Monday, December 20, 2010

Certificates

I have included on the school page my instructor's certificate and a sample certificate given to Way of Peace Taijiquan students for the various levels of progress. If you are interested in learning taiji and registering for grading levels contact me.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wordle for this blog

Here'a wordle made from the blog:

Following the Breath

In zazen meditation we learn to follow the breath. It is a simple yet prfound exercise that anyone can do. It is easy natural breathing with attention paid to the breath itself. It's a simple awareness of breathing and is deeply relaxing. When you become aware of thoughts, return to the breath.
In taiji, breath is closely associated with qi, energy. Where the breath goes, the energy goes. To follow the breath is to follow the qi. This close association of breath and energy or spirit is found in most of the world's great traditions.  It is a near universal insight.
Breathing is the natural cycle of inhaling and exhaling. It is very circular with a slight natural pause before the in-breath. Sit for a while and observe your breathing. You will notice that the transition from the end of the in-breath to the beginning of the out-breath is very smooth. There is no pause at all. Now notice that at the end of the out-breath there is the briefest of pauses. The briefest of pauses is followed in taiji as the moment of change. I demonstrate it on two short video clips using the Immortal's Wand. I have mentioned this very useful tool in another blog. There are no set forms for the wand, rather a number of gigong meditation exercises. I have found "wand work" as I call it to be supremely relaxing.
In the first clip I am "sinking qi." The wand is moved in slow circles following the breath. The wand is brought toward the body with the in-breath. With the out-breath the wand moves down and qi is sunk to the dantien (roughly just below the belly button and slightly back). At the end of the out-breath is the briefest of pauses. The wand follows this too. Look closely and you will see it.




The second clip is roughly the reverse and is a "pushing qi" exercise as the breath and qi move away from the body. This time qi is drawn on the in-breath as the wand moves upward and then away from the body on the out-breath. The end of the out-breath coincides with the wand at the furthest point from the body. Then a brief pause as the in-breath begins and the wand is drawn down and toward the body in circular motion.
To notice: with sinking qi the pause is when the wand is at its lowest point, close to the body. With pushing qi the pause is when the wand is at the furthest point away from the body. The is a subtle but very clear different feeling to these two exercises.



A couple of other things to notice. Taiji is whole body work. When one part moves all parts move. When one part is still all parts are still. You will notice that knees bend in wand work, not merely arms.
How many cycles of breath a minute? You will notice on these clips roughly six breaths a minute. This is my normal breathing during qigong/taiji. Great masters breath maybe four times a minute. During a recent meeting where I was a little bored, I occupied myself with counting the breaths of those present. The average was around 15-19 breaths a minute. Taiji slows you down. That's a good thing!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Standing like a tree ... Zhan Zhuang

Recently, I have returned to standing qigong at the beginning of daily practice—Zhan Zhuang (pronounced something like "jam jong".) I have found that this really roots me before I begin taiji form. It helps me center, slows me down and gives the form a greater depth after "standing like a tree." It is a very simple process. You simply stand in the wuji stance for up to twenty minutes, breathing deeply, becoming aware of the body. Whilst I keep my legs in the open stance (shoulder width apart, knees bent slightly, shoulders and elbows relaxed, head as if suspended by a golden chord) I vary hand positions. Twenty cycles of breath in wuji, twenty "holding the belly," twenty holding the ball at chest height, twenty arms extended to the side, twenty hands opened outward, twenty "the great circle" and a few others. Seems quite simple! But you certainly feel it. Expect to experience a few trembles in different parts of the body, a little "burning," a few tingles. Simply be aware of the sensations. Focus on the dan tien and allow energy to circulate. It's quite surprising how you feel after twenty minutes meditating like a tree!
A very helpful book on all this is Master Lam Kam Chuen's Chi Kung: Way of Power. The book is well written, with amy beautiful pictures, Chinese calligraphy, and helpful illustrations. There is a complete long term system for developing Zhan Zhuang. Master Lam translates the calligraphy of Grand Master Wang Xiang Zhai to demonstrate poetically the essense of Zhan Zhuang.
Inwardly alert, open, calm.
Outwardly upright, extended, filled with spirit.
This is the foundation of stillness.
Add the hard and the soft. the powerful and the relaxed,
Motion and stillness, contraction and extension:
In the instant these converge, there is power.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

New Video of Simplified 24 Form

Here is a new video of the simplified 24 Form. I'm still experimenting with how to embed videos.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Energy channels and such like ...

Many of the stances in taiji seem awkward at first. The body needs to be reprogrammed to stand, to walk, to be still, to move. Didn't we all learn to walk when we were toddlers? Yes, we did, but we picked up all kinds of bad habits. Taiji helps us consciously learn better habits.
Master Jesse Tsao spekas of an "energy channel" to be kept between the feet when walking forward or backward. This means that moving from wuji stance (feet shoulder width apart) to bow stance (one foot ahead of the other, weighted toward the front foot) feet should still be about a shoulder width apart. Effectively this means as you step forward you also step to the side. It is counter-intuitive as we are used to walking forward with a very narrow stance. If you begin with your feet more or less together, you tend to walk forward with a short sideways distance between your feet. In taiji the stance is more open. This distance between your feet is the energy channel. With practice it becomes more "natural" and is a much more balanced stance. I have noticed with students that it takes quite a time to retrain the body and open the stance. The temptation is always to narrow the stance (side to side). It helps to spend dedicated time simply walking forward and backward, focussing on the sideways distance between the feet.


