent attitude in the previous class last month. I'm still not open. Still resistant. Still trying to control. Still trying to juggle 10,000 balls. Still not allowing. Still have a huge trust issue. Still not open to the experiential. Still filtering "feeling" according to analytical processes. Still feeling what I unconsciously deem is acceptable to feel and blocking what I don't want to feel.

* Don't try to create connection! In trying to feel connection, you are reinforcing the block of locked muscles which will feel to you according to how you think connection would feel without ever having felt it before! What you want to do is isolate each muscle. Get each muscle to relax and let go and don't think about connection. Don't "want to" feel-develop. After you can isolate and relax throughout the body, then the connection of not-looking-for-connection will show up spontaneously and naturally. The actual feeling will be something completely other than whatever you could possibly think it might feel like before you were capable of feeling it.

* Question: When I roll the trochanters forward while standing upright (knees only slightly flexed, not even a mini-squat) and then move into a squat I feel that the pelvic complex is locked in. However, if I squat first, and open my butt as if my butt cheeks were pushed apart, then I notice the trochanters rolling more upwardly. Due to the angle change between pelvis and trochanters, the trochanters turn more upward as if the pelvis were sinking between the two. I notice that this loads more weight into my quads. Is this the path I want to follow/develop?
Answer: Yes, however, notice your language uses a tone of forcing it to happen. Can you have more of an experience of allowing opening, accepting, letting go, where the opening originates within you rather than an external forcing opening you?

(Note: I believe this experience is a breakthrough for me even if it is more of a mechanical understanding-feeling than the "holy grail" of feeling that continues to elude me.)
* I really need to pay attention to how my underlying attitude is reflected in my language. "Force", "have to", "made", etc. Stop using force words.

* Our instructor introduced a new method that isolates and exercises the vastus medialis obliquus (VMO) which is a key muscle to develop for internal work. Essentially, this is a single leg, mini-squat. Although this sounds easy, there are many details involved to really feel the weight loading the VMO. There are many ways to "cheat", that is to do it wrong. Here are a few of the cheats:
  • To rise up out of the squat by raising the opposite hip. Don't do this.
  • To engage the lower back to bear the weight. Don't do this. Rather, relax the lower back and let the squatting leg bear all the weight.
  • To keep both legs close to the center line. This pinches the pelvic floor which keeps the weight out of the squatting leg. Don't do this. Rather, extend the empty leg further than shoulder-width away from squatting leg.
  • To pull in the "empty" extended leg. Don't do this. Keep the empty leg extended and toes pointed up. Let the heel drag along the ground.

* Question: When will my body be ready to begin learning fajing?
Answer: I can't teach you fajing until after you completely relax the lower back and pelvic floor. If these areas are not soft and supple, no more holding, then what you do will be contrived and forced and you could wind up hurting yourself. Fajing feels like stretching a rubber band and then letting go of one side. You feel the stretch and then let go.
* And so the introductory level internal gong-fu process is to get the body to relax and release where it is holding; to soften the hardness. Only after this has been achieved to a particular level where connection starts showing up, then you can begin training in earnest; training how to develop and use connection. Even then fajing training comes later in the process.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Say Hello to Your Pelvis: Journal Notes #138

Monday, November 30, 2015

Say Hello to Your Pelvis: Journal Notes #138

Notes from my October 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Note: My Achilles tendonopathy seems to be on the mend, slowly. A left knee problem emerged; tightness, weakness. Going to PT for this now. Small gains here as well.

* In class, I had my first experience of “dropping” into stance. When I tried to replicate this, I could not. This leads me to conclude that dropping into stance is different than trying to drop into stance. In the former, there is a unity/presence, a naturalness, a spontaneity. In the latter, there is a separation of ‘me’ from what ‘I’ want my body to do. It’s not about doing, it’s about not doing.

* Notice how many times I deviated before having an honest expression before I allowed myself to simply drop.

* The amount that you can drop and just be there is the amount you can be approachable and relate to others.

* “It’s easier than you think.” This will go down as another great Wujifa saying. The difference between trying to relax and relaxing is that if you think about how to relax, then you’ll block yourself from relaxing. Don’t try to get a result. Try the following example. (Remember this?) Let your right arm go totally limp. Now have your partner grab your wrist and raise your arm in front of you. When s/he gets your arm about chest high, then let go. If your arm is really relaxed, it will drop and swing a few times before coming to rest. Now, do that in your body… with structure. Notice to what extent the muscles allow. If you can achieve relax/let go, then we can work on those muscles that are not letting go.

* Stop trying to make Wujifa fit you and start allowing yourself to fit Wujifa!

* You can’t do side-to-side unless you first have the ability to stand relaxed on one leg. You can’t stand relaxed on one leg until you first have the ability to stand relaxed on both legs.

* Wujifa is a very step-by-step, progress-oriented art that is congruent with the way the bodymind naturally relaxes, lets go, and develops.

* In the last class you experienced, but didn't recognize how moving one part causes another part to move. This could be due to tight, shortened muscles, your neuromuscular 'wiring' and/or fascial adhesions. The point is that you want to get to the place where you can move all parts independently; where moving one part does not result in the moving of another part. It is only after you resolve the stuck-ness of “one part moves then another part moves” that you are conditioned or prepared to begin exploring “when one part moves, then all parts move”. Does this sound contradictory? It’s not. In the first case, parts of the body are frozen together; shoulders/torso, pelvis/hips are typical frozen areas. Only after the frozen areas “thaw”, can a greater, more powerful unified movement emerge.

* Particular words/phrases can trigger a particular body response. (The slang phrase is, pushing "someone’s buttons.") When working with and talking to the body to get it to relax, open, and connect, it is important to know and avoid those triggers that would cause it to tighten, close, and disconnect. Hitting these trigger words from time to time is also a test to see how much the body has changed (if any).

* I noticed that when I go on my walks during workday breaks, I tend to walk leaning slightly forward with my chest leading and pelvis held and following. I've been practicing walking with relaxing and allowing more of a 'sloshing around' in the lower belly just above pubic bone. Then it occurred to me to actively lead with the pubic bone. So with each leg thrust forward, I simultaneously thrust forward with my pubic bone. I noticed that engaging my pelvis in this way when walking results in a different emotional feel than the more flaccid relaxing and allowing a 'sloshing around' in the lower belly.

* Sometimes I can be a real contentious jerk in class. For example, I came to one class eager to demonstrate a break-through I thought I made. I proudly demonstrated my “progress”. My instructor responded by further refining my structure. However, in this class, I got really frustrated that I couldn’t feel what he was noticing and adjusting and I got really argumentative. Why? We were working with my pelvis with tuck and untuck; trying to help me notice that relaxed spot between the two. I was hitting a resistance to letting go and I ‘fought back' emotionally, verbally.

* The pelvis is the seat of sexuality. Depending on how this sexuality is expressed or repressed and the emotions associated with this expression or repression hugely influence the muscular holding pattern around the pelvis. In my case, holding back expressing the sadness and resentment surrounding denying the expression of my sexual-ness is the root of why I cannot relax through the pelvis. Encountering the holding and asking it to let go and relax simultaneously releases the "pent up" emotions associated with the muscular holding.

* Come to think of it, as I'm writing this entry, my current knee problem emerged about the same time as I got serious about addressing this repression issue. It's as if the body has a mind of its own to keep everything locked in place... or the tension shifted from one area to another? I don't know...

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Underlying Attitude: Journal Notes #137

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Why Is Tai-chi Chuan Practiced So Slow?

You know the story. A seeker shows up at the master's doorstep only to be sent away with the instruction, "Stand zhan zhuang for three years." I'd long thought that the reason for this was a test of determination. Are you really serious about learning? Are you worth training? Prove it! Now I understand this scenario differently.

When my Wujifa instructor adjusts the stiff and rigid bodies of the new guys, he is able to get them to the point where they can feel their weight drop into their legs. However, the problem is that they can't hold this posture for more than a few seconds! How is he to teach high-level skills to people who can't even stand properly for a few seconds?

Unlike the storied masters of old, he does not tell people to go away and come back when their bodies are ready. Rather, he compassionately meets people where they are and skillfully guides them along the path to whole-body connected movement.

