Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A resolution for 2015? Try tai chi!

It's the time of year to make resolutions (and hopefully not to break them too soon!) It seems most of the new year resolutions relate to health, or weight, or exercise. Many are probably too unrealistic to "stick." Nonetheless, we use the new year to take stock. So, why not try tai chi?
Five years ago this week I began to keep a daily record of my taiji practice. I suppose it was part of a new year resolution to take my practice more seriously. Since I began my daily journal I have completed over 2,200 hours of taiji, and many more hours studying and teaching taiji and ancient Chinese philosophy. That averages about an hour and twelve minutes a day. It's been quite a journey and I'm still loving it.
If you're tempted to start here's a few things I have learned:
1. Taiji is "easy" but it's not easy. Anyone can begin a taiji practice, get many benefits and much enjoyment from day one. It's as easy as taking a breath, making a step, or raising an arm or two. Easy! But after you have taken that first breath or first step you realize that this simple stuff is not easy at all.
2. You don't need any special equipment or go to any special place. You do your taiji right where you are. So it's relatively cheap!
3. It improves your balance, flexibility, strength, and concentration.
4. You get to know your body, and it's patterns and rhythms.
5. If you want something absorbing, that takes a lifetime to truly master, that has infinite variety, taiji fits the bill.
6. Also, you meet some really nice people who are taiji players!
What's not to love about it? So, go on give it a try!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Summer Training with Taijiquan Master, Dr. Jesse Tsao

I was honored to join the summer taiji training with Master Jesse and a couple dozen wonderful folk from many places in the USA and beyond.
But how to distill such a wonderful and intense week into a short blog? With difficulty! As they say with any good story; "You had to be there!"
The week was themed around the idea of neigong—internal energy cultivation—and Master Jesse taught us in three areas: neigong in a new short form—mini compact taiji, based on the Chen system; neigong in each of the long forms in the main family traditions of Chen, Yang, Sun and Wu; and neigong in push hands play.
Much of the week focussed on the core concepts of taiji that can be applied in any style. As Jesse teaches, this is like learning a formula rather than memorizing the answer to a math question. The formula can be applied in many situations. Yet, like some math formulas, the core concepts of taiji, though easily stated, take much practice for a player to become proficient. Simply stated the core concepts are: 1) settle down before any movement (feet, hips, shoulders), 2) practice the "figure eight" from heel to opposite toes, to same foot heel, to opposite toes, and 3) become aware of the connections between the three "rings of energy," feet and hands, knees and elbows, hips and shoulders. I used to think that patting the head and rubbing the tummy at the same time was difficult, but this? There are so many layers of somatic complexity. Whatever the style of taiji practices, these essential ideas form the core. Jesse taught us the principles using the Chen compact mini routine, and we then applied them to other forms. During the week I had opportunity to apply the principles in the long forms of Chen, Yang and Wu, with some shorter work with Sun. Chen and Yang long forms are my alternate daily practice. Wu and Sun were new to me and I enjoyed their different energies. The fluidity and power observed in taiji masters derives from the internalization of these principles with their effect in every posture and transition. When you look at taiji and it seems less flowing, wooden (sticklike) and disjointed, it is because these principles have not yet been internalized.
The testing out of the principles comes not only in the forms but in partner work often translated into English as "push hands." Jesse taught us that "control" is a better understanding than "push," and that hands are a minor part of the play. Much more it is about rooting, settling, centering, controlling your self (knowing your self) and only then controlling your partner (knowing your partner). There is immense subtlety in push hands. The temptation is always to overcommit, lose the center, panic, win at all costs, and save face. I learned from Jesse that much is about the Ego  and Ego-attachments. We win by losing. We invest in loss. This week I did a great deal of investment! (Not to mention a fair few bruises from my friends who sometimes gripped too hard!)
All in all, a wonderful week of learning, and a great deal of fun. I returned home with so many new insights, and in this morning's practice I already see the benefits.
Many thanks to all participants from whom I learned a great deal, to Isabelle, Alain and Thomas who cared for me above and beyond the call, and most of all to my sifu master Jesse, a wonderful, compassionate and extraordinary teacher.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Summer reading for taijiquan players