Here is a great article on the bow stance from Neigong.net



Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lightness, Slowness, Roundness, Smoothness

http://www.whitedragonofeastcounty.com/
History_TaiChi.aspx
In traditional taiji there are no grades. Progress is measured by the development of qi—energy. But, how do you measure qi? According to Jou Tsung Hwa, Cheng Man-Ching defines skill in taiji according to three categories: humanity, earth, and sky. He further divided these into three levels each (nine in all). Jou, following Cheng's lead used the same three categories but further divided them into four sub-categories (twelve in all). The first level, humanity, would take a student three to five years to become proficient. Here are the first four levels a student needs to concentrate on

  • Ching (lightness)
  • Man (slowness)
  • Yuan (roundness)
  • Yun (smoothness)

In all the forms and postures students need an awareness of these four principles as qi develops.Watching a skilled taiji player you will notice the lightness, slowness, roundness and smoothness of her form. This takes great skill, but is a measure how progress in the art.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Begin again

I heard today that my examination was accepted and that Master Jesse Tsao (12th Generation Chen Lineage) has certified me an instructor. I feel truly honored and humbled. I am very happy that Way of Peace Taijiquan is associated with such a distinguished taiji master and wonderful teacher.

This feels to me like a beginning again. Back to basics. Back to wuji. Beginning taiji. Learning yin and yang. There is a long way to go.

Stay well!

Andy

Monday, October 11, 2010

Catching up

It's been over a month since a post. What have I been up to? Mostly helping students start a taiji club at the college where I teach. That has been a lot of fun! I have a wonderful group of students who are making great progress and have loads of enthusiasm.
I have also been getting ready for my examination for instructor with Master Jesse Tsao (reading, writing, meditating, thinking). It's been a while since an exam and getting back into it from the other side of "grading" is interesting.
The daily practice teaches much and when I have some time I will write posts on cane routine, more on taiji ruler, and getting more in touch with the taiji classics.
In the meantime, I have uploaded a few videos of various forms (under the video tab). The are for aide memoire only and not to be taken as teaching tools. For that, I suggest interested folk get hold of Master Jesse's teaching DVDs. Then you can see all the mistakes in my form! These videos are what form looks like after 300+ hours practice (in Way of Peace Taijiquan at level 6).

Stay rooted,

Andy

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Taiji and the flu

It started on Tuesday. Bit of a sore throat beginning. Aching a bit here and there. Worse on Wednesday. Played squash. Very achy afterward. Thursday voice beginning to go. Friday "rough as an old boot"! But it was first week of classes so I went in to teach and attend some important committees. Not well at all. Canceled squash. Friday I also missed my morning practice. Spent a longer time soaking in the hot tub.
Saturday I managed some gentle qigong and felt energized. For a while only. Worse than Friday. 
This morning an hour and a quarter qigong. Felt much better during and after the practice than when I woke. Voice still very gruff. Also, I used some acupressure on points related to colds and flu.
Reflections:
I have come to the view that regular daily qigong/taiji practice is helpful in warding off illness. This year, the little bug is the first that has knocked me sideways. I was hoping to avoid it altogether. So, modified belief. Qigong/taiji practice does not make you invulnerable to illness. However, in that the practice is an all over body-mind-spirit workout that brings general wellness, daily practice is a good thing.
Also, this was the first time since serious taiji study and practice that I have had such energy depletion. Apart from Friday when I was really rough and did not practice beside some breathing mediation (laying in bed) my practice did bring a renewal of energy. I felt that particularly so this morning. Conclusion: gentle gigong while sick does make a difference in qi levels. It is also possible that during the practice, negative qi is released, thus contributing to well-being.
Acupressure also seemed helpful. Here is the link.
Acupressure Points for Colds and Flu



Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Immortal's Wand

One of the things I am enjoying immensely about taijiquan is how much there is to learn! It is a whole new vista of interesting things. I keep finding new stuff!
I stumbled upon the taiji ruler. It is sometime's called "The Immortal's Wand." This is much more romantic, and being a bit of an old romantic I like this! The "wand" is about twelve inches long, nearly two inches diameter, with shaped ends that fit comfortably into the palms of the hand. I found a great maker of taiji ruler's on ebay. This is mine, made of cocobolo wood. Very pretty indeed. As you work with a wand it begins to retain your energy and becomes distinctly yours. I am looking forward to this as I continue to practice.


So what do you do with a twelve inch stick? Information on the Immortal's Wand is a bit scarce, compared to other stuff on taiji, but here goes.
The wand is held between the palms and taiji forms are practiced with the wand between the palms in circular movements. (Everything in taiji is circular and spiral.) According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the pericardium meridian moves from one palm to another around the heart making a kind of energy circuit. Forms where the palms are joined by the wand are especially powerful in the movement of qi. As with most taiji forms, wand practice is very gentle, very relaxing and very energizing. Here's what I have discovered from personal practice so far:
  1. Ten-fifteen minutes practice with the wand before other taiji really helps. 
  2. Using the wand helps establish deep patterns of breathing (as with other qigong exercises before taiji).
  3. There seems to be a much greater flow of chi after wand practice than before.
  4. Having the wand between the palms greatly helps in symmetrical movement of the body

Here's a pic of the pericardium meridian to help you visualize it:

This from the web site http://www.lieske.com/channels/5e-pericardium.htm
Great resource on TCM
Happy taiji!

Andy

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Qigong: the slow way to health and well-being

Taiji is a form of qigong. Qigong is "energy work" in Chinese. I suspect that most people come to qigong after playing taiji for a while and want to know more. I suspect also that it comes as a surprise to find that taiji is not the mother discipline, but one of many hundreds of daughters of qigong.
Qigong can be simplified (at least as a memory devise) as: meditation, medicine and martial art. The three "m"s. The three "m"s are also three gateways to qigong practice. Some arrive at qigong because meditation is important to them. Perhaps they have practiced Zen breath meditation for a while and then pursue other meditation techniques. The very basis of qigong is breathing. In qigong there are sitting, walking, moving and standing meditation techniques. From all I have read the foundation is being able to stand. There is more to simply standing than meets the eye! Taiji is a form of moving qigong.
Some arrive at qigong through the second "m" of medicine. Qigong is a wonderfully well developed system of complementary medicine that has been practiced in Chine for millenia. But, qigong is not a quick fix. Studies document  amazing health and healing results in qigong practitioners for all kinds of ailments, including the "big C." But we are talking practice that takes time. Not a quick surgery, out in a day and a week's recovery. Qigong practice takes months, years, a lifetime of daily relaxation, meditation and gentle movement. Qigong helps the body
to help itself through the movement of energy, releasing of blockages to energy and giving the body its own defenses against illness. Qigong is no guarantee that when the flu season arrives you will not get the flu. But qigong prepares the body to fight off illnesses through its own inner mechanisms. The long term benefits are wonderful for joints, muscles, organs, digestion, circulation, tension and a host of other issues.
The final "m" is martial arts and qigong is of the "internal" variety. It is about energy rather than physical strength. Having tried the "hard" martial arts some discover in the "soft" arts a different, perhaps more holistic approach.
Whatever the gateway, gigong becomes a wonderful practice. It's about lifestyle. I have included links to a couple of books I have found very helpful.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Taijiquan on a long road trip