The way I've experienced the Wujifa process leads me to think in terms of four elementary phases of progress:
  1. Progressively relax the torso to allow the legs to carry the weight, then...
  2. Notice connection manifesting itself through the torso, then...
  3. Begin to develop intentional kua / dan-tian movement, then...
  4. Develop whole-body connected movement.
It is my belief now that each phase is a prerequisite for the next. For me, #2 started showing up only after I had been practicing #1 for a while. From observing school brothers who practice much more than I do, I see how I have to get a good feel for #2 (through practicing #1 more) before my body is appropriately conditioned to begin practicing #3. Similarly, through practicing #3 (which includes more practice of #1 and #2), then #4 begins to manifest itself.

Even though these four phases represent a very beginning level practice, if you can't demonstrate the requisite level of relaxation in the torso and the requisite level of strength in your legs, then you cannot experience the feeling of whole-body connection. Until you can demonstrate this basic skill of whole-body connection, then the expertise of the instructor to help you refine, polish and develop the martial intent of this entry-level skill, is going largely untapped.

So what does this have to do with the reason why Tai-chi Chuan is practiced so slowly?

In past posts I have said that the feeling of whole-body connection cannot be developed by moving slowly in the Tai-Chi Chuan form. My understanding has since deepened. Now I have come to see that the genesis of the feeling of whole-body connection cannot be found in moving slow, as in any of the popular Tai-Chi Chuan forms, however, it may later be developed therein.

Let's begin by agreeing on the distinction between genesis and develop. Referencing as our authority for definitions:

Genesis: the origin or coming into being of something
: to grow or become bigger or more advanced

Whole-body connected movement takes a while first to be born. Using the analogy of creating a human life, in the nine months between conception and birth, all the parts are developing, piece by piece until a whole, connected person is born. After the birth of this new person, then s/he is taught and learns how to use all these connected parts; slowly at first... baby steps. 

And so my understanding now is that only after the genesis of the feeling of whole-body connection in a stationary practice, then the practitioner can transition to slow, gentle, repetitive movements to develop the feeling of whole-body connection while moving.

Using the Tai-chi Chuan model of the thirteen postures, it is said that the most important is central equilibrium which to me means standing zhan zhuang. Why is this the most important? It is within this practice that the body is "moving" slow enough for the neuro-muscular system to calm down and for the awareness to notice where changes are needed. Once the genesis of whole-body connection is experienced, only then can it begin to be developed in the martial expressions of the thirteen postures.

However, the tricky part in transitioning to a martial intent is to maintain focus on the nascent feeling of whole-body connection and not become overly enthusiastic and lapse into native muscle movement. (I've succumbed to this temptation quite often. It only wastes time.)

And so I now believe that moving slowly may have originated as a transition from a stationary practice. After one is able to maintain the feeling of whole-body connection in a stationary practice, then the next step is to maintain that feeling while moving slowly. In Wujifa, rudimentary moving exercises include: mini-breathing squats, side-to-side, and point-off-point. In Tai-chi Chuan, rudimentary moving exercises include: tai-chi qigong, silk reeling, and learning one movement of the form at a time. Ultimately, the practitioner gradually learns how to move quickly with connection.

Unfortunately, many Tai-chi Chuan teachers ignore the genesis and development of whole-body connected movement. Instead, they teach students to refine their native muscle movement in the learning of slow motion choreographed routines. And as well all know, this approach does not lead practitioners to "whole-body connected movement" which is the hallmark of real Taijiquan.

So, in summary, the question, "Why is Tai-chi Chuan practiced so slowly?" can be answered by saying that moving slowly is a method and a phase of developing whole-body connected movement the genesis of which was originally discovered in a preceding, stationary practice.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Underlying Attitude: Journal Notes #137

Notes from my September 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Note: In September, I went to a foot specialist for my Achilles tendonopathy who referred me to more physical therapy. I'm continuing to do the physical therapy as well as a lot of self-massage on my calves and Achilles tendons in the evenings. Between my self-massage and making a conscious effort to be less sedentary at my desk job, I am making small gains in mobility and flexibility.

Let me lead this month's entry by noting a couple comments made about my apparent loss of desire to "get it". My instructor commented that he thought I would quit but notices that I am now more at ease and that my practice has improved since I stopped "wanting it". My wife made a comment that I never stopped wanting it. What I let go of was the anxiety about not getting it. Both of these insights about my underlying attitude and how it changed were revelations to me.

* The difference between saying, "I can't feel" vs "That feeling is so subtle" vs "How can I amplify this feeling I experienced?" is that each presumes a particular starting point as well as a particular path. Each leads to its obvious end. Saying, "I can't feel" results in more not feeling. Saying, "That feeling is so subtle" results in maintaining the different-ness of new feeling. Saying, "How can I amplify this feeling I experienced?" results in connecting to new feeling and exploring and growing the feeling I experienced.

* Question: I felt a sliding feeling under my skin one night while practicing but I couldn't re-find it.
Answer: Don't worry. It's a road sign. Keep practicing the basics.

* Question: I've been practicing getting more movement in the hip sockets while standing in a bow stance; moving the pelvis on a lateral plain, rotating at the hip sockets. How does this look to you?
Answer: You're focusing on the knees, hips, and torso moving. You are not noticing a lack of movement in the kua. Try this. Freeze the torso. Freeze the knees. Now how much hip movement do you have?

Me: Not much. Only a little.

Instructor: Now, relax this muscle. Now how much movement do you have?

Me: Maybe a centimeter but it feels like a mile!

Instructor: Practice this way but only three to five minutes at a time. Do a little but do it right! Build in the correct pattern.

* When I practice opening and closing the kua in a typical bow stance by maintaining a stable femural position in space and then rotating my pelvis laterally on the greater trochanters, the sensation of movement that I feel around the two hip capsules on either side of the lower belly highlights a lack of movement occurring in and through the lower belly. (Some call this lower belly area the dan-tian.) Which begs the question, if I only just now noticed how immobile the lower belly is after I developed some coordinated movement in the hip capsule, then how could I have ever presumed that I was "moving from the dan-tian" when I first began practicing Tai-chi Chuan? Feeling replaces the false belief of what I think I'm doing.

* I was coached through the following exercise. This can be called the "Lazy Susan" practice. First, get into zhan zhuang stance. Then place a small, three inch Lazy Susan bearing (a typical hardware store item) under the right heel. Keeping your body weight on the left foot, and without moving the right knee, then turn the right foot in and out a few times moving from the ankle. Really focus on the right foot moving below the ankle. Next, focus on the right foot and right knee as you turn the right knee in and out a few times. Notice how the intention to turn the right knee results in the hip turning and helps the hip move in a soft and relaxed manner. Allow the hip to turn but do not turn from the hip. Having the intention to turn from the hip engages the muscles differently. Then, discover how the hip complex (remaining soft and relaxed) allows a stretch through the torso as far as the torso is relaxed. Turning the knee in results in a stretch across the back. Turning the knee out results in a stretch across the front. To feel more fascial stretch, relax and let go more. As I did this, my school brothers noticed a stretch crisscrossing my torso; right hip to left shoulder although I could only faintly feel this.

* Note regarding the above Lazy Susan exercise, the fascial stretch begins showing up on its own only after a particular level of relaxation and letting go has been achieved. Attempting to force feeling a stretch results in what we in Wujifa call a faux stretch. Creating a faux stretch, from my experience, is due to an underlying attitude of wanting to get it, of thinking you understand what 'stretch' means and thinking that you can make it show up in your body without having done the years of targeted preparatory work to allow it to show up when conditions are right. Intention is applied to tending and weeding the garden and not in forcing an artificial seedling to breakthrough.
(Follow-up thought: You should begin to see progress in 30-90 days. However, this presupposes many factors some of which include: completely submitting, accepting that you are a beginner, and embracing and diligently practicing the most mundane, simple method. Most people can't do this. They've learned some other art before. They have a frame they want to fit new information in to. They have well-formed opinions, perspectives, resistances, and psychosomatic armors of various sorts. And so for most people it does take a long time, primarily to work through these various impediments to simply reach the state where learning can begin.)

