My Saber and Me

saberWhen I said, in my previous post, that I might be on a yangward journey, I did not write about one small, very yang thing:

My saber—and the fact that I am learning a taiji saber form, full of slashing, chopping and thrusts, with the occasional kick and hand blow thrown in.

When I studied the class schedule for the Yang Chengfu Tai Chi Chuan Center in Redmond a couple of months ago, I noticed they were offering a saber form class on a night I was free. I decided to sign up.

I cannot remember why it was that I thought I should take a saber class. Certainly I was forgetting that I had once learned a Chen-style sword form, but had decided to abandon it because I wasn’t spending enough time practicing it to keep it up.

But sign up for saber I did, and I am now perhaps halfway through learning a two-minute form. You wouldn’t think it would take eight weeks to learn one minute of movement, but it has, and I am not good. My moves are sloppy, my balance is poor, and I’m not yet feeling any qi, although that could be because the saber form is faster than the bare-hand form, and I have slow-moving qi. However, I am definitely beginning to feel the form’s potential for yangly fierceness. Continue reading

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A Yangward Way

Taiji Diagram: Yin contains yang, yang contains yin; yin ever becoming yang, yang ever becoming yin

Taiji Diagram: Yin contains yang, yang contains yin; yin ever becoming yang, yang ever becoming yin

My friend Karl is writing a novel titled “A Yinward Way.” Its aging male protagonist believes the world has become so yang-dominant, so overly, aggressively masculine, that it is in peril. He’s seeking to find a way to help the world restore its yin/yang balance, even as he himself is being drawn towards the yin.

The notion that the world has become way too yang for its own good is not unique; I’ve read many discussions of this and believe the argument has merit. A yinward shift might be a good thing.

And yet I find that I, myself, am actually on a yangward path of late, at least in my energy practices.

I don’t know why this is.

It may be that men become softer and more sensitive as they age—i.e., more yin, like the protagonist in my friend’s novel, while women become fiercer and more direct, i.e., more yang. (I’m only partly making this up; I think there’s some science in this area.)

However, it could also be that my internal Daoist pendulum is swinging from the yin-ness of all the Yi Ren Qigong and Taiji Qigong I’ve done so much of over the past five years towards something more yang.

In any event, some months ago I found myself wanting to do more taiji. The many systems of taiji are also systems of qigong, although they don’t generally get referred to as that. But they are particular systems of qigong originally practiced as training for hand-to-hand combat.

My two qigong practices are mostly about moving energy around inside my body to improve my health and well-being. It feels very good to do this, very relaxing, very heart-opening, very bringing-me-back-to-peace. Taiji involves sending energy outwards in a focused manner, whether or not there’s somebody to hit. It’s definitely more yang. Continue reading

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What’s in a Stone?

Stone vs. stone vs. black lingerie

Stone vs. stone vs. black lingerie

I showed my new pendant, a silver-rimmed disc of Brazilian Rainforest jasper, to my friend Donna, who loves gemstones and believes they have healing properties. She cupped it in her hands, held it to her heart and said “Ooo, this has nice energy.”

What did she feel? I know she felt something, because Donna’s not one to make things up. But what was it that she felt? Might I be able to feel it, too?

I like the stone in my pendant. I think it has a certain depth, as well as qualities of both ocean and forest—all for $10 at Ben Franklin. But do I like it because of how it looks or because of some additional property which Donna labeled “nice energy?”

Might the stone’s “nice energy” be helpful to me in some way? I know Donna thinks so.

I own another blue-green pendant, a turquoise pendant that belonged to my mother. In an attempt to develop my “gemstone energy awareness,” I set the two pendants side by each to see if I could observe differences between them. In the jasper pendant, I sensed depth one could lose oneself in, and comfort, and connection to the earth. In the turquoise—well, that’s complicated, because the pendant belonged to my mother. I think, though, that if I were wearing the turquoise pendant I might feel fiercely protected, but not necessarily nourished. It seems rather a cold stone.

Looking for validation of my observations, I went online to see what others have to say about the energetic properties of the two gemstones. I found many sites and a certain amount of agreement among them. Here’s what “Charms of Light” says about my two blue-green pendant stones: Continue reading

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Embodiment: A Different Take on Qigong’s Turf

Aligned book coverMy latest “wow!” book sat in my “To Read” pile for at least five years. Twice I started to read it but quit after a few pages.

But now my copy of Will Johnson’s “Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness” is stuffed with sticky notes marking exercises I want to try and points I want to remember, and I’m about to give it a second read.

I am blown away by the fact that he seems to be writing about what I consider to be the turf of qigong without ever using the “q” word, and I can see that I will learn a lot from his quite different approach.

Johnson is a practitioner of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. But where some meditators regard the body as a hindrance and a source of little more than knee pain during prolonged sitting practice, Johnson believes not only that any practice of mindfulness must include full awareness of the body, but also that full awareness of the body is a powerful tool in leading you towards that goal of goals which he calls pure awareness.