Sunrise Lake Fayetteville, AR
I have just returned from a three week, 3,371 miles, 16 State road trip to see the family. It was a wonderful time, and we got to see a great deal of America. We stayed in a variety of motel/hotels of varying qualities and it gave me ample time to experiment with taiji on the road, to practice in motel rooms, poolsides, and in parks and gardens. I didn't quite get to practice as much as I normally do, but managed almost and hour a day (usually some morning and evening practice). I had opportunity to study on wonderful book on qigong (more in another blog to follow). Things I learned:

  • You can practice taiji anywhere
  • It's good to have a store of forms that can be completed in a small place
  • Standing qigong is wonderful after a long day in the car. It deals with all the aches and pains of driving
  • Taiji is good before getting into the car for a long day driving!
  • Cramped circumstances gave me more opportunity to focus on the individual elements of a form (what does each knee feel like? how deep is the belly breathing? how is the qi moving today? etc)

All in all, a great trip and glad to be doing taiji.

Andy

Friday, July 30, 2010

More on knees ...

An update on my knees. After a few days of no pain, I started getting some pain again in both knees. Not all the time, but certainly when serious bending and sometimes on turning. Something clearly wrong, so time to do some research. I was a runner for quite a few years, and sporadically over the last few years. I used to go through periods of knee pain. Crushed ice on the knees after a run (actually frozen peas—very effective). It might be that I did some damage to my knees with all that pavement pounding.

My research revealed a couple of things. Lots of advice for folk with bad knees to take up tai chi. Tai chi will help bad knees is the general consensus. But then, quite a few folk who report getting bad knees after doing tai chi for some time. Hmm ...

There are also those who say, "Take up tai chi. It can't do any damage." But then other who say, "Do taiji wrong and you can damage your knees." Looking at the credentials of those who make the comments, I am tempted to go with the latter. If you practice seriously, there is a lot of knee bending, and a lot of knee turning. If you persistently bend and turn with your knees incorrectly you can do damage.

So, what have I learned about correct knee position? It's back to basics.

  1. Don't go too low as a beginner. The masters look great, but they have practiced for years and have developed great flexibility and strength.
  2. Make sure your knees don't go over your toes when you bend.
  3. Make sure your knees do not bend inward.
  4. If you get pain in your knees don't bend or turn to the point of pain. If you feel pain, pull back, raise your position.

I have been paying attention to these basic ideas. Number 3 has been very interesting. To move the knees outward rather than inward makes for a much stronger stance. It is also a definite point of attention. I think it may be that I have been allowing my knees to bend inward, particularly the back knee in any stance. So, I am paying attention still to knees. I'll report again.

Here's an interesting link about knee health: Yoga For Knees

Andy

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Be kind to your body

It's something I am learning to do.

But let me back up a little. We have a way of talking about the body as if it is not "us" but something separate from us; something we own, "my body." It's as if the "me" is not the body, but the "me" has a body as an appendage.

Our trouble with the body is as old as recorded history. The body is a wild horse that needs to be mastered (the ancients). The mind and body are a dualism (the moderns). But, what if the body is just who you are? Be kind to you!

Mostly, we are unconscious of the body until it begins to play up. You don't notice your feet until someone treads on your toe. You don't think about your stomach, until it is upset. Your head sits on your shoulders unfelt until you get a headache. Body consciousness (and that is what taiji is) is about becoming more aware. Being more aware you become kinder.

I have noticed this with sports. Not the ones we watch as spectators, but the ones we engage in. I was talking with a friend recently who has not been exercising regularly for some time. "I need a good work out, sweat a little," he said. We have a view that every now and then the body is better for a good thrashing! (English public school style.) That is not being kind to you. You will feel it. The body will ache. You will pant a lot, sweat a bit and think it's done you good. I wonder.

Before practicing taiji more seriously than before, my games have been squash and running (2-3 games of squash a week, plus a couple of runs of about 3-4 miles). They have kept me pretty fit. Both are good exercises, but both are pretty jarring on the body. I have noticed in recent years that in both squash and running, I am more prone to aches and pains. Knee aches. Ankle aches. Back aches. Shoulder aches. (Of course, my right shoulder still aches because I ran into the wall playing squash six months ago. Stupid thing to do!) In both sports I have learned to push hard. Give it 100%. More if you can.

I am rethinking. The other week my knees started to ache a little. Hmm ... All I have read about taiji is that it is good for your joints and muscles. What was the issue? I began to pay attention to my knees. Focus energy there while practicing; becoming more aware of the feeling in and around the knees with different forms and movements. I realized that I was pushing too hard. After years of "One hundred percent effort. No pain no gain" thinking, I had taken it over into taiji.

New way of thinking. Be kind. Don't push so hard. If anything hurts, pull back. In any movement take it only to 70% of your ability. Be kind to your body. Be kind to you.

The difference? My knees did not ache as much. I am hoping that the ache will go away completely.


Andy

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Taiji as play

I have noticed that in a number of taiji books taiji is referred to as "play," and those who do taiji as "players." Other books speak of "practice" or "training."