* We talked about my underlying psychosomatic pattern. When I open to deeper levels of feeling, I initially revel in the new experience. However, as I encounter everyday life with that newfound openness, I react to and judge the feeling responses as inappropriate. I then get afraid of what might happen living with that level of feeling openness and then I shut down to that level of feeling which coincidentally is exactly the level of feeling I need in order to develop whole body connected movement. For me, it's been a very either/or, on/off paradigm. The suggestion was raised that instead of an on/off switch approach to feeling, I could try a potentiometer or slide switch approach where I could choose to feel anywhere between what I consider a safe level of feeling (0) and what I consider a dangerous level of feeling (10) in any given situation. Think sliders. It's not about boxes anymore.
(Follow-up thought: Both the on/off and potentiometer model of feeling presuppose controlling feeling in one manner or another. In Wujifa, the goal is to live fully feeling, fully connected internally and fully connected to others. Through connected feeling, the proper course of action reveals itself. For someone like me who is on/off, the potentiometer model could be a temporary method to help overcome the on/off and move into always on.)

* We talked about the possibility of using an anti-anxiety prescription drug like Xanax along with counseling therapy as a means to hit the body-mind "reset button". This could be useful for those of us (like me) who are chronically anxious about daily life stuff. It seems like it wouldn't be enough to simply use a drug like that (without therapy). The drug regimen would simply mask the anxiety-inducing problems and at the end of the prescription, the original character pattern could re-emerge. The goal would be for the drug-induced calmer, more focused person to remain a calmer, more focused person after the drug is removed.

* In the traditional Chinese method, the fundamental exercises are the warm-ups. They are designed to pattern the body so that after years of practicing "warm-ups", the body is conditioned and ready for advanced skill training. However, the underlying attitude that Americans tend to have is that "warm-ups" are some kind of limbering, or 'get the blood moving' exercise that is otherwise useless or irrelevant to developing advanced skills. And so when an expert like Chen Xiaowang demonstrates "warm-ups" but no one ever asks about these exercises, then the secret to developing high-level skill remains hidden in plain sight.

* You can't learn about enlightenment from reading others' poems about the experience. But if you've had the experience, then you can recognize how others are trying to describe the experience/feeling. The same applies to the 'internal' aspects of the martial arts. Once you've had the experience of whole-body connected movement, then it gets easier to identify those who are trying to explain that experience in their own words vs. those who haven't had that experience and are parroting the words of other practitioners.

* Instead of focusing on trying to fix a problem like holding in the pelvis for example, be comfortable with and accept your present condition as a puzzle, "I wonder how I can reduce my 'holding back' a little more?" And then experiment and notice the results. And then approach those results as a puzzle, etc... The point is that there is a huge difference in the underlying attitude of fixing a problem vs exploring and experimenting.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: There is Nothing to Understand: Journal Notes #136

Sunday, September 20, 2015

There Is Nothing to Understand: Journal Notes #136

Notes from my August 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Note: Throughout August, I continued to focus on my ankle problems and a knee problem. I received a new, ergonomically designed office chair at work. With this chair, I do not have the crippling ankle stiffness upon arising after an hour of sitting. This is a help. I've also been doing a lot of self-massage on my calves and Achilles tendons in the evenings. I began sporadically practicing Wujifa exercises. I feel like I'm coming to grips with how to practice without being motivated by a need to "get it".

Question: I've been doing a little sitting stance. But I don't know if I'm doing it right or not.
Answer: Sit in that chair. (After some adjustment to my head and torso), rest your palms on the tops of your thighs. Do reverse breathing. Very strongly into lower abdomen. What do you feel?

Me: Feels like something moving under the skin with the breathing.

Get out of your own way book cover
* I had a huge "A-Ha" learning moment watching my instructor working with a new guy. Watching the two of them is like looking at my own attempt to learn over the past twenty years; intellectually understanding every answer and adjustment and not understanding that there is nothing to understand. I actually feel quite a bit of sympathy for him and I wonder how it is possible to get through to someone like him to help shorten the journey. Unfortunately, it may be the case that coming to this understanding is the first step to "getting it". (I also feel a lot of sympathy for my instructor who struggles week after week for years trying to get students to that breakthrough moment.)

I had read a book years ago, Get Out Of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior however, I did the worst thing that I could possibly do which is ironically what I do best; I understood the material. I intellectualized the material and could not understand that understanding was my self-defeating behavior and this is what was in my way. My strength was not a weakness per se, but more a hindrance to progress. My own predicament which was invisible to me then is now blatantly on display in another. I wish I could yell at my twenty-year ago self: Do or do not! There is no understand!

* After class, a school brother and I were discussing "getting it". We both agreed that there is no direct cause-effect path. You can't do something to force "it" to manifest itself. The body-mind  process simply does not work this way. Where we disagreed however was in the how. I contend that you intentionally engage practices which set up conditions in the body for "it" to manifest itself; e.g., releasing chronic muscular tension and myofascial adhesions. He contends that the process is more about a mind-set of allowing. The practices are methods but primary to practice is the mindset of forcing or allowing which determines how you engage the method. This may seem like a subtle difference but it is huge! If the mindset is one of forcing, then the body forcing itself is not conducive to getting it. If the mindset is one of allowing, then the body allows. How do we know if we are forcing or allowing? That's what we eventually discover after years of practice.

* So one night after doing my PT and massage stuff, I did a little stance and the following internal dialogue struck me as one of those important insights:
What's left after wanting it is gone?


Where can this be applied?

Anywhere. Choose something to focus curiosity on.

For the duration.

Where can I apply my curiosity in complete freedom?

In my own body.

Noticing changes everything.

Yep... processing some stuff....

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Unstable Foundations: Journal Notes #135

Monday, August 31, 2015

Unstable Foundations: Journal Notes #135

Notes from my July 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Note: Throughout July, I continued to focus on my ankle problems and did not really practice any Wujifa exercises. Also, I'm still struggling with how to practice without feeling a need to "get it" anymore.

Question: How can I practice without having the goal of "getting it" as a motivator?
Answer: (Summarized from a lengthy discussion) Use this phrase, "I get to..." I get to practice physical therapy and discover stuff about my ankle. I get to learn and feel deeper into my body instead of mechanically going through the exercises. Use your natural inborn curiosity to explore and move forward.

* If you're pursuing a goal then you're always pursuing a goal and not appreciating what you encounter on the journey. If you focus on exploring then you'll discover stuff in your exploration that you very likely would have not noticed or dismissed in your rush to the goal. Exploring can lead you to your goal and beyond.

* When we take our past and move it into the future, this is where we meet problems, for example, taking lessons learned in Tai-chi and thinking they apply to and can guide a Wujifa practice. Trying to make the old pieces fit in a new puzzle will not help you see the picture you are looking for.

* The future is a place to explore and connect.

* My school brother noted that I use tension to feel stretch, that I don't know how to feel stretch with relax. I've never noticed this before. He is developing a keen vision!

* In class, it was brought to my attention how much I enjoyed working with the "new guy"; showing and sharing what I've learned. Notice that. There's still a love for the art and a love of sharing.

* Practice had become another thing I had to do, another thing on the list with all the other things I have to do. By doing this, I influenced how I approached practice; "I have to...". How can I change this dynamic?

* Widening the hips means moving the greater trochanters to their outermost position; not pulled back, not pulled forward. Most people's are pulled back due to chronic tension through the lower back and gluteal muscles.

* Question: Is there a value to naming "the feeling"? Here's the context. I've noticed that "the feeling" will just show up in the body after the body reaches some unspecified, personal level of preparedness (call it "relax-release"). I've seen this happen with two school brothers and myself. However, one brother gave it a name, something meaningful to him, and now you can say to him, "Practice X" and he can go directly to the feeling. To call it "Qi flowing" is one name but certainly not personally meaningful to him or to me. In the past, when I've had my posture adjusted and I experienced that sense of "connection" (for lack of a more personally meaningful word), I said it felt like "nothing". And so I'm wondering if equating "it" with "nothing", did not help me. Thoughts?
Answer: You're main problem is that as soon as you reach that level of opening, you don't want to deal with the implications of this in your daily life and so you shut it down. You repeat this pattern. Open. Close. Open. Close. Regarding naming, don't say that "it" feels like "nothing" because "it" is not a nothing feeling. It would be better for you to say that "it" feels "faint". You can give it a name if you want but that in itself won't help you until you are ready to live with that level of feeling in your daily life as well.

Now, regarding the name that Mr. J. gave the feeling, the name he associated with the "feeling" represented a wonderful childhood memory; "the feeling" feels like ... to him. The way he feels the feeling and the name he uses to describe that feeling is meaningful to him and meaningless to you.

