Monthly Archives: March 2010

Recent(ish) favourited posts

4

Honestly, I wish I was articulate as these guys when it comes to talking about the martial arts experience…

Neigong.net:

Internal Gongfu:

Wuyizidi’s Martial Arts Blog:

The Ground Never Misses:

Updated:

I can’t believe I forgot this one:

Tai Chi Studio:

Category: Martial Arts

Getting the point

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Wow. Wow. Wow, Thinking through Yao Lao Shi’s comments in my last class, I’ve just had an insight into Cheng style bagua. It’s got nothing at all do do with the palms. I’m suddenly seeing the ‘dragon palm’ in a new light.

Fingertips.

Sorry to those who already knew this, I’m a slow learner.

Books

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Here are some of the books that I bought while I was in Singapore. I don’t have time right now to write about them, but together they’ve kicked off a train of thought that I’ll go over in a post soon.

The Complete Taiji Dao: The Art of the Chinese Saber (Zhang Yun)

Martial Maneuvers: Fighting Principles and Tactics of the Internal Martial Arts (Phillips Starr)

Jumping Into Plyometrics (Donald A. Chu)


Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski (Phillip B. Zarrilli)

Body Voice Imagination: ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique (David Zinder)

The Six Healing Sounds: Taoist Techniques for Balancing Chi (Mantak Chia)

In the mind and the little details

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Yesterday’s yiquan rocked; lots of good things happened.

During the standing practice, I was working on my right ankle. In recent classes, I’ve noticed that if I make a slight adjustment to the angle between the foot and the ankle, a muscle (or something) that runs down the left-hand side of arch starts taking weight; it get sore quickly, indicating that it’s not accustomed to taking weight. The right foot is the one that always twists outwards when I’m training, both in yiquan and bagua – in fact, Kong Cheng commented on that a few times during our lessons. If I focus on the ankle, making sure that this muscle carries the weight it’s supposed to, then the foot stays straight. It’s amazing that I’d never noticed this before; on the other hand, I suppose it demonstrates that one of the benefits of training in an internal martial art is that it does develop this kind of sensitivity to little sensations in the body. In addition, it may be a coincidence, but I became aware of this after I started wearing my Vibram Five Finger shoes in class (to Master Yao’s great amusement!). I bought a second pair while I was in Singapore, and wore them during the retreat and in Bangkok (they got a lot of attention on Khao San Road, as did my Obamao t-shirts, hehehe).

Speaking of Kong Cheng, I contacted him after I got back from Thailand in order to start my bagua classes again, but the next day he was flying off to Europe again to teach there; he’ll be back in June.

The other thing that happened yesterday was the tui shou, where I got my groove back. I’d been mulling over why things went so badly last week. I recalled that I’d been doing alright for a while, and then everything fell apart, but why? I didn’t suddenly lose my strength or skill, so why the sudden collapse? It must have been a mental thing, a change in the mind. So, yesterday, I trained with two different partners. One of them, I’d partnered last week. I managed to hold my own this time, but realised that my arms and shoulders were hurting a lot. I focused on the arch of my back, trying to keep my tailbone tucked in and the connection strong between back and legs. Then I had an insight: my mind was in my arms; I was directing it towards the points of contact with my partner’s arms. That meant that I was primarily using the strength of arms and shoulders. I switched my attention to the line between legs and back, down into the soles of my feet; my arms became mere appendages to this, simply conveying and extending the movement there. In other words, I suppose, I really did visualise myself as a tree, swaying from the root with the branches moving in turn… Anyway, boom; I was in control. For a while, I carried on the tui shou with my eyes closed; I could feel exactly where my partner’s strength was and neutralise it, and suddenly it was much easier to spin or uproot him.

Next, Master Yao partnered me with a relatively new student, a short, barrel-shaped guy who was physically very strong. Here, I practised my footwork a little more, sliding away from his power at a slight angle, and retreating just in front of it. I worked on using ‘bouncing’ power here to uproot him. this worked, and I managed to get him ‘jumping’ with both knees up high. If I can work out exactly how I did this, and then do it consistently, I’ll feel like I’m making some progress!

