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.


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?


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.


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!


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!


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!


Friday, April 2, 2010

What's in a name?

In Chinese:


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."


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.