* Regarding your Achilles tendonopathy, you need to get a better physical therapist. At this point, the lumps on your Achilles tendons are not swelling, it's scar tissue. You need to get cross-friction massage and break up the scar tissue. You might want to look into Prolo therapy also.

(As I reflect on these notes, I think back to when I was a kid (in the '60s), I wore special shoes called "Thomas Heel". So maybe my pronation problem is something I was born with. Maybe fifty-plus years of standing and walking on an unstable foundation (wobbly ankles) has resulted in a chronic, low-level of anxiety-tension throughout my body. Maybe if the foundation is wobbly, then the structure above could be both anxious about falling down and compensating by tightening to try to hold everything up. This seems to fit with the class experience of relaxing in one area but the body then making micro-adjustments and tightening somewhere else. The structure is never really able to let go and relax because there isn't a stable foundation upon which to rest. Well, it's an hypothesis. I am going to look into getting orthotics again. I don't think this is the whole problem, but it may be one piece?)

Note: My July 2010 entry, Zhan Zhuang Foot Alignment, talks about my foot structure. At that time, I followed-up with getting orthotic inserts to correct the pronation. I used the inserts for six months and then stopped. A problem unaddressed five years ago is still a problem today. Imagine that....

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Letting Go of Wanting to Get It: Journal Notes #134

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Internal Martial Arts as a Foreign Culture

In my first article Internal Martial Arts as a Foreign Language I used the analogy of English language and Chinese language to illustrate the difference between native muscle movement and internal strength or whole-body connected movement. In this article, I take the analogy a step further by considering native muscle movement and whole-body connected movement as being culturally distinct as well.

In Edward T. Hall's book Beyond Culture (1976), he introduced the ideas of low context and high context cultures. In a low-context culture, little to no context is required to communicate; the words themselves are sufficient. Conversely, a high context culture requires the listener to know the context of the situation to understand the words. Following the example from my earlier article, the United States (and the English language) is a low-context culture and China (and Chinese language) is a high-context culture.

From my experiences traveling abroad, living in a cross-cultural context, and trying to learn whole-body connected movement, I consider native muscle movement to be akin to low-context culture and whole-body connected movement to be akin to high-context culture.

Why? Because in native muscle movement culture, I can give you precise directions on how to open and expand your chest and you would be able to do this. However, in connected movement culture, directions to facilitate connection only make sense in the context of the rest of the body. The quality of whole-body connection shows up on its own accord only when the proper conditions are met.

The below section appears on page 114-115 of Beyond Culture and illustrates a parallel between internal martial arts and culture.
“For some reason, people reared in the European tradition feel more comfortable if they have a rule to fall back on, even if it doesn’t fit. This is important, because people who depend on rules and authorities in order to act are slow to experience the reality of another system. Projecting what they have been told in the past, they fit the world into their own model. Examples and principles from linguistics will serve to illustrate this point:
  1. When an American tries to use his high school French in France, he can neither understand nor be understood. People just don’t speak the way he was taught. This is because the rules for language learning, promulgated by some distant, forgotten authority and passed down to the current generation with little change by a more recent authority are almost invariably wrong.

  2. People don’t learn to perform by combining parts which are memorized according to rules which they must think about in the course of the transaction, whether it is a new language one is learning, or skiing, or spotting enemy planes in wartime. The process is too slow and too complex.

  3. Each culture is not only an integrated whole but has its own rules for learning. These are reinforced by different patterns of overall organization. An important part of understanding a different culture is learning how things are organized and how one goes about learning them in that culture. This is not possible if one persists in using the learning models handed down in one’s own culture.

  4. The reason one cannot get into another culture by applying the “let’s-fit-the-pieces-together” process is the total complexity of any culture. In the West, we cling to the notion that there is such a thing as “the” English language or "the"… The “the" model is oversimplified. It does not do justice to either language or culture. Ultimately, use of the model can only lead to frustration, because there is little in language or culture that can be pinned down the way many would like."

For those of you who are long-time Wujifa practitioners, the above text probably makes sense to you. However, if you are new to internal gong-fu and wondering what learning French or Chinese has to do with learning whole-body connected movement, let me try to bridge this analogy for you.
  1. Trying to learn "connected movement" based on rules that were written by some "distant, forgotten authority and passed down to the current generation" will not lead you to connection.

  2. My natural tendency is to project what I know onto that which I don't know and believe I know because my projection "makes sense" to me.

  3. The "rules for learning" which are functional in native-movement culture are dysfunctional in connected-movement culture.

  4. Trying to "figure out" connected-movement culture by fitting the pieces together from a native muscle-movement cultural perspective only leads to frustration. There is no "the" way to "figure out" connected-movement.

What I've learned and what I'm trying to share here is that the strategies that I use when learning new movements in my native muscle-movement culture failed miserably when I applied them to trying to learn whole-body connected movement. It's as if I tried combining my innate knowledge of American culture with what I read and heard about Chinese culture so I could learn how to function in Chinese culture... before I ever go to China!

I hope my attempt to cast whole-body connected movement as a foreign language and foreign culture can help you understand not only how different the two really are but also how different strategies must be employed to learn the new culture.

Happy training everyone!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Letting Go of Wanting to Get It: Journal Notes #134

Notes from my June 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Note: Continuing from last month, my severe bi-lateral Achilles tendonosis left me limping on both legs. After a month of physical therapy with no obvious improvement, the therapist suggested I continue the exercises on my own at home. Throughout June I focused on following the physical therapy regimen and did not practice any Wujifa exercises.

June 7
Today we went to a local push-hands meet-up. Before I talk about this, let me preface with little back-story.

I had learned the typical American-style push-hands more than thirty years ago and this got engrained very deeply into my body. When I began practicing Wujifa, I was discouraged from pushing hands in class with my school brothers because I reflexively used my originally-learned push-hands way of moving which interfered with the new kinesthetic I was learning. (Wujifa classes are free-flowing according to students' questions and are not structured like other MA classes with forms class, push-hands class, sparring class, etc.) Touching-hands in class was mostly limited to "strength testing"; applying a push in a static stance posture to discover breaks in the path to ground. Part of my touching-hands training over the years was to train out of my system the way I embodied American-style push-hands so many years ago.

So when I was told we were going to a push-hands meet-up, I had a bit of performance anxiety. I had not touched hands with anyone outside of class for over 15 years. I was coached to do my best and to remember the tips and pointers from the last class. Personally, my intention was to keep my back elongated, take the push into my legs, not revert to limp-noodle yin-yang arm games, and focus on going straight into my opponent's center.

At the meet-up, about a dozen guys showed up representing an assortment of local Yang and Wu style teachers and their students. To me, everyone felt physically strong. I could not discern who was using connection or who was bracing and to what degree. I got pushed around some which surprised me. Also I noticed that my opponents got sweaty and sometimes out of breath after a 12 minute rotation whereas I did not. By the end of the three hour meet-up, my quads were fatigued from grounding pushes into my legs (not playing yin-yang hands and getting out of the way of a push).

At a school debrief afterwards, one school-brother who had decided to observe rather than participate, offered some excellent observations. I was told that none of the other players had connection and that they all used bracing with very little to no hip/kua movement. And, I was told that I was the most tense person there and was using too much muscle! Wow! This latter observation was especially a surprise to me!

June 21
In class, we exchanged ideas about the cause of my Achilles tendonosis. One idea, based on many previous class experiences, is that I carry a chronic, low-level of anxiety throughout my body, particularly in my lower back. Maybe this is now showing-up in my ankles? Another idea is that I'm plain and simple getting old and parts are wearing out. I can accept the anxiety theory but I'm not happy about having trouble walking.

I agree that I've long had a fair amount of anxiety with my daily life stuff. In the week after class, a new thought occurred to me; could my practice also be a source of anxiety? I've long wanted to develop the kinesthetic quality known as connected-movement. And I've long felt simultaneously hopeful that I was now on the right path and frustrated that "getting it" was not as straightforward as it seemed. Particularly troubling have been suggestions to let go of certain habituated patterns that I adamantly want to hold onto which left me wondering if I would ever "get it" at all. It's as if my wanting to "get it" and my not "getting it" became a source of conflict and anxiety for me.

And then something strange happened. I found myself letting go of the wanting to "get it". In that moment, I felt relaxed. In that moment, I didn't care if I ever got it or not. In that moment, it simply did not matter. After a week of sitting with this attitude (and not practicing) I noticed that this feeling of not wanting is different from previous feelings of browbeating myself about not practicing.