Master Yao pointed out that I tend to keep my hands balled in fists during tui shou when I should have them as open palms; he demonstrated how the spread fingers help uproot your partner. My first partner also pointed out that I’ve got a habit of gripping his wrist to control him, which is bad practice.

Sorry, this isn’t going to be too interesting to anyone but me, but I feel like I learned a few things yesterday and I want to note them down!

Meditation


I said I would write about the retreat in Thailand. It was only a couple of weeks ago, and yet already seems a distant memory!

So, here are the basics. I went on a 10-day retreat in Prachinburi, a couple of hours’ drive from Bangkok. The retreat was at one of S. N. Goenka‘s network of schools. This was the third time I’d been to this centre; the first was in February 2004, the second in June 2005.

The daily routine goes like this:

  • 4:00 a.m.Morning wake-up bell
  • 4:30-6:30 a.m Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 6:30-8:00 a.m. Breakfast break
  • 8:00-9:00 a.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00-11:00 a.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
  • 11:00-12:00 noon Lunch break
  • 12 noon-1:00 p.m. Rest, and interviews with the teacher
  • 1:00-2:30 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room
  • 2:30-3:30 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 3:30-5:00 p.m. Meditate in the hall or in your room according to the teacher’s instructions
  • 5:00-6:00 p.m. Tea break
  • 6:00-7:00 p.m Group meditation in the hall
  • 7:00-8:15 p.m. Teacher’s Discourse in the hall
  • 8:15-9:00 p.m. Group meditation in the hall
  • 9:00-9:30 p.m. Question time in the hall
  • 9:30 p.m. Retire to your room; lights out

As you can see, this means around 10.5 hours of meditation every day. The students sit cross-legged on cushions for this – there’s no walking meditation in this school, unlike some other vipassana schools. For the entire 10-day period, students observe Noble Silence – complete silence, and an avoidance of any other communication with other attendees, such as eye contact. We give up all reading and writing materials, phones, computers, mp3 players etc to the centre staff before the course begins, so there are no distractions.

Some of the sessions are group sittings, where everyone comes together in the main dharma hall. In the other sessions, students are free to stay in the hall, or meditate in their bedroom (where I don’t doubt that some grab a crafty extra bit of sleep!). As I mentioned previously, students who have already attended a course are allocated their own personal meditation cell adjoining the dharma hall. I had one, and this is where I practised zhan zhuang, but I’ll come to that later.

The course has a teacher, who is available to answer questions, but most of the instruction is given by Goenkaji, via recordings that are played in the group sittings. Many sessions also begin and end with recordings of Goenkaji chanting sutras in Pali. The evening discourses are video recordings of Goenkaji explaining what the students have done so far, highlighting challenges that students are likely to have faced on each day (based on his experience of having personally run thousands of courses; there are very clear patterns in student experiences), encouraging the students, and telling stories of the Buddha. The main thing is that these discourses are funny; pretty much everyone regards them as the highlight of the course!

The first few days of the course are spent performing anapana meditation. This is an observation of the breath, which allows the students to calm their minds. It’s also the part of the course which trains the students in the long hours of sitting. It’s always a bit of a struggle, but on this course I had great difficulty. From the very first hour of sitting, I was troubled by very disturbing mental images, and found it impossible to calm my mind, or to relax into the sitting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by the way; a major part of the philosophy of the technique is that once the mind is no longer distracted by daily routine, it’s free to start purging ‘mental toxins’ (my phrase, not the course’s) that have accumulated. Not everyone would have this bad experience, and indeed I didn’t have anything like it on my previous retreats. In retrospect, it’s clear that this was down to the fact that the five years since my last retreat have often been stressful and unhappy, so there was a lot of accumulated crap to be cleared out!

At the time, however, I suffered! By the fourth day, I was ready to quit. They’re very strict about this; everyone has to agree before the course begins that once they’ve started they will last the duration, since quitting halfway through without completing the process can cause problems. I was getting ready to fight my way out if necessary, and was making plans on how to use the rest of the vacation; I stayed, because that evening’s discourse was spot on in addressing the experience I was having, and encouraged me to persevere.

