Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Taijiquan training with Master Jesse Tsao

Day 1 ... Up at 4:15 EST. Plane delayed, broken jetway, and a traffic jam for the shuttle meant I missed my connection to San Diego (by five minutes!) Re-routed through Phoenix. Landed in San Diego 3:05 PST. The adventure begins! Made it for the last fifteen minutes of the first days teaching. What did I miss? Settle before you move. Met the good taiji players staying at my motel and we shared our food.
Day 2 ... A good night's sleep. Woke at four dosed until six. Simple stretching and breakfast. For the next two days we will concentrate on a either Yang long form or Chen Old Frame first routine. I know them both and they form the mainstay of my practice. But which to choose?
I chose Yang long form and learned a lot. But a mixed day. Highlights: having Master Jesse teach. He is so insightful and very detailed. When Jesse corrects mistakes in your form you remember. As he teaches he also gives fascinating background on the history of the form, why changes were made along the way, some deep insights into energy work, martial arts application, and health issues.
For instance, I learned today that the 24 Form, though often introduced as Yang style, has marked differences from traditional Yang in many ways. Stepping in backward in "repulse the monkey" in 24 Form has the feet almost behind each other, causing a twist. This looks quite good, but is actually very unstable and impossible for martial arts. As the hand goes behind in brushed knee in 24 Form the hand is palm down. In traditional the palm turns out in a block. There are other subtle simplifications that took Yang and made it less martial in application (as historically Yang took Chen and did the same).
Much of the training today followed from yesterday and learning to settle before every move. This gives stability, sinks qi, and prepares you for the next movement.
The day was mixed in that my power back pain got increasingly bad. I had a few interventions during the day (different stretching exercises, a little back manipulation etc). Sadly, while bringing a little relief, the pain remained. This was frustrating as I was unable to move as freely as I normally move. This and other aspects of the day caused some inner ego-attachment work. Attachments to our self-image is difficult to lose and painful in the losing. Frustrating as all this seemed, I think actually it will be to the good in the long term. Today I feel a little bruised (physically and psychologically) and humbled.
But a good night's sleep again, and today is a new day. I hope my back holds out.
Day 3 ... Great day of learning. By the end of the day our Yang long form group was very smooth and together. The last few times through the whole form felt really good, with a great synergy between us. It is quite delightful to have Master Jesse teach directly and to gain his insights. Those who have seen Jesse know that in the forms his body seems to flow like water. I asked directly about that and Jesse helped a lot. Much has to do with the flexibility of the kwa, hip movement, pelvis, and lower back. It is impossible to describe in words either what the movement looks like or how it is carried out. Much practice to be done on my part!
The most interesting part of the day was when I asked Jesse why we punch low in the second part of the Yang form and exactly where is the punch intended. Belly button is the answer. I asked why. Jesse told me to relax and placed his thumb about an inch from my stomach. Then a short fa jin. I can honestly say I have rarely felt anything like it. Intense pain, almost like an explosion inside. It completely and utterly disoriented me. It is the site of an acupuncture point. Lessons learned? Taiji is very effective as self-defense. Great care is needed with taiji. Acupuncture points can be used for healing or hurting. Without wanting to sound too mystical I feel there was a profound connection between master and disciple in the exchange.
My back held out, felt good in the form, and when I felt it beginning to hurt I did several lower back exercises. The only restriction was in the low form "snake creeps down." I generally go very low with extended leg almost flat. I decided to keep it to medium low.
All in all a growing day. Today we do qigong. Looking forward to it.
Day 4 ....
Master Jesse took us through the basic qigong for health routine that I have taught my students. A lot of insight and additional points of understanding. Very helpful. In the afternoon Jesse taught us taiji bang massage. This was new to me but such a help. Using the bang (a piece of wood or bamboo roughly 15-18 inches long—we used bamboo sticks) you can very effectively give yourself an all over body massage. Being qigong massage the routine follows all the meridian points. It will be great to teach this to others.
Jesse was very insistent again that qigong and taiji are not "magic," but rather putting the mind/body in line with nature and the natural rythyms of life and the universe. Perhaps we are so out of touch with the natural way that when we encounter the natural way it feels like magic. Yet, there are some folk around who take advantage of the gullible and make all kinds of nonsensical claims for qi. Beware!
I spent a long time on one part of the Yang long form. Much help from Jesse and by the end of many repititions I think I had internalized it.
Did some push hands with a very competent player. Learned much.
By the end of the day's training I had reached saturation point. The last half hour I was spent.
My back held out again, though I still used caution with snake creeps down. The most effective stretch for it seems to be a full squat, feet twelve inches apart, toes slightly angled out. Stretches the lower back nicely.
Day 5 ... push hands ... Hopefully my skill will improve. What a fun day! In a nutshell, the secret of push hands is to settle, to maintain your center, and not to use li (force) but rather jin (energy) to find your partner's center and to unbalance them. Sounds simple. Extraordinarily difficult. Push hands brings out all your insecurities, competitiveness, foolishness and fears. It shows you where your taiji form is ineffective, where you are tense, unbalanced, and fearful. It reveals the same about your partner. It's a very good way to get to know someone.