I have had an aversion to calling taiji play, but I am rethinking. Practice and training are goal oriented. You practice to get better at the thing you practice. You train with some end in mind: to be fitter, to compete in a race. When you play, well, you just play! Play is childish. It is one of those things we put behind us when we mature. When adults play it is a little self-indulgent. Play is usually unfocussed. Play is not serious. Play is an end in itself. It doesn't go anywhere. It is not instrumental to something else. It just is.

I suspect I have imbibed too much our cultural emphasis on getting things done. "I had a productive day," we say. Ever hear, "I had a playful day"?

Max Weber (one of the fathers of sociology) had something to say about the "rational" and the "irrational." Rationality is goal oriented behavior. Irrationality is doing things merely for the sake of doing them. In Western society, we discovered that the most productive form of human behavior was rational. We have looked down on the irrational. That's how we accomplished so much. In his other phrase, Weber called this the "Protestant work ethic." It underlies capitalistic enterprise.

(This is an aside, but it always irks me when in a restaurant the wait staff ask, "Are you finished or are you still working on it." Dinner is not work! Dinner is more like play ... or should be.)

What if taiji is irrational, in a Weberian sense. It just is. It is not producing anything. It is play. Pure and simple. Feeling playful?

Don't work too hard at it!

Andy

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Different energy

Last week we had a lovely time at the ocean, camping at Delaware. It gave me the rare treat of my daily practice on the beach with the Atlantic waves rolling in, only a few feet away. I noticed a very different energy than in my yard at home. This was not really a surprise as I have noticed that energy is different in different places at different times. Practice is different in the sun than in the shade. Different in doors than out doors. Different on a still day than on a stormy, windy day. This makes taiji all the more delightful. I don't know what the explanation might be, but it is a fun part of the journey. I suspect that these different energy levels are there all the time. It is just that in becoming more aware it becomes more obvious.

Andy

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Feeling relaxed? Got "song?"

It is a truism to say that the pace and pressures of life have increased immensely. Many folk work long hours, most weeks of the year, to enjoy a couple of week's relaxation on vacation. When vacation arrives it takes the first week to "come down" from the hectic speed of life. By the end of the second week you're just about getting used to it. Then back to work.

There are cultural differences. We noticed when we moved to the USA how much more pressure people are under to work hard, to be productive, to accomplish something ... anything. Friends told us their bosses frowned on them taking two weeks vacation together, and thought they were slackers if they took all four weeks in any year. It still surpirses me when in September I ask a colleague, "Did you have a good summer?" to hear the reply, "Yes, I got a lot done ... followed by a list of accomplishments ... But, I didn't get as much done as I wanted ... followed by a confession of things left undone." In my mind, I am asking about vacation, sun, relaxation, fun.

In Europe, people are more ready to take all the time they can get, work shorter weeks, shorter days, and try to relax a bit more. Still, it is changing there too. Bosses are demanding more work. Workers feel more pressure. Like the USA, to live the material dream you need two people working full-time to afford all you want. True relaxation is in short supply.

There is an important idea in taiji called song (pronounced something like "sown"). It is usually translated "relaxed" and refers to an ideal state. We all need a bit more song. In beginning taiji it can be elusive. "Relax the shoulders," you are told but what does it mean? I have discovered that taiji is "better felt than telt." (For those not from Yorkshire, a rough translation is "you can feel what it means, but it is very difficult to put into words." I think that is why most of the books I have read about taiji sound at times to be speaking in riddles.

In my practice today, I was meditating on the state of song. Feeling it too. What does it feel like? A bit like "Mr. Floppy." Your body feels very fluid. Fluid around a stable spine. Very balanced. Feels like you are a puppet. You are conscious of each part of your body and can place attention there to feel the fluidity. Nothing aches. Well-being. Close eyes, pleasantly floating. Alive and alert. Happy.

Got song?

Andy

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's balance, really ...

It must be age. Increasingly I have found myself drawn to those philosophies that suggest balance is the way to go. Aristotle had it with his "golden mean." Buddhism has it with the "middle way." Stoicism had it with a moderate life. In days gone by I liked the excitement of the extreme. You'll find me now closer to the middle somewhere, hopefully balanced.

Taiji is about balance. Physical balance of course. (I can now stand on one leg, perfectly still, longer than I ever thought possible!) But, much more than that. Taiji signals a life in balance. As yang ends yin begins. As yin wanes yang waxes. So, balance need not be the boring middle, but the gentle flow from one side to the other. The Psalmist long ago penned:
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning.
Sad today? Be sure happiness will be yours soon. Happy today? Be ready, for life will bring its sadnesses.

Balance comes through nonresistance to the changes of life. Are you feeling pushed? Don't push back. Allow the push to exhaust itself. Roll back. As whatever is pushing you runs out of steam (as it will) be ready to press forward. Is something pulling you? If you pull back against it, you will be out of balance. Allow it to pull you. Stick with it. It will soon reach its end. Then you can pull back. In balance.

Taiji practice teaches to notice movement, change, to be balanced in the flow of life, ready for the next change, ready and willing to meet it.

Andy

Friday, June 11, 2010

The taiji classics ... "suspended headtop"

Perhaps the most essential piece of writing for taiji practitioners is the taiji classics. These are a collection of small accounts of taiji by nine writers, some known and some unknown. The classics can be found in a number of translations (and are often found as an appendix to a larger work).


I quite like the translation of Lo, Inn, Amacker and Foe. It is large print and the sayings and displayed well with lots of space. Ideal for meditation. This was one of the first books on taiji I read and I keep returning to it. My guess is that I will come back to it many times in the future. The reason is that the classics are brief aphorisms that repay careful attention and thought. I have discovered that each time I come back to the classics I learn something new and discover that my taiji has entered a new phase where things that did not make sense begin to make sense.