By this time, I was getting really drowsy; as I mentioned in a previous post, I had a major sleep debt from the previous few months, which I hadn’t managed to clear before beginning the course. In the morning and noon breaks, I would be sleeping; in the afternoon break I did mindful walking in the gardens, sneaking in a bit of tang ni bu now and then, and contributing to the centres’s chores (which only repeat students are allowed to do) by sweeping the paths clear of leaves (and bursting into a bit of improvised bagua gunfa in the process when I thought no-one was looking).

The next, and main phase of the program, is the vipassana itself. Here the students observe the body’s sensations, including the physical pain of the sitting, in a calm and detached manner, not allowing themselves to become attached to any of them, and remaining mindful that everything passes. There are several periods in which the students are not supposed to move at all, no matter how uncomfortable they are – but in my woozy and still-stressed state, i couldn’t do it (but again, in past retreats, I have. Every time is different; it depends what you take in to it). This is the period in which most people have their breakthroughs, as the accumulated sankharas, the stored-up emotions and memories that are the seeds of future karma, rise to the surface of the mind and – since the mind no longer attaches to them – lose their power. On my first retreat, I had a very powerful breakthrough in this phase; this time round it also happened, but in a much more subdued manner. By this time, I was finding it very difficult to sit, so during the individual sessions, I was standing in zhan zhuang in my cell. This really helped, and I made progress both in the meditation, and in the effectiveness of my standing. Bonus! By the last few days, i was able to do the sitting meditation comfortably as well.

One of the techniques in the vipassana phase is the passing of the mind through the body, in order to observe sensations. At times, i could really feel my qi moving strongly, following my mind. On one occasion, my mind was able to get into my internal organs, especially the lungs, liver (which suddenly felt like a large bag of warm goop), and my kidneys (which tickled). That seemed to kick off a detox, as my urine was very yellow for the next couple of days. It didn’t happen again. It reinforced my understanding of the connections between mind and body, meditation and qigong, and the relationship of those to certain martial arts, and I’m going to have to order my thoughts in order to write about that next.

On the last day, the course finishes by introducing metta meditation, the projection of compassion to all living beings. This is what the course teacher and helpers are doing for most of the course duration.

Once Noble Silence ends, the students are free to talk, to share experiences and get to know one another before the trip back to Bangkok. There’s always a good mix of people; on this occasion there were Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Israelis, Russians, and Hungarians, as well as the Thais, of course. This particular group seem to have bonded more strongly than the other courses I’ve been on, and we’re keeping in touch.

Since I’ve been back in Beijing, my feet barely seem to have touched the ground, I’ve been so busy, but I manage to do fairly frequent standing sessions. I’ve also meeting up once a week for a sitting session with S, who attended the same retreat. On one of these occasions, I really felt a strong connection fire up between an acupuncture point on the front of my abdomen and the ming men point at the base of the back, followed by strong movement of qi around the small heavenly circle.

Although I really found this retreat very difficult, it did clear out massive amounts of accumulated stress and unhappiness; I’ve been feeling much happier since I came back, and people have told me I look years younger.Once work settles down a bit, I do want to start sitting more frequently.

Of course, bear in mind that on each of the three times I’ve attended a retreat, I’ve had a very different experience, and every students’ experience is different depending on what mental baggage they take in with them. This is just what I experienced on this occasion.

I will go on more retreats in the future, though; the teaching and practice of vipassana meditation as a tool for clearing out the seeds of future karma, leading ultimately getting off the wheel of rebirth, is a path I don’t intend to leave, even if my practice is spotty.

Push hands for Haiti


If you’re anywhere near, or within reach of, Seattle, here’s a reminder of a Zheng Man Qing-style taijiquan seminar next weekend. It’s being put on by Scott Meredith, long-time martial artist; 100% of proceeds will be donated to Doctors Without
Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to assist their disaster-relief work in Haiti and elsewhere.

