This is a bit overdue, but pressure of work has stopped me from writing. Anyway, here’s my review of a week spent at an Inner Alchemy retreat with Daoist Master Mantak Chia, at his Tao Garden retreat near Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.
To begin at the beginning, as the saying goes…
Twelve years ago I trained in taijigong – that is to say, taijiquan combined with qigong – at Nam Wah Pai in Singapore. Twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, I attended three-hour classes on the roof of a building in Geylang, an old and disreputable part of Singapore packed with brothels, temples, and great places to eat. We would train on the airy, flat roof of a building, a hundred or so students divided up into classes according to level. In the distance, the towers of the Central Business District glowed brightly into the night. From lower floors, the drumming of a Sikh gurdwara, and the chanting of a Buddhist study group echoed up the building’s central airwell, while the cupola of a mosque across the street was at the same level as we were. A couple buildings down, a small food court generated constant, enticing, streams of aroma – chilli, garlic, all the smells of the food of south-east Asia.
We practised shaking, hitting with mung-bean sacks, the Microcosmic orbit, connecting with the energy of the stars and the energy of the earth… Rubbing the face, and swallowing saliva… Moving our attention from internal organ to internal organ and inwardly smiling at them… Thinking about the bones, and the marrow inside them…
Within a few months I felt that my dantian was so packed with qi that it felt like a cricket ball. I felt a layer of qi between my fascia and my skin, like a suit of armour, and I found that when someone pushed me, that area would instinctively expand, diverting and deflecting the incoming force.
Wanting to understand more about what I was studying, I looked for books about qigong. At a new-age bookshop in Holland Village, I found a couple of books by Mantak Chia which seemed to contain similar techniques but, when I read them, they seemed to constantly refer to other techniques in other books, and I could never quite work out what I was meant to do or where to start.
Life happened, and I moved on – to China, back to Singapore, then back and forth between the two for several years. When I was in Singapore I was always short of either time or money, so never made it back to the school where I’d trained.
In China, I tried several times over the years to train in qigong, but I only found teachers in the CPC-approved qigong methods of the ba duan jin, yi jin jing, and others and, while helpful, they never taught any of the profoundly effective qi work I’d experienced in Singapore. I gradually felt my own qi dissipating and weakening.
Earlier this year, I came to the conclusion that my health had been undermined by events over the last few years to the extent that I needed to take urgent action. I contacted my old teacher in Singapore about the possibility of a short period of intensive training, but the price he quoted me was astonishingly high, beyond my resources.
So, I decided to try out Mantak Chia, and to see if he was indeed teaching the same techniques. Then, by good fortune, I noticed on his website that the second week of a four-week retreat he was running coincided with a week when I had no work. The description of the first week sounded more like what I’d done before but hey – if the second week was the only week I was free, then the second week was the week I would attend! I paid my deposit, booked a flight, and waited…
I flew out of Beijing at the crack of dawn on Sunday 17th July, transferred at Bangkok, and eventually arrived at Chiang Mai. I was met without problems by a driver – Woody – from Tao Garden, and reached the centre after a 45-minute drive. I checked in, got the key to my room, and napped before the first session of the retreat, and the only session of that day. This was a rather vague introduction session, conducted by the resident Senior Instructor, Walter Kellenberger, and was attended by myself and around 10 others. After this, I went to bed – and slept better than I’d done for months.
For the rest of the week, we followed this timetable:
Daily Summer Retreat Schedule :
7.30 pm Introduction at Immortal Energy Meditation Hall
Monday – Saturday
07:00 – 08:00 am Morning Chi Kung at Tai Chi Pavilion I
08:00 – 09:00 am Breakfast at Kwan Yin Dining Hall
09:00 – 12:00 am Work Shop at Immortal Energy Meditation Hall
12:00 – 13:00 pm Lunch at Kwan Yin Dining Hall
13:30 – 15:30 pm Work Shop at Ba Shen Tai Chi Hall
15:30 – 19:00 pm Relaxation or Clinic & Spa Treatments
18:00 pm Dinner at Kwan Yin Dining Hall
20:00 pm Evening Exercises at Ba Shen Tai Chi Hall
21:30 pm Bedtimes
22:00 pm Silence (Sleep)
End on Saturday at Lunch.