This is the case with the saying that the head should be suspended by a cord from above. In the classics it comes up a number of times. Here's one of them:


When the ching shen (spirit) is raised,
there is no fault
of stangnacy and heaviness.
This is called suspended headtop.

To be honest, that was (and is) a bit of a mystery as are many of the sayings in the classics. I kind of "get them," but not quite. Recently in my practice I have begun to "get it" more so than before. In terms of posture the spine is to be aligned. The notion of a cord pulling the head upward, while the shoulders relax and chi is sunk downward makes for a correct spine alignment. What does it feel like? It feels very relaxed and very flexible. With eyes closed, feet rooted in earth and legs stable, it is easy to imagine a very stable center with a fluid circumference. It is a very connected feeling.

I realize that this is difficult to put into words. But, now when I read the classics my feeling is, "Ah, yes! I know what you mean." At least, I think I know what it means. Doubtless, there are further depths.

I am enjoying this journey!

Andy

Sunday, May 30, 2010

So much variety: where to start?

Today I completed learning the Eight Immortals Cane Routine taught by Master Jesse Tsao. It has been a lot of fun. Of course, learning the form is only the very beginning. I think it will take a long time to really understand the form and get the most from it.

But it does raise the questions: how to begin to choose from so much variety in taiji; what is the best way to learn; and how to fit it in to a limited practice time? My "inventory" of forms I have learned so far is:

  • Warm up in 18 forms
  • Yang 24 form
  • Eight Piece Brocade qigong
  • Eight Immortals cane Routine One
  • Various qigong standing postures
Each builds on the other and once you have learned how to sink chi, walk forward and backward, differentiate substantial and insubstantial, basic hand movements etc. new forms are easier. I have found that I manage one new lesson a week (as taught by Master Jesse). Each lesson contains around 4 or 5 fairly intricate movements. Then I practice the new movements the following week adding them to the parts of the form I have already learned. Over time it builds up. It means that for a form with 12 lessons, I can learn it about three months of daily practice.

The next trick is determining what to practice each day. Most of us are limited in time we can give to meditation or exercise. However limited the time I think each day needs some warm up (joints and chi flow), qigong meditation, form already learnt and something new. That would be very difficult to fit into, say, 15 mins. I find a minimum of 45 mins allows me to accomplish the above. Better with and hour or more. I try to learn new movements at the weekend when I have more time to devote to the learning.

Links for the cane form:


Eight Section Brocade:


What kind of cane to use?

You can buy specialized martial arts canes from Cane Masters.

I bought one from Summit Walking Staffs. Mine is a sumac root cane. Very pretty, quite sturdy, very pretty and great for practice. They are $20-25 plus $5 shipping. I got mine on ebay. You can see them here.

Andy

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Journeying inward ... the "mind in the body"

Taiji has become for me part of the inward journey. The inward journey is a road of self discovery. It also brings a deeply spiritual connection with the divine. Meditation and mindfulness are essential components. They are deeply connected. Taiji is meditation in motion. Taiji aims at placing "the mind in the body"—a place of greater awareness, connectedness, rootedness. It helps us move beyond a mind-body dualism toward a new wholeness of being.

At first, it doesn't always feel like that! Much of early taiji play brings a realization of how uncoordinated and disconnected we are! (I should say "I" rather than "we," as this was my own experience. I suspect it is also the experience of others.) It doesn't feel "deep" nor spiritual, but merely clumsy. Yet, from the very beginning it is clear that there is something quite good in this body consciousness practice. At the very least amidst the clumsiness is a profound relaxation. After practicing a while, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual benefits are quite evident.

A few pointers:

a) I have discovered that before any moving taiji it is very helpful to practice still qigong. Qigong has sitting meditation (much like zen sitting practice), but let me suggest standing giqong. It is quite simple to practice. Assume the wuji opening stance (feet shoulder width apart, knees unlocked, slightly bent, shoulders relaxed, arms to the side fingers pointing downward with a gap at the armpits thus keeping the arms a few inches away from the body, head as if suspended from above a by a cord—the whole stance is rooted into the earth.) It takes longer to explain that to apply! Then breath deeply and gently from the abdomen (see belly breathing).

Meditatation in this wuji position for several minutes before you begin to do moving taiji, I have found a wonderful difference. The stillness of wuji is carried into the yin yang of movement. I am experimenting with other qigong standing positions (there are very many) that free up chi in different ways.

In ancient times most practice was of this still variety. I have discovered that, when time allows, half an hour standing meditation followed by and hour taiji play is very helpful.

Andy

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Taijido?

In my research on the ethics of love, I came across the Japanese philosopher and founder of the martial art Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. In Aikido circles, Ueshiba is often known as O'Sensei.
I was at first surprised to discover a martial artist/philosopher while researching love, and then intrigued by what I found.
Ueshiba had practiced martial arts from being a child, but had a moment of Enlightenment in 1942 at age 59. In his Enlightenment he saw that budo (the way of war) was actually budo (the way of love). It was then that he formally founded Aikido, as a new way of practicing martial arts. Aikido was to be an internal art, focussed on ki—energy, spirit, breath. Ai-ki-do is the way of harmony through ki. Ueshiba interprets this as the spirit of love. So, in his Aikido there is no competition. There is a commitment to not harm an aggressor, but rather to become one with him/her. Aikido is a martial art based in nonresistance and nonviolence. There is focus on yin/yang, on breath, and on circularity.
Much of this is strongly resonant with Taoist philosophy underlying taiji, and some sources suggest that Ueshiba at one point was influenced by a taiji master.
I will suggest two books to those interested.
The Secret Teachings of Aikido and The Art of Peace. The first is a longer, more intricate book full of metaphysical interpretations of life. The second is a collection of the sayings drawn from the larger work. I prefer the second (in the the Shambala Library edition if you can get it. It has a ribbon marker and each saying is on a separate page. very useful for meditation).
In my research, taiji and aikido have many different schools. Both have traditions that focus on the inflicting of lethal harm to opponents. In Aikido, that is certainly an aberration from the founders teaching.
I would like to think that as I develop my taiji practice that I could do so in the spirit of O'Sensei. Would that be Taijido? An intersection of words, an intersection of languages—a commingling of traditions? Here are a few O'Sensei quotes to whet your appetite:
The Art of Peace is the principle of nonresistance. Because it is nonresistant, it is victorious from the beginning. Those with evil intentions or contentious thoughts are vanquished. The Art of Peace is invincible because it contends with nothing.
All life is a manifestation of the spirit, a manifestation of love. And the Art of Peace is the purest form of that principle. A warrior is charged with bringing a halt to all contention and strife. Universal love functions in many forms; each manifestation should be allowed free expression.
The Art of Peace is not an object that anyone possesses, nor is it something you can give to another. You must understand the Art of Peace from within, and express it in your own words.