He has coined the term “embodied mindfulness” for what he teaches and, indeed, is director of the Institute for Embodiment Training, which I would guess is headquartered on Vancouver Island, where his website says he lives.

So let’s look at the three leading words of his book’s title: “aligned,” “relaxed” and “resilient.” Continue reading


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“Iron & Silk”: A Darned Good Read

iron & silkHow is it that after more than 12 years of practicing taiji and qigong and being, therefore, interested in most things Chinese, I’ve only just read Mark Salzman’s “Iron & Silk”?

It is a marvelous book, both illuminating and a darned good read, about his experiences while teaching English at a medical college in Hunan Province from 1982 to 1984.

Of course, Salzman was not your everyday English teacher. He’d started studying kung fu at age 13 and gone on to majoring in Chinese literature at Yale, whence he graduated fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. Oh, and one more thing about Salzman—he doesn’t travel light: He took his cello with him to China.

Because of his martial arts background, and because he was clearly an engaging, game sort of fellow, friends and colleagues and people he met on the street introduced him via the “I know someone who might know someone who might be willing to teach you” route to some excellent teachers of Chinese martial arts. The styles he studied ranged from such internal-energy-focused, “soft” styles as baguazhang to one style so “hard” that it involved turning one’s fist into a club by beating it against an iron plate to develop tough calluses.

Because of my own interest in martial arts, I found the tales of his martial arts training fascinating—but his stories about other sorts of experiences were just as compelling.

When I tell friends about “Iron & Silk,” the story I relate is about Teacher Wu, a woman who was 70 and a member of the medical college’s English Department staff when Salzman met her. Continue reading

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The Devil Didn’t Make Me Do It… My Liver Did!

What energy lurks in yonder liver?

What energy lurks in yonder liver?

Some years ago the daughter of a friend of mine observed that the difference between her dad and me was that I thought before I spoke.

This struck me as odd, since I knew there was nothing rational going on in my head between something happening and my responding to it. It was true that I rarely let loose with a torrent of words, but I thought I was just slow.

Still, I doubt that my friend’s daughter would say the same thing today.

I find I have become more spontaneous, and quicker to say what I think. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps age is causing me to become Lucy Loose-Lips. But I suspect it is due in larger measure to my qigong practice.

I find I am more confident, more creative, and just generally a bit less constricted in many areas—all of which are things you’d expect from a practice that aims to help you relax the grip of your intellectual mind so that your body’s knowing can be expressed. Indeed, I have a qigong friend who has noticed similar things happening in herself.

Mostly I think being more spontaneous is good; certainly it’s more real. But sometimes I realize that there’s an edge to what has just popped out of my mouth, or that I’ve sounded harsher or more vehement than I thought I felt, or that I’ve said something I simply shouldn’t have said at all and have no idea why I said it. Several recent incidents have made me want to know where in my unconscious being my edge is coming from. Continue reading

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Connecting With Earth from On High

Too high to ground?

Too high to ground?

A few years back, when I was an assistant in one of Brendan Thorson’s Yi Ren Qigong classes in Seattle, a student observed that Brendan and I were wearing shoes, while all of the students had theirs off, the better to feel the energy of the earth.

“Why are you wearing shoes?” she asked.

“Because I prefer wearing shoes,” said Brendan—and, indeed, I had never seen him without shoes in the many classes I had taken from him before he offered to let me assist.

And then Brendan added that if you can feel qi at the top of an eight-story building, the sole of a shoe isn’t going to make much difference.

(I don’t remember Brendan’s precise words, but I am certain that it was an eight-story building and can only wish that I remembered other, more important, things as clearly as I remember that the building had eight stories, not nine, and not seven.)

I have thought of this of late because, while I lived in a single-story house when I was Brendan’s student and during the rest of my Yi Ren Qigong training, I now live on the top floor of a three-story building (four, if you count the garage).

And I must confess that when I moved here five weeks ago, despite what Brendan had said, I was a tad worried that my growing sense of being grounded, of being connected to the earth, might suffer a setback from practicing up here amongst the trees.

But it hasn’t.

I don’t know why this is. I don’t know if feeling grounded is about gravity (and when you’re talking about gravity, three floors or even thirty don’t make much difference) or if it’s really about my own qi, which is with me wherever I am, or if it’s because of both of those things or maybe something else.

But I have had some wonderful practices up here in my third-story aerie—with and without shoes.

AFTERWORD: I asked Brendan to read the above portion of this post. He replied that actually, he remembered what he’d said as more like, “When your feet get really energetically opened up, then you understand what it feels like to be grounded and connected to the earth, and you can connect to the earth with your shoes on, and you will also be able to connect to the earth from the 80th floor of a skyscraper just as you can from standing directly on the earth.”

Hmmm…. So was it eight or 80? What did Brendan actually say? Did I mishear, or misremember? Who knows? But I liked what Brendan remembered better than what I remembered, so you have this Afterword.

And at the end of the day, we can all most certainly agree that grounding is good….

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