Monday was fantastic from the very beginning. A number of students from the first week had stayed on, so there were maybe thirty or forty of us gathered together in the pagoda at 7am. The first morning qigong session – run by Walter, as it was to be every day – showed me that Mantak Chia’s system was very close, if not identical, to what I was taught in Master Sim’s classes all those years ago.
The morning and afternoon sessions were led by Master Chia, and on the Monday reviewed a lot of the previous week’s material, as well as starting to introduce new exercises. These simply reinforced that this was indeed the system I’d been looking for.
In terms of the Universal Tao System, the early morning exercises combined elements of:
By the time that day’s evening meal arrived, I was already certain that I would be doing a lot more training with the Universal Tao system. It was early days, and I hadn’t really gotten to know anyone by the end of the day, but that was OK.
By the time the final, evening session arrived, I was feeling great, and was expecting a night of deep and peaceful sleep.
I didn’t get it.
The evening sessions were led by Walter’s wife, Senior Instructor Jutte Kellenberger. This session began with daoyin, “Daoist yoga” exercises. 15 minutes in, I felt a burning urgency in my bowels, and had to leave abruptly. I barely made it back to my room in time, and spent half the night on the toilet, expelling litre after litre of vile, stinking fluid.
I did eventually sleep, and by the morning I actually felt fine: in fact, I was ravenous, and ate a hearty breakfast. I had no further stomach problems during my stay. What I experienced wasn’t illness; rather, it was my body purging itself of accumulated wastes and toxins – and boy, purge it did.
The cleansing period continued for the next two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, during which l had a pounding headache which forced me to just sleep during every free period. I was only able to keep going due to some paracetamol from the clinic, which kept the pain at bay. My sleep on Tuesday night was affected, and more so on Wednesday night, when it was accompanied by strained tendons and ligaments in my legs (caused by standing for much longer periods than I’m accustomed to).
When I woke up on Thursday morning, the pain was all gone: not a twinge. It was astonishing. I felt cleansed, with my internal organs and muscles all feeling energised, with the cells all tingling with energy. I decided to immerse myself into the retreat principle and to cut myself off from the outside world for the rest of my stay. On Thursday night, I had my worst night’s sleep yet as my now-clear mind wrestled with issues that had been affecting me out in “real life” – and came up with solutions. On Friday night, I slept profoundly.
By the morning of the last day, Saturday, I was rested, energised, enthused, and ready(if somewhat reluctant) to re-enter the world.
So, having covered the early-morning qigong, what was the material in the main seminars.
If the first week was basic qigong, the foundations of the system, the second week was “Sexual Kung Fu”. As a colleague of mine who’s read a couple of Master Chia’s books put it, this is the “dodgy stuff”.
Actually, it’s not dodgy at all, and makes complete sense within the system… but… it DOES involve talking about sex, which of course not everyone is comfortable with.
So, briefly, the theory is that at birth our bodies contain a finite amount of “original qi”. Some of this is stored in the kidneys and and dantian, where it acts to nourish and sustain the body. Some of it is stored in the reproductive system, where it’s wasted via ejaculation/menstruation. This latter can be ‘recycled’ – taken out of the reproductive system and used to fuel the qi stored in the kidneys and dantian, thus helping health and longevity.
For the first few days, Master Chia taught us a qigong technique from the Alchemy of Sexual Energy, learning how to channel energy from the sexual centres into the four dantians of the body (head/heart/navel/sexual centre). This was based around the “Inner Alchemy Chart“. I found that I didn’t succeed during the week in ‘lighting’ all four. The two that did ignite gave me unexpected mental images – the head suddenly filled my mind with images of blue-skinned Hindu avatars, while the navel drew associations with the Horned God of Celtic myth. I’m not sure why these images would be associated with the energies of these two dantians; no doubt there’s much to explore in this. I found this part of the course to be very interesting and rewarding, and it’s something I want to follow up.
