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.