Now, I don't know what to do with this. I don't feel like walking away and yet the passion to "get it" is gone. How can I not care about practice and continue practice? This does not compute...

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Tension Blocks Connection: Journal Notes #133

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tension Blocks Connection: Journal Notes #133

Notes from my April and May 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Note: Over the past year I've been dealing on and off with Achilles Tendonitis presumptively caused by sitting for extended periods of time (at work) in a new, but apparently ill-fitting chair. Self-diagnosing, I assumed that it would go away on its own. I ignored it until both ankles got much worse. I went to my physician in April, got an ultrasound done, and was diagnosed with severe bi-lateral Achilles tendonosis (more than 1 cm inflammation). I was referred to physical therapy. In April I was not in a good mood at all. I even wasted an entire class senselessly arguing with my instructor! Throughout May I focused on following the physical therapy regimen and the little bit of Wujifa practice I did do was the Mini-Breathing Squats.

April 12
* Question: How does my mini-breathing squats look?
Answer: You are using too much back and front muscle to get the feeling of the vertical stretch. You are looking to create a feeling (instead of doing the exercise and noticing what feeling reveals itself) and you are calibrating to this larger, artificial, faux-stretch when you should be calibrating to the horizontal kua movement. Relax and let the pelvis and torso go along for the ride.

(For the next two weeks until the next class, I practiced letting go of the top as much as I could while maintaining an upright structure and only using the legs to raise and lower my torso.)

April 26
* This class I was in a very argumentative mood. My body has served me faithfully for many years and when I get a "fail", however minor, I get really frustrated, or as we say, in a pissy mood. Consequently, I wasted valuable learning and training time.

May 10
(During the past week, I experienced a "letting-go" kind of feeling of my butt cheeks widening while at the bottom of the mini-breathing squat. And so I've been practicing trying to continue allowing this. (Sounds like a contradiction here.) I'm noticing that I have a tendency to "tuck under" about 3/4 way into the upswing, and near the top I lose the opening feeling. I'm trying to figure out how to maintain that "allow open" feeling into and at the top. Also, it's somehow easier to allow that feeling on the inhale - as if the inhale contributes to the spreading. I'm having a heck of a puzzle trying to keep that relatively open feeling on the downswing/exhale. The exhale seems contractive. I'm also trying to figure out how to stay open/spreading and exhale at the same time....)
 * Question: How does my mini-breathing squats look?
Answer: Now you're lifting with your back. (Pointing out my muscular pattern to my school brother...) You can see Mike's intention to lift with his back because all these muscles are firing. If his intention was to relax the top and push up with the legs, these muscles would not engage.

Me: I'm not feeling that I have that intention. I'm not feeling my back engaging.

Instructor: That's because it's what you are used to doing. Here. Put your hands on my back. (At this point he demonstrated the mini-breathing squats.) What do you see? What do you feel?

Me: Your back muscles remain soft throughout the entire up and down cycle.

Instructor: If your intention is to lift with your chest or lift with your back, this intention, however subtle it may be to you, engages the body differently than if your intention is to relax and allow the torso to raise (from a mini-squat) by pushing the knees back. Tension blocks connection! This is why it is so critical to relax the top and only use the legs to raise and lower the body.

* I got a deeper insight into seeing how one's intention is expressed in the body; by looking at which muscles remain relaxed or are engaged when they don't need to be engaged (either dynamically or chronically).

* Another school brother had a question about kicking. My instructor explained and demonstrated how the Mini-Breathing Squat is also the foundational exercise for executing "internal" kicks. Said another way, kicking, when performed internally, is a sophistication of Mini-Breathing Squats. You've got to do Mini-Breathing Squat correctly first before you begin practicing kicking.

May 24
* In this class we practiced a lot of Wujifa-hands (a.k.a. "push hands" Wujifa style). Lots of great tips and pointers! Radically different from the run-of-the-mill, popular form of push-hands! In fact I found that all the push-hands tricks I embodied over the years are an impediment to learning a more powerful way to play! The biggest problem is that I automatically/unconsciously do a trick. Thankfully my instructor can easily see these and tell me, "Stop doing that!" Nice.

* I need to keep practicing closing my kua further to get better connection through the kua. This was pointed out to me when my school brother held my leg in place as I tried to horizontally rotate my pelvis forward to the desired 45 degree angle. With him holding my femur, I could only move a few degrees! Oops! Still too much tension through the hips! The way I was doing this wrong was by arching/tensing my back and by moving my femur with the pelvis when I hit the point where chronic tension inhibited further independent movement.
Since this class I'm doing the following practice of keeping the femur held still while rotating the pelvis forward on the horizontal plain.

  • Begin by standing with feet parallel about a foot's length apart.
  • Shift weight to left. And then, without changing angle of pelvis in relation to left femur, I squat down a little on the left leg, step right foot forward placing heel just ahead of where toe was.
  • Keeping my back relaxed/elongated, that is, without arching my back, and without moving my left femur, I move my pelvis forward on the horizontal plane until I feel a gentle stretch, and then back to the starting position.
  • I do this several times on both sides.
  • As a kind of temporary bio-feedback device, I "anchor" my greater trochanter against an immovable object like a round doorknob. This helps me aware-feel where my (stationary) femur is in relation to my (moving) pelvis.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: An Rx for Progress?: Journal Notes #132

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

An Rx for Progress?: Journal Notes #132

Notes from my March 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

Note: When I journal my class notes, I summarize about three hours of class. When I write these blog entries, I re-organize and summarize a month of journal entries in an attempt to present something more or less coherent. As a result, I wind up presenting class events according to my understanding. And so you, the reader, should be aware that you are reading my interpretation of what I heard and experienced and this in many cases is radically different from the intended lesson.

This month I stepped out of my rigid little box (in which I believe I am relaxed) and followed-through on a suggestion of taking a little Xanax (an anti-anxiety medication). I took a half tab before each class this month as an experiment. The result that I and everyone else noticed was that I remained present for the entire three hour class. I did not (could not?) "space-out" or mentally disconnect" as I am prone to do. Remaining fully present during the kind of mind-body work we do has been one of my biggest challenges. The hope is that with this experience, I can recalibrate to a new understanding-feeling of "being present".

* Question: About mini-breathing squats.... when I fill my lower abdomen, I feel tension down the inside of my legs. What's going on here?
Answer: This is how you're explaining the feeling of pressure against tension. You need to relax. Also, you are moving your pelvis with your breathing which indicates that certain muscles are locked. Again, you need to relax more. Try this... Lay on your back on the floor with your butt against a chair with your calves resting on the chair; kind of like you're sitting in a chair but your laying on your back. Now, place your hands on your chest as a bio-feedback to ensure you do not move your chest. Lock you pelvis to the floor. Now breath with your lower belly.

Me: I can't do this.

Instructor: Practice here.

* The key points about mini-breathing squats are:
  • The purpose of mini-breathing squats is to connect the breathing to the inguinal crease.
  • The method is to coordinate belly breathing with leg movement.
  • The pre-requisite is the belly must move. (The belly is between the diaphragm and the pubic bone.)
  • Always maintain pressure/tumescence in the belly.
  • Movement is always synchronized.
* The first step is to develop isolated mind-body connection to individual muscles. Then later, there will be too many individual muscles to keep track of. At that point, then generalize to a new feeling.

* In the next class I demonstrated my mini-breathing squats. My instructor's observations are as follows:
  • You're still lifting with your chest. You should only be using your legs to push up your torso.
  • As you hit the top, your greater trochanters are pulling back.
With these observations, verbal cues, and after making corrections, I noticed a feeling of quiet in the pelvis. I wondered to myself, "How can I spread this quiet feeling to other areas?" I continued practicing for about one and a half hours in class. At one point, my instructor noted, "Now you're doing mini-breathing squats! How can you get more "quiet" through the pelvis? That's it..."

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Stop Expecting the Feeling to Be Like Something: Journal Notes #131
Next article in this series: Tension Blocks Connection: Journal Notes #133

Monday, March 30, 2015

Stop Expecting the Feeling to Be Like Something: Journal Notes #131

Notes from my February 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

* My "do it my way, have to be right-ness" is my armor that is preventing me from learning. I won't make progress until I submit which means letting go of these deeply ingrained attitudes, beliefs, judgements.