Andy


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Shallow breathing, belly breathing

Ithaca NY is a bumper sticker kind of town.

I am not a bumper sticker kind of person.

But in slow traffic, the barrage of bumper bumph is a mild distraction.

The most useful is the one that says simply, "breathe." It's a bit of a truism, but it's a nice reminder. Breathing is good for you. Of course, we all breathe all the time, but a great deal of our breathing is shallow. It is breathing using only the top part of the lungs. It gives us oxygen, but not in the most efficient way, not in a way that helps our internal organs.

Enter belly breathing. Sometimes it is said to be diaphragm breathing, but that's clumsy. Belly breathing sounds fun. It is. It is breathing that uses the whole of the lungs and moves the diaphragm. In doing so it gently massages the internal organs. It is deeper breathing and so more efficient. It is also closely linked with qi (see previous blog).

But how to do it. For some years now, I start every philosophy class with breathing meditation. Here's a simple exercise I suggest to students.

  • Don't force your breath, let it be natural.
  • Do focus on your breath. Be aware of it. Where it originates. How it makes your insides feel.
  • When you exhale, do so fully until you feel your tummy muscles tighten. That ensures you are pushing out all the air.
  • As you breath in, you will do so firstly from your belly, and then from the upper part of the lungs.
  • Breathe out fully again.
  • Repeat.

If you look at your self in a mirror (no clothes) you will see the way the breath moves your body. If it is all chest, you are breathing shallow. If you see your belly move, that's belly breathing.

Taiji is most importantly about breathing.

A great resource, as ever, is Mike Garofalo's web site. Check out his resources on Breathing Practices.

Andy

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The wind blows

Weird weather! We are in the middle of one of those strange storms. The temperature dropped 20 degrees and the wind and rain came. The rain stopped. The wind stayed. I have never seen the tall pine trees in our yard bend so much. Trees are down all over the place.

So I decided to play taiji in the wind. Wow!

All the world's great traditions have a special place for energy/spirit: ki, qi, ruach, pneuma. The traditions make a close connection of qi to the breath, to wind. In taiji many of the forms are a gathering of energy, from the earth, from the heavens. Playing in strong wind was quite exciting. I felt a great connection between qi inside and qi outside.

The qi blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Qi.

Andy


Thursday, April 29, 2010

I'm playing in the rain ...

A borderland experience.

In Ithaca NY we are in that strange weather time as spring tries to break through. A hot day, a cold day, a wet day, a windy day. You never quite know what is coming. Yesterday, we had a sprinkling of snow. On Saturday is will be in the high 70s. The other morning it was raining. Not a heavy deluge, just a constant drizzle. It wasn't cold so I did my morning practice outside in the rain, partly shaded by our beautiful magnolia tree in full bloom. In Celtic spirituality this would be a borderland experience—doing something you would not do normally. Something on the edge of your regular routine. When it rains, we usually come inside. On the borderland, when it rains you go outside and experience it. You connect with nature. You breath the air you usually don't. You feel the tingling of rain drops on exposed skin. Practice in the rain is fun.

Body follows mind.

I am fortunate that our daughter Bekah is a trained and licensed massage therapist. She knows all about bodies. I explained to her my issues with posture and she helped me find the centerline. This is a line from the top of the head through the wuji point (slightly back from dantien area toward the spine) and through the midpoint of the stance into the ground. Weight is evenly distributed left to right, but on the "bubbling well" points of the feet. The bubbling well is slightly forward of the arch, roughly between the two balls at the front of the feet. The feet generally are like suction cups grabbing the earth. When Bekah said I was centered in the correct posture, it felt to me that I was leaning slightly backward. Too many years standing with bad posture is the verdict. It helped greatly. I can now feel in my body what it is like to be centered. It time it will become the new normal.

I am also learning that body follows mind. During practice sinking qi is to place intention at the dantien area. "Raising the spirit" is to have the intention of the head suspended from above by a chord. The waist and below is substantial, above the waist insubstantial. In practice, body follows the intention. Body follows mind.

Andy

Friday, April 23, 2010

A big mirror helps

I am writing this from a hotel room somewhere in New York. I was on a university panel looking at ethics and technology. Quite fun!

For my practice today I went to the fitness room in the hotel. Rather nice. Lots of top-notch equipment, which I didn't need. But, a lot of open space, which I did need. On one wall—the whole of the wall—was a mirror. A big mirror. "Perfect," I thought. "Now I can see what my taiji form looks like." Oh dear!

It reminded me of the poem:

O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.
Robert Burns

For those not familiar with Scots, roughly paraphrased, "It is a gift to see ourselves the way others see us." It's both a gift and, well, a bit of an eye opener. I discovered quite a lot about myself, my body, my posture. I could see a thousand things wrong with my form. It was also very helpful and I could correct quite a bit.

Years ago, when I was a traditional minister, one of the parishioners told me that I ought to stand up straight. "Young man, you lean over too much. Mark my words, your back will curve." Hmm ... I suppose it was all those years hunched over a pulpit. I had seen the old boys do it. I imitated them. Not a good idea, in the long run. I systematically trained myself in bad posture.

