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!