Master Jesse taught us three basic principles: how to settle, how to receive a push, and how to push. He taught us, too, the figure eight principle of moving forward to backward. Other than that we pushed, and Jesse corrected us. Six hours of push hands! Today I have small finger sized bruises on both arms and chest in several places. My favorite part of the day was free pushing hands with Alain Mellan, one of Jesse's senior instructors. Alain is such a gracious man and in push hands as slippy as a wet fish! Great fun. Alain taught me much. My biggest issue is trying too hard. Need to learn to relax into the structure, giving in the front, strong as steel in the back.
Day 6 ... Another morning of form work, with a great yoga warm up. I had never done the yoga before (quite a stretch!) More good correction of Yang form by Master Jesse. A good end to the training.
A delightful lunch and afternoon walk with Isabelle, Alain and Thomas. Visited the meditation garden of the Self-Realization Fellowship. Very peaceful with wonderful trees and nice view of the ocean.
Day 7 ... Back to Ithaca. Smooth lights, no delays. Great week. Much to process.
(Update on back ... steadily got better in the second half of the training. In my form first day home, snake creeps down all the way to the floor with no pain. Traditionally, we are told to rest the back when it hurts. I did 30 hours taiji and the back got steadily better. Much stretching, twisting, turning, movement. And  lot of Tiger Balm!)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Back to earth ...

Taijiquan is at once very simple—balance, relaxation, standing, walking—and yet ever so complex. To learn taiji is to learn connection to earth, to find your part in nature, to learn the flow and to go with the flow, to work with change. It seems to me that much of the exercise and fitness industry is about trying to work against change, to stop the flow, to turn the clock back. The human fight against nature is a lost cause!
For years I have suffered periodically with back pain. Doubtless this has been brought on by years of bad posture, and by aging too. I suppose most folk suffer from the occasional foolish lifting of heavy objects, or twisting while carrying something. Instant pain that lasts for a day or two or longer. I have noticed that as I age these have become more frequent. Most recently I was putting heavy cases in the truck of a friend's car. Very carelessly I leaned over and pulled the heaviest case. I pulled my lower back too! So, learning how to deal with this has become a challenge.
Here's what I am learning so far:
a) I'm not in my twenties anymore! Part of living successfully is to flow with the change of getting older. That doesn't mean you give in and flop on the couch. It does mean you have to become more aware of limitations and work with them.
b) Reading widely on lower back pain, some folk are suggesting that this is our culture's current manifestation of stress. Not too long ago, the physical symptom of stress was stomach issues. Seems now it is more commonly back issues. When stressed we hold ourselves tense, our center of gravity is kept high (in the chest area). The result is bad posture, sore muscles, neck strains, back pains, pulled muscles.
c) So, if lower back pain is due to stress and bad posture, how to deal with it? I suppose, take care of the stress and take care of the posture!
d) Stress is a tricky subject and there is no consensus about what stress is, its causes, and why it manifests in different physical ways. It seems clear that we need at least some stress and tension in life. Without tension in the right places the building collapses! But too much stress and the building collapses for different reasons. Balance is needed. If the human mind/body is like a building then no tension at all and we would simply be a "blob." Gravity is working constantly to push us to the ground. The only reason we stand upright is because of the tension in the body—bone structure, tendons, muscles, fascia etc. But, get the tension wrong—bad posture— and gravity makes us feel it in aches and pains and pulled muscles.
e) Most of us keep our center of gravity too high (see my previous blog with advice from Master Jesse Tsao). I have been working on lowering the center to just below the hips, roughly at the center of the perineum (though in polite company we tend not to talk about the perineum!) This involves threes things: 1. physically lowering the center by unlocking the knees, sinking the kwa structures of the hips, 2. intentionally focusing on this lower center, and 3. on the out-breath allowing the whole structure to sink (sinking the qi). I have found this most helpful with the back pain. Instead of fighting nature (gravity) and holding an awkward posture, this works with nature and returns you to earth, rooted, connected. I have also discovered that in taiji form to take this approach means no pain at all. If I do not lower the center, sink the qi, then the back pain is present. There are also some useful qigong exercises for stretching the back ever so gently that I have incorporated into my morning routine.
f) That fixes the posture issues! But in contemporary life we face many points of stress and tension that work against a balanced life. One solution is to get rid of those stress points we don't need to live with. A toxic relationship? End it. Bad eating habits? Change them. Taking the pressures from work home? Leave them at the office door. Three other helpful strategies: 1. Some inner work is called for—looking at ego-attachments, facing grief, dealing with trauma. Sometimes you can work this through yourself. Sometimes not. A good friend or counselor can help. 2. The very same strategy for dealing with bad physical posture is also an antidote to stress. Taijiquan works! Over time taiji play linked with taiji philosophy and outlook lowers stress levels. 3. Get some body and energy work through a reiki master.
Stay rooted,