* Question: About the mini-breathing squat, I can feel the inhale pressurize my lower abdomen on the rising part of the squat but I can't feel a depressurizing on the exhale. How can I feel an equal but opposite feeling?
Instructor: Lay on your back on the floor. Then one school brother is instructed to push down on my chest (to prevent chest breathing). Our instructor then leaned over me, his straight arm ending in a fist, pushed into my lower abdomen just above the pubic bone.

"Breathe out. Now, as you breathe in, push up against my fist. OK. Good. Now breathe out just a little and maintain that push against my fist and stop. And then a little more and stop... and a little more and stop." We repeated this until my breath was fully exhaled. "What did you notice?"

Me: The exhale was more like a stepwise lessening of the inhale/pressure. It felt like pressurizing in the other direction.

Instructor: Good! That's a big breakthrough for you! Now, stand up and do the mini-squat.

Me: (I do.)

Instructor: That looks more like mini-squats! What's different?

Me: I think I was expecting the exhale to have a certain strong feeling like the inhale but when it didn't, I couldn't feel what I thought I was looking for.

Instructor: Stop expecting the feeling to be like something. You'll never get it that way.

Instructor: Have you ever experienced a sunrise on top of Mount Tai?

Me: No, but I've seen pictures.

Instructor: And from pictures and others' descriptions you imagine a certain experience. But when  you experience it yourself for the first time, don't you say, "It's not what I imagined?"

Me: Yes, I've found this to be true in many other "first time" instances.

Instructor: The feeling of connection is like that. If you've never felt it, you really don't know what it feels like so stop wasting your time doing an exercise that you think is developing your "idea" of the feeling of connection. Just do the exercise and work to feel and notice a little more each time. One day the feeling will be there and you won't even know it because the feeling of connection is beyond what you can imagine. This is where a teacher is valuable - to notice for you! A teacher who has connection can see when you are demonstrating connection and say, "That's it! Practice that!"

* And stop saying, "I can't feel." This sets up and reinforces a pattern or neural pathway that keeps you locked in to not feeling. It would be better to say, "I can barely feel..." It would be even better to say, "I notice that I am feeling..." Notice whatever you notice. Build that pattern! Build that neuropathway!

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Preconceived Movement Patterns: Journal Notes #130
Next article in this series: An Rx for Progress?: Journal Notes #132

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Wujifa West Coast Seminar 2015

For all the followers and readers of this blog, and for the many of you have written to me over the years expressing gratitude and appreciation for our very functional, keeping-it-real approach to internal gong-fu training, and for those of you new to this site... this is a rare and golden opportunity for you to experience for yourself what I have been blogging about since 2009!

If you're on the west coast, even if you have to travel a little ways to get there, do it! What's the benefit to you? Personalized attention in a small group setting! Explanations and answers to your questions in plain-English! Practical, functional steps based on where you are now to help you progress toward developing whole-body connected movement!

Announcing the Wujifa West Coast Seminar 2015

The Wujifa Method for Developing Internal Connection and Power

Whether you are a seasoned Wujifa practitioner or you're just getting started, this is a tremendous opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Wujifa principles in action by receiving focused and personal instruction from the founding professor of Wujifa.

This year's theme will focus on the three foundational principles of the basic Wujifa Triangle; Balance, Structure, and Relax as they relate to connection in movement and meditation. With these, one can come to build a practice that unlocks the deeper levels of training in Qigong, Zhan Zhuang, internal martial arts and various meditational practices.

Friday, April 17
7:00 - 9:30 PM

Saturday, April 18
Morning: 10:00 AM - 1:00 PM
Afternoon: 3:00 PM - 6:00 PM

Sunday - Private instruction offered. Please call or email for price and availability.

$60 for Friday, $120 for Saturday All-Day Session
$150 for both Friday and Saturday if you register by March 29th.

Location: Subud Santa Cruz, 3800 Old San Jose Road, Soquel, CA. 95073

Space is Limited

Wujifa west coast seminar advertisement 2015

There is no end to feeling, understanding and being aware!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Value and Uselessness of Dan-Tian Meditation

In the fields of internal martial arts, there are a wide variety of dan-tian (丹田) meditations available. Before choosing any practice you should first know your purpose. What do you want to achieve? Once you are clear about this, then it is important to understand the expected or desired results of the exercise you will engage. Let's look at a couple examples.

One of the old theories for practicing dan-tian meditation can be found in Douglas Wiles' book, Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty. In this he says,
“This theory – taking the mind as fire (trigram Li 離) and body as water (trigram K’an 坎) – seeks to remedy body-mind disharmony by concentrating the mind in the tan-t’ien point in the lower abdomen (placing fire under water) and thereby restoring integration and producing ch’i.”
From this brief sentence we can glean three important points:
  1. Ancient Chinese practitioners also suffered from a kind of body-mind disassociation or "disconnect".
  2. Fundamentally, a method of restoring body-mind integration was to simply place awareness on the body. However, with the infusion of degenerate Daoist cosmology, one reason or the reason for focusing on the dan-tian was the belief that ch’i is produced when you focus on the dan-tian. (Placing fire under a pot of water produces steam; ch'i.) And this brings us to the third point…
  3. The so-called production of ch'i is a by-product of body-mind integration just as steam is a byproduct of boiling water.
Let's look at this for a moment. First, the practice of dan-tian meditation is rooted in an antiquated and colorful cosmology and in my opinion, is completely irrelevant and may even be a distraction to practitioners outside of that cosmology. Second, we can infer that something happens in the process of developing mindbody integration. Third, even though this brief passage doesn't get into the details of various mindbody integration exercises, the point to be understood is that after what may be many years of diligent inward focus on removing internal resistances and blockages, the body changes and the byproduct is ch'i flowing.

There was a study published in 2011 in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine  that was titled: Shaolin Dan Tian Breathing Fosters Relaxed and Attentive Mind: A Randomized Controlled Neuro-Electrophysiological Study. Essentially, this study instructed participants to practice two forms of "Shaolin Dan Tian Breathing". One form was passive and the other active. The passive form consisted of simply observing the dan-tian region while breathing. The active form consisted of alternately tightening and relaxing the anal and abdominal muscles in coordination with the breathing. The results of the study suggested that Shaolin Dan Tian Breathing "facilitated the attainment of the coexisting states of relaxed and attentive mind, which made this breathing technique uniquely different from other more well-known breathing techniques."

From these two examples, we see apparently very different results! (The assumption is that the purpose of producing ch'i will have a different effect than the purpose of achieving a relaxed and attentive mind.) Now let's consider a third example, the Wujifa Mini Breathing Squat. In this exercise, the practitioner focuses on the belly area (between the diaphragm and mid-thigh) and practices coordinating a mini-squat with breathing into the lower abdomen. The intended result of this exercise is different again from the previous two examples.

Many people are disassociated from their body to some degree. As such, they are completely unaware of patterns of muscular tension and flaccidity in their own bodies. (This is true even for seasoned practitioners of qigong and the various "internal" martial arts!) Practicing a dan-tian exercise that is not designed to get you in touch with patterns of muscular tension and flaccidity may be very "enlightening" but it may not yield functional results.

Obviously the one example I gave from Wile's book is but one of many dan-tian meditations. And it should go without saying that modern technology has its limits in terms of measuring results of various qigong practices. The point that I'm trying to make here is that it is important to be keenly aware of both your purpose for practicing a dan-tian meditation and the results the particular exercise is designed to deliver. Be careful to not fall into the trap of expecting Result B from a dan-tian meditation that is designed to deliver Result A.

Happy practicing everyone!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Learning to Play the Wujifa Blues

Ever wonder how learning Wujifa is like learning to play blues guitar? No? Well, Check it out!

My all time favorite blues guitar instructor is Griff Hamlin over at Blues Guitar Unleashed. He's got great instructional materials and provides wonderful instructional tips on his blog. But the real gem for me as a Wujifa practitioner and as a guy learning to play blues guitar is Griff's member newsletters.

Now, what continually amazes me is that as I read his newsletters, I can't help but think that he's talking in code about martial arts and Wujifa. Why I do that? I don't know. Maybe I just see a connection...

Here's an example of what I'm talking about:
"But here's the thing... the blues is the blues - those 5 or 6 notes that make up the blues scales... and maybe you add one or 2 more in for flavor once in a while... that's pretty much it.

(Note: for those of you unfamiliar with music, there are 12 notes and so creating an entire sound and feel based on only 5-6 notes is really amazing!)