I have always been a reader. I suppose I "can't help it." Something takes my interest and I read about it. usually read lots about it. When I became serious about taijiquan I read about it. I read as much as I could find. Even before I had raised my hands to gather energy, or had taken my first slow step, I had read a slew of books.
Yet, taiji is something you do, you feel in your body, you connect with the energies of earth and heaven. You don't just read about it. You can, of course, read about it, but that is not "it."
One of my academic areas of interest is somaesthetics—body consciousness. Philosophy has had a great deal to "say" about the body; some of it good, most of it bad. Much has been written about escape from the body (into the mind, or the spirit, or anywhere "out of the body"). Much has been written about subduing the body and its appetites. In the west a little has been written about the connection of mind and body (quite a bit being written recently from the slant of brain science).
But all of this is "written down," presenting models to explain the mind and body connection. Scholars have not had much to say about "somatic practice," body consciousness, actually doing, feeling, moving, noticing the body. Hence, the fairly recent discipline in philosophy of somaesthetics. Some of us are trying not just to think, write, and read about the body, but to experience the body in positive, integrative, energetic ways.
Yet, still I read! But here's the thing with reading about taijiquan. The writing only makes sense in so far as you experience in your body the interconnectedness of mind, body, earth, and energy that you read about. This makes taiji reading intriguing. I have found that when I read a taiji book I pick up lots of good stuff as it gels with my current level of taiji experience and awareness. "Ah, yes, I have felt that!" In the same book much passes me by. I read the words, and though they make grammatical sense, the true meaning is lost on me because I have not experienced what the writer is speaking of. Six months later I go back to that same book, same page, and see something completely different, as if I had not read the book before. "Ah, yes, I now know what that feels like!" When I first read the taiji classics, I though "no big deal." Since then, I have come to appreciate their depths.
Which brings  me to summer reading for the taijiquan player. I discovered the trilogy of books by John Loupos some time ago. John  writes from many years experience as a taiji player and teacher. He writes in a a clear and accessible way. What I like about these books is that each is written in many short vignettes, most no more than a page or two. When needed the text is accompanied by very helpful photos and some creative artwork. Taken together there are thirty-seven very helpful chapters. Each chapter is divided into from four to seventeen sections. Altogether there are scores of bite-size, manageable, often brilliant teachings. I like, too, that you don't have to read the books, or the chapters in each book, in order. You can dip in and out as your feel like it. Each section is self-contained. In fact, I have found that the best approach. In each section there is much to digest, much to "try out," and much to somatically experience. In other words, you can't really just sit down and read these books. You read and you play. To get the most from John's teaching, you read and play and play and play and play again. It takes time to internalize each principle, each movement, each connection.
Enjoy and have a great summer of taiji!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Morning taiji, barefoot in the wet grass ... bliss

For a few years now I have been barefoot as much as possible. I'm not sure how it happened. I suppose it was when I began taiji and bought some Feiyue martial arts shoes (I blogged about it in 2010). These are very minimalist "sneakers," what we used to call in England plimsoles, or pumps, when I was a kid. (Tricky, because in the US pumps refer to women's shoes with heels.)
Feiyue shoes have no support, no arches, minimal cushioning. At first they felt really weird. For years I had been used to shoes that encased my feet, offering very little flexibility.
In time I really took to the minimalist shoes.
I wondered whether this would damage my feet. For years I had bought into the view that feet needed to be overprotected. My feet very rarely touched the ground without shoes, often with very thick spongey soles. So I did some research and discovered the "barefoot revolution." People all over the place were throwing off their shoes and connected with the Earth again.
One of the leaders of the revolution was "Vibram Fivefingers." I bought some and took to them immediately. I hiked in them; ran in them; played squash in them. The trouble with them is that they are very strange to look at. You get funny looks when you where them. And they don't go with suits and bow ties! So at work, traditional shoes, outside work Fivefingers.
Then I discovered Softstar Shoes. They make a perfect minimalist shoe that go perfectly with more formal attire. I bought a pair, then another, and never looked back!
So, its barefoot or almost barefoot for me, all the time. I tried a pair of my former shoes. Ouch! I couldn't walk in them. So alien after being barefoot. My feet feel great. I suffered from sore arches before going barefoot. That has now gone.
Of course, it takes a little while getting used to, and the "experts" say you should go barefoot incrementally so your feet get used to the new way of walking. It is different. I realized early how very much I was used to striking hard with my heels, and thus jarring my whole body.
All by way of saying that last night we had major rain. So today taiji, barefoot, on the wet grass. Sensually a treat!
Recently, I have been reading about the "earthing" or "grounding" movement. In brief, it says that our modern footwear has insulated us from Earth. The human body is charged positively. The Earth negatively. Traditionally, every day humans balanced the bioelectricity of the body by "earthing" connecting with the ground. Recently, we have lost the connection, insulated against it by rubber and plastic. The problem: the imbalance is connected to inflammation and its associated maladies.
Earthing is, I discovered, a bonus! Healthy, strong feet by being barefoot, and bioelectrical body balance.
Interestingly, the research suggests that the main "grounding" point of the body is the ball of the foot—the bubbling well point, K1, in Traditional Chinese Medicine. How cool! East meets West. It gives a whole new perspective to "rooting" in taiji.
So, try going barefoot. Your feet will thank you. You body will benefit!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Congratulations faculty and staff

Congratulations to the faculty and staff members who completed the fifteen week qigong for wellness course. It's quite a commitment and I was so pleased with those who made it to the end! We are all looking forward to the visit of Master Jesse in September. Well done all!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Great spring semester ...

Last class today with another wonderful group of students. Twenty-five received their certificates of completion. During the semester they learned sitting mediation, a joint routine to keep joints open and flexible, some basic taijiquan and the Eight Pieces of Brocade Qigong.
Already looking forward to the fall class with another twenty-five students already signed up!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Save the date ... Master Jesse Tsao in Cortland NY

Save the date! September 5-7, 2014 Taijiquan Master Jesse Tsao will be at SUNY Cortland NY. Friday evening Master Tsao will give a public lecture and demonstration. Saturday and Sunday Master Tsao will teach Chen Compact Mini Taijiquan routine. This routine will be a great "kick start" to taiji practice, and a beneficial shorter Chen routine for those new to Chen style. It will also be useful for those in different taiji styles to "cross-train."
Friday Public Lecture is free. Two day workshop is free for Cortland students, $100 for Cortland Faculty and Staff, and $200 general public.
Stay tuned for more details.