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.


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.


Sunday, May 16, 2010


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.


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.


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.