Going off and learning all kinds of modes and oddball sounds isn't going to make your blues playing sound more like blues - it's going to make your playing in general sound more like whatever sound you're incorporating.

I know that might sound simple and kind of, "well duh..."

But you'd be amazed how many years I searched for that "new sound" only to realize that when I was up on stage playing it was those same old notes that always sounded the best when I came back to them."

Well, gosh darn! Doesn't this sound familiar? Just like in learning to play blues guitar, learning Wujifa requires learning only a few notes of the entire Martial Arts Scale. Sure, you can learn all kinds of modes (martial arts styles) and oddball sounds (martial arts forms) but doing so isn't going to make your playing (your feeling of internal connection) sound more like blues. (Basically, you ain't gonna "get it" taking this route).

So, learning to play the Wujifa Blues... What do you really want to learn? If you want to develop internal connection, then stick to the few notes in the Wujifa Blues Scale. Learn them really well. Don't get distracted by all the other styles and sounds out there. In fact, the more you hone in on these few notes, the more you'll understand what others are doing with the notes they are using.

What sound are you looking for? The sound of internal connection? Then learn Wujifa.

What is the sound of internal connection? Wujifa!

Happy practicing everyone!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Preconceived Movement Patterns: Journal Notes #130

Notes from my January 2015 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa.

* Question: How about a New Year's assessment? What do you think of my internals compared to this time last year?
Answer: No real improvement. You still haven't made the transition to moving internally. You really need to come to class three times a week to get you over the hump. You've been zig-zagging up and down at the base of the mountain for a very long time but you never get up and over it to move beyond the range in which you are stuck.

(Note: He's right. My lack of progress is not for lack of  expert-level instruction. I'm sure any other teacher would have either kicked me out years ago or kept taking my money and telling me I'm making progress. Truth is that training with Master Rick is the best of all worlds. He's got the coveted full-body connected movement. He's got a keen eye to see what adjustments need to be made. He's extraordinarily patient. If you ask for  honesty, you'll get it. And he's a native English speaker which is really important to me when it comes to explaining these difficult principles in simple, understandable terms.

While I haven't yet made the transition to demonstrating "connected movement" which is the hallmark of real progress, to say I haven't made any progress is equally untrue. The truth lies in the training:progress ratio. I don't train that much so I don't make much progress. If I trained two to three or more hours a day like I did when I was in college and first learning Taichi, then heck, I'd be on my way to master status by now. However, due to various issues in my personal make-up and how this plays out in my personal life, I don't train consistently nor sufficiently. As a result, my limited progress is a reflection of  my limited effort.

There are Wujifa students who have made the transition. In fact, I'd say that his percentage of success is pretty high. Those who unwaveringly follow his instructions and train hard absolutely get results! Fact!)

* Mike, you're way too anxious. You might want to consider some therapeutic modality to help you notice the feeling of not being anxious. For example, maybe try a two week regimen of an anti-anxiety drug. Then notice how this affects your musculature and practice.
(Note: My instructor makes a lot of suggestions which would probably be very helpful. You notice how I say "probably". This is a subtle linguistic example of my doubting the value of his suggestion. I do this all the time. It may be less that I am resistant to experimenting and trying a lot of his suggestions and more that I have to be right. (This is one of my psychological blocks to making progress.) I bet that if I were more open and open to exploring various suggestions, then I'd make much more progress!)

* Question: How do I stay open and not shut-down?
Answer: We've had this conversation so many times over the years. There's a couple things. 1) You want to be right and so you do things to prove me wrong. Look at Mr. S and Mr. L. All three of you ran a similar program. When Mr. L. let go of having to be right (he also had many years previous experience with a nationally known Taichi organization), well, you have noticed the amazing progress he's making. 2) It's a choice. You choose to experience life and all its drama or you hide and wall off the parts that are disagreeable to you. You will not make progress until you choose to walk that road with your every breath. You can't say "Yes" once and expect that to magically transform your entire life though that could be an important first step.

(Note: We actually had a very, very long conversation about this and my own psychological blockages prevented me from remembering everything we talked about when after class I recorded notes from class. In fact, what we talked about could fill a small book! Even now, I can't remember all the details. Sucks for me that I'm gifted with receiving profound insights and then I conveniently "forget" them.)

* Question: How's my side-to-side looking?
Answer: Terrible. Your knees are moving. Your hips aren't tracking smoothly.

(With this observation two school brothers each grabbed a knee, locking it in place and my instructor held my hips level.)

"Now move." he said.

I could only barely move.

"See? You're still using all the wrong muscles! The muscles you need to use are still locked up. It's these tiny ones around the femur head (poking deep into my hip) that have to relax. Feel this hard one? This is the one you use all the time. You have to stop using this one and bring these others on line."

How do I do that?

"That's what you have to figure out for yourself."

But I can do open-kua and close-kua! Watch! (Taking their hands away and demonstrating...)

"Don't do that. You're doing open and close kua externally. You're doing the faux-Tai-chi movement. It's all wrong! Not internal at all!"

(Note: When he tells me, "That's what you have to figure out for yourself", the context here is that after all the adjustments and showing me the direction I need to go in, there is still quite a bit of work that I have to do on my own. He can't do it all for me.)

* Question: How's my mini-breathing squats?
Answer: "Still too mechanical. Where's the aliveness?! Try this. Lay down and do the breathing exercise."

(I do a few breaths.)

"You're not breathing into your lower dan-tian."

(With this pronouncement, he moved to stand next to my torso, put one foot in the center of my chest and shifted a good portion of his 250+ pounds square in the middle of my chest. It felt like I was being crushed. I panicked.)

"Now, breath with your belly or die."

I can't breath...

"Well then you'll die."

I tried to breath down and into my belly but I was so panicked by the overwhelming weight on my chest that I couldn't get my belly to move! My whole body simply seized. He eventually let up and I didn't die but I learned a great lesson about how I fool myself thinking I'm doing belly breathing.

* After this he said something to the effect of... After working with you (Mike) all these years, I see much more clearly just how stuck people can be and how much the exercises have to be "dumbed down" to meet you at your level.
(Note: If I could put a positive spin on all the problems I've been for my teacher, it would be that this idea of  the need to "dumb down" the exercises is a clear indication of why so many people don't make any real progress; the exercises (forms) that they are doing are way, way, way to complicated! To have any chance of making progress requires practicing exercises that are reduced to the most elemental level; meet people where they are. This is the genius of Rick's contribution to the internal martial arts and what makes Wujifa such a potent art form. He's figured out how to meet people where they are and in a step-by-step fashion, guide them to full-body connected movement.)

* Question: Then what should I be practicing?
Answer: Learn how to breath. Lay on your back and get your lower belly (the two fingers width area immediately above the pubic bone) to rise and fall with breathing.

"Like this?"

Not enough. You're filling too much in your upper and mid-belly. You've got to liberate the area that is under the first 2-3 fingers width just above the pubic bone. After you get this area to move freely, then work on getting the legs to move with the breath.

* We worked more on the laying down exercise. He held my knees. I let my legs go limp. He moved my knees with my breathing. With this I could feel other muscles moving that I couldn't feel when I was controlling the movement myself. So a big problem, maybe THE biggest stumbling block is using customarily used muscles and not even knowing or noticing that there are other muscles that could be used.

* I did the laying down leg-moving-with-breathing exercise a little longer and they discovered and illuminated me on how my body was responding to verbal expressions of their observations before I could consciously form a thought about it. (Said another way, when someone said, "See how he's doing X", my body would respond to that comment but I didn't even notice how I changed the movement.) From this I learned that "preconceived" means that the body can respond before a conscious thought is formed about the body's response. I have a LOT of preconceived movement patterns!

* Question: So what chance do I have of making any progress if I don't have conscious control over my own body? If the body automatically performs according to its preconceived movement pattern, how do I even get a chance to notice this on my own?
Answer: "Practice WTF with intention!"

What do you mean?

"Practice non-practice. Have no intention to do what you think you should do. You're messing yourself up doing what you think you should be doing. Try this. Stand up. Do mini-breathing squats. Now spell "London Bridges Falling Down" while doing mini-breathing squats."

(I do this once, and then a second time through.)

"There! What happened?"

I don't know. I'm doing mini-squats and spelling.