Here’s the flyer:

ZHENG Style Tai Ji Quan Workshop

Mind and sinew


I’m just back from a yiquan class, and I thought I’d type this while I still have use of my arms: soon my hands and back will start stiffening up, and I may not feel like attacking the keyboard!

I’ll talk more about the vipassana retreat some other time, but there are two things to mention. First, I came down with a bad cold while I was in Singapore which stopped me sleeping so, combining that with the sleep debt accumulated over the past year, I was pretty groggy during most of the retreat. This made it really hard to concentrate during the meditation. Secondly, when you do these courses for the first time, you usually sit in a group in the main meditation hall, or in your room in the dormitory. Towards the end of the course, you are assigned your own windowless meditation cell in the main meditation building, next to the meditation hall. When you have already participated in one retreat, you get your cell from the first day. This was my third retreat.

I struggled. Retreats are always challenging, but because I was so tired going in, after a few days of rising at 4am I was really not keeping a clear or focussed mind! In one of the evening dharma talks, Goenkaji suggested that if you’re tired, you might leave the meditation hall, and try meditating while standing. Aha, thought I.

So, for the rest of the retreat I spent most of my solo meditation sessions in my cell, alternating between sitting and zhan zhuang. I tried not to mix techniques, so I didn’t really use the yiquan visualizations (springs/water/etc) but just held the posture while performing vipassana.

One morning, listening to the tropical dawn chorus, I had something of an epiphany when, for perhaps the first time ever, everything fell absolutely into place, and all my weight was being held and transmitted solely by tendons and ligaments, which creaked and cracked as I swayed gently like a ship under sail with no weight on muscle or bone.

Since I got back, that’s really been a guide for me, and I’ve found that I’ve really been noticing small things that make a big difference to posture. I’ve continued to do most of my meditation practice in a standing pose, often with steel rings on my wrists. I do a lot in my office when I need to take a break from the screen – though since my office has a glass door I don’t doubt that rumours and gossip are now rife in my department!

In class, I find that as my sensitivity to where my weight is being held increases, I’m finding it easier to see how full-body power develops – which is not to say that I’m achieving it but, for example, I’m maintaining my balance much more during some of the exercises. I’m also feeling how small changes in the position of my feet have big effects elsewhere.

Last week, during a tui shou session I really felt everything fall into place; my back formed a perfect bow shape, everything connected and transferred power and weight smoothly, and I was able to really control my partner, who I think has done a fair bit of yiquan training.

Pride comes before a fall, and in today’s class I was totally locked down by three different partners. It was very frustrating. Interestingly, they were all taller than me by at least a head; that’s unusual – I realised that until today I’ve almost always trained with partners who were about my own height or shorter. I came to realize that I now had my arms at completely the wrong angle, so there was no connection to my back and legs. No wonder they were able to overwhelm me! I’m going to have to think about that.

Still, I am more convinced than ever that yiquan training and vipassana meditation go together very well indeed. More on that soon.

Added later:

I think I may have reached the point where I’m ready to start taking an interest in yiquan applications. That may seem a strange thing to write, but it really hasn’t been a focus of mine up until now. Ever since I started blogging, I’ve been complaining about the tightness of my shoulders and lower back, and lack of mobility in certain ways, and I’ve mentioned several times that it’s only the yiquan practice
that has had a significant effect on them. As a result, my focus in my yiquan practice so far has been on the health effects more than anything else. I still have a lot of work to do here, but as you may guess from what I wrote above, I feel I’ve made immense progress, and I think now I can pay more serious attention to the combat side of it – which means getting started on strength and endurance training. More on that soon as well.

Bagua tweet


Hmm – just found Bruce Frantzis on Twitter: @brucefrantzis

Still here….

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Sorry for the long silence – re-insertion into the world of work has been …. hectic. I’ll get a real blog post up here soon.

In brief, the yiquan has been going very well, and I learned a lot during the holiday that’s led to some improvements. I’ve been meditating, and last night got time to attend an improv acting workshop, which was cool.

Lots of ideas are buzzing about in my mind, hopefully I’ll get to write something about all that…