In the big mirror it was plain to see. When I corrected my posture, it felt really wrong. I felt like I was leaning over backward. I looked in the mirror: really right. I felt in my body: really wrong. I have read that it takes a long time to retrain your body. In qigong philosophy, it is said that bad posture, holding our bodies in the wrong way, blocks energy flow. The blocking of energy flow is a cause of many of our maladies and sicknesses. Qigong retrains the body, opens the energy flow and works toward good health. It takes along time, but I am glad to be working on it. One very slow step at a time.

Now where can I get a big mirror?

Andy

Friday, April 16, 2010

Collecting heaven's energy

Since the warmer weather has arrived I have really enjoyed my practice outside. It is a such a joy to breathe fresh air!

Part of my practice is to complete the "Tai Chi Warm Up in 18 Forms" as taught by Master Jesse Tsao. It is divided into two sections. The first is simply warming up the joints. The second is to open up internal energy. This is a list of the forms:

Part I: Warm up body joints

  1. Wrist rolling
  2. Elbows rolling
  3. Shoulder rolling
  4. Neck rolling
  5. Bending sideways
  6. Waist turning
  7. Hips rotation
  8. Knees rotation
  9. Ankle rotation

Part II: Work on internal energy flow

  1. Up and down flow
  2. Out and in flow
  3. Turning the yin yang ball
  4. Collect heaven energy
  5. Collect earth energy
  6. Big bear’s shoulder
  7. Double needles
  8. Flying bird
  9. Golden rooster

To complete the form with some additional qigong takes about half an hour. There is a beautiful symmetry and development to the forms. I want to mention just one of the forms: collecting heaven energy. The form begins (as they all do) in wuji (opening stance), sinking chi. Then knees bend, arms swing to the side and then reach high. The outstretched hands gather energy and then bathe the head and body with energy as they return to wuji.

The delight of being outside is that in our yard we have around 50 very tall pine trees. As I stretch up, my hands seem to reach up to the top of the trees and then beyond to the clouds. As my hands return, bathing my head and body, as if taking a shower—though the hands do not touch the body—it feels as if all that heaven energy is poured into me. Gathering heaven energy is an extraordinary enlivening experience. My sense is of a true unity with all things.

Andy

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Feiyue shoes


Little foot note (pun intended).

I have returned to practice in the Feiyue shoes I bought for the princely sum of $14.99 on Amazon. I decided to persist with the slightly rounded sole. Finding balance in these is slightly more difficult than in Converse Chucks, but in the end it will aid balance. The Feiyue are lighter and there is more a feel of the ground. More flexibility too.

Here's another footnote. I had read that the Feiyue were probably fakes, with the genuine article costing much more. Since then, I have seen a number of photos of Shoalin monks training. As far as I can see the shoes are the same. So I think the fake story was, well, a fake story. Well I never!

Andy

A few more helpful books


Here are a few more books that I have enjoyed reading. They all relate to the Yang style taijiquan.

Tri Thong Dang's Beginning T'ai Chi is a useful book on the simplified taiji (24 Forms). Each form has useful drawings and helpful commentary on the form. It is a handy reference guide to check on various elements of the forms.

Steffan de Graffenried's Anatomy of Yang Family Tai Chi is a different kind of book. This book aims to get behind the "flowery, esoteric language" of the taiji classics and explain them in practical ways. There is no description of any particular form. rather the author explains principles that are applicable in all forms. I found this very helpful and it is clear that de Graffenried has a wide experience and clear grasp of taiji. There are also helpful photographs explaining some of the issues he talks about. My slight dissapointment with the book is that the writing style is not great. Mr de Graffenried would have been helped by a good copy editor.
Far too many errors in the book. If you can get passed those, there is much good information.

Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan is a translation by Louis Swaim of Fu Zhongwen original Chinese text. This is a larger book and one that is more thorough than the other two. Like Dang's book, this one has drawings, but the accompanying text is more thorough. There is basic introductory material, a detail description of the Yang 85 Form, a section on push hands, and a translation of the taiji classics.

All good stuff!

Andy

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Whose Style? Which Form?

A quick look at the literature, or a Google search, reveals that there are a myriad different approaches to taijiquan. How do we choose a style? And having chosen a style which form is best to learn?

Initially, it is likely that the style will be chosen for us. It will be the style of the local tai chi class, or the style of the first book or DVD you get. For me, it was the Yang style. The different styles tend to derive from a family who created the style and then passed it down from generation to generation. Yang is, apparently, the most popular style in China. Yang style is a gentle flowing movement, practiced at the same slow, graceful pace. Other styles, Chen for example, have periods in the form of fast paced movement. Yang was the style in the first book I read and so it became my practice from the beginning. As I had begun with Yang I decided to continue to learn the form more fully.

Which form?

Each of the styles has a number of different forms, of varying lengths and complexities. I decided to learn the Short 24 Form, the Tai Chi Eight Immortals Cane Routine 1, which is Yang style, basic push hands as well as basic common taijiquan and qigong exercises and breathing techniques. It's quite a lot and my estimate is that it will require around 300 hours of training to become familiar with the Forms just listed. And this is just the "tip of the iceberg"! Then there is the more complete Yang long 108 form, Yang applications etc. Then maybe Chen style ... then ...

I think the best advice is to take it slowly. I have read that the ancient masters would have students learn stillness for five years before they began any movement. My above list may be far too ambitious. Time will tell.

Of course, it is not the arrival at a destination, but the journey that is important. Expectations for the journey? A greater sense of health, well-being, balance and centeredness. I'll keep you posted!

Andy

Friday, April 2, 2010

What's in a name?

In Chinese:

太极拳

You will see tai chi written in English in a number of ways The two most common are:

  • tai chi chuan
  • taijiquan

How to pronounce it? Tie-gee-chew-an (as best as I can make out). It's important to note that the "chi" in tai chi is not the same as ch'i, energy or breath.