"You're body moved correctly as soon as you moved your attention away from your preconceived notion of how to do the exercise! As soon as you weren't focused on doing the move according to your preconceived notion of how to do the move correctly, then you did it correctly!"

(This is soooo typical of Wujifa class. My teacher gets me to the place where I can am doing whole-body connected movement and then after class, something goes wrong in my brain and I just don't follow-through.)

* It occurred to me that a reason for not sharing high-level training with people who are not ready for it is that if they try to do what they see more advanced people doing then they will both A) do it all wrong and B) delude themselves into thinking they are doing it correctly which then becomes another bad habit later down the road to have to undo. This phenomenon is prevalent in many internal martial arts.
(Note: I heard a work colleague (from overseas) describe Americans as suffering from "Advance Disease". It's like Garrison Keeler describes the people of Lake Wobegon "... where all the women are strong, all the men are handsome, and all the children are above average." Americans more than others think of themselves as being more advanced than they really are. They think they can ignore the "low level" stuff and jump right into the "high level" stuff. This attitude creates problems such as being largely responsible for the destruction of Taijiquan in this country.)

* We again did the pressing my chest exercise. This time I was instructed to breath as if through my perineum. As his weight bore down on the center of my chest I tried breathing in from the bottom (rather than from the top) and I could feel something like an inhale filling the lower abdomen but I couldn't pull in enough to satiate my demand for inhale. "There! You did a little. Practice that!"
(Oh look! Dejavu all over again! He got me to the place where I can am doing whole-body connected movement and then something goes wrong in my brain and I just don't follow-through.)

* In the two weeks between classes, I practiced the laying down belly breathing by putting weights on my chest. I have a free-weight set and so I loaded 250 pounds of 25 pound plates on my chest and then practiced breathing without moving the weights; keeping the chest relaxed. What was fascinating from this experience is that I did not experience any panic from having even more weight on my chest than the initial experience in class.
(Note: I was never instructed to go home, pile weights on you chest and try to belly breath. This is my own brain thinking that I know a better way than my instructor. As they say, "How's that working for you?" It's not. This is a huge blockage for me! This is the kind of crazy, passive recalcitrance that he's had to deal with from me over all these years!)
* You developed awareness from your earlier Taichi days but you learned the soft and yielding noodle-man body. In Wujifa, use that awareness with structure. The awareness is the same but different.

* At the next class I demonstrated the laying down breathing I'd been practicing. Now the problem is that I've focused so much on getting the lower abdomen to move with the breath that I locked out the middle and upper abdomen. Now I've got to re-integrate the lower, middle, and upper. When inhaling, begin filling the lower, then middle, then upper and reverse on exhale. When I do this, my instructor noticed that I demonstrate the coveted "full body stretch" and yet, I can't feel it. This is probably from my focusing on one small subset of movement of the entire exercise. I need to balance both focus and awareness. "If you could now expand your awareness and simply notice what your body is doing..."

* Question: What's the difference between experiment and exercise? They seem like two sides of the same coin to me.
Answer: In an exercise, you do what you are told; week after week, month after month. Depending on the exercise, you can mindlessly and robotically go through the practice without connecting with the experience. This is the way most classes are conducted. It's a pretty widespread and deeply ingrained model.

On the other hand, in an experiment, I'm asking you to discover something. I'm asking you to be engaged in a different way. I'm asking you to explore and return with questions. I want you to be alive and experience something.

* Look, Mike. It's not that hard. In fact when you finally get it, you'll probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Gaining Clarity on the Training Methodology: Journal Notes #129
Next article in this series: Stop Expecting the Feeling to Be Like Something: Journal Notes #131

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gaining Clarity on the Training Methodology: Journal Notes #129

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

* During practice, even though I tend to not think thoughts, which suggests to me a level of quietness, in fact, my continuous non-verbal scanning of my body searching for tense areas to relax is also a form of consciously directed inner activity. A question I ask myself is, "How can I simply stand, be present, and calm even this level of activity?"

* Another understanding of dead-post stance is when the body is standing and the mind is elsewhere; disassociated from the body. True calm is not dead-post. However, not-dead-post is not the mind actively scanning the body either. Find a deeper level of experience of "Calm down." Stop matching the calm you feel to your not-calm state. Assume what you label as "calm" is not calm and from that find a deeper calm.

* My school brother offered an hypothesis regarding why my muscles are quivering as they do. The hypothesis is that I know how tense feels but I don't know how relax feels and the quivering/oscillating between tense and relax when I'm in zhan zhuang is me trying to feel relax where I don't know the feeling relax. So I asked about this in the next class.
Answer: This is not true. The fact is that you can feel relax and connected. You have said so yourself on different occasions over the years. I have also seen you do it (stand relaxed and connected) on your own with less and less of my involvement. (In the early years, began with hands on physical adjustments and in recent years, only minimal verbal coaching.) So own it! You do have it within yourself. You know what to do. You have known for a long time. The fact is that when you feel that level of aliveness (relaxed connection) and you go back to your daily life, you shut down. For whatever your fear, you won't maintain that level of relaxed connection/aliveness in your daily life. All the rationalizations, stories, beliefs, and moral codes you adhere to are all expressions of your armor.

[Post-class note: These moments of honesty leave me both exhilarated and depressed. On the up-side, I have stood on the threshold and felt the pre-requisite for developing internally connected movement. On the down-side, I haven't been successful at combating the shutting down which repeatedly pulls me back and away from the threshold. How long am I going to nibble at the crust of the pie, retreat, come back, retreat, before I simply jump into the pie with both feet?]
* Question: How did you come to develop the side-to-side and mini-squat exercises?
Answer: I attended silk reeling seminars over a number of years with a world renowned master and noticed that few of the participants were developing any skill. So I began to wonder if there was a better way to help people "get it". Even though silk-reeling is supposed to be a basic exercise, it was probably still too high a level for most people to grasp. And so I went back, analyzed the basic silk reeling movements and over time I developed these two fundamental exercises to help people begin to feel internal connection.
* Question: What's the difference between silk reeling and these two exercises?
  • First, the focus of these exercises is on feeling and developing the most rudimentary movement of the dan-tian area; horizontal kua movement and vertical kua movement. In the mini-breathing squats, I incorporate the use of breath. Silk-reeling does not include breath as a training component. 
  • Second, you must develop the feeling of connection through the dan-tian area before incorporating upper body movement. After you practice and develop a sense of internal connection through this area, then you can graduate to basic silk reeling practice. 
  • Third, these exercises are actually more powerful than silk-reeling because of their explicit focus on helping you develop the feeling of connection through the dan-tian area.

* We had a long discussion about the word "experiment". I needed to get clear on this because I've long been confused about the difference between how I understand the word vs. how my instructor is using the word. For example, I would learn an exercise (experiment) in class and then go home and change and modify the exercise (experiment) to discover, "What happens if I try it this way instead?" I'd then come back to class and demonstrate what I'd been experimenting with and then get scolded for not doing the experiment.

After this hour-long discussion, what I learned was that "experiment" means to follow the protocols of the experiment to see if I get the same results. I should then come back to class, demonstrate the results I got, sharing what I was doing and the results I was getting. My practice is to repeat the same experiment and see if I get the same results to validate the experiment. For example, one of the protocols may be to not move my back but if I missed this detail, then I've unwittingly changed the design of the experiment and I won't get the same results. When I demonstrate how I've done the experiment, my instructor may notice that I am moving my back which  is contributing to why I am not getting the same result. The repeated verifications in class refine the protocols in my body which should then get me the same results as the original experiment.

* I'm just now acknowledging that I've tightened up a lot over the past several months. There were big changes at work and at home this past year and I loaded all my anxiety and stress into my lower back. During the summer my left knee began popping and grinding when I did stance and I developed soreness in my Achilles tendon. I've lost a lot of the flexibility I used to have. Gratefully, work and home life have now stabilized around their new norm; neither is an ideal situation, but both are stable. Need to get back to doing some basic stretching exercises targeting these tightened areas.

* One element of me is that I feel that I have to be right. My work demands it. My home life depends on it. But in Wujifa practice, an apparently opposite tact of discovery and playfulness is needed. Being right is in my body as rigidity.

* A school brother describing how my "push" feels: You're a strong guy but you pivot off your lower back by locking your lower back into your legs. This is strong but it is not internal. You will not get dan-tian movement with this strategy.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Vertical Kua Exercises: Journal Notes #128