These sessions were broken up by others in which Walter, Jutte, and another instructor, Morakot, in which we learned a 5-Animal qigong technique – though I can’t find this listed on the website, and I have to confess that it didn’t really stick in my memory 🙁
In the later part of the week, the content moved on to more specific topics, which were in separate male and female groups. The material was focused on how to avoid losing original qi during sex. This might be covered in the Multi-Orgasmic Man, as (in the men’s group) the focus was on techniques for achieving orgasm without ejaculation. Obviously, I can’t comment on what the women’s group covered. I have to say that I found this part of the course a little underwhelming, as the material, um, well, I’d say many considerate men in their 40s, who haven’t lived sheltered lives, may well already know. However, many of the men in the group were younger, in their 20s, and it may have been useful for them.
Overall, I found the course very, very rewarding, and I’m incredibly glad that I went. I found the techniques being taught to be authentic, effective, and powerful. I came home feeling that I’ve found a true master, and what I learned overlaps with, and is supercharging, the practices I’m working on with zhan zhuang and baguazhang. I am looking forward very much to returning for more training, as time and finances allow.
What else is there?
I found Master Chia to be extremely approachable, although he was clearly very busy. He ate in the dining hall with everyone else, and often spent his meal talking to students. He’s certainly not a stand-offish or hierarchical ‘guru’.
The food was absolutely delicious, and reminded me strongly of the food I’d enjoyed so much during my Vipassana retreats. As a returning student said to me, “You can eat as much as you like and still lose weight”, and I think that might be true! I certainly didn’t hold back at the buffet, and I was actually thinner at the end of the week (though that might be connected with the purging!). Master Chia has directed the menu to be in accordance with Daoist principle (however that may work, I don’t know). There was plenty of choice, including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Have I mentioned that it was delicious?
I slept in the most basic room, paying extra for the optional air-conditioning (which I needed!). It was more than adequate, and very comfortable.
It was a greater pleasure than I can say to spend a week with people who are passionate about the same things that I am, and who generally seemed to be a very positive and highly-motivated group of people. I’ll list them so that I don’t forget them
Megan – a well-spoken New Zealander, who is developing a permaculture riparian forest project in Australia; April – a Filipina computer programmer now based in Australia; Kim – an Australian healer/therapist, studying Tantra, who’d broken her arm in her first few days at the retreat and who was having treatment in Chiang Mai, and at the spa.
Deva Ambu A Columbian psychologist/healer/witch; Jose – a former male lead in adult movies; a sceptical Russian businessman, Valentin, there simply accompanying his wife Natasha before they went on to order clothes in Milan for their shop in Krasnoyarsk (I had a great conversation with these two about the value of giqong work, karma, and the effects on consciousness and awareness of practising meditation and qigong); Isabella – a South American/Belgian ex-actress who is making a documentary about the indigenous culture of Easter Island, after which she’ll make a semi-autobiographical movie about an actress who wants to learn “synthetic magic”. (This led us in to a conversation about performance art, its purpose and implementation, and how Brussels has a vibrant avant-garde performance culture – which was something I knew nothing about!); Luchka, from Slovakia; Lionel – from France now in Australia, with curled moustache; Tony, African-American ex-firefighter/Buddhist psychologist; Maxim, Russian; Stephan, French; Mari, Damiana and Lola, from Slovenia. Mari and Damiana both work in theatre – he an ex-dancer? Mari now with MS, walking only with difficulty. Electro-massage helping a great deal. Lola, their daughter, a very attractive and mature young woman.
I bought a lot of DVDs and books. Since I returned to Beijing, I’ve been working on Walter’s Morning Qigong Exercise, and Jutte’s 6 Directions exercises. Both are proving very helpful, and are acting to build up my energetic foundations from their depleted state. The next step will be to try the 100-day practice. I’ll want to qualify as an instructor within the next couple of years.