Literally, tai chi chuan means "supreme ultimate fist." I don't think that is too helpful without an explanation. Translating from one language to another is a tricky exercise and literal translations are often "wooden" and sometimes plain misleading. I have heard more than once native French or German speaking philosophers lament at how bad the English translations are. The "literal" meaning of a word often changes when combined with other words in phrases and sentences. Words have cultural associations and lengthy traditions of nuanced meanings. For example, I have tried in vain to explain to American students the meaning of the British English phrase, "Don't be cheeky!" There is no "literal" translation. And this is from two versions of the same language! I fear it is more complex when taking Chinese characters and trying to make English sense.

Let's have a go! From my reading it seems that the final character is easiest. Literally "fist," the character contains meanings associated with the martial arts. I have seen it referred to many times as "boxing." Yet, tai chi and western boxing seem to have very little in common. In a broader sense, "fist" is the response to aggression through disarming an attack. Buried in the concept are understandings of character and action. In other words, "fist" is a varied and complex idea that repays careful study.

"Supreme ultimate" is even trickier! In English the phrase is clumsy and is close to tautology, almost the "best best." Literally tai chi chuan would then be the "very best way of fighting." But, tai chi has a deep rooting in Chinese philosophy. Tai chi is the beginning of all that is, in the harmony of yin and yang. Tai chi is the balance and beauty and perfection of the universe.

Tai chi chuan would then be something more like, "the way of meeting aggression through the natural harmony of universal principles in the constant change and balance of yin and yang." If so, then "way of peace" is a closer understanding of tai chi chuan than "supreme ultimate fist."

Andy


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Books I have found helpful

I thought it might be helpful to mention a few books that I have found helpful in my practice of tai chi. I will make a few comments on each book.

A word about my comments. The activity of reading is a wonderfully dynamic adventure! Roles in the adventure are taken by: the author; the author's life world and experiences; the book itself; the reader; and the reader's life world and experiences. All of these interact in a delightfully complex way. Because of the fluidity and interaction of each of these elements, interpretations of any particular book are many and varied. It is also the reason why each time we read the same book we get something different from it. Our life world has changed. We have enjoyed new experiences. Our understanding grows and changes. Reading the book itself changes our perspectives. This is all by way of saying that my comments arise from a particular place in my tai chi journey, which is a particular place in my life journey. As a student of tai chi, I'm sure I have missed much in these books that a master would see. Also, I am not in a position to truly critique the books and point out any problems with either theory or practice. But, I can tell you have each has been helpful to me at this particular point.

So here goes ...


If you only get one book, this is the one to get. It is a mine of information with 260 pages packed with small print. There are chapters covering the history of tai chi, philosophy, practice, the tai chi classics, experiences and push hands.

It is the kind of book that repays careful reading a number of times. In fact, I have referred to it again and again.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, I most appreciated the philosophy that Jou explains. It has been very helpful in linking tai chi's physicality with its origins in Taoist philosophy. His chapter on experiences is also very useful. Jou answers the question, "What does it feel like to practice tai chi?" He looks at this both at the beginning and then also in later practice. Altogether a great book to have on hand as a reference tool.

Andy

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Flowing days and awkward days

Some days practice flows. Some days practice is awkward.

Today was very awkward. Not at all in balance. Nothing felt right.

If I was in Star Wars, I would say, "There is a disturbance in the force, Master."

Of course, it could just be that some days are better than others (period). No need for further explanation. But I am prone to introspection and notice that yesterday there were a number of professional and personal issues playing on my mind. Also, I have a mild tummy upset. All set to make me "out of balance."

So, what is the deal with "balance."

I am thinking not only of physical balance, though that was off today, but the whole balance of life. When I am balanced I feel better about myself, about life, about everything. When I am out of balance I am not my best for others. And being my best for others is very important to me.

Tai chi is helping in two ways:

  1. When I am out of balance, my tai chi is off. It is a clear sign for me that something is not right and that I need to find the source of the imbalance.
  2. Tai chi helps immensely in giving a greater sense of balance and restoring it when it goes askew. There is a particular chi kung practice, "opening chi," that I have found very helpful. Basically, it is a flowing, circular movement with the arms, as the waist rotates from side to side. Very restorative. I will eventually post some videos to reference the practice I talk about.

Andy

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A threefold cord

With tai chi, as with other activities, some folk try for a while and soon give up. Many of us start with good intentions! I suspect that not a few folk feel a little "cheated" by the advertising byline, "Tai chi chuan—easy, gentle, a breeze, works miracles. Try it!"

It looks so beautiful—effortless—when you see a master practice. But, then you try it and your body feels like it doesn't belong to you. The simplest of things become extraordinarily hard. You fall over your feet. And your muscles hurt. It's enough to put anyone off.

But then, it grabs you and you start to get serious. A once a week class becomes a few days a week practice. Then a more or less daily practice. Then an indispensable part of life.

If you do get serious, there is a threefold cord to help your practice develop.

Wu chi: meditation, stillness.

Tai chi chuan: movement, change, Forms.

The Tao: the Way, philosophy, study, including the mystery and wisdom of the I Ching.

The three belong together, but it's likely that you will start with one and that one will lead to the others. I arrived at tai chi through philosophy and meditation. I have been practicing sitting and walking meditation for about 11 years, with greater or lesser commitment and intensity. For the last several years, I have begun all my philosophy classes at the university with breathing meditation. My meditation practice arose out of my work as a philosopher. I am deeply intrigued by the question, "How should we live?" The Tao (and philosophy generally) is one way of beginning to answer the question. Meditation helps immensely in making philosophy more than merely a mental exercise. Tai chi is meditation in motion. Tai chi is the unity of mind and body through chi.

If your exploration turns to a serious seeking, the threefold cord becomes very important. Each strengthens the other. A threefold cord, who can break?

I will look at each of the three as time allows.

Andy