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


  1. Hi,
    your posts are always so big and much to digest! It would be really helpful to read smaller posts more frequently! Because there are really great insights in them, but once I am at the end of the post, I already forgot what I want to comment on specifically!

    1. Hi Angelika,
      Yeah, Wujifa classes are awesome! Imagine three hours of continuous "A-ha" moments. It's always a challenge to jot down notes and try to fill in details later.

      I suppose I could switch to writing a summary after each class rather than compiling a month's worth of class notes. Would this be more helpful?

  2. Hi,

    that would be very helpful!

    Have nice day!